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Winning the Battle of the Bulge


Uncle Buddy was taking me to a nudist camp. He’d invited me several times, but I’d always declined. Not because I had anything against the practice—in fact, I was in favor of the freedom of expression it stood for. It was because I wasn’t sure how I’d react to being surrounded by a group of men and women au naturel. When I expressed my concerns, Uncle Buddy scoffed and said, “Don’t worry about it. Just stay by the pool until you feel comfortable. If anything stirs, jump in the water, but I’m telling you it isn’t going to be like that at all. It’s not like going to a strip club. It’s more like a religious gathering.”

Not likely, I thought, but I had to admit I was curious. The nudist camp was located in a wooded area near the Chesapeake, not far from Annapolis. When I asked him why we hadn’t gone to the one outside Darlington, only a short drive from my apartment, he replied, “I figured you didn’t want to take the chance of running into someone you knew. Besides, I’ve been to this one before and really like the people.”

We signed in. I was Uncle Buddy’s guest for the day. We undressed and placed our clothes in a locker and grabbed two towels, which we wrapped around the case of Miller we were smuggling in. “Drinking alcohol isn’t allowed,” he informed me, “but no one minds if it’s done in private. You carry it, and stick close to me.”

I followed him out to the well-groomed grounds, across the lawn and past the swimming pool to a cabin at the edge of the woods. “Hey, Henry,” Uncle Buddy said as we got close to the porch, where a naked man with a Santa Claus beard was sitting in a rocker reading a newspaper.

Henry lowered the paper and exclaimed, “Well, bless my stars! Buddy Leftwich! You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

They shook hands. Buddy introduced me, and we went inside to put the beer in Henry’s refrigerator. Buddy broke out three and handed one each to Henry and me. We sat on the couch in the living room and talked. Like Buddy, Henry was a seaman, although he was retired, He rented this cabin for six months a year and traveled up and down the East Coast the rest of the time, staying at nudist camps. “They’re a lot cheaper than motels,” he said, “and I stay with like-minded folks.”

They exchanged stories about their profession for a while. Then, when Buddy and I had finished our beers, we walked over to the swimming pool. It would be the first test of my fortitude. I sat at the edge of the pool on my towel and looked around at the wide assortment of females who were completely naked to see if it would stimulate some sort of erotic response. It didn’t. Uncle Buddy was right. This wasn’t so much about sexuality as personal freedom, and I was quickly reminded that the vast majority of bodies, unclothed, are not the least bit attractive. My hormones were not surging; they were deflated. I decided that whoever had the idea of inventing clothing had been a genius.

Buddy was swimming laps. When he finished, he climbed out of the pool and began drying himself. “How you holding up?” he asked.

“Fine, You were right. This is not at all sexually stimulating.”

He laughed. “No, it isn’t. Most people have the image of a nudist camp as a secret place where there are continuous orgies, but truth be told, there’s probably less hanky-panky going on here than at a resort motel. Plus, this is primarily an older crowd, and for most of them sex isn’t a high priority any longer.”

The temperature was in the 80s, so I took a swim, then wandered over to watch a volleyball game. What fascinated me was the way the women timed their jumps so that their breasts would be fully coordinated with the movement. I wanted to join in and asked the man sitting on a picnic table if that was possible. “Probably not for a while,” he said. “It’s a team competition, and everyone has set teams. Maybe later.”

There was no doubt that this was very relaxing. Everyone spoke in low tones and was extremely polite and courteous. Uncle Buddy and I teamed up on a couple of games of horseshoes. Then he went out to the car and brought in the cooler that held our lunch. We had a picnic under a large oak tree, sitting on our towels. One of the rules of the camp was that you had to always sit on a towel, a point for sanitation that I appreciated. While we ate chicken sandwiches with chips, pickles and milk, we discussed the nudies.

“Not many fit bodies, are there?” I said.

