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.

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.

Facing F.E.A.R. (Face Everything And Rise)

Most people have a favorite lift, usually one where they can move an impressive amount of weight fairly easily, a lift for which their unique anthropometry is particularly well suited.  Conversely, there are other lifts that leave them feeling less than inspired.  Although I do them all the time, I probably would have to say that the squat is my least favorite lift.  Some of that feeling may be due to mobility issues in my shoulders.  In reality though, a lot of people have shoulder mobility issues, and there are bars specifically designed to accommodate this, like the safety bar and the camber bar.  If I’m being totally honest with myself, the reason squat is my least favorite lift is because it kinda scares me.

When a deadlift is really heavy, the worst that will happen is that the bar won’t come up off the floor.  When an overhead press is really heavy, the bar just won’t go up from that initial starting position, so you take it out of the rack and put it right back.  Whenever I haven’t been able to return the bar to its starting position on a bench press, I’ve had safety arms and a spotter who helps me get the bar back into the the rack.  And even though I’ve got safety arms for the squat, there’s something about it mentally that causes me to picture myself getting totally crushed under the bar.  Some of that stems from the first time I failed on a heavy squat.  Craig was right behind me, spotting me; I was totally fine.  The thing is my instinct was wrong.  When you fail in a squat, you’re supposed to drop the bar off your back and scoot forward; however, when it was clear I wasn’t coming back up and Craig grabbed the bar off my back, I rolled backwards, essentially dead bugging at his feet, looking straight up at the bar which he was holding.  Hence the vivid mental image of me getting squashed, like a bug.

It was this fear of the squat, though, that served as motivation to find the right training setting for me, and the squat continues to be one of the main reasons I drive to Fivex3 three times a week; I want feedback on form and a safe place to fail.  And so ironically, the squat has become one of the lifts that is helping me build the most confidence.  This outcome is not dissimilar from what happens when we take the time to examine our fears.  In being honest with ourselves about our fears, we are better able to evaluate their legitimacy.  Clearly some fears are justified, but others are just self-limiting.  In considering our fears, we are then able to act accordingly, sometimes persisting in them and at other times taking precautionary steps that allow us ultimately to take the power away from the things that limit us by acting anyway.  Every time we face a fear and act anyway, every time we overcome an obstacle, we build self-confidence and courage.  Avoiding a challenge does the opposite.  Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear.  Action breeds confidence and courage.  If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.  Go out and get busy.”  Self-confidence and courage are built not in the absence of fear, but often because of fear.

What a friend's 4th grade daughter knows about fear.
What a friend’s 4th grade daughter knows about fear.

But it doesn’t have to end there.  Once we are honest with ourselves, once we name our fear and face it anyway, we can then choose to be honest about that fear with the people around us, the benefits of which can be exponential. For instance, the other week as I was working on squats, the woman in the squat rack next to me was talking to one of the coaches after her working set. Kelly is strong. She has been training at Fivex3 since 2014; she recently placed third in the PA Strongman Competition.  She is an experienced lifter and a role model.  She was telling the coach that squats were her least favorite lift,…get this…, because they scared her.  Who would have guessed?  To me, she seems fearless.  As a result of Kelly’s willingness to be honest and open about her fear, I didn’t feel alone in mine.  Facing fears and acting anyway is a struggle that largely takes place in a solitary mental landscape, generally undetected by those around us.  Realizing that others inhabit the same space and share a similar fear is hugely reassuring.  Being honest with ourselves about our fears paves the way for our own personal growth.  Being honest about our fears with those around us extends that opportunity for growth to others, and in the process it lays the foundation for a supportive community, an environment that encourages others to courageously and confidently strive for goals that might be just beyond our self-imposed limits.  So much better than being trapped in the stagnation of fear, like a dead bug in amber.

You Don’t Blame the Bar

IMG_4076On off days when you don’t make a lift, you don’t blame the bar.  You look at the factors you can control.  You look at the actual mechanics of that lift.  Was the bar in the correct position to travel in the most vertical path?  The difference of a fraction of an inch in positioning can have a huge effect on the ease with which the bar moves.  Other factors also can have a significant impact on your ability to make a lift.  Sleep, fuel, recovery, and stress levels are among the other more subtle and less predictable pieces of the overall equation.  Sometimes the effects of inadequate sleep are profound; other times adrenaline might make up the difference.  So you might resolve to practice better self-care, to pay more attention to recovery.  You focus on what you can control, because you cannot change the bar.

