To sleep, perchance to dream…

An anecdotal account of the effects of sleep deprivation on training and general health

The internet is awash with well being and sports training advice. All of the reputable sources of advice and coaching, without exception, stress the importance of quality sleep. “Yes, yes”, you think, “I get it…it’s the low hanging fruit type of advice…thanks, Captain Obvious”. Sleep, they say, is THE most important component of your physical and mental well being, and the most important factor of your athletic performance. Your programming, diet, all of it is for nought if you don’t have quality sleep. “A tad exaggerated, perhaps”, you think.

Well, if my recent experience is a good indicator, it’s spot on. I’ve always been able to sleep at the drop of a hat. My fondness for naps is a running joke in my family. Over the last several months, however, my ability to sleep was severely impaired. As I’ve described in previous posts, a perfect storm of personal and professional stress battered me for over a year. Little by little I completely lost my ability to nap (no matter how tired) and eventually a good night’s sleep seemed like a feverish dream from another life. It’s insidious because the most immediate effect of sleep deprivation is on your mental state. You lose the ability to focus, to concentrate which means, among other problems, you’re even less equipped to resolve whatever issues/stresses are causing your sleep to degrade.

My sleep quality degraded over a period of time, so the mental effects were noticeable but gradual. I always thought it’d be OK if I was just able to get a good night’s sleep. Indeed, I’d get a decent night of sleep every 5 or 6 days due to accumulated exhaustion and I’d wake up feeling like I had some sort of mental super-power. I began to use my powerlifting training as a means to physically exhaust myself enough to sleep. This worked for a short while but the lack of quality sleep exacerbated my depression brought on by stress I was encountering. I never stopped training, but I lost my motivation and began to just “go through the motions”. My workouts were subpar so subsequently my lack of quality of sleep reached critical levels.

It was a fairly rapid loss of strength 2 months ago that made me snap out of my stupor and seek medical help. It’s a scary thing to have 1/3 of your strength seemingly evaporate over night. Suffice it to say my doctor saw the state I was in, not to mention my skyrocketing blood pressure, and immediately implemented a number of measures, many of which were aimed at improving sleep. Firstly, I had learn to manage my sources of my stress and fix what I could while letting go those things that weren’t fixable. It’s literally a matter of life or death. Secondly I became very serious about sleep hygiene and, among other things, bought a better quality bed and pillows. I made sure I was properly hydrated, avoided alcohol (very detrimental to sleep quality) and began to take valerian (an herbal remedy) before bed-time.

It’s been several weeks since I implemented these measures. My blood pressure, while still high, has reduced from “off the charts” as it was when I first entered my doctor’s office. Slowly but surely my sleep is improving. The better I sleep the more able I am to address the causes of stress and, as a result, the generalized feeling of depression has lifted. If I wake up at night, I’m actually able to go back to sleep Enthusiasm for my personal interests, such a power-lifting, has returned.

Yesterday, 2 days from my birthday, I equaled my previous PR weight in deadlift. 2 months ago I could barely lift 70kgs less. My training partners have seen my lifts increasing week by week in 5 to 10 Kg increments and they have jokingly accused me of being on PEDs. It’s simple, if you don’t have quality sleep you don’t have health and if you don’t have health, you can forget mental and physical performance.

 

An ode to fringe activities…

OR THE LONELINESS OF THE POWERLIFTING WINE-CHUGGER.

OR HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE BY NOT BORING THEM TO TEARS WITH YOUR HOBBY/SPORT/LIFESTYLE CHOICE/DIET

Happy new year, everyone.

I made an early night of it last night so after a nice dinner with friends I went to bed shortly after midnight CET. As a consequence I was up early this morning which left ample time to reflect on last night’s dinner as well as my powerlifting training session later today. I was pretty excited about the wine choices for the dinner last night as well my upcoming training session but I knew, as everybody in a subculture eventually learns, to keep my enthusiasm to myself or be labelled a “bore”. Believe it or not, most people don’t want to discuss the need to reform French AOC rules or whether Sumo dead-lifting is cheating.

