Lately it seems as though the amount of time I have to write is inversely proportional to the amount of ideas I have to write about. But today’s entry is about something I’ve been thinking about for years: Dance.
My daughter is a competitive dancer. She’s 15, and has been dancing since she was around 3. She’s gone to countless dance camps, workshops, and of course classes. So I have been a dance spectator for about 12 years. Prior to that I knew next to nothing about dance, save for the fact that I have never been any good at it.
At first, dance was pretty much entirely about how cute the kids all looked executing choreography. They got to wear these elaborate costumes and perform for friends and family at recitals. The teachers and teaching assistants are always on stage at the same time as the kids, and the kids essentially never take their eyes off them, mimicking the movements they’ve all spent months in class learning. It’s exceedingly adorable, and naturally every person who comes to watch immediately rushes to them afterwards to tell them how wonderfully they danced. In short, it’s a typical exercise in getting kids involved in an activity that provides some structure around working toward a goal, and then the kids get congratulated on essentially existing for the duration. And it’s awesome.
As the years progressed, we saw less and less boys involved. I won’t attempt to analyze that or comment on why it might be, but political minefield notwithstanding, it is true. This meant that as the dancers grew, it became – for my daughter’s group at least – a girls-only activity.
Emerging Talents Starting around the age of 8 or 9, and lasting for 3-4 years, it starts to become obvious which of the girls are well suited to dance and which are not. This obviousness is not lost on the girls. Dance becomes a micro-society where “Haves” and “Have-Nots” start to identify, and the behaviours that result are what you would expect. In a way it mirrors what is happening at that age in school, but from where I sat it was definitely magnified at dance. These can be pretty difficult years for the girls, and perhaps more so for the parents. As I watched from the sidelines, I always told myself that whether a Have or a Have-Not, there are very valuable lessons to be learned from these dramas, and whether my daughter was receiving or giving grief (it certainly seemed she was receiving a lot more than giving, but nobody ever accused a dad of being impartial), my wife and I always did our best to ground her in reality and look for the long-term life lessons that could be taken. I do think, subjectivity aside, that I can safely say my daughter began to show real talent for dance during this time. I can also say, objectively this time, that she emerged from this phase with an inner-strength and confidence that is astounding. As I watch her navigate the social quagmire of the tenth grade, I am exceedingly proud and awed at how well she manages to stay true to herself and her friends, while gliding above the drama that can consume most kids of that age. She never judges others, and always stays honest in helping her friends deal with whatever the current issue is. In and out of the dance world I have watched her handle victories with honest grace and compassion, and failures with resolute determination. She’s my hero, and I firmly believe we have the “emerging talent” years of the competitive dance program to thank for that.
From Girls to Women
As the girls mature into women, things change at dance in a way that I could never have understood if I were not so immersed in it. This phase is not something I came to understand only as my daughter entered it – the nice thing about being a dance dad is that every recital and dance competition you attend features dancers from all the age groups. So that long before my daughter was in high school I have been observing this stage of a dancer’s development. I also have the added advantage of being a high school teacher, and so for my entire career have had the pleasure of seeing how dancers take the lessons from dance into seemingly unrelated arenas, like a math classroom, which really is my domain. Having a daughter in dance always made me pay attention to how older dancers behaved, kind of as a way of glimpsing my daughter’s future. Here are some observations I’ve made over the years, and observations I have now had the pleasure of seeing manifest in my own daughter.
Dance is a Language This is not metaphor. Dance actually is a language. It took me some time to fully appreciate that. Because of my daughter’s involvement in dance, our family has been watching So You Think You Can Dance since season 2. It’s a great show to be sure, but I admit at first I was too absorbed in marveling at the physicality of it to understand what it communicates, despite the fact that the judges on the show really do a great job emphasizing this (I always assumed they were saying it metaphorically). But like a child that learns to speak simply from hearing the spoken word and contextually absorbing meaning from the sound, I began to absorb meaning from the movement. The first thing I realized was that unlike languages that use words, dance doesn’t translate to any other language, and communicates things which can’t be communicated any other way, with the possible exceptions of fine art, or poetry. Really good fine art will enthrall and speak to the viewer through infinite contemplation of something static. Really good poetry succeeds at using words which individually can be quite linear, by combining them in a way to create depth and consequently say something the language the poem is written in was not necessarily designed to say. Really good dance? A different thing entirely. It speaks to our humanity on multiple levels, and the fluidity of it allows the choreographer/dancer to tell us stories no written word could approach.
Words are discrete, and a picture is static. But motion is a continuous medium, and the very continuity of it results in an infinity of expression within a finite frame of time and space. It has been said that dance is poetry in motion, but I honestly have come to see it in the reverse. Poetry is dance stood still. I can’t find words to describe this any better, because words will fail here. If you want to know what I mean, watch dancers. And in the same way that second and third languages improve thought processes and imagination, so does dance – but it does so in a way that is magnified a thousandfold because of its unique method of delivery, and because of the world of thought and emotion it opens up for communication. It also is unique in that you don’t have to be able to speak it to understand it. You only have to watch.
Dancers Make the Best Actors
Because of my passion for theatre, I have had the immense pleasure of being both actor and director in various musicals. And here is what I’ve noticed – not all great actors are dancers, but all dancers are definitely great actors. To me there is no mystery as to why this is. Many actors focus on the words they’re saying or singing, trying to pour all of the character they’re portraying into the delivery of the lines or lyrics. Physicality is often an afterthought, or a simple by-product of the emotion they are feeling about the performance. For dancers it’s entirely different. Because of their fluency in dance, they are simultaneously vocalizing and dancing the performance. By dancing I don’t mean the choreography that often accompanies musical numbers, although naturally a dancer excels there. Rather I mean that they are speaking to us in two languages simultaneously. And even those of us not able to communicate with dance can still understand it. So I have often found myself thinking of a dancer “It’s not a je ne sais quois she has. It’s a je sais qu’elle est unedanceuse” (yes, you have to speak some french for that one 😉 ).
