“Is the Competitor Ready?”: Charm City Strongwoman Competition 2017

“I don’t mean to be rude, but why are you doing that anyway?”  Probably a reasonable question for many people to ask.  Strongwoman and Strongman competitions are still a bit outside the mainstream, and a fair number of people have never even heard of the sport.  The question came after an explanation of the Charm City Strongwoman Competition, so I think really, the question was more a general wondering about why someone would voluntarily participate in something that sounded like so much work.  To be honest there were moments when I wondered the same thing, not because it sounded like work, but because some of that work kinda scared me.  So in answer to the question and to keep myself on track, I reminded myself of my two biggest reasons for participating: community and personal development.

Fivex 3 Training Strongwoman Team

Training regularly at Fivex 3, I know that I am a part of a special community, a unique group of individuals that support and encourage each other in our training.  The specialness of this group was obvious the day of the competition.

The Volunteers

The overwhelming number of gym members who volunteered a huge chunk of their day to help run the event coupled with the number of gym members who, despite busy schedules, still came out to watch and support their friends for part of the morning attested to the close knit feel of our gym family.  That support and encouragement filled the street outside Fivex 3 on Sunday morning, as spectators and competitors alike cheered.  A competitor I’d never met before called out cues to me mid-event as I attempted to get the heaviest weighted ball over the 10 foot marker.  Another competitor I had met at Fivex 3 a few weeks prior, thanked me for coaching her on the log press, saying that my feedback was what had allowed her to press the 85# log in practice the previous week. The Charm City Strongwoman Competiton was a place of abundant strength, encouragement, and support.  Same team – different team.  Self – competitor.  Didn’t make a difference.  Everyone genuinely rooted for each other’s success.  As our coach Emily said, “This was our 6th contest and I have never seen so much cheering and support and love as I saw yesterday. … Women who had NEVER met before until yesterday, encouraging and coaching each other, pushing each other…regardless of what team they were on. It was incredible. THIS is what Strongwoman/Strongman is all about. Family.”

2017 Charm City Strongwoman Competitors

That feeling of community and support extended beyond the time and place of the competition itself, since the overarching purpose was to raise funds for the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation Susie’s Cause, in honor of Emily’s sister Charlotte who died two years ago after a three and a half year battle against colon cancer.  This year we raised over $18,000 for the cause.  A sense of community that lends itself to community service – really amazing stuff.

After all that the question still remains. Clearly I could have participated in this event (volunteer, spectator, donor) without actually being a competitor.  So why try to throw increasingly heavy balls ten feet in the air?  Why spend 60 seconds repeatedly shouldering a 95# atlas stone or pressing an 85# log?  Why try to pull a bakery truck?  Or carry a 300# yoke for 50 feet in as little time as possible?  Why do that work?  Especially if, as I’ve said, some of the events scared me?  The simple answer is because I can.  I don’t mean that in an arrogant or an “I want to demonstrate my badassery to everyone” kind of way.  The fact that I can surprises me.  It surprises me more than it seems to surprise anyone I train with.  So a more complete answer is that I can but that I frequently lack confidence, and I feel like it is important sometimes to do things that scare me, because overcoming fears is ultimately what builds confidence.  So this competition was an opportunity for me to practice getting out of my own way, an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone and manage the accompanying anxiety.

Competing in strength events is fairly different than competing in any of the endurance races I’ve done in the past. In those situations pre-race jitters often have resulted in faster race times for me. My experience with strength events though is that nervous jitters result in a loss of total body tension and failed lifts. For example, during the run-through the week before the competition, between the people watching, the official commands being spoken, and the timer going, I was completely unable to lap the atlas stone, something I could do easily even though I struggled to shoulder it.

So the week before the competition as the physical aspect of the training tapered, I strategized about how to tame my nerves, how to manage my “monkey brain”. One of the biggest pieces for me was remembering that the physiological markers for anxiety and excitement are the same – the “fight or flight response”.  The difference is the narrative we create for ourselves around those sensations.  So I worked on re-framing the situation as excitement rather than fear.  Another piece was staying in the moment, not worrying about the next event, but instead enjoying the time with friends, celebrating the success of other competitors, encouraging and coaching those who were struggling.

