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.

Less “Locker Room Talk”; More Training Room Talk

       I’ve written along these lines before but under different circumstances.  It starts with a basic observation of mine that in the weight room the strongest people I know rarely talk about how much weight they can move.  They never brag or self-promote or use their strength to tear others down. The people I’ve met in the weight room who have incredible strength are humble and supportive and encouraging.
       I train with men as well as women. At Fivex3 Training, there is one small bathroom; there is no locker room. Sometimes our language is raw: “I did split squats the other day, and my ass is killing me!” or after getting a heavy rep, you might hear “fuck yeah!”  But there is no “locker room talk”.  Nothing is said that would demean another trainee: male or female, twenty or seventy, republican or democrat.
       Instead we have training room talk.  We move metric shitloads of iron in the space of a few seconds, and then we have the conversations of people who have real strength, the strength to put aside their own egos to encourage and support another person.  Developing our strength as individuals does not come at the expense of another; it is not achieved by mining someone else’s self-confidence or security.  We are all on a mutual quest to be better and stronger than yesterday.  And we respect that process in each other.fivex3
       I think we could all use more examples of training room talk.

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.

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.