May 16, 2018

New Circuit Meet The Old Circuit

So far, this has been the year of finally getting fit.  My wife enrolled us both in a local gym, and after about a month of watching her go regularly, I decided to start making the time myself.  That was about three months ago.

I started out doing just 40 minutes of cardio - elliptical, rowing, and treadmill - a few times a week.  My cardio workouts now last an hour - 20 minutes of elliptical, 20 of rowing, 10 of the side-stepper, and 10 on a significantly inclined treadmill.  I'm still not a fan of any of those, I have to admit.  But about a month in, I also added the weight machine circuit, and that sort of workout I can say I have come to enjoy, and even look forward to.

You might not know this, but "circuit training" and "weights circuit" are terms that decades back meant something quite different.  They're what, technically speaking, we call "equivocal" or "polysemic" - that is, they have multiple distinct meanings.  When I first started training in high school, and then continued it passionately through my army, college, work, and into my grad school days, I used that earlier meaning.  Then I got out of shape for years, and when I started exercising again, I did so on my own.  Not part of the gym culture, I had no idea that the terms had changed their signification and reference.  And so it was only recently that I learned what they now mean.  I had an experience tonight that brought the old meaning back to mind for me.

Tonight's Weight Circuit

The downtown location closes at 10 PM, and I didn't head out on the 8-block walk there until 8:30 tonight, so I knew that I'd need to get there fast, get changed, and get on the machines right away.  When I first started doing the 14-exercise circuit, I easily got it done in less than an hour, but then I wasn't actually taking as long with each of the repetitions.  Over the last several weeks, since getting a bit of useful advice from my physical therapist, I have been doing most of the exercises differently.

I do the first part fast, pushing hard to complete the motion, and then I take my time on the coming-back part.  So for example, on the chest press, the first part is pushing the handles forward.  That part I do quickly, pushing hard, completing that first motion in less than a second.  The second part of the movement is letting the handles come back to the original position, and that I take much more slowly, making my muscles work to control that return movement.  Without adding weight, after just one workout applying that consistently, I felt a significant difference.  It was a more intensive workout by far.

Doing the exercises in that manner also extends the time needed for my weight circuit workouts.  I realized that they were now typically taking me over an hour.  That's not usually a problem, since I allot myself two hours on the calendar to get to the gym, change, workout, sometimes sit in the sauna, shower, change back, and walk home.  But on a night like this, when was already starting out late, something would have to give.  I knew I could walk there quickly, change super-fast, and skip showering, but that might still not give me enough time to get the full workout in.  So the workout would need to be compressed.

Should I just do two sets rather than three of each of the exercises?  Should I skip one or two of the exercises.  I hate doing curls and abdominal crunches, so that second one was an attractive idea.  But I didn't want to skimp on the workout, since I had made the effort to get there in the first place.  I considered going back to doing the exercises the way I had when I first started, without the time-consuming slow going-back motion.  But that also struck me as wasting the opportunity for a serious workout.

There was one other place where something could give.  The time between.  The resting time between the three sets for each exercise.  And the time spent moving from one exercise to the next.  All of that could be minimized as much as possible, I reasoned with myself.  It would certainly make it tougher, and probably a lot less enjoyable, but I could tough it out.  And if it didn't buy me enough extra time, I promised myself, I could still leave the arm curls for last and skip them if need be.

So I did it.  I pushed myself pretty hard, moving from set to set and machine to machine, with as little rest time in between as I could manage.  That was tough.  I could feel the fatigue in my muscles as an ever-present-constant by the third machine (the shoulder press, as it turned out, since one half of a lollygagging couple were occupying the pulldown).  By the time I was on the leg curl machine - 8 exercises in - I started to feel nauseous.  Not sickness nausea, but the kind you get when you exercise hard and fast, pushing yourself with no letup.  You probably won't actually get sick, but you feel like you might.

Old School Circuit Training

That was a familiar sensation, but not one that I'd felt in that way for a long time.  I remember feeling it a lot when I was a 440 runner in high school track (which meant running the 440 yard dash once early in a meet, and then doing it all again as a part of the mile relay near the end of the meet, maybe with a 220 stuck in there as well, depending on how shorthanded we were).  I also remembered feeling that same sensation at many points in Basic Training, and then sometimes in my regular duty station PT back in my Army days.  I remember running into it during some very long and intensive karate classes.  But there was one setting that I really remembered it from.

One of the teachers who made a major positive impression upon me in high school - I just produced a video about those teachers recently - was my gym instructor and track coach, Chuck Bova.  By contrast to several of the other gym teachers and coaches, he was someone to really look up to.  Bodily fitness was definitely something he valued, but for the right reasons, within proper perspective.  There's a lot more that could be said about his approach and character, but I'll skip that here, and just mention two things that stuck out.

