Hello DOMS, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again…

Over the weekend I had the profound pleasure of actually taking part in a privately held, very much improvised, socially distanced barbell workout.  A friend of a workout buddy owns a warehouse so 5 of us gathered to lift some weights for the first time in 2 months (Note: in the country where I live,  gatherings of up to 6 people are allowable under new measures as of last week).  The barbells were most decidedly not regulation size or weight and all of the other equipment, such as it was, was a monument of ingenuity and making do what was on hand.  Nevertheless, I was absolutely thrilled to take part.  Man does not live on bike rides alone…

“So”, you might ask, “how did it go after no heavy barebell training for the last 2 months”?  Honestly, not as bad as I had thought.  Yes, I am detrained and, yes, I lost strength but I was pyschologically prepared.  You can’t expect miracles if you’ve lifted nothing heavy in 2 months.  Also, the lifting itself (deadlift and bench press) was made more difficult by a short, non-standard 8Kg barbell instead of a longer, 20kg standard one.

Deadlifts were tough.  The weights were shorter than “bumper” plate height so consequently we had to bend down further than usual to pick them.  I did 5×5 at weight that would have been very easy 2 months ago, and it proved to be challenging. I was moderately gassed by the 5 rep of each set.  After convential deadlifts,  we put the barbell between stacks of pallets to do “rack pulls” at varying heights

I was pleasantly suprised with the bench presses.  I did 5×5 at a moderately heavy weight relatively easily, especially considering the short bar and the improvised bench set-up.  I guess muscle memory is a real thing and training the movement over years does pay off.  Hopefully I’ll be able to train in this improvised manner twice a week until gyms open again.

The funniest side-effect of this training was the DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) that I encountered the day after the training.  My entire posterior chain (basically the muscles from my hamstrings all the way up to my Traps) were well and truly sore…And I was as happy as a clam.   I was correctly recruiting all the required muscle groups on my deadlifts, so my form hasn’t completely degraded.  Interestingly, I had no soreness in my chest, shoulders and triceps although in relative terms I was lifting heavier for bench presses.  Anywho,  it was great to be back in the saddle, metaphorically speaking by challenging my body once again.  Hobbling around and groaning like an old man is small price to pay.

Look, the confinement has meant that making baked goods and binging on Netflix are almost laudable, socially responsible activities.  I can dig it, however to enjoy the Yin of serial couch potatoing, I need the Yang of regular physical stress (aka training).

What not going to the gym feels like.

We are 2 months into this pandemic and gym rats the world over are agonizingly jonesing for an “iron fix”.  Yes, not being able to train really, truly sucks.  Some of the ways it blows are obvious and there is also some unexpected “suckage” which I will outline shortly.  Suprisingly, though, there a few silver linings to this flab-inducing, gainz-stealing cloud.  So, with no further ado, here is my take on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the great Covid 19 Gym Drought:

Obvious Suck Factors:

  • Bye-Bye Gainz:  You consistently train for years and months and are forced to throw it out the window.  This is beyond frustrating.  Literally 2 days before everything shutdown I did all time Bench and Deadlift PRs in the gym.  I was on track to smash  competition PRs in my scheduled May competition but alas…
  • Home bodyweight workouts just don’t cut it:  Sammy Hagar won’t drive 55 and I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for dreary, lonely bodyweight workouts.  Look, if that’s your thing, my hat’s off to you.  I do them, but no as regularly as I should and with little joy.
  • There goes what little social life the majority of weirdo Powerlifters have in the first place:  Hey, we all miss the social aspect.  If you spend that much time at the gym training it’s de facto part of your social life.  For many of us the daily routine was work, gym and then  home and now it’s work at home with no gym, for the vast majority of us.   Hello, cabin fever.
  • Endorphin withdrawal:  For most of us, training was a sustainable, effective method to relieve stress.  Also, the emotional satisfaction of hitting training goals and achieving PRs was/is indescribable.  It’s no surprise that alcohol consumption is sky-rocketing which, is unfortunate.  Alcohol as horrible, extremely short-sighted and wildly counter-productive method of stress reduction, but I get it.  The only reason I know this is I drank all the beer, all of it, and so am uniquely qualified to report that it don’t work, folks.  If I was still on the sauce, you wouldn’t go wrong buying stock in the beverage company of your choice right now.

