Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Of Meat and Muscle

Back when I was in elementary school, our science teacher - in what, retrospectively, seems like a rather risky endeavour - decided to teach us about dissection. So one morning she brought in a metal tray piled high with dead baby sharks. We were shown how to slice up the unfortunate, thawing creatures, then handed a list of organs and things to identify. As we busied ourselves with this task - some eagerly, others queasily, and a few downright bawling (did I mention this was elementary school?) - the teacher walked around to check on our progress. She stopped at my desk to find me frozen with a look of despair on my face.

"Is there something you’re having trouble finding?"

"I can’t find the muscle." 

Putting her hands on her hips, the teacher arranged her face into a patient half-smile as she leaned over me - trying, apparently, to decide whether I was putting her on.  

"You can’t find the muscle?"

I nodded solemnly. I had quickly put check marks next to all the other items on the list, but, to my shame, this very first one evaded me. 

"But what’s all this?" she said, making an expansive hand gesture over the exposed shark tissue.

I furrowed my brow. "What’s all what?.."

"This!" she poked her finger into the shark’s interior. "What’s this right here?"

"Oh," I said, a little confused. "That’s meat. It’s not on the list."

After a speechless pause, her face finally softened. "Oh honey! But meat is muscle."

My little mind was utterly blown. I had known there was meat. And I had known there was muscle. But somehow the idea of them being one and the same had never occurred to me. Meat was something we all had under our skin. Muscles were the bulging, hard, round things that danced around on big men's arms when they flexed them. Meat was something we had as a matter of course. Muscles had to be grown special.

My understanding of anatomy grew more sophisticated in adulthood. But I retained nonetheless a tendency to see muscle as a mystifying, exotic substance not native to my own body and not relevant to my lifestyle. It was only in my 30s that this slowly began to change, through cycling. The more time I spent on the bike, the more aware I became of my muscles' use and usefulness. It was a true awakening, in the process of which I began to feel more connected to my physical self. The more I rode, the more I also started to understand what an important role overall muscle tone played in things like long distance comfort. I could see a direct relationship between improvement in my muscle tone and improvement in my on-the-bike comfort, endurance, even my sense of balance.

As you may have deduced by now, this is all an elaborate prequel to a rather shocking confession: I've been visiting the gym! With my miles reduced in winter, I was worried about my so-called core strength deteriorating over the colder months. So when my friend suggested I join him at the gym now and again, I agreed to give it a try.

The gym is small and frequented mainly by serious weightlifters, whose frightening physique is matched only by their friendly demeanor. I liked it immediately and felt oddly comfortable there, even if I was the feeblest looking person in the place by far.

I shudder to think what shape I was in pre-cycling. Because even after 5 years of being actively engaged in this athletic activity, it felt as if I were starting from scratch. My friend is a firm believer in free weights (as opposed to machines) - as they engage stabiliser muscles, which, he argues, is ideal for overall fitness and core strength in particular. But free weights were out of the question for me at first, as I couldn't keep my balance enough to use them. So I started with the machines. And even then, I had to start with them empty, adding tiny amounts of weight at a time. After several session of this, it was decided I was ready for free weights. And then my world was turned upside down. As I was introduced to barbell squats and deadlifts.

Oh my goodness me. I am sure you all have been doing this stuff since you were 5, but it's all new to me so I will describe it like the absolute novice that I am. What happens is, you approach this long metal bar that sits at a height, on a type of shelf unit, and you place it across the back of your shoulders. You then do deep - as in to the floor - squats while holding it there - until you see stars and can't continue ...after which you do a few more. Then you take a break to add a bit of weight to the bar, and repeat all that with the added weight. And again, and again, until your friend tells you that's enough. The squats done, you then proceed to a different bar that rests on the floor - this one laden with far more weight than the one you'd use for squats - and lift it to your waist. Again, you do this for as many repetitions as you can possibly handle, before taking a break, adding more weight, and doing the same.

Now, admittedly, this it all sounds rather horrible. But in practice it feels obscenely good. If running was something I had to tolerate till I got used to it, weight lifting is something that felt wonderful and fun as soon as I tried it. And the results, so far, have been very encouraging. I feel great for one thing. I am smaller and stronger. And daresay, I can nearly see "abs!" I can't wait to find out what it feels like to do big miles once the weather allows it.