It got me to thinking when it’s appropriate, and not appropriate, to discuss one’s weird-ass fringey activities with the general populace. I’ve come up with the following observations.

  • Subcultures can be intimidating to people who don’t engage in that activity. In a weird way (we all do this) people think you’re judging them via a specific lense (powerlifter, wine enthusiast, martial artist, vegan, etc) when, unless you’re a real a-hole, you’re not. If an opportunity to discuss your interest comes up, let others ask you questions and when the questions dry up, move on.
  • It’s OK, in a very broad sense, to let people know about your interests and what you spend your time on. It’s not OK to give them constant updates and/or commentary about a subject that really doesn’t interest them. Anybody who has a beginning crossfitter or a vegan in their life knows what I’m talking about. People are generally happy you’ve found this awesome thing and, yes, it’s probably a good idea if everyone did it but ramming it down their throats doesn’t win any converts. We’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another.
  • If you want to share your passion with other people, set an example first. See above re: intimidation. So people know you do this thing, that’s great. Just keep doing your thing and, from time to time, somebody with a genuine interest might ask you about it. This is a green-light, now’s your time to share. To give you an example, as a powerlifter people sometimes tell me in conversation that they’ve started going to the gym and they have this great trainer who has them doing bosu-ball hula-hoop jump spins and the like. The old me used to say ” Cool, but why don’t you also ask them to show you proper squat form, that’d be really useful” and, in 100 percent of the cases, the person reacted as if I’d insulted their mother. The proper response is “That’s great – keep it up!”. Why? If they continue to train they will eventually learn about compound movements and might just ask you about them. Then, and only then, it’s OK to discuss in detail. A few years ago I started going to a globo gym with colleagues. I’d do my usual PL style training in the corner and they’d go all YOLO with machines and dumbbells. I often got a lot of comments and criticism (hey, man, you’re not going to failure with every set, why squats, etc) but I just continued to do my thing. After a while they began to ask me questions and eventually asked me to show them proper form, explain programming, etc. Even then they were resistant to many of the ideas so I’d just shrug and do my thing. Fast-forward to now, they are all training for powerlifting. I’m not a vegan but cook/consume vegan dishes roughly 85 percent of the time. I’m familiar with the milieu, shall we say. The strict vegans who always make an impression on me are those who I find out are vegan indirectly. It piques my interest and more often than not I’ll ask about it.
  • Find like-minded individuals/Let your freak flag fly: Let’s face it, the only time you’ll ever be able to fully express your enthusiasm for your passion is amongst like-minded people so you must search them out or forever have the feeling of not completely scratching an itch. Whether it’s wine-tasting, a serious powerlifting gym, a cool vegan cafe or whatever, this is your chance to geek out to your heart’s content. Not to mention learn new things and meet new people

Anyway, I’m off in a few minutes to engage in one of the aforementioned fringe activities. I wish you all happiness and health in the new year as well as the chance to engage in your geeky passion(s) to the fullest.

What to do when you don’t feel like training…

Sooner or later, it happens to everyone. You take your physical training regimen for granted and little by little, it becomes less of a priority. Whereas before you’d broach no interruption to your training program, now work and family stress become a valid reason for missing workouts. Inevitably, as your training become crappier, so too do your results – or lack thereof. As your hard-won “gainz” evaporate like early morning dew on the Serengeti, a form of depression sets in which engenders a vicious circle of inertia. Soon your salad days of easily repping out 4 plates are but a dim, bitterweet memory.

Fear not, esteemed gym rat. All things in nature are cyclical so your balls to wall “Yang” of beastmode training was inevitably leading you to a “Yin” of increased Netflix and burrito binging sessions. Your couch becomes a place where training dreams, and countless bags of Cheetos, are disembowelled. If this is not your first rodeo, you’ll know the pendulum eventually shifts. One day, slack-jawed as you listlessly click through yet another season of “Ultimate Beastmaster” and licking your orange stained fingers, a tsunami of shame will blind-side you. “How did it come to this????”, you pitifully wail and gnash your teeth.

