I was primed for a slug day: some light reading, sports on TV, maybe a nap, a thick steak for super and then ‘Dances With Wolves’ for the 50th time. A very low-stress day. I set the fan close to my recliner, sat down and opened Pudd’nhead Wilson. But the best laid plans.’
There was a loud knock on the door. Since I wasn’t expecting anyone, I figured it was either a Jehovah’s Witness or a kid selling subscriptions to the Baltimore Sun. Staying quiet, I got up and looked through the peephole.
It was Uncle Buddy.
I opened the door. Uncle Buddy doesn’t enter a room. He charges in like he’s on urgent business. We exchanged fond greetings, and he presented me with a pile of presents: a hardbound copy of The Iliad, a set of pastel pencils and a T-shirt with Rotterdam imprinted on it. I held it up, asking, ‘This where you’re coming from this time?’
‘Yeah,’ he replied absently, examining the art on my walls.
Uncle Buddy was a merchant seaman. He worked for six months without taking any breaks, saved his money, then took the next six months off and traveled around with one or more of his lady friends. I had met six of them, all knockouts from different parts of the globe, and guessed there were more that I didn’t know about. I wondered what I was going to have to do in exchange for all the nice gifts and quickly found out.
‘I need to train,’ he blurted.
‘But, Uncle Buddy, it’s Sunday.’ My slug day was quickly vanishing.
‘I know that,’ he grunted. ‘Something in your religion that doesn’t allow you to train on Sundays?’
‘It’s not that. The only place open today is the la-de-da club that charges $15 for a workout’if they let you in at all. Sometimes they insist you come with a member.’
‘Fifteen dollars!’ he roared. ‘Hell, when I was a member of the old Muscle Beach gym in Santa Monica, that would have covered a full year.’
‘That was 30 years ago, Uncle Buddy, and it was a co-op gym.’ I knew that because I’d worked out there for a couple of years myself.
Uncle Buddy wasn’t tight. In fact, he was extremely generous. He often brought or sent me expensive gifts and always paid for meals, but he had this aversion to paying to train. Especially paying a lot, and he considered $15 a lot. So did I. Five is reasonable, 10 is steep, and any more than that is downright ridiculous.
‘It’s air-conditioned, right?’
I nodded, saying, ‘And they keep it almost cold for their cake-eating clientele.’
‘Air-conditioned gyms are for sissies,’ he grumbled. ‘They make you weak. You’re supposed to sweat when you train. How about that Army base? We trained there a couple of times a few years back.’
I shook my head. ‘We can’t get on the base now, not since September 11. Security’s tight as a drum.’
‘Then let’s drive up to the shed.’
‘Uncle Buddy, it’s supposed to hit the high 90s today. That means it’ll be 115 inside the shed.’ ‘So? You grown soft? You used to train there right through the summer, didn’t you?’
‘Yeah,’ I mumbled, ‘but I can’t say I enjoyed it.’
‘Well, I really need to do some serious back work. Just ride along and show me where the place is. If I remember right, it’s way out in the sticks. I’ll never find it myself. We can visit while I train.’ He knew full well that if I went along, I’d train.
‘Why can’t you wait till tomorrow? Then we can train in a nice gym in Forest Hills. Lots of equipment, plenty of fans and no air-conditioning.’ I agreed with Uncle Buddy about training in an air-conditioned facility. Most of them overdid the cooling to the point where you had to put on a sweatshirt. I liked to sweat. ‘And he’ll let us train for free.’ I figured that would be the kicker.
‘Can’t,’ Uncle Buddy said. ‘I’m picking Jasmine up at the Philadelphia airport tomorrow. She’s flying in from Singapore, and we’re going on a two-week tour of Canada.’
I’d met Jasmine, a Eurasian with jet-black hair that fell below her waist, legs that ran up to her neck, an hourglass figure, a sweet personality and a face that Michelangelo would have drooled over.
With envy in my voice, I said, ‘I’ll go pack my gym bag.’
I was no stranger to training in hot gyms and knew the importance of proper preparation. I packed two towels and four shirts. Two for me and two extra for Buddy in case he didn’t carry any. Then I filled two half-gallon jugs with cold water, took a gram of vitamin C and some multiminerals and put the bottles in the bag. We’d need more after the workout.
On the drive to the northern end of the county we talked about our experience of training in very hot gyms. Uncle Buddy said, ‘I was in Casablanca at a bar. This fellow next to me found out I lifted weights and said I could use his gym if I wanted to. It was behind his house. Well, I jumped at the offer. It was out in his yard, all tin, and I’ll tell you, I damn near suffocated. It must’ve been 120 degrees in there. After each set I’d stagger to the door and suck in some outside air, which wasn’t much better because it was a real scorcher of a day.
