Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Have I Been Working on my Fitness All Wrong?

"My body stay vicious
I be up in the gym
Just working on my fitness."
-- Fergie, "Fergalicious"

Physical fitness has been a cornerstone of my life for two decades now. Ever since that day in 1994 when I joined the New York Heath & Racquet Club in New York City at a monthly rate of $100 (50 percent of which was paid by Time Inc., my then-employer), partly because I was told that John F. Kennedy Jr. was a member, I've gone only two months without a gym membership.

There was the month I spent in Rome last year, followed by the following month I spent in Tel Aviv. Not that I slacked off: Even during that gym-free period, I went running around town at least three or four times a week (and in Tel Aviv, I used the outdoor beach-side free gym, too).

You'd think that after 20 years of such dedication, I'd be an expert on my own physiology, but as I learned today during my one-hour complimentary training session with James at 360 Specialized Training in Woodstock, in the gym, I've only skimmed the surface of what I can do and should be doing -- and from only the waist up! Unlike my three-times-a-week weight-training regimen at Zone Fitness, the functional training in which 360 specializes focuses on the body rather than equipment. Among the things I learned:

1. I'm as wobbly as a Weeble. I've always been clumsy. Falling down has been a normal part of my daily routine for as long as I can remember. It's not unusual for me to lose my balance when I'm standing still. That might be part of the reason why I've never bothered to make lunges a regular part of my workout. Once a week, on abs day, I do three sets of 15 reps of a squat in which I stand with my feet shoulder width apart and hold an 18-kilo barbell in each hand. I then bend my body so that I'm in the seated position and return to standing.

It's one of my least favorite things that I do every week, but judging from how sore my ass and the back of my thighs feel for at least 24 hours after doing it, I've always assumed that I was doing my body good. After today's training session, though, I'm convinced that if James were to see me in action, he'd never let me do it again.

"Chest out." "Shoulders back." "Posture erect." "Keep your knees straight ahead, don't bend them in." "Don't fall down." Nothing I'd been doing all these years with those 18-kilo weights had prepared me for doing squats and lunges James's way (the right way?), using weight balls and kettlebells (the latter of which Ben, a trainer at Fit n Fast in Melbourne, introduced me to three years ago). I could barely get through five lunges on both sides. Doing each one was a major challenge, completing them a huge triumph.

Verdict: It felt great to get it right (the few times I did), but I work out in part to clear my head, which is easier to do when I don't have to concentrate too much on what I'm doing. I think I prefer my workout to be tough but a little mindless. If I'm putting as much effort into memorizing the choreography as I am into the performing the physical task (which was occasionally a problem I had with Pilates, with its added emphasis on breathing correctly, which, thankfully, James never brought up), something is definitely off.

2. Running is not the same thing as working out your legs. Ever since I started running about a month after moving to Buenos Aires, I've figured that my jogging routine was sufficient aerobic exercise and doing more for my legs that working them out in the gym ever could. After all, spending 90 minutes to two hours two or three times a week running from my apartment in Gardens to Sea Point and back again, or running through the hills of Tamboerskloof and under Table Mountain and Devil's Peak, as I've done for the last five and a half months in Cape Town,  is not exactly for the faint-hearted or weak-limbed.

But as James told me today, I'm testing and building my endurance and applying regular pressure to my knees, but I'm not actually working out my legs. And all of these years I've been shaking my head at those top-heavy guys who don't care about their spindly walking sticks! Apparently, I'm no better than they are. Thankfully, though, it wasn't my spindly walking sticks but my lack of balance that gave me away to James.

"Do you work out your legs?" he asked, after I wobbled over for the fifth or sixth time, as if he already knew the answer. I proudly told him about my running routine, expecting a gold star. Instead, I received another lecture that once again got me to rethinking my entire fitness regimen.

Verdict: Maybe it's time to start working my legs into my gym routine. According to James, not only will it help me to build up my endurance on the road, but it could possibly protect me from potentially debilitating injuries later.

3. I love my independence, but when it comes to working out, misery does love company. Not that I'm miserable when I work out, but there's something about another person that pushes me harder. I wouldn't have gotten through four and a half years of Pilates in Buenos Aires without a personal trainer (first, Ezekiel, then Pamela, and finally, Laurentio) to show me the moves and keep me going. To this day, I still can't do Pilates in any language other than Spanish!

In Bangkok, I had my most productive aerobic days when I went with my sometime running partner Sylvia. I'll never forget the conversation we had after our first time.

Sylvia: "That was a great run. You really made me push myself. I had to work extra hard to keep up with you."

Me: "Wait. I don't normally go that fast. I was trying to keep up with you."

I'm hoping that James might have the same effect on me. When I get back to Cape Town after spending my birthday week in Namibia, my plan is to train with him for one hour per week for one month at 360's new expanded digs in Woodstock, where they're moving next week. If I like the progress I'm making, I will commit to something longer term (three months, which, for me, is huge).

By the end of today's hour-long session, I had pretty much given up on ever getting those squats and lunges right, but James promised to develop a program for me that emphasizes the things I'm more comfortable doing. If he can help me to finally get my balance right while we're at it, I will consider it to be 600 rand per month (which works out to about $14 a session) very well spent.
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