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.

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.

 

 

 

Why is this so popular? Rant o’ the day

Today I’m going to bend one of the golden rules of this blog  The gym should be a judgement free zone,  not in the infantile, disempowering “here, have a donut” Planet Fitness sense, but rather a positive place where you do challenging things.  Mirin’ is encouraged, but haughty disdain of one’s fellow gym-goer is the penultimate gym foul.  Rest assured, though, that this rant is not about hatin’ on the playa,  it’s about hatin’ on the game.

To whit, my friends, we need to talk about this “bench-pressing with the feet-up” trend.  Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a valid accessory exercise and/or a good variation for people with lower back issues.  However, I am completely mystified that a good 80 percent of the guys (it’s always men) I see bench-pressing in Globo gyms do the “feet up” thing.  WTF, y’all?  Was there a memo that I didn’t get?  On any given evening in the Globo gym I’m surrounded by legs in the air gym Bros benching away with the smug air of insider traders.  It’s not being used as accessory exercise, we’re talking feet never touching ground, ever.

“Feet in the air” benching is a good accessory exercise precisely because it’s less stable and takes leg drive completely out of the equation.  One can therefore only use sub-maximal weights  but it provides a good chest/triceps workout and underlines the importance of a tight back/retracted scapulae.  Actually, it’s pretty gangster if you see somebody bench serious weight with “feet in the air” because it puts the athlete at a disadvantage.  But you never see that in the Globo gym because people aren’t getting that much stronger, really.  The only way to get a lot stronger is to lift some heavy-a@# weight, and the only way to do that is with the normal bench press.

I get it, I get it.  Most of the guys bench like this simply because when they walk into the gym and they see 4 gym bros benching away like dead cockroaches and 1 apparently clueless dude benching with feet firmly planted.  If you don’t know any better, your best bet is to do what everyone else is doing.  Going to the gym and using the equipment is important, but so is having sufficient knowledge about things like technique and programming.  The Globo gym business model isn’t about education or quality coaching.  It’s all about novelty and catching the next trend.  Even if one were to hire one of their overpriced personal trainers, he or she is more likely to have their client doing bosu ball kettle-bells swings than teaching them proper compound lift form.