What if we approached the difficult people in our lives this way?  What if we accepted that we cannot change others, even with our best arguments and persuasions, even when we’re sure we’re right and that they must be stupid?  What if we accepted that we can only change ourselves, and that those around us will change only by their own volition?  Instead of a ridiculous and pointless argument, a more effective use of our energy, one that will ultimately strength us, is to identify the pieces we can control, to strategize for a better outcome, and take responsibility for improving what we can ~ even if that process begins by visualizing the difficult people in our lives as intractable pieces of iron.  😉

“We’ll See What Happens”

One of the phrases that don’t accept easily from clients is “I can’t…”  I hear this often when I teach them a new exercise or hand them a heavier weight for an exercise they have been training.  It is also a phrase that people don’t want to let go of easily.  My clients modify their language and say things like “I don’t think I can …”.  Different wording, but still a phrase that expresses self-doubt.

I struggle with this too.  There are days when I feel fairly certain at the start of a training session that I am behind the eight-ball.  Days when I’m sleep deprived, stressed, improperly fueled, or just plain unsure that I’m up for the task of lifting the weight that my program indicates I should aim for on that day.  But I’ve learned that those feelings do not always correspond with the outcome, and I’ve learned that language matters.

Obviously there are some things that are physically impossible, beyond reasonable limits; I can’t train really hard and make myself grow three inches or fly.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the times when we feel uncertain about our abilities to do something new, the times when we are heading into uncharted territory and want some kind of reassurance or control.  The phrase “I can’t” provides a type of certainty by insuring an incomplete or failed outcome.  We might not be able to lift a heavier weight or learn a new exercise, but instead we can feel confident in our ability to predict the future, and we can then find reassurance in saying, “I knew I couldn’t do it.”  But of course you know, this is not how progress is made.

Whether you like or hate Tony Horton and P90X, one thing that stuck with me from that program was his insistence that people not use the phrasing “I can’t”.  The substitute phrase that he offers runs along the lines of “Currently I am working on …”  The language that I use when I show up to train on a day when I’m feeling less than confident is “We’ll see what happens.”  However you word it, leave the door open for an uncertain outcome.  comfort-zoneWhen we are willing to challenge ourselves, when we are willing to work in the space where success is not guaranteed, then we open to ourselves the possibilities of growth and change and progress.

Uncertain Outcome

Last week I had sort of a milestone lift.  My programmed deadlift weight was one that I’ve had my eye on since last winter, a 2x bodyweight deadlift.  Interestingly what ended up making the lift noteworthy to me was not so much the weight on the bar, but the difference in my attitude going into the lift.  Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that what happens to a person is less important than what happens within a person.  That lift served as a measure of a bit of what has happened within me.

Deadlift is usually the last lift of my session. Before deadlifting that day, I had to get through heavy squats and heavy bench presses.  So it didn’t surprise me to notice, as I drove into Baltimore, that I had tiny butterflies in my stomach.  I couldn’t decide, though, if they were floating on excitement or fear.  I had managed the pieces that were under my control as best as I could. I had forced myself to go back to sleep when I woke up early so I would be well rested.  I had eaten well the day before and had extra breakfast before training, so I would have enough fuel.  I had respected the recovery process on the previous rest day so my body could rebuild and not be further worn down.  But even controlling what I could, recent failed attempts on lifts have taught me that little is guaranteed. Lifting heavy weights is not like going into a fitness class where you are ensured that by the end that you be sweaty and feel like you’ve had a “good workout”.  There seems to be an X factor with heavy lifting that lies outside of the pieces we can control and that for seemingly unknown reasons becomes evident for me on certain days.  I knew I was up for a lot of work, but whether I would be able to do it all was up in the air.

As I drove, I decided that the feeling that was keeping those butterflies aloft was more like the somewhat uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty, a cross between excitement and fear that results from the recognition that despite our best effortsenjoy-life-quote-roller-coaster-scream-favim-com-262111 to be in control, we really aren’t.  Some people seem to love that feeling.  Maybe that’s why they ride the big roller coasters.  For me it’s a different story.  Uncertainty makes me a little anxious.  I’m the one on the ground taking pictures of my family on the roller coaster.  But instead of taking a step deeper into that discomfort by focusing on the value I had placed on a 230# deadlift, I managed to take a step back, to downplay the emotional attachment I had to that weight and instead I decided to watch with vested curiosity, from behind a camera lens, to see how the whole thing unfolded.  I walked into Fivex3 thinking, “Well … we’ll just see what happens.”