(Imagine a David Attenborough voice-over) ” Suitably chastened, the somewhat tubbier common gym rat (ratus gymnasticae narcissium) extricates himself from the vile miasma of his half eaten nachos and empty Heineken cans nest and navigates, like a swallow going to Capistrano, back to his natural habitat.”

What, if anything, can you do to remain motivated to train and avoid periods of gym burnout? Firstly, know that it exists and, if you are lucky enough to train seriously for any length of time, you’ll encounter bouts of low motivation. It’s like an injury, if you have a torn muscle you will not continue to train normally. You will do what you can and train around your injury until it’s healed. If you encounter a period of burnout, don’t give into the impulse to vegetate. Do what you can to keep moving, whether it’s a half-assed squat session, a bike ride, a long walk or a bit of yoga – the more fun, the better.

Physical activity is an vital part of your physical and mental hygiene. You wouldn’t stop showering or brushing your teeth, would you? Your training burnout was caused by how seriously you were taking everything. Gym is not life, it should be part of life. It’s cool that you set goals because they focus you and facilitate progression. However, don’t tunnel-vision on short-term goals. For example, if you are a power-lifter and have encountered injury or burnout, why not chill on your goal for the 350 KG deadlift for the moment and engage in a little bodybuilding style training for a bit? Come on, you know want to do a few sets of more than 5 reps and maybe, just maybe, get a massive pump. When you go back to serious PL training, the extra muscle might not be a bad thing to have.

We all have those acquaintances who suddenly turn into Gym Is Life Bros. overnight. One day, they are asking you how to do a proper bench-press and a scant 5 months later they are critiquing your training, diet, goals, the works cause, you know, they are experts. Strangely enough, a year or so later you’re still there, training away, and chances are, they aren’t. Training blues is a fact of life. Just keep moving. When your motivation returns, you’ll be glad you did.

La Perle des Antilles

This may sound maudlin, but sometimes hate does turn into love and sometimes, if you’re in the right frame of mind, a challenging situation is indeed an opportunity.  By the time I left home at 18, I had moved house 17 times in 3 continents, 4 countries, 3 US states and the District of Columbia.  One of those places, for better or worse, was to have a major influence on my life.  In the early 70s my family moved to Haiti for what was supposed be “a few years”.

If nature abhors a vacuum, it’s equally true that young children abhor uncertain, chaotic situations.  So let me reiterate what I just said in the paragraph above – it was the 1970s (an era, in retrospect, when everyone was seemingly flying by the seat of their pants) and I had just landed in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, a 3rd world country ruled by secret police and a “president for life” dictator.  Oh, and we didn’t speak the language (creole).  My parents spoke French and my sister and I had spoken French as younger children but at that point had forgotten it after a few years in inner-city DC.  (Haiti was\is considered a francophone country but the reality is that the vast majority of the population do not speak French.)

My father’s job allowed us to have a comfortable life of a higher standard than we’d just had in DC, complete with a pool and servants.    I was in a new school (again), and as per usual most of the kids had known each other since infancy.  While it was an “American” school, most of the kids flat-out spoke creole amongst themselves outside of class.  I was told we’d move again in a few years so it seemed sort of pointless to learn the language and otherwise get attached to this place that I wasn’t overly fond of.

It wasn’t all bad, of course, because in spite of extreme poverty and political corruption, Haiti was – and is – a country unlike no other.  There is natural beauty (including the best beaches I’ve ever seen anywhere), an extremely vibrant culture and great cuisine.  I might have been a moody little git, but it’s hard not to like pate, poulet creole and fresco gwenadin ak pistache griye (shaved ice with grenadine syrup and grilled peanuts – trust me).  However, what really burned Haiti into my memory, and not in a good way, was the final breakdown of my parents’ marriage and also a fairly scary health issue my mother encountered.  I had made friends and was doing OK in school but I really couldn’t wait to see the last of that country.