Dance is Empowering
Okay. So obviously dance results in physical fitness. You can always spot a dancer by their muscle tone, posture and grace in simple movement. The importance of this can’t be underplayed. But the kind of empowerment I’m talking about here is more than that. I remember once at a dance recital there was a senior acro small group number about to start (see what I did there – Dance Dad knows the terminology). It was clear from the opening positions that one of the dancers was going to execute a crazy trick to start the dance. Before the music started there were hoots and hollers from the wings and from the audience, and one dancer’s voice from the wings rang out with “You GO girl!”. I was momentarily taken aback. I think maybe I had just read an article or watched a show where that phrase was called into question as demeaning to women. And then I looked around. The stage and venue was dense with strong, confident young women, certain of themselves and certain of their power. And the dancer who called it out numbered among them. I couldn’t see anything demeaning at that point about what she had said, but on a deeper level I realized just what dance had done for these kids. It showed them what inner strength, determination and dedication could do. And so naturally I began to think about the dancers I’ve taught in my math classroom and I had this moment of revelation. It is exactly that quality that has always made them stand out to me in that setting. Not that they all excel in math, because not all kids do. But that regardless of their abilities in math, there is always an inner strength and peace that says “I know who I am, I know what I can do, and I know how to commit to improving.” Where many students in high school still need the explicit motivation that our culture seems to thrive on too often, the dancers have internalized their motivation in the best way. I can’t say enough how important that is for success in life.
So August 26th of this year marked the one year anniversary of my heart attack. I actually haven’t written a blog since the one I wrote about that day. That’s not as significant as it might sound – I have rough drafts for 3 different ones that I started but I’ve been busy with other things and haven’t devoted as much time to writing as I’d like (something I regret quite a bit). But for the anniversary of H-Day I thought it would be good to write an update on what has happened this past year. I don’t think a chronological narrative would make much sense, and besides, I don’t have that great a memory. So I’ll go with more of a stream of consciousness approach.
As you may know I am a high school math teacher. The heart attack happened exactly one week before the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Although many people couldn’t understand how or why I did it, I actually worked right from the first day of school. I certainly could have taken some more time to recover, but I didn’t feel I needed it that badly and the doctor said that if my job didn’t require heavy lifting and I felt okay there was no reason not to work. My reasoning for starting was that it was easier for everyone involved – students wouldn’t have to adjust to a new teacher twice, the school wouldn’t have to scramble to find someone to cover my classes and my colleagues wouldn’t have to worry about teaching more than their own course load. Now, almost a year later, I can say that the decision to start right away was neither good nor bad. If I had waited things would have been just as fine as if I had not. It’s funny how so many decisions in life seem important when they really are trivial. I took things easy at first and let my body tell me when I could ramp up, always erring on the side of caution. For example I took the elevator instead of the stairs for a couple of weeks, and kept my boardwork lower on the board (so as not to raise my right arm too high after the angio) for about a week.
One thing that I learned from my first follow-up with the cardiologist was that I have no “modifiable risk factors” for heart attack. Basically it’s good old genetics. I don’t drink or smoke. I have low cholesterol and low blood pressure. At the time of the heart attack I was overweight but by no means obese. I was keeping fit with heavy weights and regular though limited cardio. This was disturbing news – I mean it would be nice if I could just stop something I was doing and know I was preventing another heart attack, but as the cardiologist said, at least now I know. I had three partially and one fully blocked arteries, and except for one of the partials they were all stented. The one that was not stented is very small and doesn’t supply a large area, so that other arteries nearby can cover what it doesn’t manage. I am on a cholesterol medication that has been shown to prevent plaque buildup in arteries and even to slightly reduce existing plaque. I am hyper-aware of my heart so if anything does deteriorate I will be on it right away. In the meantime I decided to do everything I could do. As soon as I got the green light to resume exercising I began a cardio regimen of 45 minutes, 5 times per week. As of this moment, I have averaged exactly that. I say averaged because there were three weeks where I didn’t manage to get all 5 sessions in, but always compensated in succeeding weeks by adding sessions. Three different vacations didn’t keep me from my cardio. Some people tell me “Hey, you’re on vacation, give yourself a break.” My response is my heart doesn’t know I’m on vacation, there is no such thing as a break.
I also cleaned up my diet. Not that it was that terribly unclean to begin with. But I did eat a lot of red meat (3-4 times per week, sometimes more), and 2-3 times per week allowed myself cheat meals like KFC or Burger King, or just really decadent meals at restaurants. Now I eat only lean red meat, and only 1-2 times every month. I’d say over the past year I’ve probably had red meat about 15 times. My protein mainly comes from white meat chicken, fish, and some vegetarian sources like beans, quinoa, and nuts or nut butters. I eat very little fat, and almost no saturated fat. What fats I do eat come from the fish or chicken, or light salad dressing, which I use extremely sparingly. I don’t measure my food, but I never eat until I am stuffed. That’s also a change from before. For this entire year I have not felt stuffed even once. And I still eat a lot – probably 7-8 times each day. A lot of fruits, berries, vegetables and nuts fill out my diet.