Less Obvious Suck Factor

  • No more “Super Power”:  Okay, this going sound funny to the uninitiated..and hell, maybe I’m the only who feels this way, but here goes.  When you train in powerlifting for a while, you get strong, and it’s actually a lot of fun to be strong.  Lifting heavy stuff is a real gas.  And, let’s face, there is is more than a little pride mixed into the equation.  However, if you’re not training, you’re getting weaker and it’s a bit a pschological hit.  Not a major one if you’re relatively well-adjusted, but a bummer nontheless.
  • Going from Fuscular to, er, well, flabby:  Powerlifters do not train for aesthetic reasons but nonetheless one does get jacked from training, albeit perhaps still somewhat “fleshly” for some of us.  If you’re not training, you’re losing muscle, which means you’re just another Cheeto eating slob watching Joe Exotic on Netflix.

Silver Linings:

  • Injury Recovery – Let’s face it, if you train seriously for any period of time, you are walking around with a series of injuries in various stages of recovery.  2 months off of “forced” recovery will allow you to heal.  I am finally resolving a nagging shoulder issue, so there’s that at least.
  • More time for family – I am spending more time with kids which is great.  Before, during the work week it was work, gym, home, fix dinner, bed.  Now it’s it’s work, go biking with the kids in the early evening, make dinner with them and, yes, bed.  This is priceless, especially since they are teenagers.
  • (Re)discovering other physical activities – As I said above, biking is one of physical activities available to us, as is hiking.  We live near a number of forests so that is an incredible bonus.  There is no better stress reliever known, not even power-lifting, than walking or biking deep in a forest on a beautiful spring day.  I used to do this quite a bit before my kids were born and now we can do it together.  Also, and this is weirdly specific, I’ve become fixated on my ab-roller when at home.  I used to avoid ab training like the plague, but now it almost seems “new”.

Life imitates meme…or why the gym is always packed the first week of January.

It commonly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  And yet, in spite of decades of gym-going experience every December I find myself tut-tutting at all those lame “new year’s resolutioners” memes and snarky posts to forums and Facebook groups.  Every year I tell myself that this phenomenon is exagerated, it’s not really a “thing”.  After all, human beings aren’t lemmings and human behaviour, even group dynamics, is often far from being predictable.  Finally, and this is probably the biggest reason, I find it hard to believe that somebody would wait until January 1 to do anything.  I’ve started, and failed, quite a few good resolutions in my time but never have I waited for an arbitrary date to do so.

So I felt supremely vindicated from January 1st to 5th, as I trained away at the Globo gym near my work.  All the “usuals” were there, as as we always are, week after week but there was no tsunami of Gymshark-clad noobs.  “Yaaassss”, I thought, “people are rational, idependent minded beings after all”.  We aren’t swallows going back to Capistrano or salmon swimming upstream driven by some antediluvian instinct.

Then I went to the gym on Monday after work.  Or should I say, I spent 15 minutes trying to find a parking space any where remotely close to my gym (there are 2 other gyms within a 3 block radius as well) before giving up and parking far, far away.  As I battled my way past the front door the scene that presented itself was part Lord of the Flies, part Star Wars bar scene and part outtake of a “Black Friday riot at the Tulsa Walmart” youtube video.  Everybody and their actual grandmother was there, resplendent in fresh from under the Christmas tree gym-wear.  Heck, even the Prime Minister was there…Ok, to be honest, he’s a semi-regular so his presence was far less remarkable than the sheer mass of humanity that managed to pack itself into the gym that night.  No joke, I began to wonder if we hadn’t attained the building’s occupancy limit.

Unfortunately, it was my night to train bench press and yes, it was Monday (aka International Chest Day) so the six flat benches were all taken by the time I got there.  Luckily, it didn’t take long for a bench to free up because, as is always the case in this scenario, the following happens:  Noob approaches the bench, doesn’t think a second about warming up with, say, just the bar… and slaps on what he thinks is a good working weight but is actually much closer to his 1RM.  The young gent (feet up on the bench, of course, never planted firmly on the floor) then attempts to bang out a set but barely manages to get the bar off of his chest for 1 rep.  He then reduces the weight, but not enough, and manages to squeeze 2 or 3 more reps before deciding that the Pec Deck looks more inviting.