But lest you be outraged at this yet another diversion from two-wheeled pursuits, allow me to assure you that I do arrive to the gym by bicycle. It's a hilly 12.5 mile trip in each direction, and of course the difficult part is the return. Limp with exhaustion and every inch of me aching, I heave myself onto the bike and allow it to take me home via rote memory - meat and muscle and all. 


  1. I am standing and clapping, and the look on his face indicates that my puppy must think I am nuts.

    I never thought about free weights until recently, myself, but they do make all of the difference. And my goodness you can get strong quickly.


  2. Nice photoshop job!

    1. That's not photoshop. You can see the figurine stand behind the chicken : )

  3. Very nice, and well written. Thank you again for giving us a glimpse into your world.

    An added benefit - as the dynamic stabilizers get stronger, there is less stress and risk of injury with respect to the static stabilizers. Your ligaments and tendons are safer.

    Those of us who have been reading you for a bit know your time and your milage. We've seen you go through physical and implied emotional challenges. You're not weak in any respect.

    You can no longer play "the wimp" card in your writing, just FYI - at least not credibly.

    Best wishes for ongoing happiness.

  4. Just like you I started riding a bicycle thinking "it is NOT A SPORT"! At sport I was a disaster. Weights? Hahahaha. But now only 2 years later, I cycle with a club and also run, and take classes at a local gym for strength training. I think it is okay for the self image to change. It is called human development, and it continues as an adult!

  5. If you can, get a trainer. I also was enticed by others to join a gym, and had a similar experience yours – it's fun and the results are great.

    I am lucky to have a trainer (included in the gym membership) who every month or two designs workouts for me based on my needs and preferences. So I get to balance on balls while lifting small weights and such things. It's a lot of fun, sort of like trying to "clear" a difficult section of trail on a bike. And it's helped reduce muscle imbalances to the point where my long-term knee problems are gone. And as you say, it feels great.

    1. My friend pretty much acts as my trainer; he designed a program for me and helps me keep all the work targeted and focused. I am not there for long periods of time, or often (just twice a week, 1 hour sessions), but apparently that is quite sufficient to produce results.

  6. This is fantastic V! As a woman in her 30s you will benefit hugely from weight lifting. I wish more women were willing to give it a try without the ridiculous fear that weights will make them bulky!

  7. Okay, you're kind of making me want to join the gym again...

    Thanks for your post! By the way, love the little cyclist on the drumstick!

  8. Every third person on my street goes to a gym to work out. They speak of their new found endurance and muscles. Lovely. All are in the category of having flexible time and all gush about their bodies and newfound awareness of muscles. Lovely. It's tiring to listen to so I just nod and say lovely.

    1. Excellent. Now {in my best Austrian accent} let's pump some iron!

  9. Everyone in the past: this is how you get stronger, in life and on the bike.


    Me: I told you so.

  10. I knew I shouldn't have sat down to read before eating. I took one look at that picture of the little cyclist riding over that wonderful looking mound of charred muscle and have been experiencing STARVE ever since. ;) Bravo on the weightlifting! It'll do wonderful things for you!

  11. Recently, I was speaking with my father (we haven't spoken for many, many years, but recently began talking again - that is a long and unimportant tale at the moment though) about some athletic endeavors. I was sharing that when I ran my first (and I will say, probably the only I'll ever complete) marathon about 9 years ago, it was one of the most ridiculously difficult things I have ever done. I am an unbelievably slow runner - so much so that I truly believe most people could walk at the pace I run. I was sharing that it took me so long to complete the marathon that I thought they were going to boot me off the course, but they did let me finish, thankfully.

    He began giggling a bit as I finished my story and then he followed up with a story about his days in the Air Force. The only requirement he couldn't pass was running the 1/4 mile. He only had to complete it in under 4 minutes and just couldn't get it done. He'd go out and practice and train and the day would come to be timed and he'd always miss the limit and have to try again. Eventually he was able to get just under that 4 minutes.

    As he shared this, it was as though a light bulb went off in my head and I suddenly realized that no matter how hard I trained, there is a part of all of these athletic endeavors that are genetic. He was not a runner, even though he tried. I am not a runner, despite my repeated efforts. I do run, but it never goes well. However, I will say that I can put on muscle like many others cannot. It's as though my body was built for adding muscle.

