From high in the mountains, a lesson on resiliency during the age of the coronavirus

I’ve learned a lot from the mountains. A deep love for conservation, for starters. An appreciation of their scale and power, too. And in climbing them, I’ve picked up lessons in endurance, situational awareness and tolerance for risk.

But success in the peaks can be summed up in one word: resilience.

The toughness implied in that word is all-encompassing. A successful summit attempt (and that sometimes means turning back short of the top) is based on the resilience of your body, mind and spirit. If you come up short in these areas, the chances of failure — and potentially harm — rise dramatically.

Resilience is a word that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Before the Great Recession, my household income was at its peak. But there were areas of weakness that would be exposed when times got tough, and I learned a lot from that. “Never again,” I told myself, hoping to avoid the pitfalls that befell me when I lost my job and had to find work in a new town. As best as I could, I tried to figure out how to become more resilient when storms appear on the horizon.

And just like that, here we are. The arrival of COVID-19 brought a pandemic to our country, and with it came an immediate recession. We’re being told to stay home, work remotely and go out only for essential business. Nearly 17 million people are out of work. And millions more, like me, are losing income from furloughs or loss of customers. That doesn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands who have become sick with this nasty virus.

It reminded me of that word, and how important resilience is. I’ve thought about it a lot over the past year, and it’s come into sharp focus over the past month. Here’s how I see that term playing out now:

You need to be physically resilient. Like any disease, this new coronavirus is particularly cruel to those whose health is already compromised. I’m reminded of a poster that graced the wall of a gym I used to go to that had one short line written at the bottom: The stronger you are, the harder you are to kill. Physical fitness, a healthy diet and proper sleep are your weapons to defend against not only the virus, but also the stress that comes with it, and the economic hardships that have befallen us as a result. Find ways to be active. Walk, run, ride your bike, lift weights. Eat healthy foods, not just comfort foods that taste good, but aren’t nutritionally valuable. Get your sleep. These habits are what make athletes great, and they work well for the rest of us, too. Not only can you make your body more fit, but a good exercise routine will help work off stress. And remember that poster: If you’re stronger and fitter, you’ll be a better survivor.

You need to be mentally resilient. Mental toughness is critical when hard times arrive. Create in yourself a mindset that accepts that things aren’t ideal, then launch your efforts from there. In other words, you know that things suck, so what can you do about it? Train yourself to work with the facts and circumstances as they are, not what they used to be. If you’re facing some time off from your job, see if there are things you can learn that will expand your marketable knowledge and skills. Keep your mind active, working and thinking toward solutions to the problems you’re currently facing. A proactive, engaged mind will propel you toward making decisions on your terms rather than repeatedly reacting to — or knuckling under — new challenges. Give yourself some grace when you feel overwhelmed. But in so doing, stay the course and don’t stay too long in those moments of anxiety and sadness. Use the tools at your disposal the manage your mind and your emotions.

Build resilience in your finances. This is a tough one, because most of us are a paycheck or two away from disaster. Part of that is the reality of where wages are for middle class and lower-income workers. But also, some of that is our fault. Personal finance gurus like Dave Ramsey suggest having an emergency fund that’s equal to 6-9 months of income, and personally, I think that’s unrealistic for most people. But he has a point. Having an emergency fund to make up for lost income is critical. Pay down your debts as much as possible. And given where we’re at now, it’s high time to cut expenses. Take a hard look at all those monthly box subscription services, online streaming services and other expenses you have. Sort them out by “wants” and “needs,” and be honest about it. Build up the ability to be able to weather this storm or, if needed, be able to quickly pick up and move to where new job opportunities are. And when this downturn passes, keep up these new habits. Chances are, you can get by maintaining your old car, not using credit cards and ordering fewer things on Amazon instead of falling into old free-spending habits that weaken your financial position. And if at all possible, avoid dipping into retirement savings. Sometimes it’s impossible, but resist that as long as you can as it’s incredibly difficult to make those losses down the road.

Work on your spiritual resilience. In this case, you can find comfort and inner strength by embracing your faith. Find time to dive into those sacred texts and pray. Look for wisdom there to help you deal with the stresses, questions and anger that confronts you. These are often quiet, solitary times that will allow you to slow down, see things more clearly and inform the decisions you make and actions you take.

And even if you’re not a religious person, you can still apply “spiritual” practices that will make you inwardly stronger. Find time to be alone in a quiet setting, be still, breathe deep. Go on a long walk, ride or run. Maybe do some gardening. Or yoga. These activities have rhythmic, meditative or peaceful attributes that parallel what many religious people find when they pray and meditate on scriptures. Meditative practices tend to unclutter your mind and create inner peace.

I know that some of us are going to get trucked over the next several months. The Great Recession jacked me up for years, and frankly, I never fully recovered from the losses of that downturn. But I learned from it. My hope is that we can weather this and come out OK on the other side. We can’t control a lot of the bigger forces at work, but we can put on our own personal armor and steel ourselves for the challenges ahead. Truth is, we don’t have another option because giving in is no option at all.

And that brings me back to what I’ve learned on the mountain. The peaks can be beautiful, peaceful and energizing. But they can be scary, dangerous and even violent places, too. Getting to the top — or getting off the mountain safely — is often a combination of enjoyment, effort, fear and wisdom. The constant is it’s never easy. But another constant for those who have had success in the mountains is that they are resilient. And resiliency is a character trait from which we can all benefit now.

Bob Doucette

The Covid Chronicles continue: Losing income, friends getting sick, and finding ways to deal

Innovate where you can, bro.

This was going to be a fun weekend. That was the plan, anyway. I’ve got a longtime friend from Colorado who’s probably forgotten more about backpacking then I’ve ever learned, and over the winter he invited me to join him and a group of college kids who were going to do a four-day trip into the backcountry of Arkansas’ Devil’s Den State Park. He was teaching a university course on the subject, and the trip was a way to practice what they’d learned.

Needless to say, the trip isn’t happening. Not after all this virus stuff. And I get it. Aside from the contagion risk of meeting up with a group of people from all over the place, and potentially getting or transmitting the bug to people we’d meet in the towns leading to the park, it’s  not a good idea. I think you could still get away with a close-by solo camping or backpacking trip, but even then, it’s not a great bet.

