One of the phrases that don’t accept easily from clients is “I can’t…” I hear this often when I teach them a new exercise or hand them a heavier weight for an exercise they have been training. It is also a phrase that people don’t want to let go of easily. My clients modify their language and say things like “I don’t think I can …”. Different wording, but still a phrase that expresses self-doubt.
I struggle with this too. There are days when I feel fairly certain at the start of a training session that I am behind the eight-ball. Days when I’m sleep deprived, stressed, improperly fueled, or just plain unsure that I’m up for the task of lifting the weight that my program indicates I should aim for on that day. But I’ve learned that those feelings do not always correspond with the outcome, and I’ve learned that language matters.
Obviously there are some things that are physically impossible, beyond reasonable limits; I can’t train really hard and make myself grow three inches or fly. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the times when we feel uncertain about our abilities to do something new, the times when we are heading into uncharted territory and want some kind of reassurance or control. The phrase “I can’t” provides a type of certainty by insuring an incomplete or failed outcome. We might not be able to lift a heavier weight or learn a new exercise, but instead we can feel confident in our ability to predict the future, and we can then find reassurance in saying, “I knew I couldn’t do it.” But of course you know, this is not how progress is made.
Whether you like or hate Tony Horton and P90X, one thing that stuck with me from that program was his insistence that people not use the phrasing “I can’t”. The substitute phrase that he offers runs along the lines of “Currently I am working on …” The language that I use when I show up to train on a day when I’m feeling less than confident is “We’ll see what happens.” However you word it, leave the door open for an uncertain outcome. When we are willing to challenge ourselves, when we are willing to work in the space where success is not guaranteed, then we open to ourselves the possibilities of growth and change and progress.
I am in love with the deadlift. There are multiple reasons for this; some reasons are practical and some go a little deeper. The deadlift is a highly functional and fundamental movement that many have forgotten how to perform in our modern context. We routinely abuse our backs, slouching in the sofa, rounding over a steering wheel, slumping over the computer, then we use it improperly to lift heavy crap off the floor. Deadlifts help to correct all of this. They help to strengthen and preserve the back from the stress of daily living. People often tell me things like, “I don’t deadlift; I have a bad back’ – a form of logic that doesn’t make much sense to me. Training a weak area to be stronger and move efficiently makes much more sense to me than allowing a weak area to go untrained so it is vulnerable in real world activities. On the other end of the spectrum, I have had several older clients, some with a history of back pain, comment on how having trained this movement pattern properly has allowed them to garden for extended periods of time without feeling it in their backs and has allowed them to move through life with less discomfort. A deadlift done properly, with awareness and good form, is one of the most beautiful and beneficial things I know.
A deadlift is also, in my experience, a hugely empowering lift for women. Done properly, a deadlift is one of the easiest lifts to load to a weight that seems to blow most women’s minds. Within a relatively short amount of time, a client can safely move from never having done a deadlift to pulling more than body weight. I remember the first time I realized I could pull more than I weighed, and I experience that same excitement each time a client reaches that point too. For a woman to have that tangible realization that the pink 5# dumbbells are not for her is a joyous moment; realizing that she is capable of literally pulling her own weight in life is a massive confidence booster.
But for me personally my love of the deadlift goes to an even deeper level. This is the first lift that taught me how to see myself differently. Not just as a strong woman who could pull her own weight and then some, but it taught me the value of seeing myself from the inside out and not the reverse. When you set up properly for a deadlift, your line of vision is on the floor approximately two feet ahead. Even if you are lifting in a facility that has mirrors (don’t), there is no way to set up properly and see yourself through your eyes. You have to learn to translate a visual understanding of yourself into something sensory, learn how the proper set up feels and then trust that. Training myself to trust in my inner vision was kinda revolutionary for me.
One day at Fivex3, I overheard someone jokingly describe setting their line of sight during a lift as staring into infinity. And that is a pretty accurate description of what happens to me when I deadlift well. I set up my pull, see myself from the inside out, and then to focus on that vision with such intensity that the rest of everything seems to melt away. When I deadlift well, I find what some people describe as “flow”. That feeling where the barriers between mind and body and the barriers between internal and external seem to dissolve, that feeling of being wholly (holy?) and completely present in the moment. Some people experience this feeling in other athletic endeavors or hobbies about which they are passionate, where mind and body become one through their activity. Some people experience this feeling when they are falling in love, where they feel they have connected with someone across the bounds of space and time and individual personhood. The deadlift does not have exclusive rights to this feeling, and slowly I’m learning to find that same level of intensity and focus in my other lifts. The deadlift just has a greater claim on my psychic space, because it provided me my first glimpse of the “infinite” in the context of the weight room. And that is a pretty amazing thing, not to be underappreciated. To my mind, the deadlift is a thing of beauty and power, and this is why, in my vocabulary, the deadlift has become the grateful deadlift.