In viewing myself  both as an objective observer of the outcome and also as the one working to create it, in acknowledging that I am both in control and totally not, I found a place to balance between excitement and fear, a place that was kinda fun.  Establishing a tentative friendship with uncertainty, controlling what we can and being curious about the rest, getting outside of our own heads …  all of that ultimately seems to allow us to be more 230dlfully and happily engaged in the process.  That strategy works pretty well for me for heavy lifts, and I’m betting it’s a good strategy outside of the weightroom too.

Understanding Under a Heavy Load

After a disappointing lift on Thursday, one where I not only missed reps on my press but downright failed, my lift Saturday felt great.  Of course it is always a sweet feeling to be able to get all your sets and reps with a new, heavier weight on the bar, but I realized as I was driving home, that this was only a piece of why my Saturday lift left me feeling so happy.  The bigger piece of it came down to environment, to the supportive lifting community at Fivex3 Training.

Necessity dictated that I did my Thursday lift on my own at a nearby gym.  From the get go, things were out of whack: different environment, mirrors everywhere, work issues filtering into my consciousness, and critical people.  There are many different approaches to lifting weights and the approach one takes depends on one’s goals.  There ought to be room to accommodate different types of lifting in any commercial gym, but there are usually a few individuals who don’t understand and criticize heavy lifting and feel perfectly comfortable expressing their views.  Many people misperceive it as dangerous or possibly inappropriate for women or older trainees.  Just look through the comments on Beau Bryant’s post and follow-up article from Westminster Strength and Conditioning about 88-year old Mrs. Fox’s 88# deadlift to get an idea.  When I walked into the weightroom to lift that Thursday, one such outspoken individual was there, a woman who had stood next to me a few days prior, while one of my clients was doing weighted squats, and said loudly “Oh my God.  The cartilage in my knees is shredding just watching you do that!”  So when she started talking to me again that Thursday as I was warming up for my press, ideally I would have had the mental discipline to focus only on my lift and not on her follow-up commentary.  Apparently my mental discipline is still a work in progress.

fivex3community
Fivex3 Training: A Supportive and Encouraging Community of People Lifting Heavy S#!t

Conversely, when I went in for my Saturday lift at Fivex3, I was greeted by a much more encouraging environment.  No mirrors or work issues to distract me, but more importantly no opinionated and critical people.  Everyone was on the same page about lifting heavy weights as the most effective way to build strength and about its appropriateness for all people, regardless of age or gender.  The trainees at Fivex3 were working on different lifts and different programs, some building pure strength, some working on conditioning, some training for Strong Woman/Man competitions, but there there was no judgment or negativity.  The similarities in our lifts allow us to learn from each other, to spot each other, and to offer observations and suggestions when requested.  If someone misses a rep, you will never hear “well, that’s because you shouldn’t be lifting so much weight”.  Instead you might hear an empathetic, “Bar didn’t want to move.  That’s ok.  You’ll get it next time.”   When I missed a rep on my bench press, Christian coached me to keep my back tighter and puff my chest more, so then when I easily got all my reps on the subsequent sets Coach Bob (aka: “Silent Bob”) noticed the difference and responded with a “Fuck Yeah!” and a fist bump.

The starting perspective for any of the interactions between coaches or trainees at Fivex3 is that you can and should lift heavy weights and build strength.  It is an attitude of empowerment, an expectation that you can and will do amazing things.  That’s the beauty of a shared experience, of understanding what someone else is struggling with because you’ve struggled with it too.  Those shared experiences become the building blocks of a supportive community.  But that kind of support doesn’t need to be born just from shared experiences; it can also be forged from a desire to set judgement aside and attempt to understand another person’s perspective.  What if that woman in the gym had asked why I had my client doing weighted squats, had tried to learn about the benefits of the exercise instead of standing behind her preconceived ideas?  What if I hadn’t gotten rattled by her apparent criticism and instead tried to find out how she had formulated her opinion?  For me that is clearly easier said than done, especially under a heavy load.  In reality though we are all usually under some kind of heavy load, struggling with something that is far less obvious than a weighted barbell.  Maybe if we begin with that recognition, it becomes easier to be understanding of the critical and judgemental people we encounter.  And in reality, empathy and understanding offered to the difficult people in our lives is also pretty amazing.

