Building the Proletariat Into the Swoletariat
There’s a study going around that shows a correlation between men that are socialists and weaker physical strength. A lot of rightwing blogs are having a a lot fun with it, even certain 5'4" pundits are bandying it around. While this study not as dramatic as it seems, anecdotally, I can back it up a bit. I am one of the only fit people in my social circle of mostly left leaning to full communist friends. Because of this, more than a few of them have asked me how I got to where I am.
I powerlift, which is a type of weight lifting focused on multiple muscle group, complex, lifts. Namely powerlifting revolves around: the bench press, the back squat and the deadlift. A person’s powerlifting number is their one repetition M̶a̶r̶x̶ max (1RM) of those three lifts added up. My number is currently 1,045 lbs: 240 lbs bench press, 390 lbs squat and 415 lbs deadlift. At 165 lbs bodyweight, this puts me at about 12.5% body fat. And, if you absolutely must see visual evidence of my work, here’s my instagram, where I regularly post about how my lifting is going.
Because I am one of the only fit people in my social circle, when I first tried to crowd source how to get more in shape, I sadly didn’t find a lot of help. So it took me a while to get to where I am, longer than it needed to be even with a back injury thrown in the mix. But I did it, I went from obese and not exercising to my four times a week at the gym self I am now. Now, a lot of friends have asked me about how I did it. This is the collection of those conversations about lifting, fitness and in general now available to everyone.
Don’t spend too much time in fuckarounditis like I did.
That said, there is nothing new here for those are are remotely familiar with fitness. Nor am I some sort of physical specimen, I am just reasonably fit; proof that pretty much anybody can do this. I am no Jim Wendler. I’m not offering much more than two basic things: eat the right amount of food and lift heavy weights. But, of course, there’s a lot to say about what those two mean.
I’m making all of this public because, not becasue I think I can write Das Carbital, but I think, in light of the science, we need to build a bigger, stronger proletariat. The Swoletariat.
First off, exercise is good. The Huffington Post had to fact check whether or not excercise is good after our President said it was not, so I guess I have to say it to be sure. Besides the physical benefits, the mental benefits of being in shape are becoming more and more clear: exercise enhances mood, fights anxiety and battles depression. Being a leftist is mentally tough, it means losing a lot because the deck is stacked for the wealthy and privileged. Those of us that fight against the ruling class, fight uphill battles. The term “self care” has a bad reputation, but the good core concept applies to lifting. It is “you” time, where you get in touch with your body and your thoughts.
However, at first glance lifting does appear to be a little right wing. It seems solitary. Even when done competitively, it’s not a team sport. There is a shitload of hyper-masculinity attached to by some of the biggest names in the game (see again, Jim Wendler) that boarders on, and often crosses into, just straight misogyny. Sites that have a lot of great programs, like T-Nation (yeah, that name), have writers that think tossing in casual sexism is a cool flourish that makes their prose interesting instead of insipid.
I counter that lifting is actually leftist. There is no artificial shortage of gains out there, there are enough gains for all. Because of this, the lifting community is mostly supportive and welcoming. Your gains do not diminish my gains. In fact, it’s best if we’re all strong together. You will rarely find a group of people more interested in universalizing knowledge, everyone wants to talk about what works and questions are met with enthusiastic answers. It liberates physical strength from the patriarchy, all can get swole. There’s no class structure, we’re all w̶o̶r̶k̶e̶r̶s̶ lifters.
Leftist should also be right at home with the fact that there are a billion theories of how to best achieve gains, which is argued about online in endless threads.
Step 1: Get the Diet Under Control, Baby
Throughout my 20s I slowly moved from skinny fat (healthy body mass index, but no muscle) to just fat fat. The twinkly eyed, thick necked high school football player went to obese, east coast living, television director over ten post college years. When you have no muscle, I didn’t have much, the BMI is a realtively accurate look at your health via your weight. My BMI put me in obese at my worst. I am not the first, nor will be I the last, guy from Wisconsin that’s obese.
