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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Starting Strength – The vegans of the strength-training community

Yes, the title of this post is very much tongue-in-cheek but, like all humor, there is a lot of truth to it.  On the surface, the communities couldn’t be more different.  Peruse any Starting Strength forums or groups and you’ll quickly realize that their 2nd favorite topic is probably the consumption of meat.  And I’d very much doubt there are numerous threads in Vegan forums extolling the virtues of powerlifting, much less Starting Strength.  If both communities were cars, then Starting Strength would a used Ford F150 pickup with a gun rack and Vegans would be a Toyota Prius.

I respect the ideas and the body of knowledge of both camps.  In any given week, about 75 percent of my meals are technically vegan, with the remainder containing some very well-sourced organic meat and dairy products.  I find this “omnivore” approach works best for me.  Similarly, Starting Strength was huge influence on me when I first started strength training.  In the past 8 years I have bought 4 copies of the Starting Strength book as I gave my first 3 copies away to friends.  It’s a fantastic book, perhaps the best strength training book ever written for the general public.  I still strive for perfect “starting strength” form in my squats and deadlifts.

To be fair to Starting Strength, the methodology is very science-based and is all about protocols and form what will elicit strength gains for most, if not all, lifters.  It’s very pragmatic and no-nonsense about its stated goal.  Veganism can be considered both a dietary regime and/or an ethical choice.  Which seems fairly straight-forward,  you’d imagine, yet there exists a very vocal strain of “magical thinking” amongst some vegans (more about this later).

So how are they similar?  Simply put, both communities are very Orthodox to a really weird extent.  I stopped reading Starting Strength forums because it became very apparent a favorite past-time was ridiculing “heretics” who dared question any of the methodology.  Many people posting seem to consciously mimicking  Rip’s (the founder of Starting Strength) style of treating most questions as inherently stupid so, cue the weary sigh, let me lay some common sense on you.  This is also why I quickly stopped watching any Starting Strength youtube content that isn’t strictly a form tutorial.  Rip’s manner is grating but it’s his personal style,  you can either take it or leave it.  That so many people want to emulate it is strange and, I think, makes Starting Strength a drag.  So there are some really great ideas, but the overall vibe of the community is sort of off-putting.

Vegans, well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said?  It’s a shame that the bat-guano crazy vocal minority give veganism a bad name.  It’s a highly viable dietary regime for many people, for general health and even for athletic performance.  There is a long, growing list of vegan athletes.  The ethical reasons, if that is a prime motivator, are sound.  So why must it be sullied by the zealotry of a fairly large minority?  Many of us have met the stereotypical smug self-righteous vegan with a capital “V” in real life, you know the one with whom no actual discussion or discourse if possible.  Why do so many vegan Youtubers (and especially that guy who did the “What the Health” documentary) come off as easily triggered, programmed cult members?  You can literally see, when looking into their eyes, that some function of critical thinking has been switched off.  And speaking of “What the Health”, why the bad science and misrepresentation?  Guys, the facts literally speak for themselves…why twist things?  And why the hyper-sensitivity to criticism?  It makes the whole community look “cray-cray”.  When’s the last time you saw an easily triggered vegetarian?

The Starting Strength methodology is a great tool.  I believe that everyone interested in strength training should read the book and run the protocol a few times.  You may find that at some point another training protocol fits your needs and that is (or should be) OK.  Eating solely plant based is great but the reality is that the majority of the population will likely never do it.  Pragmatically speaking, what is the greater good;  that 5 percent of population become strictly vegan or that a much larger percentage reduce their meat consumption significantly?

The reasons that absolutely nobody should be intimidated by strength training

We’ve all been there.  Most of us mere mortals have been in lousy physical shape at least once in our lives.  At some point we think “hmm, I should really go to the gym” but we hesitate.  A quick perusal of social media, YouTube videos and blog posts reveals that a big reason many people are reluctant to make that first step is intimidation.  Many people are intimidated by gyms in general and barbell training in particular.   Here’s why nobody should be intimidated by strength-training:

  • We are all beginners once:  Congratulations, you’ve made it to the gym and you want to train compound barbell movements.  There are many things to learn, but that is also why it’s so much fun.  Trust me, nobody is sneering at you.  If an experienced lifter does happen to notice, he or she is probably thinking “Hey, that’s cool”.  Here’s another thing you probably didn’t expect, experienced lifters are even a tiny bit jealous because they remember their own “beginner gains” period.
  • The gym is for everybody:  Literally, every part of the gym is for everyone.  The old stereotype is that the weight room is for guys and the cardio area/classes are for women but that’s silly.  You are not intimidated by going to the park, the supermarket or the cinema, so don’t be intimidated by the gym.  It’s a public space.  It should be selfish thing, it’s where you indulge in some much-needed “me” time.  You have as much right to deadlift or do a spinning class as the next person.  You may come across some poor deluded souls who think they have a right to judge, but see this behavior for what it is – truly pathetic.
  • Anybody can train with weights:  Those guys and gals you see lifting that serious weight started just like you.  They are not genetic freaks (well, most of them aren’t), they have just been lifting for a while and have gotten to that stage by slowly increasing the weight they lift.   Anybody can do this and everybody should, in my opinion.
  • Serious lifters are some of the nicest, most chilled out people you’ll ever meet:  I know, I know, this seems counter-intuitive.  In many gyms, most women and more than a few guys, feel that the free weight area is the preserve of aggressive anti-social hard cases.  The weird truth is that lifting heavy weight chills people out better than Xanax.  Yes, there’s chalk flying everywhere, AC/DC cranking, people grunting under heavy loads or yelling encouragement but don’t let that fool you.  Most of those “big, bad” lifters are totally chill and friendly, the opposite of aggressive .  Serious lifters really dig meeting people who share or are interested in their passion.  To give you an example, when I travel I often do my research to find the most serious gym in the area and, if possible, a powerlifting gym.  So I go into the gym, explain that I am in town for X number of days and ask if I can pay a “day rate” to train.  In a serious gym, the staff are usually lifters and more often than not they’ll find a way that I can train for free or pay a “promotional” rate.  As for the few powerlifting gyms I’ve found while travelling , I’ve never had to pay – people are literally that friendly.  Last year,  I visited a big powerlifting gym outside of Ottawa, Canada.  The staff was stoked that some random guy visiting from Europe took the time to look them up.  They hooked me up with a free 2 week pass and were super friendly.  I met the owner and some of the powerlifting team members, they offered to spot my squats and bench, we took pictures together, etc.  It’s like being in a big social club.
  • Weight training is not very macho:  True, you can see people lifting some impressive weight, but that’s only because they’ve been working at it slowly and methodically over a long period.   This isn’t sky-diving, MMA or Formula 1 racing.   You don’t need to be particularly courageous. (OK, at more advanced levels you may sometimes attempt weights that scare you, but still… ) On the whole,  it’s not as macho and hairy-chested as people believe.

 

The Safety squat bar – the best exercise you should, but don’t, do

safetybar

Pros:

  • It will straight up make you stronger for squats and deadlifts
  • You’ll be the vegan of your powerlifting crew, that condescending dude who has staked a claim on the moral high ground (could also be considered a “con”)
  • Physique gainz, son

Cons:

  • Really hard
  • Not for beginners
  • When coming out of the hole, all bets are off, just brace like you never braced before
  • Ego killer (could be considered a “pro”)

In Globo gyms, the low bar squat is the king of exercises; everyone talks a lot about them but very few people actually do them…and only a small subset of those people do them to depth.  Similarly, the safety-squat bar is the 2 ton elephant in most powerlifting gyms.  Everybody knows it’s there but everyone does their best to act like they haven’t seen it.  It’s the best thing that you should be doing that you probably won’t do…and for  good reasons:  it’s really, really hard, technique is secondary and it’s an ego killer to strain under far less weight than you can low-bar squat.

I am the first to admit that I first picked up the safety squat bar under duress.  I injured my left shoulder/biceps in November of 2017.  The last time I squatted significant weight was on November 11…my injury is healing, albeit very slowly.  I realized quickly that the only thing worse than safety bar squats would be to resume squatting after 8 to 9 months of no squat like training.  3 and 1/2 months of squatting with the safety bar has taught me the following:

Safety bar squatting is very, very different from low bar squatting.  The way the bar sits on your shoulders changes the leverages radically from a low bar squat  As such, it shouldn’t be taught to beginners unless they, like me, have injuries that preclude them from low bar squatting.  There is no “sweet spot”, nobody has ever said “that felt really good, it moved well” after a heavy safety bar squat.  Technique, such as it is, consists of bracing absolutely everything and grunting it “out of the hole” with a sort of hybrid squat/deadlift/ dog taking a **** technique.  “Hip drahve”, as the Starting Strength community like to call it, just won’t cut it.  Unorthodox, to say the least, so you can see why it’d only confuse beginners.

The cambered bar means that your entire lower body and back are constantly fighting to balance the load which means gainz of all sorts.  After a heavy safety bar squat session my hamstrings, glutes and abs are comprehensively fried in way that I never experienced with back squats.  The constant battle to balance the bar high up on the shoulders is somewhat like a hinge movement and consequently involves your “deadlift” muscles as well.   I’ve seen such activation in those muscles that I now understand why this bar has a following among bodybuilders.  I’d even venture to say that the “booty babes” at the Globo gym would be better served by dropping the hip thrusters and picking up a safety squat bar.

Another thing you need to wrap your head around is that relatively light weight will feel very heavy.  If your 1RM for a back squat is 190kg, don’t be surprised that 110kg feels really heavy on the safety bar.  It’s an ego killer to grunt and strain under a seemingly easy weight.  The ignominy is compounded by ignorance as not everyone has used this bar.  You might get a few incredulous looks like “Really?  It’s just 130kgs, man” from people who haven’t tried it”.  So it’s kind of lonely to be doing a hard, misunderstood lift for less than “glory” weight.  Soon, however, your growing realization that you are doing something harder than most people are willing to do will develop your condescension muscles to near vegan levels.  You will struggle to keep your disdainful sneer in check when interacting with the low bar squatting hoi polloi.

Seriously, though, safety bar squats have been the silver lining to my injury.  Like low bar squats, they really suck at first.  After a while, however, you begin to savor the challenge. When I finally return to low bar squatting I anticipate that the safety bar will be my go-to accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts.