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A Lady with a Barbell #1: Approaching the Squat Rack

Important note: I have decided not to renew my domain registration as a free blog better suits how I actually use this. As a hobby. So soon my only address will be frugalparagon.wordpress.com.

This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series demystifying weight training, specifically training with barbells, for regular people–women, primarily–interested in general fitness. As opposed to, say, powerlifting competitions.

Disclaimer: I am not a trainer or fitness professional of any kind. My goal is encouragement and demystifying, not teaching you how to do exercises or how to develop a program. See the bottom of this post for suggested resources on actually doing the exercises and you should probably consult your doctor and so on. Amazon links are affiliate links.

For most of my life, I took group fitness classes. Jazzercise, Body Pump, power yoga, whatever was around. About two years ago, my schedule was awkward and I couldn’t make it to any classes, and I impulsively took up training with free weights.

Friends, I seriously recommend it. Watching one’s numbers climb, especially into triple digits, is a HUGE confidence builder. Done with care, free weight exercises yield much better results than those circuit training machines that isolate muscles and leave your core unengaged.

I get it, the free weight section is intimidating. Sometimes it’s full of giant men. It is easy, as a woman or a man who hasn’t lifted before, to look at that section of the room and think, I don’t belong there.

You paid the same price for your gym membership that everyone else did, and yes, you DO belong in the free weights. I highly recommend training with barbells, and in this post, I’m going to encourage you to try the squat rack.

What’s a squat rack?

My gym has two kinds: a fully enclosed rack, often called a “power rack,” and two that are open at the front, often called “squat racks.” The point of it is to hold the bar up so that you can step under it and lift it with your back. Your back and legs can hold a lot more weight than your arms can.

Why you should start there

A standard Olympic barbell is about seven feet long and weighs forty-five pounds. That’s the only kind my gym has, and for a lot of different kinds of exercises, I’ve had to make adaptations and modifications. More on those in later posts.

But any adult with decent basic fitness can expect to be able to walk up to a squat rack and use it the way it was designed. Forty-five pounds is a reasonable warm-up weight for barbell squats.

How to adjust the rack

I was really nervous about approaching the rack because I did not know how it worked, but it turns out to be super easy. There are two different supports, the top supports and the bottom pins. The top supports hold the bar in place while you get under it. The bottom ones will catch the bar if you start to go down and can’t get up again. (This has happened to me only once, doing front squats. Fortunately, I was not at my usual gym, so I didn’t have to worry about showing my face there again. Also, arguably more importantly, I was not injured.) They both adjust the same way, by sliding in and out of these holes.

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This shows you how the parts fit together. The top supports are larger but work similarly. They’re too heavy for me to hold with one hand to take a picture of.

If the bar is in the top supports when you approach the rack, grasp it firmly with both hands (Careful! It’s heavy!) and lower it to the pins below. Then you can adjust the top supports to the correct height for your body and your intended squats. Too low is better than too high. After you have set the top supports, squat down, lift the bar carefully, and place it back into the supports. If necessary, adjust the pins.

Here’s a problem I have never seen addressed in any of my reading. I am a very short woman and I do low-bar squats, in which the bar is held in the spine of the scapula (shoulder blades)* instead of resting on top of the shoulders. So it’s lower. And a proper squat is deep, deeper than you are probably used to going. I discovered that if I squat to a proper depth, the bar will hit the pins of the squat. I can only use the power rack at my gym, where the pins can be set lower. So if you are very short, be on the lookout for this problem.

*This sounds complicated but it felt very natural when I first tried it.

If you’re not sure you can squat 45 pounds

Practice with goblet squats, in which you hold a weight in front of you. If you can do that a few times with a 45 pound plate or dumbbell, then you know you can squat the bar. 

If you’re still nervous

Don’t worry so much. Remember, everyone in the gym was once a beginner. I have been going for two years and have never gotten an unkind word. Mostly people ignore each other at the gym. Sometimes a passing gentleman will get the clips down from their hook for me (I have to kind of climb up the rack to reach them), and once an avuncular fellow told me I was “really hittin’ it.” I think that’s a compliment. It’s OK to fumble, to experiment, and even to ask for help if you need it.