So, my journey to fitness involved dieting just as much as lifting. For some people, it seems they need more help getting weight on than taking it off. In some ways, I envy those folks because I could eat myself back to obese in a few days, I’m sure of it. But, at the same time, if I hadn’t gotten that bad, I don’t know if I would have had the motivation to get to good. But even if you’re underweight or just looking to bulk up, tracking your diet will be key to this whole process.
You’re gonna be that person. Yeah, the person that owns a food scale. I bought this one, but honestly, any accurate food scale will serve your needs just fine. Then, you’re gonna get yourself a calorie tracker. I personally use MyFitnessPal, free version, but again, any accurate tracker with a good database will work. MyFitnessPal is particularly good because not only does it track calories, but it automatically creates a target calorie goal for you based on your current weight, your activity level, your your goal weight and how much weight you want to lose or gain a week.
Personal advice: pick a realistic goal. Even if you want to get forty or more pounds lighter or heavier, you have to get two pounds lighter or heavier first. We’re doing a full lifestyle change here. A bad day or week here and there are peanuts compared to the years of your life you’re adding on, so just take it slow and forgive yourself. Eventually, you may get to the point where you can ditch the calorie tracker. You learn how to eyeball food and guess calories. Even after almost a year of doing it, I still keep strict count. This is mostly because I come from a background of playing a lot of role-playing video games, and I love numbers quantifying things to look at.
How should you fill those calories? Mostly, however you want. Some people get pretty obsessed with fad diets, but a calorie is a calorie. That said, to feel “full,” you’ll want mostly whole food nutrition: fruits, vegetables, unrefined carbs, etc. It takes many more grams of broccoli to get to 100 calories than chocolate cake, and there’s only so much room in your stomach. But if you reach the end of the day (or your will power) and you’ve got 250 spare calories and are jonesing for that gas station donut? Fuck it, comrade. Get the donut.
That said, we’re looking to get strong here. Well, get to the excercise in a bit on that, but that demand does place one big limiting factor on how to fill those daily calories.
There’s been a lot of studies about protein over the last century, which means there’s a lot of bad information floating around the internet on it. There are people that will tell you to get in protein in EXACTLY 30 MINUTES AFTER TEH WORKOUT FOR MAX GAINS and a bunch of other demanding theories on muscle buidling. While some of that stuff might give a very slight edge, for day to day training, we’ve figured out the formula:
How do you track your protein? That food scale and the calorie tracker: they also let you track your protein intake. It’s fairly easy to get this much protein in your diet with lean meats, legumes, yogurt and more. There are tricks too, a protein shake or bar can give you a great protein to calorie ratio (look for like 10:1 calorie to gram of protein to know you’re getting a great ratio). But, try to incorporate getting that protein into your meals, again those whole food sources like a nice chicken breast or low fat yogurt, are going to leave you more “full.”
That’s it for diet. Seriously. No point system. No “never eat these foods” or anything like that. The “clean eating” fad is just that, it’s a fad. While eating at home is easier and cheaper, I eat out a lot. There’s no seemingly random rule set here. Just the mantra: Calories in, calories out.
Step 2: Get Thee to a Gym. Farewell.
While diet is fairly easy, working out can seem overwhelming. Especially lifting, where there are more theories to what makes a good workout than how to best seize the means of the production (or what the means of production even are). I’m going to cover three powerlifting programs here that I would recommend based on your comfort level and experience in the gym. Powerlifting isn’t the only way to get strong, but it’s one of the simplest because of its focus on big, complex, multiple muscle lifts.
Also: a lot of people recommend a bit of cardio. Cardio sucks more than cleaning the toilet, but hey, both need to get done. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is considered the golden standard here in terms of building good cardiovascular health. But any sort of conditioning after your lifts for twenty minutes or so is fine. You can do conditioning on rest days, but then you have to warm up all over again, may as well just get it done while your core is already cooking up energy like a furnace. Personally, I hit the rowing machine at the end of my workouts, but you do you.
For my rest days, I still do a bit of core work and some yoga. I fucked my back with a combination of bad deadlift form and caring for my first child (bending over poorly and scooping him up over and over again). My chiropractor said this was probably because my core was shit and I was a bit inflexible. So, use your rest days to target your weak points with something easy you can do at home or without traveling far.