So what the diet and cardio have done is resulted in fat loss. I spent my entire adult life struggling with fat loss – often successfully but not always. Each time the goal was fat loss. Now the goal is not that at all. The cardio and diet are to keep my heart healthy. The fat loss is a side effect, albeit a pleasant one. When I had the heart attack I weighed 225 lbs (down from an all time high of 245). Because I am a hobby bodybuilder that’s not as heavy as it sounds, but I was certainly carrying too much fat by an obvious margin. My weight this this morning was 189. I won’t lie and say that I’m ambivalent about that – I am overjoyed. But it wasn’t and isn’t the goal.
Speaking of exercise I also resumed lifting weights about 6 weeks after H-Day. This was with the doctor’s blessing. At first I kept things very light and let my body tell me when it was ok to go heavier, again always erring on the side of caution. I don’t remember the exact timeline but I’d say after about 3 months I was more or less back to pre-heart attack form. The weights and the fat loss are visually pleasing to me. Here are a few vanity photos of the impact this has had on my look.
I’d actually like to include a photo I took when I was 245 lbs but my computer is currently deciding I’m not allowed to look through old photos – thanks Windows 10.
The great news is that after the heart attack the cardiologist who saw me at the hospital said my heart was damaged (on a scale of 1 – 4 where 1 is the best, mine was a 2), but on my six-month follow up visit I had managed to return it to a level 1. The words of the cardiologist were “Except for the presence of the stents you have the heart of a healthy, athletic adult male with no sign of trauma.” And that, ladies and gentlemen, mattered profoundly more to me than how I look, although that is what people see.
Whenever you lose a lot of weight, or otherwise significantly change your look to something more aesthetic, people always want to know how you did it. The truth is I did it by having a heart attack. That flicked a switch in my mind that had never been flicked before. I no longer have a choice about eating well and exercising, which can read differently than I mean it. What I mean to say is that I know all to well what a struggle it is to have to make good decisions about healthy eating and exercise. To choose not to have a sundae and opt instead for the fruit salad. For me, now, the sundae is not a choice. Nobody is forcing me not to have it – it has been removed from the list of options by something outside my control. It’s actually pretty liberating. So my answer when people ask how I did it is to say “Well, step 1 is … you don’t want to do step 1.” Because Step 1 was have a heart attack. I didn’t decide to start looking better and then do something about it. I had a heart attack and this is how I am doing my best to prevent a repeat. I will say that I have had the odd dessert here and there. But each time I have done so it’s literally been a tiny forkful (as in just the tip of the fork) so I could taste it. The forkful concept would have seemed ridiculous to me a year ago. Now it is legitimately enough. I don’t have the forkful and then look longingly at the rest, wishing I could have more. The forkful does what I needed – it gives me the taste and that is enough. Once again this is not a choice I am making, or a philosophy I am forcing myself to embrace. It just is the way my brain works now – I didn’t deliberately activate it. If I did I would write a book about how. Another example is that there have been 4 times (no, I’m not counting I just remember them) when I have eaten one french fry at a meal. Because I wanted the taste.
Emotionally/psychologically it would be a lie to say I have not been affected. The day I had the heart attack one of the reasons I didn’t call an ambulance as soon as I should have is because I didn’t want to scare the kids. There’s no way around the fact that when your dad has a heart attack it’s scary. Same goes for my wife. The very last thing I want to do is scare them or have them worry. That said I am now hyper-aware of what is going on in my body, and especially my chest. And guess what? Chest pain happens, and it’s not generally a heart attack. Gas happens (especially because it is a side effect of some of the medication I am on). The pain can cause anxiety. Anxiety can cause chest pain. It’s a hilarity-filled ride. I can’t specifically recall how the heart attack itself felt – I just know it hurt but was not as intense as you’d think. I feel as though if it were happening again I would be sure. But I’m not sure if that’s true. So there are days when I find myself worrying. However with the cardio regimen I’m on I can always reassure myself that I wouldn’t be able to do 45 minutes of intense cardio without accompanying intense pain if I was actually having another heart attack.
On that note, when I started the cardio after the heart attack I was keeping my pulse rate in the 120’s, although my doctor did say I would be able to push it higher as I healed. As of today I usually use my elliptical machine (I have a gym in my basement although it has evolved since that blog about it), and the heart rate monitor I bought shows I’m keeping my heart rate in the 140-150 zone, which I made sure was ok with the cardiologist. Speaking of heart rate, I also take my blood pressure daily, and it stays in the 115/75 zone, with a resting heart rate of around 60 bpm.
One thing I have found recently (as in, the last 5 weeks or so) is that drawing is great therapy. It is extremely calming and does a great job of centering my thoughts. I highly recommend it. Another thing I’d have said if you’d asked me a year ago was that I can’t draw for beans. I never really believed I had any talent in that regard. But I have watched hours of YouTube tutorials and have been drawing every day. The therapeutic aspect can’t be overstated. It turns out when you practice something you also improve. Here is one of my earliest attempts at a portrait and one of my most recent ones. I’m no pro and may never be one, but the improvement is real and that’s only about a month. Therapeutic, fun, and inexpensive – I highly recommend it.
Wow. Ok this really has been stream of consciousness style. My writing is usually more organized than that. Ah well. This one wasn’t about writing, more about an anniversary summary. I admit I didn’t proofread that carefully either – forgive the errors. I am always happy to answer questions or offer assistance if I can. Leave me a comment and I will respond.
Growing up I had a lot of strengths for sure. I did pretty well in school, had a good sense of humour, a loving family and was always blessed with good close friends. But one thing was definitely not a strength: athletics. There was never a team sport where I didn’t get picked last and I certainly never cut that dashing athletic figure that some kids seemed to me to have been born with.
