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A Lifetime of Staying Fit (almost)
Author: J H McIntosh
Three times in my life, I was in the best physical condition possible. In High School under the coaching of Mr. Foley. In the Air Force under the command of my “Training Instructor” (TI). And when I went through my obligatory mid-life crisis.
The first time I failed to “fall-in” correctly in boot camp my full-blooded Sioux Indian TI got right in my face and yelled at the top of his lungs, “What the hell is wrong with you lady?”
If I had joined Uncle Sam’s “Army”, instead of the Air Force I would have had a “Drill Sergeant”, not a “Training Instructor”. From the beginning, the Air Force always prided itself on doing things differently.
I chose the Air Force over the other branches because I heard they had the best food. I told that to a Marine buddy of mine once and he replied: “Damn straight”. He told me he was on a cross-county trip and the only military installation on his route (where he thought he could get a free meal) was an Air Force Base.
When he entered the Mess Hall he said: “I thought I was in the Officer’s Club”.
The, not too far from the truth “take” on the Air Force is, when the Pentagon authorizes the funds to build a new Air Base, the Air Force personnel supervising the build-out use the money to set up everything except the landing strip.
When they go back to the Pentagon for more money, it’s always delivered because, hey what’s an Air Base without a runway?
Being fonder of eating than having a svelte physique, my freshman year High School coach Foley routinely assigned five extra laps around the field for me. Not sure if he was trying to trim me down or test my stamina. Maybe both. Truth be known, our body types have more in common with each other then either of us had with the “stars” of the Freshman football team.
Actually, for a line blocker, carrying a few extra pounds isn’t necessarily a negative. I proved that point at practice one day, but there was a price to pay.
It was on the third attempt that two teammates successfully stopped me from getting between the two of them. Foley called the move the “submarine maneuver”. I had succeeded twice in a row and coach Foley really tore into my team mates for letting me muscle my way through them.
On my third try they hit me so hard I was down for the count. It was the first time I had the wind knocked out of me. When I shared that story a few years later to my younger brother Bobby, he said: “That explains a lot”.
At the end of the freshman year, it was tradition for the best of the freshman players to be called up to the Varsity Team. We couldn’t actually “play” with the “big boys” but we could sit on the bench during the traditional Thanksgiving Day game against our arch rivals from a neighboring High School.
That year coach Foley chose eight players from the Freshman team to go to Varsity. Guess which player I was. If you said number “eight”, move to the head of the class. Coach Foley called the first seven names in rapid succession. But there was a long pause between number seven and number eight.
Years later I thought about that and settled on why he sent me to Varsity. It wasn’t because I was in the same league physically or skill wise as the seven others that got the “call”, I wasn’t. Foley sent me to Varsity because he knew I had that intangible some call “heart”.
He had tested me many times on the field during that freshman year and as drained as I was at the end of most any game or practice, I was never beaten. I learned from an early age that “quitting” is never an option. Plus, I was as stubborn as a mule.
The thing that coach Foley never asked was why I tried out for football in the first place. Truth be known, it was because at the end of playing we all got to take a shower.
Now before you go tagging me with some kind of hidden desire to watch naked boys, you need to realize something. I would have to plead “Guilty as charged, your Honor” to the desire to watch naked girls. But I already knew what a naked boy looked like. I was one!
So why was taking a shower the “closer” that made me willingly go through the grueling torture coach Foley was known for? The fact is, before those High School showers, I had never had a shower.
When I was seventeen years old, I bought a used, electric pump from our neighbor and introduced running water to our house for the first time. The toilet, tub and shower came later. Prior to that our source of water was a hand pump on the left of our kitchen sink and our “bathing” consisted of “sponge baths”.
That brings me to the third time in my life when I was as fit as I could be. I did it through a combination of jogging, swimming and weight lifting.
Where I lived at the time there was a lake with an eight-mile jogging path around it. No cars, no bicycles just the occasional fellow jogger in the fresh, pristine air. The best I’ve ever experienced for running and jogging.
The swimming came a bit later when I moved to Boston. The YMCA had a pool perfect for the kind of exercise where it’s hard to hurt yourself, unless of course you drown.
Most Y’s typically have a good weight room. Jimmy Cooper, my lifting partner was a true athlete. An African American from a tough neighbourhood, his single-parent mom got him into the Y to help keep him off the streets. Jimmy was an advanced lifter by the time we met.
The Barbell bench press was a favorite for us because it’s a compound exercise that involves the pectoralis major of the chest, the anterior deltoids of the shoulder, and the triceps brachii of the upper arm.
