Barbell Training is for Everyone! Mylan’s Story

Over the past several years I have heard many misconceptions about barbell training. The ones I hear most frequently are 1) the bulky and slow myth, 2) the fallacy that barbells are for younger athletes or “I’m not trying to be a weightlifter anyway,” and 3) “I’m not strong enough” or “I can’t”.   Much has been written about each of these notions, so I’ll just touch on them briefly. Then I’ll share the experience of one of my clients, Mylan Dawson, a man in his early 50s with a primarily sedentary job, concerned about his loss of muscle and strength but not sure what to do about it; a man who had some common misconceptions about Barbell training and who now “could not be happier that I overcame my reluctance and committed to trying barbell training as it has made a significance difference in my life in a relatively short time.”

The Misconceptions
1) The Bulky and Slow Myth
First off, “bulky” is a subjective term about which plenty has been written, especially as it pertains to perceptions of female athletes. Suffice it to say “bulk” has more to do with nutrition, supplementation, and exercise volume (total number of reps) than it does to touching a heavy weight. People you might perceive as “bulky” worked intentionally and very hard for many years to build muscle; it will not happen to you accidentally.  (In fact even with intentional eating and dedicated training, some people struggle to build muscle mass). For the average person, a heavy barbell poses less of a “bulking” threat than dessert and alcohol do.  

Once we get past the false idea that weight training will leave you “bulky” and “musclebound,” it becomes more clear that increased strength actually improves almost all markers of athleticism, including speed.  More strength means a greater ability to produce force against resistance – translated this means a stronger you can run faster or can run at your previous speed more easily.

2) Barbells Are for Younger Athletes or “I’m Not Trying To Be a Weightlifter Anyway!”
Yes, college athletes, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, etc train with barbells. That doesn’t mean that everyone training under a bar has the same competitive goals, just as everyone driving a car does not intend to be a NASCAR driver.  I use barbells and barbell lifts because they are time-tested, effective ways to build strength and to maintain muscle and bone mass – not because I’m trying to turn everyone into a competitive powerlifter.  My regular training buddies include women and men spanning all decades, including well into their 70s, and just a few of my training partners are interested in competing.  Regardless of whether the goal is a competition or active and healthy aging, building strength increases one’s durability, independence, and quality of life.

3) “I’m Not Strong Enough” or “I Can’t”
Strength is a continuum and chances are you’re not as devoid of strength as you might imagine.  Additionally, the road to strength has many different on-ramps. Regardless of your exercise or injury history, there is always something you could be doing to get stronger. Every main lift has modifications for those who are recovering from surgery or injury, and most ROM limitations are less restrictive than people are generally lead to believe. A properly equipped facility will have specialty and training bar options. I started my kids out with a 10# training bar, and we built from there. Weight can be added to a barbell in much smaller increments than is possible with other training modalities, as little as 1/2 pound at a time.  In the world of strength one learns straight away that the focus is always on what one can do; not on reasons why one can’t.

Mylan’s Story

“At 52, it became painfully obvious to me that I was experiencing significant muscle loss. My clothes were alternatively baggy and tight – and in all the wrong places.  I was noticeably slow to stand up when getting out of bed and the times I need to lift our senior dog into and out of the car or up and down stairs was beginning to be more and more difficult.  I knew it was time to get stronger but, as I did not have any real experience with weight training, I did not know how. Fortunately, six months ago I was referred to Rebecca.

“I was initially somewhat reluctant to barbell training as I was concerned about the time commitment and as well as my inability to perform the lifts due to my lack of strength. Rebecca introduced me to the Starting Strength method of training which focuses on lifting weights using a barbell and doing so in the most efficient and safest manner possible to gain overall strength. This has had the benefit of keeping my time in the gym down to a manageable level. Rebecca also explained that the movements we would be doing were generally reproductions of what we do in everyday life – squatting down to pick something up or lifting something heavy over our heads for example. I could not be happier that I overcame my reluctance and committed to trying barbell training as it has made a significance difference in my life in a relatively short time. For example, lifting and carrying the dog is easier and I feel more stable, my knees are nowhere near as balky in the mornings as previously and I carry my luggage and place it in the overhead far easier than before making my frequent business travel significantly less strenuous.

