Friday, August 19, 2011

Fitness equipment for home and travel

I've mentioned before that I like to lift weights. I first started when I was around 13, had a few at home - a bar, some dumbbells, those cheap plastic weights. Had no idea what I was doing and looked to my friends for help - which was sometimes good and sometimes....not so much.

There was a gym in the high school and I started working out there a lot with my rugby and wrestling teams. I was never pushing huge numbers but I took pride in my strength (damn good for a little guy) and my fitness level made me a lot more successful in sports. BTW, I posted a few strength benchmarks at the bottom, mostly random stuff as best as I remember it.

I really slacked off after high school and I suffered for it while trying to wrestle in university. I also hated cardio work so if I wasn't doing sports year round my wind was sucky (yes, that's the technical term).

When I went to college in Ontario at 21 and stayed in the residence, I started eating like mad (free food), working out every day (great gym), played tons of badminton, and I put on a ton of muscle and size. Felt great. Then I moved north and things got a lot more complicated. There was a gym here full of old, garbage machines but it did have sufficient free weights for me - I prefer free weights. Unfortunately I was in there one day and saw a guy working out, shirtless, with the most extensive ring worm all over his torso that I could ever imagine. I never went back. It was HORRIFYING. Now I needed to find some home workout options; easier said than done when you live in the ass end of nowhere. I lived in an apartment so there wasn't a ton of space and shipping ranges from insanely expensive to impossible. We get a barge once a year, truck service for about 8-9 months depending on weather (ice roads over rivers, ferries when they melt) and fly in service.

I ended up getting a bowflex. Cost a LOT at the time and I had to get it flown in for some ridiculous sum. It was OK. Good enough for arms and shoulders, OK for back, not very good for legs (not that I cared, I never worked them) and pretty damn crappy for chest because of the cable angle. I supplemented with push ups. It was fairly small and folded up which was good because I was in an apartment with my girlfriend.

Eventually I got tired of it, sold it, and managed to get a barely sufficient bench and some crappy free weights. Just enough to be useful though. We had moved into a townhouse so we dedicated a bedroom to it; there was just enough room but a miscalculation could put a bar through a wall easily. Also got a chin up bar.

That worked out OK and I actually made some great improvements (some fitness benchmarks at end of post) though I used to have to borrow weights from people to up my bench press :)

I really ended up becoming too bench press oriented. It's a fine exercise but I made it the focus of my workouts allowing myself to get out of balance physically. Always a mistake.

Eventually the town opened up a proper gym and I started working out there. Excellent results and I cleared out my old gym - we really didn't have space for it anymore as we had to move to a smaller place. As much as the new town gym started out as a pretty positive experience (nice to have access to more and better equipment) I rapidly was reminded of why I really don't like going to gyms. As the gym became more popular, various problems started to crop up:

- Overcrowding became a big issue, it was nuts
- The people in charge of the gym had no idea how to run one and bought a lot of terrible equipment (for a lot of money) and didn't take care of the equipment they had

- There wasn't enough cardio equipment to go around so they kept buying more and more, past the point that there was enough space for it. Eventually the place just became dangerous, people tripping over everything, no room for free weights etc.

- The level of asshole began to rise steadily. It's strange, my memories of working out at the various gyms prior to moving here were very positive. People were helpful, polite, tidy - gym etiquette was understood and followed. Even extreme roided-out bodybuilders were good people to work out with, they love the sport and can be a great training resource.!? Not just here but even at gyms I've gone to while travelling, I can't get over the rude and confrontational behavior I have encountered. Friends of mine have gotten in actual fights in the gym over nothing.

The gym here was cheap and it was available 24/7 (great for shift workers) but it was just an impossible situation for me. People didn't clean up after themselves (gross), the crowding, the heat (no A/C), the smell - it was too much.

Fortunately my work had a spare room we could use, my old office, and Sears finally had some decent Olympic weights for sale. Too much money later, I was pretty well set up at work, which is great. I prefer to work out at home but there just isn't space in the places we live here because there are no basements. Due to the permafrost, all the houses are on pilings or blocks. Working out at work was even better because there is always some down time available, doesn't eat up any part of my day. I hate driving to a gym, working out, driving home - lots of wasted time in cities.

That worked out OK for a while. Unfortunately, a few years ago I was in a car accident. Hurt my back, neck, etc - and hurt my shoulder. A lot. Initially I didn't recognize how serious the injury was. I had a difficult time getting treatment where I was and the physiotherapists and doctors I saw were not fitness-oriented. This is a problem I have run into in the past, working with rehab people that don't exercise themselves (serious exercise) and do all their work with either elderly patients or patients who are overweight and in terrible physical condition before the exercise.

A couple of examples:

I saw a doctor in town for a follow up. She's a great doctor and was EXTREMELY helpful (many don't want anything to do with car accidents) but was somewhat shocked at one of my complaints:

Me - "Any time I try to bench more than 200 lbs it hurts a lot and my shoulder starts to collapse"

Her - "You can't lift that much! That's just unhealthy, no one should do that"


Then talking to the physio guy (I've had a lot of bad experiences with physio) he said a lot of similar things. We talked about what I used to do and where I wanted to go and he pretty much told me weight lifting was unhealthy and I should focus on running. Running? Really? I hate running and that's an activity that can be hard on the body. Personally if someone said you could only do one thing I would say swimming...

A common thread through this and past rehabs was that there at times seemed to be some surprise at what my fitness level was post-injury. Some seemed to think that because I was stronger or in better condition than the "norm" (whatever that is) that I should be satisfied with where I was. Where I wanted to be free of pain and back to the level I was! Not at the level of a 30 year old video game junkie with a fast food diet.

Seriously, it got pretty weird at times. I think I needed to find sports therapists.

After a very long period of time which ended up mostly being self-rehab and some unfortunately infrequent but very helpful massage therapy, I'm basically back to 100% health but I am most definitely not back to 100% strength. I'm starting to suspect that is not such a bad thing and I want to go in a different direction. In my 20s I focused a lot on bench press and pure weightlifting exercises and not as much on overall fitness. Lifting hard was fun and it kept my weight in line; hard lifting is a great cardio workout too btw. Unfortunately that can no longer continue for two reasons:

1. My injury history - I just don't feel comfortable doing a lot of the exercises I used to and I can't lift the same weight with the same intensity. Part of it is quite frankly a little fear of re-injury, part of it is I am just tired of trying to work my way back to what I was but the biggest part is I just don't think it's a good workout plan for me in the future, for what I want to accomplish (more on that later). I've decided to focus more on core strength (something I used to giggle about), my back, and shoulders. The legs and chest will of course be involved but with my injury history, I need to get everything more even and those areas are lagging.

2. Where I should be moving to (still waiting *sigh* for paperwork) - I intend to buy a small house when we move and there's a good chance it won't have much of a basement (if any). There's no room at work to set up my gym and I don't want to take up a bedroom in the house just for my workout equipment. I'm sure there are one or more gyms in town but I still hate gyms :)

I want workout equipment that is small, effective and portable (if possible). Stuff that won't require a basement or separate room, that can be brought out as needed but doesn't take over half the house for space. And hopefully something that can travel with me.

My fitness goals:

1. Maintain a healthy weight. This is the big one. I didn't realize how much the extra weight was hurting me. I'm down 31 lbs in 3 months and feel fantastic. At least 5 more lbs to go...maybe 10. We'll see. Weight is just a comparison benchmark, it's inches that matter.

2. Develop and maintain a high level of functional strength. It sounds a bit cocky but I am already stronger than most men. I would go so far as to say I am very strong for my size.** There aren't any tasks I shy away from and I'm one of the guys you call when you have something heavy you need moved. However, I want to focus more on whole body strength, strength that applies well not just to lifting stuff but also to martial arts/combat training and perhaps sports now that I may be returning to civilization. And I want to continue strengthening my body to avoid injury, make it easier to hike long distances with a heavy pack, and increase my strength over a whole range of motion - improved flexibility.

3. Increase my cardio fitness level. This will be the easiest if I move as I will be walking 5-10kms a day to and from work carrying a backpack. I may bike some days but I prefer walking. I don't intend to start running (still hate it) but I will either keep up the stair work on days off or add in some hill climbing.

My minimum workout equipment will consist of:

- TRX suspension straps - already have

- Adjustable dumbbells - plan to get a set of 5-90 urethane powerblocks, I have some mediocre ones but I will sell them. We have bowflex ones at work. The small set are fine, the big ones are garbage. This barely made the list as there are alternatives to dumbbells.

- Chin up bar - prefer to get a wall mount (or joist if that's possible), I have a doorframe one

- Push up bar(s) - already have two kinds, atlas chest builder and more standard ones

Equipment I intend to add but can live without:
- Adjustable bench (flat to incline)

Equipment that would be nice:
- Dip Stand (ultimate body press)

Equipment I may consider someday but it's hardly a burning concern:
- Sandbag trainer

Some notes on home gym equipment:

Atlas Chest Builder Bar

- I own this and I am a fan. I prefer it to normal push up bars, I just like knowing that everything is symmetrically aligned, especially when doing pushups with weight (loaded backpack)

Travel Doorway Pull up bar

- I don't own this so can't verify if it is good but I like the idea. It breaks down as small as can be expected for a real chin up bar and would be extremely useful when traveling. It is still pretty large though, you'd really have to love your chin ups to carry it.

Need Help resistance band

- I don't own this yet but I think I am going to get one. I like the concept, it's cheap, and looks a lot better than using a chair for the same purpose.

ICheck out Zuzana from BodyRock.TV. She is amazingly fit (scary almost) and does some great home workouts. Some of the equipment she uses that I like (but haven't tried yet) are the Ultimate Sandbags, a Dip Bar that is either this one made by ultimate body press or something similar and a wall mounted chin up bar, again either similar to or the same one made by ultimate body press.

I'm not sure about sandbag training. Some of it looks good, some of it looks goofy. I'll have to try it at some point. The sand bag itself is...ok I could do similar or better exercises perhaps with real weights (or improvise your own sandbag) but then, you'd have to own the real weights! Something like this is small to ship and carry around when empty and you can usually find sand. Except here of course, though I've used cat litter as a substitute.

I really like the dip bar, it would be very effective and it folds up quite small. If you can set one up, I prefer a wall mounted or rafter mounted chin up bar to a doorway one. Some door ones are OK, some are crap, but all the ones I have used cause a slight amount of damage to the door frame or wall and tend to creak alarmingly.

All of that is useful home equipment but not a lot of use when traveling other than (maybe) the take apart door frame chin up bar. I usually fly out of here twice a year at a minimum; used to be a lot more for training courses. It's always a pain trying to work out when traveling. You have to find a gym, they have to allow day use (some only do memberships), the gyms can be gross or not good, or there might not be one at all. I've tried resistance bands - not a fan. I tend to use my luggage for some exercises and try to do pushups but it's not very effective. I recently came across some videos on the TRX suspension trainer and was very interested. Simple, very compact, and works just about anywhere - all you need is a door, tree, rafter, or a pole. It actually looked like something that could be the base of a regular workout rather than some garbage item *cough cough resistance bands cough cough* that would sit in my closet, never to be used.

I haven't been working out with the TRX for a long time but am impressed so far. It provides an especially good shoulder workout. Back workout is good though I would add in chin ups where possible, leg work is very good for me, excellent stomach work that is so much better than situps, and the chest work is good though I would add in dumbbell press and/or weighted pushups where possible. Bicep/triceps work is surprisingly effective though I would add in some dumbbell work where possible. I especially love being able to do handstand pushups with this thing. I am not able to do an actual handstand pushup - I don't think I can do an actual handstand for that matter, I keep getting freaked out at the thought of my shoulder collapsing (I need to get over that) and it affects my balance. I've been doing them with my legs against a wall but it's awkward and I did keel over once. Hooking my foot in the TRX allows me to go pretty much vertical and I can drop my other leg down as a spot if needed.

The TRX looks like the perfect base for my workout and I can add in other things as needed. It's good for men, women, and youth. It's totally portable, it weights next to nothing, and it will work almost anywhere. Could be a good thing if you ever had to evacuate or bug out too - take note preppers! What are you going to do in your underground bunker, cabin/cave in the woods or at a family retreat to keep your fitness up? I think this is the best answer and it won't add a lot of bulk/weight to your bug out bag.

Notes on me:

I am 5'9 and 3/4" - hey, I need every scrap of height I can get. One of my tall friends always laughs, he says only a short person would say their exact height. He is always "about 6'4." Of course, one of my old friends always used to say he was "about 6 feet" until we finally pinned him to the wall and measured him. We left a mark on the wall at his 5'8 height :)

Benchmarks over the years:

13 years old - body weight-115 at 5'9 - yikes!! I have a very slim frame and I had a crazy growth spurt after grade 8, I grew 6 inches in a very short time. It left me with stretch marks on my knees and hips. I was actually tall for a while...but stopped growing.

18 yrs old - body weight-140-145; bench press*-175 was the most I ever tried, I would guess it was more; chin ups-oodles and oodles; 30+ 1 arm pushups

22 yrs old - body weight-180; bench press-260; chin ups-not great; maybe 12 1 arm pushups. Put on 20+ lbs of mostly muscle in 8 months - more stretch marks, this time on my biceps :(

25ish yrs old - body weight-190; bench press-315; chin ups-so-so; squat-315; bent over barbell row-225?

Car accident at age 29? my memory sucks. Very bad, I fell apart. Shoulder problems, back injury, etc.

33 yrs old - body weight-206; bench press-230-240; chin ups-6 regular, 2 wide; squat-SFA

34 yrs old (now)- body weight-175, bench press-estimate 260 but I haven't checked; chin ups-15 regular, 4 wide (I still suck at those); squat-not sure

*1 rep max

**for my size refers more to my small frame/bone structure than my height. Though being taller can help, being too tall can be a hindrance in other ways. But there is no substitute for that large framed "man" strength often called farmboy strength or build (for lack of a better term). I can add a lot of muscle but I can't make myself any bigger. My Dad is a good example of this. He doesn't exercise, was never a fitness buff, he is 61 years old, is overweight, and a little shorter than me. He also has some injuries from car accidents (damn cars!!).

He has enormous hands, his frame is substantially larger than mine and he is STRONG. Damn strong. He can't lift or carry anymore like I can (due to injury) but he has a crushing grip, is tough as nails, and can do things that I have never come close to. Watching him work on a car outdoors in the freezing cold, without gloves, can make you think that maybe that previous generation that grew up on the farm was tougher.

My grandfathers were the same. Shortish, overweight, but huge hands, big frames, outdoor workers (logger and farmer) and tough, tough, tough, strong men. WWII vets. Miss them dearly.


  1. Hey man, you should check out sportsman's guide's Sports & Recreation page. Under the Exercise section they have a home gym page. It might be worth checking out, I know you live far north so shipping can be a pain, but I saw you were moving a bit south so maybe it'll be a little easier? I hope this helps!

  2. Thanks for the tip, I should check them out again after I move. I did place an order from them a year ago for various items but they canceled most of it due to weight and my remote location :(