You Don’t Blame the Bar

IMG_4076On 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.  😉

Less “Locker Room Talk”; More Training Room Talk

       I’ve written along these lines before but under different circumstances.  It starts with a basic observation of mine that in the weight room the strongest people I know rarely talk about how much weight they can move.  They never brag or self-promote or use their strength to tear others down. The people I’ve met in the weight room who have incredible strength are humble and supportive and encouraging.
       I train with men as well as women. At Fivex3 Training, there is one small bathroom; there is no locker room. Sometimes our language is raw: “I did split squats the other day, and my ass is killing me!” or after getting a heavy rep, you might hear “fuck yeah!”  But there is no “locker room talk”.  Nothing is said that would demean another trainee: male or female, twenty or seventy, republican or democrat.
       Instead we have training room talk.  We move metric shitloads of iron in the space of a few seconds, and then we have the conversations of people who have real strength, the strength to put aside their own egos to encourage and support another person.  Developing our strength as individuals does not come at the expense of another; it is not achieved by mining someone else’s self-confidence or security.  We are all on a mutual quest to be better and stronger than yesterday.  And we respect that process in each other.fivex3
       I think we could all use more examples of training room talk.

The Grateful Deadlift

I am in love with the deadlift.  There are multiple reasons for this; some reasons are practical and some go a little deeper.  The deadlift is a highly functional and fundamental movement that many have forgotten how to perform in our modern context.  We routinely abuse our backs, slouching in the sofa, rounding over a steering wheel, slumping over the computer, then we use it improperly to lift heavy crap off the floor.  Deadlifts help to correct all of this.  They help to strengthen and preserve the back from the stress of daily living.  People often tell me  things like, “I don’t deadlift; I have a bad back’ – a form of logic that doesn’t make much sense to me.  Training a weak area to be stronger and move efficiently makes much more sense to me than allowing a weak area to go untrained so it is vulnerable in real world activities.  On the other end of the spectrum, I have had several older clients, some with a history of back pain, comment on how having trained this movement pattern properly has allowed them to garden for extended periods of time without feeling it in their backs and has allowed them to move through life with less discomfort.  A deadlift done properly, with awareness and good form, is one of the most beautiful and beneficial things I know.

A deadlift is also, in my experience, a hugely empowering lift for women.  Done properly, a deadlift is one of the easiest lifts to load to a weight that seems to blow most women’s minds.  Within a relatively short amount of time, a client can safely move from never having done a deadlift to pulling more than body weight.  I remember the first time I realized I could pull more than I weighed, and I experience that same excitement each time a client reaches that point too.  For a woman to have that tangible realization that the pink 5# dumbbells are not for her is a joyous moment; realizing that she is capable of literally pulling her own weight in life is a massive confidence booster.

But for me personally my love of the deadlift goes to an even deeper level.  This is the first lift that taught me how to see myself differently.  Not just as a strong woman who could pull her own weight and then some, but it taught me the value of seeing myself from the inside out and not the reverse.  When you set up properly for a deadlift, your line of vision is on the floor approximately two feet ahead.  img_1152Even if you are lifting in a facility that has mirrors (don’t), there is no way to set up properly and see yourself through your eyes.  You have to learn to translate a visual understanding of yourself into something sensory, learn how the proper set up feels and then trust that.  Training myself to trust in my inner vision was kinda revolutionary for me.

One day at Fivex3, I overheard someone jokingly describe setting their line of sight during a lift as staring into infinity.  And that is a pretty accurate description of what happens to me when I deadlift well.  I set up my pull, see myself from the inside out, and then to focus on that vision with such intensity that the rest of everything seems to melt away.  When I deadlift well, I find what some people describe as “flow”.  That feeling where the barriers between mind and body and the barriers between internal and external seem to dissolve, that feeling of being wholly (holy?) and completely present in the moment.  Some people experience this feeling in other athletic endeavors or hobbies about which they are passionate, where mind and body become one through their activity.  Some people experience this feeling when they are falling in love, where they feel they have connected with someone across the bounds of space and time and individual personhood.  The deadlift does not have exclusive rights to this feeling, and slowly I’m learning to find that same level of intensity and focus in my other lifts.  The deadlift just has a greater claim on my psychic space, because it provided me my first glimpse of the “infinite” in the context of the weight room.  And that is a pretty amazing thing, not to be underappreciated. To my mind, the deadlift is a thing of beauty and power, and this is why, in my vocabulary, the deadlift has become the grateful deadlift.

Summer of the 75# Overhead Press

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.

all-the-presses
“All the Presses” – courtesy of Fivex3 Training

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.”