“I have found a good, qualified coach to be essential. Learning the lifts has been one challenge but interruptions from work and everyday life has presented other obstacles to reaching my goals. In overcoming these challenges, I have benefited immeasurably from having a professional give her perspective and guidance on all aspects of my training. Rebecca realizes we are all individuals and tailors my program to fit my needs and limitations to help me reach my personal goals. She has also been very helpful in providing guidance on nutrition. While I had little knowledge of the process of lifting weights, I had even less understanding of the nutritional needs of my body when doing so and how to eat in a way to best position my body to respond favorably to weight training. Rebecca has helped me make realistic and achievable long term changes to my diet that have helped me feel better as well as gain strength.

“I would recommend anyone of any age to seriously explore barbell training with Rebecca. The confidence gained from getting stronger cannot be understated, and Rebecca is the ideal person to help you begin your journey.”


Mylan overcame his misconception that he was “not strong enough” for barbells and began training mid 2018. During his first week, he squatted 95#, overhead pressed 55#, benched 65#, and deadlifted 115#.  He trained fairly regularly 3x/week. We worked around his job, travel schedule, family obligations, and we made appropriate adjustments when necessary. Now he’s squatting 220#, benching 175#, overhead pressing 110#, and deadlifting 255#.

A Tale of Two Meets: Gratitude Changes Everything

USSF Fall Classic and USSF Nationals meets were a study in contrasts for me. Outwardly the challenge was the same: three attempts at each of three lifts: squat, overhead press, deadlift.  The internal reality I created for myself around each of these situations, however, was radically different. And just as the opening lines of Dickens famous novel point out, the determination that “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times …” depends largely on context.

Leading up to the Fall Classic, I was on a roll with my favorite lift, the deadlift, hitting PRs (Personal Record) every week in training. As the weight on the bar continued to increase, my coaches and I started speculating about how much I might pull at the meet.  In weightlifting, as with most endeavors, there are milestones, and a 300# Deadlift, a lift of more than 2.5 times my bodyweight, started to seem like an entirely reasonable goal for me for Fall Classic. As the weight on the bar continued to increase in training, that goal started to become “a thing” in my head. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, getting nervous and jittery before deadlift training sessions.  Those pre-training nerves rapidly turned into a frequent and overbearing companion, something obsessive really.  At a certain point, my body rebelled; it stopped deadlifting. One week I pulled 3×280# with back off sets, and the next week I couldn’t get 270# off the ground.  That tripped my mental shenanigans into full-blown mind fuckery.  Any thoughts of deadlifting, which were nearly constant, caused my heart rate to rise and my stomach to feel queasy.  Predictably this affected the quality of my sleep and my ability to eat like a normal person, which translated into lighter and lighter deadlifts.  I’m pretty sure I must have been unbearable to my friends; I certainly was unbearable to myself. My training mutated from something fun and challenging into something unhealthy and bitter. I had given up family time to train, and I felt like I had to do well to justify that time.  I felt like my dedication entitled me to a 300# deadlift and I was annoyed that my body and mind were “betraying” me.  It was messed up, and I knew it.

I started asking friends how they managed meet jitters and anxiety.  In my experience, I’ve learned there’s a sizeable mental component to a successful lift, but up to that point, I hadn’t actively done anything to train that aspect of the work.  I got some great tips and reading recommendations, including Lanny Bassham’s “With Winning in Mind”. In the last few days before the Fall Classic, I completely reworked my thought process around the meet. I redefined success for me in the meet from an outcome to the process: from a 300# deadlift to finding fun in the moment, staying calm and self-assured, and focusing on using the best form I could for each of the lifts. I developed a mantra to accompany my set-up, so I could keep my thoughts in check as I approached the bar and executed my lifts. Since the meet was just days away and I was supposed to be resting, I practiced my set-up with the mantra mentally, rather than physically. And slowly, I felt my body and mind shift. My heart stopped racing and my stomach stopped lurching when I thought about the meet. My jitters dissipated. I became more bearable … to myself anyway.