Recommended Resources for Learning to Squat
Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition, by Mark Rippetoe: This is what I’m doing now. The book is like drinking from a fire hose and it’s not super-easy to use, but I’m enjoying the focus on solid, compound barbell exercises. The author does sometimes assume that you’re a dude, like when he suggests drinking a gallon of milk a day, but the pictures include women. There are also a bunch of YouTube videos featuring the author, Mark Rippetoe, who has kind of a pleasant drawl. This book is where I finally learned to squat low enough. In future posts, I’ll share more about how I have developed workarounds for exercises where the barbell is too heavy.

Stronglifts 5×5 (website): The guy who does these is, not to put too fine a point on it, kind of an ass. But his form checklists are useful. If you want to learn to squat like right this minute without spending any money or going to the library, this is a fine option.

The New Rules of Lifting Supercharged: Ten All-New Muscle-Building Programs for Men and Women, by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove: The first book I ever lifted from. This prescribes a lot of fancy exercises that I no longer bother with, but it has a lot of helpful options. I am suspicious of the authors’ emphasis on front squats, which I find to be awkward and to discourage REALLY getting low enough. This is where I learned to do goblet squats. Another issue: it does not emphasize getting low enough for squats, so if you go with this one or Strong, I suggest also trying another resource as well for more info on squat form.

Strong: Nine Workout Programs for Women to Burn Fat, Boost Metabolism, and Build Strength for Life, Same authors. Nicely woman-centered even though it’s written by dudes. Again, I dunno about the front squats. It assumes that you have a suspension system, which can be annoying if you don’t.

Please let me know in the comments if there are any particular topics you’d like to see covered here. Stay tuned!

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Waiting It Out

There’s always something to wait for, isn’t there? Wanting to meet someone and get married, saving to buy a house, trying to have a baby, waiting to hear about a job, trying to lose weight. Right now, I’m waiting for our marital home to sell so I can rent an apartment and move on, an especially frustrating time because it is taking much longer than we had originally hoped. (Also true of the making of Big Brother, an 18-month waiting game involving charts and Robitussin. Don’t ask.)

The hard part about waiting is to live fully and not, well, “wait” for everything to change. Here’s how I’ve learned how to keep going while waiting for a big change:

Focus on the “cans”
I try to think about what I can do, rather than what I can’t. No, I can’t apply for an apartment until my house sells, and cooking is complicated because I have to keep the house so squeaky-clean, and I don’t want to start a sewing project for the same reason. But I CAN work on things I may not have as much time for once I start moving:
-make some extra money writing trivia questions
-work on my Spanish
-update my blog (hi!)
-take my kids on free outings
-read more
-etc.

I’ve also been doing some unproductive things, too. Like binge-watching the BBC Sherlock now that I have control of the remote for the first time in my adult life. It’s like I didn’t know how to watch television by myself.

Stash money
Whatever change you’re waiting for, it will probably go better with some extra money, am I right? The delay in selling the house has let my paychecks accumulate a little before I need to put a deposit down on an apartment.

Prepare without obsessing
Poring over apartment listings would not be a good use of my time right now. There are a few little tasks I can get out of the way, though, like packing up my books and getting my finances in order.

(The not obsessing part is especially important when you’re trying to get pregnant.)

Get other tasks out of the way
So… I should really be making some headway on my divorce paperwork. So much paperwork. And it’s so bloody complicated. Also, technically we’re behind on it and might get forced into totally unnecessary mediation.

Don’t complain
There are things that suck about being stuck in an on-the-market house, especially with young kids. I haven’t always been successful in resisting the urge, but I’m trying really hard not to gripe about it. It won’t help and will just make me feel worse. I was deeply influenced by The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Complaint-free World, both of which make this point.

What it all amounts to is spending my energy on what I can do now to either enjoy my life right now, or improve my life to come. And no matter what you’re waiting for, there are undoubtedly lots and lots of things in those categories.

How do you handle waiting?