On to the programs. Though note that no program is universally “the best.” Because the best program is the one you actually do. All the optimization, periodization, volume, frequency theories out there won’t do any good if the work isn’t put in. So, while I recommend these, they might all suck for you. Find something you enjoy, or at least can find the motivation to consistently do, and that will make you stronger than the most well designed program that you never do.
For the Total Noob: Stronglifts 5x5
If you haven’t been to the gym in years or maybe have never been to a gym period, this is the program for you. Stronglifts is a program with only five lifts, a great web-site that goes very in depth on proper lifting form for each lift and a slick, free app that makes following the program a snap.
Stronglifts 5x5 is a linear program. That means that you progress through the program by adding weight after each successful day of working out. When you are new, this type of thing is sustainable for months because of the mighty noob gains. The program focuses on the big three lifts of powerlifting (the squat, deadlift and bench press) and adds in the overhead press and row to have a well rounded targeting of muscle groups. And each exercise, you will only do three of these lifts (five times for five repetitions each, hence 5x5). When first starting, you can be done in a half an hour easy. And it only has three days a week at the gym.
That’s why I recommend this for complete newcomer: it’s fast, it’s easy and not very demanding. It starts all exercises with an empty barbell.
So, what are the downsides? It’s not good for vanity muscles, this is a pure strength program with no hypertrophy. Stronglifts is also a little uneven, it focuses on squats a lot (three times a week) while some weeks you will only bench press once. This causes you to t-rex, great lower body, but the upper body is ignored a bit. This is why after about six months, I stopped using Stronglifts. But I’ll always be thankful for the program for being such a great entry point for me.
For the Novice: Greyskull LP
If you are familar with how lifting, and more importantly program lifting, work, but still have beginner strength, then Greyskull LP is the program you want. Unlike Stronglifts, it doesn’t have a great website or easy to use app to track your workout. So, you will need to build the program into a customizable app (I used Strong) or get out ye olde pad of paper and write out your fitness manifesto the old fashioned way.
I personally did Phrak’s version of Greyskull, which you can find here. In addition to requiring some work to track your progress, you’ll also need some fractal plates. Most gyms don’t have 1.25 lbs plates, something Greyskull requires for its upper body progression. I bought these and lugged them in my gym bag for a year, but maybe your gym has them or you can find them cheaper elsewhere.
If that all looks confusing or too demanding, then head back up to Stronglifts and give that a go.
The reasons I recommend Greyskull over Stronglifts are: 1) more balanced 2) the AMAP sets. Greyskull only has squats two times a week instead of three to focus more on upper body work. Most notably, it adds chin-ups to the mix, which is gonna get those biceps and back muscles going. Those are some major vanity muscles.
Greyskull runs on 3x5 (three sets for five repetitions), rather than 5x5. But the last set of each excercise is an AMAP (as many as possible) set. The AMAP sets are both fun to challenge yourself with and allow the program to grow at a pace appropriate for you. If you hit 10 reps on the AMAP set, you double the normal amount of weight increase for next time. So if you’ve already been lifting or have a physically demanding job, you might just blow through some nice noob gains much faster than even Stronglifts.
Like Stronglifts, Greyskull is only three times a week and again, only about a half an hour or so to complete. It’s six exercises instead of the five of Stronglifts, but chin-ups are very easy to learn. The only reason I don’t recommend it for everyone is because of the lack of an easy to use app and the fractal plate requirement.
For the Intermediate: 5/3/1
After you’ve squeezed every ounce of noob gains out of your system, or if you are just insanely strong from being a member of the working class, you are ready for an intermediate program. Intermediate in lifting doesn’t mean “in the middle,” it means intermediate amounts of weight increases. Instead of increasing the weight on your lifts after every successful exercise, intermediate programs do it much more slowly. This is because you are now hefting a respectable amount of weight.
In other words, if you need this section, you are probably already in the swoletariat. Welcome, comrade.
But I won’t leave you hanging. Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program has become the intermediate program du jour. It bases all of its main working lifts (the squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press) as a percentage of your one rep max. So, to get started with 5/3/1 you need a good idea of what your one rep max is. If you don’t have that, head back to Stronglifts or Greyskull.