Leave we did, and for a few brief years my sister, my mother and I ping-ponged around the US Midwest and East Coast.  Somewhere along the line I made a fetish out of “normalcy”.  I longed to fit in, to be as vanilla as possible, to blend into the crowd.  Finally, we ended up in incredibly small-minded town in the metropolitan Boston area as my mother worked ridiculous hours, raised 2 kids and pursued her degrees in arguably the best university in the US.  My “normalcy” campaign was an abject failure.  Sure, I had made a few friends and had become reasonably proficient at baseball but I was far from what you’d call popular.  In fact, I received more than my share of shit, straight up bullying, at school because I was a shy, geeky, pimply new kid (entirely on me) but also because of my family situation (beyond my control).  At roughly the same time I discovered the martial arts and latched on with laser focus.  I trained 4 hours a day 5 times a week so after a year or 2 I began to get fairly proficient.  The better I got, the more local notoriety I received and, for the most part, the bullying stopped.  After a fight or 2, kids decided to pursue easier targets.

Nevertheless, I was miserable anywhere outside of a dojo, and school, especially, was the 9th circle of hell.  I began to skip obscene amounts of school.  Towards the end, I was skipping every Monday and Friday.  To this day, I’m not sure how I got away with it, but let’s just say that my middle school was a bit of a chaotic, Lord of the Flies situation for students and teachers alike.  Most kids probably would have fallen in with a bad element at this point but honestly, I was too geeky to be accepted by the “bad element”.  Skipping school was the limit of my rebellion.

All miserable things must come to an end so, eventually, the day came when my mother sat my sister and I down to announce that we’d be going back to Haiti for a brief period so she could finish her doctoral thesis.  Looking back, as the divorced parent of 2 children, I  appreciate the courage behind her decision.  As a self-involved young teenager, naturally, my first thought was “WTF, why me and why, of all the places in the world, there???”  And I didn’t want to leave my dojo, the one place that I fit in.  Soon thereafter, however, the school administration finally noticed my laughable attendance record and the dragnet began to close in.   Suddenly, a few months in the Caribbean didn’t seem like such a bad idea.

In no time at all, we were back in Port-au-Prince.  This time, though, the experience was going to be radically different.  My sister and I were older and there was less “family drama” to complicate things further.  On the other hand, we had very little money and were operating well and truly without a safety net.  Money equals power everywhere, but even more so in desperately poor countries.  The 3 of us lived in 1 rented room for the first few months.   In adult terms, we had only been gone for a few years, but as an early adolescent it seemed like decades.

It was like “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” in reverse, only I was painfully skinny (we all were back then) and incredibly “blan”.  Even  my Irish-American schoolmates in Boston used to give out to me for how pale I am…so while my school in PauP reflected all the colors in the rainbow, I selflessly anchored the far gringo end of the chromatic spectrum.  The similarities with the book, however, outweighed the differences: it was the very early 80s, I was on the island of Hispaniola and, oh yes indeedy, was very socially awkward.

My mother had managed, by dint of a level of hustle one rarely sees these days, to send us to our old school.  This was notable because it’s a private school and as I mentioned above, she had very limited funds at that point.  (In fact, I’m fairly certain her income was poverty level by US standards, but in Haiti in those days it was “middle-class”.  One didn’t often see an entire “blan” family with limited means (and, at the time, limited connections) so it’s accurate to say we were a rarity.)  My classmates were an interesting mix of Haitian elite (the 1 percent), embassy brats, some missionary kids and a few odd-ball cases like my sister and I.  It was a weird mix by anybody’s standards.  The 14 year old kid on my left might have a Patek Philippe on his wrist and had driven himself to school in his BMW while the kid on my right could be a snuff-dipping South Carolina redneck in training.  Every high school has cliques and subcultures, but this place added class and a wider range of socio-political issues to boot.  (We had, for example, Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis in our school – which made for an interesting period after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982).

