I’ve had no period in my life before where I was this consistent and disciplined with my gym and diet.

Usually I get to the point of looking and feeling strong, then routinely miss a few days or a week, and have to catch up again.

What I’m learning is that at a certain muscle building level, the game changes.

Your muscles get so strong that you are at the risk of literally tearing your own body apart. Sports injuries from weight lifting are common. Damage to knees and elbows, tendons, the spine, tears inside muscles, and even ripping muscles right off from where they attach to bone all happen.

I had a day in agony just last week, from damage to my right shoulder. Last month I had left elbow pain. This month my right elbow was making popping noises every time I moved it, and was painful. Two months ago I tweaked my back doing twists on the ab twisty machine.

So I’ve come up with a third stage of weight lifting.

Stage 1: Get big and strong. Find a routine of sets and reps, and stick to your routine. Just show up the chosen number of times per week, and finish your work.

Stage 2: Be more creative and flexible with your routine. You realize that you have strong days and weak days. Days where you have to adjust for injuries. Days where you have recovered faster or slower. Listen to your body and adjust the day to that, plus take on new types of challenges; start playing with more and less reps, and different types of movement.

Stage 3: Artistic yogic dance.

On the butterfly wires, more and more I’m leaning into a type of chi-kung dance. I might start by using the wires to stretch out my shoulders, and slowly warm up my muscles with easier but unusual pulls. I’ll challenge my balance by leaning as far forward as I can, and butterfly one arm at a time. I’ll squat and lean backwards as far as I can, and butterfly behind my back. I’ll bend my knees and lean far right, pulling and loosening the wires in co-ordinated but different angles, then shift to the left and repeat. I’ll pull one wire behind my back and one to the front, for an added an ab twist workout. Instead of just trying to grunt out 10 or 20 reps of a full stack, I’ll use a half stack for a 10 minute set. It’s starting to resemble a tai-chi routine.

I make it about awareness. Feel my body as if I were doing yoga postures. Make new postures. Experiment.

It’s starting to look rather interesting, and impressive.

And I’m doing it a weight that last year I was using for a mere 10 reps of straight armed butterflies. At a weight most guys at the gym use for bent elbowed butterflies. After I walk away from that piece of equipment, there is a long cooling off period for it, as no one wants to be compared against what I just did.

I’m getting more flexible and creative on other equipment as well. Even with dumbbells; instead of just working through 10 reps of one in each arm set of 12s, then 14s, then 16s, then 18s, then 20 kilos of curl and press above the head, I might do some sort of mindfulness body centered meditation using just the 12s. for a while. I try to be more creative in discovering how to move the weights around; move them in different directions and at different speeds, feeling my body carefully the whole time. Then just see where my body is at for further challenges of that exercise; I may or not pick up the 20s on any given day.

Even with the pull downs, instead of working to max out the weight for 10 reps, I might stretch out the shoulders, do some slowly, pull one arm down at a time (our gym has a machine with handles and weights for each arm, not just a wire on a stack), and build up to doing aerobic bursts of many reps, then back off again to a slow mindful pace. Even such a simple exercise can be turned into a stage 3 exercise.