On off days when you don’t make a lift, you don’t blame the bar. You look at the factors you can control. You look at the actual mechanics of that lift. Was the bar in the correct position to travel in the most vertical path? The difference of a fraction of an inch in positioning can have a huge effect on the ease with which the bar moves. Other factors also can have a significant impact on your ability to make a lift. Sleep, fuel, recovery, and stress levels are among the other more subtle and less predictable pieces of the overall equation. Sometimes the effects of inadequate sleep are profound; other times adrenaline might make up the difference. So you might resolve to practice better self-care, to pay more attention to recovery. You focus on what you can control, because you cannot change the bar.
What if we approached the difficult people in our lives this way? What if we accepted that we cannot change others, even with our best arguments and persuasions, even when we’re sure we’re right and that they must be stupid? What if we accepted that we can only change ourselves, and that those around us will change only by their own volition? Instead of a ridiculous and pointless argument, a more effective use of our energy, one that will ultimately strength us, is to identify the pieces we can control, to strategize for a better outcome, and take responsibility for improving what we can ~ even if that process begins by visualizing the difficult people in our lives as intractable pieces of iron. 😉
Having goals is great; they keep us motivated in our work. Stating them out loud and to others often increases our commitment to those goals. However, if we are looking for something from others in stating our goals publicly, something beyond our own increased personal commitment to those goals, we need to be prepared that the responses we get might not be what we’re looking for. Always there will be haters (we all know this), but sometimes even the responses of those who are our usual cheerleaders will surprise us.
One day this summer at Fivex3, a woman stated that this was her “summer of the 75 pound press”. Other trainees came back with encouragement and affirmation that she was strong, dedicated, hard-working and would surely reach this goal. Of all the responses a trainee gets, that of her coach usually ranks highest, and Emily’s response was “We’ll see.” That shut everyone up quickly. It was pretty clear that no one in the gym really liked that answer. They pushed for something more affirmative, encouraging, at least reassuring. Emily reworded her response slightly, but did not concede. “I hope so,” Emily said. “I hope you get 75# and more, but we’ll see.”
Coaches respond differently to different trainees; they learn what sort of responses encourage and motivate each of us. Emily likely had reasons for her response that were specific to that individual, but having recently discussed goal setting with Emily, I heard her response within the context of our conversation. I knew that Emily’s life experience and injury history made her keenly aware of the sometimes surprising limitations placed on our goals; she recognizes that there are always factors outside of our control that affect our ability to achieve goals and that we need to be able to reset and continue moving forward in alternate ways when the unexpected happens. Emily’s intention was definitely to be supportive, but also to be realistic; head in the clouds but feet firmly planted on the ground.
That’s an essential and often overlooked element of goal setting. It’s easy to get caught up in the dream, to become heavily and emotionally invested in a goal, but this is a stance that leaves us vulnerable when life takes an unforeseen turn. Goals must be kept in a fine balance between commitment and flexibility, held as both something that we strongly desire and are willing to work for and something that we can reframe and tweak when necessary. It’s tough to know when we have that balance right. It seems to me that a sign that we’re on the right track, though, is when we can react to realism in the comments of another, as the trainees at Fivex3 did. They asked questions, sought more information, worked to understand a response that they didn’t expect. Conversely, if we find that our responses to others’ opinions is full of ego and emotion, that seems a good indication that our reaction to obstacles in our paths will be similar and that our ability to seek out information and an understanding of how to move forward on an alternate way will likely be impaired. Our own reactions to the comments of others may be just as surprising as the responses themselves, and they are also a good test of “head in the clouds and feet on the ground.”
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.
In the first few days after my recent back spasm, I instinctively minimized my movements, but after the acute pain had subsided, movement became my therapy. The initial role of pain in this case was to cause me to restrict motion, to protect the area, and to remind me to use caution. Once that pain diminished and the aggravated tissue healed, I was left with something more like a nagging ache, a feeling akin to that sore, tired back feeling many people have at the end of the day, only for me it began upon rising. Emily insisted no lifting whatsoever until the pain was gone, but she encouraged walking and gentle yoga. The first day I was feeling well enough to be back in the gym, she told me that the purpose of my lifts that day was strictly to reassure my brain that my body could still move safely. This was important, she explained, because often our brains hold on to a memory of pain and experience it as though it is real for a longer time than the pain serves the purpose of protecting the body. The point of my lifts that day was not to work up to a certain weight on the bar, but rather movement for the specific purpose of retraining my brain after an experience with acute pain; in other words, medicinal lifting.