And in the midst of all the people watching and the official commands being spoken and the timers starting, it worked. I found the zone and everything else faded away. I matched or exceeded my training bests on nearly every event. And somehow, in the moment, that didn’t really surprise me.  Only later did it occur to me that I was prouder of myself than I had ever been. It wasn’t just pride in my performance, although I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a piece of it. It was the pride that comes from facing a fear and overcoming it, of using the mental space that a fear used to occupy and instead filling it with confidence, courage, strength, and gratitude. So in the end, the answer to the question is that I competed to be part of something bigger than myself and to attempt to create a better version of myself.

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.

Squatters Rights: Fear and Self-Talk

A few weeks before my first meet in October, Emily had me test my squat to figure out what weights to enter as my three attempts at the meet.  We started with a weight not too much greater than my working weight at the time, therefore not too far outside my comfort zone.  I knew where we were headed with this though, so I knew I’d be in uncharted territory pretty soon, and considering that squat is a mentally challenging lift for me, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  As I wedged myself under the bar for the first of those heavier squats, braced myself, and un-racked it, I was caught a bit off guard by the thought that sprung up into my mind, “Wow!  This bar feels light.”  Two steps back, great squat, re-rack, add ten pounds, go again.  “This bar still feels light!  Tight core.  Nice!”  Another great squat, another ten pounds, and a feeling of incredible confidence as I continued this process and hit what remains my 1RM for squat.  I couldn’t reproduce it during the meet.  Conditions were different during the meet – different location, spectators, nerves.  My form broke, my head popped up, my chest followed, and as a result I didn’t drive up with my hips.  All part of the learning experience, but almost without me realizing it, a different set of thoughts started establishing squatters rights in my mind – more doubtful thoughts, and the “squat script” in my head changed as a result.

The language that we use, the way we define for ourselves our circumstances, has a great deal to do with the outcome we achieve.  Put me under a bar for squat, and my sympathetic nervous system is going to be tapped.  That triggers a hormonal response, commonly known as “fight or flight”, in which the body produces an increase of adrenaline and blood sugar, faster breathing, increased body temperature.  All this in an effort to prep the system for a difficult task at hand.  Whether we experience these sensations as exhilarating or terrifying, manageable or chaotic, frightening or exciting, is entirely due to the way we interpret our circumstances, and our interpretation of the situation affects the outcome.  Smart trainers and coaches use this knowledge to their clients’ advantage.  At several recent training workshops and continuing educational programs I have completed, the presenters devoted a good bit of time to breathing drills to allow the athlete to manage some of these physical responses; one presenter, Lisa Lewis, specializes in helping athletes to create performance scripts to mentally frame the “fight or flight” response most advantageously.

The same process also applies to the way we understand pain.  Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Lisa Manning, CST, CHt address a group of youth and adults about mental health and self-care.   She gave the example of a bullet wound in drastically different circumstances to illustrate the point.  A study looked at the seemingly unusual response of many soldiers in WWII to bullet wounds.  In contrast to what one might expect, they largely remained calm and generally refused morphine to help control pain.  Why?  Because they knew their wound was their ticket off of the battlefield; they were already thinking of home, of what they were gaining from the injury, and as a result they weren’t experiencing the wound as painful.  Consider this in contrast to a wounded civilian whose thoughts are likely to immediately shift to what he or she stands to lose: time off from work, a disruption of daily life, inability to do things.  A perfect example of Louise’s oft repeated statement that “words are drugs,” sometimes literally numbing the body to pain.

I’ve noticed that recently, as we have been rehabbing my squat and as I’m gaining back some of the confidence in it that I had lost, those more affirmative thoughts have started reclaiming territory in my mind again.  Just the other day after a set which Emily said was solid, I told her I knew it would be from the moment I unracked the bar, because as I did so, “this bar is light” popped into my mind.  I’ve been playing around with that thought, adding to it, trying to script it as a regular part of my set up, trying to force the words even on days when I don’t really believe them, because I have learned that to a certain degree if I can control the language, I can affect the outcome.  What would happen if you chose one challenge, one small area of your life, and began rescripting the thoughts around it?  Certainly worth a try.