‘But that wasn’t the worst. I was on a ship in the Indian Ocean, and we were running right along the equator. The only place I had room to train was next to the boiler room. I ain’t exaggerating when I tell you it was close to 140 degrees down there. It made the tin building in Morocco seem like a spring day. I sucked down water like a camel, took long breaks, but I still got dizzy. I knew I had to do something or stop training. I rigged up two big fans that sounded like airplane engines and put one on either side of me while I worked out. It was still hot but at least tolerable. How about you? Where was the hottest place you ever trained?’
‘The shed ranks right up there, but the most miserable gym in the summer had to be Billy Neel’s place in Clute, Texas. It was right on the Gulf coast, which is as humid as hell, but to make matters worse, there was a swimming pool inside the building. Billy’s real income came from his dive shop and diving school. The gym was just a sideline.’
‘There were overhead fans, but they didn’t really help. The building was metal and held the heat and humidity in a tight grip. After a few reps on the situp board, I was already soaking wet. Like you were talking about with the tin building in Casablanca, after someone did a set, he’d race outside to suck in some air. Sometimes we’d jam up in the doorway. You had to chalk up and hurry to the bar. Otherwise, the chalk turned to a gooey mess and made things worse. I called it a three T-shirt workout. I’ve had plenty of them at the shed and also lots of them in the basement weight room of the old Wichita Falls Y.’
Uncle Buddy chuckled and said, ‘I guess anybody who’s trained for very long has had lots of them too. Did you think to throw in an extra T-shirt and towel for me? I wasn’t planning on going to a hot gym.’
‘I did, and I brought some minerals and vitamin C too. If you want to take some before you train, they’re in my bag.’
He accepted my offer. One of the reasons Uncle Buddy often came to see me right after he got off ship was that he knew I kept a stock of supplements. He usually ran out before he hit land.
We took long drinks of water; then I said, ‘I’m in the process of writing a short piece for the local paper for football players getting ready for summer practice. It reminded me of how important it is to be prepared for exercising in the heat because heat can put you down for the count. Overheating and the resulting deficiencies in fluids and vital nutrients can come on amazingly fast when the temperature and humidity climb close to the century mark, as they are today. You can lose as much as three quarts of sweat in a single hour while doing any form of strenuous exercise. When that happens, blood volume drops appreciably. If it drops too low, circulation becomes impaired, so the brain and other organs are deprived of oxygen. That’s why people get dizzy and disoriented. If the body’s core temperature reaches 105 degrees, heat stroke will occur.’
‘I’ve been to the dizzy part a few times. It’s easy to see why a person will have a crappy workout if he doesn’t replace fluids and vital nutrients. Sort of like training right after you give blood.’
‘That’s right,’ I agreed as we arrived at the shed.
I opened the door, and we stepped into the swelteringly hot concrete-block building. ‘Oh, boy,’ I muttered, putting my gym bag and jug of water on the leg extension machine.
I did my situps and was surprised to see Phil come in. I’d trained him when he was a high school football player, and he’d gone on to win several physique contests. ‘I thought that was your car,’ he said. We shook hands, and I introduced him to Uncle Buddy, who was putting bumper plates on an Olympic bar.
‘How’s your training?’
‘I’m not,’ he replied glumly. ‘I tried a few times, but this heat kills me. All my lifts dropped way off, so I decided to take a layoff till it got cooler. But I do miss working out.’
‘There’s no reason why you can’t keep on training, even in this weather,’ I said. ‘Uncle Buddy and I were just talking about that. You need to make some changes in your program and come to the gym prepared for the heat.’
‘What kind of changes?’
‘Well, one thing you might do is train early in the day or later on at night. It’s about 20 degrees cooler in here then.’
‘I guess I could come later at night. What else?’
Uncle Buddy spoke up. ‘Shorten your workouts, and make sure you do the hardest exercise in your program first. And it’s a good idea to do only one tough exercise per workout.’
Phil looked at me, and I nodded in agreement. ‘It’s a good time to switch your sets and reps around. Don’t worry about trying to keep your lifts up. Run the reps up for a few months, 12s and 15s instead of fives or threes. The change will give your attachments a well-deserved rest, and it will also help you cut down on the time you spend in the hot gym. A break from doing heavy lifting will also enable you to go back to it with more enthusiasm once the weather cools off. When you increase the reps on an exercise, you can drop some sets, since you’re getting your workload with the higher reps. Your intensity won’t be as high, but that’s all right for a short period of time. Few sets means less work’and less time in here.’
Phil frowned and said, ‘At the start of summer I vowed to get my bench up to 325 and was making good gains till it got really hot. You think I could still move it up in this weather?’
‘Sure,’ I replied. ‘That’s another approach many use in the hot weather: specialize on one primary lift and maintain the others. It’s a good time to lean on a weaker lift. So you could work hard and heavy on the bench and use moderate weights for your back and legs.’
‘I like that idea,’ he said with a smile.