I also searched around for a new dojo – one that I could get to via public transportation (aka Tap-taps, camionettes and “publiques” (ancient communal taxis of a sort) and we could afford.  We eventually found one and I began training with my new dojo mates.  It was my first real re-introduction to unadulterated Haitian culture.  Nobody spoke English, just Creole (mostly) and French (sorta).  It was a real old school dojo, with the old-school “recitation of the credo” before every training session, all counting and technique names in Japanese and, distressingly (for me) they insisted on wearing a full gi at all times.  Wearing a full gi while performing intense physical exercise in a stifling, non-air-conditioned dojo in a tropical country was, shall we say, challenging at first.  I puked a few times and passed out at least once before my body adjusted.  That being said, my dojo mates and instructors where really cool guys and surprisingly accepting of the goofy “sans-ave” “blanmana” that was deposited in their midst.  Oh, and they were the most flexible bunch I had ever run into, capable of doing full splits with little or no warm-up.  Long after I finally gave up the martial arts, I’d often run into guys from the old dojo whilst out and about in PauP/Petionville and they were always extremely cool.

In spite of a very modest living situation, a certain amount of culture-shock, a high-school environment on steroids and being the new kid once again  I couldn’t honestly say that my level of adolescent angst and general miserableness was worse than it was in the States.  Still, I longed to return to Boston and continue training with my original dojo. This might seem strange but as I’ve said before, karate was the only thing in my life that was entirely mine in which I had achieved a certain level of success and notoriety.   However, as the months wore on, it became increasingly obvious that a “short stint” in Haiti was becoming a longer, more open-ended affair.

It’s fully to my mother’s credit that she allowed me to return to Boston and my old dojo.  Much credit also goes to first instructor and mentor, P, as he agreed to do the heavy lifting transportation wise, waiving the already cheap monthly fees, etc.  Be that as it may, I was essentially a young teenager living with very nice strangers back in the same damn town.   I realized 2 things very quickly: a) I missed my mother and sister a whole lot and b) man, did I ever hate that town.  I had always thought the fault was squarely on me but I realized the town sucked, too.  It seemed to dislike me, and I , it.  I remember a visceral feeling of suffocation and it dawned on me that there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of its’ philosophy.  As much as I hated to leave my original dojo, I felt, surprisingly, a very strong desire to return to Haiti.

So, in very short order, I found myself back in funky ol’ PauP.  My living situation hadn’t changed, it was still as “challenging” as ever, but my attitude had.  I was still miserable, but I realized that non-stop moaning wasn’t solving anything.  I eventually learned creole, made a number of friends (many of them outside of school) and, hell yes, even met girls.  I returned back to my PauP dojo for a time, at least.  After a few years, we had a very small, old school traditional shotgun style house on a hill overlooking downtown PauP.  It was filled to the tin roof with books that we had brought and that various of my mother’s university colleagues had left which was key as we didn’t have a TV.   Hell, the phone didn’t even work half the time.  Those books saved my sanity and gave me a painless “by osmosis” education that saved my *ss in school.  Boredom is a very powerful motivator, one that is increasingly rare these days.  My sister eventually left for college, leaving just my mother and I.  My mother’s various jobs often took her into countryside for days at time which effectively left me, by this time an older teenager, alone.  I know what you’re thinking, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong (see above re: friends and girls).  I learned a number of valuable lessons, like it’s possible to get by on 2 gourdes worth of fritaille a day in a pinch and who I could sell my clothes to if my friends and I had prematurely blown the food budget on parties.

It’s worth noting that in some respects the Haiti I am referring to no longer exists.  At that time it was far safer than most US cities at the time.  While I did run into some issues whilst literally running in the streets, it was pretty tame.  I routinely cut through slums, on foot, at all hours of the day.  We’d do things like hop a tap-tap (or hitchhike) to Grand Goave (a town on the coast outside of Port-au-Prince) to watch a voudun ceremony, drink rum and return back home the next morning.  Crime and insecurity was not really a factor in those days, as crazy as that sounds now.  I often wonder if our ultra low-budget, no connection having re-introduction to Haiti as described above would do-able these days.  I’m not sure it would be.