“Why do you train like that?”

A good friend casually commented to me the other day, “I often look at people who lift heavy and wonder why they do that.  Why do you work that hard?”  Unlike many who wonder this sort of thing, there was no judgement, just genuine curiosity.  I felt like my friend’s sincerity in asking the question deserved a thoughtful answer, so I gave it a shot.

The most obvious first response to me was that in order for any training to be effective, to elicit change, a trainee needs to encounter significant resistance, to “work that hard”.  The notion that someone can come into the gym and repeatedly do what’s comfortable and still see progress runs counter to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) and the Principle of Progressive Overload.  If the work feels easy, our bodies have adapted and no further progress is being made.  In order to see improvement or change, one needs to work on the edge of one’s comfort zone.  But even as I responded with this, I realized that the purpose of exercise is not the same for all people.  My initial response probably applies more to individuals with an athletic or competitive mindset, to people who are looking to improve their performance either in relation to the performance of others or in relation to their own previous bests.  For many people and under many circumstances, this is not the point of going to the gym.  Many people exercise because it allows them to decompress and handle stress.  Many people want to maintain a certain level of fitness and overall health and are not concerned with adding more weight to the bar or with change.  Totally valid reasons for exercise and ones that were more in line with the way I had been working out for the past ten years anyway.  So while my initial answer might hold true for people focused on change and progressive training goals, for me, the answer felt incomplete.

Another answer to the question that might come to mind for many people is that women train with weights to achieve a certain look.  But this is a different type of lifting, a different mindset, a whole other animal called bodybuilding.  When people lift weights to build a particular appearance, the focus is located externally.  For many women that look is based on an image of beauty that is promoted by media, “sorta strong but mostly sexy”.  That’s how you end up with photos of lean women, shiny and tan, tosselled hair, in tiny shorts and sports bras, lifting a weight in some kind of bent over position designed to draw attention to their booties and boobs.  Achieving this appearance can take on a competitive dimension for many women.  For some women it’s subtle and interpersonal; for others it translates into participation in bikini and physique competitions.  Either way, the measure of success is based on a subjective image of “perfection” generated by an outside source.

For the women that I’ve encountered who train purely for strength, neither of these explanations provides an adequate answer to the question of why they train like they do.  Their answer often has much less to do with how they rank in comparison to another’s performance or in comparison to a desired appearance, and much more to do with what strength training adds to their sense of themselves; it has to do with the positive impact that strength training has on the way they view themselves and their abilities.  While our culture is more supportive of strong women now than it was in the past, many people still have the notion that while strength in a woman is ok, a woman shouldn’t be “too strong,” and often these people feel perfectly entitled to express that opinion.  Sometimes they make comments that are blunt and direct: “Her/your muscles are almost TOO big.  I don’t like the way that looks.”  Sometimes their comments are subtle, indirect, and whispered: “What does she think she needs all those muscles for anyway?”  The assumption in these cases is that the woman training strength should be concerned about the other person’s opinion of the appearance of her body.  However, women who train for the primary goal of strength or athleticism rather than aesthetics have already taken a step outside of cultural expectations for female appearance.  Rather than focusing on their looks in relation to others or on others’ opinions of what “looks good”, most of the strong women I’ve met or read about have found that training strength allows them to focus on something internal, essential, and personal.  Training physical strength allows them to develop a deeper sense of personal strength, of confidence, and of self-worth that transcends their training sessions.  Training heavy lifts has the potential to teach patience, humility, resilience, perseverance, determination, and a myriad of other useful character traits.  While these lessons can be learned through a variety of other mediums, because powerlifting and strongwoman competitions are still somewhat outside of the cultural expectation for women, these types of events allow women to develop a sense of physical and personal strength that is unique to the individual, that doesn’t necessarily conform to a pre-packaged image that others have bought into.  The question of why women train for strength often can’t quite be answered to the satisfaction of others, because the answer in many ways defies the opinions of outsiders.  The answer boils down to something as simple and personal as “I do it for me.”  When I first started training at Fivex3, Emily told me she thought I’d enjoy strength training because I seemed to be someone who appreciated being different and unique.  That appears to be a common current in women who train for strength.  They don’t mind standing a little bit outside of expectations.  It seems to me that if you meet a woman who is training for strength, not “working out” or training for appearance, you can be fairly sure to have met someone who is engaged in the process of finding her own answers and who is not trying to measure herself by someone else’s standards.