Again, this is a small problem in an ever-growing sea of much bigger ones. And some of those have hit home.

Last week, 3.3 million people applied for unemployment assistance as the first big wave of layoffs hit following nationwide orders that “non-essential” businesses close until the COVID-19 outbreak is subdued. That was a record, some four or five times more than the previous mark. This week, that astounding number was dwarfed by the 6.6 million who applied. Those are jaw-dropping statistics, and frankly, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be looking for a new job in these conditions. What we see unfolding now might make the Great Recession look mild, and we all know how painful that was.

Personally, I knew the other shoe was going to drop sometime. Working in the news business, we’re heavily dependent on two sources of revenues: subscriptions and advertising. The good news is that subscriptions and online readership are up. The bad news is that advertising is way down, and seeing that advertising is a huge part of how my employer makes money, the pain is sharp. What that means is everyone in the company is going to have to eat two weeks of furloughs — unpaid leave — over the next three months. That’s a bunch of money we won’t be getting, but I still consider myself lucky that I’m employed. Being laid off is far worse. I’ll weather it and hope that things calm down soon. But I’m not counting on it.

As for other things going on: My neighbor, the older fella who got sick with the virus, is on the mend. Great news, because we were worried about him.

But I’ve got another friend who is in the middle of his own coronavirus odyssey. He’s a doctor who, a couple of weeks ago, was in front of a suburban city council urging them to enact stricter stay-at-home measures to stop the spread of the virus. A week later, he came down with the virus himself.

He texted me the news a little less than a week ago, telling me he thinks he caught it while treating patients at a hospital north of Tulsa. The availability of personal protection equipment — N95 masks, face shields, etc. — is limited, and at that hospital it was only given to staff who were treating people with confirmed cases. In his case, he was seeing patients who were thought to be potential cases based on their symptoms, thus he didn’t have the gear given to him that others got. And hence, the infection.

You can read more about what he had to say about it here. The weekend and early part of this week was rough, so I’m hoping things get better for him soon. I can’t express the worry I feel for those in health care right now.

On a lighter subject, I’m still learning new ways to stay active. I might not be backpacking, but I’ve found ways to use backpacks for fitness. Nothing like loading up a backpack and doing walking lunges up the hill. I think that loaded pack might find other uses, too, and I’m still looking for other ways to challenge myself physically. I don’t see my gym opening up for another couple of months, so I gotta make do.

And for now, we’re still allowed to go outside to walk, run or bike as long as we keep our distance. I do hill repeats on the bike. I go run. The other day, I decided to run one of my downtown routes, mostly just to see how things look with so much locked down.

It’s quiet. Parking garages are empty. No one is going into restaurants. Car traffic is light. If I wanted, I could probably run across most downtown intersections without even bothering to look for traffic. Construction is ongoing at two high-rises, but other than that the only “activity” I saw was a guy walking into an eatery with a box full of supplies. I’m assuming the restaurant is still doing takeout and delivery. But I worry about the Tulsa Arts District and all the businesses that are there. Restaurants, bars, taprooms and concert venues are all closed. The baseball park is empty and will stay that way.

This Friday would be the First Friday Arts Walk, which usually brings hundreds of people there to tour the museums. A park there usually hosts free outdoor concerts. If there was a baseball game scheduled, thousands more would come. Add a show or two and hundreds or thousands would be added to their numbers, and the Arts District would be hopping. This weekend? It’ll be a dead zone.

And for good reason. Coronavirus infections are spiking, hospitalizations are surging, and deaths are beginning to mount.

It’s hard for everyone, even if you’re not sick. We’re losing income. Jobs. Missing friends. Unable to see family. And all those travel plans are toast. All of it’s been replaced by boredom at home, worries about money and the overhanging dread of the question: “What if I get sick?”

And I think that’s why I’ve been adamant about exercising. I haven’t missed a workout yet. I’m still running. Yeah, none of this is as epic as the lifts at the gym or as fun as those group runs and races we’re missing now. And it’s OK to grieve that. But you have to find something to cope with it.

So that’s my goal for next week, and every week going forward until life gets back to some sort of normal. I hope you can do the same. Find that things to help you deal.

Bob Doucette

Making adjustments in Covid World

Making do with what I have, this time doing kettlebell swings.

Though this 21st century plague has been around since December, COVID-19 has only made its presence felt in in my hometown for the last few weeks. It’s definitely becoming more pronounced.

I live close to the urban center of Tulsa. While it’s no Manhattan, it’s typically a busy place with plenty of cars and people going to work, grabbing a meal or going to shows. It’s a destination center for the city.

Not so much these days. What I’ve seen over the past week or so is that the noise of the city has changed. Fewer cars. Less machinery. More birds and breezes in the trees. The city is quieter than I’ve ever seen it.

I mentioned daily disruptions last week, and that continues. I still go to the office for work, but they’ve split my department up, with about half working on another floor now. During my shift, the newsroom has no more that five or six people in it. When my shift is over and I’m doing my last duties, I’m the only one there. I plug in some tunes and get to work on placing stories for the corporate website, send off a few late emails and shut it down without a soul around. On Thursday, I worked from home for the first time. Downside: not having two monitors and dealing with twitchy internet connections. Upside: Five feet from the fridge! I ate well last night.

Speaking of eating, here’s a Covid World first-world problem: The taco joint next door to my office shut down, closed until this mess clears up. So no weekly burrito feast for me (insert sad face). Real world problems: The people who worked there don’t have jobs. They and 3.3 million other Americans filed for unemployment last week. Having been on that ride before, I can tell you this: No one enjoys unemployment. Being broke is stressful.

I’m making other adjustments. I posted a video on Facebook and Instagram showing me doing some kettlebell swings, maybe trying to encourage people to make do with what they’ve got and keep up those exercise routines. Exercise builds resilience, and that can help you fight off the bug. Or maybe get over it.

