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?
In the Starting Strength novice program, the trainee reaches a point where the weight on the bar for deadlift is too great to keep working this lift every session. At that point, the trainee begins to alternate deadlift with power clean. Power clean was and continues to be a hard lift for me, mainly because the bar ends in a front rack position, which I think is totally uncomfortable. The bar finishes on the front of the shoulders (anterior delts) with elbows far forward and the wrists bent back, a position which requires a fair amount of wrist mobility. When Diego started teaching me power clean, initially I tried convincing him that I lacked wrist mobility and couldn’t do a proper front rack, that I should really be learning the power snatch. Not convinced, he had me demonstrate the range of motion in my wrists and then asked me to show him my front rack, at which point he concluded, “There’s nothing wrong with your rack! You’ll learn power clean!” Ha! Failed attempt to convince the coach otherwise.
Having settled that, Diego proceeded to teach me the steps of moving the bar from a dead stop on the floor to the front rack position, at which point I realized that holding the bar in front rack was nothing compared to landing it in the right spot. This isn’t a problem for a lot of people; for me it is a slow learning process. I continued to land the bar high, too close to my neck, which not only made me a little dizzy but also increased my concern that I was likely to decapitate myself. Not one to give credence to complaints, Diego’s response to my nascent phobia was “Don’t worry. That’ll only happen once.”
The feeling of dizziness that results for some people with the force of the movement and the change in position from low to standing is connected to a resulting change in blood pressure. For me that feeling is exacerbated in the power clean by landing the bar improperly, causing something that Coach Bob called “blood choke”. Turns out the body is equipped with sensors called baroreceptors, sensors in our blood vessels that detect and help to maintain blood pressure. Something about where I tend to land the bar in a front rack position causes these baroreceptors to overachieve. Some people’s baroreceptors are routinely overly sensitive causing a condition called bradycardia, dizziness and fainting from touching the neck, which some men experience while shaving.
To my mind, this is another example of how amazing our bodies are; they come fully loaded with a system that tells us when we are experiencing too much pressure. In our daily lives, we spend a lot of our time under tremendous amounts of stress and pressure from work, family, and overly crowded schedules. Our bodies give us feedback about this type of routine stress too. Often the feedback in these cases is less obvious than the immediate sensation of dizziness I get from a poorly landed power clean, and consequently we learn to ignore or fail to recognize these signs as being stress related. Headaches, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating or learning new things, disturbed sleep, difficulty breathing, being short-tempered, compulsive behavior, anxiety, heartburn: all of these are signs of stress that frequently go unrecognized. Sometimes they are symptoms that we just accept as our normal condition, concluding “I’m just forgetful” instead of “I’m under so much stress that I can’t remember”.
At the moment, my power clean training is on hold for several reasons. Ideally we would be able to do the same in our daily lives with the things that increase our stress. In reality we do not always have the luxury of simply removing major stressors from our lives. Often the activities or people that cause us stress are necessary or essential pieces – jobs that pay the bills, family members or friends who are struggling, people that we are paired with to complete certain tasks. When our main stressors can’t be eliminated, we need to learn how to handle those situations differently. Just as I will need to learn and train a better movement pattern for the bar on the front rack, we can train ourselves to navigate stressful situations in ways that allow us to minimize the toll they take on our health. While we may not be able to control the situations around us, we can certainly take greater control of our reaction to them and minimize the pressure we feel as a result.
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.
In the first few days after my recent back spasm, I instinctively minimized my movements, but after the acute pain had subsided, movement became my therapy. The initial role of pain in this case was to cause me to restrict motion, to protect the area, and to remind me to use caution. Once that pain diminished and the aggravated tissue healed, I was left with something more like a nagging ache, a feeling akin to that sore, tired back feeling many people have at the end of the day, only for me it began upon rising. Emily insisted no lifting whatsoever until the pain was gone, but she encouraged walking and gentle yoga. The first day I was feeling well enough to be back in the gym, she told me that the purpose of my lifts that day was strictly to reassure my brain that my body could still move safely. This was important, she explained, because often our brains hold on to a memory of pain and experience it as though it is real for a longer time than the pain serves the purpose of protecting the body. The point of my lifts that day was not to work up to a certain weight on the bar, but rather movement for the specific purpose of retraining my brain after an experience with acute pain; in other words, medicinal lifting.
