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.

Marry the Goal. Be Fickle about the Outcome.

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

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

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

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

Lisa Lewis headshot
Dr. Lisa Lewis

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

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

Faith that Failure Doesn’t Matter

If you’ve ever done any weightlifting, you’ve likely heard the phrase, “Failure is your friend!”  The first time I encountered that phrase several years ago in the context of the group strength class I was teaching, I didn’t have a lot of weight training experience from which to make sense of it.  My frame of reference in regards to failure was purely that of a non-lifter, someone who was raised to complete tasks as perfectly as possible, to double check for accuracy always, and to avoid extreme risks to ensure a better chance of success and safety; basically to function within a certain small comfort zone.  In weightlifting, failure is often the goal; this is where muscle growth happens.  When you train hypertrophy style, you want to work so hard that your muscles are no longer able to lift what you’re asking them to move.  When you train strength, getting that last rep of your working set at really heavy weight is almost always in question.  Oddly, in a sense, reaching the point of failure sort of equates to success.

When I first started training the big lifts, Craig helped me.  He coached me on form and he helped me determine my one rep max, the maximum weight I could move in any of my lifts, determined by the point just before which I failed.  I started working on my own at about 80% of my 1RM, but by the time my working sets got heavy I realized that I was not in the right environment to fail.  I was working without a spotter, the squat rack I was using did not have “infinity safety spotter arms” on which I could drop the bar if I couldn’t get back up, and the floor underneath me was not rubberized (not optimal if you’re going to drop the bar off your back). The day my working set of squats was just 5# below my previous max weight and my fourth rep felt like it was in question, I didn’t even attempt my fifth rep because I knew I didn’t have a safety system in place for a fail.

Squatting without safety bar arms
Squatting without safety bar arms
The long, black pieces are the safety bar arms for the squat rack.

This is pretty much the way things work outside of the weightroom too, and this was the subject of one of Pastor Earl’s recent sermons.  Often we believe that success is paramount and that failure matters in an “end of the world” kind of way; we attempt to achieve and expect perfection from ourselves.  We live within a certain small comfort zone, and while the size of that comfort zone might be different for different people, we often function within the parameters of our perceived areas of success.  Pastor Earl challenged us, “What would you do, what would you attempt, what would you dare in your life if you believed that failure didn’t matter? That’s the heart of faith.”

That’s a worthwhile question, so he gave us gave us time to wrestle with it, to talk to our neighbor about it, and then he gave us some of his own examples.  He also reminded us that answering this question with our lives was totally doable, because we have a safety system:

“I ask the question, because failure doesn’t matter. You are a precious child of God. You are a blessing in your family, in your work place, in your activities, and in the lives of all you meet. You are called to encounter the children of God wherever you are and offer the blessing of who God has made you to be. God has your back. We have your back. Failure doesn’t change that one little bit. You’ve been given the kingdom. You are a stranger and foreigner here because you have the freedom to live as a blessed, forgiven, child of God … a citizen of the kingdom of God where the rules are different.  All of this is called faith.”

We can risk failure because ultimately failure as defined by the usual rules doesn’t matter.  Failure does not define us as such; we have already been identified as blessed children of God, loved and forgiven.  With this in mind, failure instead becomes our opportunity for growth, a chance to develop strength, a demonstration of faith.  Imagine how much bigger our comfort zones would be if we consistently remembered that God has our backs; he is our spotter, our “infinity safety spotter arms”.

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.

Excitement vs intensity

I have almost always enjoyed exercise and structured my day around it.  Since I began running cross country in high school, exercise has been the one constant in my life and the part of my day that brought me the most joy.  Of course, there were times that I was tired or sore or for some reason my heart wasn’t in it, but that was always a quickly passing thing for me.  In high school and college, a lot of my teammates trained so they could compete; I was the opposite – competing so I could train.  In my 20s, the days when I got to do long marathon training runs with my local Road Runner’s club felt to me like moving parties – seriously, like happy hour with sneakers instead of cocktails.  Even when I was 7 months pregnant with twins, the highlight of my day was getting to the gym, doing what I could do, which at that point was mainly walking on a treadmill.  And recently, some nights I dream about the squat rack or deadlifts or pull-ups or just being at Fivex3Training, and when that happens, I usually wake up too excited to fall back asleep.  I know; weird, right?  That’s just the way I’m wired.

Group fitness instructors and exercise companies spend a lot of energy trying to foster a similar sense of joy in their participants.  They focus on music selection and constantly changing combinations of “choreographed” moves to keep participants interested and excited and coming back for more.  My awareness of the marketability of exercise as fun coupled with the fact that I’m more wired to find joy in exercise rather than in the intensity of competition, contributed to my initial attitudes towards lifting heavier weights.  But the more time I spent with serious lifters, the more I started to notice that my a level of excitement was a bit off compared to what I observed in those around me.

When Craig approaches the squat rack to lift heavy, he often has headphones on and audibly psyches himself up.  He seems to create his own mental space occupied by only the weights and himself; he usually declares something like, “Now it’s time to WORK, mother-f**er”, heads into that space, and gets the job done.  When Amy coached my form for a power clean, the look in her eyes was so concentrated it was startling, especially given that she was demonstrating with a dowel, a very light PVC pipe.  The weight of the dowel was light enough that it was disconcerting to me, but that didn’t hinder Amy from exuding serious athleticism even on a demo.  I’ve seen the same in Emily who, when she taught me overhead press Rippetoe-style, seemed to be instantly transported into competition mode.  In observing each of them, I saw something in their eyes that gave me insight into what was happening in their minds, something that was different from what had been happening to me when I approached the bar.

In their eyes, I had seen a level of focus that I envied.  Where I was giddy with the newness of strength training, they were confident and calm.  At that point, I knew enough at least to realize that developing this type of focus was going to be an essential part of lifting heavy weights, that it would help keep me safe.  I thought about something my husband had said to me recently when I was going on and on … again … about strength training.  “I’m going to say something that sounds like I’m repeating myself, but I’m not,” he said.  “What’s cool about all this is that you are in love and you are falling in love with what you are doing.”  And that sort of summed up the difference between me and my mentors.  Where I was giddy with new love, they had cultivated the security of a long-term relationship.  I had a feeling; they had put that feeling into practice, and the result was that while I was excited, they were intense.   They possessed the quiet confidence that comes with commitment and experience.  They had developed an intensity born of focus, attention to detail, and dedication.  They had earned it.  And I realized that I would get there too; any of us can.  It just takes willingness, time, and practice.

Rest: The Real Work

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.

Why We Lift; How We Lift

Endurance Strength v Hypertrophy v  Pure Strength

In theory lifting weights seems fairly straight-forward.  You just walk into a weight room and lift heavy s#!t.  In actuality it’s a little more complicated than that.  There are tons of different programs to help people build strength, all promoting different rep and set schemes, varying numbers of rest days, different exercises, and even different ways of conceptualizing the body.  In order to choose the “right” approach, it helps to be clear on your goal.  For me the three approaches I explored were endurance strength (or something like that, in the group fitness lifting program that I teach), hypertrophy (the way Tim lifts for physique competitions), and pure strength (the approach Emily and Craig take).

My initial exposure to weightlifting came through group fitness classes.  Several years ago a friend suggested that I try a class with her; she said she used to take this class at her old gym and was never in better shape.  It was a copywrited program replicated nationally in participating, licenced gyms with instructors who were certified by the parent company.  Most gyms have a variation of this type of strength class.  In the space of 60 minutes, we worked our whole bodies starting with larger muscle groups, like “legs” and “back”, and then moving on to smaller ones, like biceps and triceps.  One up-beat song was dedicated to each muscle group; so for example when we worked biceps, we were doing biceps curls for about 4 minutes straight.  I enjoyed the music and the group atmosphere; some days it felt like dancing with weights.  Since we hit every body part in the the hour, the recommendation is to take the class only 2-3 times a week.  The other days, most people took a spin class or went running.  Pretty manageable for busy people.  This combination approach of strength and cardio addresses the general fitness concerns of most people and it is fun.  For several years I continued with this format, and eventually, I became a certified instructor as well.

This type of work probably most closely fits the standard definition of muscular endurance training, although not quite.  When lifting for muscular endurance, people typically lift 60-70% of the heaviest weight they can move for a particular exercise; they do so for 2-3 sets of 12-16 repetitions with 30-60 seconds of rest between sets, and they usually aim to work to fatigue or failure.  Unlike muscular endurance training, the group fitness version which I experienced tended to drastically reduce the rest between sets, sometimes skipping it entirely before heading into another set, and I’m pretty sure we exceeded 48 total reps on most tracks, or songs.  Although there were guidelines about how much weight to put on the bar, at that many total reps, I doubt we actually were lifting 60-70%, and the amount of weight I loaded onto my bar on any given track only increased about twice in five years.  By the end of a track, most of us felt pretty fatigued, and people would joke about not being able to straighten their arms or having wobbly legs, even into the following day,  Most of that feeling of soreness despite the lack of significant change to the amount of weight we normally loaded on our bars has to do with the periodized approach of the class, meaning the exercises change every 6 weeks or so.  The class is adaptable, so people of all ages and fitness levels can participate, but not always with great form and not always with appropriately chosen weights, so that’s a potential cause of injury or stagnation.  In any case, the overall objective of general fitness was achieved, to move some weight, sweat, and have fun while doing so.  People usually leave the classes a little stronger, more durable, and better able to function effectively in the real world.