Anyway, a friend saw the video, commented, and offered to let me borrow an unused barbell and a few plates. She’s  personal trainer and works from her house, and was hoping to find someone who could use the spare gear. It’s not much — about 110 pounds total. But let me tell ya, I’m grateful to have it. I can program in  barbell lifts that I’ve been missing the last couple of weeks. It’s interesting to see how people react in times like these. Some folks are fighting over toilet paper. Other people, like my now-idled personal trainer friend, are looking for ways to help others whose lives have been upended.

One thing I’ve noticed hasn’t changed: People are still getting outside. The parks lining the Arkansas River have been busy. One of my new workout ideas is to do hill sprints on my bike, and there is no shortage of people walking, running, cycling and skateboarding on the trails. I’m not sure how much actual “social distancing” is going on there, and there was enough concern from the city that it and the county closed down playgrounds and basketball courts. I’m getting outside, too, cycling and running until the government says I can’t. I don’t do well cooped up.

Last thing: I think my neighbor’s condition may be improving, and his husband doesn’t seem to be coming down with the bug. We’re keeping an eye on them, mostly because they’re a bit older and fit all too well into that “vulnerable” demographic people keep talking about. I’m not worried about catching the bug from them. It’s the spring breakers that concern me.

As for me, I’m getting a little fluffier around the middle, but otherwise healthy. I’ve still got a job. I think there’s toilet paper around here somewhere (I know a place to get some that isn’t overrun by panicked suburbanites). But like a lot of you, I’m warily eyeing those infection numbers, wondering when the next shoe will drop, and hoping this thing doesn’t last too long.

Stay safe and well, my friends.

Bob Doucette

In COVID World, daily disruption is the new normal

My gym is closed, so my house is now my gym. Welcome to COVID World.

Strange times, man. That’s the only way I can think of it.

I’m a creature of routines, and for the most part they’ve served me well. I get up roughly the same time every day. Eat breakfast. My workout times are set, and it all dovetails nicely within my work schedule. I set aside time to write, sometimes for myself, sometimes for those of you reading here.

But it’s different now. My routines have been disrupted. Hell, all of our routines have been given one big ole flat tire on the highway of life.

COVID-19, the lovely little coronavirus that up until a couple of months ago was a curiosity to those of us in the West, has overturned our collective apple cart. Like it or not, we’re all having to adjust to this janky new normal.

A lot of what’s been altered is a series of first-world problems that are actually deeper than the term implies. After my city ordered most public service businesses to shut down, I lost access to my gym. Goodbye squat rack, sayonara deadlift platform, adios bench press and all the big bars and plates that go with them. What I’ve got at home: A scattering of smaller dumbbells, one kettlebell and some TRX straps. There’s a place on my back porch where I can do chin-ups, and I have my bike. I’m making a go of it, but it’s off to a bumpy start.

Saying that, I know there’s more to this crisis than a loss of my gym membership. At work, we’re enforcing social distancing. Some people are working on another floor now. Others are working from home. We’re doing a whole lot of G-chat to communicate, and adjusting to a workflow that’s unfamiliar and a little clunky. I’m sure we’ll get used to it. But again, it’s more disruption.

Comparatively speaking, my issues are  small. Others all around me are suffering much more.

This week, thousands of workers in all areas of the hospitality industry lost their jobs. Gone like the morning dew in a matter of hours, all because public safety had to trump commerce, even if that meant folks losing work. With the downturn has also come serious hits to aerospace, the airlines and the oil business. Before you scoff at the losses of big companies, keep in mind that tens of thousands of people in my city alone work in these areas. So do family members of mine in Texas. Layoffs for them loom large as corporations face the grim reality that a sea of red ink is about to swamp their finances for months to come, if not longer.

Having been on the losing side of such job cuts in the last recession, I can tell you that I feel for folks who have already lost work or are about to. And yeah, I’m nervous for my own liveliehood, too.

And cutting to the heart of it is this: Community spread of COVID-19 — that is, the disease being communicated freely in the population — is here in Tulsa, and one person has died. The man was a healthy person in his 50s who was diagnosed with the disease one day before he passed.

And as you read this, I learned only hours ago that a man in my own neighborhood was diagnosed with the new coronavirus. He’s quarantined in his house, fighting it off at home so far.

As I see it, disruption is all around, and more of it is to come. Stricter measures have been laid down almost daily, and yet I know from following this story since December that the U.S. is about two months behind the curve in responding to it. It’s probably going to get rougher before dawn breaks.

So sure, I miss my gym. I miss the races that all got canceled. I’ll miss the restaurants that had to shutter, and the movies that won’t play at the theater. The city streets are quiet, spring festivals canceled and plenty of uncertainty and fear lies ahead. This storm seems to be just getting warmed up.

I can’t say exactly how to respond to all this, other than trying to do what the scientists say. I’ll keep working. I’ll read more. Binge-watch a few more shows.

And I suppose I’ll go out to my back porch and do my chin-ups. It’s the best I can do to salvage some of my routines, virus or not.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: How to do the bench press

Right or wrong, the bench press has become one of the main measures of upper body strength. But the fact is, it is also a solid way to build upper body strength and pack on some muscle. Lance Cpl. Ronald W. Stauffer photo/via Wikipedia Commons

In the hierarchy of lifts, it’s difficult to say where the bench press sits.

On one hand, it’s one of several methods used to test college athletes invited to the NFL combine each spring. Football players are measured for performance, and one of the tests is to see of many times they can bench press 225 pounds.

On the other hand, it’s hard to say what “real world” application the bench press has. A lot of strength coaches will look at lifts like the squat, deadlift, overhead press and clean as better “real world” indicators of strength and performance than the bench, mostly because there is no activity you do that resembles the bench press exercise.

Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was sort of a gym bro joke that people would be judged with this simple question: “How much ya bench?” And it would often be asked by dudes could rattle some plates on the bench press, but looked like they skipped leg day on the reg.

So why is it still a thing? I’d say the answer is two-fold. First, it’s easy to learn and do, and much less “work” than heavy deadlifts or squats. That’s just the nature of upper body exercises. Second, the bench press works a good number of muscles, including the chest, shoulders and triceps. You get a lot of bang for the buck from the bench.

So, it’s not a great measurement of overall strength. But it is a tool that you can use to strengthen your upper body. So, let’s look at how this thing works.