Last week I had sort of a milestone lift. My programmed deadlift weight was one that I’ve had my eye on since last winter, a 2x bodyweight deadlift. Interestingly what ended up making the lift noteworthy to me was not so much the weight on the bar, but the difference in my attitude going into the lift. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that what happens to a person is less important than what happens within a person. That lift served as a measure of a bit of what has happened within me.
Deadlift is usually the last lift of my session. Before deadlifting that day, I had to get through heavy squats and heavy bench presses. So it didn’t surprise me to notice, as I drove into Baltimore, that I had tiny butterflies in my stomach. I couldn’t decide, though, if they were floating on excitement or fear. I had managed the pieces that were under my control as best as I could. I had forced myself to go back to sleep when I woke up early so I would be well rested. I had eaten well the day before and had extra breakfast before training, so I would have enough fuel. I had respected the recovery process on the previous rest day so my body could rebuild and not be further worn down. But even controlling what I could, recent failed attempts on lifts have taught me that little is guaranteed. Lifting heavy weights is not like going into a fitness class where you are ensured that by the end that you be sweaty and feel like you’ve had a “good workout”. There seems to be an X factor with heavy lifting that lies outside of the pieces we can control and that for seemingly unknown reasons becomes evident for me on certain days. I knew I was up for a lot of work, but whether I would be able to do it all was up in the air.
As I drove, I decided that the feeling that was keeping those butterflies aloft was more like the somewhat uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty, a cross between excitement and fear that results from the recognition that despite our best efforts to be in control, we really aren’t. Some people seem to love that feeling. Maybe that’s why they ride the big roller coasters. For me it’s a different story. Uncertainty makes me a little anxious. I’m the one on the ground taking pictures of my family on the roller coaster. But instead of taking a step deeper into that discomfort by focusing on the value I had placed on a 230# deadlift, I managed to take a step back, to downplay the emotional attachment I had to that weight and instead I decided to watch with vested curiosity, from behind a camera lens, to see how the whole thing unfolded. I walked into Fivex3 thinking, “Well … we’ll just see what happens.”
In viewing myself both as an objective observer of the outcome and also as the one working to create it, in acknowledging that I am both in control and totally not, I found a place to balance between excitement and fear, a place that was kinda fun. Establishing a tentative friendship with uncertainty, controlling what we can and being curious about the rest, getting outside of our own heads … all of that ultimately seems to allow us to be more fully and happily engaged in the process. That strategy works pretty well for me for heavy lifts, and I’m betting it’s a good strategy outside of the weightroom too.
Having goals is great; they keep us motivated in our work. Stating them out loud and to others often increases our commitment to those goals. However, if we are looking for something from others in stating our goals publicly, something beyond our own increased personal commitment to those goals, we need to be prepared that the responses we get might not be what we’re looking for. Always there will be haters (we all know this), but sometimes even the responses of those who are our usual cheerleaders will surprise us.
One day this summer at Fivex3, a woman stated that this was her “summer of the 75 pound press”. Other trainees came back with encouragement and affirmation that she was strong, dedicated, hard-working and would surely reach this goal. Of all the responses a trainee gets, that of her coach usually ranks highest, and Emily’s response was “We’ll see.” That shut everyone up quickly. It was pretty clear that no one in the gym really liked that answer. They pushed for something more affirmative, encouraging, at least reassuring. Emily reworded her response slightly, but did not concede. “I hope so,” Emily said. “I hope you get 75# and more, but we’ll see.”
Coaches respond differently to different trainees; they learn what sort of responses encourage and motivate each of us. Emily likely had reasons for her response that were specific to that individual, but having recently discussed goal setting with Emily, I heard her response within the context of our conversation. I knew that Emily’s life experience and injury history made her keenly aware of the sometimes surprising limitations placed on our goals; she recognizes that there are always factors outside of our control that affect our ability to achieve goals and that we need to be able to reset and continue moving forward in alternate ways when the unexpected happens. Emily’s intention was definitely to be supportive, but also to be realistic; head in the clouds but feet firmly planted on the ground.
That’s an essential and often overlooked element of goal setting. It’s easy to get caught up in the dream, to become heavily and emotionally invested in a goal, but this is a stance that leaves us vulnerable when life takes an unforeseen turn. Goals must be kept in a fine balance between commitment and flexibility, held as both something that we strongly desire and are willing to work for and something that we can reframe and tweak when necessary. It’s tough to know when we have that balance right. It seems to me that a sign that we’re on the right track, though, is when we can react to realism in the comments of another, as the trainees at Fivex3 did. They asked questions, sought more information, worked to understand a response that they didn’t expect. Conversely, if we find that our responses to others’ opinions is full of ego and emotion, that seems a good indication that our reaction to obstacles in our paths will be similar and that our ability to seek out information and an understanding of how to move forward on an alternate way will likely be impaired. Our own reactions to the comments of others may be just as surprising as the responses themselves, and they are also a good test of “head in the clouds and feet on the ground.”