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.

 

 

 

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.