From my own past experience, this made complete sense. I had twisted my knee up badly in a skiing injury in my 20s. Sometimes it still bothers me, but these days I can fully bend it. That was not always the case. I remember yoga classes in my 30s where everyone else was sitting on their heels “ohmm-ing” and I was practically bolt upright with my knees at nearly a 90 degree angle. A yoga instructor had said something similar to me, that my knees had been so well trained to function in protective mode that they would not let me bend them, and she suggested that perhaps my pain had outlived its usefulness. Carefully and slowly, over several weeks, I worked on inching further down onto my heels and was surprised in the process that it was my memory of the pain which had been more real than any physical pain. The result is that now I sit on my heels regularly and easily.
My experience with my knee suggested to me that pain does not always result from an outward cause, but is often the very real manifestation of something going on internally. Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience with pain. Emily sent me a link to a great article called “Aches and Pains” by Austin Baraki, MD and Starting Strength Coach, which gets at this point. Baraki discusses the inadequacy of the traditional theory of pain, the “‘bottom-up’ theory, [in which pain] start[s] at the tips of your peripheral nerves … and then converg[es] along a one-way street towards your brain” (1). He points out that this model is insufficient to explain the discrepancy between a patient’s experience of pain and clinical indications that a patient should or should not be experiencing pain, beyond the six week window during which injuries generally heal:
“There are countless patients with debilitating symptoms from fibromyalgia, chronic pelvic pain, chronic back pain, or prior sexual/physical abuse who have undergone numerous examinations, MRIs, and laparoscopies with no evidence of structural pathology or tissue injury. There are many more walking around with objective radiographic evidence of severe osteoarthritis and herniated discs who have no symptoms whatsoever.” (2)
The confusion that these patients and their health care providers feel as a result is attributable to the inadequacy of the “bottom-up” explanation of pain. Instead Bakari suggests that the biopsychosocial model of pain is more accurate. This model recognizes the complexity of our systems and the fact that “the brain uses multiple additional inputs to modulate our sensory experience” – inputs such as environment, emotional state, duration of pain (2). The biopsychosocial model recognizes both objective and subjective causes of our experiences of pain.
Based on this model, Bakari makes some excellent recommendations in dealing with pain, which in his example diagnosis was most helpful to me at the time, since he chose to discuss back pain:
“1. Managing stress, anxiety, and depression (much easier said than done)
2. Education about back pain to reduce the fear that your pain is reflective of constant ‘danger’
3. Getting adequate sleep
4. Avoiding use of opiate pain medications and ‘muscle relaxants’ (although acetaminophen / NSAIDs may be helpful)
5. Exercising – or, even better, training – to move through previously ‘threatening’ ranges of motion
6. Continuing to participate in normal activities (ie, avoiding immobility!)” (8-9)
Something similar might be said of pain that is purely emotional in its origins. Often we hang on to the memory of a wrong done to us or a traumatic event longer than necessary, causing us to avoid certain people or similar situations or to mask our emotional pain with distractions and destructive behaviors. Certainly the biopsychosocial model of pain suggests that physical pain can be the result of our emotional state, the manifestation of stress, anxiety, and depression. Perhaps we’d benefit from following these guidelines in situations of emotional pain too: take care of our physical health, learn what we can about the situation, and move through the pain rather than stuff it down or avoid it.
However that plays out in terms of emotionally generated pain, I know that going through the motions of my lifts on that first day back at the gym allowed the slight, lingering, achy feeling to dissipate further. Movement helped me change the painful mind-body conversation that my injury had initiated; it was a necessary part of my healing process. Those lightweight “medicinal deadlifts” were among the first steps in re-training my brain and in building a different kind of strength.
As a culture we seem to be somewhat conflicted in our views of pain. Many of us believe that pain is a part of exercise, an indication that we are working hard. We confuse the discomfort of pushing ourselves in a workout with actual pain. When we feel real pain in our training, many of us ignore it and push on. We wear T-shirts with catchy slogans like “no pain no gain”, as though being in a state of pain is praiseworthy. And even while many of us almost glorify pain in the context of exercise, we mask the signs of physical pain in other areas of our lives with ibuprofen, and we hide emotional pain from ourselves in busyness and addictive behaviors, possibly viewing pain as weakness.
When we actually do take the time to investigate our pain, we often do so through our intellect rather than through our bodies. We research, Google, and read what others have to tell us about our pain rather than listen to what we are actually experiencing. We are more inclined to trust what someone else tells us about our condition than we are to actually experience our own pain to learn what our own bodies have to say about what makes us feel better or worse. We focus our attention outward rather than on what’s happening within us.
I am no different. When I hurt my back recently my first reaction was to email my experts, Louise and Emily, asking them to decipher my pain for me from three states away. I wanted answers: What did they think I had done? Pulled muscle? Slipped disc? Which specific muscles were involved? How should I fix it? Louise tried to explain to me that really I would need to answer my own questions and that I would not find those answers through my intellect: “You can not think your way out of your back pain,” she told me. Instead she suggested that I would be able to find the answers I really needed, what made it better and what made it worse, by listening to my body not my mind. That I would be able to find the initial answers I sought through breath and feel and movement. Once I had those initial answers, I could go from there with better understanding.