THE BENCH PRESS SETUP

Unlike other barbell exercises, the rack (in this case, the bench itself) plays a big role. It acts as your backside’s “floor,” but also gives you the support and range of motion needed to fully execute the move.

Lay down on the bench, lining up to where your eyes are just about level with the bar. This will allow you to execute the lift without the bar hitting the uprights and any safety prongs that are attached to the upright posts of the bench.

Grab the bar with a tight grip, with your hands more than shoulder-width apart. Your arms should line up in a way in which your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Where your hands are on the bar will depends greatly on how long your arms are, so adjust accordingly.

Your feet should be firmly on the floor. You want your quads to feel slightly tight in this position. My cue is this: I put my toes on the floor until I can feel that tightness in my quads. Then I force my heels down. This will make my lower back arch somewhat and will also arch my chest a little. But my butt remains firmly planted on the bench, and that’s where it should stay for the entirety of the lift.

Now that your feet are set and you’ve gripped the bar, pinch your shoulder blades inward slightly. Once you’ve done this, unrack the bar and have it lined up with the bottom half of your pecs. You’re ready to begin the lift.

EXECUTING THE LIFT

Lower the weight under control to where it touches your chest. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest; just lightly touch it. Once the bar has made contact with your chest, press the bar straight back up. You don’t want to lift in an arc toward your eyes, because if something goes wrong and you can’t get the bar racked safety, it could come crashing down on your head. No bueno.

Something to watch: Your arms should be positioned in a way that they are somewhat edging toward a 45-degree angle toward your waist, meaning that the point of your elbows should be about the same level as where the bar touches your chest. Don’t let your elbows flare out to where they are even with your shoulders. You lose a lot of power that way and put tremendous strain on your shoulder sockets.

When you are doing the last rep of your set, go straight up with the bar (just like every other rep), maintain a locked-out position, and then rerack the bar. Remember, you don’t want to do that last rep with the bar heading toward the rack. That’s how accidents happen.

A CAUTION

It goes without saying that every big compound lift comes with the risk of injury. Most bench press injuries happen in the shoulder sockets, and sometime occur with pec tears.

But in terms of real risk to your life, the bench press is unique. Of all the lifts, this is the one where people have suffered the most fatal injuries. This most often happens when a fatigued lifter, or someone who tries too much weight, cannot successfully complete the lift and has the bar come down on their neck or skull. If no one is there to help the stranded lifter, that person could have a couple hundred pounds or more crushing vital areas of their neck or head. So, if you’re going to challenge yourself with heavier weight or a bunch of reps, ask for a spotter. If you’re lifting alone and there’s no one there to help you, understand that you might need to dump the bar off to the side and wriggle out from underneath it, but just make sure it doesn’t come back toward your head and neck. Better yet, if you’re lifting alone, weigh the risks of what you’re trying to do and be conservative. No rep is worth your life.

DON’T CHEAT

I mentioned some of this earlier, but I want to reiterate those things again when it comes to proper form on the bench. More than any other compound lift, this is the easiest one in which to cheat. Keep in mind that the more you cheat, the less you get out of the exercise.

So, when you’re lifting, don’t bounce the bar off your chest. That extra rebound will allow you to “lift” more, but it will also rob you of potential performance gains. A light touch of the bar on your chest will do. And if you choose to compete, you’ll be required to let the bar come to a complete stop on your chest before you push it back up. Otherwise, three red lights and a no-go.

Also, keep that butt on the bench. If it come off the bench, you’re cheating.

With that in mind, please be aware that if we see you bouncing 350 pounds off your chest with your butt in the air, we’re not impressed. We’re inwardly laughing at you. It ain’t a PR if your chest is used as a trampoline for the bar.

There are other form quirks that aren’t necessarily “cheating,” but I’d steer clear from. One is the thumbless grip. Wrap that thumb around the bar. This is a safety thing. They don’t call the thumbless thing a “suicide grip” for nothing. And, you may have seen people lay on the bench with their feet on the bench pad by their butt, or even in the air with their shins crossed. I get that this is a way to keep your butt firmly planted, but this move will limit how tight you can get when executing the lift, and thus limit how much you can press. Keep those feet planted.

Here’s another great video on how to bench press properly. Watch and learn!

Next week: Let’s talk about the quirky world of Swiss balls, Bosu balls and wobble boards. Does unstable surface training actually work?

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: How to do the squat

If you want stronger legs, you’re going to have to get under the bar.

In terms of overall mobility, athleticism and strength, there may be no more essential move than the squat. This goes for everyone: the professional athlete, the novice lifter and your grandmother. You can tell a lot about a person’s future health by how well they can drop into a deep squat and pop back up.

If you can, chances are good that you will be able to move well as you age. If you can’t, it’s something you need to remedy before you lose your ability to run, climb stairs or even walk.

So yes, it’s that important.

In terms of fitness, the squat is fundamental. Anyone looking to build lower body (and really, full-body) strength needs to program squats into their routines.

Squats come in many forms. The bodyweight squat, or “air squat,” is done without any weights involved. Other basic forms include the back squat (where a loaded bar is placed atop your shoulders and behind your head) and the front squat (where a loaded bar is held just above collarbone level in front of the head). There are others (dumbbell squats, Zercher squats and more), but what I want to focus on is the most used weight training variation, the back squat.

This form is the most basic and has the capability to offer the highest potential for moving a lot of weight. That’s why it’s a staple for lifters and athletes worldwide. But just like last week’s post on deadlifts, the squat requires good technique to be effective and safe. So, let’s go over it.

What you’re aiming for: The idea is to be standing with the weight on your back, lower yourself down to where the crease in your hips is at or below parallel to the top of your thighs, and then to stand back up (I’ll go a little more into squat depth toward the end of this post). Your thighs, glutes and back will all get worked hard doing a loaded squat.

Foot placement: It’s going to vary for most people, but generally speaking, your feet should be about shoulder-width apart, with your toes angled out slightly. The reason for the toe angle is simple: You need your knees to remain stable throughout the lift (not caving inward), and you need space for your belly to go as you get into the deepest part of the squat. Some people choose a wider stance, which will mean toes will be pointed out more. The downside to a wider stance is a decrease in hip mobility. But find a stance that works for you and go with it.

