Mind the Rest

Emily yelled at me for the first time the other day. From all the way on the other side of the turf room. While she was in the middle of leading her basic training group. Yell is not really the right word, but she was stern. “No! … No! … I do NOT want to see that again.  From now on, I’m the only one who will spot you.  That was NOT enough rest between those sets.  Now you have to wait for ME if you want to lift!”

I was in the middle of my working sets on bench, and Emily was busy.  I didn’t want to interrupt her, but mostly I just didn’t want to wait.  I was impatient.  Instead I asked Adam to give me a hand off and to spot me.  The bar didn’t feel all that heavy on my previous set, and I wanted to get through my lifts a little faster.  Turns out Emily was paying more attention to everything that was going on in her gym than I realized, and she knew I had not waited long enough for working sets.

“OK,” I said meekly and then hopped on my phone to text Tim: “Shit!  I just got yelled at.  Didn’t take a long enough rest.”  Tim’s response: “Rest between sets???”  Remembering one of the fundamental differences between the way he trains for hypertrophy and the way I am learning to train strength is length of rest time, I replied, “That’s something you know nothing about.”

Emily came over to check in with me and to explain again to a slow learner about the importance of rest between sets when your goal is to build strength. “THIS is about getting stronger,” she said.  “It’s about adding more weight to your bar each time, not about adding reps or ‘working legs’. If that was the point you could do anything. This is about building strength. Training the whole body to be stronger. About prepping your body to get your reps on the next set. This is NOT conditioning. This is NOT Crossfit. It is NOT circuits. You need the rest to allow your body and your mind to recover for the next set.”

Tim texted back again teasing, “Wha…rest.  Haha?”  This time I had a clearer understanding, which makes for better ammo.  “You don’t know about rest because you have no discipline!  You’re just chasing pump! I’m building strength. HA!  Strength is a process.”

Practically speaking, I know that Tim rests.  Practically speaking, I know that his training is a process that takes discipline too.  His rest just looks a lot different than mine.  His rest between sets is minimal, sometimes non-existent, but it’s always there between lift days.  He is just as mindful of the importance of rest as Emily is.

Somehow in that moment, this experience reminded me of a conversation I had a few days prior with a guy in my 6am bootcamp.  He told me he had been raised in a family that emphasized goals.  Once he reached one goal, he was expected to start plugging away at the next; no rest for the weary.  As he got older, he started to feel like reaching his goals wasn’t all that satisfying.  His wording caught me, “You may be way beyond this already, but I’ve been reading a lot about mindfulness recently.  I think what was missing for me growing up was that I wasn’t encouraged to celebrate my successes.  We were so busy moving with blinders on trying to get to the next goal that we never took time to recognize what we’d done.  I think it’s important to do that, even if it’s just a small goal.”

He’s right, of course.  We do need to pause, to rest, reflect and be mindful.  But he’s also wrong.  Clearly my impatience to get to my next working set on bench indicates the degree to which I am not “way beyond this”.  I was too busy trying to check bench off my list so I could get to deadlift.  Just like the younger version of my boot camp friend, I was so focused on my next goal that I didn’t allow myself time to process the work I had just done.  Too impatient to be mindful.  I suspect that often I’m not much different outside the gym, but neither is our culture.  Americans value hard work.  We are encouraged to multi-task, persevere, and work tirelessly to get to the last item on our daily agenda before collapsing into bed so we can do it again the following day.  Do that for five days straight, cram as much fun into the weekend as possible, and then repeat.  Sprinting through our days with blinders on, forgetting that we are engaged in a process, a long-term project of building and growing ourselves.  The rest might look different, but growth doesn’t happen without it.  Sometimes it takes as much discipline to carve out a dedicated time to rest as it takes to do the work.  Maybe we could all use a loud voice from across the turf room, interrupting our non-sense, reminding us to take time to allow our minds and bodies to recover.

Near Perfect Form

We’ve all heard that nothing’s perfect.  Experienced it.  Yet, isn’t it funny that often we expect it from ourselves anyway.  One day near the start of this heavy lifting project, as I was just beginning to feel like I didn’t need Craig with me coaching me all the time, I loaded up my bar solo for my working weight deadlift.  As I stepped up to the bar to set up my pull, I ran through all the appropriate cues in my head.  I was feeling autonomous and self-sufficient and good.  Then as I gripped the bar, I overheard Louise’s client ask her if I was really going to lift “that heavy weight”.  Maybe she was worried for me.  Maybe she thought she was next.  I don’t know.  Louise answered with the usual amount of calm and confidence that she carries in her voice, “Yes!  Yes she is going to lift ‘that heavy weight’ – and she’s going to do it with near perfect form!”

That was not the answer I wanted.  It was encouraging, but it was realistic.  I suppose I was hoping for something along the lines of “Hell yeah!  That girl is strong!  She could deadlift a truck.”  Louise’s actual response struck me, distracted me, and I recognizing that my head was in the wrong place; I had to step back from the bar.  In that moment, perhaps I even felt a little offended.  I’d been working hard at perfecting my deadlift form.  I was proud of my effort and I wanted Louise to say I was going to lift ‘that heavy weight’ with perfect form, not near perfect.  But as I’ve noted before, Louise uses words with precision.  She aims for truth in her language, not to puff up someone’s ego for ego’s sake.  And although I’m sure that her primary intent was encouragement, with her words, I felt my ego deflate.  And truthfully that’s not a bad thing.

