Thursday, November 29, 2012

Daddy, I want to be strong like you!

I didn't exercise a whole lot after Lindsay and I got married in 2007, and that "not a whole lot" shrank to "too small to measure" once Addison was born in 2010. But in 2011 I finally finished school, we moved to California, and I was ready to get back in the swing of things. I had visions of recapturing the athleticism of my youth. I joined a gym and enrolled Addison in their kids' club (which she hated at first, but has since warmed up to).

The first day I showed up at the gym, I was a assigned a trainer for a preliminary evaluation. Too bad I didn't know you could just opt out of these things. He was a nice dude, but we were clearly on different pages about why I wanted to start using the gym.
Him: "What are your main goals for coming to the gym?" 
Me: "Um, to get in shape?"
Him: "Right. Cool. And if you stick with me, you'll really be able to pop with a tight t-shirt on." 
Me: "Yeah, I guess. But mostly I just want to get stronger and faster." 
Him: "I totally get you, man. And the ladies love the muscles, amirite?"

 The truth is, I don't care a lot about the tight t-shirts. My wife likes my scrawny body just fine as it is, and who else am I trying to impress? What I do care about is being able to out-run and out-climb fast predators. So maybe modern man no longer needs to worry about lions, tigers, or bears (oh my!). But what about dinosaurs?! I've had nightmares about dinosaurs chasing me down for dinner since I was a kid, and I do NOT want to end up like Dennis in Jurassic Park. The dude would not have been able to lift himself into a tree if his life depended on it. It did, actually. And he got eated. And don't even get me started on the looming zombie apocalypse. Ain't no way I'm gonna get trapped in an alley because I can't climb a wall.

Anyway, my bulgy-muscled friend had me do a body fat test, and I came in at about negative 20 percent, indicating that I had a small black hole lodged somewhere in my gut. At 5 feet, 8 inches and 118 pounds, something needed to explain it.
Him: "We've got to fatten you up, man. What do you like to eat?" 
Me: "Um. Cold cereal." 
Him: "No wonder. Replace that with steak."
Seriously, he wanted me to eat steak for every meal. I humored him and did his (very hurty) workout and vaguely committed to filling my belly with flesh as often as I could. But I think the dude got transferred and I never saw him again, which is probably for the best. Who has the money to pay for one of these trainers and multiple steaks per day? Not me, that's for sure.

My gym routine mainly involves hitting a tennis ball in the racquetball court while thinking deep thoughts, or climbing on the stair machine because I can do it while reading a book, though I do jump on the treadmill or into the pool every once in a while. But there's one activity that I reserve for when I get home, because Addison likes to join in the fun:

She hangs off of my legs in awkward positions, leeching away my strength and throwing off my balance. I probably just need to get used to the idea that I'll have a clingy little tumor hanging off of me for the next five or ten years. Though now that I think about it, I just might need those steaks for when she weighs sixty pounds instead of thirty.

I'm tempted to give up. But in the moment that she weighs me down and makes my arms want to explode a little, she says, "Wow, you're really strong, daddy." And so I pump out a few more while she giggles, even though I know I won't be able to move my arms for a week. Maybe there is someone besides my wife I'm trying to impress.

And of course, impressing a little girl also involves performing acrobatic maneuvers that offer no real-life benefits. On the chance that there ever comes a point in my life where it becomes necessary to perform an upside-down pull-up, I suppose I'll have my almost-three-year-old to thank.

And Addison's pretty keen on being strong-like-ox herself.

Now, this is gonna go in a slightly different, stream-of-consciousness direction, so bear with me. This stuff makes me think of an article that was in the New York Times about a month ago, titled "Why Women Can't Do Pull-ups." It summarizes a study done at the University of Dayton to determine whether women can train to do pull-ups, and whether it's a meaningful measure of fitness. The summarization itself isn't particularly insightful, but it generated a lot of interesting comments (including about a million belligerent ones from a legion of CrossFit die-hards), and also a flurry of follow-up articles on other sites. Some proclaimed the need for women to let go of their guilt at not being able to do pull-ups, while others suggested that women need to stop looking for excuses to get out of doing hard things (one even draws a parallel to girls giving up on math in school). Also, there's the fact that by 2014, female Marines will have to perform pull-ups as part of their physical fitness tests.