Setup: As you’re approaching the bar in the rack, get under it with both feet squared up. The bar should be loaded at a point on the rack where you can unrack it by standing underneath it without having to rise on your toes. If you have to go up on your toes, the bar needs to be racked a level down. Grab the bar tight, with your hands past shoulder width. Now squeeze down on your armpits. This will engage your back muscles and have you ready to receive the full weight of the bar. Now that you’re ready, stand up to lift the bar off the rack, take a step back with each foot and assume your proper stance. Take in a good breath and hold it, letting your midsection expand to brace your core. Now you’re ready to lift.

Descent: From here, you will unlock your hips, sit back slightly and break at the knees while lowering yourself and the weight down. Your back will not be vertical, but rather, it will be angled forward. Do not lean too far forward, however, as this will act to fold you in half and put too much strain on your lower back. Descend under control until you reach proper depth, being careful to hold that breath in and not let it out – you definitely want your core braced to protect the spine. Keep your head in a neutral position, not looking too far down or craning your head up.

Not bad, but in this pic, I’m craning my head up too much.

Ascent: Keeping your breath in and core braced, drive upward, with your weight centered over the middle of your foot (if you drive too far back on your heels, you risk pitching backward and possibly losing control of the weight; too much toward your toes and you’ll pitch forward and fold yourself in half). Concentrate on powering your lower back up as you straighten your hips and knees. This will help you mentally engage/connect with all the muscles needed to lift the weight. It’s important to remember that you are executing the lift by powering through your hips, and not trying to lift solely with your legs. Once standing straight up, exhale a bit, take another good breath and repeat.

A FEW TIPS

I mentioned not letting your knees cave inward during the lift. This is called valgus and it’s no bueno. You fix this in a few ways. First, make sure those toes are angled out. Second, as you lift, try to think about driving your knees out as the weight comes up. And last, if your knees are caving inward it may mean you’ve got too much weight on the bar for your ability at this time.

I also mentioned body lean. This is going to differ based on your physique. People with shorter legs and a longer torso will not have that much forward body lean, and their back angle aspect will be more vertical than average. Conversely, people with shorter torsos and longer legs will have greater body lean and a more horizontal back angle aspect. You can guess which body type has an easier time with this lift!

LET’S TALK SQUAT DEPTH

This one is critical, because you want to get the most out of the lift as possible. But you also don’t want to push depth to the point where you get injured. So let’s discuss it.

As I said earlier, the goal is to drop down to where the crease of your hips is at or below parallel. This puts your hips and knees into a full range of motion, which is ideal for building the maximum amount of muscle, strength and mobility.

Some people go further. They call it “ass to grass,” or ATG, which has your butt hovering just inches above the floor at the lowest part of the lift. If you can do this and not get hurt, more power to ya. But most people can’t, and for various reasons.

Hip mobility, or a lack of it, is one hindrance to squat depth. And something that surprised me, so is ankle mobility. If you have issues in these areas, the ATG squat probably isn’t gonna happen, and hitting/breaking parallel might be a challenge.

If this is you, your goal is to reach the maximum depth possible, and even for people with these compromises, that’s going to be at or extremely near parallel. Do the best you can without breaking form or causing a lower back injury. But also, if you ever plan to compete in a powerlifting meet, you’ll be required to break parallel.

For the rest of you (like, 95% of all exercisers), here’s this admonition: Every time you squat, you should be squatting deep. Afraid it will hurt your knees? Stopping short of a full squat is actually worse. And if you’re piling on weight and throwing out “squats” that are a half-rep or a quarter rep, swallow your pride, peel off some weight and do it right. Trust me, we admire the person getting quality reps with 135 pounds. The dude half-squatting 350? Or 400? We think that guy’s a joke. Nobody believes your half squat at 405 is a legit PR because it’s not even a legit squat. You’re just cheating yourself if you half-ass this exercise.

Wrapping it up, if you have the ability to do barbell squats, you definitely should. Build your strength, athleticism and mobility by programming this lift into your workouts a couple times a week. As a bonus, you’ll never be accused of skipping leg day.

Here’s a video with more great advice on doing the squat…

Next time: Let’s talk bench press.

Fitness Friday: How to do the deadlift

You can build a lot of strength with the simple act of pulling a barbell off the floor. Let’s talk deadlifts.

By now, you all know what some of my favorite lifts are. And if they become a part of what you do to get stronger, you’ll enjoy the same benefits. But if you’re new to it, there are some tricks to making these lifts more effective and less injurious.

I mention injury because when you start challenging yourself with heavier weights on compound lifts, it’s important to be dialed in when you’re doing the exercise. If something is off, it doesn’t take much to put yourself in a bad position and get hurt.

Similarly, to get the most out of an exercise, proper form is needed. You’re just cheating yourself otherwise.

This week, I want to focus on the deadlift.

This lift is my favorite, mostly because it offers the most bang for the buck. The deadlift is a full-body exercise that can build a ton of real-world strength. And nothing is more primally satisfying as knowing you can walk up to a heavy thing and lift it off the ground.

Deadlifts are done in one of three ways: Conventional, sumo and trap bar. All have their merits, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to concentrate on the conventional deadlift. The conventional stance has your feet wider than hip width, but less than shoulder width. Your hands will grab the bar on the outside of your legs.

We often refer to the steps to setting up and executing the lift as “cues.” Each of these cues will help execute the lift as efficiently and safely as possible. Here’s how you do it:

Walk up to the bar until your shins are about an inch away from it. The bar should look like its hovering about mid-foot above your shoes. Bend down and grab the bar. Once you’ve grabbed it, bend your knees. The bar will now likely be touching your shins, but don’t move the bar toward you. Move toward it. Point your toes out slightly.

Your upper body should be somewhere short of a 45-degree angle at your hips. Your back isn’t vertical, nor is it horizontal. If you’re looking toward a mirror, you would be able to read any lettering or graphics on the upper chest portion of your shirt. How far you are bent over will depend on how tall you are, and how long your legs are. Longer lifters will have a more horizontal aspect to their stance.