I remembered a prior conversation with Amy about form.  She explained it like this: “When we work on form in lifting, we are all working on an asymptote.  We work towards perfect form.  We inch right up next to it, but we can never really reach it.”  Perfect form in lifts, as with perfection in life, is elusive.  It is never really attainable, the golden ring always just outside our grasp.  Certainly we should strive for it, and often we get close.  That is how we improve; that is how we will accomplish our best.  But we should never expect to achieve it.  I know this, and yet it is a lesson I continually need to relearn.

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for, Perfection is God's business. ~Michael J Fox
I am lucky to have good friends to remind me that perfectionism is an illusion, to help me push ego out of the way, to help me get my head straight.  I hope you are blessed with honest friends who remind you of similar truths.  Liberating ourselves from illusions of perfectionism allows us to work from a right place in our minds in our attempts at excellence, in our attempts to reach PRs.  It allows us to better stay in the moment, to focus on the the present – on our set up and lift – and not be distracted by an imagined and perfect outcome.  Once we’re clear on all that, it’s safe to step back up to the bar and aim for something near perfect and totally beautiful.

Excitement vs intensity

I have almost always enjoyed exercise and structured my day around it.  Since I began running cross country in high school, exercise has been the one constant in my life and the part of my day that brought me the most joy.  Of course, there were times that I was tired or sore or for some reason my heart wasn’t in it, but that was always a quickly passing thing for me.  In high school and college, a lot of my teammates trained so they could compete; I was the opposite – competing so I could train.  In my 20s, the days when I got to do long marathon training runs with my local Road Runner’s club felt to me like moving parties – seriously, like happy hour with sneakers instead of cocktails.  Even when I was 7 months pregnant with twins, the highlight of my day was getting to the gym, doing what I could do, which at that point was mainly walking on a treadmill.  And recently, some nights I dream about the squat rack or deadlifts or pull-ups or just being at Fivex3Training, and when that happens, I usually wake up too excited to fall back asleep.  I know; weird, right?  That’s just the way I’m wired.

Group fitness instructors and exercise companies spend a lot of energy trying to foster a similar sense of joy in their participants.  They focus on music selection and constantly changing combinations of “choreographed” moves to keep participants interested and excited and coming back for more.  My awareness of the marketability of exercise as fun coupled with the fact that I’m more wired to find joy in exercise rather than in the intensity of competition, contributed to my initial attitudes towards lifting heavier weights.  But the more time I spent with serious lifters, the more I started to notice that my a level of excitement was a bit off compared to what I observed in those around me.

When Craig approaches the squat rack to lift heavy, he often has headphones on and audibly psyches himself up.  He seems to create his own mental space occupied by only the weights and himself; he usually declares something like, “Now it’s time to WORK, mother-f**er”, heads into that space, and gets the job done.  When Amy coached my form for a power clean, the look in her eyes was so concentrated it was startling, especially given that she was demonstrating with a dowel, a very light PVC pipe.  The weight of the dowel was light enough that it was disconcerting to me, but that didn’t hinder Amy from exuding serious athleticism even on a demo.  I’ve seen the same in Emily who, when she taught me overhead press Rippetoe-style, seemed to be instantly transported into competition mode.  In observing each of them, I saw something in their eyes that gave me insight into what was happening in their minds, something that was different from what had been happening to me when I approached the bar.

In their eyes, I had seen a level of focus that I envied.  Where I was giddy with the newness of strength training, they were confident and calm.  At that point, I knew enough at least to realize that developing this type of focus was going to be an essential part of lifting heavy weights, that it would help keep me safe.  I thought about something my husband had said to me recently when I was going on and on … again … about strength training.  “I’m going to say something that sounds like I’m repeating myself, but I’m not,” he said.  “What’s cool about all this is that you are in love and you are falling in love with what you are doing.”  And that sort of summed up the difference between me and my mentors.  Where I was giddy with new love, they had cultivated the security of a long-term relationship.  I had a feeling; they had put that feeling into practice, and the result was that while I was excited, they were intense.   They possessed the quiet confidence that comes with commitment and experience.  They had developed an intensity born of focus, attention to detail, and dedication.  They had earned it.  And I realized that I would get there too; any of us can.  It just takes willingness, time, and practice.

Mission Altered; Mission Accomplished

The youth group from Our Shepherd Lutheran Church recently set out on their yearly summer mission trip to build homes for Habitat for Humanity, and while it takes a certain amount of physical strength to do the work of construction, that is not the focus of this real world story of strength.  This year’s destination was White Sulphur Springs, WV.  You may have seen it in the news.  By Thursday of that week, the area was hit with devastating floods that washed the roads out in all directions, and like the river, the mission trip took an entirely different course.  The group was being housed at the Civic Center, which in times of emergency is a Red Cross Disaster Relief Site, so not surprisingly at around 5pm, one of the youth directors, Alex, received a call from Joyce, the Civic Center Supervisor, to let him know the center was about to be activated; the gym would be opened, and people in need of shelter would be housed there.  The flooding was so bad, however, that while the relief center was there, the Red Cross were not able to get in.

