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.

Training Goals v New Year’s Resolutions

A quick look around Fivex3 Training at the start of a new year and a quick look around most commercial gyms highlights one of the key differences between the two, the difference between training and exercise.  The first week of the new year at Fivex3 was pretty much business as usual.  The same people, training their same lifts.  One “new” person, who was really a regular evening lifter, started coming during the day because his work had switched him to the night shift.  Other than that, everyone who had been coming to train all fall, was there in January, continuing to work toward PRs (personal records) on their lifts and continuing to increasing overall strength.  There was some conversation about the envisioned goals toward which individuals were training; number of large plates on the bar for deadlift, bodyweight bench, competitions being considered.  Had the topic come up in the fall though, similar conversations would have emerged.  This is a distinguishing mark of training.  Training, in this case, is a systematic and scientific approach towards creating a stronger version of oneself, a conscious application of a controlled amount of stress to the body with respect for the rest of the cycle of recovery and adaptation.  It is a long, slow process.  If working towards a competition, thought is given to appropriately timed work and rest cycles so that a trainee can reach peak strength at the designated time.  If training for life, thought is also given to work and rest cycles so the trainee can build strength rather than erode it, so as to avoid overtraining. Training is about finding a balance of stress, recovery, and adaptation that challenges the body to become stronger and that is sustainable in the long run.

Unlike Fivex3 Training or other similar training facilities, most commercial gyms experience an uptick in membership and participation in group fitness classes after January 1 rolls around.  Sometimes sign up sheets are needed for the cardio machines, due to the January increase in exercise enthusiasts.  Asked about goals, many individuals following through on New Year’s resolutions will mention something about losing weight or “getting in shape.”  Unfortunately for most, their plan is less systematic and scientific than training and typically boils down to adding more exercise and drastically reducing calories.  Essentially a haphazard and willy-nilly application of more movement without properly fueling it or balancing it with appropriate amounts of recovery.  This approach often is reinforced by the fitness industry itself in its promotion of short duration, high intensity fitness and nutrition make-overs promising a “new you for the new year.”  Not surprisingly these New Year’s exercise enthusiasts usually are able to maintain their new “healthier” habits for only a few weeks.  The industry trend is that membership drops off again after St. Patrick’s Day.  Sadly many of those who leave their resolutions behind in March walk away believing that the fault lies in their character, something along the lines of a lack of discipline, dedication, fortitude, self-control, rather than recognizing that the flaw lies in their unsustainable approach.

Yes, there are many people in commercial gyms who seem to take every class offered, who exercise for hours at a time, who never seem to take a day off, who exhibit disregard for proper rest and recovery, who under-eat, and who seem to maintain this behavior for years at a time.  I know this because I have been one of these people; at times I still struggle against this tendency.  Unfortunately these people are often the group exercise instructors whom others try to emulate.  This behavior is not training, and it is not admirable.  Often it is an exercise addiction.  If you scratch the surface of one of these individuals, at least one willing to be honest about it, usually you will find someone whose identity and self-worth is tied to the idea of exercising.  If these individuals paid attention to their bodies, they would find that it is exhibiting signs of overtraining, such as “heavy” and tired muscles, tendency to get sick or injured, irritability, disrupted sleep, loss of appetite, and an inability to build stronger muscle.  But they are willing to deal with all of this because, in the absence of exercise, what they believe about themselves is worse.  And in reality, they are not able to maintain this behavior in the long run, because eventually their bodies will rebel in the form of an injury or illness that forces them to slow down long enough to get some of the recovery that they have been overlooking.

While the New Year seems to be a culturally appropriate time to talk about fitness and nutrition plans, if you are training rather than just getting sweaty, that opportunity exists for you in April, October, or any other month.  But if you are inclined to make a fitness-based New Year’s resolution, I’d encourage you to make a sustainable training goal instead.

Summer of the 75# Overhead Press

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.

“All the Presses” – courtesy of Fivex3 Training

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.”

Marry the Goal. Be Fickle about the Outcome.

When I first started exploring the world of pure strength training, Craig would tell me I had to make a choice, that I couldn’t keep lifting the way I was in group fitness while also lifting heavy, and that additionally I would have to cut back on the amount of cardio and conditioning I was doing.  I had reluctantly identified my goal as training strength and began daydreaming about potentially competing in a powerlifting competition.  I say reluctantly because there are plenty of times that this idea seems to me to be crazy and stupid.

After training with Emily one day, I asked her how realistic my goals were given my age and any of the myriad of physical considerations I, like many others, had accumulated over the years.  She did not dissuade me, but confirmed that specific goals, like lifting a set amount of weight or participating in competitions, need to be flexible.  Things happen that are outside of our control: injuries, family obligations, life.  Our commitment to specific goals should be real, but it can’t be so absolute that we are unable to readjust when the unexpected happens.  “If I can deadlift over 300#, great!  I would love that,”  Emily said.  “But if I can’t do that, there’s always something else I can work on in here.”  In my mind, I chalked that advice up to identifying a goal, but not being married to it.