The morning of the meet, I felt surprisingly calm. A friend texted to send good wishes and my honest reply was that I had already won because I’d beaten my anxiety.  And truthfully, the whole day, I was calm and positive and had fun. My squat form was better than it had been previously in training; my press was solid, and my good deadlift form reappeared.  In my coach’s words, my deadlift was not bad considering I had “essentially stopped deadlifting for the last month”.

Warming up at USSF Nationals

After the meet, rather than hide in the comfort of the squat rack at Fivex3, I wanted to take an immersion therapy approach to my anxiety; to give myself more opportunities to face and manage what freaked me out until it no longer scared me.  My friend Craig had signed up for the USSF Nationals meet in California, and encouraged me to do so also.  I had a million reasons why that wouldn’t work: too expensive, too far away, a whole weekend away from my family, too selfish, can’t sleep in strange places.  I listed all these reasons to my husband, and then finished with a quiet “but I still really want to do it.”  Incredibly, his response was “I know.  Let’s figure out how we can make it happen.”  Those two sentences changed everything.  Instead of feeling like I was stealing family time for a selfish endeavor, instead of feeling like I needed to “have something to show for myself” after taking time from them, I realized my family was giving me a gift: the opportunity and the support to chase after something meaningful to me.  The only proper response in that situation is gratitude, and grounding oneself in gratitude alters everything.  My training became joyful and positive again.  I continued with what was working for me: focusing on the process and what I could control and letting the outcome take care of itself, including an affirmative mantra in my set-up, talking about the positives in my training and not wasting words or energy on the rest, encouraging other people, and keeping a balanced perspective.

We cobbled together frequent flyer miles and points and favors to plan a family trip to Lake Tahoe, where my husband and kids could ski with my cousins while I competed in the meet.  Nothing about the circumstances allowed me to forget how fortunate, how blessed, I was to have that opportunity.  Gratitude wholly and completely overwhelmed my emotional landscape in the days leading up to the meet; there was no room for anxiety or nerves.  On the day of the meet, I had a blast.  I met some incredible people; I mastered my anxiety; I had tons of fun, and I lifetime PRd on all three lifts.  I even came home with two medals.  And the icing on the cake, although it didn’t meet competition standards (my grip slipped on the reset), was that my third attempt deadlift was 137 kilograms (302#)!

3rd Attempt DL

“Is the Competitor Ready?”: Charm City Strongwoman Competition 2017

“I don’t mean to be rude, but why are you doing that anyway?”  Probably a reasonable question for many people to ask.  Strongwoman and Strongman competitions are still a bit outside the mainstream, and a fair number of people have never even heard of the sport.  The question came after an explanation of the Charm City Strongwoman Competition, so I think really, the question was more a general wondering about why someone would voluntarily participate in something that sounded like so much work.  To be honest there were moments when I wondered the same thing, not because it sounded like work, but because some of that work kinda scared me.  So in answer to the question and to keep myself on track, I reminded myself of my two biggest reasons for participating: community and personal development.

Fivex 3 Training Strongwoman Team

Training regularly at Fivex 3, I know that I am a part of a special community, a unique group of individuals that support and encourage each other in our training.  The specialness of this group was obvious the day of the competition.

The Volunteers

The overwhelming number of gym members who volunteered a huge chunk of their day to help run the event coupled with the number of gym members who, despite busy schedules, still came out to watch and support their friends for part of the morning attested to the close knit feel of our gym family.  That support and encouragement filled the street outside Fivex 3 on Sunday morning, as spectators and competitors alike cheered.  A competitor I’d never met before called out cues to me mid-event as I attempted to get the heaviest weighted ball over the 10 foot marker.  Another competitor I had met at Fivex 3 a few weeks prior, thanked me for coaching her on the log press, saying that my feedback was what had allowed her to press the 85# log in practice the previous week. The Charm City Strongwoman Competiton was a place of abundant strength, encouragement, and support.  Same team – different team.  Self – competitor.  Didn’t make a difference.  Everyone genuinely rooted for each other’s success.  As our coach Emily said, “This was our 6th contest and I have never seen so much cheering and support and love as I saw yesterday. … Women who had NEVER met before until yesterday, encouraging and coaching each other, pushing each other…regardless of what team they were on. It was incredible. THIS is what Strongwoman/Strongman is all about. Family.”

