Squatters Rights: Fear and Self-Talk

A few weeks before my first meet in October, Emily had me test my squat to figure out what weights to enter as my three attempts at the meet.  We started with a weight not too much greater than my working weight at the time, therefore not too far outside my comfort zone.  I knew where we were headed with this though, so I knew I’d be in uncharted territory pretty soon, and considering that squat is a mentally challenging lift for me, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  As I wedged myself under the bar for the first of those heavier squats, braced myself, and un-racked it, I was caught a bit off guard by the thought that sprung up into my mind, “Wow!  This bar feels light.”  Two steps back, great squat, re-rack, add ten pounds, go again.  “This bar still feels light!  Tight core.  Nice!”  Another great squat, another ten pounds, and a feeling of incredible confidence as I continued this process and hit what remains my 1RM for squat.  I couldn’t reproduce it during the meet.  Conditions were different during the meet – different location, spectators, nerves.  My form broke, my head popped up, my chest followed, and as a result I didn’t drive up with my hips.  All part of the learning experience, but almost without me realizing it, a different set of thoughts started establishing squatters rights in my mind – more doubtful thoughts, and the “squat script” in my head changed as a result.

The language that we use, the way we define for ourselves our circumstances, has a great deal to do with the outcome we achieve.  Put me under a bar for squat, and my sympathetic nervous system is going to be tapped.  That triggers a hormonal response, commonly known as “fight or flight”, in which the body produces an increase of adrenaline and blood sugar, faster breathing, increased body temperature.  All this in an effort to prep the system for a difficult task at hand.  Whether we experience these sensations as exhilarating or terrifying, manageable or chaotic, frightening or exciting, is entirely due to the way we interpret our circumstances, and our interpretation of the situation affects the outcome.  Smart trainers and coaches use this knowledge to their clients’ advantage.  At several recent training workshops and continuing educational programs I have completed, the presenters devoted a good bit of time to breathing drills to allow the athlete to manage some of these physical responses; one presenter, Lisa Lewis, specializes in helping athletes to create performance scripts to mentally frame the “fight or flight” response most advantageously.

The same process also applies to the way we understand pain.  Recently I had the opportunity to listen to Lisa Manning, CST, CHt address a group of youth and adults about mental health and self-care.   She gave the example of a bullet wound in drastically different circumstances to illustrate the point.  A study looked at the seemingly unusual response of many soldiers in WWII to bullet wounds.  In contrast to what one might expect, they largely remained calm and generally refused morphine to help control pain.  Why?  Because they knew their wound was their ticket off of the battlefield; they were already thinking of home, of what they were gaining from the injury, and as a result they weren’t experiencing the wound as painful.  Consider this in contrast to a wounded civilian whose thoughts are likely to immediately shift to what he or she stands to lose: time off from work, a disruption of daily life, inability to do things.  A perfect example of Louise’s oft repeated statement that “words are drugs,” sometimes literally numbing the body to pain.

I’ve noticed that recently, as we have been rehabbing my squat and as I’m gaining back some of the confidence in it that I had lost, those more affirmative thoughts have started reclaiming territory in my mind again.  Just the other day after a set which Emily said was solid, I told her I knew it would be from the moment I unracked the bar, because as I did so, “this bar is light” popped into my mind.  I’ve been playing around with that thought, adding to it, trying to script it as a regular part of my set up, trying to force the words even on days when I don’t really believe them, because I have learned that to a certain degree if I can control the language, I can affect the outcome.  What would happen if you chose one challenge, one small area of your life, and began rescripting the thoughts around it?  Certainly worth a try.

Marry the Goal. Be Fickle about the Outcome.

When I first started exploring the world of pure strength training, Craig would tell me I had to make a choice, that I couldn’t keep lifting the way I was in group fitness while also lifting heavy, and that additionally I would have to cut back on the amount of cardio and conditioning I was doing.  I had reluctantly identified my goal as training strength and began daydreaming about potentially competing in a powerlifting competition.  I say reluctantly because there are plenty of times that this idea seems to me to be crazy and stupid.

After training with Emily one day, I asked her how realistic my goals were given my age and any of the myriad of physical considerations I, like many others, had accumulated over the years.  She did not dissuade me, but confirmed that specific goals, like lifting a set amount of weight or participating in competitions, need to be flexible.  Things happen that are outside of our control: injuries, family obligations, life.  Our commitment to specific goals should be real, but it can’t be so absolute that we are unable to readjust when the unexpected happens.  “If I can deadlift over 300#, great!  I would love that,”  Emily said.  “But if I can’t do that, there’s always something else I can work on in here.”  In my mind, I chalked that advice up to identifying a goal, but not being married to it.

I picked up this same thread of conversation the next week when I was working with Diego, Emily’s husband.  He was laying out my program going forward, and I was balking at minimizing cardio and conditioning to focus on building strength, which at that moment was my deficit.  He took the opportunity to challenge me on my commitment to my stated goals, powerlifting and strongwoman competitions.  “If those are really your goals,” he said, “and I’m not sure they are because you are sounding fickle, then you focus on strength now and come back to the other pieces later.”

Ouch, right?  Blunt honesty is one of the sometimes startling but always appreciated traits I have found to run through the majority of the strength coaches I have met.  No sugar coating messages about poor form if you want someone to stay safe, and that approach has real and practical applications for the rest of life too.  Diego’s challenge allowed me to realize that I had been confusing goal with outcome.  My real goal is to get strong.  What I do with that goal, powerlifting competitions or double bodyweight deadlift, is the outcome.  Achieving a goal of strength can look and feel a lot of different ways.  The goal of building strength is centered internally and is relative to me, to my current situation.  The outcome, competitions or desired weights on lifts, is focused more externally; it is more dependent on factors I can not control.  I can work on the goal of getting a little better each day, on building more strength, but where that goal takes me, the outcome, may or may not take the specific shape I envision.

Lisa Lewis headshot
Dr. Lisa Lewis

I have heard a similar distinction made in the “I’m Not Afraid to Lift” workshop when Dr. Lisa Lewis discussed mindset.  One of the participants asked a question about how to balance her many specific fitness goals and the fact that her body was starting to feel the stress of pushing herself.  Dr. Lewis helped this woman identify her actual “global goal” which was to be strong and healthy, and to realize that her “specific goals” (like KB swing challenges or desired weights for lifts) were not the same, that the specific goals could come and go and that they should never eclipse the global goal.  Different wording, same idea.

Identify a desired outcome.  Work towards it, but don’t be married to it.  Recognize that it’s ok for our ideas of specific outcomes to change, and appreciate that we need to maintain an ability to adapt when life interferes.  This is where it’s fine to be somewhat fickle.  Commit instead to the process of achieving that outcome.  By dedicating ourselves to the process we are better able to stay in the present, to focus on what we can do today and on what we can improve now.  Be married to the global goal and to the chosen training method, with an awareness that there may be obstacles along the way and that the outcome may be unexpected.  Perhaps more than faith in our ability to achieve an outcome, we need to trust and enjoy the process.