Back, however, to the subject at hand.  So, yes, a crowded gym in January is not just a cliche or urban legend.  It’s a fact of life, in the same way that airports are crowded just before Christmas.  It’s also true that by Febuary things will be right back to normal.  Aside from the glaringly obvious (guilt over holiday excesses, corny resolutions, promotional deals by gym owners) I honestly don’t why it is such a thing.  Gym training, like running, is not seasonal.  And speaking of running, the sidewalks aren’t suddenly clogged with joggers in January.  So, what gives?

In the end, I suppose, who cares?  I’m glad they are there, whatever their motivation.  It’s nice seeing some new faces and, quite frankly, I’m hoping that as gym going becomes more and more the norm, the market will mature and prices will drop in the country where I live.  I pay extortionate rates at my Globo gym and (considering the amazing value) very reasonable rates at the Powerlifting club. And finally, as somebody who is considering entering the industry at a future date, it’s comforting to know there is an absolutely reliable annual cash cow.

The evolution of a Powerlifter.

I happened upon strength training almost by accident.  I had been going to the gym for a number of years, nay, decades, more or less consistently.  So I went to the gym regularly, but aimlessly, without clear goals.  I’d do whatever I felt like doing once I arrived at the gym and the exercise choice was largely influenced by whether a machine or bench was free.  Typical bro splits, chest, arms and abs.  Nary a leg was trained nor a squat squatted.  A good program was something one watched on TV.

Then, one day some years ago, I couldn’t stand it any more.  I was bored, really, really bored with the gym.  The gym, or rather a big commercial gym, is a fairly ludicrous space in the best of times.  I’d feel faintly ridiculous wandering around from exercise station to the next, bro tunes cranking in my headphones, trying to get my pump on.  I came to the realization that there had to be a better way of training or, if there wasn’t, I should find a better activity to spend time and money on.  Like everyone else on the planet, I resorted to the time-honored method of Google searching solutions to my problem.

Hmm, powerlifting movements sounded interesting and I thought, hey, it might finally provide me with some structure.  I’d actually be training with a purpose.  I’d set goals and try to attain them.  Solid, I thought.  This was just seemingly minutes before the big powerlifting Youtube boom, so I initially combed through loads of forums and a few books to glean as much information as possible.  There was, however, one slight problem.

To whit, my bench press was somehow, from a technique perspective, not bad.  I had no idea, however,  how to squat or deadlift, I didn’t know anybody who did those exercises and, to be honest, it was intimidating.  Nevertheless, I began my first program (5×5) and gingerly stepped into a highly underutilized (in those days) squat rack.  My squats were ugly, but at least I felt I was on the right track.  In spite of all I had read, I still had no clue how to properly deadlift.  My deadlifts were dreadful: mad, bad and dangerous to know.  Furthermore, I was usually the only person in the gym squatting or deadlifting outside of a Smith machine.  You know how every gym seems to have a Vibram Fivefingers guy?  I began to wonder if I wasn’t a variation on that theme:  well-meaning but slightly misguided.

Soon, as my program progressed, I got those sweet, sweet beginner gainz.  My benchpress shot way up and even my terrible squats and deadlifts improved.  By this time, powerlifting had started to become a thing and people like Mark Rippetoe, Mark Bell and that crazy Ask Elliot guy were putting out content on Youtube.  So while I hadn’t yet met like-minded people, I could at least watch them train and pick up some pointers.

While it seems funny now, my training partners viewed my squatting as a ridiculously girly thing to do and deadlifts as needlessly complicated.  They’d make a few wisecracks, shake their heads and go back to their cable-pulls.  I was still in the “bench much more than you squat” club but nonetheless my squats and deadlifts had progressed to the point that I felt I required real coaching before I hurt myself.  So back to google I went.  When I had first started training squat, bench and deadlift, there were literally two powerlifting gyms in my area and for a variety of reasons, including proximity, I wasn’t going to train with them.  A new one had opened up in the interim so I decided to give it a shot.

If many people are intimidated by the idea of going to a gym, many experienced gym goers are intimidated by the idea of going to a powerlifting gym.  In your mind’s eye it’s going to be like Westside Barbell with a bunch of shaved head, tattoed convicts and snarling pit bulls. That’s ridiculous, of course, but if you don’t walk through the door you’ll never know.  I walked right in and said, ” look, I am an absolute noob. Tell me what do and I’ll do it.”  It was revelation to meet people interested in the same obscure thing.  We could sit their and talk for hours about belts, shoes, programs, technique, you name it. My squats and deadlifts finally started outpacing my bench as they should.