Understanding Under a Heavy Load

After a disappointing lift on Thursday, one where I not only missed reps on my press but downright failed, my lift Saturday felt great.  Of course it is always a sweet feeling to be able to get all your sets and reps with a new, heavier weight on the bar, but I realized as I was driving home, that this was only a piece of why my Saturday lift left me feeling so happy.  The bigger piece of it came down to environment, to the supportive lifting community at Fivex3 Training.

Necessity dictated that I did my Thursday lift on my own at a nearby gym.  From the get go, things were out of whack: different environment, mirrors everywhere, work issues filtering into my consciousness, and critical people.  There are many different approaches to lifting weights and the approach one takes depends on one’s goals.  There ought to be room to accommodate different types of lifting in any commercial gym, but there are usually a few individuals who don’t understand and criticize heavy lifting and feel perfectly comfortable expressing their views.  Many people misperceive it as dangerous or possibly inappropriate for women or older trainees.  Just look through the comments on Beau Bryant’s post and follow-up article from Westminster Strength and Conditioning about 88-year old Mrs. Fox’s 88# deadlift to get an idea.  When I walked into the weightroom to lift that Thursday, one such outspoken individual was there, a woman who had stood next to me a few days prior, while one of my clients was doing weighted squats, and said loudly “Oh my God.  The cartilage in my knees is shredding just watching you do that!”  So when she started talking to me again that Thursday as I was warming up for my press, ideally I would have had the mental discipline to focus only on my lift and not on her follow-up commentary.  Apparently my mental discipline is still a work in progress.

fivex3community
Fivex3 Training: A Supportive and Encouraging Community of People Lifting Heavy S#!t

Conversely, when I went in for my Saturday lift at Fivex3, I was greeted by a much more encouraging environment.  No mirrors or work issues to distract me, but more importantly no opinionated and critical people.  Everyone was on the same page about lifting heavy weights as the most effective way to build strength and about its appropriateness for all people, regardless of age or gender.  The trainees at Fivex3 were working on different lifts and different programs, some building pure strength, some working on conditioning, some training for Strong Woman/Man competitions, but there there was no judgment or negativity.  The similarities in our lifts allow us to learn from each other, to spot each other, and to offer observations and suggestions when requested.  If someone misses a rep, you will never hear “well, that’s because you shouldn’t be lifting so much weight”.  Instead you might hear an empathetic, “Bar didn’t want to move.  That’s ok.  You’ll get it next time.”   When I missed a rep on my bench press, Christian coached me to keep my back tighter and puff my chest more, so then when I easily got all my reps on the subsequent sets Coach Bob (aka: “Silent Bob”) noticed the difference and responded with a “Fuck Yeah!” and a fist bump.

The starting perspective for any of the interactions between coaches or trainees at Fivex3 is that you can and should lift heavy weights and build strength.  It is an attitude of empowerment, an expectation that you can and will do amazing things.  That’s the beauty of a shared experience, of understanding what someone else is struggling with because you’ve struggled with it too.  Those shared experiences become the building blocks of a supportive community.  But that kind of support doesn’t need to be born just from shared experiences; it can also be forged from a desire to set judgement aside and attempt to understand another person’s perspective.  What if that woman in the gym had asked why I had my client doing weighted squats, had tried to learn about the benefits of the exercise instead of standing behind her preconceived ideas?  What if I hadn’t gotten rattled by her apparent criticism and instead tried to find out how she had formulated her opinion?  For me that is clearly easier said than done, especially under a heavy load.  In reality though we are all usually under some kind of heavy load, struggling with something that is far less obvious than a weighted barbell.  Maybe if we begin with that recognition, it becomes easier to be understanding of the critical and judgemental people we encounter.  And in reality, empathy and understanding offered to the difficult people in our lives is also pretty amazing.

The Image of Fitness

One of the things I find exciting about strength training, is the lesson that strength comes in many different shaped packages.  While media seems to promote a very narrow, subjective image of “beauty” with a sprinkling of projects featuring people of varied body types tossed in almost as an afterthought, “strong” is measured more objectively, by the weight on the bar.  In advocating for the importance of strength training, Coach Dan John states in his book Intervention, “My good friend and mentor, Brett Jones, once told me this: Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of “everything else” you can do.”  So the stronger we are, the more we can do, but no one ever said anything about the shape of the glass!

When I show up to lift at Fivex3, I see women of all shapes and sizes moving heavy weights.  Some of these strong women have been judged by others as being “unfit” because they don’t look like the lean models in fashion and fitness magazines.  Shamefully, some of the people doing the judging have been trainers at other gyms, people who ought to know better.  Several conversations have focused around one particular trainer who actually refuses to work with people who don’t already fit his narrow, visual standards.  The great thing in these conversations though is that none of these women buy into that line of thinking. They get frustrated by that point of view, but rather than internalizing it as many women might, they realize the error in that trainer’s thinking.

