Make an Attempt

In a powerlifting meet, a lifter has three attempts at three lifts (squat, bench, deadlift), each attempt becoming increasingly heavier.  The lifter must successfully complete an attempt before she progresses to the next heavier attempt.  So, for example, if she does not make her second attempt on squat, she repeats that same weight for her third squat attempt.  Coaches employ different strategies in determining the weights to submit for each attempt, but generally the third attempt (if not the second also) is heavier than the heaviest completed training lift, something usually reasonable, but often not yet attained.

Part of what interests me in all of this is the language: a lifter makes an “attempt”; she does not “try”.  Louise and I often debate the use of the word “try” in relation to coaching and habit change. Louise is Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try”. She likes to illustrate her position by holding out her open palm with a pencil balanced on it. She then says “OK. Try to pick up this pencil”. Point being that either you do or you don’t. I understand this position. When working with a client to instill a sustainable habit change, it’s generally advisable to start with a small enough step that the client is virtually assured of success; this helps build confidence and encourages adherence. I also understand that sometimes people use “try” as a cop out when they don’t feel like doing something, when they aren’t fully committed to the change or the process or the training session that day; in which case “try” is just a half-assed effort.

There are plenty of other situations, however, where I believe “try” is entirely warranted.  I will always take an “I’ll try” from a client instead of an “I can’t”. Frequently I get the two together, as in “I really don’t think I can do that, but I’ll try”.  Yoda’s directive seems to present us with a binary outcome: do or do not, succeed or don’t.  When immediate success is not assured, or sometimes when an individual really doesn’t believe success is possible, “I’ll try” affords another alternative, an entry point.  “Try” can be the foothold for a wholehearted effort in the face of an uncertain outcome.  “Try” can act as a linguistic bridge that transports a person outside of their comfort zone, to the place where they can experience change and growth.

But “try” has its limits, which are highlighted in the subtle differences between the word “try” and one which we often use as its synonym, “attempt.”  I think the difference gets down to one’s investment in a process and how one deals with a fail.  “Try” requires nothing more of an individual aside from an initial effort; no prior commitment or training and no further assurances to continue when things get tough.  “Attempt”, on the other hand, indicates a deeper level of commitment over time.  One who is making an “attempt” has a clear goal in mind and is invested in a process designed to ultimately get her there, despite setbacks or failures.  So our powerlifter has fully committed to a training program, has dedicated months to building strength.  She will make nine attempts on meet day, aiming to get them all (to go “949”) and to put her highest score possible up on the board.  This may not happen, but if she misses a lift, the expectation is that she steps back up onto the platform for another attempt the next time her name is called.

So at the end of it all, if something interests you, go ahead; give it a try.  Get past that self-limiting fear.  But if what you’re “trying” to do is reach a goal, trade your “try” for an “attempt” and then be prepared to make many.

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.

Faith that Failure Doesn’t Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are You Open to Suggestion?”

For the most part, we all want to do things right, to do a good job, and to be recognized for it.  Success feels better than failure, and often an even better feeling is when others acknowledge our accomplishments.  Of course, what feels good is not always what makes us better.  The territory just this side of success, the place occupied by incomplete and failed attempts, is usually the most fertile ground for growth and improvement.  Good coaches and mentors know how to work this soil.

One of the things that is most striking to me about the coaches at Fivex3 is the degree to which they are silent, especially when we’re working.  Once a trainee gets past the initial instructional phase in which they are taught lift form as detailed by the Starting Strength program, a stage at which consistent and constant feedback is provided, the coaches then move to a mainly observational role.  I came to Emily from a setting in which several trainer friends were generously helping me learn lifts.  There are many slight variations in set-up, form, and cuing for lifts, (check any two articles on T-nation about the same lift), so it’s not surprising that my friends’ language and feedback did not always match each others’.  Add to that the fact that most of them were helping me out in their spare time, so my opportunities to learn from them and to process their instructions were sporadic at best.  I felt like I was conflating their cues and confusing myself in the process.  That’s when I started working with Emily, and once she taught me the language and specifics of form the way they are instructed at Fivex3, she moved to a more silent style of coaching, and while I was initially looking for a constant stream of feedback as I moved through my lifts, I’ve come to really appreciate the quiet.

If the coaches at Fivex3 are silent during your working set, that means you’re doing it right.  For the most part, you only hear from them while you’re working when you need to make a correction.  When my head is too focused on the press that I forget the rest of my body, I hear “Legs”, and I’ll remember to dig in, to utilize the strength in my entire system.  When my squat feels unexpectedly heavy in the middle of a set, I hear “Hips”, and I’ll realize my torso angle has shifted slightly and that I need to readjust and drive up with my ass.  When my lift feels pretty good and the weight moves efficiently, I hear nothing.

When I’m finished my working set, the coaches will discuss each rep to my heart’s content, answering questions about what looked good and where I need to make changes.  They do this with each trainee, helping us figure out what wasn’t quite right, why we struggled or didn’t make our last rep, because in deconstructing our struggles and failures, we learn how to be more successful.  learning-from-failure-posters

I’ve noticed that outside of the weight room, we are not always as receptive to suggestions for improvement; often we react defensively, hearing other people’s comments as an attack and dismissing others as being nosey or ill-informed.  Sometimes that’s true.  Sometimes people aren’t actually meaning to offer constructive criticism; sometimes they just want to criticize.  For this reason, my father-in-law always prefaces his comments with a question: “Are you open to suggestion?”  If the answer is no, even if it’s a struggle, he keeps it buttoned up.  I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of that exchange; sometimes we are the one unwillingly being made to listen, sometimes we play the “expert” who seems to know best.  In either case, often there is a level of insecurity and ego involved; in the first instance on our part, and in the second on the part of the one attempting to appear the expert at our expense.  Insecurity and ego are interconnected.

I have learned that this blend of insecurity and arrogance has to get checked at the door, before entering the weight room.  It’s not just a matter of missing out on opportunities for improvement; insecurity and arrogance can get you injured.  My coaches are concerned with both my safety and my gains.  They are training me to hear their cues in my own mind, to find the affirmation I’m looking for internally, not from the voices coming at me from the outside.  They are training me to have confidence in my own work and to maintain a willingness to accept corrections for improvement.  That kind of training is essential to finding success, and it does not just apply in the weight room.