Keep your spine straight, from your neck to your lower back. Resist the urge to crane your head and neck up.

Now it’s time to “set your back.” What this means is getting your back muscles tight and engaged. Grip the bar tight, and pretend you’re squeezing down on a ball in your armpits. This will engage the muscles in your back, so everything is involved and locked in. When doing this, your lower back might arch a bit, and that’s OK. If it’s arched, it will be in a stronger, more locked-in position rather then flexed or bowed out (rounded), which is a weaker, less stable position.

Now you’ll want to set your core. Take a breath in and force your midsection out. If you’re not sure what that’s like, imagine trying to force out a fart. Crude/funny, I know. But this will engage your abdominal muscles and create a rigid wall that protects your back. You’ll hold that breath in until you complete the lift; if you breathe out during the lift, you’ll partially release the core and you don’t want to do that. When you’re at the start of the lift, holding this position will make it look like your belly is hanging out, and that’s a good thing as long as you’re braced. Sucking your gut in and flexing your abs like you are posing for a six-pack photo is not the kind of core bracing you’re looking for.

Next, “take the slack out of the bar.” What this means is to come up just enough where you hear a metallic “click” of the bar touching the plates. Now you’re set to lift.

As you lift, remember that the deadlift is not a squat. It’s a hip hinge. So, you will be using your legs and your backside to stand up with the weight. Lift with too much legs and you’ll be weaker in the lift. But if you use too much back, you’ll be limited into now much you can pull – and begging for injury. An easy way to judge if you’re doing this right is to see if your knees and your hips straighten at the same rate and time.

As you’re lifting, try to press your feet down through the floor. Thinking of it this way is very similar to following through on a baseball throw or a golf swing. It will make your drive upwards that much more powerful. Ideally, you will feel your quads, hamstrings, glutes and your entire back working to lift the weight. A cue to remember as the lift is going up is to concentrate on squeezing your glutes and hams.

Be sure to not let your lower back become rounded during the lift. Your lower back must remain flat and rigid. Too much flex will eventually lead to injury. Remember, you’re not a fishing rod. You’re more like a crane.

As uncomfortable as this sounds, the bar needs to slide up your legs. If the bar is not making contact with your legs as you lift (this is called “bar drift”), then you are creating a longer distance the weight must travel. So, it’s more work and less power. And it will pitch you forward, putting unnecessary strain on your lower back.

As you complete the lift, keep your chest out and your shoulders back. Once in a standing position, lower the weight back to the floor for your next rep.

That’s the meat of it. Here are a couple of other things about the deadlift that may show up as options for you…

Some people use wrist straps when they deadlift. The straps assist your grip, allowing you to lift heavier than your unaided grip would allow. I’d resist using straps, as you’ll want your grip strength to rise with the rest of your deadlifting power. Big-time lifters will use them while training when the weight gets very heavy, allowing them to do more work. And in Strongman competitions, straps are allowed. But for the rest of us, just use your own unaided grip.

There are options for your grip. The double-overhand grip is most common, but a lot of lifters find it limiting when the weight gets heavier. A mixed grip is when you have one hand overhand, one underhand. A mixed grip will allow you to lift more, but be careful. It can create imbalances during the lift. There is also the hook grip, where your fingers come over your thumb as your grip the bar. This also allows for a stronger grip once you get used to it, but be warned – it’s a little weird and pretty uncomfortable.

The deadlift is not a good high-rep exercise. Because it is very technique oriented and technique tends to break down under fatigue, I’d advise against doing high-rep sets of deadlifts. A loss of form is a sure-fire way to increase risk of injury. I keep my sets at 8 reps or less, depending on the weight.

Finally, some lifters use a belt. The belt is designed to protect your lower back, especially as the weight gets heavier. Generally speaking, lay off using the belt as long as you can so your core strength rises with the rest of your lifting strength. That said, if the weight is getting somewhere near 200 percent of your body weight OR you are becoming prone to tweaking or injuring your lower back, using the belt is a plus. You’ll find that when wearing the belt, setting your core becomes even easier, as your midsection has something to push against as your midsection expands.

I’m going to attach a video from Mark Rippetoe, the author of “Starting Strength,” which goes through what I’ve talked about. He knows his stuff. Heed what you’ve read, watch the video, and get to pulling some weight!

Next week: We’re going to tackle the squat.

Bob Doucette

For runners, there are too many near-misses when it comes to cars

We’re looking out for you. Please look out for us.

About a week ago I was out on a run, hoping to kick it into high gear on the last mile of a 3-mile jaunt. The weather was great. I was feeling pretty good, if a bit gassed. And as I approached the exit of a corporate parking lot in downtown Tulsa, I saw it: a commuter pulling up to the street, looking to make a turn.

I locked my eyes on her because I know how this goes down. She’s looking for cars on the street to see if it’s clear to turn. She’s not looking for me. And sure enough, she pulled right up into the street and stopped when she saw traffic, then finally noticed my movement close to her passenger side fender. She sheepishly looked my way with an apologetic smile, then turned into the street.

I know the law gives me the right-of-way to keep going, but I’ve played this game long enough to know otherwise. I stopped just short of her car because otherwise she would have driven right into me. Even in a pedestrian-dense place like downtown, people’s habits are trained to see my streets – any streets, for that matter – like they were driving in the ‘burbs. They’re only looking for other cars. Runners are an afterthought.

That’s why I’m cautious at intersections. Maybe overly so. But I don’t want to end up on someone’s hood, or under an F-150. Might makes right in any auto-pedestrian collision, law be damned. It’s just the way it is.

***

I got to thinking about this latest near-miss (there have been a few) because of some news in my state. It hit me pretty hard.

On Feb. 3, a driver speeding along a thoroughfare in the city of Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb, slammed into a group of high school cross-country runners. One runner was killed outright. Another died soon after. And just this past week, a third victim succumbed to his injuries. All involved were where they were supposed to be, running on the sidewalk.

Three promising, young lives, all cut short. Three grieving families who must be ripped to pieces right now. Three more runners whose lives came to an end through no fault of their own.

