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.

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.

The Grateful Deadlift

I am in love with the deadlift.  There are multiple reasons for this; some reasons are practical and some go a little deeper.  The deadlift is a highly functional and fundamental movement that many have forgotten how to perform in our modern context.  We routinely abuse our backs, slouching in the sofa, rounding over a steering wheel, slumping over the computer, then we use it improperly to lift heavy crap off the floor.  Deadlifts help to correct all of this.  They help to strengthen and preserve the back from the stress of daily living.  People often tell me  things like, “I don’t deadlift; I have a bad back’ – a form of logic that doesn’t make much sense to me.  Training a weak area to be stronger and move efficiently makes much more sense to me than allowing a weak area to go untrained so it is vulnerable in real world activities.  On the other end of the spectrum, I have had several older clients, some with a history of back pain, comment on how having trained this movement pattern properly has allowed them to garden for extended periods of time without feeling it in their backs and has allowed them to move through life with less discomfort.  A deadlift done properly, with awareness and good form, is one of the most beautiful and beneficial things I know.

A deadlift is also, in my experience, a hugely empowering lift for women.  Done properly, a deadlift is one of the easiest lifts to load to a weight that seems to blow most women’s minds.  Within a relatively short amount of time, a client can safely move from never having done a deadlift to pulling more than body weight.  I remember the first time I realized I could pull more than I weighed, and I experience that same excitement each time a client reaches that point too.  For a woman to have that tangible realization that the pink 5# dumbbells are not for her is a joyous moment; realizing that she is capable of literally pulling her own weight in life is a massive confidence booster.

But for me personally my love of the deadlift goes to an even deeper level.  This is the first lift that taught me how to see myself differently.  Not just as a strong woman who could pull her own weight and then some, but it taught me the value of seeing myself from the inside out and not the reverse.  When you set up properly for a deadlift, your line of vision is on the floor approximately two feet ahead.  img_1152Even if you are lifting in a facility that has mirrors (don’t), there is no way to set up properly and see yourself through your eyes.  You have to learn to translate a visual understanding of yourself into something sensory, learn how the proper set up feels and then trust that.  Training myself to trust in my inner vision was kinda revolutionary for me.

One day at Fivex3, I overheard someone jokingly describe setting their line of sight during a lift as staring into infinity.  And that is a pretty accurate description of what happens to me when I deadlift well.  I set up my pull, see myself from the inside out, and then to focus on that vision with such intensity that the rest of everything seems to melt away.  When I deadlift well, I find what some people describe as “flow”.  That feeling where the barriers between mind and body and the barriers between internal and external seem to dissolve, that feeling of being wholly (holy?) and completely present in the moment.  Some people experience this feeling in other athletic endeavors or hobbies about which they are passionate, where mind and body become one through their activity.  Some people experience this feeling when they are falling in love, where they feel they have connected with someone across the bounds of space and time and individual personhood.  The deadlift does not have exclusive rights to this feeling, and slowly I’m learning to find that same level of intensity and focus in my other lifts.  The deadlift just has a greater claim on my psychic space, because it provided me my first glimpse of the “infinite” in the context of the weight room.  And that is a pretty amazing thing, not to be underappreciated. To my mind, the deadlift is a thing of beauty and power, and this is why, in my vocabulary, the deadlift has become the grateful deadlift.

“Are You Open to Suggestion?”

For the most part, we all want to do things right, to do a good job, and to be recognized for it.  Success feels better than failure, and often an even better feeling is when others acknowledge our accomplishments.  Of course, what feels good is not always what makes us better.  The territory just this side of success, the place occupied by incomplete and failed attempts, is usually the most fertile ground for growth and improvement.  Good coaches and mentors know how to work this soil.