Haiti is a complex place, one that you hate and love simultaneously.  It’s “The land of unlimited impossibilities” that’s always capable of breaking your heart.

 

When life don’t give you squat, squat gives you life.

Greeting, everyone.  Yes, I know the title of today’s post sounds like a “cringey” catchphrase from a t-shirt (hmm, note to self…) but it came to me a few hours ago when I was training at the brand spanking-new premises of the powerlifting club. I don’t think I’ve made it a secret in my past few posts that I’ve been going through a rough patch lately.  It was only really dawned on me the last few weeks that much of my malaise stems from a full-blown case of professional burn-out.  Like many of my generation, my attitude at work was just to get it done, no excuses and the phrase “I can’t” does not exist.  As manager, of course, I have managed staff through burn- out soI know that acceptable levels are different for everyone and accumulated stress over time is insidious.  However, to echo that old cliché “I just didn’t think it’d happen to me”.

Well, I didn’t think it’d happen to me because pride goeth before a fall.  I thought I was too aware, too smart, too “woke” (very ironic given the context) to suffer a burn-out.  Burn-out was caused, in my case, by accepting to do what evolved into 2 full-times jobs.  It is, of course, impossible for 1 person to perform 2 full times jobs at a high level for the long-term so an eventual crash was inevitable.  While I did escalate the situation repeatedly over the last few years and demanded resources – said resources were always right over the horizon. A number of factors, unrelated to work I was doing, made the work I was doing even harder as I was called in to “fight fires” repeatedly for situations not of my making.  I gradually began to fall behind on my deliverables…and was forced to perform “triage”, prioritizing those which I would deliver on time and those for which I’d “take a hit”.

These missed deadlines and other looming missed deadlines played constantly in loop somewhere in my subconscious.   Slowly, insidiously, it affected my professional confidence and engendered a feeling of anxiety and a barely perceptible sense of impending doom.  I began to have problems sleeping as I’d awake at night and not be able to go back to sleep as my now conscious brain endlessly re-hashed work stress.  My accumulated sleep loss began to visibly affect my ability to concentrate which put my work productivity into a death spiral.  I worked longer and longer hours to complete formerly easy tasks.

At the same time, I became increasingly worried about lack of quality time I was spending with my kids.  Even when I was spending time with them, I was haggard and preoccupied.  My guilt over this wasn’t aiding my mental state.  Finally, my powerlifting training took an obvious dive.  I was still training when I could find time (at this point purely a desperate measure to preserve sanity and physical health) but my heart wasn’t in it.  Then in late May of this year I could barely get out of bed and force myself to go to work.  Had I not had 2 kids in private school who will soon go to university, I think I might have thrown in the towel.  In 35 years of working, I never felt anything like I was feeling.  I read a clinical description of burn-out and realized that exhibited every single symptom in flashing red lights.  I wracked my brain to find a magic silver bullet that would fix everything.

I decided, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that alcohol was the cause of all this mess.  I was certainly drinking more than was healthy, but at the same time at this point of my life I wasn’t a case study in Barfly-esque excess, either.  So I stopped drinking booze altogether save a very occasional glass of wine.  And the situation improved somewhat, but not as dramatically as I’d hoped.  I was able to sleep a little better and therefore improved my concentration briefly.  It allowed me to continue limping along professionally for another few months until, about 2 weeks ago, the dominoes began to fall.

This is a painful situation, for sure, but it is nowhere near as bad as the loss of loved one or something of that nature.  Still, I was surprised the emotional toll it took on me.  The sliver-lining in the experience is that my mental fog receded somewhat so I was able to analyze how, little by little, I put myself in this situation.  Also, it has become clear what I need to do to improve my mental health as well as my professional situation.  Let me be clear, this is an ongoing situation, but I no longer have blinders on.