Like a lot of instructors, Bova had a number of catch-phrases he would use repeatedly.  That's not something I'm complaining about, by the way.  Hell, if I had to teach a whole class of teenage kids like me, I expect I'd be driven to distraction within a few weeks!  One of the phrases he said so many times that it became something like a mantra was "don't cheat yourself".  That's actually really smart, when you think about it.  You do the exercise right so that you'll benefit, not because you need to satisfy the coach, or impress your peers, or to pretend like you got in a lot of reps.  You do it right, so that the exercise works you - or you're cheating yourself.

The other thing that really stuck out to me was that Bova was a teacher who genuinely cared about his students. And that showed in a demanding toughness tempered by an attentiveness to what particular kids were physically capable of.  He pushed each student hard in his classes, but I can't remember him pushing kids past their genuine limits.  Some of the other instructors did do precisely that, effectively bullying students into submission, picking on the weaker kids with less strength or endurance - that wasn't Bova's style at all.

Midway through our sophomore year, he scheduled a short module of "circuit training" in our gym class.  Those were the toughest, the most physically demanding, class sessions we had.  Just by way of comparison, my freshman year, I was partnered for about 4 weeks in a module on wrestling with a guy who outweighed me by at least 20 pounds, and was already being considered for being moved up to varsity status on the school wrestling team.  Circuit training was even tougher.

It consisted in a set of exercises, many of them using weights, but with high repetitions and low amounts of weight.  You would cycle through the entire circuit, each student occupying one of the stations, and moving to the next in turn.  You did your prescribed number of that exercise, and then you got a very short break and moved right on to the next.  If you found yourself unable to keep it up, or you felt yourself getting sick from the buildup of lactic acid, then you sat out the exercises from that point on.

We did perhaps 30 minutes of circuit training that first class.  There were only four of us who completed it, and from about the 5 minute mark on, you struggled not only against the weights or the ropes or the floor, not only to keep your fatigued, heavy-feeling limbs moving, not only to draw lungfuls of burning air, but also against the feeling that any minute you were likely to vomit.  Everyone was groaning, stiff and sore, and feeling sick as we headed into the locker room.

The next class, a few more of the students managed to make it through the circuit the full time.  Those who didn't lasted longer.  Bova actually pulled a few guys out when he saw they were pushing themselves harder than they could sustain.  But with each class, even the kids who hated gym class, the ones who knew they would get picked last when teams were selected, they all improved, and they all gained a modicum of bodily confidence in the process.

I thrived on the circuit training, even though I never got through it without feeling like I was seconds away from getting sick by the end.  And years later, when I started doing my own weights routines at home, with dumbells I'd bought (by the pound, just like meat), I developed my own weights circuit, a sequence of exercises that I'd do in rapid succession, with very short breaks between them.

The Term "Weight Circuit" Then And Now

By the time I moved to New York in 2011, I'd allowed myself to get out of shape again.  I did bring my dumbells with me, but they hadn't been used for over a year at that point.  My wife was working full time at the Culinary Institute of America, and they started an experimental wellness program in association with Harvard University and the Samwelli Institute.  It turned out to be a failure, but the basic premise was an interesting one.  They would offer participants healthy cooking classes taught  by chef-instructors, provide mindfulness training, give each person a life-coach, and introduce us first-hand to health-forward dishes.  They would also give us a free gym membership for the duration of the study.

Unfortunately for us, the gym was close to the CIA but quite far from where we actually lived, and both my wife and I were incredibly busy with work, so we couldn't take much advantage of it.  We did at least get started, though, and the first thing you have to do when you join a gym these days is go through an orientation.  At least, that's my experience with gyms in recent years.

That had never been the case for me in the past.  But the gyms I'd worked out at were much more downscale.  When they had machines, they were the older sort that were very straightforward to use. You put the pin in, at the weight you wanted, and then knocked that exercise out.  There were fancier machines around in some, but I just ignored them.

Now after joining this new gym, as the receptionist told me on the phone, I was supposed to make an appointment with a trainer to get introduced to the "circuit".  This didn't make sense to me at all.  Why would I need to learn how to do the "weight circuit"?  Or "circuit training"?  I tried to get some clarification from the young woman on the other end of the line, but the things she said in response were even more puzzling.  I must have sounded bizarre to her as well, insisting that I had been doing "the circuit" since the 1980s - after all, the machines comprising what she knew as "the circuit" probably didn't exist until this century!

As I wrote above, "weight circuit" and "circuit training" are ambiguous terms, and when two people have two different meanings in mind, they can wind up talking entirely past each other.  In this case, I had no idea what the more recently coined meaning to "circuit training" - the present-day meaning for most - was, and for her part, I am willing to bet that she has never known any other referent to "the circuit" than the types of modern weight machines with which she is familiar.

I have to admit that, having made a successful transition from the last-century meaning to the present-day meaning of "weight circuit", I myself had pragmatically pushed the older sense of the term to the back of my mind.  That is, until something brought it back up for me tonight, and that was the bodily experience of fighting through nausea while weight training.  The reason for this is that by compressing the weight circuit workout - minimizing the break periods between sets of exercises and between machines - I crammed the new-meaning "circuit training" and the old-meaning "circuit training" together into one common referent.

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