One of the things that is most striking to me about the coaches at Fivex3 is the degree to which they are silent, especially when we’re working.  Once a trainee gets past the initial instructional phase in which they are taught lift form as detailed by the Starting Strength program, a stage at which consistent and constant feedback is provided, the coaches then move to a mainly observational role.  I came to Emily from a setting in which several trainer friends were generously helping me learn lifts.  There are many slight variations in set-up, form, and cuing for lifts, (check any two articles on T-nation about the same lift), so it’s not surprising that my friends’ language and feedback did not always match each others’.  Add to that the fact that most of them were helping me out in their spare time, so my opportunities to learn from them and to process their instructions were sporadic at best.  I felt like I was conflating their cues and confusing myself in the process.  That’s when I started working with Emily, and once she taught me the language and specifics of form the way they are instructed at Fivex3, she moved to a more silent style of coaching, and while I was initially looking for a constant stream of feedback as I moved through my lifts, I’ve come to really appreciate the quiet.

If the coaches at Fivex3 are silent during your working set, that means you’re doing it right.  For the most part, you only hear from them while you’re working when you need to make a correction.  When my head is too focused on the press that I forget the rest of my body, I hear “Legs”, and I’ll remember to dig in, to utilize the strength in my entire system.  When my squat feels unexpectedly heavy in the middle of a set, I hear “Hips”, and I’ll realize my torso angle has shifted slightly and that I need to readjust and drive up with my ass.  When my lift feels pretty good and the weight moves efficiently, I hear nothing.

When I’m finished my working set, the coaches will discuss each rep to my heart’s content, answering questions about what looked good and where I need to make changes.  They do this with each trainee, helping us figure out what wasn’t quite right, why we struggled or didn’t make our last rep, because in deconstructing our struggles and failures, we learn how to be more successful.  learning-from-failure-posters

I’ve noticed that outside of the weight room, we are not always as receptive to suggestions for improvement; often we react defensively, hearing other people’s comments as an attack and dismissing others as being nosey or ill-informed.  Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes people aren’t actually meaning to offer constructive criticism; sometimes they just want to criticize.  For this reason, my father-in-law always prefaces his comments with a question: “Are you open to suggestion?”  If the answer is no, even if it’s a struggle, he keeps it buttoned up.  I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of that exchange; sometimes we are the one unwillingly being made to listen, sometimes we play the “expert” who seems to know best.  In either case, often there is a level of insecurity and ego involved; in the first instance on our part, and in the second on the part of the one attempting to appear the expert at our expense.  Insecurity and ego are interconnected.

I have learned that this blend of insecurity and arrogance has to get checked at the door, before entering the weight room.  It’s not just a matter of missing out on opportunities for improvement; insecurity and arrogance can get you injured.  My coaches are concerned with both my safety and my gains.  They are training me to hear their cues in my own mind, to find the affirmation I’m looking for internally, not from the voices coming at me from the outside.  They are training me to have confidence in my own work and to maintain a willingness to accept corrections for improvement.  That kind of training is essential to finding success, and it does not just apply in the weight room.

Breath and Sky

We all have our Achilles heels, chinks in our armor.  Sometimes those are physical: old nagging injuries, pain from use or disuse, structural weak spots. Sometimes those are mental: too much or too little self-esteem, illusions of perfectionism, inability to ask for help, and so on. One of those physical chinks that Louise and I have in common is occasional, but sometimes debilitating, low back pain.

In the midst of one of my recent back episode, I emailed Louise to ask her how she usually coped. Here’s her response:

“My answer bounces right off most people that ask me how I manage back pain, but here goes:  I breathe and meditate. …that’s the short answer.  I used breath and meditation to get me through two 24 hour labors/births of big babies with no meds.  I used it most recently when my body literally stopped moving. I used it because breathe was all I could do: I could not move anything without excruciating pain.  I use it now at the first whisper of discomfort.  Deep, diaphragmatic breathing both guides me to the source of the pain and simultaneously starts my healing.”

It seems too simplistic to be the answer and yet physiologically amazing things happen in our bodies when we consciously breathe a little deeper. We stimulate the parasympathetic response which begins to counteract some of the negative effects that stress from both injury and life has on our bodies.  The parasympathetic response slows the heart rate and improves digestion, which is how it gets nicknamed the “rest and digest” response.  It allows the body to find homeostasis, to balance its systems.  It encourages us to find and then function from a place of relaxation and calm and from there to begin to repair and heal ourselves.