2017 Charm City Strongwoman Competitors

That feeling of community and support extended beyond the time and place of the competition itself, since the overarching purpose was to raise funds for the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation Susie’s Cause, in honor of Emily’s sister Charlotte who died two years ago after a three and a half year battle against colon cancer.  This year we raised over $18,000 for the cause.  A sense of community that lends itself to community service – really amazing stuff.

After all that the question still remains. Clearly I could have participated in this event (volunteer, spectator, donor) without actually being a competitor.  So why try to throw increasingly heavy balls ten feet in the air?  Why spend 60 seconds repeatedly shouldering a 95# atlas stone or pressing an 85# log?  Why try to pull a bakery truck?  Or carry a 300# yoke for 50 feet in as little time as possible?  Why do that work?  Especially if, as I’ve said, some of the events scared me?  The simple answer is because I can.  I don’t mean that in an arrogant or an “I want to demonstrate my badassery to everyone” kind of way.  The fact that I can surprises me.  It surprises me more than it seems to surprise anyone I train with.  So a more complete answer is that I can but that I frequently lack confidence, and I feel like it is important sometimes to do things that scare me, because overcoming fears is ultimately what builds confidence.  So this competition was an opportunity for me to practice getting out of my own way, an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and manage the accompanying anxiety.

Competing in strength events is fairly different than competing in any of the endurance races I’ve done in the past. In those situations pre-race jitters often have resulted in faster race times for me. My experience with strength events though is that nervous jitters result in a loss of total body tension and failed lifts. For example, during the run-through the week before the competition, between the people watching, the official commands being spoken, and the timer going, I was completely unable to lap the atlas stone, something I could do easily even though I struggled to shoulder it.

So the week before the competition as the physical aspect of the training tapered, I strategized about how to tame my nerves, how to manage my “monkey brain”. One of the biggest pieces for me was remembering that the physiological markers for anxiety and excitement are the same – the “fight or flight response”.  The difference is the narrative we create for ourselves around those sensations.  So I worked on re-framing the situation as excitement rather than fear.  Another piece was staying in the moment, not worrying about the next event, but instead enjoying the time with friends, celebrating the success of other competitors, encouraging and coaching those who were struggling.

And in the midst of all the people watching and the official commands being spoken and the timers starting, it worked. I found the zone and everything else faded away. I matched or exceeded my training bests on nearly every event. And somehow, in the moment, that didn’t really surprise me.  Only later did it occur to me that I was prouder of myself than I had ever been. It wasn’t just pride in my performance, although I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a piece of it. It was the pride that comes from facing a fear and overcoming it, of using the mental space that a fear used to occupy and instead filling it with confidence, courage, strength, and gratitude. So in the end, the answer to the question is that I competed to be part of something bigger than myself and to attempt to create a better version of myself.

Stone to Shoulder

“It’s really not that hard, you know,” Craig said with a half smile.  “Any three year old can figure out how to get a basketball from their lap onto their shoulder.  You’re overthinking this.”

I stared at him and sighed; I knew he was right.  No one was asking me to do anything outside of the realm of possible for me.  I’d been working consistently for over a year at getting stronger.  Diego, Amie, and Craig had all coached me on technique, and Amie had already demonstrated several consecutive stone to shoulder lifts.  I had practiced the lift with a sandbag and a lighter stone.  My technique was adequate, although much in need of refining.  The issue was not physical strength; the issue was the garbage in my head.