From my own past experience, this made complete sense. I had twisted my knee up badly in a skiing injury in my 20s. Sometimes it still bothers me, but these days I can fully bend it. That was not always the case. I remember yoga classes in my 30s where everyone else was sitting on their heels “ohmm-ing” and I was practically bolt upright with my knees at nearly a 90 degree angle. A yoga instructor had said something similar to me, that my knees had been so well trained to function in protective mode that they would not let me bend them, and she suggested that perhaps my pain had outlived its usefulness. Carefully and slowly, over several weeks, I worked on inching further down onto my heels and was surprised in the process that it was my memory of the pain which had been more real than any physical pain. The result is that now I sit on my heels regularly and easily.
My experience with my knee suggested to me that pain does not always result from an outward cause, but is often the very real manifestation of something going on internally. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience with pain. Emily sent me a link to a great article called “Aches and Pains” by Austin Baraki, MD and Starting Strength Coach, which gets at this point. Baraki discusses the inadequacy of the traditional theory of pain, the “‘bottom-up’ theory, [in which pain] start[s] at the tips of your peripheral nerves … and then converg[es] along a one-way street towards your brain” (1). He points out that this model is insufficient to explain the discrepancy between a patient’s experience of pain and clinical indications that a patient should or should not be experiencing pain, beyond the six week window during which injuries generally heal:
“There are countless patients with debilitating symptoms from fibromyalgia, chronic pelvic pain, chronic back pain, or prior sexual/physical abuse who have undergone numerous examinations, MRIs, and laparoscopies with no evidence of structural pathology or tissue injury. There are many more walking around with objective radiographic evidence of severe osteoarthritis and herniated discs who have no symptoms whatsoever.” (2)
The confusion that these patients and their health care providers feel as a result is attributable to the inadequacy of the “bottom-up” explanation of pain. Instead Bakari suggests that the biopsychosocial model of pain is more accurate. This model recognizes the complexity of our systems and the fact that “the brain uses multiple additional inputs to modulate our sensory experience” – inputs such as environment, emotional state, duration of pain (2). The biopsychosocial model recognizes both objective and subjective causes of our experiences of pain.
Based on this model, Bakari makes some excellent recommendations in dealing with pain, which in his example diagnosis was most helpful to me at the time, since he chose to discuss back pain:
“1. Managing stress, anxiety, and depression (much easier said than done)
2. Education about back pain to reduce the fear that your pain is reflective of constant ‘danger’
3. Getting adequate sleep
4. Avoiding use of opiate pain medications and ‘muscle relaxants’ (although acetaminophen / NSAIDs may be helpful)
5. Exercising – or, even better, training – to move through previously ‘threatening’ ranges of motion
6. Continuing to participate in normal activities (ie, avoiding immobility!)” (8-9)
Something similar might be said of pain that is purely emotional in its origins. Often we hang on to the memory of a wrong done to us or a traumatic event longer than necessary, causing us to avoid certain people or similar situations or to mask our emotional pain with distractions and destructive behaviors. Certainly the biopsychosocial model of pain suggests that physical pain can be the result of our emotional state, the manifestation of stress, anxiety, and depression. Perhaps we’d benefit from following these guidelines in situations of emotional pain too: take care of our physical health, learn what we can about the situation, and move through the pain rather than stuff it down or avoid it.
However that plays out in terms of emotionally generated pain, I know that going through the motions of my lifts on that first day back at the gym allowed the slight, lingering, achy feeling to dissipate further. Movement helped me change the painful mind-body conversation that my injury had initiated; it was a necessary part of my healing process. Those lightweight “medicinal deadlifts” were among the first steps in re-training my brain and in building a different kind of strength.
As a culture we seem to be somewhat conflicted in our views of pain. Many of us believe that pain is a part of exercise, an indication that we are working hard. We confuse the discomfort of pushing ourselves in a workout with actual pain. When we feel real pain in our training, many of us ignore it and push on. We wear T-shirts with catchy slogans like “no pain no gain”, as though being in a state of pain is praiseworthy. And even while many of us almost glorify pain in the context of exercise, we mask the signs of physical pain in other areas of our lives with ibuprofen, and we hide emotional pain from ourselves in busyness and addictive behaviors, possibly viewing pain as weakness.
When we actually do take the time to investigate our pain, we often do so through our intellect rather than through our bodies. We research, Google, and read what others have to tell us about our pain rather than listen to what we are actually experiencing. We are more inclined to trust what someone else tells us about our condition than we are to actually experience our own pain to learn what our own bodies have to say about what makes us feel better or worse. We focus our attention outward rather than on what’s happening within us.
