Stone to Shoulder

“It’s really not that hard, you know,” Craig said with a half smile.  “Any three year old can figure out how to get a basketball from their lap onto their shoulder.  You’re overthinking this.”

I stared at him and sighed; I knew he was right.  No one was asking me to do anything outside of the realm of possible for me.  I’d been working consistently for over a year at getting stronger.  Diego, Amie, and Craig had all coached me on technique, and Amie had already demonstrated several consecutive stone to shoulder lifts.  I had practiced the lift with a sandbag and a lighter stone.  My technique was adequate, although much in need of refining.  The issue was not physical strength; the issue was the garbage in my head.

I know I have a tendency to overthink things, and that often I psyche myself out in the process.  And I know that I probably wear thin the patience of a few people around me; Diego, with his straightforward approach and “add more weight” solution for most things, didn’t argue one bit when Craig and Amie took over the job of teaching me the lift.  I know that sometimes I am my own worst enemy and that there is truth in the statement, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”  And I knew that what Craig had just done was offered me a new way to envision something that frankly kinda scared the crap out of me.

Photo courtesy of Craig Campbell. This photo is of his son playing with atlas stones – and genuinely having fun doing so.

So I grimaced, half rolled my eyes, and said “Uggg!  Fine!  I’ll do it.”  As I stepped up to straddle the atlas stone, I tried to implement the tools Craig had given me to change the imagery in my head.  I tried to see the 95# rough concrete stone beneath me as a smooth, light basketball.  I tried to imagine that I was a kid and that this was fun.  It probably wasn’t pretty, but I shouldered it, returned it to the ground, and Diego called out “again” and then a second time “again”.

Later, lavish as ever in his praise, Diego said, “That wasn’t too bad.  You went from being afraid to shouldering that stone for a triple.”  And really, that was the biggest gain that happened for me that morning; I chipped away at a little bit of my own self-doubt, a weight I shoulder quite often without even noticing.  This is the importance of having a tribe who can help you see a little more clearly what’s worth shouldering and what’s not.

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.

Wasted Energy

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?

Under Pressure

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.

The Blessing of Rest

Sometimes in conversation, you see a version of yourself reflected back to you.  The other night I saw in some friends the same struggle to understand the importance of rest in my current pure strength program that I wrestled with at the beginning.  We were talking about our training for that day and describing our usual programs.  Both of my friends described circuit style work, moving quickly from one exercise to another without a conscious focus on rest between sets; the rest seemed more the accidental by-product of the amount of time it took to move from one station to the next.  I described my lift that day, a heavy lift that actually involved moving for reps and sets more weight on some lifts than I had previously ever moved.  Rest was essential in order for me to get each rep; my rest between sets on the really heavy lifts was a minimum of five minutes.  My friends looked at me with something akin to horror and said, “Yeah… See… I could never do that.  I need to keep moving.”

I know exactly how they feel, because that’s the same mindset I had when I started training pure strength, and it’s something I struggle with too.  “I know!”  I told them.  “When I first started training this way, I had a hard time waiting.  I have to set the timer on my phone to make sure I don’t try working again too soon.”  I told them the story of one of the first Saturdays I trained that both Diego and Emily were there.  Emily had been stressing the importance of rest between sets with me over several weeks and apparently had mentioned it to Diego.  He noticed that I was sitting down on an empty bench waiting for my next set, as opposed to pacing around, and he pointed this out to Emily as though describing a victory.  Emily laughed and said, “Yup, I’ve trained her to sit.  It’s obedience school around here.”

Being still and just sitting is difficult for me, and as my conversation with my friends indicates, this is a challenge for many of us.  I think this resistance to being still is not isolated to our experiences in the gym.  I go through a lot of my day in a state of fairly constant motion.  I believe a lot of us are like this; this is the pace at which our culture encourages us to move.  The state of constant motion in which we live was the starting point of one of Pastor Earl’s sermons, aptly delivered at the start of the school year as our more spacious summer schedules started to get jammed up and on a Sunday when two of the readings addressed the idea of Sabbath.  The Gospel lesson was one in which Jesus was criticized for having worked on the Sabbath, and the reading from Isaiah contained God’s announcement that honoring the Sabbath leads to blessings.  Pastor Earl helped us break down what “honoring the Sabbath” meant historically; Sabbath was originally a gift of rest for the Hebrew people following their enslavement in Egypt when they were forced to work 24/7.  He explained that many of the rules of keeping the Sabbath that might seem silly or extreme to us originated out of a desire to protect that blessing of rest, and that to a certain degree they are necessary:  “In reality, these rules are not silly. Why, just look at how we’ve filled our days and weeks to the brim so that pausing, resting, and focusing on our relationship with God gets shoved aside. We are modern slaves to our work, our way of life, our pursuit of financial comfort, and our accomplishments used to define ourselves.”