Habit, Change, and the Low Bar Back Squat

The change from high bar to low bar back squat was a difficult one for my left shoulder to adjust to. At some point years ago, it received a good bit of impact from a skiing injury, and since then I have piled ample other unknown insult and abuse to the area.  For a low bar back squat, the bar sits just below spine of the scapula; sometimes for me this feels like it’s on bone.  I’m luckier in this department than a lot of women because, as Emily says, I’ve already got “some meat back there”.  Nevertheless, Emily encourages most women to wear an extra t-shirt for back squat to provide a little more padding.  One of the cues that is given when setting up for this exercise is “elbows up.”  This is to create tightness in the upper back, a shelf of delt on which to trap the bar so it is secure.  Somehow in the process of trying to keep the bar off of bone and keeping my elbows up, I ended up turning the proper position into something else that my shoulder didn’t appreciate.

Louise has been working on this shoulder.  And as with anything related to the body, I have found the process to be fascinating.  Long story shorter, my humerus was being pulled further forward on the left side than on the right, the result of tight pecs and lengthened upper back and neck muscles.  Louise says the connective tissue on my left pecs was bound down all the way to the sternum.  The first day Louise worked on that shoulder, she released those bound tissues, and as my scap almost miraculously relaxed down far enough to touch the table under me, I took a deep breath that filled my entire lungs, bottom to top.  It was only then that I realized that the shallow breathing I had been experiencing and attributing to stress was actually also related to a physical cause.  In releasing that bound muscle, Louise allowed me to find increased range of motion in the joint, more space to move, the ability to breath deeper, and greater relaxation.

As my shoulder relearns its original position, the whole experience of lifting keeps changing. I imagine that Louise is like an archeologist digging through layers of bound connective tissue, excavating and sifting through years of assorted pains in the shoulder, unearthing them and clearing the area. As this happens I’m experiencing new sensations in my shoulder as my tendons find different ways of tracking and my body relearns some of its original ways of moving, rather than using the altered movement patterns that it discovered over the years to compensate for weakness and avoid pain.

Our brains work in a similar fashion to our bodies in this regard.  Just as our bodies compensate for weaknesses or injuries by recruiting muscles for jobs that are not their prime purposes, and just as our bodies often find the path of least resistance allowing our dominant muscles to hijack movement patterns, we develop intellectual and emotional coping mechanisms to help us get through our days and our difficulties.  We find shortcuts to help us save time and energy and compensations to make aspects of our lives less painful.  Sometimes these shortcuts are relatively harmless, like always taking the same route to work; potentially some are helpful, like establishing morning routines to ensure that nothing gets forgotten in our rush out the door.  Sometimes these shortcuts are in our thought processes, stereotypes or outdated views of ourselves and others that prevent us from recognizing change or potential or that keep us from truly seeing what’s before us because we are bound down by our views from the past.  Sometimes the compensations and habits we develop are detrimental to our health and well-being, causing more pain for us in the long run than the initial issue: addictions to food, work, substances, shopping, exercise, technology – the list is endless.  Often we irrationally hang onto these compensations long after they have outlived their usefulness and even though they cause discomfort or pain in other ways.

habit-change-650x425At one extreme these compensations can be destructive, but at the very least they limit us; they constrict our ability to fully experience individual moments or appreciate individual people, and they limit the degree to which we fully engage in our activities; they restrict our range of motion as we move through life.  It is important to be aware of our habits and our fallback patterns, of the ways in which we shortcut and compensate, and it is even more important to consciously decide if the trade off is worth it.  Sometimes the answer will be yes, sometimes no; either way it is a question that only we can answer for ourselves.  Then we must decide if we are willing to act upon our answer, to make a change for the better.