Some days my schedule didn’t mesh with the group fitness schedule, and I found myself in the free weight room.  On those days, I usually tried to replicate something along the lines of what I had done in my group fitness classes.  Looking around a free weight room, most women were doing something similar, or possibly they were following a program they had read about in a magazine.  If they were working from a magazine, whether they realized it or not, they were most likely doing some type of hypertrophy training.

Hypertrophy training done correctly is often a 6-day a week endeavor, in which a person works one or two major muscle groups at a time in really high-volume and allows about 72 hours of recovery before revisiting the same muscle group.  This is the way Tim trains.  He’ll say things like “today is a legs day” or “it’s back and tri today”.  He segments his body, usually into antagonist muscle groups, and attacks each part separately, isolation work.  Hypertrophy training requires heavier weights than we use in group fitness classes, usually about 70-80% the most weight someone can move, sometimes more.  Tim will do four or more exercises for each muscle group in sets of 3-6.  Rest time between exercises is about 30-90 seconds or, if he’s supersetting or doing compound sets, the rest time between sets might be non-existent.  He usually does 6-12 reps at a time, so at 3-6 sets of 4+ exercises, potentially he’s doing something like 250 total reps for each muscle group.  In between lifts, Tim eats a ton, seriously.  Eight meals and two supplemental shakes a day.  Lots of protein and healthy carbs, but there’s hardly anything beyond essential fat in his diet or on his body.  As with endurance strength, hypertrophy training leaves an individual stronger and more effective in the real world, but the goal really is to achieve a certain powerful and cut appearance.  After all, Tim trains this way for physique competitions; he’s judged somewhat subjectively on how his muscles look.

Hypertrophy training is brutal.  Tim has trained my pull-up hypertrophy style.  When we started, I could do 4 dead hang pull-ups for several sets, but he was tossing out crazy numbers:  “OK, this time you’re going to do 8.”  It just made me laugh.  Once I finished a satisfactory number of pull-ups, obviously with assistance to meet the higher volume, he’d send me to the cable machine for rows or the lat pull-down bar to “finish me off”.  By the time I had progressed to weighted pull-ups, he would have me do as many as I could with the weights I could handle, and then he’d load me up with more than I could pull on my own, “to shock my muscles.”  “Basically,” he says, “I wanted your body to feel that weight to let it know that this is what it eventually will need to pull up. This method not only gives you confidence for the next time, but by allowing me to help you push past that failure threshold you are able to complete the eccentric portion of the lift. This is where a lot of hypertrophy happens, as well as strength gains.”  I’ll give him a maybe on the feeling confident part, but my body definitely gets shocked.  By the end of a session, I don’t just feel fatigued like I have in the group fitness classes; I feel like my muscles are crying, maybe even bleeding.  I don’t think I whine, but I definitely whimper, and I continue to feel sore for a few days after.  All that being said though, I’m pretty certain he got me to the point where I could do weighted pull-ups on my own faster than I would have otherwise.

Either of these types of lifting, endurance strength or hypertrophy, fall more along the lines of what my strength training friends would call conditioning or cardio.  Training pure strength is a totally different animal.  When Craig first called my group strength classes “cardio,” I was pretty sure he had misunderstood me, because as far as I knew cardio was strictly something like Spin or running.  For strength coaches though, cardio is lifting lighter weights faster.  Strength training involves moving 80-100% maximum weight in 1-5 sets of 1-6 reps.  The lifts are generally total-body movement patterns, like squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press, and each lift day usually includes only 2-4 exercises.  In strength training, rest is crucial.  Depending on how much weight you’re moving, rest time between sets can be anywhere between 3-10 minutes.  And rest time between lift days is 48-72 hours, so you only train strength 2-3 times each week.  When Craig lifts really heavy, 1 rep, there can be enough weight on the bar that the bar actually starts to bend, and his rests are long enough for him to send me way more links to articles on T-nation than I have time to read in a day.  There isn’t much (or any) cardio or conditioning in between strength training sessions because that just breaks down what you’re trying to build.  Rest days are for resting, period.  When training pure strength, great attention is paid to those rest days between lifts: protein intake, hydration, sleep, stress management, consumption of nutrient-rich, real foods.  Strength training the way Craig describes it is a lifestyle that transcends the weight room.