I know I have a tendency to overthink things, and that often I psyche myself out in the process.  And I know that I probably wear thin the patience of a few people around me; Diego, with his straightforward approach and “add more weight” solution for most things, didn’t argue one bit when Craig and Amie took over the job of teaching me the lift.  I know that sometimes I am my own worst enemy and that there is truth in the statement, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”  And I knew that what Craig had just done was offered me a new way to envision something that frankly kinda scared the crap out of me.

Photo courtesy of Craig Campbell. This photo is of his son playing with atlas stones – and genuinely having fun doing so.

So I grimaced, half rolled my eyes, and said “Uggg!  Fine!  I’ll do it.”  As I stepped up to straddle the atlas stone, I tried to implement the tools Craig had given me to change the imagery in my head.  I tried to see the 95# rough concrete stone beneath me as a smooth, light basketball.  I tried to imagine that I was a kid and that this was fun.  It probably wasn’t pretty, but I shouldered it, returned it to the ground, and Diego called out “again” and then a second time “again”.

Later, lavish as ever in his praise, Diego said, “That wasn’t too bad.  You went from being afraid to shouldering that stone for a triple.”  And really, that was the biggest gain that happened for me that morning; I chipped away at a little bit of my own self-doubt, a weight I shoulder quite often without even noticing.  This is the importance of having a tribe who can help you see a little more clearly what’s worth shouldering and what’s not.

Calories Burned is Not a Training Measure

After finishing their work with me on an off-season strength training program, three of my kids decided to try out the various cardio machines at the gym.  For them, it was big fun propelling themselves quickly through space on an elliptical and discovering that they could play solitaire on the screen of the treadmill while walking or running … or skipping.  They were having a blast and were asking to come back again the next day.

After a few minutes, they excitedly reported back to me about their progress on the machines: “Mom!  I’ve burned 50 calories!”  Little internal groan and a feeling of deflation on my part.  I knew they were proud of their efforts and I wanted them to be, but seriously?  12 year old kids talking calories burned?  “OK, … ” I said, nodding, “but I don’t care about the calories.  How fast are you going?  How much distance have you covered?  How much fun are you having?”

I talk to my kids about moving more weight and doing more reps and sets, about gaining strength.  I talk to them about moving more quickly, setting a faster pace, and going a further distance.  I talk to them about giving a solid effort and becoming a little more capable each time they work.  I talk to them about training.

But that’s not what a big piece of our exercise culture is teaching them.  The most easily accessible feedback for them from the machines was a calorie measure, a measure of what they had lost through exercise, not what they had gained through training.  Yes, weight management and creating a calorie deficit is an important piece for many people, but it should not be the centerpiece.  By establishing a focus on training gains, rather than calorie losses, we recalibrate the exercise experience and our relationship with food.  Doing so encourages long-term participation in a process and fosters a greater sense of confidence, accomplishment, and joy.  We owe it to our kids to help them reframe exercise as training and to think of nutritious food as more than just calories that need burning.  We owe it to ourselves too.

Make an Attempt

In a powerlifting meet, a lifter has three attempts at three lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), each attempt becoming increasingly heavier.  The lifter must successfully complete an attempt before she progresses to the next heavier attempt.  So, for example, if she does not make her second attempt on squat, she repeats that same weight for her third squat attempt.  Coaches employ different strategies in determining the weights to submit for each attempt, but generally the third attempt (if not the second also) is heavier than the heaviest completed training lift, something usually reasonable, but often not yet attained.

Part of what interests me in all of this is the language: a lifter makes an “attempt”; she does not “try”.  Louise and I often debate the use of the word “try” in relation to coaching and habit change. Louise is Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try”. She likes to illustrate her position by holding out her open palm with a pencil balanced on it. She then says “OK. Try to pick up this pencil”. Point being that either you do or you don’t. I understand this position. When working with a client to instill a sustainable habit change, it’s generally advisable to start with a small enough step that the client is virtually assured of success; this helps build confidence and encourages adherence. I also understand that sometimes people use “try” as a cop out when they don’t feel like doing something, when they aren’t fully committed to the change or the process or the training session that day; in which case “try” is just a half-assed effort.