A conscious decision inspired by our own desire for change, not based on someone else’s need for us to be different, is the strongest motivator for establishing new habits.  Change is not always easy; it can be a messy and uncomfortable process of wrestling with the memory of old injuries.  But change will not happen by masking all that with compensations and habits that no longer serve us well. And just as with my shoulder, by releasing some what binds us down, we can find relief, a greater range of motion and a renewed ability to move through life more effectively.

Faith, Focus, and Movement

Most people recognize that it is through our hard-fought struggles that we learn the greatest lessons; the easy lessons of success often have much less impact and are more quickly forgotten.  With encouragement from Louise and Emily, I learned a couple of significant lessons from my recent back pain.  Louise encouraged me to pay attention to the way my own body processed the pain, to focus inwardly to find my own specific answers to what brought relief or further discomfort, before putting my faith in the generalized answers I might find by googling something like WebMD.  Emily introduced me to the concept that movement is medicine, a necessary part of the healing process that allowed me to reframe the painful mind-body conversation that my injury had begun.

It was while I was in the process of writing about these lessons, that I heard two separate sermons on a difficult passage in Luke where Jesus says he brings division, not peace, to this world.  (Luke 12:49-56).  Not an easy passage, and not one that many people like to focus on.  Both pastors, Pastor Glenn Schoenberger from Our Savior Lutheran Church and Pastor Earl Janssen of Our Shepherd Lutheran Church, recognized that this is not the way we usually like to think of the message of Christianity.  As Pastor Glenn says, we prefer the Jesus of Christmas, the Prince of Peace; “the Jesus who invites us to come to him and he will give us rest, because his yoke is easy and his burden light.”  We are far less interested in the Jesus who promises to turn family members against each other.  Yikes.

Instead of giving us what we want, Jesus offers us some “edgy” stuff, as Pastor Glenn said.  Pastor Glenn acknowledged that the early history of Christianity was one of near constant confrontation with authority and established structures, and that to follow Jesus at that time required “all of the passion and commitment and courage [His followers] could muster” because it was likely that they would “be divided from loved ones who [didn’t] understand or believe in [their] choice.”  While this was the situation during the early days of Christianity, “the practice of our faith holds far less danger and challenge for us in American society today than in Jesus’ time.”  While he recognized that this isn’t the case everywhere, Pastor Glenn suggested that perhaps we lose something of the original intent when we become comfortable in a certain place in our faith where nothing is risked and nothing is challenged.

For another take on this reading (along with a warning that paraphrasing Jesus is dangerous), Pastor Earl summed the passage up like this:  Jesus says to those who were following him, “Really? What did you expect when you started to follow me? Did you really anticipate that I’d make your life easier? I’m proclaiming justice, I’m proclaiming selflessness, I’m showing you what being a child of God means. The powers of this world don’t accept that without a fight.”  From either sermon, it’s clear that this text offers us something challenging, something potentially painful, something we might rather avoid.

conversation-bubbles-2Like the lessons I learned from my painful back, Pastor Earl suggested that the way to engage with this challenging and divisive passage is to turn our focus inward and then to move.  First we need to find our answer to the question, “How does my faith inform my decisions?”  This is not always an easy question to answer, and we can’t expect our answers to square up neatly with those around us.  These differences in response might seem odd, since we “would think that the teachings of Jesus would lead us all toward a single definitive decision”, but instead often we find potentially painful division.  But just as I learned from my back, that pain is not necessarily something we should shy away from; it is something we should move through: “… the reality is that faith informs each of us differently. That’s why … conversations are so important. Faith isn’t some kind of static thing. It is living, breathing, dynamic and so deeply influenced by the witnesses who have surrounded us.”  So we first look inward, and then we put our answer into motion by engaging others in conversation: “How does my faith inform my decisions? Ask yourself the question often. Share your process with others. You will learn about yourself, deepen your faith, and serve as a witness to life in the faith for others.”  And just as movement helped me reframe a painful mind-body conversation during my back episode, having respectful and open conversations about faith allows us to gain a greater range of motion in our relationships and an expanded ability to engage in life effectively, maybe especially when those conversations are “edgy” or challenging.