Veganism and Strength Sports

What follows are my personal, unscientific, non-triple blind tested observations on the effects of a plant-based diet on training for strength sports. Is it better, is it worse and, if so, why? Is it harder to stick to a vegan diet? What are the non-sports benefits? What is over-rated about a plant-based diet? What are the unexpected benefits of eating plant-based? How much cooler would eating plant-based be without certain vegans ruining it for everyone? Finally, faux-meat, a “faux pas”? Come with me as I meander into the cultural minefield that is VEGANISM…

*** Disclaimer: Gentle reader, know that your esteemed author is not, by most definitions, a vegan. However, to employ a hackneyed phrase, some of his best friends and favorite family members are down with that plant-based life so your intrepid scribe is well versed in the milieu. In fact, he rarely eats animal products himself, but when he does he likes to wear a velvet smoking jacket like the suave old dude in the Dos XXs ad. Seriously, though, I have gone through extended periods of eating only plant-based in the past 2 years, and even now when I do eat dairy, eggs or meat, it’s maybe twice a week.

  • Plant-based diet for strength sports: Yeah, yeah, of course you can…there are veritable scads of vegan body-builders, powerlifters, strongmen, and cross-fitters who compete successfully. All high level competitors have to on top of their diet but I’d say that vegan competitors have to be even more dialed in to make sure they’re getting enough protein, B6, etc. Have I noticed a difference going from a conventional diet (albeit a healthy one) to a much reduced animal products diet? I can’t say hat I feel any better or worse. My lifts have gone down some from my all time PRs, but that’s probably more because I’m not training as seriously as I did in the past due to recent work constraints. Verdict: Doable, yes, laudable, I guess so, slightly more complex to track, yep and does it make me stronger or weaker, jury is still out.
  • Is it hard to “go vegan”?: Somewhat, in my experience. Bear in mind, however, that I live in Northern Europe in what is essentially small town, albeit a very well-heeled one. I already cook a lot, so the fun part was coming up with wholesome plant-based menus that covered all the nutritional bases. I even discovered that I’m much better at plant based dishes than meat-based. Though it pains me to admit this, my meat game was/is relatively weak. So it takes effort and planning at first to go plant based at home. The real challenge is going out to eat. It’s limiting at the best of times in my town. There are a few vegan restaurants but mostly they suck, are overpriced and are populated by smug yet weirdly tense individuals. In big cities like Berlin, London, NYC and Toronto it’s much easier. Not to mention in places like Toronto or Boston, most of your fellow vegan restaurant goers will have recently blazed a big ol’ legal joint and are thus markedly more chill than in my town.
  • General benefits of a plant-based diet: I am not convinced that 100 percent plant based diet is good for all people, all the time. I think the same applies to any dietary regime. People react to food differently. However, does vastly limiting your animal product intake have health benefits? From a common sense perspective, I’d have to say yes. More important that being stringently one diet or the other is the quality of the food you are stuffing your face with. Avoid processed foods and eat organic as much as possible and you’re going in the right direction. So the big biggest benefits I have noticed regarding a plant-based diet is that the raw materials are often cheaper, one is much less concerned with spoilage and for the most part I feel good, not lethargic, after eating plant-based or mostly plant-based meal. Also, if you source your products carefully, it’s good for the planet. The same can be said for animal products but it’s MUCH harder and more expensive to find local, organic animal products from sustainable agriculture.
  • Plant-based – is it over-rated? In many ways, yes. It won’t make you into Superman overnight. If you had a crappy, processed food diet before and then implement a carefully considered plant-based diet then, yes, you will notice health benefits. It’s entirely possible to eat vegan crap. Hey, the vegan Ben and Jerrie’s flavors are just as awesome as the other flavors, but sadly no better for you. As the market matures, more processed vegan-junk food is being made available which I think is a step in the wrong direction. Again, done well, it’s a healthy dietary regime for many people that is sustainable for the planet…but the same argument can be made for well considered vegetarian and omnivore diets.
  • The less well-know benefits: For me, it’s increased mindfulness regarding what I eat. I know more now re: the dietary benefits of many legumes, herbs and vegetables than I did before, and how they all can be combined to make a wholesome diet. I tend to plan my meals at last a few days in advance. Now, even when I do incorporate animal products, I fit them into the bigger nutritional picture of what I will be eating that week.
  • The annoying-a** Vegan: We all know at least one, and many of us know dozens of them. Veganism is both a diet and, for many, a philosophy or way of life. And that’s absolutely cool. I’m always impressed when I meet somebody, get to know them and then discover, in more of less discrete way, that they have strongly held beliefs that influence their actions. They are not virtue-signalling, they are just living their lives according to their principles. Unfortunately, there are always attention-starved dip sh((s in any group who tend to ruin it for everyone. Some vegans can truly come off as unhinged as tinfoil hat wearing flat-earthers, or worse. Perhaps one of the worst vegans on Youtube is “Vegan Gains”, a deeply troubled young man who ostensibly talks about veganism and strength sports…but really just uses the platform to spew hateful invective. Way to help the cause, guys.
  • Faux Meat: I will say this, I just tried the McDonalds vegan burger and it’s really, really good. I was expecting to be underwhelmed but it’s genuinely good. Much better than any Mickey Ds meat product, however that’s setting the bar pretty low. McDonald’s, aside from their fries, is pretty rank. And I say that as somebody who eats meat. It works so well because a fast food burger is more about texture than quality meat, which you will not get at that price point. This is encouraging because if a large percentage of McDonalds customers switch to vegan burgers simply because they taste better, that’s a win/win for everyone and the planet. If you’re going to eat meat, even occasionally, don’t blow it on a fast-food burger. On the flip side of the coin, in my experience the “vegan versions” of meat dishes in many hipster vegan restaurants are often nasty. I can still not the get the taste of a vegan “Philly Cheesesteak'” out of my mouth. Blech…