‘Another program you could do is the big three,’ I said. ‘Work the bench, power clean and squat’or some variation of those three’and then leave. Just do the core exercises and forget any auxiliary work for a while. On the other hand, I’ve trained with people who still had plenty of energy after the primary exercises were done, so it was no problem for them to do a couple of small-muscle exercises at the end of their programs.’
While I did a set of deadlifts, Uncle Buddy asked Phil, ‘How many days a week were you working out?’
‘Four. I was doing a split routine.’
‘Cut back to three, and work all the bodyparts at every workout. It’s a lot easier to talk yourself into coming here three times a week than four. And it makes it easier for you to recover in this weather.’
‘Makes sense,’ said Phil. He asked me, ‘What about pace?’
‘I find that I can move fairly fast through the first two or three sets because I’m only using light-to-moderate poundages, but when the weights get heavy, I take plenty of time between sets. If you try to hurry, you’ll hit a wall about halfway through the workout, and when you do, you might as well pack up and go home because you’re not going to get anything out of the rest of the session. You’ve already cut back on the amount of work you’re going to do, so there’s no reason to hurry.’
‘This is good stuff,’ Phil said earnestly. ‘You said something about coming to the gym prepared. What did you mean?’
‘I mean bring plenty of water with you. Start drinking it before you get here, drink all through your workout, and drink more after you finish. More is always better in this case. The chief medical officer at the United States Olympic Training Center, Robert Voy, recommends six ounces of water for every 20 minutes of activity. I think you may need even more than that when you train in here.’
‘What about Gatorade or one of those other replacement drinks?’
‘From everything I’ve read, water is better. Those drinks contain sugar, and sugar slows the assimilation process. And stay away from anything that contains caffeine because caffeine promotes water loss, and that’s the last thing you want. Those extra trips to the bathroom rob the body of valuable nutrients.’
‘So just drink lots of water, and I’ll be fine?’
‘No, water is just one of the things you need. You also need to take lots of the water-soluble vitamins and minerals. You lose them when you sweat, and you also wash them out of your system when you drink so much water. George Cowgill, a doctor at Yale University, produced B-vitamin deficiencies in animals by force-feeding them water.’
‘Which vitamins and minerals?’ he asked.
‘Vitamin C and all the Bs are water-soluble,’ I replied. ‘And so are all the minerals.’ I went over to my gym bag, took out the bottles of vitamin C and multiple minerals and showed them to him. ‘All the minerals work together, so it’s best to take them in a mixed formula. Same thing with the Bs. They’re great energizers. Get a B-complex vitamin. Are you still working as a landscaper?’
‘Yeah, and that’s another problem I have. I sweat like a pig all day, so by the time I get here, I’m already worn out. No energy.’
‘About an hour before you plan to train, take a B-vitamin, some C and some minerals,’ I told him. ‘Then you’ll be ready to lift when you get here. After you finish, take more C and minerals because you’ve depleted them during your workout. You may not want to take more Bs because they often keep people from sleeping.’
Uncle Buddy took over while I did a set. He said, ‘One reason so many people lose strength in hot weather is they lose lots of bodyweight.’ ‘That’s me,’ said Phil.
‘I figured as much when you said you worked outside. As soon as you can after you finish your workout, drink a protein milkshake. If you have trouble eating in this weather, drink another one before you go to bed, along with some tuna or a peanut butter sandwich. The shakes will help you maintain your bodyweight, and they’re real useful in helping you to recuperate.’
It was Uncle Buddy’s turn to lift, and while he did his set, Phil asked me, ‘Can I take too many of those vitamins and minerals?’
I shook my head, saying, ‘No, they’re water-soluble. You don’t store them the way you do oil-based vitamins. If you take more than your body needs, they just pass through you. Might cost you a few extra pennies, but that’s a lot better than being deficient.’
‘You’re right. Anything else?’
‘Pack a towel and extra T-shirts. You’ll need the towel for your sweaty body and also to wipe off the equipment after you’ve used it. You’ll be glad you brought extra shirts. Nothing is more annoying than having to lie on a flat or incline bench in a nasty soaked shirt. A dry one makes a world of difference.’
‘I need to be going,’ Phil said. ‘This really helped. Thank you both. I’m starting back tomorrow.’
Phil left. We finished our deadlifts and changed our shirts. Uncle Buddy did lat pulls, while I did some inclines. I didn’t want to do much because I was going to train the next day. After 15 minutes I said,’ Uncle Buddy, how about if we follow some of our own advice and cut it short? Deer Creek’s only a mile down the hill. Let’s go take a dip, go to my apartment and have a milkshake.’
He laughed, wiped his arm with a towel and said, ‘I’m ready to go. The swim sounds great, but you can have my share of the shake. I ain’t worried about my bodyweight. I’m gonna do some damage to that Miller beer I know you keep in your fridge.’
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 and Defying Gravity. IM