News of the flooding began to hit the networks, and parents started calling and texting the leaders, worried about their children.  The leaders decided to gather everyone together.  What they saw before them was a group of visibly shaken kids.  Those kids had seen and heard about the river swelling, about cars floating by, about houses collapsing and lives being lost.  They were rightfully scared.

mission pixAlex looked out at the group and gave them two instructions:  “#1)  Call or text your parents.  Let them know you are safe.  Let them know you have food, shelter, water, and that you are residing in the safest place in White Sulphur Springs, in the Red Cross Disaster Relief Center.  #2)  Get out of your own heads!  Nothing is happening to you.  You are safe and have everything you need.  As of right now, our Mission has changed.  We are no longer “Habitat for Humanity”.  We are now the “Red Cross”.  Every decision we make from now on needs to be centered on ‘How can I help these people who have REAL problems?’  They’ve lost their homes, their possessions, and possibly loved ones.  You are to be the ‘Light on the hill’.  Now go and help!”

And they did.  With the help of some great coaching and a group of outstanding chaperones, those kids were able to move out of their own headspace, away from their own growing panic, and were able to get to work helping others.  They served those in need by setting up cots, distributing blankets and clothing, feeding and sheltering people.  This included people who were in shock, people who had lost homes and family, people who were trapped and uncertain about what they had lost, people with medical conditions, and people who could not locate loved ones.  Those kids did all that while simultaneously batting flooding in the Civic Center itself.  In the midst of their hard work and lingering concern, they were empathetic and kind.  To my mind, this is one of the ways that strength looks outside of the gym.  I believe that real strength is being able to put the genuine needs of others before our own self-centered and often imagined fears.  More than lifting tons of gravel, swinging hammers, and digging ditches, real strength is often as subtle and quiet as momentarily taming our own insecurities to be able to help someone else in need.

Eating for Strength

The other night my husband and I were able to go out to dinner at a nice restaurant.  That doesn’t happen often with four kids; thank you overnight summer camp!  We shared seared tuna, strip steak, crab cakes, asparagus, and potatoes.  At some point our server came by to check in:  “Can I get anything else for you this evening?”  I looked up and said, “Actually … I’m gonna need some more food.”  His eyes got huge; his jaw dropped, and he looked at me like I was crazy.  He quickly recovered, and my husband asked him to please bring the menu again.  Totally hilarious!  In fairness to the server it probably looked like I had eaten more than I had; I don’t really like seared tuna – too raw for me.  

Several years ago, this kind of exchange would never have happened.   I used to be the “cheap date” in the jokes ordering salads or appetizers as my main meal, and sort of saw that as a point of pride.  I used to believe that 1200 calories was the target to aim for and that adding cardio on top of restricting my calories would get me thinner faster.  I knew nothing about bodies going into “starvation mode”, slowing metabolisms and the self-preservation response of storing up any future calories as fat.  The way I understood my experience with running in relation to food reinforced my belief in calorie restriction and lead me to the notion that fueling up before and during exercise was overrated.  I often ran first thing in the morning and attributed any tiredness I felt to the early hour or to lack of coffee.  When I ran in the afternoon after work, I figured any energy deficit was purely the result of a tough day teaching middle school.  I was always able to run on an empty stomach.  It might not have been my best run, and maybe I felt like crap, but I didn’t see a connection to food.  Even when I trained for marathons, I only ever played around with the gooey refueling gels that my friends consumed.  Mostly I just started running, drank water on the way, and 20+ miles later I stopped.  My focus was on completion of the task, and I loved running so much that I rarely felt bad while I was on the road; I ran on adrenaline, on a runner’s high.  The fact that I was lethargic and lost focus fairly easily at other points during the day didn’t seem related.  And in truth the connection is a little more complicated than a one to one correlation between food and energy levels once you factor in sleep deficits, stress, irregular schedules, and overtraining.

My attitudes towards food have changed pretty substantially since I started training strength, largely because my environment has changed. Instead of reading articles about how few calories I should eat and the “benefits of fasted cardio”, I hear strength coaches tell me to eat more.  Diego’s words: “If you want to build strength, you may have to eat more than you are comfortable with.”  Instead of stories of calorie restriction, I hear Emily tell me stories about restaurant servers routinely collecting the menus to leave after she orders, thinking that she has also ordered for Diego.  The two major differences in my eating now are in the amount of protein I consume on a regular basis throughout the day and the number of times I eat throughout the day.  I aim for a protein and a produce at every snack or meal, and I aim to eat about every three hours, since that’s how long it takes your stomach to empty.  Most of the time if I’ve been eating properly, I am hungry at that point.  In my experience, a properly fed body provides appropriate cues to eat, whereas, a 1200 calorie starved body often gave up on hunger cues, seeming to understand that I wasn’t listening.