Maybe our desire to have more, be more, and do more requires each of us to establish some of our own rules of Sabbath in order to honor it.  Pastor Earl explained that Martin Luther detailed the two main purposes of Sabbath in his Large Catechism as being “first for our health and second for making sure that we gather and worship God.”  Pastor Earl invited us to find the method that worked for us.  In the gym, many of us use the timers on our phones to ensure that we don’t attempt our next set before our minds and bodies are ready; some read articles on the internet; sometimes we talk; one girl reads Harry Potter.  The method we use to protect that rest is less important than the fact that we do.  Find your own way, but take up the invitation:  “Carve out a little time each day to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. Carve out a day every week to sanctify, to make the day holy for you. We don’t have to get legalistic about it … that eventually leads to more work and stress. But make that part of that day and that day of that week something where you pause and remember God.”  Find the blessing of rest that is both needed and promised.

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.

Eating for Strength

The other night my husband and I were able to go out to dinner at a nice restaurant.  That doesn’t happen often with four kids; thank you overnight summer camp!  We shared seared tuna, strip steak, crab cakes, asparagus, and potatoes.  At some point our server came by to check in:  “Can I get anything else for you this evening?”  I looked up and said, “Actually … I’m gonna need some more food.”  His eyes got huge; his jaw dropped, and he looked at me like I was crazy.  He quickly recovered, and my husband asked him to please bring the menu again.  Totally hilarious!  In fairness to the server it probably looked like I had eaten more than I had; I don’t really like seared tuna – too raw for me.  

Several years ago, this kind of exchange would never have happened.   I used to be the “cheap date” in the jokes ordering salads or appetizers as my main meal, and sort of saw that as a point of pride.  I used to believe that 1200 calories was the target to aim for and that adding cardio on top of restricting my calories would get me thinner faster.  I knew nothing about bodies going into “starvation mode”, slowing metabolisms and the self-preservation response of storing up any future calories as fat.  The way I understood my experience with running in relation to food reinforced my belief in calorie restriction and lead me to the notion that fueling up before and during exercise was overrated.  I often ran first thing in the morning and attributed any tiredness I felt to the early hour or to lack of coffee.  When I ran in the afternoon after work, I figured any energy deficit was purely the result of a tough day teaching middle school.  I was always able to run on an empty stomach.  It might not have been my best run, and maybe I felt like crap, but I didn’t see a connection to food.  Even when I trained for marathons, I only ever played around with the gooey refueling gels that my friends consumed.  Mostly I just started running, drank water on the way, and 20+ miles later I stopped.  My focus was on completion of the task, and I loved running so much that I rarely felt bad while I was on the road; I ran on adrenaline, on a runner’s high.  The fact that I was lethargic and lost focus fairly easily at other points during the day didn’t seem related.  And in truth the connection is a little more complicated than a one to one correlation between food and energy levels once you factor in sleep deficits, stress, irregular schedules, and overtraining.

My attitudes towards food have changed pretty substantially since I started training strength, largely because my environment has changed. Instead of reading articles about how few calories I should eat and the “benefits of fasted cardio”, I hear strength coaches tell me to eat more.  Diego’s words: “If you want to build strength, you may have to eat more than you are comfortable with.”  Instead of stories of calorie restriction, I hear Emily tell me stories about restaurant servers routinely collecting the menus to leave after she orders, thinking that she has also ordered for Diego.  The two major differences in my eating now are in the amount of protein I consume on a regular basis throughout the day and the number of times I eat throughout the day.  I aim for a protein and a produce at every snack or meal, and I aim to eat about every three hours, since that’s how long it takes your stomach to empty.  Most of the time if I’ve been eating properly, I am hungry at that point.  In my experience, a properly fed body provides appropriate cues to eat, whereas, a 1200 calorie starved body often gave up on hunger cues, seeming to understand that I wasn’t listening.

I’ve made these changes in my approach toward food because I trust my coaches and mentors, but I’ve also experienced a difference in what I am able to do and how I feel throughout the day.  An underfueled run and an underfueled lift are two totally different experiences.  While I habitually ran on low fuel, the first day that I lifted after not having eaten properly was the last day I did that.  The experience I had that day of struggling with one of my heavier warmup sets and knowing that I hadn’t eaten in five hours was undeniable, and I have done my best to avoid repeating that mistake.  I have had the privilege of witnessing the same kind of “ah-ha” moment for female clients when I help them drill down through their food intake for the day to shed light on why a previously manageable weight feels unmoveable on a different day.  And even more rewarding is watching them make the same sort of healthful changes in their own eating patterns, focusing on protein, moving away from concerns about the number of calories consumed, moving towards adequate intake of healthful food at regular intervals.  

While the effects of being underfueled under the bar can be profound, so too are the effects throughout the day.  Whereas fatigue and lethargy are the nearly constant companions of 1200 calories a day, consistent levels of energy are the compliment of eating for strength.  Add to that an emphasis on protein, the main nutrient that women routinely get in short supply, and you’ve got a recipe for a healthier self.  But at an even more basic level, it feels good to eat with the goal of making myself stronger rather than not eating to try to make myself smaller.  Working towards being more will always feel better than working towards being less.