View from Mudsock Heights

This didn’t turn out at all as I’d expected.

Here’s the prelude: When I made pictures for a living, I got plenty of exercise. Walking five miles or more per day was routine. I’ve run backwards up hills (so as to photograph parades and protests coming up those hills) and carried lots of photographic gear appreciable distances, about which my muscles later registered an opinion.

That ended — not my idea — and I got flabby, which I didn’t want to be. So I started eating less and forcing myself to exercise for its own sake, not as a byproduct of other work. I was surprised at the results, given a relatively small amount of effort. (Exercise is important while eating less; otherwise, one loses as much muscle as fat.)

During the last year or so, as most all of us moved around less, I increased those efforts slightly. It didn’t involve much equipment — the chin-up bar suspended from the back porch roof and a small set of free weights. Push-ups, chin-ups and pull-ups (they’re different), and sit-ups did a lot, but a little bit of dumbbell work, I thought, would be good, too.

A couple months ago I did something — I don’t know exactly what — that ripped something in my shoulder. (I hope it was a muscle rather than cartilage, because muscles heal more efficiently.) It hurt like hell and did not quickly get better. My technique in my modest exercise regime had probably gotten sloppy. So I started looking for exercise gadgets that impose form upon the user more than using free weights does. Those devices make one less likely to yank rather than apply constant force.

I’d hoped to find a thing I’d seen years ago, which offered a whole bunch of gym-type exercises that through an ingenious lever system required no weight other than that of one’s own body. It was appealing in a nerdy sort of way. But it’s no longer available, so perhaps it wasn’t a good idea after all, or else [insert your favorite dark conspiracy, perhaps about the cabal that is Big Exercise].

After some pondering (and measuring the space available) I decided that a good choice might be a thing called an XRS 50, which is sold under a variety of brand names. It uses a Rube Goldberg circuit of weights, pulleys, cables, levers, and so on to produce things you’d normally find in a public gym. They’ve nearly doubled in price in the last year, but I found one for sale at close to the origins price and got it.

It took much longer than I expected to arrive, and when it did it was in two compact boxes that had the density of lead. One box contained the weight stack. The other contained everything else, all in pieces, scores of them, hundreds if you count bolts, washers, nuts, screws, and other stuff. I began to think that the exercise would come in putting the thing together, after which I’d have a large piece of modern sculpture. This impression was reinforced by the number of the machines I’d seen online for sale only partially assembled, local pickup only.

But no. While it was complicated it was also brilliantly documented and laid out. The instructions were numbered and the small parts were on blister-pack cards, numbered corresponding to the assembly steps. I was not especially diligent and still it went together in less than a day – even the seemingly incomprehensible pulley system. The bolts had blue thread locker already applied and they even included a packet of what I think is white lithium grease (I used my own red Mobil 1 synthetic grease where lubrication was needed, because I got a tub of it a few years back when I needed a small dollop of the stuff and have been trying to use it up ever since).

At construction day’s end I gave it a try and with one exception everything worked smoothly. The exception was a couple of very tall plastic-and-sheet-metal pieces whose functions, it seemed, were to hold up stickers proclaiming the name of the contraption, keep bystanders from sticking their fingers into the weight stack, and amplify the noise the thing makes while in use. The weights banged into them. So I removed them. The machine isn’t noisy in operation, just a satisfying clank, though there were a couple of places where metal pieces would bang together. A bit of thin sticky-back rubber cured that. Some pieces of rubber matting protect the floor. And my hope of writing a hilarious column about trying to put together this strange modern wonder disappeared.

So, a few weeks in, let me tell you about this machine and how it has worked out (see what I did there?) so far.

For a start, yes, it accomplished what I hoped it would, which is to correct my form in conducting some weight-lifting moves. The weights are under control, which is important especially after one gets fatigued and still wants to get in one or two more repetitions. With this device, it becomes more obvious when you’re done.

The weight stack is, as you’d expect, adjustable. While the weights themselves weigh a total of 110 pounds or so, because of the pulley system it can effectively weigh well over twice that, which is more than I’ll ever need, in that my goal is to be wholesome and healthful, not to become a muscle monster.

Important in my view is that you can use only a small part of the weight stack, and we’ve learned more and more that lots of repetitions at fairly low weight are just as effective and in some ways safer than few reps at a high weight. And lots of reps add to the cardiovascular benefits of a workout. I’ve found low resistance useful also in rehabilitating my shoulder, cutting down on the weight on exercises where the shoulder is in play, while also controlling the movements involved. There is chart in the instruction book that lists what weight is applied where at particular settings. (They also included an exercise chart, though not the magnifying glass that would render it legible.)

There is a tendency in weight training to crank it up and see what you can do, and my guess is that people who have gotten this kind of machine and ended up not liking it have taken this approach. In my estimation – and I say this as someone whose lone qualification is having a sore shoulder from having done something wrong before the contraption arrived – is that a disproportionate number of exercise injuries come from trying with poor form to do something with too much weight, when the same movement, properly done and or with a little less weight, would have been beneficial.

Shouldering the burden is one thing. Burdening the shoulder is a different thing. And yes, thanks, that part of my body is indeed much better.

Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at

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