There are plenty of other situations, however, where I believe “try” is entirely warranted.  I will always take an “I’ll try” from a client instead of an “I can’t”. Frequently I get the two together, as in “I really don’t think I can do that, but I’ll try”.  Yoda’s directive seems to present us with a binary outcome: do or do not, succeed or don’t.  When immediate success is not assured, or sometimes when an individual really doesn’t believe success is possible, “I’ll try” affords another alternative, an entry point.  “Try” can be the foothold for a wholehearted effort in the face of an uncertain outcome.  “Try” can act as a linguistic bridge that transports a person outside of their comfort zone, to the place where they can experience change and growth.

But “try” has its limits, which are highlighted in the subtle differences between the word “try” and one which we often use as its synonym, “attempt.”  I think the difference gets down to one’s investment in a process and how one deals with a fail.  “Try” requires nothing more of an individual aside from an initial effort; no prior commitment or training and no further assurances to continue when things get tough.  “Attempt”, on the other hand, indicates a deeper level of commitment over time.  One who is making an “attempt” has a clear goal in mind and is invested in a process designed to ultimately get her there, despite setbacks or failures.  So our powerlifter has fully committed to a training program, has dedicated months to building strength.  She will make nine attempts on meet day, aiming to get them all (to go “949”) and to put her highest score possible up on the board.  This may not happen, but if she misses a lift, the expectation is that she steps back up onto the platform for another attempt the next time her name is called.

So at the end of it all, if something interests you, go ahead; give it a try.  Get past that self-limiting fear.  But if what you’re “trying” to do is reach a goal, trade your “try” for an “attempt” and then be prepared to make many.

Failing to Succeed

Today I “failed” on deadlift.  Emily said it was the first time.  I had the bar set up with the most weight on it I had ever attempted and the goal was a triple.  I pulled it once.  In what Diego said was the ugliest deadlift he’d ever seen.  He does not mince words.  This is a characteristic that we all appreciate, because it keeps us safe.  The bar, he said, was two inches from my body the whole time I pulled it.  He was surprised I got it up at all.  The pull was “effortful.”  “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “If you had done that in a meet I would have been cheering and screaming like crazy.  But not here. You don’t have many pulls like that in you before you get hurt.  And I don’t want you injured.”  He told me to walk away.  Wait 10 minutes and then he’d let me try again.  I “failed” and yet the feeling of failure in the gym is totally different than the way I’ve experienced failure in other settings.  This is because at the same time that I knew mine was a super fugly pull, I also knew that it was a PR, more than 2.25x my bodyweight.  A failure I was proud of, and a failure that at some point I expected anyway.

Two steps forward and one step back.  This is the trajectory that characterizes most strength training.  It’s a balancing act between forging ahead and backtracking in order to forge ahead at a later point.  There are stretches of time where you find yourself in uncharted territory during every training session, phases where every week you find yourself pulling or pushing a new PR – often for weeks at a time.  Its exhilarating to hit those PRs, to test what you’re made of and to discover your strength.

But inevitably one day you fail.  One day you don’t hit your goal weight or the goal number of reps.  You push yourself to the limit and find nothing.  So you readjust.  Maybe make corrections to the recovery process: eat more mindfully, sleep more regularly, manage stress better.  Maybe you try the same goal weight a second time.  You get it or you don’t.  Maybe you keep forging ahead or maybe you reset – drop the weight back a bit, maybe add extra reps at that lighter weight, and begin building again from there.

Strength training is a process that keeps the focus on something off on the horizon.  It’s a process that teaches us that failure is intertwined with success, and that if we haven’t risked enough to fail, we haven’t really gained or grown.  It’s a process that reminds us on a weekly basis that failure is relative, not absolute.  Failure is a sign that we have pushed ourselves outside of our comfort zones, into that space where the magic happens and where strength is built.  And ultimately, when we keep our eyes on the far horizon, failure is an opportunity to reset; it is an opportunity for a new beginning.