To whit, I’ve been making a marked effort to live in the moment, spend really quality time with my loved ones and friends.  I have found refuge and a gained little bit more “gout de la vie” in reading and writing – my age-old friends that have helped my out of so many tight corners.  Finally, today I forced myself to go to the powerlifting club to make up for a training I missed yesterday.  I was supposed to work bench-press, overhead press and accessory exercises.  I’m still down and struggling and felt the need for a boost.  I love bench press, love it, and I’m pretty good at it, but it’s not it’s not the King of exercise.  So I did squats, not heavy, mind you, but at about 70 percent for triples.  I concentrated on relearning the technique.  I was all alone, so I began to crank my music on the sound system.  This song came on my play list:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eBfX_a9_o4

For a brief, shining moment, all was right with the world.  I wasn’t moving hero weight but I was squatting and making strides to get back to where I was before.  I will prevail.  I wish I knew why, but only squats can do this.

 

 

The 4 rules of the SQUAT

 

I had an epiphany a few days ago.  Thanks to time, rehab and mobility training, I have recently been able to perform back squats for the first time in 11 months.  I knew that I was going to lose strength in squat…and I sure did.  What surprised me, however, was how much my technique had gone to sh^%.  So I called M,  our coach, powerlifting guru/evangelist and all around nice guy, and asked him to meet me at the powerlifting club.

Using experience, the naked eye and a bar tracking app on his Iphone, M confirmed what I already knew; that while I wasn’t back at square one, I was definitely on square 2.  On a bar tracking app(which draws a line on your video denoting the bar movement), a textbook squat should appear as 1 straight vertical line.  The squat should travel the same path going up as it did going down.  In the beginning, my squats (via the app) looked like skinny ovals, but after a few hours and many reps later, they began to resemble really skinny “V”s.  They felt a little better, too, more in the “groove”.

This should not have been that surprising as a powerlifting squat is an athletic move.  One would not jump back in a boxing ring after 11 months off and expect to spar at the same level as a year ago.  You can shadow-box and hit the heavy bag all you want, but nothing replaces that 3 minute round with a real, live opponent.  Similarly, all the deadlifts and safety-bar squats I did in the interim helped to keep me in shape, but maintain my squat they did not.

The squat is not just an athletic movement, it’s a test of character.  I know a lot of people who are freakishly good bench-pressers or deadlifters.  While they do need to work hard to improve these movements, they generally have certain physical attributes that give them a certain advantage.  I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I’ve never seen anybody walk off the street and almost automatically squat impressive weight.  Rule number one of the squat:  you must put in the work.  95% of the people you see squatting impressive or at least heavy weight have plodding their way, slowly and methodically, towards lifting more kilos.

Rule number two of squat:  Technique is paramount.  Most trainees who weigh between 80 and 100 Kgs can rep out 130 or 140 kg squats after about 4 or 5 months.  This proves that, yes, they’ve put in the sheer work.  If, however, they also emphasis training for correct form at some point their squat weight will make huge jumps – from 140 to 180 kgs in a relatively short space of time.  This is because they’ve applied their strength to a more efficient way of moving the weight.  A highly trained welterweight boxer hits a whole lot harder than some 100 Kg slob throwing haymakers.

Rule number three of squat:  Confront your fears.  First, you need to confront your fear of hard work.  You need to confront your ego, and make sure you’re up to sucking at something in the short-term.  And, finally, when you do finally start lifting some considerable weight..it’s scary.  It shouldn’t be, if you squat in a squat rack, have learned how to bail by this point and are not attempting a weight 40kgs above your PR.  Nevertheless, taking some pretty heavy weight out of the J-hooks…there is something sort of crazy about it.  6 months later, that “crazy” weight has become something you do for 5×5.

Rule number four of squat:  Ain’t no half-repping.  Only squat that weight which you are able squat slightly below parallel and back up again.  You may argue that quarter squats or half squats are valid training movements (er, and I’d disagree). If you half-squatted 200kgs with aid of knee-wraps, smelling salts and your gym-bro posse yelling encouragement and filming you for the “IGs” than kudos to you, old boy.  You did not, however, squat 200 Kgs.  You did something else.