“No,” he replied, “but consider where you are. Maryland isn’t known for its beautiful women—or men for that matter. And like I said, this place is frequented primarily by people who get senior-citizen discounts. There’s a place over on the eastern shore that caters to a younger crowd, and some of the ladies who go there are worth looking at.”

I nodded and continued eating. “It’s about sunshine, exercise and relaxation, isn’t it?”

“That’s pretty much it. No stress, and you’re around people of the same philosophy, which is relaxing as well. I try to encourage more of them to be more active by exercising, but it’s hard to change the habits of people when they get older.”

We finished our lunch, threw the trash in a barrel and took the cooler back to the car.

“Come on,” Buddy said. “I’ll show you the weight room. It’s not much, but there’s enough to get in a good workout if you’re motivated.”

Next to the main office building was a small shed the size of a garage that had been converted to a weight room. As Buddy had said, it wasn’t much, but I had trained in gyms with a lot less. It had a flat bench, chinning bar, slant board and a scattering of standard plates, bars and dumbbells. I walked over to the slant board—a York model dating back to the 1950s.

“I haven’t seen one of these in years,” Buddy said. “Most modern facilities get rid of them and put in the various ab machines that are on the market. In my opinion, a slant board is one of the greatest pieces of equipment of all for building strong abdominals.”

“I agree 100 percent,” I replied. “I can’t tell you how many times I rigged up a slant board by rounding up a two-by-10 and used my lifting belt as a strap. Then I’d put one end on a box or chair and do situps and leg raises until my abs gave out.”

Two men walked in behind us, and the taller of the two stepped up to me. “Didn’t you coach at Hopkins? I saw you on the sidelines at Homewood for the lacrosse games. My boy played for Princeton. Jim Hanks.”

“I was the strength coach and I remember your son. Tough defenseman.”

“I thought so too. My name’s Roger.” He extended his hand, and we shook. Then I introduced Uncle Buddy, and Roger introduced his companion, Donald O’Neill. Both, I guessed, were in their mid-50s, well tanned and in decent shape, except for their midsections. They were sporting the familiar beer guts that most men their age carry around.

We chatted about lacrosse and the prospects of various teams for the next season. Then Roger said, “Could we ask you two guys some questions about training? We noticed that you’re the only two in the entire camp who have tight guts. And I’m betting that you’re both older than we are,”

“Sure,” I said. “Ask away.” There wasn’t any place I had to be, and I was enjoying the atmosphere of the camp.

Roger grabbed his belly with both hands, holding 10 pounds of excess luggage in his fists. “How do we get rid of this? Or is that just a pipe dream?”

I laughed. “No, it can be done, although it will take some time to drop that much extra weight. It will take a lot of discipline too.”

“You talking about exercise and diet?” interjected Donald.

I nodded. “Plus some testosterone therapy, but yes, that’s what it’s going to take: diet and some type of regular exercise.”

Donald said in a low tone, “I’m not that big on commercial gyms. They cost too much and are always crowded. Getting to them is always a hassle, it seems.”

“You don’t have to join a gym.” I pointed at the slant bench and said, “That’s all the equipment you need to get rid of your unwanted bodyweight.”

Donald looked at Roger and smirked. Then Buddy stepped in. “He’s right. That slant board will give you what you want if you’re willing to put in the effort.”

“What about all those ab machines you see advertised on TV? Aren’t they better than just a situp board?”

“Not really,” Buddy answered. “What most of those machines are selling is comfort and the promise of getting results easily. It just doesn’t happen that way. No matter how well any piece of equipment is designed or how well it’s padded, you’re still going to have to exert yourself to achieve your goal. There’s no shortcuts. It involves hard work, and it has to be done regularly, as in every day. Or at least six days a week.”

Neither Roger nor Donald said anything for a few minutes. Then Roger declared, “Well, hell, I’m tired of carrying this mass of fat around. I look like I’m pregnant. Everything is fine except my gut. Lay it out for us.”