The circumstances surrounding this tragedy are different than what I’ve experienced in that the driver was drunk. But at the same time, the incident underscores just how vulnerable runners – any pedestrians, really – are when they’re navigating our communities on foot and in proximity to automobile traffic.

If you live in a rural area or a suburb that’s light on regulations concerning sidewalks, it’s hit-or-miss when it comes to safe places to run. Even when sidewalks are present, you’re still not safe.

We’re told to run against the flow of traffic so we can see what’s coming. To wear bright, reflective clothing. Maybe even headlamps and flashing lights attached to safety vests, just so we can be more visible. To cross at intersections, and only when the walk/don’t walk light gives us the OK. But even then we’re all one distraction away from a driver leaving their lane or breezing through a stop light… and right into us.

I don’t want to break my leg or crack open my skull when I’m on a run. I’m a solid 190 pounds, but that’s nothing compared to the 5,000 pounds of steel and glass a lot of you choose as your ride. And that’s why I’ll stop cold if I feel a driver isn’t paying attention.

***

So here’s the rub: I don’t know what the solution is. There are park trails I could go to that are sufficiently separated from the streets as to be practically immune to auto-pedestrian collisions. But if sidewalks aren’t meant for people to, you know, walk on, then what’s the point?

I guess all I can do is lend a voice to it. Paying attention to the road also means paying attention to what’s near the road. When you’re at an intersection, it means looking for people who might be crossing. It means not being in a rush just because someone isn’t moving through as quickly as you’d like. It means looking both ways at traffic – street traffic as well as sidewalk traffic. And if you’re driving in an area with a lot of pedestrians, it means slowing down and paying even more attention to your surroundings.

The car culture in this country runs deep. It’s entrenched to the point where cities, despite their best efforts, are ruled by how to make auto traffic flow smoothly. Anything on foot is mostly an afterthought. But a change in mindset is needed. Cities are only growing and becoming more dense, and with the cost of driving only rising, you can bet more people are looking to live and work in places where they don’t have to drive if they so choose.

In other words, when you’re behind the wheel you need to put those of us on foot on your visual checklist before hitting the gas. We’ll try to be safe, but you must do your part, too. A dent in your front fender could be all she wrote for us.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Seven reasons why your training is failing, and how to fix it

A lot of folks started their year with the “new year, new me” vibe, and a good percentage of those people had their eye on fitness. Six weeks into the year, it’s a safe bet that a good chunk of them are already losing steam.

It happens every year. People get excited about transforming themselves. The join a gym. Hire a trainer. Change their eating. Try things like running, CrossFit or something else. And when the initial excitement wears off, they find themselves disappointed in what they’ve achieved.

For most people, there are plenty of reasons why they peter out. The good news is that almost all of them are fixable. Let’s go through it.

You get out of it what you put in… or not

Anyone can move some weights around or lazily move on an exercise machine for a few minutes. Workouts aren’t about checking a box or collecting a participation trophy. A half-hearted attempt at fitness only results in wasted time.

The solution: Challenge yourself. If something you were lifting becomes easy, add weight next time. A 3-mile run no longer taxes you? Pick up the pace. Intensity is rewarded by results. The term “progressive overload” is used to describe gradually adding difficulty in your exercises over time. If you don’t, your body will adapt to what you’re doing, and you’ll actually regress. Don’t let that happen. Put a little more weight on the bar next workout. Increase your speed on your run, on your elliptical session or on the Stairmaster. Added stimulus equals improved performance.

Your phone owns you

By this time, cellphones are ubiquitous. We don’t leave home without them. We don’t leave anywhere without them. We take pics, make videos, check social media and read notifications. They suck us in and exercise our thumbs in endless scrolling. Even at the gym. Between sets, you reply to just this one text. Then check your Twitter. Or Facebook. Again. And again. And again. The next thing you know, it’s been five minutes between your last set and the latest TikTok you just had to watch. And before you know it, it’s time to go. Oh well. There’s always tomorrow to get them gainz. First, lemme take a selfie…

The solution: Leave your phone in your locker. Or in your car. Or at home. With the exception of a few fitness apps, or maybe as a source of music, the phone serves no purpose during your workout, and if the distractions from, say, EVERYTHING ELSE on your phone add up, the benefit of the fitness apps/music is outweighed by what you lost in terms of time and productivity. Trust me. Whatever your phone is trying to tell you, it can wait an hour while you get your work done.

Speaking of time-sucks, you’ve got a bad case of the chit-chats

You meet some cool people at the gym. When you see them, you talk about training. And your kids. Or maybe last weekend’s hot Tinder date. Or the latest serial killer show that’s now streaming. And as the babbling rolls on, the time between sets grows. Productivity? Gone, like a fart in the wind.

The solution: It starts before you walk in the door. Make up your mind that you are there to train. There’s nothing wrong with a little chit-chat but keep it short and get to business. If a longer conversation is to be had, catch up with your buds afterward. If someone keeps talking to you, acknowledge them, but go on to your next set. And if you’re the person holding someone else up, apply a little self-awareness and let them do their work.

Your diet sucks

You’re working hard. Sticking to the plan. But dude, those cookies aren’t going to eat themselves. Or that pizza. And lemme have a couple more beers before I turn in for the night. But will someone please tell me why the scale isn’t moving, and why I don’t have a six-pack?

The solution: You can’t outwork a bad diet. Do you really want to change your body composition? Athletic performance? Overall health? Eat foods that are better for you. Eat what you need to stay fueled and build, but don’t let that be an excuse to order the richest item on the menu at Cheesecake Factory. And while I dig a beer every now and then, alcoholic drinks are empty calories. They don’t call it a beer gut for nuthin’. Be smart about what you put into your body.

You’re grinding down

Sleep? I’ll sleep when I’m dead! Coffee will keep me going. Or a Red Bull. And I’m doing a 90-day runstreak! And a 30-day challenge! And if this amount of working out is good, then more is better! CrossFit 6 days a week! Yeah baby! But… <CRASH>

The solution: This ain’t hard. Get your sleep. Take a weekly rest day. And remember that more isn’t necessarily better. Work hard but work smart. Understand that as you accumulate fatigue over time, your body will eventually grind down, you’ll get injured, you may get sick, and your gains will cease. Recovery is just as important as the training. Don’t be a bonehead. Learn when to let off the gas.