(BIG side note here – the large majority of adults you see that have that dashing athletic physique were NOT born with it … but I learned that little tidbit much later)
As a young child I was sick with asthma, and so I was always very thin. When I hit puberty and my body started demanding more food I began to fill out, but not in any good way. I just got fat. And as I got older it got worse. When my son was a baby in the late 90’s I couldn’t carry him upstairs to his change table to change his diaper without stopping to catch my breath. I have a vivid picture embedded in my mind of him lying on the change table in a dirty diaper and me standing over him huffing and waiting to catch my breath before I could change his diaper. All from carrying a 15 lb baby up a flight of stairs.
I won’t bore you with too many more details. I just wanted to paint a picture of who I was – a smart, funny, happy, fat guy. I experimented with different diets with varying degrees of success. One which I did fairly well with was The Zone diet, which took me from a size 40 waist to a size 32. And that was the beginning of my interest in the gym.
At first, my goals were all about looks. After losing all the weight on The Zone I found I was just skinny. I wanted pecs, shoulders, and abs. I joined a little gym near my house and applied the same dedication to working out that I had applied to adhering to the diet. The owner was a former competitive bodybuilder and a bodybuilding judge at the time. I knew nothing about working out and I was happy to let him design workouts for me. With his background he naturally designed workouts with bodybuilding in mind. Being a tech nerd I typed them into excel and shrank it down so I could tape it to the inside of my logbook. It’s still there though I’ve long since moved on to other plans.
I remember asking him how long it would take for me to actually see results. He said about 3-4 months. Great! I put my nose to the grindstone and did everything he said, and marked it on the calendar. I still have the log book I used when I started.
I did not see results after 3-4 months.
Now that’s not because the gym owner was lying. Most people should see results after that length of time. But I learned that my body is not “most people”. And that revelation may be the single most important thing the gym has done for me. I did not give up. I knew I was working hard and although maybe the mirror didn’t show much of anything, I was enjoying the workouts and loving the feeling of pushing myself past limits. Here are some entries from the very front of my logbook:
If you’re having trouble deciphering my handwriting join the club. My students love it. Here’s what it says (I’ll add the weight of the bar in, now that I have that capability)
Deadlift: 95 X 5, 115 X 5, 135 X 5
Leg Press: 90 X 8, 180 X 8, 270 X 8, 320 X 6
Close Grip Bench Press: 65 X 8, 95 X 8, 95 X 7, 95 X 6
Squats: 115 X 12
Bench Press: 95 X 8, 115 X 6, 155 X 8
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 40 X 5, 40 X 5, 45 X 5
These were big lifts for me, although looking at other lifters I knew they weren’t big lifts. I had to make a choice pretty quickly: keep comparing myself to others, let the depression set in and give up, or compete with myself and celebrate my victories. It wasn’t an obvious choice, despite what all the self-help and life coaches will tell you. I had gotten through life to that point without being a lifter and I could certainly rejoin the masses and be happy and healthy. Maybe take up running.
But that was not the choice I made. I wanted to get better. I had to get better. Better and best are two very different words. Better is a journey. Best is a destination. And since living is a journey, I’ve always chosen better. I don’t need to be the best, though I can’t say I mind when it happens. But I always need to be better. I despise stagnation. So I accepted that my body is mine, and I kept at it. I also took lots of progress pics, for which I am very grateful. Here is a comparison of just before I started lifting to how I looked 3 years later:
There are changes, but they’re not drastic. If we are being honest most of the difference between the two pictures is how I’m standing and the fact that I shaved my little patch of fur. However there is some delt and tricep development noticeable, although it’s very slight.
I’ve been immersed in the lifting culture for 13 years now. I know that some the people reading this are thinking Dude, if that’s all 3 years got you then you were not doing it right. But here’s the thing, and you can take it or leave it. I was “doing it right”. I was lifting consistently 5 days a week, improving my lifts constantly, eating 5-7 meals a day, making sure to eat 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, and all those other things one is “supposed” to do. And that’s what I got. Because that is my body. It resists change. But it changes.
Fast forward to today. I’ve had lots of victories and lots of defeats. I’ve been injured a few times, had my motivation ebb and flow, and of course I’m 13 years older. I’ve changed careers, pursued passions and experienced lots of joys and sadness. But this whole time I have been a lifter. And here are some lessons I’ve learned. I like lists so I’ll give you my thoughts in list form.
Compete with yourself
In all areas of my life, I never compete with others anymore. I always compete with myself. When I do something I’ve done before, I always work my hardest to make sure I do it better. Whether it’s academics (I just completed a Masters degree), my career (every time I teach a lesson I use what I learned from previous ones to make it better), my singing, or pretty much anything. I don’t always beat the old me, but I always try to. And when I fail, I learn.
Think long term It’s very easy to get bogged down in daily routine and get stuck in status quo. But each day should be about advancing yourself in some small way. Make a plan. Stick to the plan. You may not see changes or progress from one day to the next but if your plan is solid you will see progress in the long run. Never forget your plan. When you suffer setbacks acknowledge them as setbacks. There are peaks and valleys but if you zoom out you will see the steady rise.
Don’t set artificial boundaries You can always decide that you are fated to remain a certain way. But what a shame that is. Always aim high. If you set boundaries on what you can do you’ll live within them. It’s not necessary.
All of these things are things I learned in the gym, and apply to my life. They are not the result of a seminar I went to (or a blog I read…), they are the result of my results in the gym, so I don’t have to convince myself to believe them because I live them. I am so grateful for this.
