A Tale of Two Meets: Gratitude Changes Everything

USSF Fall Classic and USSF Nationals meets were a study in contrasts for me. Outwardly the challenge was the same: three attempts at each of three lifts: squat, overhead press, deadlift.  The internal reality I created for myself around each of these situations, however, was radically different. And just as the opening lines of Dickens famous novel point out, the determination that “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times …” depends largely on context.

Leading up to the Fall Classic, I was on a roll with my favorite lift, the deadlift, hitting PRs (Personal Record) every week in training. As the weight on the bar continued to increase, my coaches and I started speculating about how much I might pull at the meet.  In weightlifting, as with most endeavors, there are milestones, and a 300# Deadlift, a lift of more than 2.5 times my bodyweight, started to seem like an entirely reasonable goal for me for Fall Classic. As the weight on the bar continued to increase in training, that goal started to become “a thing” in my head. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, getting nervous and jittery before deadlift training sessions.  Those pre-training nerves rapidly turned into a frequent and overbearing companion, something obsessive really.  At a certain point, my body rebelled; it stopped deadlifting. One week I pulled 3×280# with back off sets, and the next week I couldn’t get 270# off the ground.  That tripped my mental shenanigans into full-blown mind fuckery.  Any thoughts of deadlifting, which were nearly constant, caused my heart rate to rise and my stomach to feel queasy.  Predictably this affected the quality of my sleep and my ability to eat like a normal person, which translated into lighter and lighter deadlifts.  I’m pretty sure I must have been unbearable to my friends; I certainly was unbearable to myself. My training mutated from something fun and challenging into something unhealthy and bitter. I had given up family time to train, and I felt like I had to do well to justify that time.  I felt like my dedication entitled me to a 300# deadlift and I was annoyed that my body and mind were “betraying” me.  It was messed up, and I knew it.

I started asking friends how they managed meet jitters and anxiety.  In my experience, I’ve learned there’s a sizeable mental component to a successful lift, but up to that point, I hadn’t actively done anything to train that aspect of the work.  I got some great tips and reading recommendations, including Lanny Bassham’s “With Winning in Mind”. In the last few days before the Fall Classic, I completely reworked my thought process around the meet. I redefined success for me in the meet from an outcome to the process: from a 300# deadlift to finding fun in the moment, staying calm and self-assured, and focusing on using the best form I could for each of the lifts. I developed a mantra to accompany my set-up, so I could keep my thoughts in check as I approached the bar and executed my lifts. Since the meet was just days away and I was supposed to be resting, I practiced my set-up with the mantra mentally, rather than physically. And slowly, I felt my body and mind shift. My heart stopped racing and my stomach stopped lurching when I thought about the meet. My jitters dissipated. I became more bearable … to myself anyway.

The morning of the meet, I felt surprisingly calm. A friend texted to send good wishes and my honest reply was that I had already won because I’d beaten my anxiety.  And truthfully, the whole day, I was calm and positive and had fun. My squat form was better than it had been previously in training; my press was solid, and my good deadlift form reappeared.  In my coach’s words, my deadlift was not bad considering I had “essentially stopped deadlifting for the last month”.

Warming up at USSF Nationals

After the meet, rather than hide in the comfort of the squat rack at Fivex3, I wanted to take an immersion therapy approach to my anxiety; to give myself more opportunities to face and manage what freaked me out until it no longer scared me.  My friend Craig had signed up for the USSF Nationals meet in California, and encouraged me to do so also.  I had a million reasons why that wouldn’t work: too expensive, too far away, a whole weekend away from my family, too selfish, can’t sleep in strange places.  I listed all these reasons to my husband, and then finished with a quiet “but I still really want to do it.”  Incredibly, his response was “I know.  Let’s figure out how we can make it happen.”  Those two sentences changed everything.  Instead of feeling like I was stealing family time for a selfish endeavor, instead of feeling like I needed to “have something to show for myself” after taking time from them, I realized my family was giving me a gift: the opportunity and the support to chase after something meaningful to me.  The only proper response in that situation is gratitude, and grounding oneself in gratitude alters everything.  My training became joyful and positive again.  I continued with what was working for me: focusing on the process and what I could control and letting the outcome take care of itself, including an affirmative mantra in my set-up, talking about the positives in my training and not wasting words or energy on the rest, encouraging other people, and keeping a balanced perspective.