I am no different. When I hurt my back recently my first reaction was to email my experts, Louise and Emily, asking them to decipher my pain for me from three states away. I wanted answers: What did they think I had done? Pulled muscle? Slipped disc? Which specific muscles were involved? How should I fix it? Louise tried to explain to me that really I would need to answer my own questions and that I would not find those answers through my intellect: “You can not think your way out of your back pain,” she told me. Instead she suggested that I would be able to find the answers I really needed, what made it better and what made it worse, by listening to my body not my mind. That I would be able to find the initial answers I sought through breath and feel and movement. Once I had those initial answers, I could go from there with better understanding.
This first step of understanding through our own bodily experience, rather than through intellect or through an expert opinion, is one that I was trying to by-pass, in my impatience to be better. And as Louise and I discussed later, it is fairly typical of the way most of us function. We often first look externally for a diagnosis, for generalized expert advice about how to deal with our specific situation. This is often less helpful than learning how our particular bodies respond to our particular situation; as Louise says, it is like “putting duct tape over your crying child’s mouth without any conversation about what the matter is and what can be done to take care of it, both in the immediate moment and for the sake of preventing it in the future.”
It seems like many of us try to by-pass this initial step, not wanting to take the time to learn what our bodies might have to teach us. While I’m definitely not advocating for people to walk around in constant physical pain, certainly not sudden or acute pain, without seeking treatment, what I am suggesting is that pain is neither a sign of weakness nor something that we need to fear any more than it is the hallmark of an effective training session. It is really just our body’s way of asking us to pay attention, to turn our sights inward, to be aware. Perhaps if we take some time to find our own answers first, to pay attention to what makes our pain more or less intense, to trust our own bodies, than we will be better able to advocate for ourselves and provide useful feedback if we do need to seek medical attention. Perhaps if we try to understand first through feel and then through intellect we can be more active participants in our recovery.
Emily yelled at me for the first time the other day. From all the way on the other side of the turf room. While she was in the middle of leading her basic training group. Yell is not really the right word, but she was stern. “No! … No! … I do NOT want to see that again. From now on, I’m the only one who will spot you. That was NOT enough rest between those sets. Now you have to wait for ME if you want to lift!”
I was in the middle of my working sets on bench, and Emily was busy. I didn’t want to interrupt her, but mostly I just didn’t want to wait. I was impatient. Instead I asked Adam to give me a hand off and to spot me. The bar didn’t feel all that heavy on my previous set, and I wanted to get through my lifts a little faster. Turns out Emily was paying more attention to everything that was going on in her gym than I realized, and she knew I had not waited long enough for working sets.
“OK,” I said meekly and then hopped on my phone to text Tim: “Shit! I just got yelled at. Didn’t take a long enough rest.” Tim’s response: “Rest between sets???” Remembering one of the fundamental differences between the way he trains for hypertrophy and the way I am learning to train strength is length of rest time, I replied, “That’s something you know nothing about.”
Emily came over to check in with me and to explain again to a slow learner about the importance of rest between sets when your goal is to build strength. “THIS is about getting stronger,” she said. “It’s about adding more weight to your bar each time, not about adding reps or ‘working legs’. If that was the point you could do anything. This is about building strength. Training the whole body to be stronger. About prepping your body to get your reps on the next set. This is NOT conditioning. This is NOT Crossfit. It is NOT circuits. You need the rest to allow your body and your mind to recover for the next set.”
Tim texted back again teasing, “Wha…rest. Haha?” This time I had a clearer understanding, which makes for better ammo. “You don’t know about rest because you have no discipline! You’re just chasing pump! I’m building strength. HA! Strength is a process.”
Practically speaking, I know that Tim rests. Practically speaking, I know that his training is a process that takes discipline too. His rest just looks a lot different than mine. His rest between sets is minimal, sometimes non-existent, but it’s always there between lift days. He is just as mindful of the importance of rest as Emily is.
Somehow in that moment, this experience reminded me of a conversation I had a few days prior with a guy in my 6am bootcamp. He told me he had been raised in a family that emphasized goals. Once he reached one goal, he was expected to start plugging away at the next; no rest for the weary. As he got older, he started to feel like reaching his goals wasn’t all that satisfying. His wording caught me, “You may be way beyond this already, but I’ve been reading a lot about mindfulness recently. I think what was missing for me growing up was that I wasn’t encouraged to celebrate my successes. We were so busy moving with blinders on trying to get to the next goal that we never took time to recognize what we’d done. I think it’s important to do that, even if it’s just a small goal.”