So now, although I certainly don’t complain about changes to my physique and I do want them, I don’t lift for looks. I stopped lifting for looks a very, very long time ago. I lift because of what it teaches me and how it affects my mindset in life.
Oh, I almost forgot (no I didn’t! ;)). Planning long-term and acting on that plan works. It’s the zoom-out that proves it. After 13 years of lifting, I can zoom out a bit. I have gotten results in my lifts and my physique! Incremental at the time, they sure do add up.
Here are some updated lifts from workouts over the last few months. For most I chose lifts I have video of:
Deadlift: 405 X 4 (here’s video)
Leg Press: 900 X 10 (I don’t have video of this)
Close Grip Bench Press: 265 X 5 (here’s video)
Squats: 365 X 4 (here’s video)
Bench Press: 295 X 4, 315 X 1 (here’s video of the 315 X 1, it’s a personal best)
1-Arm Dumbbell Rows: 140 X 5 (here’s video)
And here’s a progress comparison picture after 10 years of lifting:
I lift weights, and I love it. I haven’t always been consistent with it though. I started a few times. First when I was a teenager, and then again when I was a newlywed, and then again when I was in my early 30’s. It was that last time that stuck, and here I am at 43 still lifting (currently recovering from an injury 4 weeks ago, but I am still a lifter). At first, I would go to a commercial gym, and I learned a lot there about what the different machines are for, what movements to do, and how to lift with good form. I loved going to the gym, but after a while I wanted the convenience of being able to train at home. I didn’t want just any home gym though. I wanted a home gym that would totally replace the commercial gym. I have one now, and this is the story of how it came to be. It started in June, 2006.
Rich’s Home Gym, aka “The Dlingeon” Version 1.0 (June, 2006)
First things first, I needed a space. We had recently moved into a new home (brand new that we chose from architectural plans), and a big criterion was that there be a good space in the basement for a gym. Our basement has just that. When you go down the stairs and turn right there is a big open area with a walkout to the backyard which is great for a family/games room, but if you turn left there is a smaller perfectly rectangular area that my wife and I knew from the get-go would eventually be the home gym. Check “space requirement” off the list.
Next on the list – flooring. It’s just not a good idea to put a home gym down without the proper kind of flooring. In a basement, you are probably dealing with concrete as I was. This is good because it’s hard to seriously compromise concrete, but if you don’t cover it with something you’re asking for dust, concrete chipping when you drop weights (and you will if you’re doing it right!), and cold feet. Ideally you’d want some heavy-duty rubber mats like they have in commercial gyms, and initially that was my plan. Then I found out how much that costs. To cover the whole floor would have cost more than the gym equipment I planned to buy! So I scaled the 1-inch thick rubber down to two 4X6 mats, for deadlifting, and for the rest I bought the children’s play-area interlocking foam. One side is colorful, the other is black. I opted to have the black side facing up. Check flooring off the list.
Next – equipment! My goal was to spend as little as possible to get as much as possible. That’s usually the case. I did a lot of research and initially wanted to get a smith machine since it’s safe for training alone, and provides a lot of options, especially since you can add options with pulleys etc. But smith machines are quite expensive and when I went shopping I discovered the leverage PowerLift system by BodySolid. It had a pressing station, a curling and pulldown station, and a hack squat station. Plate loaded and extemely well-designed. And the best news was that I could come in under-budget and buy a power rack. I bought the PowerLift, power rack, a bunch of weight plates (2X2.5, 2X5, 4X25, 6X45) and I was set. This was to be the last time I would make a major gym purchase retail. If I had known then what I know now I never would have gone to a store. But more on that later. Check equipment off the list.
In the pictures you can see where I set up the power rack and the heavy duty mats. It’s the perfect spot for it as there is just enough width and depth to be able to train in the rack and load/unload weights comfortably, with literally not an inch to spare. “Not an inch to spare” is a key characteristic of a good home gym. I don’t remember what the total cost was, however I have a vague memory of having done all this for around $1600. Not bad.
Here’s a quick video of me using the PowerLift in 2007. I used to time my rest between sets, so you’ll see me hit the button on my high class Casio after the set.
This is a good time for a detour into how I paid for all the rest of the evolution of the gym.
How Math Built My Gym
From a budgeting perspective, the money I spent on the gym at this stage was money my wife and I had allocated for a home gym for me, and I had a pretty complete gym. From that time on, any money I wanted to spend had to come from “non-family” funds. I do a lot of math tutoring so there’s a source of income that is “extra”. When I tutor though, my wife and kids have to stay quiet, because I tutor in our home in the dining room. Our house is not very big. Any noise in the house is heard in the dining room, no matter where the noise originates. I have to tutor in the dining room because it is in plain sight of the front door, and it’s important to me that parents of the students I tutor know that at any time they could walk up to the door and see us. Teachers will understand that sadly, these are things we have to consider whenever we know we are going to be alone with a kid who is not ours. A long time ago my wife and I sat down to discuss tutoring funds, and we decided that the whole family contributes in their own way to my being able to earn that extra money. So we decided that what made the most sense to us is that whatever I earn, 50% goes right into family money. Of the remaining 50%, half goes to my own discretionary pile and the other half goes into my wife’s discretionary pile. This is money that either of us can spend on whatever we want without having to consult or feel guilty that a frivolous purchase was made at the expense of something the family may have needed or wanted. I use it for things like casino trips, electronic toys that only I care about, and gifts for my wife (she uses hers on gifts for me among other things). This stash of money was to become my source for the rest of the improvements to my gym.
