Wasted Energy

One Saturday morning early in my experience at Fivex3, Diego was coaching my deadlift.  After observing a warm-up set, he said, “You need to stop babying the bar when you put it down.”  What?!!  I was so focused on my set up and the actual pull that I had little room left to think about how I was putting the bar down.  In fact, I wasn’t even quite clear on what he meant.  Primarily I was aiming to keep the bar tight and not to allow the iron plates make too much noise when they hit the floor.  Every once in awhile, you’ll see video of someone pulling a heavy deadlift who then basically drops the bar back to the floor from the standing position rather than returning it properly.  I did not want to be that person.  It seems I was taking that concern a little too far.  Diego explained that in putting the bar down so carefully and quietly, I was wasting energy, energy that I should be saving for my next pull.  Having only ever seen me at the gym, a place where I am relatively comfortable and outgoing, he sort of laughed off my concern about being loud and said, “I get the feeling you make a lot of noise a lot of the time, … but in any case, sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do, don’t we?  You may need to make a little more noise with the bar than you want to in order to save energy.”

It seems that life frequently goes this way too.  Like the mental checklist of set-up cues I ran through for my deadlift, we often we have lists of the important tasks we must accomplish, items that demand our attention.  Just as I was oblivious to the effort I was wasting trying to keep the bar quiet, we may not give much attention to the time and energy we spend just spinning our wheels or by being a little too concerned about making some noise.  Often, when life gets really busy, the things we need to do to restore our energy, the things that preserve our good health, don’t even make the list.  In a world where we tend to focus on the equivalent of our next big pull, sometimes it takes a coach to remind us that conserving energy and using down-time to recover are important too.  It’s at least worth a quick review.  Where in your life are you wasting energy?  Where are you shortchanging yourself on needed down-time?

Proper Alignment

Right now my squat is in rehab. I’m working to break a tendency to shift my torso alignment when the bar is heavy. In order to do a low bar back squat, the bar must sit just below the spine of the scapulae, and the torso must be oriented in such a way that the chest points down to the ground.  This allows the bar to move in the straightest line possible, making the lift more efficient.  You might hear the cue “chest down” to remind the trainee of proper alignment.  My torso angle is totally fine when the bar is light, but when I’m under a heavy bar, my form has started to get wonky (yes, again).  I start out chest down, and then at the bottom of the squat, often my head pops up and brings my torso along with it, instead of driving up with my hips.  We’ve been working it through, trying to identify and address the factors that cause me to break form.  Bottom line though, is that I needed to deload and fix form, reorient myself properly, and retrain the position and movement pattern so that I can be more effective and efficient with heavy weights.

This is not dissimilar to what happens from time to time in our spiritual life.  Likely we know that we should be oriented in such a way that we keep our eyes on God, but sometimes we get distracted by the demands of life, focused on the wrong things, maybe thinking that we can rely on our own strength to get us through.  Recently at a church youth retreat, one of the speakers, Tiffany Lee Thompson, presented a similar idea to the kids in the metaphor of a cup.  She explained to them that often we spend time and energy looking outward to other people to make us feel good about ourselves, to make us feel worthwhile and complete, to fill us up. This is as foolish as a cup turned sideways, she said; it is an approach that will always leave us empty.  Instead she told the kids to right their cup, to turn it upward and to be open to God, because only God can fill our cup.  Not only will God fill our cup, she said, but He will fill it abundantly; He will cause our cup to overflow so that those around us will also be refreshed by the love of God flowing through us.

So those times when life feels askew, when we feel disoriented or lost, those are times when we need to recheck our alignment.  If we keep ourselves properly positioned, we will find that we are able to move efficiently and effectively, with power and conviction, lifting the heavy weight and doing the work set out before us.

Under Pressure

In the Starting Strength novice program, the trainee reaches a point where the weight on the bar for deadlift is too great to keep working this lift every session.  At that point, the trainee begins to alternate deadlift with power clean.  Power clean was and continues to be a hard lift for me, mainly because the bar ends in a front rack position, which I think is totally uncomfortable.  The bar finishes on the front of the shoulders (anterior delts) with elbows far forward and the wrists bent back, a position which requires a fair amount of wrist mobility.  When Diego started teaching me power clean, initially I tried convincing him that I lacked wrist mobility and couldn’t do a proper front rack, that I should really be learning the power snatch.  Not convinced, he had me demonstrate the range of motion in my wrists and then asked me to show him my front rack, at which point he concluded, “There’s nothing wrong with your rack!  You’ll learn power clean!”  Ha!  Failed attempt to convince the coach otherwise.

Having settled that, Diego proceeded to teach me the steps of moving the bar from a dead stop on the floor to the front rack position, at which point I realized that holding the bar in front rack was nothing compared to landing it in the right spot.  This isn’t a problem for a lot of people; for me it is a slow learning process.  I continued to land the bar high, too close to my neck, which not only made me a little dizzy but also increased my concern that I was likely to decapitate myself.  Not one to give credence to complaints, Diego’s response to my nascent phobia was “Don’t worry.  That’ll only happen once.”

The feeling of dizziness that results for some people with the force of the movement and the change in position from low to standing is connected to a resulting change in blood pressure.  For me that feeling is exacerbated in the power clean by landing the bar improperly, causing something that Coach Bob called “blood choke”.  Turns out the body is equipped with sensors called baroreceptors, sensors in our blood vessels that detect and help to maintain blood pressure.  Something about where I tend to land the bar in a front rack position causes these baroreceptors to overachieve.  Some people’s baroreceptors are routinely overly sensitive causing a condition called bradycardia, dizziness and fainting from touching the neck, which some men experience while shaving.

To my mind, this is another example of how amazing our bodies are; they come fully loaded with a system that tells us when we are experiencing too much pressure.  In our daily lives, we spend a lot of our time under tremendous amounts of stress and pressure from work, family, and overly crowded schedules.  Our bodies give us feedback about this type of routine stress too.  Often the feedback in these cases is less obvious than the immediate sensation of dizziness I get from a poorly landed power clean, and consequently we learn to ignore or fail to recognize these signs as being stress related.  Headaches, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating or learning new things, disturbed sleep, difficulty breathing, being short-tempered, compulsive behavior, anxiety, heartburn: all of these are signs of stress that frequently go unrecognized.  Sometimes they are symptoms that we just accept as our normal condition, concluding “I’m just forgetful” instead of “I’m under so much stress that I can’t remember”.

At the moment, my power clean training is on hold for several reasons.  Ideally we would be able to do the same in our daily lives with the things that increase our stress.  In reality we do not always have the luxury of simply removing major stressors from our lives.  Often the activities or people that cause us stress are necessary or essential pieces – jobs that pay the bills, family members or friends who are struggling, people that we are paired with to complete certain tasks.  When our main stressors can’t be eliminated, we need to learn how to handle those situations differently.  Just as I will need to learn and train a better movement pattern for the bar on the front rack, we can train ourselves to navigate stressful situations in ways that allow us to minimize the toll they take on our health.  While we may not be able to control the situations around us, we can certainly take greater control of our reaction to them and minimize the pressure we feel as a result.