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.

 

 

 

Germany Competition Recap – stuff happens.

So last weekend I competed in the stand-alone bench press event in the 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation.  It was an interesting weekend in many ways, I learned a lot about what I should, and should not, do for my next competition, how I feel about “stand-alone” events vs. the traditional 3 event powerlifting.  In a subsequent post I’ll post my impression/observations about the powerlifting sub-culture in deep, semi-rural Germany.  Half of my family are semi-rural Midwesterners of relatively recent German descent so suffice it to say it was strangely familiar at times, whilst completely foreign at others.

I was off my visibly off my game on Sunday (more about that later) so I didn’t do as well as I should have.  I improved my competition bench-press PR by 2.5 kgs, but given that I trained and planned to increase it by an ambitious 10kgs, I’m disappointed.  I made a number of mistakes that are linked, I think, to the fact that I only had one event, not 3, to worry about.  I warmed up too early and lifted weights close to my “opener”.  Big mistake, of course, but after a week of laying off the weights I always start to doubt myself.  In addition, I was had very little sleep and was fairly burnt-out on powerlifting after having stayed with my team as they competed until 2AM the same morning.  Finally, (and, yes, more about this later) I understood next to nothing most of the time as my German is very poor, and the “competition plate” phenomenon only heightens this.  (Basically, it’s very easy to do “plate” math in the gym so you always tell how much somebody is lifting.  Even with color coding of the plates, the fact that they are slimmer (denser) and bar collars themselves weigh a combined 5kgs throws me off at first.  Also, the most used plate in competitions in a red 25kg plate.  In the gym 180kg on the bar would have a cool four 20kg plates on each side.  The same 180kg much less impressive looking in competition.)  So I got white-lights for my opener but is looked far uglier than it should have.  With such a poor showing, my coach was OK with only increasing the next lift by 2.5kg instead of 5.  I made the next lift too.  It looked good, nice and smooth, but I knew that I wasn’t at my best.  My coach told me to add 5kgs for my final lift, instead of the 7.5kgs we were planning on.

Even though my 2nd lift looked nice and smooth, I felt that I could only handanother 2.5kgs for the 3rd lift.  Some people can grind out a bench-press but I am not one of those people.  When the weight gets really heavy on a lift – i.e. heavier than your previous 1RM (one rep maximum) it’s crucial that your form and technique is impeccable.  I might have been able to have done another 5kgs on that day, but my concentration was not what it should have been.  As the bar reached my chest, my bracing wasn’t what it should have been so I wasn’t able to explode out of the hole after the pause.  I missed my third lift.