I looked at Uncle Buddy, and he indicated that I should do the honors. “Okay, I’ll start with the exercises. At first, just concentrate on your upper and lower abs. The muscles that make up the sides are also important, but you can get to them later, after you’ve made progress on the front of your midsection. Situps for the upper portion and leg raises for the lower.”

“Hold up a sec,” Donald interrupted. “I’ve read that regular situps aren’t very effective because they involve the legs too much. Aren’t crunches supposed to be better?”

“In the pure sense, that’s correct, although I have no problem with the fact that situps involve the quads. I use situps as warmups and like the idea that my legs are getting into the act a bit. Also, in order for crunches to produce results, the reps have to be extremely high, eventually in the 500-plus range. You can change the angle on an adjustable slant board like this one, though, so that the movement becomes more difficult as you get stronger. So you can hold the reps at a hundred and keep increasing the angle to make your abs work harder. Working harder equals more gains. Same goes for leg raises. Let me show you how to do those two exercises, then a couple of versions of crunches, and you can decide which you’d rather do. Of course, there’s no reason you can’t do all of them. Variety is a good thing in weight training, especially when it comes to ab work.”

I wasn’t comfortable demonstrating naked, so I tied a towel around my waist, sat on the slant board, hooked my feet under the strap and did a dozen situps in deliberate fashion so Roger and Donald could see the form. “Do each rep smoothly,” I said, “and make sure your knees are always slightly bent when doing any type of ab work. Bend them just a bit and hold them in that position until you finish your set.”

I got up and told Roger to give it a try. He did the first few reps correctly, so I said, “Do as many as you can.” He managed 23 before he quit. Donald also used good form and made sure he did a couple more than his friend before he collapsed on the board.

Roger laughed. “Looks like we got some work ahead of us, ole buddy.” Donald only grinned and nodded as he got up off the slant board.

I demonstrated the technique for leg raises, again emphasizing the importance of bending the knees and using a good range of motion on each stroke. Roger and Donald, now with towels around their middles, took turns and quickly discovered that leg raises were more difficult than situps. Both got to 15 before giving up. “They’re killers,” Donald groaned as he stood up.

“The lower abs are almost always weaker than the higher portion because that’s where the excess fat has settled,” I said. “Because it’s the most troublesome area, I suggest you do leg raises first, then situps. A good way to program them is to do leg raises before you exercise and situps after. The ab muscles tend to fatigue quickly and if you allow some time between the two exercises, you’ll be able to do more reps on the second one.”

“How many reps, and should we be doing more than just one set on each of them?” asked Roger.

“In the beginning, when you’re able to do only a couple of dozen reps, you’ll need to do several sets to get in enough work. Once you’re able to do more than 75 at one time, one set will be sufficient. What you need to do every time you do either situps or leg raises is push them to the absolute limit. Also, learn to squeeze your abs at the finish of each rep. When you do them with intensity, your abs will be just a tad sore the next day.”

Donald spoke up. “But you said we should do these or some other exercises for our abs every day. That means we should be sore every day?”

“That’s right,” I replied, “but I’m not talking deep soreness that hurts when you move, although that might occur during the first week. I’m talking about the kind of soreness that you can feel when you work your abs the next day. That kind of soreness will go away after the first half dozen reps. Uncle Buddy, show them the two variations of the crunch.”

After securing his towel around his very fit middle, he lay down on a mat and placed his feet on the high end of the slant board. He placed his hands on each side of his head and squeezed his upper torso forward, hesitating a brief moment at the most forward part of each rep. As he knocked out a quick three dozen reps, he spoke instructively: “Pull your abs down tight as you can and keep everything extra tight. Don’t let your stomach muscles relax at all, and really squeeze hard at the end of the crunch.”

Our aspiring students took turns, and when they finished, Roger asked, “How about reps on those?”

Uncle Buddy said, “Just like the situps and leg raises, as many as you can do and build from there.”