This gets down to how that particular trainer and we as a culture use, or really misuse, the term “fit”.  Being “fit” is task-specific; it is a measure of our ability to do a certain task.  So for example, at the moment I am training pure strength, not cardiovascular endurance, so my “fitness” in a spin class has been diminished.  Similarly Tim, who trains for physique and at 3.5% body fat appears as “fit” as any fitness model, struggled with his PT timed run on his most recent military weekend, because like me, he’s training strength, not endurance or speed.

Using our misinformed measure of “fitness”, one might have watched the recent Rio Olympics and determined that the lean marathoners were more “fit” than the ultra-heavy weight lifters.  But ask one of those runners to lift 277.8 pounds in a snatch and 352.7 pounds in a clean and jerk like bronze medalist Sarah Robles did, and you will find the limits to their “fitness”.  Or conversely, ask Sarah Robles to run a marathon, and you will find the limits of hers.  The measure of “fitness” is based on performance and is quite specific, by no means can “fitness” be judged by appearance.

My point here is simple.  It is one we all learned as children: we really can’t judge a book by its cover, so maybe we should stop pretending.  In narrowing our definition of “fit” to specific tasks, ironically we will expand the opportunities to recognize “fitness” in a greater variety of shapes and types of people.

“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.

“Woohoo” Moments

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 realizetim carryd 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.

 

Alternate Vision

We live in a culture that values sight more than any of our other senses.  I’m sure you’ve experienced the power of imagery in advertising; you watch a commercial for some gooey dessert, and suddenly all you want is sweets.  We see the importance of vision reflected in our language too (reread that sentence); we use expressions like “I can see your point” and “I need to see it to believe it.”  However, in order to lift heavy weights, you need to learn to move away from that kind of sight-based vision and learn to “see” without using your eyes.  Real weightlifters never use mirrors; they have learned to see through their bodies.  I’m still developing this skill, and learning to trust that sight has been a fascinating process.

No Mirror, So You Can SEE!
No Mirror, So You Can SEE! Squat Rack at Fivex3Training.

Alternate ways of seeing are not exclusive to weightlifting; weightlifting just made me more aware of the possibility of understanding my place in the world differently.   Both my surgeon and Louise, when she is working as a massage therapist, have an amazing ability to see through their hands.  Having had a hernia repair last year, I went back to check in with my surgeon this past winter when I developed something he’s calling “an abdominal asymmetry”.  One day after a sloppy hanging toes-to-bar, I looked down and saw a small lump on one side that concerned me, so I made an appointment with my guy.  He spent a fair amount of time “looking” at that spot with his fingers, his eyes focused thoughtfully on something indeterminate out in space.  Then he concluded, “I don’t really know what to tell you that is.  It’s not a hernia.  I could send you for imaging, but that wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t just learn.”  How awesome is that?!!  This man has refined his vision through his touch to the degree that the downside of imaging (pumping me up with radiation) outweighs the upside (a slim possibility of seeing more).

Of course at that point in my visit, I totally geeked out on him: “Oh my gosh!  You can see through your fingers!  How cool is that?”  I gushed.  “That is one of the things I love most about weightlifting; it teaches you to see through your muscles,” I said as I backed up to demonstrate a deadlift.  “When you get set up in your deadlift, you need to be looking about 2 feet in front of you.  You can not look into a mirror.  Looking into a mirror interferes with proper form.  So you have to learn to see differently, without your eyes.  I’m still working on that,” I said envying the confidence he had in his “finger vision”.

Louise has a similar, enviable ability to see with her hands, and like my surgeon, she has developed it enough to have a solid confidence in her skill.  She has told me about a massage workshop she attended where the instructor presented a subject whom everyone first looked at.  She stood outside of the conversation of her peers who could visually identify imbalances and bound muscles, but once she laid hands on the subject, she could see.  I asked her what that’s like for her, and she described the feel of bound up fascia as being like a dry sponge, rigid with no movement in the area, whereas unbound muscle has a feel more like that of sinking a hand or finger into wet sand; there is a degree of movement.  Vision through feel and motion.

I think we all have the potential to develop alternate ways of viewing our world, to “see” through different senses or to “visualize” ourselves from the inside out.  The difference for many of us though is the climate in which we live.  If we are lucky enough to surround ourselves with people who value the ability to see things differently, we learn to develop and more importantly trust that skill.  Unfortunately for most of us, we get caught up in the messages of our culture that teach us to see ourselves from the outside first, messages that emphasize external appearances, initial impressions, and sound bites, that discourage us from taking the time to dig below the surface for a deeper and more complete truth.  I wonder what the world would look like if we all did the work of unbinding ourselves from a limited and rigid way of understanding and instead developed alternate ways of “seeing” and then, more significantly, actually trusted ourselves enough to believe in that vision.  Even more, I wonder how living in such a world would feel.

Excitement vs intensity

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.