Dlingeon Version 1.01 (June, 2006)
At some point early on I realized I wanted to be able to do what I call corner rows. Easy enough. Using money I make tutoring math, I bought a v-grip cable handle (still retail), and put a piece of foam in the corner to protect the barbell and the wall. Many people say you need to anchor the barbell for this movement, and I suppose that would be safe, but I have never done so and never had a problem. Because of the way I lean back when I start, it gets jammed into the corner pretty good and I have never had it drift up, even with as much as 5 plates loaded on the business end. Here’s an early vid from the same day as the other video of me performing this movement.
Dlingeon Version 1.1 (July, 2007)
I loved that PowerLift a lot, but I began to really miss a few items. First and foremost, dumbbells. Secondly, a dip stand. My first solution to the dumbbell dilemma was to buy two spin-lock dumbbell handles and enough 10 lb plates to load them both up to the hilt. I also bought four 5’s and four 2.5’s for maximum flexibility. These were standard handles, not Olympic, since Olympic dumbbells are actually kind of annoying. But it meant that I had to buy standard weight plates. I did get these retail, but it was not very expensive. Maybe $100 total. Plus side: I could now create dumbbells from 5 lbs to 85 lbs (85 was a tight squeeze). Minus: I had to load them manually and no matter what the handle always sticks out so if you’re doing presses that start on your thighs it can get awkward and painful.
As for the dip stand, I did end up buying retail. I bought a basic Northern Lights dip stand which as I recall was $125 at the time. I put it in the corner where I do corner rows. You can see the foam piece I use to protect the wall. Only a minor inconvenience to have to move the dip stand to do corner rows.
My mother also bought me a cool clock for the gym. It was shaping up. So was I!
Dlingeon Version 1.2 (April, 2008)
One of the fairly predictable side effects of lifting weights is that you get stronger. When I first started lifting in my 30’s I used to look at guys that could press the 70 lb dumbbells and think they were monsters. The dumbbells in the gym I joined at the time went all the way up to 100 lbs. I remember how those 100’s looked like caricatures – gigantic. I also remember that when the owner gave me a tour of the gym prior to joining he told me the dumbbells “only went up to 100 to keep out the goons.”
Well there were only two guys I ever saw pick up and use those 100’s and they seemed like goons to me. I guessed if you could use bigger dumbbells than that you were an übergoon. I never dreamed I’d get to that stratum of goondom but working out regularly for years will get you there if you do it right, and the time came when my 85 lbs worth of dumbbell flexibility was not enough. I needed heavier dumbbells. I was a goon.
Here’s the thing about dumbbells though. They really cost a fortune. They’re generally sold by the pound, and when you’re looking for 90 lbs and up that adds up in a hurry (side note, if you want to find out how much a set of dumbbells from 90 lbs-120 lbs in 5 lb increments will cost at $1.50 a pound you could add it up one at a time or you can use an arithmetic series to simplify the calculations – you can guess which method I use). There was clearly no way I would pay retail. Thus began my love affair with craigslist and kijiji. Not many people are selling heavy dumbbells, and of the people who are they are often still asking quite a bit of money, but with patience and diligence you will eventually find what you need at a price you can afford. And I did. I found a guy who was selling a set of 95 lb – 120 lbs in increments of 5 lbs for under 50 cents/lb. At the time retail was over $1.50. I drove to his house, loaded them up into my wife’s Honda Pilot, and brought them home. I was so excited to use them! I was not strong enough to use the 120’s for anything but one-arm dumbbell rows yet, but I could press the 95’s and fairly quickly got up past the 100’s.
Dlingeon Version 1.21 (July, 2008)
Anyone who has ever lifted heavy dumbbells will tell you that it’s not the most fun when they all live on the floor. So began my quest for a dumbbell rack. When you’re trying to build something of quality on a tight budget you really start to think carefully about maximizing the utility of each dollar you spend (keep in mind, every dollar I spend on the gym is a dollar I can’t spend on an iPad or Dolby Digital Surround System). One of the things that I really started to realize was that there would be items I’d need or want in the gym that were not directly used for exercise. I didn’t want to have to pay a lot of money for those. I looked at retail dumbbell racks that could hold heavy dumbbells and they just cost way too much for me to justify the expense. I once again used patience and craigslist to stumble upon a guy who was selling a custom job that was seriously heavy duty, and also had a shallow footprint, which is key in a home gym with limited space. He was asking $150 and I bought it for $100. As a plus, when I got there he had a pair of 140 lb dumbbells that he had no use for and offered them to me for $25!! Easy decision, even though to this day I’ve never pressed them. I have used them many times for rows though. They look so hardcore too sitting on the rack.
The icing on the cake was when he offered to let me use his truck to bring it all home. He and his brother helped me disassemble it, then load it up, and they followed me back to my place where they helped me carry it in. I reassembled it myself. It’s not hard to do but when you have a home gym you start to learn quickly there are a few tools you want to make sure you have. A ratchet set, a wrench set and a set of Allen keys found their way into my toolbox that day! I can’t even count the times I’ve used them since.
Dlingeon Version 1.22 (August, 2008)
One exercise I absolutely love to do is the deadlift. Anyone who has done it for any length of time will tell you how great it is for building all around strength and size. However they will also tell you that it takes its toll. One way around this is to not deadlift every week. When I was in a commercial gym I would alternate deadlift weeks with weighted hyperextensions. This both alleviated the stress of deadlifting too often and also had the bonus of strengthening my lower back so I could deadlift heavier weight! In my home gym I had no good replacement for hypers. So I needed a hyperextension bench. But again these are tough to find used, and to get a commercial quality one retail was out of the question. Once more patience and diligence worked in my favour and I eventually found one for $40. A Lamar. Lamar is a fitness equipment company that made great quality stuff for home gyms, but unfortunately went under (from what I’ve read it had nothing to do with their product and everything to do with a crooked accountant). If you can find Lamar equipment that hasn’t been abused, buy it! It’ll usually be for a great price because it’s not a well-known name thanks to the company’s quick demise and so it’s priced well under comparable stuff from companies like Hoist, Precor, BodySolid, etc. This bench has adjustable everything, including the angle which adjusts from 45 degrees all the way to horizontal.