I’ve made these changes in my approach toward food because I trust my coaches and mentors, but I’ve also experienced a difference in what I am able to do and how I feel throughout the day.  An underfueled run and an underfueled lift are two totally different experiences.  While I habitually ran on low fuel, the first day that I lifted after not having eaten properly was the last day I did that.  The experience I had that day of struggling with one of my heavier warmup sets and knowing that I hadn’t eaten in five hours was undeniable, and I have done my best to avoid repeating that mistake.  I have had the privilege of witnessing the same kind of “ah-ha” moment for female clients when I help them drill down through their food intake for the day to shed light on why a previously manageable weight feels unmoveable on a different day.  And even more rewarding is watching them make the same sort of healthful changes in their own eating patterns, focusing on protein, moving away from concerns about the number of calories consumed, moving towards adequate intake of healthful food at regular intervals.  

While the effects of being underfueled under the bar can be profound, so too are the effects throughout the day.  Whereas fatigue and lethargy are the nearly constant companions of 1200 calories a day, consistent levels of energy are the compliment of eating for strength.  Add to that an emphasis on protein, the main nutrient that women routinely get in short supply, and you’ve got a recipe for a healthier self.  But at an even more basic level, it feels good to eat with the goal of making myself stronger rather than not eating to try to make myself smaller.  Working towards being more will always feel better than working towards being less.

Rest: The Real Work

At the novice level of the Starting Strength program, as in many pure strength programs, you only lift two or three days a week.  The other days are for rest.  Period.  That has been one of the toughest mental adjustments for me, and it also seems to be one of the most difficult concepts for many of my friends at the gym to grasp.

In high school and college, I used to train for cross country races and for marathons.  Coach had rest weeks programmed into our training, and I struggled with those, with the week or two at the end of each season when Coach said we were not allowed to run.  I can remember in high school, coming home and trying to read poetry in the living room instead of running.  Forcing myself to be still.  My mind and my heart were not in it.  I wanted to be moving.  

As an adult that desire to keep moving translated into working out, moving to move, exercising to sweat and feel like I’d left it all on the floor in a spin class or on the road while running, pushing a baby stroller uphill to burn off stress or anxiety.  Without Coach enforcing rest weeks, I skipped them.  Sometimes I skipped rest days during the week too.  If I’m honest about why I did that, I’d have to say that exercise was, and still is, a coping mechanism for me – endurance exercise as a way to manage, to endure, whatever was bothering me at the moment.  Often that was a daily thing.  

Coming from that mindset, when I first heard Artemis say that training strength requires you to leave the gym feeling like you still have one more rep in the hole, one that you didn’t spend, the concept made no sense to me.  When Craig told me that to lift like he does, he takes 2-3 days off per week, I was a little stunned.  Even Tim, whose training for physique competitions has him lifting 5-6 days per week, usually takes a full week of rest before hitting the same body part again.  The rest and recovery might be less apparent in his program, but it’s still there.

As I struggled to adjust to all the extra rest in my new strength program, I tried to finagle a different answer out of Emily.  Right!  As if I could get her to tell me I could just lift lighter weights on my “rest” days.  Her reply: “Honestly, you should be doing nothing on your rest days. That’s why they are rest days. Walking is fine. Gentle yoga is okay. Conditioning work is not resting unless it is the light cardio stuff. Your rest day should be a real rest day. 😉 For some, a day in between is enough. For others, older trainees, two days off in between. If you want to get stronger, you have to rest. You have to pick your goal. Get stronger or get sweaty. Exercise or train. Pick your goal.”  Ugh!  Truth hurts.

But to look around, it’s not surprising that I tend to undervalue the importance of rest in training.  We live in a culture of “go big or go home”.  I have taught in facilities where instructors encourage participants to go “balls to the wall” all the time.  And so many people that I see at my gym come in and pound their bodies on a daily basis, even taking multiple classes in a row.  They work hard, rarely take days off, and never seem to have an off season.  They aren’t necessarily training for anything; they are exercising.  They don’t have a coach to tell them their body needs rest to rebuild, to make them take time off.  When they don’t see the results they are looking for, they figure they need to work harder.  When that doesn’t help, eventually some of them give up.  

There are many reasons why people exercise like this.  Some people are doing what they think is right based on popular fitness magazines.  Some claim they exercise so they can earn dessert.  Some seem to be punishing themselves for what they ate yesterday.  Exercise is a coping mechanism for many people, as it has been for me, and that’s ok; it serves that purpose very well.  However, even those who are exercising as opposed to training need rest.  If you’ve been undervaluing the importance of rest days like I have done, maybe it’s worth looking into the reasons why.  Those reasons are usually complex and deserve some attention.  The way Emily describes it, “Our rest days are the days when we are really working.  We’ve broken down muscle lifting heavy, and the rest days are when we do the real work of rebuilding ourselves stronger.”  Rest days are necessary to make gains.  Those are the days when we can get a little extra sleep, prep healthy food, take care of ourselves, and patiently wait to build strength.  Sometimes that’s the hardest work.