    I suppose your post is a reminder to me that we all have our strengths (no pun intended), and while we can try our hand at many things, I really believe there are natural tendencies that our genetics pass on. I enjoy running, but I'm not good at it. I don't always enjoy lifting, but it's much easier for me to do (and then of course I participate in kickboxing, which also helps with core and muscle building). Perhaps it's why I like riding a bike? It allows for some speed, but still requires muscle to keep going. :O)

  12. I used to go the gym, it seems a lifetime ago, part of physio after an accident. I rode my bike there and home of course, I also swam alot....but it just got too tiring, my body was like give me a break! One thing that impressed me were the fit old men, men who'd been going to the gym all their lives and were so fit and strong. It made me a bit sad about for those generations of women however who were certainly not encouraged to be fit or do any exercise and suffer from osteoperosis and worse. So, I think the trend of women lifting is awesome! I'd like to get into it again, but being in a rural area and limited by funds it's not too practical. I chop firewood. I also sometimes ride my heavy old raleigh sports up very steep mountain roads and that does phenomenal work on the body. I do a series of exercises that use your own body weight, and the results can be impressive, and very quickly. Squats rock.

    1. I could not chop my own firewood pre-gym.
      Practical applications!

    2. The man who taught me to carry pianos solo was 76 years old. He was small and compact and built like a god. Women's eyes followed him wherever he went. (Married to the same woman over 60 years.) Later he introduced me to a 70 year old colleague who could do the same work but looked like a ball of dough. I never saw him when he was not drunk. He had an unoperated hernia and the alcohol helped kill the pain. The walking god and the drunken dough ball could do the same work. Humans are extremely visual and we want the image and the performance to connect. We have an endless repertoire of cultural artifacts that connect pleasing physiques with all that is good. The physical universe does not care what our eyes want to see.

  13. When I was the age of the blog hostess I worked with free weights called pianos. I mean work. And since any number of workers are able to carry one end only of a piano, the way to make money is to carry them solo. In stairways where there is only room for one person besides the piano. Good balance means keeping the shiny black finish 1/16" from the wall or that newel post. While holding the box in a position never attempted before.

    The only training I ever did for that work was to ride the bike. In low gears,same as now. Back then I was 6'1" and 150 pounds. Built like a runner. Or a cyclist, which I was. I highly recommend riding a bike if you want to get strong. Bikes are very good for building strength without bulk. Strength and bulk have no connection whatsoever. Just none. Most types of bulk only get in the way.

    The main reason I stopped doing that work was watching guys I worked with get injured. Everyone I knew who imagined they would prepare for the job by working out at the gym got injured. The program of pushing yourself until you see stars, of going for that final rep, that program is guaranteed to cause injury. The attitude of more, more, always more leads to injury. Pursuing that attitude to the finish is the definition of rhabdomyolysis.

    If you just made a big change in your body and did it quickly you should be happy. Now go into consolidation and maintenance mode. If you want more more more more you should sit down and watch Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

    Bikes are free weights in space. The program is millions of repetitions. Sure it's good sometimes to mix it up with other types of effort. But think like a cyclist and stay safe.

    1. I agree with you.

      I want to add that I think it is unfortunately that weight lifting seems to have become the default strength training regimen in our culture. Curiously, humans have been able to develop functional strength and pleasing physiques prior to the invention of barbells in the 19th century, hmm...

      Calisthenics, old school work outs, body weight training, whatever you want to call it is what I feel is best for me now. Those machines and dumb bells lead to muscle imbalances and injury, in my experience. Yoga is great too--especially vinyasa flow, budokon, martial arts influenced practices.

    2. "Curiously, humans have been able to develop ...pleasing physiques prior to the invention of barbells in the 19th century"

      But how can you be sure? Pictures or it didn't happen.

      Kidding, kidding. Judging by the Vikings series it's totally true.

      I did Kundalini yoga in my 20s for several years, but have not been able to recreate the wonderfulness of that experience with other yoga classes and teachers since.

  14. It is said that Weightlifting is a sort of back-learning activity, then it’s probably useful for cyclists. For instance, doing a proper full squat is interesting: It can reinforce our back or alleviate weakness from the spine.
    Kettlebell workouts (see “Zuzka” ) are also smart exercises: doing ballistic and non-isolated movements is maybe a good way to train both the brain and muscles.