In the powerlifting gym I belong to there is a white-board where the team members can list their PRs in the different lifts(provided that lifts are relatively heavy for a given lift) and, in most cases, only competition lifts are accepted.   So I had done, more than once,  a legal competition bench-press in the gym (pause on the chest, wait for the “press”command, press up in a controlled manner(feet on the ground, butt on the bench) and then wait for the “rack”command) at the weight I had just failed in the competition.  Powerlifting competitions are weird in that I don’t really get nervous because of the competition or lifting in front of a fair amount of spectators and peers.  Rather, the pressure I feel is all about not reaching my goals, of not making the months of hard work pay off for me personally.  I failed that last lift because I felt my goal was in jeopardy and I wasn’t mentally strong enough on that day to keep my focus.  This is what makes a succesful lift in competition the gold standard for lifters.  Gym lifts don’t count, bro.

In the end, I came in 2nd in my age/weight class.  The guy who came in first was 10kgs better than my best lift. Even though I should have done 5kgs better, there is no chance in hell that I could have lifted more than him.  Kudos to him, it was a sight to see.  One of the best things about power-lifting competitions is that you’re excited to see big lifts, period.  I fully appreciate what this competitor did at his age and weight so it’s not like “he’s kicking my butt” but more like “respect, dude”.  I did better than some others, ok, but that’s neither here nor there.  The missed lift is what sticks in my craw.  Had I done the lift, I’d still be in 2nd place, but I’d have felt really good about it.

I learned a few things about the “stand-alone” events, which I had never participated in or even seen before.  This is because typically the 3 event Powerlifting competitions are typically on Friday/Saturday, and the 1 event competitions are on Sunday.  Firstly, wow, the stand-alone bench event is popular.  In this competition, at least, there were many more competitors in my age/weight category than in the traditional 3 event competition.  Not surprisingly, some of these guys were straight up bench-press specialists.  While it was a fun, educational experience, I don’t think that I will do it again simply because I miss the “long game” aspect of the 3 event powerlifting.  A bench-press competition goes by very quickly, 3 lifts and you’re done.  And while my bench is pretty good, I don’t think it’ll ever be “stand-out” in a field of bench press specialists.

The dark side of the Gym

 

 

This blog is about to get real.  This morning I read an excellent post from Awkward Brown Guy (https://theawkwardbrownguy.wordpress.com/ – I highly recommend his blog) in which he describes his motivation for going to the gym, and how it’s changed over the years.  It got me thinking about how we all like to post about the myriad benefits of going to the gym, but we very rarely touch on the less than salubrious aspects.  It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, folks, so let’s have an honest discussion about some of the more disturbing trends in gym going behavior.

  • Balance is the key:  Nature seeks equilibrium; too much or too little of anything is not good.  Physical activity is required for one’s physical and mental hygiene. The question that many people struggle with is “how much?”.  Some people see some of the less than healthy behavior of some “fitness” trends and use it as an excuse to avoid exercise.  Still other seemingly think that engaging in physical exercise will solve all of your problems.  I think all of us are somewhere on this spectrum, and where we are at any given time depends on external factors.  Personally speaking, I’ve had couch potato periods, somewhat exaggerated periods of heavy training and more common work/life balance “trying to find time to train” periods.
  • Motivation vs. Pathology:  The modern fitness world is addicted to motivational stories to an unhealthy extent.  It’s very simple, if you don’t train and then start training, you will notice many improvements.  Better mood, sleep, weight loss and/or muscle gain, reduction of anxiety, the list goes on.  And I think it’s great this engenders a feeling of empowerment in people.  I don’t think, however, that pushing stories of how people have seemingly conquered all of life’s ills by physical training is a positive trend.  We all know a few 1 dimensional “gym is life” types and, admit it, it’s a bit sad.  Sadly, many of us have a seen a few pathological cases which literally make you wince.  At the Globo gyms I go to, for example, there is  one guy who is so hyper-ripped that his muscles actually interfere with his mobility.  He waddles from machine to machine and occasionally the dumbbell rack.  It’s kind of disturbing.  There is also this extremely anorexic woman I’ve seen at gyms around town for years now.  It always makes me nervous to be in the gym with her because I honestly expect her to keel over at any moment.  She’s literally a walking skeleton and all she ever does is cardio.  I have a family member who struggled with this disease, I know it’s a desperate attempt to exert control over one’s life,  so I don’t take this lightly.  The gym is the last place she should be and nobody should be enabling her to burn any more precious calories.
  • Performance Enhancing Drugs:  I used to be very naive and thought steroid use was rare.  10 years ago I might have even thought that the behemoth I described above was a “natural”.  The reality is that most of the shredded guys and gals at your local gym are on “gear”.  Most of us don’t have the genetics  it takes to resemble a Comic Book hero, so, surprise, surprise, many people resort drugs.  I understand if a professional athlete or movie star does it because the risk may be worth the monetary reward.  It’s pathological, however, for  your average gym goer or amateur competitor take the same hormonal health risks.
  • Body Dysmorphia:   Sure, body dysmorphia exists outside a gym environment.  It’s also true that physical training is conducive to developing a limited degree of body dysmorphia in most people.  What I find most interesting is how the condition manifests itself depends on what type of training you are doing.  This is logical because depending on your chosen activity you’ll spend a certain amount of time around phenotypes best suited to that activity.  For example, when I ran semi-marathons I used to think I was too bulky at 66 Kgs for 1m79. I now weigh 30KGs more after years of strength training.  Honestly, some of that is fat, but a lot of it isn’t.  It’s not an abnormal body type to find in a powerlifting gym but I am sometimes reminded, by people’s reactions, how outside the norm it is.  The interesting thing is that in my mind’s eye I’m “normal” size and I don’t really dig the “getting bigger” aspect.  It’s a side effect of the sport, not the raison d’être.