This first step of understanding through our own bodily experience, rather than through intellect or through an expert opinion, is one that I was trying to by-pass, in my impatience to be better. And as Louise and I discussed later, it is fairly typical of the way most of us function. We often first look externally for a diagnosis, for generalized expert advice about how to deal with our specific situation. This is often less helpful than learning how our particular bodies respond to our particular situation; as Louise says, it is like “putting duct tape over your crying child’s mouth without any conversation about what the matter is and what can be done to take care of it, both in the immediate moment and for the sake of preventing it in the future.”
It seems like many of us try to by-pass this initial step, not wanting to take the time to learn what our bodies might have to teach us. While I’m definitely not advocating for people to walk around in constant physical pain, certainly not sudden or acute pain, without seeking treatment, what I am suggesting is that pain is neither a sign of weakness nor something that we need to fear any more than it is the hallmark of an effective training session. It is really just our body’s way of asking us to pay attention, to turn our sights inward, to be aware. Perhaps if we take some time to find our own answers first, to pay attention to what makes our pain more or less intense, to trust our own bodies, than we will be better able to advocate for ourselves and provide useful feedback if we do need to seek medical attention. Perhaps if we try to understand first through feel and then through intellect we can be more active participants in our recovery.
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.
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.
Oprah talks about “ah-ha” moments, times when a switch in our minds unexpectedly flips and we see things in a different light. For me when these experiences occur in the gym, when we are suddenly surprised by our bodies’ unexpected abilities, these “ah-ha” moments become something more like “woohoo” moments. Our understanding of our bodies as strong or weak is shaped by the ways in which we regularly use them. Thanks to modern technology many of us spend the majority of our days fairly sedentary, seated at the computer, on the sofa, or in the car. Largely due to time constraints, many of us take the elevator when there are stairs, drive when we could have walked, and park in the closest spot. By the end of the work day, we notice that our bodies are stiff and sore from lack of use, possibly unbalanced and unstable from awkward movement patterns and relative immobility. This awareness then factors into our understanding of our bodies, and often rather than view these sensations as our bodies’ requests for movement, we understand our bodies to be weak or failing. These thoughts, often misperceptions, then shape our opinions of ourselves and define the ways we nourish or abuse our bodies in other contexts. They become the limits of our reality.
The exhilaration of the “woohoo” moment comes when someone has a completely unexpected experience of breaking through a self-imposed barrier. It’s not quite the same as working towards and achieving a set goal, although this can be equally exciting. These “woohoo” moments are more of a surprise, more like being blind-sided by something wonderful. And surprisingly and wonderfully, this has been the week of the “woohoo”.
As a result of my own strength training, one of my recent projects has been to take my coach up on a challenge she posted a few years back, one that demonstrates the essential usefulness of being functionally strong – being strong enough to lift and carry an “unconscious” person from the floor to safety. I found a friend willing to volunteer, Tim, who has 11 inches and about 45 pounds on me. It seemed like a good idea initially over email, but as I stood next to Tim talking through the project, breaking each move down into familiar lifts, I began to wonder if starting with one of my kids would have been a better idea. He was looking tall enough to be completely unwieldy. He suggested I first try a human carry, both of us starting from standing. Probably the result of the culture in which we live (it’s almost always the guy in the movies tossing some chick over his shoulder and bringing her to safety), but the human carry was a skill I had never learned. For anyone who has ever done this kind of carry, the idea that I would not be able to carry Tim probably seems silly, but that’s sort of my point. I had no idea. I was living in a different reality on the other side of what might seem obvious to others, in a reality that was limited by my ideas of my capabilities. So I gotta say that when I did lift Tim up over my shoulder easily on the first try and realized that he felt significantly lighter than I expected, it kinda shook my world up, in a big “woohoo” kind of way. It might sound trivial, but for me, as a relatively small woman, having that visceral understanding that I could play a hero and not just a victim was profound.
This week I also had the privilege of being witness to “woohoo” moments for several of my clients, instances when they were able to prove themselves wrong, when they had a profound realization that their bodies were stronger than their minds allowed them to believe. Either from underuse or from illness, two clients in particular had developed limited notions of their bodies’ abilities. Often there are very real reasons for the initial kernel of these ideas, but equally as often our minds then take that kernel and grow it into something entirely ungrounded. This is a trick my mind frequently plays on me. For my clients, in each instance, they were surprised to find abilities they thought they had lost; they were able to tap back into forgotten strength, to move effectively, and to work hard, despite their initial doubts. Sometimes it’s not so much what happens in our bodies that is significant, but instead what happens within our thought processes. For someone on the outside of these experiences, the exercises my clients did would not have seemed at all special, but it was the mental shift taking hold in them as a result of their movements that made the ordinary extraordinary. Moments like these are powerful, sometimes bringing my clients (and me) to tears; moments when they realize the unplumbed abilities of their bodies, moments when they begin to understand it was their perception of themselves that was the limiting factor, not the bodies they half-believed had failed them.