“Body Shaming”: The Whole Does Not Equal the Sum of Its Parts

This may seem like a departure from the expected, but please bear with me.  Several years ago as I sat in feminist literary theory class in graduate school, the conversation rolled around to the way that men and the media objectify women, segmenting their bodies into parts (usually sexualized), some parts gaining approval and others criticism. Everyone in the room had experienced this on some level.  I relayed a particularly blatant example of one fraternity in college where the guys would line up at the door and “rate” women as they walked in, saying things like “She has nice boobs” or “She’s hot except for her face”, and then summing the woman up in a number. The comments were loud enough for the women to hear and feel uncomfortable as they walked past.  Why anyone went there more than once is a topic for another conversation, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that we had grown used to this sort of objectification through the media. You’ve probably noticed something like this too – that for whatever reason, nearly naked bodies seem to sell merchandise.

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Obviously this sort of objectification of another human being, this reduction of an individual to a collection of body parts or a ranking, can be insulting and demeaning; in some situations this kind of commentary can even be threatening.  What happens literally at a linguistic level, which is of course fascinating to a bunch of aspiring Literature MAs, is that an individual is denied the possibility of being the subject of her own sentence and is reduced to being the object of someone else’s.  (Seriously, go look up your parts of speech).  The result is that she becomes voiceless and powerless to tell her own story; someone else controls her narrative.  Not surprisingly, as the conversation continued, emotions started to rise. And at that point, for some reason, I raised my hand again and said, “You know, guys kind of do that to their own bodies too…. in the weight room.” My professor was quiet, seemingly kind of surprised. She asked me to explain, and I told everyone what I had seen in the weight room along the lines of hypertrophy training and isolation exercise. What I remember next is that some of emotion was diffused, as the women in the room realized that men subjected themselves to this kind of thinking too.

Now you might say that the point of breaking a body down into muscle groups for hypertrophy training is to make a person stronger, and that is definitely not the effect of reducing a woman to a few sexualized parts.  Can’t argue that, but I do think there’s more going on here.  The practice of analytically and critically dividing an individual into parts has become so common in our society that a special brand of this thinking has gained a lot of attention, “body shaming.”  Sometimes body shaming falls along the lines of derision or disgust for parts that are supposedly less than appealing.  Sometimes the part is an athlete’s entire body separated from their amazing performance.  So strong female athletes like Serena Williams or Ronda Rousey have experienced body shaming by being called “huge”, “masculine”, and “built like a man.”  We don’t all respond to this type of commentary in the same healthy, self-accepting way that Rousey was able to: “I think [my body is] femininely badass as f— because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose…”

A lot of us don’t have that kind of body confidence, which I suspect is because unlike Rousey, a lot of us still apply a segmented method of thinking to our own bodies.  Whether we train ourselves as isolated parts (hypertrophy) or as a working whole (strength), many of us still pick on various parts of our own bodies and target areas to build more muscle mass or for “spot reduction”.  And even when we think of our bodies as a whole, we tend to focus on the shape of the vehicle rather than the action it produces.  In doing so, we miss a great deal of the value.  This way of conceptualizing our bodies applies equally to men and women.  So while I wrote the previous post “Body Types and Body Image” with women in mind, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve had as many comments from male friends as from female friends about the applicability of that post to their own lives.  I would suggest that when any of us think of ourselves as parts, we are more apt to be critical of how those parts look, and we miss the value they have in contributing to the function of the whole.  Potentially we fool ourselves into thinking that all we are is those parts.

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One of the reasons I love training strength is that it encourages us to value our bodies as whole units, to appreciate how each piece works together and to focus on the action our bodies produce; the focus is on moving weight not on how doing so makes us look to ourselves or to someone else. On a geeky linguistic level, training strength allows us to become again the subject of our own narrative, the one acting and doing, not the object being viewed or acted upon.  Training strength allows us to reclaim some of the power and voice that we lose when we view our bodies as objects or in parts rather than as a whole.  Training strength equips us to respond to to body shaming like Rousey did, from a place of confidence and healthy self-acceptance.

The Great I Am

When I wrote my first draft of the “I am” post and sent it to Louise for feedback, she commented that her use of this statement varies from person to person. Initially I had interpreted the “I am” statement as a bold declaration of an imagined future self, and I didn’t feel confident enough to make a statement like that. The friend who had originally relayed the story of the “I am” statement tends to be a bit impatient and this may have contributed to how I was hearing it.  Louise, on the other hand, often aims for something more immediate, for something rooted in the present.  Her goal was for individuals to allow themselves permission to perceive themselves as something different or unexpected, whether that be in the past, present or future, but she also is keenly aware of the value of the present, because that is all we really have. In working through the idea the first time, I settled on different wording, “I am training to be …”, which for me shifted my focus from a future goal to something a little more present, the process. Now that I think about it again though, I realize that even still, focusing on the process is not the same as staying in the present.