Donald said, “I tried those one time, but my neck hurt so bad, I gave them up. Maybe it would be worth the money to buy one of those machines that they advertise that take the pressure off the neck. What do you think?”

“If you want to buy a machine, fine, but it’s not necessary. No doubt your neck will ache in the beginning, but it will get strong as you run the numbers up. You can cradle your head with your hands if it really bothers you. You get the same benefit if you support your head and neck.”

They nodded that they understood. “Now this,” said Uncle Buddy, “is called lots of names, but my nephew and I just call it reverse crunches.” He lay down on the mat, placed his lower legs over the high end of the slant board, locked them in place and proceeded to lift his pelvis as high as he could. “These may not look like they’re doing much, but they are. The combination of regular and reverse crunches really hits the target area nicely. For them to do you any good, you’ll have to keep pushing the count up and up. The reason most people don’t achieve any results on them is they just don’t work them hard enough.” He got up and said, “Try it.”

Roger was having trouble getting the feel of the movement. Uncle Buddy told him, “Lock your legs tighter onto the slant board. If it’s more comfortable, place your feet on the end of the board.”

Roger tried that and returned to his original position, saying, “This feels better.”

“You’re being too timid with the upward stroke,” said Buddy. “Think of your lower abs as pistons, and jam them upward with force. That’s good. Now you’re getting the rhythm. Keep going till you feel your abs start to burn.”

After Roger finished, Donald took a turn and said, “These are a bit easier to me. Should I do more reps than with the other kind of crunches?”

“Sure,” Uncle Buddy replied, “if you can. On all these ab exercises the point is to exhaust the muscles, so go to the limit.”

When Donald finished his set, Roger asked, “What else?”

Uncle Buddy said, “There’re lots of other ab exercises, but in your case, these are enough.”

“Could you show us some of the others just in case we’d like to try them?” asked Roger.”

Buddy demonstrated how to do leg raises while hanging from the chinning bar and while sitting on the edge of the bench. Then he did side-to-side twists with a broomstick and held it over his head and leaned from side to side. “These hit the obliques and the group that turns the trunk from side to side—the transverse abdominis—but you don’t need to do them for now. Concentrate on crunches, leg raises and situps. They’ll get your abs stronger and tighter, but getting rid of your protruding middles will take a lot more than just ab work.”

“Yeah,” mumbled Roger. “We know. We must have gone on at least six different diets over the past year, but we never stuck with any of them for very long. Any suggestions?”

“Keep it simple,” I said. “Don’t change what you eat but rather try to cut down on foods that put on unwanted bodyweight. I’m talking about carbohydrates. Start by cutting your carb intake in half. Half a piece of toast, half a baked potato, half a glass of orange juice, and so on. Fill up on protein foods, and no late-night snacking. Research has shown that eating the largest meal of the day at noon is better for those trying to cut or maintain bodyweight than eating it at night. Substitute whole grains and other complex carbs for those loaded with sugars. Be wary of sodas and soft drinks because they run your daily carb count way up.”

“What about beer?” Donald inquired. “I’d hate to give up beer.”

“You don’t have to give it up. Just cut back a bit. Every little bit helps when you’re trying to shed unwanted blubber. At the same time, get more active. That, too, doesn’t need to be drastic. Start walking every day. Start out with 15 or 20 minutes, and when that feels easy, stretch it out to 45 minutes or an hour. You can also train more frequently. Hit the weights six days a week for a half hour or more. Keep the weights light, and run the reps up. Start with three sets of 20 and add to the reps. I have an older friend who does that type of routine, and he uses light dumbbells only. On some exercises he does 200 reps, and he told me one set takes almost 10 minutes to complete. He said he could elevate his pulse rate higher doing a set of seated presses with 10-pound dumbbells than he could when he walked as fast as he could.”