Dlingeon Version 1.23 (October, 2008)
The dumbbell handles with screw-lock were an okay solution for the price, but they have their drawbacks. First and foremost, the bar sticks out way past the weights, and it digs into your thighs if you want to do dumbbell presses with them starting with the weights on your knees, which is really the only way to do it when you train alone. Even if you offset the dumbbell so the bar isn’t digging into your thigh the screw-lock still does. So I had been trolling the internet for a used set for a long time, waiting for the right set at the right price. It finally came in the form of a guy who had a set custom made for himself in the 80’s by a friend who had a body shop. The guy had stopped lifting years before, and had stored the set in his basement. There was quite a bit of rust on them so he knew he couldn’t get much and was asking 50 cents/lb for his set which went from 25 lbs – 105 lbs in increments of 5 lbs, but for some reason was missing the 75’s. I offered him 30 cents/lb and he took it. My friend drove over to the guys house with me and we loaded up the dumbbells into my wife’s van and his station wagon, and once again when I got home I had the pleasure of multiple sets of farmer’s walk from my porch through the living/dining room and down the stairs into the basement. Note to anyone who ever does this – start with the heaviest ones! Otherwise by the time you get to them you won’t be able to move. Also, warm up. It’s a serious workout.
Once they were down my rack was finally put to full use. Here’s a pic. I had originally intended to restore the dumbbells by removing the rust and repainting, but to date I have not had the time or inclination, and the dumbbells work just fine anyway.
another pic – the set was too big now to fit in one frame!
At first I had decided to put the heavy dumbbells on top, since it’s actually a bit difficult to get them out of the vertically oriented rack from the bottom. That is what you see in the picture. However I did eventually move the heavy ones to the bottom because I worried (probably unnecessarily) about the centre of gravity of the full rack. Note those awesome 140’s at the top right! I do use them. Here’s a video of me rowing those bad boys.
Dlingeon Version 2.0 (November, 2008)
The PowerLift was a great gym, but it had some issues which over time I realized were becoming more than I wanted to deal with. For one, when you’re doing chest presses using a leverage system, every set always begins with a rep at the bottom of the range of motion. Imagine starting a bench press with the bar at your chest instead of at arm’s length. This is not technically a terrible thing, but I found as I got stronger that the weight I had to use so that I could start the set was significantly lighter than the weight I would use if I could make it heavier once I finished the positive portion of the first rep. I started to load heavier weights on and struggle to get the first rep but then the rest of the reps would be smooth. I injured my shoulder doing this, and it was quite a significant injury that kept me out of the gym for a couple of months.
Another issue I had with the PowerLift was there was no good way to do a flye movment. There were bands you could attach to the arms of the pull station, but you weren’t pulling in the direction of the resistance. A flye is supposed to be from the outside in (or the inside out) and the resistance should be in the opposite direction of the pull. With bands attached to fixed arms the movement could be done but the resistance doesn’t work against the flye. In other words, I really missed the cable systems at the commercial gym where you could do crossovers. It wasn’t terrible since I had dumbbells and those are great for flyes, but there are times when you’d like to use a machine.
I also looked at the footprint of the PowerLift and decided that in the long run I would regret how much space it takes up. There was equipment I knew I’d eventually want to get and there wasn’t room for it as long as the PowerLift was there. So I made the decision to sell the PowerLift, which I did for about $200 less than I paid, and I bought a Nautilus Smith machine used for significantly less than I made selling my PowerLift. This was the beginning of me using my existing equipment to upgrade to new equipment, usually without being out of pocket and often at a profit!
The Nautilus system I bought was actually very clever, as it combined a smith machine with a plate-loaded cable system with multiple positions for the handles. Here’s a picture of it just after I put it together:
And here’s a picture of the bench it came with. One downside to selling the PowerLift was I had to sell the FID (Flat-Incline-Decline) bench it came with. The bench that came with the Nautilus was not as good.
The main problem with the bench is the fact that it widens at the seat. This becomes quite irritating when doing movements where you’re lying down because I have been gifted with legs of a man 6 inches shorter than I am, and unless you have super long legs you have to separate your legs to let your feet touch the floor. A minor irritation but an irritation nonetheless. The Nautilus system also came with Nautilus Olympic plates, which was nice because I was starting to need more weight plates!
Dlingeon Version 2.1 (February, 2009)
One of the main pieces I had been missing from a commercial gym was a leg press. They take up quite a bit of space and they are really only good for a few movements, so it was hard to justify the purchase, but I had created space selling the PowerLift and had saved up enough that I could finally pull the trigger. Originally I wanted to buy the BodySolid leg press/hack squat combo but I found someone selling a Northern Lights unit that also converted from leg press to hack squat and they were asking about half of the retail price. Decision made. Here’s a pic:
Dlingeon Version 2.11 (April, 2009)
I had been looking for a seated calf machine for some time. Once again it has very limited use so I wasn’t interested in spending a ton of money on it. I kept my eye on kijiji and craigslist and one finally came up, listed for $150. I offered $125 and they agreed. It doesn’t take up much space so it was no problem fitting it in. It comes fitted for standard weight plates so I did have to buy an Olympic adapter retail – $15.