We cobbled together frequent flyer miles and points and favors to plan a family trip to Lake Tahoe, where my husband and kids could ski with my cousins while I competed in the meet.  Nothing about the circumstances allowed me to forget how fortunate, how blessed, I was to have that opportunity.  Gratitude wholly and completely overwhelmed my emotional landscape in the days leading up to the meet; there was no room for anxiety or nerves.  On the day of the meet, I had a blast.  I met some incredible people; I mastered my anxiety; I had tons of fun, and I lifetime PRd on all three lifts.  I even came home with two medals.  And the icing on the cake, although it didn’t meet competition standards (my grip slipped on the reset), was that my third attempt deadlift was 137 kilograms (302#)!

3rd Attempt DL

“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.

“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.

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.

Training Goals v New Year’s Resolutions

A quick look around Fivex3 Training at the start of a new year and a quick look around most commercial gyms highlights one of the key differences between the two, the difference between training and exercise.  The first week of the new year at Fivex3 was pretty much business as usual.  The same people, training their same lifts.  One “new” person, who was really a regular evening lifter, started coming during the day because his work had switched him to the night shift.  Other than that, everyone who had been coming to train all fall, was there in January, continuing to work toward PRs (personal records) on their lifts and continuing to increasing overall strength.  There was some conversation about the envisioned goals toward which individuals were training; number of large plates on the bar for deadlift, bodyweight bench, competitions being considered.  Had the topic come up in the fall though, similar conversations would have emerged.  This is a distinguishing mark of training.  Training, in this case, is a systematic and scientific approach towards creating a stronger version of oneself, a conscious application of a controlled amount of stress to the body with respect for the rest of the cycle of recovery and adaptation.  It is a long, slow process.  If working towards a competition, thought is given to appropriately timed work and rest cycles so that a trainee can reach peak strength at the designated time.  If training for life, thought is also given to work and rest cycles so the trainee can build strength rather than erode it, so as to avoid overtraining. Training is about finding a balance of stress, recovery, and adaptation that challenges the body to become stronger and that is sustainable in the long run.

Unlike Fivex3 Training or other similar training facilities, most commercial gyms experience an uptick in membership and participation in group fitness classes after January 1 rolls around.  Sometimes sign up sheets are needed for the cardio machines, due to the January increase in exercise enthusiasts.  Asked about goals, many individuals following through on New Year’s resolutions will mention something about losing weight or “getting in shape.”  Unfortunately for most, their plan is less systematic and scientific than training and typically boils down to adding more exercise and drastically reducing calories.  Essentially a haphazard and willy-nilly application of more movement without properly fueling it or balancing it with appropriate amounts of recovery.  This approach often is reinforced by the fitness industry itself in its promotion of short duration, high intensity fitness and nutrition make-overs promising a “new you for the new year.”  Not surprisingly these New Year’s exercise enthusiasts usually are able to maintain their new “healthier” habits for only a few weeks.  The industry trend is that membership drops off again after St. Patrick’s Day.  Sadly many of those who leave their resolutions behind in March walk away believing that the fault lies in their character, something along the lines of a lack of discipline, dedication, fortitude, self-control, rather than recognizing that the flaw lies in their unsustainable approach.

Yes, there are many people in commercial gyms who seem to take every class offered, who exercise for hours at a time, who never seem to take a day off, who exhibit disregard for proper rest and recovery, who under-eat, and who seem to maintain this behavior for years at a time.  I know this because I have been one of these people; at times I still struggle against this tendency.  Unfortunately these people are often the group exercise instructors whom others try to emulate.  This behavior is not training, and it is not admirable.  Often it is an exercise addiction.  If you scratch the surface of one of these individuals, at least one willing to be honest about it, usually you will find someone whose identity and self-worth is tied to the idea of exercising.  If these individuals paid attention to their bodies, they would find that it is exhibiting signs of overtraining, such as “heavy” and tired muscles, tendency to get sick or injured, irritability, disrupted sleep, loss of appetite, and an inability to build stronger muscle.  But they are willing to deal with all of this because, in the absence of exercise, what they believe about themselves is worse.  And in reality, they are not able to maintain this behavior in the long run, because eventually their bodies will rebel in the form of an injury or illness that forces them to slow down long enough to get some of the recovery that they have been overlooking.