The point is that we need to apply the same critical regard to physical training as we do to other parts of our lives.  I often liken it to stages of “culture shock”.  When you first arrive in a country you often “love” (or detest) everything about it for a period of time.  Then, abruptly, that feeling completely changes to its polar opposite.  So now you loathe every stupid aspect of said country/culture.  Within a few months, however, you’ll reach a more reasonable mindset and begin to see the culture for what it is, neither perfect nor horrible.  Physical training is, for me, an essential part of life.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide an answer for all of my problems.  Sometimes, it even causes a few problems such as my recent injury or getting bulkier than I’d like.   At my age, though, I’m not motivated by vanity.  I like how it makes me feel and I get a kick out of achieving goals and getting stronger.   Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.

YouTubular – The best videos of the week

I watch a lot of YouTube.  I have “cable” TV, Netflix and Amazon Prime but I only tend to browse through the choices/channels on the weekends and, typically, give up and pick up a book instead.  Youtube, however, is addictive.   There is a lot of bad content so the trick is having a “nose” for a good content creator and/or finding a particularly good clip.  If I find a particularly useful clip, I often share it to Whatsapp (friends and family) or Facebook Messanger (Powerlifting team) groups.  The following clips are the most useful clips I’ve found recently on their respective subjects.  If the subject of one of these video interests you, I promise you it’ll be worth your time.  So, without further ado, here are the clips:

 

This clips explains, in a very cogent manner, why growth occurs only when you are challenged and how find that “sweet spot” that engenders growth.  The title of this video is uber-cheesy, but don’t let that put you off.  It’s a very, very useful video for absolutely everyone.  I’ve shared it with my kids, friends and as well as with the team I manage at work.

Dr. Axe is an excellent content provider for all things related to nutrition and health.  I purchased a slow cooker a few months ago – I wish this video had been around before I made my purchase.  As it turns out, I think I made a good purchase but it would have been useful to have been armed with this knowledge.  I love my slow cooker, it really makes meal prep for the week a whole lot easier.  Dr Axe videos, of which there are 100s, are uniformly excellent.  If you find video on a subject of interest, you can’t go wrong.

Juggernaut Training Systems are undeniably one of the best strength training channels on YouTube.  They recently put out a series of “5 Pillars for Great Technique” for Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift.  This is a really excellent, well produced series for all lifters, from novice to advanced.  I’ve shared these videos with a number of “lifting buddies”.

This video was published the day before yesterday by the Barbell Medicine crew.  This is probably the best single video on the subject of the Bench Press that I’ve ever seen.  So much so that I shared it with my Powerlifting coach  – and I’m not in the habit of wasting his time.  He dug the video and if the bench press interests you, I guaranty that you will dig it too.  As an aside, the Barbell Medicine team recently and very publicly divorced themselves from the Starting Strength organization.  Smart move, these guys are going places.