I kinda want my daughter to be able to do pull-ups. I know that she can be healthy without doing them, at least until she has to get over a wall to escape a pack of velociraptors, but I just think it would be cool for her to explore with confidence the power available in her body. I don't particularly want her to be a Marine, but I'd love for her to have that kind of toughness, both inside and out. Best case scenario: my little girl solving differential equations while doing pull-ups. Maybe while painting a picture with her toes.

Having said that, here's a really interesting and provocative article I found that uses Linda Hamilton's Terminator 2 holy-crap pull-up scene (I was gonna link to it but couldn't find a YouTube video without a lot of blood) as a lens through which to interpret a whole slew of new and  complicated trends in female empowerment. It kind of goes all over the place, and I found myself arguing a lot with it, but it still made me think. Among other things, it draws comparisons between this much-beloved bicep-baring icon
and this more foreboding one:

I wonder if my daughter will feel the imperative to make herself strong without the threat of a looming apocalypse. I'll have to work hard to convince her that predatory dinosaurs are a real and present danger.

Maybe it would be enough incentive to be able to lift and be lifted in turn. I hope that my body holds up long enough for my daughter to be able to run some tough races with me. I'll gladly grasp her hand to lift her over walls. Maybe she'll even do it on her own, choosing the rewards of self-sufficiency. And maybe, when my own strength and youth are fading, she'll be strong enough to pick up the slack, and her hand will be the one reaching down for mine. Ah, so many metaphors to be mulled over as my daughter clings to my legs, a happy little hanger-on exclaiming, "You're so strong, daddy! I want to be strong like you!"


  1. This is my FAVORITE post yet.

  2. Replies
    1. Ha! :) Sorry, that extra step of logging in to use an actual profile is just too much for me. I'm lazy that way.
      -Di, Long Beach, CA

    2. Hey, fair enough. My wife basically set up my profile, so I sure can't get on your case about it!

  3. I think it's great to have parents who model good physical education. My mom actually lifted weights and ran races when I was growing up, and she was pretty much the only woman I knew who did that. And now I have my own barbell set...
    I didn't read the article you posted, but it is extremely depressing to think I'll never be able to do a pullup. That over-the-door thingy is on my Christmas list and even if I can only do one, I'd feel great! Addison is lucky to have a head's start on that

    1. My parents definitely modeled being healthy, my dad particularly with sport and athletics (he was a marathoner, and all-round tough guy). I don't know that I'll ever match his feats, but I'm pretty happy with just trying to get a little stronger every year. At some point I'll meet diminishing returns...but there are plenty of fifty and sixty year olds who can do more than I can even now.

    2. Also, I'm rooting for you on the pull-up! It can be done!

    3. YOU CAN TOTALLY DO A PULLUP! I am a tall lanky girl and I can do 8 pull ups.

  4. I've never been able to do a pull-up either, despite my otherwise tip-top physical shape. Ha! But perhaps if it could get me out of singing the same nursery rhyme over and over again, I would learn.

    That said, if someday we had to escape a velociraptor by doing the splits or the sit-and-reach or something else that requires flexibility, I would be a proud survivor...

    1. Lindsay, I married you for your bulging biceps. Also, your bulging brain muscles.

      The sit and reach is better for confusing velociraptors. They're like, "Why the heck is she just sitting there? Must be diseased or rabid. Let's find healthy meat somewhere else."

  5. I'm sure I can do one pull up. But then I'd need a paramedic because I'd be contorted in pain.

    1. Nothing like a good burning pain to make you feel alive. (says the guy who's never had to experience childbirth)

  6. Hey Neal,

    Great blog!

    As a dad who has a blog on fitness for dads I had to read this post!

    I've worked in many gyms across the world and luckily I can say we are not all like the trainer you had the experience with!

    I also agree that there should be no difference in what boys and girls are capable of, and we should definately strive to make our kids stronger inside and out.

    Great picture of the pull ups with your daughter! I have 3 buys young enough to hang off of me, so I think the secret is to have more kids to get stronger!;-)

    Cheers Neal, its great to find another dad with similar values around exercise and strength.

    Please feel free to check out my video blog for some fitness tips for busy dads at home


    1. I wonder if that PR pitch would convince people to have more kids: "The more kids you have, the stronger you'll be!" Something tells me I'd get punched in the face. Off to visit your blog!