How to Adult: Book Roundup

Last month, after two and a half years in operation, my blog finally crossed the advertising payment threshold and I received a payment of $11.47 from Amazon. Partly in honor of this momentous occasion, here’s a book roundup. Amazon links are affiliate, of course, but your library probably has these excellent books. In fact, I only own one of them; it was given to me secondhand as a gift.

I spent most of my twenties feeling like a fake adult. In retrospect, it’s not surprising–I was working in a job (teaching) for which I was both unqualified and temperamentally unsuited, with mostly older coworkers.

This year, I am thirty-five. That’s the age my mother was when I was eight years old; it’s about the age my beloved Girl Scout leader was when I joined her troop in 1990. They seemed like real adults, and I’ve finally decided that I am, too! A flawed adult who knows more than average about some things and less than average about others, but not qualitatively different from other adults. In short, I have grown enough confidence to at least fake adulting. And here are some of the books that have helped me on my way.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey

I was assigned this classic for my library school class on management. Yes, it is a little corny in places and will seem even more so if you are not a Christian (though this comprises only a tiny part of the book). But it helped me stop whining and instead think about what I was actually trying to accomplish and how to do it, as well as how to listen first before you talk.

Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlich

There’s a key lesson here that anyone can benefit from: You will never convince anyone of anything by telling them that their feelings are wrong. That way madness lies.

Lessons from Madame Chic: 20 Stylish Secrets I Learned While Living in Paris by Jennifer L. Scott

This is a funny one to be on the list, perhaps, but I find myself thinking of it often. Part of a way of Francophile books, the premise here is a woman looking back fondly on her time spent as an exchange student in France, when her host mother was the lovely “Madame Chic.” I am not as elegant as the author, let alone Madame Chic, and never will be. But thinking of the always put-together Frenchwoman sometimes makes me put on my damned earrings before I leave the house, and has also inspired to overshare less (as one of Madame Chic’s lessons is to be a little mysterious) and apologize for myself less.

The Hands-On Home: A Seasonal Guide to Cooking, Preserving & Natural Homekeeping by Erica Strauss

Another one that I think of often. (I have even sent my personal thanks to the author, who used to hang around the Mr. Money Mustache forums as something like Erica @ NW Edible.) When I read the author’s admonition to think of your evening chores as a gift to your tomorrow self, I’ll be honest: I thought it was corny. It is not corny. It is powerful. When I put the kids to bed and then have to go back in the damned kitchen to do the dishes, thinking about my husband and children wasn’t helping. What did help was thinking about how I would feel in the morning. Some nights I work late or am unusually tired, and then I think, “My tomorrow self will have to fend for herself.” More often, I stick it out the extra seven minutes or whatever to finish properly and wipe the counters with my lovely-smelling, attractively green peppermint counter spray (recipe from the book) and then I feel great.

There is, of course, a fantastic wealth of other information in this book, from advice about tidying to canning recipes to directions for airing out your mattress, and it would be an excellent addition to any home library.

What books helped you find your adulting mojo? I’m not the only one who has felt like an imposter, right?

Goal Setting: Is It Working?

A couple of weeks, I posted about trying to use goal-setting to push myself to get more done.

As usual, I’m getting mixed results. On the one hand, making a list of weekly goals does help move tasks that have been languishing on my long to-do list. I have, for instance, mended a purse that’s been on the list for months. On the other hand, making a list of tasks does not, by itself, create more hours in the day. What it does do is help select a task to fill a certain period of time. Right now, for instance, I am on hold with my health insurance company (current length of call, 54 minutes 25 seconds) and have already crossed a few small items off the list while waiting. The pre-curated list helps me just pick something.

This is my general procedure:

  1. I have a designated time every week (Monday afternoons; I tend to think of a week being Monday-Sunday) when I make up a new list of goals.
  2. I put 10-15 items on it in a mix of difficulty levels/time taken. Some are tiny, specific items, like signing up for CreditKarma, while others are more long-term, like how much money I’d like to make.
  3. I keep a master to-do list of items that I would like to get to eventually, and I draw my 10-15 items from that list.
  4. I never add to my weekly list after I’ve made it unless there is something truly time-sensitive; this week, for instance, I landed a job interview to prepare for. If necessary, I then take something else off the weekly list. If something comes up that’s not urgent–for instance, my aunt sent me a present this week and I need to write her a thank-you note–I add it to my master list.
  5. I never look at the master list except when I am preparing my weekly list. This forces me to concentrate on the items on my weekly list.
  6. I don’t put normal chores on the list. I know I need to make a grocery list and shop, no need to write it down.
  7. When I have several hours to work, I will sometimes make a mini-list of tasks to accomplish during those hours.