When it comes to training plans, you’re all “Squirrel!”

Yeah, your training plan is cool, but then you saw this guy’s article in Musclehead Mag. And then there was this super-hot Insta-gal and her take on some sort of squat challenge (I mean, she’s got 100,000 followers!). Mr. Olympia does this! Hafthor Bjornsson does that! I’ll try it all! And then you go… nowhere.

The solution: Identify your goal. Find a plan that will help you achieve that goal. And then, with monkish resolve, stick to the plan. What’s that? You didn’t hear me? STICK. TO. THE. PLAN. Bouncing around from one idea to the next is a ticket to mediocrity. See your plan through, ya knucklehead.

You can’t find motivation, and you need an inspiration fix

You’re scrolling through Instagram looking for your daily dose of fitspo. “Please, someone give me a meme! Or I’ll never make it to the gym!” And on and on it goes as you hunt for the next thing to jolt you into action. Every damn day. But just like a drug, the effects weaken over time until eventually you become one with the couch. Netflix binge, engage!

The solution: Inspiration and motivation are basically the sugar rushes of fitness. The occasional kick in the pants will get you going, but you can’t rely on either for the long term. Instead, you must build discipline. Discipline takes time. It’s boring. It requires (gasp!) compliance with your training plan. But if you commit to being disciplined in your training, guess what it builds? Strength. Endurance. Form. Muscle memory. Habits. Add those together, and what do you get? Results. Comply with your plan over the long haul and leave the fitspo memes behind. You’ll be better for it.

That should cover the bulk of it. Cut the crap, keep your eyes on the prize and achieve your goals. Let’s get to work.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: A 3-day strength training plan for those pressed for time

Lift hard/run hard? Sure, to an extent. And the truth is, some people don’t have the time to be Superman or Wonder Woman.

Funny thing about fitness: Not everyone’s goals are the same.

It runs the gamut: Weight loss, getting that beach body, improving strength, boosting endurance. Some folks are training for a competition of some sort, be it in physique sports or some sort of race.

In January, I wrote a couple of posts about strength training. In those posts, there was one prediction (if you do this, you will get stronger) and one assumption, and it was a biggie: that you will be able to commit to lifting six days a week for 45-60 minutes.

I think it’s a doable proposition. But for some people, it’s not. Whether you’re time-crunched or you have other fitness goals that make such a schedule impossible to keep, some folks can’t hit the iron that often. But that doesn’t mean you should chuck the idea of strength training entirely. You just must change things up and properly scale your expectations.

Every fall for the past eight years, I’ve trained for longer-distance goal races ranging from half marathon to full marathon length. As training plans for these races progressed, the mileage and time commitment grew. There was no way I could do a heavy deadlift day right before embarking on a 13-mile training run. Even shorter runs (in the 5- to 8-mile range) were incompatible with the rigors of an intensive weight training schedule. So I made a compromise: During race training, I jacked up the miles and eased back on the weights.

I still wanted to focus on the big lifts and compound movements, though. But during race training, running was first priority.

What I came up with was a plan to lift three times a week, using a total body format. So, that meant that each workout used the same movement patterns I described in the first week’s Friday Fitness post: Squat, press, pull and hip hinge. Furthermore, each day started with one of the bigger lifts being the emphasized exercise of that workout, with other lifts coming behind it in priority and difficulty. Here’s what that looked like:

Monday (squat emphasized)

Barbell back squat: Warmup, then sets of 10, 7 and 5, increasing weight

Incline dumbbell presses (3 sets of 8)

Lunges (3 sets of 8)

Pull-ups (3 sets of 6-12, depending on ability)

Wednesday (press emphasized)

Bench press: Warmup, then sets of 10, 7 and 5, increasing weight

Goblet squat (3 sets of 12)

Kettlebell swings (3 sets of 12)

Barbell rows (3 sets of 8)

Friday (hip hinge emphasized)

Deadlift (warmup, then sets of 8, 6 and 4, increasing weight)

Overhead press (3 sets of 8-10)

Chin-ups (3 sets of 8-12)

Leg press (3 sets of 12)

You’ll notice that each workout has some sort of pulling movement (pull-ups, chin-ups or rows), and that’s by design. And you can always adjust the exercises you do depending on your preferences or limitations (machine lat-pulls can sub in for pull-ups or chin-ups, for example). But the lift portion of your workout should be no more than 40 minutes long. That way you’ll have time to do your run, ride, swim or other endurance session without having to cut it short.

How did that look for me? The last three years, I’ve used this plan alongside half marathon training workouts. Days where I had longer runs, I didn’t lift. And I didn’t lift on planned rest days. My schedule looked something like this:

Half marathon training workout schedule

Sunday: Cross train (bike for 30-60 minutes)

Monday: Lift, 5-mile run

Tuesday: 8-mile run

Wednesday: Lift, speed workout run

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Lift, 5-mile run

Saturday: 12-mile run

Obviously, this will look different for each person. You may not want to run that much, or you need to run more. Tailor it to your own needs.

But if you’re an endurance athlete, you should do some form of strength training, and this is a good blueprint to get it in a way that dovetails nicely in your endurance training.

And what if you’re not an endurance athlete, you’re pressed for time, and three workouts a week is all you can get? The lifting schedule still holds. If you can give it 2 hours a week spread out over three days, you can work on your strength needs on this plan. Tack on 20 minutes of some sort of conditioning (check out the interval training ideas I had two weeks ago), and you’re spending 3 hours a week getting the strength and conditioning you need.

Last thing: While this sort of plan can be beneficial, you’ll want to manage your expectations. Three workouts a week is not going to get you looking like Mr. Universe or The World’s Fittest Woman. Your strength gains will be in proportion to the work you put in. And you’ll want to make sure your caloric intake matches the amount of work you’re doing (too little and you’ll break down; too much and you’ll gain fat). But if you can give yourself 3 hours a week spread out over three days; you’ll be far better off than skipping it altogether with the thought that you don’t have time to exercise.

Next week: We’ll look at the things that can undermine your fitness goals, and ways you can fix that.

Bob Doucette