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.

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.

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” – 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.”