 

 

 

When the squats don’t work…

If you’re reading my posts I don’t think I really need to convince you about the benefits of physical training in general and strength training in particular.  Exercise improves the quality of your life, period.  This post is targeted at those of you who have taken the red pill as concerns physical training.  It’s unquestionably a part of your life.  What happens, however, when the ability to train is taken away, either partially or entirely?  Additionally, can physical training serve as a psychological crutch for some trainees?  Can over-reliance on physical training and the benefits it imparts cause emotional stagnation?

My interest in this subject is, of course, personal.  Habitual readers of this blog know that I injured myself last November – just before – and then again during – a powerlifting competition.  The end result I could not longer low-bar squat until recently and, to be honest, I shouldn’t have been going heavy on the bench or the deadlift, either.  (Of course I did…life is about weighing the risks).  If you have ever been serious about a sport and suffered an injury you’ll know that it’s, well, depressing.  Not being able to perform and excel at something you viscerally enjoy is a psychological blow.  Training not only provides an outlet and a healthy psychological coping mechanism, it often informs our sense of self.  Therefore a negative impact to this coping mechanism is unsettling.  This is what happened to me – I tried to keep a positive attitude, concentrate on assistance exercises, improve my poverty deadlift, etc.  Be that as it may, I couldn’t fool myself.

The heavy low-bar squat is the king of exercises.  If you ask any serious strength athlete if they had to pick only 1 exercise for the rest of their lives 95 percent of them would choose the squat.  You might have a pathetic bench-press or deadlift (depending on your body-type, etc) but nobody has a really bad squat.  Everyone who puts effort into the squat will achieve respectable numbers.  The squat is the Ur-movement.  The squat makes your body strong.  The bench and deadlift are “nice to have”s.

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I hated squats at first because everyone hates squat at first.  They are difficult, they humble you and, oh yeah, there is actually more technique to it than most people suspect.  But, mostly, you need to put the work in, my friend.  If you do, though, you will be richly rewarded.  The feeling after a heavy squat session is different from any other exercise.  It’s like a secret super power – you know that your entire body is getting stronger.  A heavy bench press session – er, not the same thing at all.

Roughly the same time I could no longer squat I decided to detox and take a break from alcohol.  On paper, it’s a great idea but in practice it was more complicated than I expected.  You see, training was healthy coping mechanism and those beers and glasses of wine were unhealthy coping mechanisms.  It was a largely symbiotic relationship in a weird way.  Training hard allowed me to think I could down that booze with less guilt than a couch potato.  So my healthy coping mechanism was impaired (training) and I took my alternate (albeit unhealthy) coping mechanism out of the equation.  The end result – I had to face the issues I needed “help” coping with.  It was hard, frustrating and, yes, depressing.  But, much like beginning with squats, you should..no, you need to do it.  If you hang on and slog through the rough patches, you will probably get stronger.

Life is not Hollywood movie.  Depression is a horrible, scary experience.  A big benefit of gaining the wisdom that comes with age is knowing that, yes, we’ll come out at the other end.  You just need to hang on.  You also need to be honest with yourself.  Coping mechanisms only allow you put a problem “on hold”.  The title of this blog post is a play of the title of The Verve song “The drugs don’t work” that I can’t seem to get out of my head the last few days..It was also a play on the fact I couldn’t squat literally and that squats weren’t working for me figuratively.

So a quick update:  I have been able to low-bar squat for the last few weeks.  It still sort of hurts and, even worse, I’ve lost 1/3 of my squat strength.  But, fek it, I can squat, folks!  I now struggle at embarrassing weights, but I can squat.  I will miss the next 2 competitions but if I train intelligently I will be able to compete next year.  If I can’t do great numbers, well, I am grateful anyway.  Yes, I’ve started the occasional beer again but I’ve also found the booze don’t work.  I can, sure, but periods of abstinence make me question why I thought it was essential.  And those issues that needed to be coped with – they’re still there but I make an effort to met them head on.