To varying degrees, we all have self-restricting thoughts. It’s worth it, from time to time, to investigate some of those ideas, to sound them out for accuracy, to test them and determine if they are outdated notions. In testing them, I’m not talking about anything radical; certainly I’m not talking about pushing ourselves beyond safe or reasonable limits. I’m really just advocating for something as seemingly ordinary as adding a little more movement back into our lives, something outside of our usual, possibly just outside of our comfort zones. By allowing our bodies to do what they were designed to do (move) instead of keeping them confined to a desk or the shortest route from A to B, we give ourselves the opportunity to re-establish a sometimes forgotten relationship with our bodies and from there to potentially challenge our ideas of our own abilities. Perhaps that first, seemingly ordinary step will set you on the path to something extraordinary, to your own “woohoo” moment.
Emily yelled at me for the first time the other day. From all the way on the other side of the turf room. While she was in the middle of leading her basic training group. Yell is not really the right word, but she was stern. “No! … No! … I do NOT want to see that again. From now on, I’m the only one who will spot you. That was NOT enough rest between those sets. Now you have to wait for ME if you want to lift!”
I was in the middle of my working sets on bench, and Emily was busy. I didn’t want to interrupt her, but mostly I just didn’t want to wait. I was impatient. Instead I asked Adam to give me a hand off and to spot me. The bar didn’t feel all that heavy on my previous set, and I wanted to get through my lifts a little faster. Turns out Emily was paying more attention to everything that was going on in her gym than I realized, and she knew I had not waited long enough for working sets.
“OK,” I said meekly and then hopped on my phone to text Tim: “Shit! I just got yelled at. Didn’t take a long enough rest.” Tim’s response: “Rest between sets???” Remembering one of the fundamental differences between the way he trains for hypertrophy and the way I am learning to train strength is length of rest time, I replied, “That’s something you know nothing about.”
Emily came over to check in with me and to explain again to a slow learner about the importance of rest between sets when your goal is to build strength. “THIS is about getting stronger,” she said. “It’s about adding more weight to your bar each time, not about adding reps or ‘working legs’. If that was the point you could do anything. This is about building strength. Training the whole body to be stronger. About prepping your body to get your reps on the next set. This is NOT conditioning. This is NOT Crossfit. It is NOT circuits. You need the rest to allow your body and your mind to recover for the next set.”
Tim texted back again teasing, “Wha…rest. Haha?” This time I had a clearer understanding, which makes for better ammo. “You don’t know about rest because you have no discipline! You’re just chasing pump! I’m building strength. HA! Strength is a process.”
Practically speaking, I know that Tim rests. Practically speaking, I know that his training is a process that takes discipline too. His rest just looks a lot different than mine. His rest between sets is minimal, sometimes non-existent, but it’s always there between lift days. He is just as mindful of the importance of rest as Emily is.
Somehow in that moment, this experience reminded me of a conversation I had a few days prior with a guy in my 6am bootcamp. He told me he had been raised in a family that emphasized goals. Once he reached one goal, he was expected to start plugging away at the next; no rest for the weary. As he got older, he started to feel like reaching his goals wasn’t all that satisfying. His wording caught me, “You may be way beyond this already, but I’ve been reading a lot about mindfulness recently. I think what was missing for me growing up was that I wasn’t encouraged to celebrate my successes. We were so busy moving with blinders on trying to get to the next goal that we never took time to recognize what we’d done. I think it’s important to do that, even if it’s just a small goal.”
He’s right, of course. We do need to pause, to rest, reflect and be mindful. But he’s also wrong. Clearly my impatience to get to my next working set on bench indicates the degree to which I am not “way beyond this”. I was too busy trying to check bench off my list so I could get to deadlift. Just like the younger version of my boot camp friend, I was so focused on my next goal that I didn’t allow myself time to process the work I had just done. Too impatient to be mindful. I suspect that often I’m not much different outside the gym, but neither is our culture. Americans value hard work. We are encouraged to multi-task, persevere, and work tirelessly to get to the last item on our daily agenda before collapsing into bed so we can do it again the following day. Do that for five days straight, cram as much fun into the weekend as possible, and then repeat. Sprinting through our days with blinders on, forgetting that we are engaged in a process, a long-term project of building and growing ourselves. The rest might look different, but growth doesn’t happen without it. Sometimes it takes as much discipline to carve out a dedicated time to rest as it takes to do the work. Maybe we could all use a loud voice from across the turf room, interrupting our non-sense, reminding us to take time to allow our minds and bodies to recover.
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.
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.