He’s right, of course. We do need to pause, to rest, reflect and be mindful. But he’s also wrong. Clearly my impatience to get to my next working set on bench indicates the degree to which I am not “way beyond this”. I was too busy trying to check bench off my list so I could get to deadlift. Just like the younger version of my boot camp friend, I was so focused on my next goal that I didn’t allow myself time to process the work I had just done. Too impatient to be mindful. I suspect that often I’m not much different outside the gym, but neither is our culture. Americans value hard work. We are encouraged to multi-task, persevere, and work tirelessly to get to the last item on our daily agenda before collapsing into bed so we can do it again the following day. Do that for five days straight, cram as much fun into the weekend as possible, and then repeat. Sprinting through our days with blinders on, forgetting that we are engaged in a process, a long-term project of building and growing ourselves. The rest might look different, but growth doesn’t happen without it. Sometimes it takes as much discipline to carve out a dedicated time to rest as it takes to do the work. Maybe we could all use a loud voice from across the turf room, interrupting our non-sense, reminding us to take time to allow our minds and bodies to recover.
At the novice level of the Starting Strength program, as in many pure strength programs, you only lift two or three days a week. The other days are for rest. Period. That has been one of the toughest mental adjustments for me, and it also seems to be one of the most difficult concepts for many of my friends at the gym to grasp.
In high school and college, I used to train for cross country races and for marathons. Coach had rest weeks programmed into our training, and I struggled with those, with the week or two at the end of each season when Coach said we were not allowed to run. I can remember in high school, coming home and trying to read poetry in the living room instead of running. Forcing myself to be still. My mind and my heart were not in it. I wanted to be moving.
As an adult that desire to keep moving translated into working out, moving to move, exercising to sweat and feel like I’d left it all on the floor in a spin class or on the road while running, pushing a baby stroller uphill to burn off stress or anxiety. Without Coach enforcing rest weeks, I skipped them. Sometimes I skipped rest days during the week too. If I’m honest about why I did that, I’d have to say that exercise was, and still is, a coping mechanism for me – endurance exercise as a way to manage, to endure, whatever was bothering me at the moment. Often that was a daily thing.
Coming from that mindset, when I first heard Artemis say that training strength requires you to leave the gym feeling like you still have one more rep in the hole, one that you didn’t spend, the concept made no sense to me. When Craig told me that to lift like he does, he takes 2-3 days off per week, I was a little stunned. Even Tim, whose training for physique competitions has him lifting 5-6 days per week, usually takes a full week of rest before hitting the same body part again. The rest and recovery might be less apparent in his program, but it’s still there.
As I struggled to adjust to all the extra rest in my new strength program, I tried to finagle a different answer out of Emily. Right! As if I could get her to tell me I could just lift lighter weights on my “rest” days. Her reply: “Honestly, you should be doing nothing on your rest days. That’s why they are rest days. Walking is fine. Gentle yoga is okay. Conditioning work is not resting unless it is the light cardio stuff. Your rest day should be a real rest day. 😉 For some, a day in between is enough. For others, older trainees, two days off in between. If you want to get stronger, you have to rest. You have to pick your goal. Get stronger or get sweaty. Exercise or train. Pick your goal.” Ugh! Truth hurts.
But to look around, it’s not surprising that I tend to undervalue the importance of rest in training. We live in a culture of “go big or go home”. I have taught in facilities where instructors encourage participants to go “balls to the wall” all the time. And so many people that I see at my gym come in and pound their bodies on a daily basis, even taking multiple classes in a row. They work hard, rarely take days off, and never seem to have an off season. They aren’t necessarily training for anything; they are exercising. They don’t have a coach to tell them their body needs rest to rebuild, to make them take time off. When they don’t see the results they are looking for, they figure they need to work harder. When that doesn’t help, eventually some of them give up.
There are many reasons why people exercise like this. Some people are doing what they think is right based on popular fitness magazines. Some claim they exercise so they can earn dessert. Some seem to be punishing themselves for what they ate yesterday. Exercise is a coping mechanism for many people, as it has been for me, and that’s ok; it serves that purpose very well. However, even those who are exercising as opposed to training need rest. If you’ve been undervaluing the importance of rest days like I have done, maybe it’s worth looking into the reasons why. Those reasons are usually complex and deserve some attention. The way Emily describes it, “Our rest days are the days when we are really working. We’ve broken down muscle lifting heavy, and the rest days are when we do the real work of rebuilding ourselves stronger.” Rest days are necessary to make gains. Those are the days when we can get a little extra sleep, prep healthy food, take care of ourselves, and patiently wait to build strength. Sometimes that’s the hardest work.