My first experience with strength training was when Craig coached me on proper form for the big lifts and got me started on a 5×5 program, which I could track on an app on my phone.  I had an A day of 3 big lifts and a B day of 3 big lifts.  With enough rest in between lifts, the goal is to be able to add 5# to each lift each time it comes around in the program.  I soon realized that if I was going to do this the way it was intended, I wasn’t going to able to do it alone. I also realized eventually that I was going to have to reconsider the rest of my workouts and really have rest days.  That’s when I started traveling to Baltimore to work with Emily at FiveX3Training.  FiveX3Training is a Starting Strength facility; this means Emily and her husband Diego teach Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength System which “makes use of the most basic movement patterns that work the entire body as a coordinated system, gradually increasing loads that make the whole body stronger, in a logical, understandable, time-tested manner – the way athletes have gotten stronger for millennia.”  http://startingstrength.com/about  Emily says, “We teach nothing new….just a systematic approach to barbell training that makes sense to people and works.”

Initially A day is squat, OH press, deadlift; and B day is squat, bench, deadlift.  I go through my warm up sets at light weights that gradually increase until I get to 3 sets of 5 reps at my working weight.  Then I go home, rest and eat (lots of protein, 3-5 meals), and come back the next time to add 5 more pounds to my bar.  That’s the novice program.  I’m getting to a point now where I can’t add 5 more pounds to each lift each time, so Emily and Diego have started to finesse my program.  For some lifts I go up incrementally (2.5#) or work in triples.  I’m also getting to the point where my CNS is too taxed by the weight of the deadlift to do it every time, so I have started alternating that with a power lift, like power clean or power snatch.  I have just reached the point where I am making these changes, so the road ahead may feel different, but until now, I always have left FiveX3Training feeling like I had worked hard but like I still had more to spend; at the end of a set I was tired, probably even struggled to get the last rep, but 5 minutes later I felt like I could have gone again.  In her “I Am Not Afraid to Lift” workshop, Artemis explains this sensation as “leaving the gym feeling as though you still have one rep in the hole.”  Not until I reached the point where I had maxed out my ability to deadlift every time did I ever feel sore the next day.  My joints are appreciating doing 15 meaningful reps 2-3 times a week, instead of hundreds of reps.  But the most exciting part is that I can tell from the weight on the bar, that each session, I am getting stronger, and that is the goal – to build total body strength.

For me right now, this style of training is the most appealing on multiple levels.  For starters, it’s training for a clear purpose of gaining strength; it’s not just moving to move.  Right now, I am really appreciating having goals in my training.  That was not always the case.  When my kids were little, I just needed to workout, to blow off steam; that is what allowed me to cope with my day.  I needed to be durable in the real world and to feel good about myself by exercising.  Maybe it would have helped at that point to have been working towards goals, but my life was too unpredictable.  I felt like I couldn’t see that far ahead, like I was doing well if I just survived the day.  Adequate amounts of sleep and proper nutrition were luxuries.  Secondly, I love training my body as a whole unit.  If I hit a bumpy patch or a busy week, I can drop back to two lifts per week instead of three and still make progress.  I don’t have to worry that I didn’t get around to a certain muscle group and that my program for the week will be unbalanced.  I love that I’m training my body to work as a unit, major muscles and supporting muscles working in their natural relation to each other, not segmenting my body into parts.  Isolation training done properly maintains these natural balances, sometimes addresses imbalances created through our daily movement patterns.  Too often, though, inexperienced lifters focus on the muscles they can see, the “glamour muscles”, and forget the ones they can’t see, leaving their bodies unbalanced.

Perhaps most significantly though, I love conceptualizing my body as a whole, not as parts, and placing my focus on what my body can do not on how parts of it look, focusing on how much weight I can move, not on how my body looks as a result of my work.  In a culture where we already “pick apart” our bodies and believe in myths of spot reduction, and coming from a past where I overlooked the whole to criticize the part (“I can run fast, but I don’t like the way this part of my leg looks”), this approach feels good.  For me, training this way encompasses strength as a sum total of what my body can do, real-world movement patterns, my attitudes towards my body, and the ways I treat my body outside the weight room with regards to sleep, nutrition, and rest.  For me, training strength feels healthy and wholesome.

That Flippin’ Tire

jenn TireIn my lifts I focus a lot of my attention on bracing and breath to protect my low back and my “not hernia.” This is important.  I am also always amazed by the number of compensations my body uses, all of which become apparent under heavy loads.  Craig would say I’m distracted by the idea of compensations and being balanced.  I’m sure he says that because I talk about it … a lot.  And of course, if you are talking when you are lifting heavy weights, you lose the breath that fills your diaphragm, supports your low back, braces you. If you talk, you are at risk for injury.