While the New Year seems to be a culturally appropriate time to talk about fitness and nutrition plans, if you are training rather than just getting sweaty, that opportunity exists for you in April, October, or any other month.  But if you are inclined to make a fitness-based New Year’s resolution, I’d encourage you to make a sustainable training goal instead.

Facing F.E.A.R. (Face Everything And Rise)

Most people have a favorite lift, usually one where they can move an impressive amount of weight fairly easily, a lift for which their unique anthropometry is particularly well suited.  Conversely, there are other lifts that leave them feeling less than inspired.  Although I do them all the time, I probably would have to say that the squat is my least favorite lift.  Some of that feeling may be due to mobility issues in my shoulders.  In reality though, a lot of people have shoulder mobility issues, and there are bars specifically designed to accommodate this, like the safety bar and the camber bar.  If I’m being totally honest with myself, the reason squat is my least favorite lift is because it kinda scares me.

When a deadlift is really heavy, the worst that will happen is that the bar won’t come up off the floor.  When an overhead press is really heavy, the bar just won’t go up from that initial starting position, so you take it out of the rack and put it right back.  Whenever I haven’t been able to return the bar to its starting position on a bench press, I’ve had safety arms and a spotter who helps me get the bar back into the the rack.  And even though I’ve got safety arms for the squat, there’s something about it mentally that causes me to picture myself getting totally crushed under the bar.  Some of that stems from the first time I failed on a heavy squat.  Craig was right behind me, spotting me; I was totally fine.  The thing is my instinct was wrong.  When you fail in a squat, you’re supposed to drop the bar off your back and scoot forward; however, when it was clear I wasn’t coming back up and Craig grabbed the bar off my back, I rolled backwards, essentially dead bugging at his feet, looking straight up at the bar which he was holding.  Hence the vivid mental image of me getting squashed, like a bug.

It was this fear of the squat, though, that served as motivation to find the right training setting for me, and the squat continues to be one of the main reasons I drive to Fivex3 three times a week; I want feedback on form and a safe place to fail.  And so ironically, the squat has become one of the lifts that is helping me build the most confidence.  This outcome is not dissimilar from what happens when we take the time to examine our fears.  In being honest with ourselves about our fears, we are better able to evaluate their legitimacy.  Clearly some fears are justified, but others are just self-limiting.  In considering our fears, we are then able to act accordingly, sometimes persisting in them and at other times taking precautionary steps that allow us ultimately to take the power away from the things that limit us by acting anyway.  Every time we face a fear and act anyway, every time we overcome an obstacle, we build self-confidence and courage.  Avoiding a challenge does the opposite.  Dale Carnegie said, “Inaction breeds doubt and fear.  Action breeds confidence and courage.  If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it.  Go out and get busy.”  Self-confidence and courage are built not in the absence of fear, but often because of fear.

What a friend's 4th grade daughter knows about fear.
What a friend’s 4th grade daughter knows about fear.

But it doesn’t have to end there.  Once we are honest with ourselves, once we name our fear and face it anyway, we can then choose to be honest about that fear with the people around us, the benefits of which can be exponential. For instance, the other week as I was working on squats, the woman in the squat rack next to me was talking to one of the coaches after her working set. Kelly is strong. She has been training at Fivex3 since 2014; she recently placed third in the PA Strongman Competition.  She is an experienced lifter and a role model.  She was telling the coach that squats were her least favorite lift,…get this…, because they scared her.  Who would have guessed?  To me, she seems fearless.  As a result of Kelly’s willingness to be honest and open about her fear, I didn’t feel alone in mine.  Facing fears and acting anyway is a struggle that largely takes place in a solitary mental landscape, generally undetected by those around us.  Realizing that others inhabit the same space and share a similar fear is hugely reassuring.  Being honest with ourselves about our fears paves the way for our own personal growth.  Being honest about our fears with those around us extends that opportunity for growth to others, and in the process it lays the foundation for a supportive community, an environment that encourages others to courageously and confidently strive for goals that might be just beyond our self-imposed limits.  So much better than being trapped in the stagnation of fear, like a dead bug in amber.