We live in a culture that values becoming (working towards goals) over being (finding contentedness within the moment). So I think it’s really not surprising that focusing on the present is something I find challenging, and I also think I’m not alone in this. The difference between goal, process, and present, sometimes can be vast, and other times it can be subtle. It’s easy to miss the value of our present self when we focus intently on the goal or even the process; it’s even easier to do when the present self is the one we have come to a trainer to help us change.

As I was thinking this all through again, it occurred to me that in Christian terms God is often referred to as the Great I Am. He reveals himself to Moses as “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:13-14).  I Am – that’s present tense. God is not the Great I Am Working on Being or the Great I Will Become. The power of God is in the present moment, in being able to see ourselves right now in the way that God does, with compassion and love despite our imperfection and brokenness and understanding that this is enough.starfish

Pastor Earl has been working to simplify the message of the Gospel in a recent sermon series. In a world where so many voices have loudly misrepresented the message of Christianity, perhaps from honest confusion, perhaps out of fear, he feels this is necessary. He says that the radical message of the Gospel distilled to its essence is that “I am enough”. He has used a variety of methods to help drive this message home. One Sunday he had us all repeat after him: “I am enough”.  Another Sunday he used question and answer format to help us identify which popular statements were Gospel (“God loves you in spite of who you are and what you do.”) and which were not Gospel (“God loves us most when we do what is right.”).  It was kinda cool listening to him bust Gospel myths like Artemis had busted myths about women and strength training.

We need people like Pastor Earl to remind us of the Gospel, to remind us that, despite our desire to be different or our attempts to change, we are loved and we are enough just as we are. That truth gets muddled when we translate it into the chaos of our daily lives, into the incompleteness of our to do lists, into our attempts to achieve our goals. We forget about the power that is accessible to us when we are willing to see ourselves differently, to love who we are in the present moment, despite the brokenness we might feel. And we need good friends and coaches like Louise to remind us of this too, because any attempt to make a meaningful change to our health and fitness that is rooted in a place of self-acceptance is bound to have more lasting impact than one initiated out of feelings of inadequacy and shame.

Why We Lift; How We Lift

Endurance Strength v Hypertrophy v  Pure Strength

In theory lifting weights seems fairly straight-forward.  You just walk into a weight room and lift heavy s#!t.  In actuality it’s a little more complicated than that.  There are tons of different programs to help people build strength, all promoting different rep and set schemes, varying numbers of rest days, different exercises, and even different ways of conceptualizing the body.  In order to choose the “right” approach, it helps to be clear on your goal.  For me the three approaches I explored were endurance strength (or something like that, in the group fitness lifting program that I teach), hypertrophy (the way Tim lifts for physique competitions), and pure strength (the approach Emily and Craig take).

My initial exposure to weightlifting came through group fitness classes.  Several years ago a friend suggested that I try a class with her; she said she used to take this class at her old gym and was never in better shape.  It was a copywrited program replicated nationally in participating, licenced gyms with instructors who were certified by the parent company.  Most gyms have a variation of this type of strength class.  In the space of 60 minutes, we worked our whole bodies starting with larger muscle groups, like “legs” and “back”, and then moving on to smaller ones, like biceps and triceps.  One up-beat song was dedicated to each muscle group; so for example when we worked biceps, we were doing biceps curls for about 4 minutes straight.  I enjoyed the music and the group atmosphere; some days it felt like dancing with weights.  Since we hit every body part in the the hour, the recommendation is to take the class only 2-3 times a week.  The other days, most people took a spin class or went running.  Pretty manageable for busy people.  This combination approach of strength and cardio addresses the general fitness concerns of most people and it is fun.  For several years I continued with this format, and eventually, I became a certified instructor as well.

This type of work probably most closely fits the standard definition of muscular endurance training, although not quite.  When lifting for muscular endurance, people typically lift 60-70% of the heaviest weight they can move for a particular exercise; they do so for 2-3 sets of 12-16 repetitions with 30-60 seconds of rest between sets, and they usually aim to work to fatigue or failure.  Unlike muscular endurance training, the group fitness version which I experienced tended to drastically reduce the rest between sets, sometimes skipping it entirely before heading into another set, and I’m pretty sure we exceeded 48 total reps on most tracks, or songs.  Although there were guidelines about how much weight to put on the bar, at that many total reps, I doubt we actually were lifting 60-70%, and the amount of weight I loaded onto my bar on any given track only increased about twice in five years.  By the end of a track, most of us felt pretty fatigued, and people would joke about not being able to straighten their arms or having wobbly legs, even into the following day,  Most of that feeling of soreness despite the lack of significant change to the amount of weight we normally loaded on our bars has to do with the periodized approach of the class, meaning the exercises change every 6 weeks or so.  The class is adaptable, so people of all ages and fitness levels can participate, but not always with great form and not always with appropriately chosen weights, so that’s a potential cause of injury or stagnation.  In any case, the overall objective of general fitness was achieved, to move some weight, sweat, and have fun while doing so.  People usually leave the classes a little stronger, more durable, and better able to function effectively in the real world.