They liked the idea of training with light weights. “Be aware, if you really apply yourselves, that those high-rep sessions can leave you panting for air. What it boils down to: When you’re trying to drop weight, you have to burn off more calories than you take in. It’s not the least bit complicated, as most people know. What they lack is not knowledge but dedication. Our country is experiencing an epidemic of obesity not because of ignorance but because of laziness. Our ancestors ate three huge meals a day, if they could afford to, but obesity wasn’t a problem. That’s because they were so damn active they mostly had trouble keeping on weight.”

Roger said, “You’re right. We have become lazy. My son or daughter-in-law drives my two grandsons to the school bus stop every morning and picks them up in the afternoon, and the bus stop is only four blocks from their house. I think Donald and I have enough discipline to do it, especially when we tackle it together. I know I’m really sick of carrying around this gut. You mentioned testosterone earlier?”

“Yes, I did. Have either of you had your testosterone counts checked out by your doctors?”

They looked at one another and shook their heads. “Why? Should we?” asked Roger.

I nodded, saying, “You should. Here’s why. At age 40, your body starts producing less of the hormone each year. In addition, other factors can lower test even more. Stress is a big one, along with anxiety, any sort of prolonged illness or major surgery or high drug use to treat some disease, such as diabetes. Most people think in terms of sexual activity when testosterone is mentioned, but that’s just one function that it performs in the body. Low testosterone has been linked to high blood pressure, muscle and bone loss, depression, rheumatoid arthritis, memory confusion and loss, sexual dysfunction and Alzheimer’s.”

“Damn!” muttered Roger. “I think I will get mine checked, but I still don’t see how it relates to the extra weight around my gut.”

“I was getting to that. One of the roles of testosterone is to distribute fat throughout the body—arms, upper body, back, hips and legs. When sufficient test is available, the fat spreads out nicely, but when it’s in short supply, that fat allocation ceases, and all the excess begins to settle in just one place, the lower abdomen.”

“So you’re saying no matter how active we are and no matter how strict we diet, we aren’t going to be able to get rid of our guts if our testosterone is low?”

“Basically, yes, but studies have proven that when adults between the ages of 50 and 70 exercise regularly, they reduce their belly fat by as much as 15 percent. It only makes sense to get yours checked out. If it’s low—and I’m betting it is—you can correct that deficiency rather easily. That will make your task a hell of a lot easier.”

“I’m not too crazy about taking shots,” Donald admitted.

“Getting an injection is only one way to take the hormone. Patches and topical creams can work just as well.”

A woman stepped into the weight room. She was fully dressed and looked oddly out of place in this setting. “Donald,” she said in an angry tone, “why aren’t you dressed? We have tickets for the show. It starts in an hour.”

“I completely forgot,” he replied. “Got caught up in learning how to get rid of this beer gut. Roger and I are about to turn ourselves into lean mean fighting machines again.” He thanked Buddy and me and hurried out of the weight room.

“That’s Doris, his wife,” Roger said. “A genuine shrew. I avoid her as much as possible. Hey, my thanks for showing and telling us all this. I’ll get my test checked as soon as I can, and starting tomorrow I’m going to walk and train five or six days a week and go on a low-carb diet. How long do you think it will take before I start showing some improvement?”

“Most show some progress in a few weeks,” I said, “but realistically, figure on nine months or even a year to get where you want to be.” Seeing the expression on his face, I added, “One thing about being older is that time has a different meaning than it did when we were younger. It isn’t something that you’ll be doing for a short while but as a lifetime pursuit. Because, if you do lose your unwanted weight, then slack off, it’ll come right back.”

“You’re right. I can deal with that, and I assure you that if and when I do lose this gut, I’ll stick with it. I gotta go too. See you guys around.”

Buddy and I walked across the grounds toward Henry’s cabin. “Let’s have another beer,” he said, “and visit with Henry for a bit. Then we’ll go back over the Bay Bridge. I know of a little restaurant outside Chestertown that serves maybe the best crab cakes in the state. We owe ourselves a treat for our good deed today.”

I was in full agreement.

Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com. IM

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