As I’ve been doing this for a few weeks, I’ve made a few refinements in how I allocate tasks. I’ve been separating them more. For instance, I wrote “write two blog entries” the first week, but I wrote just one. One goal failed, zero goals met. But if I make those two separate tasks, and write just one, then I have missed a goal but also met one.

I’m also changing how I make goals for earning money. I was setting just one lofty goal, and frankly I haven’t even gotten close. From now on, I’m going to make one low goal, say to earn $200 pr $225 depending on what else is going on that week, and a second goal, say to earn $250. Then if I earn $221, I’ve met one goal and failed at another. Otherwise, no matter how little I earn, I’ve only missed one goal. That should keep me motivated even if I know I won’t make my “top” goal.

Readers, any advice-setting goals for me? How do you keep yourself motivated to get things done?

Who is the Frugal Paragon?

I’m a part-time work-at-home mom with a financial situation that is pretty typical. Mr. FP and I have student loans and a car loan. Our net worth is less than $50,000. We’re in our early thirties, we have two little kids, and Mr. FP is a schoolteacher.

But “typical” doesn’t seem good enough anymore. A little over a year ago, I discovered badass early retirement blogger Mr. Money Mustache and the concept of financial independence. MMM and his wife worked their asses off while stashing most of their incomes for several years so that they could both “retire” at age 30 and start a family free from the daily grind of full-time jobs.

Now I don’t know about you, but I learned about that way of life and said to myself, “Wait, why didn’t I do that?” And the reasons are, of course, many and varied, but mostly they boil down to the fact that I didn’t think of it and so I went about my life more or less like other people do.

I may have missed the boat on retiring at thirty and before procreating, but I’m ready to stop shoveling money the Everybody Else Way.

What’s the Everybody Else Way?

Well, for starters it’s a term I just made up. It refers to beginning with the assumption that if most of the people that you know personally are doing things a particular way, then that way is right. When you’re driving down the Everybody Else Way (because Everybody drives, right?) you often utter phrases like too much trouble or a big hassle. As in, “I thought about using cloth diapers, but I hear they’re a big hassle,” or “I just traded the car in at the dealership. It seemed like too much trouble to sell it myself.” You’re afraid that people will think you are “crunchy,” cheap, or just plain weird if you go a different way.

The thing is that when you go the Everybody Else Way, Everybody doesn’t pay for it; you do. And you are not just paying for it with dollars; you are paying for it with extra hours, days, years of your life that you will spend at work instead of reading, playing with your children or grandchildren, going for bike rides, and wearing your favorite jeans.

What do you mean, extra years of work?

The Everybody Else Way assumes that you will spend most of your income, no matter how much you make. It promises that if you save something like fifteen percent of your income, you can retire in your late fifties or early sixties and be able to keep on spending almost as much money as you were before.

But if you don’t spend most of your money, you won’t have to work as much for two reasons. One, you will have more money to save, so if you have a number in mind, you’ll reach it faster. Two, your savings goal can be lower because your expenses are lower. If your goal is to match, say, $50,000 in spending with investment income, you’ll have to save a lot more than if your goal is to match $25,000 in spending.

Having enough investment income to cover all your expenses even if you never earn a paycheck again is financial independence, and that’s the lofty long-term goal that I’m shooting for by becoming the Frugal Paragon.

So what’s the blog about, anyway?

In a nutshell, the Frugal Paragon blog is about starting the journey toward financial independence during the raising-little-kids years: financial decisions like debt payoff vs. savings, frugal living tricks, mindset changes, and balancing income generation against time with the little ones. If that sounds like the journey you’re on, too, then keep reading.