At my peak I was bench pressing 280. When Jimmy was finished spotting for me, he would add 50 lbs to each end of the barbell. Thankfully he never really needed me to take over that 380 lbs. He handled it with aplomb. He could have been a competitive lifter but life took him in a different direction.
The bench press can help restore muscle balance for athletes that primarily use pulling muscles, such as in wrestling, rock climbing, and swimming. The barbell bench press is a competitive lift in the sport of powerlifting, with the other two being the deadlift and squat.
I put a lot of miles in barbell exercises. The barbell back squat is an essential barbell strength exercise for the lower body with an accentuation on the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Additionally, the exercise reinforces the whole core.
It builds strength as well as encourages the growth of the targeted muscles. Muscle growth is essential to a bodybuilder who wants to “look great”. Unfortunately, muscle mass typically declines with age. The Barbell bench is a functional exercise that helps you perform daily activities that require pushing or carrying.
For most of my senior years I’ve always had a set of dumbbells in my office or work space. They take up little space and you can pick them up at any time to do bent over rows, dumbbell back squats, dead-lifts, curls, and so many other great exercises.
The goblet squat reinforces your lower body, quads, glutes, abs, arms and grip strength. The extra weight from a couple of dumbbells increases muscles like hamstrings and gluteus maximus. Dumbbell squats engage the balancing out muscles around your knees and lower legs.
What, back in the day we called a “clean and jerk” is just called a “clean” today. We typically did this exercise with a barbell but it can be done with dumbbells. It works biceps, calves, quads, and glutes.
I have a set of standing exercises I’ve down for years because, early on I realized they can be enjoyed almost anywhere. At home, at work in, a hotel room on a business or vacation trip. You can always do these exercises that require no special equipment.
If you’ve never used standing exercises to work your core, you ought to. The core stabilizer, the reverse dumbbell chop, the standing oblique bends, butt kicks, the glute activation lunge, the invisible jump rope, the side lung and so many more are great ways to get your pulse up.
Lying down on the floor there are a whole host of beneficial exercises available to us. One of my “go to” lying down exercises is the superman exercise. It’s powerful and effective for individuals of all wellness levels. It focuses on your lower back muscles, glutes, hamstrings, and abs.
Other favorites I do on the floor include the plank jacks, the Russian Twist, hip raises, flutter kicks, chair sit ups, and seated in and outs.
Of course, if you are into a sport like tennis, golf, handball, volleyball, or racquetball the fun of the sport takes away from the boredom that’s easy to experience from cycling, jogging, running and many others exercises.
Swimming was a type of exercise that I did a lot of while living in Boston. Some consider it the most mainstream sport on the planet. Swimming is not only great fun, it’s an incredible method to stay in shape.
Swimming is something we can do even as we become advanced in age. It keeps your pulse up, strengthens muscles, and cardiovascular wellness. It helps maintain heart and lungs. It tones muscles and develops fortitude. Since you move your entire body against the opposition of the water, it’s an excellent all-round exercise with numerous physical and psychological wellness benefits.
During those days weightlifting at the Y, there was only one exercise in which I could “best” Jimmy. I had purchased an ab wheel a few years earlier. If I did nothing else in the way of exercise on a given day, I consistently used the ab wheel. Sometimes two or three times every day.
When new guys joined us in the weight room, Jimmy and I would have a little fun with them and make an extra buck. One of us would give the other a “nod” and whoever was closest to my gym bag would pull the ab wheel out and put it together.
If Jimmy had the wheel, he would say, “Hey, Johnny Mac, I got five bucks says I can do more wheelies than you.” I’d say: “You’re on”. Jimmy would do maybe five wheelies and hand me the ab wheel.
I’d do seven, maybe eight and say, “Pay up”. Jimmy would reach in his bag and give me a fiver. I’d look at the new guy and say, “How about you, want some of this action?”
Often they would do ten wheelies and hand me the ab wheel. I would do twelve. Now, if the new guy was in decent shape, he could do ten wheelies no problem. So, when I finished my twelve, I would ask, “How about double or nothing?”
If those first ten were a breeze for the newbie he would often say, “Gimme that thing”. Of course, by this time a crowd of regulars is gathering around us waiting to see if I had finally met my match on the ab wheel.
My record (and you are forgiven if you call “bullshit”) was one hundred wheelies. My ab wheel was recently dug out after thirty years of being “out of site and out of mind”.
I got down on the floor and it took everything I had to pull off one wheelie. As I type this, I’m up to five wheelies. I’m starting to think “bullshit” myself on one hundred. But it was absolutely true. I could do 100. But I doubt I’ll ever get there again. You have probably surmised by now, that’s not going to deter me from trying because, quitting isn’t an option. And an ab wheel is a better workout than curls for staying fit. Of course they are not mutually exclusive.