Habit, Change, and the Low Bar Back Squat

The change from high bar to low bar back squat was a difficult one for my left shoulder to adjust to. At some point years ago, it received a good bit of impact from a skiing injury, and since then I have piled ample other unknown insult and abuse to the area.  For a low bar back squat, the bar sits just below spine of the scapula; sometimes for me this feels like it’s on bone.  I’m luckier in this department than a lot of women because, as Emily says, I’ve already got “some meat back there”.  Nevertheless, Emily encourages most women to wear an extra t-shirt for back squat to provide a little more padding.  One of the cues that is given when setting up for this exercise is “elbows up.”  This is to create tightness in the upper back, a shelf of delt on which to trap the bar so it is secure.  Somehow in the process of trying to keep the bar off of bone and keeping my elbows up, I ended up turning the proper position into something else that my shoulder didn’t appreciate.

Louise has been working on this shoulder.  And as with anything related to the body, I have found the process to be fascinating.  Long story shorter, my humerus was being pulled further forward on the left side than on the right, the result of tight pecs and lengthened upper back and neck muscles.  Louise says the connective tissue on my left pecs was bound down all the way to the sternum.  The first day Louise worked on that shoulder, she released those bound tissues, and as my scap almost miraculously relaxed down far enough to touch the table under me, I took a deep breath that filled my entire lungs, bottom to top.  It was only then that I realized that the shallow breathing I had been experiencing and attributing to stress was actually also related to a physical cause.  In releasing that bound muscle, Louise allowed me to find increased range of motion in the joint, more space to move, the ability to breath deeper, and greater relaxation.

As my shoulder relearns its original position, the whole experience of lifting keeps changing. I imagine that Louise is like an archeologist digging through layers of bound connective tissue, excavating and sifting through years of assorted pains in the shoulder, unearthing them and clearing the area. As this happens I’m experiencing new sensations in my shoulder as my tendons find different ways of tracking and my body relearns some of its original ways of moving, rather than using the altered movement patterns that it discovered over the years to compensate for weakness and avoid pain.

Our brains work in a similar fashion to our bodies in this regard.  Just as our bodies compensate for weaknesses or injuries by recruiting muscles for jobs that are not their prime purposes, and just as our bodies often find the path of least resistance allowing our dominant muscles to hijack movement patterns, we develop intellectual and emotional coping mechanisms to help us get through our days and our difficulties.  We find shortcuts to help us save time and energy and compensations to make aspects of our lives less painful.  Sometimes these shortcuts are relatively harmless, like always taking the same route to work; potentially some are helpful, like establishing morning routines to ensure that nothing gets forgotten in our rush out the door.  Sometimes these shortcuts are in our thought processes, stereotypes or outdated views of ourselves and others that prevent us from recognizing change or potential or that keep us from truly seeing what’s before us because we are bound down by our views from the past.  Sometimes the compensations and habits we develop are detrimental to our health and well-being, causing more pain for us in the long run than the initial issue: addictions to food, work, substances, shopping, exercise, technology – the list is endless.  Often we irrationally hang onto these compensations long after they have outlived their usefulness and even though they cause discomfort or pain in other ways.

habit-change-650x425At one extreme these compensations can be destructive, but at the very least they limit us; they constrict our ability to fully experience individual moments or appreciate individual people, and they limit the degree to which we fully engage in our activities; they restrict our range of motion as we move through life.  It is important to be aware of our habits and our fallback patterns, of the ways in which we shortcut and compensate, and it is even more important to consciously decide if the trade off is worth it.  Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no; either way it is a question that only we can answer for ourselves.  Then we must decide if we are willing to act upon our answer, to make a change for the better.

A conscious decision inspired by our own desire for change, not based on someone else’s need for us to be different, is the strongest motivator for establishing new habits.  Change is not always easy; it can be a messy and uncomfortable process of wrestling with the memory of old injuries.  But change will not happen by masking all that with compensations and habits that no longer serve us well. And just as with my shoulder, by releasing some what binds us down, we can find relief, a greater range of motion and a renewed ability to move through life more effectively.