Squatters Rights: Fear and Self-Talk

A few weeks before my first meet in October, Emily had me test my squat to figure out what weights to enter as my three attempts at the meet.  We started with a weight not too much greater than my working weight at the time, therefore not too far outside my comfort zone.  I knew where we were headed with this though, so I knew I’d be in uncharted territory pretty soon, and considering that squat is a mentally challenging lift for me, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  As I wedged myself under the bar for the first of those heavier squats, braced myself, and un-racked it, I was caught a bit off guard by the thought that sprung up into my mind, “Wow!  This bar feels light.”  Two steps back, great squat, re-rack, add ten pounds, go again.  “This bar still feels light!  Tight core.  Nice!”  Another great squat, another ten pounds, and a feeling of incredible confidence as I continued this process and hit what remains my 1RM for squat.  I couldn’t reproduce it during the meet.  Conditions were different during the meet – different location, spectators, nerves.  My form broke, my head popped up, my chest followed, and as a result I didn’t drive up with my hips.  All part of the learning experience, but almost without me realizing it, a different set of thoughts started establishing squatters rights in my mind – more doubtful thoughts, and the “squat script” in my head changed as a result.

The language that we use, the way we define for ourselves our circumstances, has a great deal to do with the outcome we achieve.  Put me under a bar for squat, and my sympathetic nervous system is going to be tapped.  That triggers a hormonal response, commonly known as “fight or flight”, in which the body produces an increase of adrenaline and blood sugar, faster breathing, increased body temperature.  All this in an effort to prep the system for a difficult task at hand.  Whether we experience these sensations as exhilarating or terrifying, manageable or chaotic, frightening or exciting, is entirely due to the way we interpret our circumstances, and our interpretation of the situation affects the outcome.  Smart trainers and coaches use this knowledge to their clients’ advantage.  At several recent training workshops and continuing educational programs I have completed, the presenters devoted a good bit of time to breathing drills to allow the athlete to manage some of these physical responses; one presenter, Lisa Lewis, specializes in helping athletes to create performance scripts to mentally frame the “fight or flight” response most advantageously.

The same process also applies to the way we understand pain.  Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Lisa Manning, CST, CHt address a group of youth and adults about mental health and self-care.   She gave the example of a bullet wound in drastically different circumstances to illustrate the point.  A study looked at the seemingly unusual response of many soldiers in WWII to bullet wounds.  In contrast to what one might expect, they largely remained calm and generally refused morphine to help control pain.  Why?  Because they knew their wound was their ticket off of the battlefield; they were already thinking of home, of what they were gaining from the injury, and as a result they weren’t experiencing the wound as painful.  Consider this in contrast to a wounded civilian whose thoughts are likely to immediately shift to what he or she stands to lose: time off from work, a disruption of daily life, inability to do things.  A perfect example of Louise’s oft repeated statement that “words are drugs,” sometimes literally numbing the body to pain.

I’ve noticed that recently, as we have been rehabbing my squat and as I’m gaining back some of the confidence in it that I had lost, those more affirmative thoughts have started reclaiming territory in my mind again.  Just the other day after a set which Emily said was solid, I told her I knew it would be from the moment I unracked the bar, because as I did so, “this bar is light” popped into my mind.  I’ve been playing around with that thought, adding to it, trying to script it as a regular part of my set up, trying to force the words even on days when I don’t really believe them, because I have learned that to a certain degree if I can control the language, I can affect the outcome.  What would happen if you chose one challenge, one small area of your life, and began rescripting the thoughts around it?  Certainly worth a try.

“Why do you train like that?”

A good friend casually commented to me the other day, “I often look at people who lift heavy and wonder why they do that.  Why do you work that hard?”  Unlike many who wonder this sort of thing, there was no judgement, just genuine curiosity.  I felt like my friend’s sincerity in asking the question deserved a thoughtful answer, so I gave it a shot.