One issue with it that I live with to this day is that there is no safety stop position, so if you get in trouble and can’t re-rack the weight you have to let it fall to the ground and get your legs out of the way.
Around this time, a friend of mine called me to tell me that his neighbour was selling a VKR – that’s home gym speak for a Vertical Knee Raise station and it really means one of those contraptions that you can use for dips, pull-ups and that also has a back pad and handles with armrests for hanging knee raises. They’re really versatile and a great addition to your gym. Since I already had a dip station though I wasn’t going to bite, but then my friend told me his neighbour only wanted $75 for it, and he would bargain down to $50 for me. That was too good to pass up so I listed my dip station for $125, sold it for $100, and bought the VKR for $50.
Sadly, I only used this for a few workouts. A friend of mine was over for a workout and watched me doing weighted dips on this unit. I weighed about 220 lbs at the time and was hanging 90 lbs from a belt around my waist, and my friend noticed that the handles were bending and the main posts were as well. That was when I learned that not all VKR’s are created equally. I sold it almost right away for … wait for it … $275! Then I replaced it with a Hoist VKR of significantly sturdier construction, which I bought from a guy who had been a silent partner in a gym that had gone under and had all the equipment in a storage unit that he didn’t want to keep paying rent for. I paid $150 for the Hoist VKR. It retails for over $1000.
This was a significant improvement over the previous two dip stations. First, it’s rated for weights heavy enough for me and my weight plates, and second, the back pad actually comes off and can be attached at the back for incline ab exercises. It also turns out this unit was a big attraction and here’s a picture of my friend, IFBB Pro Carrie Simmons, demonstrating dips in my gym.
Dlingeon Version 3.0 (June, 2009)
Well the Nautilus Smith was fun for a while, but I didn’t like the bench it came with and I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t do pulldowns on it. I also felt it was taking up too much space. So in June ’09 I decided to sell it and replace it with a multi-gym cable system. I sold the Smith for $700 and bought a Northern Lights multi-gym for $520.
I also used the proceeds from the Smith to buy a Northern Lights preacher bench for $75. Because I sold the FID bench with the Smith, I had to buy another FID bench, along with leg extension attachment. I found these used for $200 and $40, respectively. Northern Lights makes all their plate loaded stuff for standard plates, so once again I had to buy an Olympic adapter – $15.
The multi-gym was good for a lot of things, but I noticed immediately that it was built for people with different proportions than me. So for example I never could get the pec-dec to fit my arms properly, and when I did pull-downs my legs were always pretty squished under the anchors, even with them set at the highest position. Strange when you consider that I have freakishly short legs. All that said though, it was usable, and I used it for a long time.
If you’re paying close attention to the pictures, you’ll see the foam piece still in the corner. No problem, except now I have to move a preacher bench to do corner rows. Big deal. You’ll also notice a weird-looking curl bar on the preacher bench. That’s a purchase I regretted almost immediately and sold it right away for $35, then bought an EZ-Curl bar retail for $55 to replace it.
Dlingeon Version 3.01 (December, 2009)
Turns out I didn’t like the Northern Lights FID bench too much. I found the back pad to be too narrow and I was benching in the neighbourhood of 275 lbs at this point, with my bodyweight of 220 lbs or so, and I never quite trusted the tiny hinge at the bottom which becomes the focus of all that weight. So I looked around until I found a used Body Solid FID. Body Solid makes three of these, each one sturdier than the previous. I wanted the sturdiest one they make. I found someone selling one for $250 and bought it, then sold my Northern Lights FID and leg extension attachment for $350. I did have to buy the Body Solid leg extension attachment retail, for $112, so I was down $12 on the exchange. I could live with that for the much higher quality bench! I don’t have any pictures of it alone, but it will show up in pictures later on.
Dlingeon Version 4.0 (July, 2011)
The multi-gym configuration lasted me quite some time, but in July of 2011 I decided that I was ready for a change. I’d been looking at functional trainers and liked the idea of the flexibility they provide. I kept my eye out for a used one that was priced well as they’re seriously expensive, and finally found a trainer who had a gym but was shifting his focus from weights to TRX, and he had a Tuff-Stuff functional trainer that was gathering dust. So I sold my multi-gym and bought his functional trainer. And for a bonus, he’d paid extra for the Smith attachment to the trainer, so now I had a full functional trainer and a Smith machine!
With some moving around of equipment I was able to fit it all in.
Dlingeon Version 4.0 (July, 2012)
I love the functional trainer/Smith machine, but one serious drawback is that there is no good way to anchor yourself for pulldowns. This started to annoy me, so I decided to sacrifice the space my seated calf machine was taking up, and I bought a used Lamar lat tower. The guy that sold it to me had a lot of attachments that I didn’t need, and a lot of weight I didn’t need either. By the time I was done selling the stuff I didn’t need, as well as my seated calf machine, I was $100 and one lat tower richer than before. This is the current state of my gym, and here’s a virtual tour video I took a little while ago. I used a Samsung Tablet to take the video, and apparently the proportions aren’t ideal for YouTube, but you can see everything.
In Conclusion (finally!)
I have to say that I absolutely love having a home gym. My workouts are better here, without the distractions of the commercial gym. Nobody but me ever sweats on the equipment, and all the gym members always put away their weights and dumbbells. I have some computer speakers set up and I plug my iPhone into them when I train, so the music is always exactly what I want to hear. I’ve made huge gains in size and strength. Here are a few videos of my favourite lifts, to finish off this blog, which according to the editor I’m typing in, has just reached 5122 words!