This blog provides encouragement to people who are beginning training, returning to training, going through physical therapy, or recovering from injury. I'm not selling anything here, I just like giving, and getting, encouragement!

Lifting heavy weight at home alone safely to build muscle

Light weight and high repetitions are all well and good to build muscle, but sometimes you gotta lift heavy. And if you lift heavy at home alone, you can be badly hurt. So don't do that. Get hurt, I mean. But you should lift heavy!

Today is Thursday, day two of chest training for me. I do 90-degree and incline push on Mondays, and declines on Thursdays. And today I will be doing heavy declines, which can be very dangerous.

I'd say "don't attempt this at home", but home is the best place to do this. That's because you need total focus and concentration, there's no room for error. If you don't know what you're doing here you can be badly injured - especially in the muscles that connect your shoulder to your chest. But if you do it right it's an awesome pump, and it really trains chest. This is how you do it:

• Tilt the bench back. Yes, your head will be lower than the rest of your body. This itself takes some getting used to, so if you've never done this before, just start very light in this position. If you've been practicing, you can move up to heavier weights. Today I'll be focusing on 50-pound dumbbells.

• Warm up your shoulders and chest. Use some light weight, using a medium tempo (not too slow or too fast). I like to use resistance bands for this, or you can just swing your arms. I like to do a motion similar to using a pec deck, with bent arms, to warm up. Your shoulders have to feel very healthy and flexible for this - if you feel even the slightest twinge of pain, stop, and don't do this.

• Prep your space for safety. Nothing in the way, nothing on the floor to get in the way. If the weights need to be suddenly dropped onto the ground, that's where they go. I have a concrete floor and carpeting, and while I try to be gentle, at a certain point in this workout, the weight will have to find their own way to the floor, I can't guide them with my shoulders. Remember when I said this dangerous? I leave a generous space around me, nothing on the floor to hit my knuckles on, nothing. Just space. My arm span is about six feet (about my height) so I need seven feet of width for clearance. Nothing in the way. Nothing.

The fifties are done one at a time. Use both hands to get the dumbbell into place, and keep the other hand gently holding onto the dumbbell. This is called "self-spotting". Go for 12 reps, and then every rep that you can do after that - no matter how long you have to rest at extension, is what really builds the muscle. Guide the dumbbell to the ground, without twisting your spine, and repeat on the other side.

This is a gut-busting, hard, very intense workout. Don't do this if you have any doubt, don't do this if you've just eaten a meal, don't do this if you're sore. But if you're ready, go for it. Three sets is fine, but go all out on all of them.

Learning to swallow after a stroke

I just took some Tylenol, which isn't unusual for me (I have some minor muscular soreness) and even though it's been over ten years since my stroke, I still pay close attention to my ability to swallow.

This has to be the strangest thing that happened to me after my stroke - I lost the ability to swallow. It actually took over a month to re-learn, and I don't just mean swallowing pills, or swallowing food, I mean the function of swallowing at all.

OK, I'm gonna get kinda gross here, sorry, but in the ordinary course of living you swallow your own saliva many times a day. And that means that if you can't swallow, you have to spit it out, and they gave me a spit cup to use, which I wore under my chin, day and night. And of course I couldn't drink water, so water had to be given to me intravenously. I could never lie down, I always had to be sitting up.

I had friends bring me in some coffee grounds, and some popcorn, which I kept in bags (yes, I could smell them). That's all I could do. Food was delivered directly to my stomach after a hole was drilled and it could be hooked up to a feeding tube. Sorry.

The process of learning to swallow again is something that is impossible to describe, except to say that you kept trying. I had a speech therapy coach who helped me, and little by little I learned to do it again. I still remember the taste of coffee. And then not long after that the taste of food.

I try not to dwell on these things, but sometimes they come back to me, and I do. Writing in this blog helps me, and I hope that someone who needs to hear this will be helped, too. Tiny steps have taken me a long way, and I have much further to go. Thanks for letting me talk a little bit tonight. Tomorrow will be a better day!

How to build a V-tapered back

In my teenage years I developed a V-tapered back by hanging around bars. That is, doing gymnastics, specifically the high bar and the parallel bars. I also did rings. I'd always been a "monkey boy", climbing and swinging, and was as thin as a twig. My arms were very weak, and so I learned to pull with my back. That is, while I was hanging on with my arms, they really weren't do all that much, they just were the connection between my hands and my back.

Age 12. I started gymnastics at 15, and my arms weren't much bigger then, they were just longer. The pic at the top of this post is age 18.

If your situation is different, specifically if you have strong muscular arms, you're going to find it very difficult to convince them to not do the work that you would like your back muscles to do. That is, you will need to activate your lats, and convince your arms to back down.

Of course back training means pulling, and pulling means using your arms. So it kinda stands to reason that if you have strong arms you'll pull with your arms. So you have to imagine weak arms.

I've been training back again this year and have found that it's best done the day after arm training, when my arms are at their weakest. That, along with making a conscious effort to make my back to the work, not my arms, it's helping me to "feel" my back again. Today, for example, my arms were like noodles from yesterday's arm training, so it was perfect for back training. Yes, my arms had to bend to do the movements, but they weren't doing much to help. The focus was on my back.

If you can't hang around bars, then hang on to something, like a cable, that you can pull down. Make a mental effort to use your back, and minimize the use of your arms. Yes, you'll still feel it in your arms, but if you do it right, you'll feel it in your back. And your lats will grow!