From my own experience, I know that when my back hurt and I breathed more deeply I was able to relax through the pain and get to the other side of it. I know that when I stress out my friends tell me to “just breathe”. I know that when I get spooled up with anxiety, a deep breath starts to settle me down, keeping me grounded in the present moment rather than careening forward into a feared and totally imagined future.

Kinder sky

I suppose that Louise’s recognition of the need to breathe is somehow connected to the fact that she collects sky pictures. Recently I became one of her “sky buddies”.  (Yeah, Sky, not Skype. It’s way better.)  Whenever we see a particularly beautiful sunrise, a stunning sunset, or big billowy clouds we take a picture and text it. There’s something about staring up at the vastness of the sky, the power in a thundercloud, the elusive beauty in a rainbow, and really seeing it, that allows us to see ourselves too, to view ourselves through a different and clearer lens. Somehow that vast expanse above us makes it ok to be small and broken and to not have all the answers. Somehow looking at the sky puts us in our proper place. And you know what happens automatically and almost miraculously at that very moment?  A deep, full, and healing breath.

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Near Perfect Form

We’ve all heard that nothing’s perfect.  Experienced it.  Yet, isn’t it funny that often we expect it from ourselves anyway.  One day near the start of this heavy lifting project, as I was just beginning to feel like I didn’t need Craig with me coaching me all the time, I loaded up my bar solo for my working weight deadlift.  As I stepped up to the bar to set up my pull, I ran through all the appropriate cues in my head.  I was feeling autonomous and self-sufficient and good.  Then as I gripped the bar, I overheard Louise’s client ask her if I was really going to lift “that heavy weight”.  Maybe she was worried for me.  Maybe she thought she was next.  I don’t know.  Louise answered with the usual amount of calm and confidence that she carries in her voice, “Yes!  Yes she is going to lift ‘that heavy weight’ – and she’s going to do it with near perfect form!”

That was not the answer I wanted.  It was encouraging, but it was realistic.  I suppose I was hoping for something along the lines of “Hell yeah!  That girl is strong!  She could deadlift a truck.”  Louise’s actual response struck me, distracted me, and I recognizing that my head was in the wrong place; I had to step back from the bar.  In that moment, perhaps I even felt a little offended.  I’d been working hard at perfecting my deadlift form.  I was proud of my effort and I wanted Louise to say I was going to lift ‘that heavy weight’ with perfect form, not near perfect.  But as I’ve noted before, Louise uses words with precision.  She aims for truth in her language, not to puff up someone’s ego for ego’s sake.  And although I’m sure that her primary intent was encouragement, with her words, I felt my ego deflate.  And truthfully that’s not a bad thing.

I remembered a prior conversation with Amy about form.  She explained it like this: “When we work on form in lifting, we are all working on an asymptote.  We work towards perfect form.  We inch right up next to it, but we can never really reach it.”  Perfect form in lifts, as with perfection in life, is elusive.  It is never really attainable, the golden ring always just outside our grasp.  Certainly we should strive for it, and often we get close.  That is how we improve; that is how we will accomplish our best.  But we should never expect to achieve it.  I know this, and yet it is a lesson I continually need to relearn.

I am careful not to confuse excellence with perfection. Excellence I can reach for, Perfection is God's business. ~Michael J Fox
I am lucky to have good friends to remind me that perfectionism is an illusion, to help me push ego out of the way, to help me get my head straight.  I hope you are blessed with honest friends who remind you of similar truths.  Liberating ourselves from illusions of perfectionism allows us to work from a right place in our minds in our attempts at excellence, in our attempts to reach PRs.  It allows us to better stay in the moment, to focus on the the present – on our set up and lift – and not be distracted by an imagined and perfect outcome.  Once we’re clear on all that, it’s safe to step back up to the bar and aim for something near perfect and totally beautiful.