Some days my schedule didn’t mesh with the group fitness schedule, and I found myself in the free weight room.  On those days, I usually tried to replicate something along the lines of what I had done in my group fitness classes.  Looking around a free weight room, most women were doing something similar, or possibly they were following a program they had read about in a magazine.  If they were working from a magazine, whether they realized it or not, they were most likely doing some type of hypertrophy training.

Hypertrophy training done correctly is often a 6-day a week endeavor, in which a person works one or two major muscle groups at a time in really high-volume and allows about 72 hours of recovery before revisiting the same muscle group.  This is the way Tim trains.  He’ll say things like “today is a legs day” or “it’s back and tri today”.  He segments his body, usually into antagonist muscle groups, and attacks each part separately, isolation work.  Hypertrophy training requires heavier weights than we use in group fitness classes, usually about 70-80% the most weight someone can move, sometimes more.  Tim will do four or more exercises for each muscle group in sets of 3-6.  Rest time between exercises is about 30-90 seconds or, if he’s supersetting or doing compound sets, the rest time between sets might be non-existent.  He usually does 6-12 reps at a time, so at 3-6 sets of 4+ exercises, potentially he’s doing something like 250 total reps for each muscle group.  In between lifts, Tim eats a ton, seriously.  Eight meals and two supplemental shakes a day.  Lots of protein and healthy carbs, but there’s hardly anything beyond essential fat in his diet or on his body.  As with endurance strength, hypertrophy training leaves an individual stronger and more effective in the real world, but the goal really is to achieve a certain powerful and cut appearance.  After all, Tim trains this way for physique competitions; he’s judged somewhat subjectively on how his muscles look.

Hypertrophy training is brutal.  Tim has trained my pull-up hypertrophy style.  When we started, I could do 4 dead hang pull-ups for several sets, but he was tossing out crazy numbers:  “OK, this time you’re going to do 8.”  It just made me laugh.  Once I finished a satisfactory number of pull-ups, obviously with assistance to meet the higher volume, he’d send me to the cable machine for rows or the lat pull-down bar to “finish me off”.  By the time I had progressed to weighted pull-ups, he would have me do as many as I could with the weights I could handle, and then he’d load me up with more than I could pull on my own, “to shock my muscles.”  “Basically,” he says, “I wanted your body to feel that weight to let it know that this is what it eventually will need to pull up. This method not only gives you confidence for the next time, but by allowing me to help you push past that failure threshold you are able to complete the eccentric portion of the lift. This is where a lot of hypertrophy happens, as well as strength gains.”  I’ll give him a maybe on the feeling confident part, but my body definitely gets shocked.  By the end of a session, I don’t just feel fatigued like I have in the group fitness classes; I feel like my muscles are crying, maybe even bleeding.  I don’t think I whine, but I definitely whimper, and I continue to feel sore for a few days after.  All that being said though, I’m pretty certain he got me to the point where I could do weighted pull-ups on my own faster than I would have otherwise.

Either of these types of lifting, endurance strength or hypertrophy, fall more along the lines of what my strength training friends would call conditioning or cardio.  Training pure strength is a totally different animal.  When Craig first called my group strength classes “cardio,” I was pretty sure he had misunderstood me, because as far as I knew cardio was strictly something like Spin or running.  For strength coaches though, cardio is lifting lighter weights faster.  Strength training involves moving 80-100% maximum weight in 1-5 sets of 1-6 reps.  The lifts are generally total-body movement patterns, like squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press, and each lift day usually includes only 2-4 exercises.  In strength training, rest is crucial.  Depending on how much weight you’re moving, rest time between sets can be anywhere between 3-10 minutes.  And rest time between lift days is 48-72 hours, so you only train strength 2-3 times each week.  When Craig lifts really heavy, 1 rep, there can be enough weight on the bar that the bar actually starts to bend, and his rests are long enough for him to send me way more links to articles on T-nation than I have time to read in a day.  There isn’t much (or any) cardio or conditioning in between strength training sessions because that just breaks down what you’re trying to build.  Rest days are for resting, period.  When training pure strength, great attention is paid to those rest days between lifts: protein intake, hydration, sleep, stress management, consumption of nutrient-rich, real foods.  Strength training the way Craig describes it is a lifestyle that transcends the weight room.

My first experience with strength training was when Craig coached me on proper form for the big lifts and got me started on a 5×5 program, which I could track on an app on my phone.  I had an A day of 3 big lifts and a B day of 3 big lifts.  With enough rest in between lifts, the goal is to be able to add 5# to each lift each time it comes around in the program.  I soon realized that if I was going to do this the way it was intended, I wasn’t going to able to do it alone. I also realized eventually that I was going to have to reconsider the rest of my workouts and really have rest days.  That’s when I started traveling to Baltimore to work with Emily at FiveX3Training.  FiveX3Training is a Starting Strength facility; this means Emily and her husband Diego teach Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength System which “makes use of the most basic movement patterns that work the entire body as a coordinated system, gradually increasing loads that make the whole body stronger, in a logical, understandable, time-tested manner – the way athletes have gotten stronger for millennia.”  http://startingstrength.com/about  Emily says, “We teach nothing new….just a systematic approach to barbell training that makes sense to people and works.”