Fast foward a few years, I had done some competitions and inevitably, been injured a few times.  I’ve set some PRs that I’m proud of and once briefly held the benchpress WR for my age/weight group in my federation.  Sometimes, however, life has a way of interfering with one’s best laid plans.  For the last several months I’ve not been able to train seriously due to work and family issues.  I still go to the gym whenever I can, but I’m not able to stick to a serious, challenging program that would allow me to increase PRs.   My motivation to train for competitions wanes periodically, but my motivation to powerlift is unquestionable.

I realized a few things in the past year. I don’t think I’ll ever stop powerlifting style training.  I truly enjoy it and believe it’s an integral part of a healthy life. Furthermore, lifting heavy weight is sufficiently taxing and radical that it acts like an unerring weathervane for other parts of your life.  Not eating or sleeping well?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  Not focused due to emotional turmoil?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  It sounds funny, but lifting gives me extra motivation to get s*** together, if only to lift better 🙂  And finally, the best thing about powerlifting is not setting a PR, it’s the process itself.

 

 

Gym may be life…but keep it to yourself.

As I’ve said in previous posts, if you want to stick to a strength-training program it’s absolutely necessary to find your motivation.  Strength-training, per se, is not necessarily fun.  People who stick to strength-training programs are those of have developed an interest in which weight-lifting plays a part.   Often, these are athletes in heavily strength dependent sports such as American Football, Rugby, Highland Games, Track and Field, etc.  However, the most fervent gym-goers tend to be those whose sport is specifically gym-based, such as body-building, Cross-fit, Power-lifting and Olympic weightlifting.  It’s very common, once one has developed an interest in one of those sports,  to go through “gym-bore” period.  You’re excited to find this new interest that has a major positive impact on your life and you’re as giddy a kid on Christmas morning.  Do your loved-ones and co-workers a solid, though.  Keep it to yourself.  Here’s why:

  • It’s boring:  Yea verily, it’s boring.  Of course, it’s interesting to you and your gym buddies but nobody else on God’s green earth cares about your deadlift PR or your new programming.  We’ve all heard people droning on about their new diet..how captivated were you about that endlessly fascinating subject?  If the subject somehow comes up when you’re among non-gym goers, keep it brief and change the subject or you risk coming off as a narcissistic bore.
  • Gym is not LIFE, it’s part of life:  I don’t care how good you are at your sport, never forget it should only be one facet of your existence.  Outstanding champions such as Muhammed Ali, “Arnold” and Zydrunas Zavickas (Strongman) accomplished quite a bit outside the arena of sports.  Unless you are a coach and it’s your job, droning on ad nauseam about training makes you look one dimensional.
  • The douche factor:  Let’s face it, if you speak about your powerlifting training to people outside the sport, you might not only come off as boring but also like you’re bragging. Hence, douche-y.  Things are commonplace amongst powerlifters (say, a 200kg squat for reps) sound somewhat extreme to the uninitiated.  So, while maybe you’re not really bragging, but it’s going to sound like you are. And if people think you are literally “flexing” on them, you’ll either turn them off or they respond to what they perceive as intimidation.  “Oh yeah, we’ll I benched 360 lbs before…in high school”…
  • The frustration factor:  See above – if you get caught up in a “I’ve lifted mad weight” conversation with somebody who, shall we say, doesn’t look or speak like they have experience with training, just smile and agree with them.  While you may be tempted to press them for details, don’t.  For one, it’s an inane conversation for adults to engage in.  Really, 360 lbs?  Full range of motion?  Pause at the bottom, no chest bounce, no help from spotters?  Like quarter-squatters, just let them be.  It’s frustrating and a little bit silly, but that’s not your problem.  Also, if it just so happens they did lift that weight with proper form, you’ll look the world’s biggest insecure tool for trying to call them out.
  • Chick magnet, it’s not:  Note to the heterosexual males out there – the babes will appreciate those six pack abs and wide shoulders, but preserve some of the mystery.  She doesn’t need or want to know about drop sets and how much you spend monthly on creatine.  And for my powerlifting boys out there, women could care less about your righteous PRs, you lard asses.  Dudes will care, perhaps, but women…nope.  Sad, but true.  So if you think blathering on about your training will make the fillies come a-running, guess again.

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.