The most obvious first response to me was that in order for any training to be effective, to elicit change, a trainee needs to encounter significant resistance, to “work that hard”.  The notion that someone can come into the gym and repeatedly do what’s comfortable and still see progress runs counter to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) and the Principle of Progressive Overload.  If the work feels easy, our bodies have adapted and no further progress is being made.  In order to see improvement or change, one needs to work on the edge of one’s comfort zone.  But even as I responded with this, I realized that the purpose of exercise is not the same for all people.  My initial response probably applies more to individuals with an athletic or competitive mindset, to people who are looking to improve their performance either in relation to the performance of others or in relation to their own previous bests.  For many people and under many circumstances, this is not the point of going to the gym.  Many people exercise because it allows them to decompress and handle stress.  Many people want to maintain a certain level of fitness and overall health and are not concerned with adding more weight to the bar or with change.  Totally valid reasons for exercise and ones that were more in line with the way I had been working out for the past ten years anyway.  So while my initial answer might hold true for people focused on change and progressive training goals, for me, the answer felt incomplete.

Another answer to the question that might come to mind for many people is that women train with weights to achieve a certain look.  But this is a different type of lifting, a different mindset, a whole other animal called bodybuilding.  When people lift weights to build a particular appearance, the focus is located externally.  For many women that look is based on an image of beauty that is promoted by media, “sorta strong but mostly sexy”.  That’s how you end up with photos of lean women, shiny and tan, tosselled hair, in tiny shorts and sports bras, lifting a weight in some kind of bent over position designed to draw attention to their booties and boobs.  Achieving this appearance can take on a competitive dimension for many women.  For some women it’s subtle and interpersonal; for others it translates into participation in bikini and physique competitions.  Either way, the measure of success is based on a subjective image of “perfection” generated by an outside source.

For the women that I’ve encountered who train purely for strength, neither of these explanations provides an adequate answer to the question of why they train like they do.  Their answer often has much less to do with how they rank in comparison to another’s performance or in comparison to a desired appearance, and much more to do with what strength training adds to their sense of themselves; it has to do with the positive impact that strength training has on the way they view themselves and their abilities.  While our culture is more supportive of strong women now than it was in the past, many people still have the notion that while strength in a woman is ok, a woman shouldn’t be “too strong,” and often these people feel perfectly entitled to express that opinion.  Sometimes they make comments that are blunt and direct: “Her/your muscles are almost TOO big.  I don’t like the way that looks.”  Sometimes their comments are subtle, indirect, and whispered: “What does she think she needs all those muscles for anyway?”  The assumption in these cases is that the woman training strength should be concerned about the other person’s opinion of the appearance of her body.  However, women who train for the primary goal of strength or athleticism rather than aesthetics have already taken a step outside of cultural expectations for female appearance.  Rather than focusing on their looks in relation to others or on others’ opinions of what “looks good”, most of the strong women I’ve met or read about have found that training strength allows them to focus on something internal, essential, and personal.  Training physical strength allows them to develop a deeper sense of personal strength, of confidence, and of self-worth that transcends their training sessions.  Training heavy lifts has the potential to teach patience, humility, resilience, perseverance, determination, and a myriad of other useful character traits.  While these lessons can be learned through a variety of other mediums, because powerlifting and strongwoman competitions are still somewhat outside of the cultural expectation for women, these types of events allow women to develop a sense of physical and personal strength that is unique to the individual, that doesn’t necessarily conform to a pre-packaged image that others have bought into.  The question of why women train for strength often can’t quite be answered to the satisfaction of others, because the answer in many ways defies the opinions of outsiders.  The answer boils down to something as simple and personal as “I do it for me.”  When I first started training at Fivex3, Emily told me she thought I’d enjoy strength training because I seemed to be someone who appreciated being different and unique.  That appears to be a common current in women who train for strength.  They don’t mind standing a little bit outside of expectations.  It seems to me that if you meet a woman who is training for strength, not “working out” or training for appearance, you can be fairly sure to have met someone who is engaged in the process of finding her own answers and who is not trying to measure herself by someone else’s standards.

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?