The day Craig and his client Jenn let me join her for conditioning work, I was talking … a lot.  I had never flipped giant tires, pushed a weighted-up prowler, swung a sledgehammer, played wall ball with a med ball.  I was in heaven!  I talked out of excitement, and I also talked out of one of my usual place of insecurity, my concern about my compensations leading to imbalances.

That tire was heavy.  I noticed that every time I flipped it, after I squatted and lifted it as high as I could, I instinctively shoved my left shoulder under it to move my hands higher, and then balanced it on my left leg for a second to get a big push from my right leg so I could shove that thing over.  I started chattering about all that.  About how I always used my right side to push.  About how unbalanced I was going to be.  I was like Spiderman in the Marvel comics “Civil War” Movie.  The one the experienced superheros look at funny and say, “Uh … I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fight before, but  …. there’s usually NOT this much talking!”  Craig essentially told me the same thing, “Quit your talking and flip the damn tire!”

There are different schools of thought on balance, compensation, and corrective exercises.  Sometimes imbalances cause pain or discomfort and compromised movement patterns.  Sometimes imbalances make someone great.  What would a MLB pitcher be if he were balanced?  This is a big topic of discussion in training circles, and one I’m still reading about.

As I debated this topic in my head, I decided to split the difference and flip the tire back pushing from my left leg.  I looked at the tire.  Craig and Jenn looked at me.  I mentally and physically rehearsed how I would flip it from my left leg.  Craig and Jenn were down hill from me and the tire was between us.  It probably looked to them like I had quit.

Craig yelled up the hill, “Look if you can flip it from the other leg, great. But it doesn’t matter!  Stop overthinking it!  And STOP TALKING or you’ll get hurt!”

Jenn followed up, “It doesn’t matter how you flip it!  It matters that you CAN flip it!”

And that’s when it sort of clicked for me that the other purpose of this work, aside from anaerobic conditioning, was mental.  It mattered that Jenn and I knew we were strong and that we had experiences that validated that.  It mattered that we could train the mental chatter, the voices that whisper “not enough,” so that we could be strong in the moment and get the job done.  It mattered that we trained to work from that place of quiet confidence that would keep us safe.

When Less is More

When I started working with Emily at Fivex3Training, I had to relearn some of the form that I had been using. I had been doing high bar back squats, and Emily was teaching me low bar back squat. In general, that doesn’t really make much difference. I had started barbell squatting with light weight, high rep squats in a group fitness setting that coached the high bar squat. I was comfortable with that bar position and took it with me when I went to the squat rack to lift heavier weight. During this transition though, a small kernel of an idea was beginning to sprout in my mind, the idea that I might want to look into powerlifting competitions.  For that possibility or at the very least for my own personal reasons, I knew I wanted to lift more weight, and learning the low bar back squat the way Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program coached it would allow me to do so.

Since I was still learning a new form, obviously I hadn’t earned the right to weight up the bar much, especially on squat and overhead press. I knew I also had to train my breath and bracing. Stay tight but still breathe. Super important with a post-pregnancy history of hernias. Emily was helping me train this too. My instructions on leaving my first session at Fivex3Training were not to do any other lifting that would interfere with her work with me and mostly to rest. Having just lifted about 40% less weight than I was used to, I resisted that a bit. That old feeling of “not being something enough” was trying to insist that I had not lifted heavy enough, and I knew following her directions would be a struggle for me mentally.

“Emily, I need specific directions so I don’t get stupid. Can I still train my pull up? Can I swing a kettlebell? Tell me what I CAN do, so I don’t do something I shouldn’t do.”

She helped me break that down. I still had my group fitness classes to teach – use minimum weights. I could still train my pull up, do some light cardio, yoga. OK – there was something I could work with to keep that edgy feeling I get when I don’t work out at bay.

So I did what I could, and Craig helped me with the mental piece. He sent me links to articles on the importance of planned de-loads, about training smarter for more gains. Harder work and more work does not necessarily mean better work or better results. One of the differences between training and working out is the recognition of the need for rest and recovery, having an off-season, not constantly moving to move.

Craig is always telling me to “get my mind right.” The meaning of that seems to change a bit depending on the circumstance, but I’m learning. I’m learning that the mental aspect of weightlifting is hugely important, just as important as form and technique, and that I need to train that too. Master the feeling of “not enough”.  Face the discomfort, and not “workout” to silence it. Accept that sometimes doing less for a period of time is essential to moving forward. Resist the idea that busyness is better, the idea that we need to do more to be more. Train myself to move away from a feeling of “not enough” and instead work from a place of “strong enough”.