Like Greyskull or Stronglifts, you can run 5/3/1 three times a week, however running it four times a week is much more common. You do you. For me, by the time I was in deep enough for 5/3/1, four days a week at the gym sounded great. It’s even more varied than Greyskull or Stronglifts, with week 1 being 3x5, week 2 being 3x3 and week 3 being one set of 5, one set of 3 and one AMAP. In fact, each week has the last set end as an AMAP. This is purely for pride and challenge yourself for a personal best every time, the weight increase is the same no matter what. After those three weeks, you do a deload week of 3x5 of around 50% of your normal training weight. That finishes a “cycle” of 5/3/1, then the weight increase comes and you go again. (This assumes four times a week.)
Yeah, this is getting complicated now, buddy. We’re done with the Communist Manifesto and are reading all three volumes of Das Kapital.
5/3/1 only has you hit one of its big four working lifts a day, leaving you plenty of time to do some accessory work. This is usually hypertrophy work targeting a single muscle or a small set rather than a big complex movement, but there are many, many options. Stronglifts and Greyskull can have accessories tacked on too (in fact Stronglifts has some very specific accessories for both days of the program). But 5/3/1 is really focused on accessories, it’s one of the big strengths of the program. While some days, you may just want to spend the 15 minutes do your main lift and getting the fuck out, by now a whole hour at the gym is probably sounding pretty good.
And that’s good because in order to properly do 5/3/1, not only do you need to do accessories, but you need to do conditioning.
Jim recommends switching accessory programs every two to three cycles. This not only makes sure you get a well rounded bit of work in, but keeps 5/3/1 really fresh. He recently put out a book called 5/3/1 Forever, where he basically lays out this program as something you can do for the rest of your life. I’m only five cycles deep, but honestly, it feels like if I can keep finding accessories to do, I probably could do it for the rest of my life. I really, really like 5/3/1.
Thankfully, there are apps out there that can handle a lot of this and just tell you what to lift. Jim doesn’t have an app out officially and doesn’t recommend using any of unofficial ones, probably because he doesn’t get a cut from any of them. So, if you want, you can program your customizable workout app you got for Greyskull for 5/3/1. I personally use Vandersoft’s 5/3/1 app, which runs the program fairly well for me so I don’t have to worry about how to progress. It has some pre-packaged accessories in there and also has an easy to use customized accessory creator.
Step 3: Keep Doing It
Look, some days hitting the gym is going to sound like the fucking worst. Some days you are just going to want to stuff your face full of brownies. There’s a popular saying, especially in fitness, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Have a day living off nothing but ice cream and french fries. Go to the gym, do one exercise and leave. It’s all good. We aren’t professional athletes, getting paid to hit certain milestones in a certain timeframe.
Forgive yourself for a skipped day.
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons I see fitness and strength training as leftist is because of the challenges. It’s a lot of grinding, a lot of getting back to it after failure and finding a balance between perfect form and pushing yourself past your self-imposed limits.
There’s no multimillionaire waiting to fund our political action committees or campus groups. There’s a constant push back against our efforts by the most powerful and wealthy people in our society because we want to stop their free lunch via exploitation of the masses. We make due with what we have and turn it into something more than maybe even we thought possible politically. And all these long odds and demands can wear us down and leave us feeling like it never ends.
There’s no one that’s waiting to lift our weights for us. There’s the constant push back against our movement by the iron because gravity is a harsh constant that always pushes down. We make personal bests with less than ideal form and lift more than maybe even we though possible physically. And the day in, day out of gym visits can wear us down and leave us feeling like it never ends.
We overcome challenges in both the same way: we take the long view. In the end, the left will win.
In the end, you will win.
This can be a living document. If you have suggestions on how to make it better, let me know. I am mostly basing this on the conversation I’ve had with friends online and off about getting in shape and my personal journey. So, there’s probably some blind spots in here. Also, this is a post I mostly wrote while waiting for the British snap election results to come in. As such, it’s probably riddled with my trademark typos, feel free to hit me up about those too.
But also, if you have any questions this doesn’t answer, ask me. I’m always willing to talk fitness, especially with fellow leftists.
Now, get out there, seize the lifts of production and build something.