I picked up this same thread of conversation the next week when I was working with Diego, Emily’s husband.  He was laying out my program going forward, and I was balking at minimizing cardio and conditioning to focus on building strength, which at that moment was my deficit.  He took the opportunity to challenge me on my commitment to my stated goals, powerlifting and strongwoman competitions.  “If those are really your goals,” he said, “and I’m not sure they are because you are sounding fickle, then you focus on strength now and come back to the other pieces later.”

Ouch, right?  Blunt honesty is one of the sometimes startling but always appreciated traits I have found to run through the majority of the strength coaches I have met.  No sugar coating messages about poor form if you want someone to stay safe, and that approach has real and practical applications for the rest of life too.  Diego’s challenge allowed me to realize that I had been confusing goal with outcome.  My real goal is to get strong.  What I do with that goal, powerlifting competitions or double bodyweight deadlift, is the outcome.  Achieving a goal of strength can look and feel a lot of different ways.  The goal of building strength is centered internally and is relative to me, to my current situation.  The outcome, competitions or desired weights on lifts, is focused more externally; it is more dependent on factors I can not control.  I can work on the goal of getting a little better each day, on building more strength, but where that goal takes me, the outcome, may or may not take the specific shape I envision.

Lisa Lewis headshot
Dr. Lisa Lewis

I have heard a similar distinction made in the “I’m Not Afraid to Lift” workshop when Dr. Lisa Lewis discussed mindset.  One of the participants asked a question about how to balance her many specific fitness goals and the fact that her body was starting to feel the stress of pushing herself.  Dr. Lewis helped this woman identify her actual “global goal” which was to be strong and healthy, and to realize that her “specific goals” (like KB swing challenges or desired weights for lifts) were not the same, that the specific goals could come and go and that they should never eclipse the global goal.  Different wording, same idea.

Identify a desired outcome.  Work towards it, but don’t be married to it.  Recognize that it’s ok for our ideas of specific outcomes to change, and appreciate that we need to maintain an ability to adapt when life interferes.  This is where it’s fine to be somewhat fickle.  Commit instead to the process of achieving that outcome.  By dedicating ourselves to the process we are better able to stay in the present, to focus on what we can do today and on what we can improve now.  Be married to the global goal and to the chosen training method, with an awareness that there may be obstacles along the way and that the outcome may be unexpected.  Perhaps more than faith in our ability to achieve an outcome, we need to trust and enjoy the process.

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.”  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.

“I am ….”

As I was studying for my personal training exam, I also was working with a friend, Alex, on a church-based exercise program that he designed (“wHoly FiTt” – you can see, he’s got a sense of humor).  He had recently lost a hundred and sixty pounds with the help of a personal trainer.  One of the defining moments for him in the process was when his trainer encouraged him to create a new “I am…” statement – to redefine himself.  At over 300 pounds, Alex made the seemingly unlikely claim “I am a gym rat.”  That statement allowed him to see the gym as a place where he belonged.  From there, he was able to continue redefining himself until he was competing in Ironman Triathalons.  Pretty amazing!

The more Alex and I talked about his experience, the more he became convinced that his trainer, Louise, and I had a lot in common. He introduced me to her; we hit it off, and as luck would have it, as soon as I was certified she asked me to start working in her studio subbing for another trainer on maternity leave.  Louise introduced me to a lot of fabulous resources and workshops, and in the same spirit of redefinition that had helped Alex recreate himself, I started to head down a strength training rabbit hole. I spent hours reading articles on T-nation – that’s short for Testosterone nation. Yeah, me!  A middle-aged mother of four following strength training gurus like Tony Gentlecore, Mark Rippetoe, Artemis Scantaledes, Dan John, and Brett Contraras. Watching youtubes of Olympic lifters and studying form.

Along the way Louise and I have had a lot of interesting conversations about the art of coaching, about habit, and about change.  She has told me that words are like drugs; they are powerful.  She pays attention to how I word what I say, because she believes that words matter. As a result, I am more aware of the way that words help shape our reality by first carving out a verbal space in our imaginations; once envisioned, we can then act to make those words real.  Creating an “I am” statement, no matter how unlikely or tentative that statement may be, helps us to connect the next steps together into a path forward.

I’m frequently impatient (and so is Alex), so when I first heard his retelling of the “I am” phrase, I understood it to be a statement of what we planned to become, rather than a statement allowing us to perceive our present selves as something different or unexpected.  For me, the “I am” statement felt like a bold declaration, something I’m often reluctant to do.  So initially, I began by silently giving myself permission to pursue an interest in something seemingly uncharacteristic.  From there, I began using the wording “I am training to be….”  Somehow, for me, that phrasing created an extra step that slowed me down, took the pressure off of actually reaching the goal, and allowed me to focus more on the process.

Whatever the wording, the intent is similar.  Rewriting our current life script, even in the quietest places of our imagination, allows us to envision ourselves differently – to see a different image, to experience a different vision of our reality.  Once imagined, we can begin to see our next steps forward, to prepare a path for change, and to begin a process of recreation.  “I am …” or “I am training to be …” What would happen if you finished the sentence?