Initially A day is squat, OH press, deadlift; and B day is squat, bench, deadlift.  I go through my warm up sets at light weights that gradually increase until I get to 3 sets of 5 reps at my working weight.  Then I go home, rest and eat (lots of protein, 3-5 meals), and come back the next time to add 5 more pounds to my bar.  That’s the novice program.  I’m getting to a point now where I can’t add 5 more pounds to each lift each time, so Emily and Diego have started to finesse my program.  For some lifts I go up incrementally (2.5#) or work in triples.  I’m also getting to the point where my CNS is too taxed by the weight of the deadlift to do it every time, so I have started alternating that with a power lift, like power clean or power snatch.  I have just reached the point where I am making these changes, so the road ahead may feel different, but until now, I always have left FiveX3Training feeling like I had worked hard but like I still had more to spend; at the end of a set I was tired, probably even struggled to get the last rep, but 5 minutes later I felt like I could have gone again.  In her “I Am Not Afraid to Lift” workshop, Artemis explains this sensation as “leaving the gym feeling as though you still have one rep in the hole.”  Not until I reached the point where I had maxed out my ability to deadlift every time did I ever feel sore the next day.  My joints are appreciating doing 15 meaningful reps 2-3 times a week, instead of hundreds of reps.  But the most exciting part is that I can tell from the weight on the bar, that each session, I am getting stronger, and that is the goal – to build total body strength.

For me right now, this style of training is the most appealing on multiple levels.  For starters, it’s training for a clear purpose of gaining strength; it’s not just moving to move.  Right now, I am really appreciating having goals in my training.  That was not always the case.  When my kids were little, I just needed to workout, to blow off steam; that is what allowed me to cope with my day.  I needed to be durable in the real world and to feel good about myself by exercising.  Maybe it would have helped at that point to have been working towards goals, but my life was too unpredictable.  I felt like I couldn’t see that far ahead, like I was doing well if I just survived the day.  Adequate amounts of sleep and proper nutrition were luxuries.  Secondly, I love training my body as a whole unit.  If I hit a bumpy patch or a busy week, I can drop back to two lifts per week instead of three and still make progress.  I don’t have to worry that I didn’t get around to a certain muscle group and that my program for the week will be unbalanced.  I love that I’m training my body to work as a unit, major muscles and supporting muscles working in their natural relation to each other, not segmenting my body into parts.  Isolation training done properly maintains these natural balances, sometimes addresses imbalances created through our daily movement patterns.  Too often, though, inexperienced lifters focus on the muscles they can see, the “glamour muscles”, and forget the ones they can’t see, leaving their bodies unbalanced.

Perhaps most significantly though, I love conceptualizing my body as a whole, not as parts, and placing my focus on what my body can do not on how parts of it look, focusing on how much weight I can move, not on how my body looks as a result of my work.  In a culture where we already “pick apart” our bodies and believe in myths of spot reduction, and coming from a past where I overlooked the whole to criticize the part (“I can run fast, but I don’t like the way this part of my leg looks”), this approach feels good.  For me, training this way encompasses strength as a sum total of what my body can do, real-world movement patterns, my attitudes towards my body, and the ways I treat my body outside the weight room with regards to sleep, nutrition, and rest.  For me, training strength feels healthy and wholesome.

Strong Enough to Pull Myself Up

Training a pull-up became my first specific strength goal.  When I initially stood on the box to wrap my hands around the bar at Artemis’s “I Am Not Afraid to Lift Workshop”, I had not one pull-up in me. I could barely hang on to the bar without a slight touch of vertigo. I’m not sure I even had a pull-up in me in elementary school when we did the Presidential Fitness Test. But somehow I left that workshop with the wild goal of doing a weighted pull-up with a 53 pound (24kg) kettlebell chained to a belt around my waist.

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I had watched Artemis do weighted pull-ups!  I had watched her do a one armed pull-up!  Artemis invited us to try, and I watched as my friend Amy stood in front of the group and succeeded at a weighted pull-up with a 10kg kettlebell, 22 lbs.  Amy2It seemed easy enough to believe that I could do it too. Artemis had spent the morning busting myths of women and strength training – what women should do and what women can’t do. Myths like “women should ‘tone’ with 5# dumbbells” and “women can’t do pull-ups”, like an article in 2012 edition of the New York Times claimed in its title. No one in that gym full of strong women believed those myths. Why should I? Artemis gave me a goal and a clear path forward, exercises to progress me toward doing a pull-up and doing it well!

As I embarked on my pull-up project, I realized that most of the strength work I had done up until this point was for a general goal of building some muscle and staying in shape. I had been attempting to “tone” – not train (and I had just learned that “toning” isn’t a thing). Telling people I was headed to the free weight room to “train my pull-up” felt different. My pull-up! It felt good, empowering. I was training to get a pull-up, not to lose a pound. I was training for a positive goal; a goal to make myself more rather than less. I was training to pull myself up to a higher level.

Take a look at your goals. Are you training to get to a higher level or are you working out to avoid being something else? Training to be or not to be?  That is a question worth asking.