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.

Powerlifting, skateboarding and why keeping it real is so much fun.

I’m a middle-aged man who, in his lifetime, has had some modest athletic gifts that have allowed him to compete in Karate, Boxing, Kick-boxing, Baseball, Cross-country, Track and Field (high jump), various semi-marathons and, most recently, Powerlifting.  Try as I might, I can’t do “fitness”, it bores me to tears.  The idea of working out for working out’s sake makes me want to eat a bullet. Honestly, the concept of hitting muscles 8 different ways with machines and submaximal weights whilst tracking calories to a T makes me want to sit on the couch with Netflix and a big plate of chocolate chips cookies.  I need to be viscerally interested in what I do, and nothing focuses one quite as effectively as fear.

If I am honest with myself, most of my athletic success has been in those sports that have certain component of risk and/or fear.  To whit, I was probably best at baseball, vtournament Karate sparring, kick-boxing and most recently powerlifting.  Without going into too much detail, all of those sports require you to master your fear.  I am not what you’d call a macho person.  The idea of bungee-jumping makes me light-headed.  I once agreed to go sky-diving and then spent the worst afternoon of my life as I waited for my scheduled “drop plane” to take off.  The flight was cancelled due to weather and I literally the happiest person on the planet Earth that day ( Roughly 1998, in suburban Frankfurt).  I was very drawn to combat sports but personally I do not like to fight.  I have been in some street fights from pure necessity.  I know that football hooligans find a real high from pure aggression but I find that aberrant.

Powerlifting is probably the least “risky” sport of those I’ve just cited.   Really heavy weight in squat or bench press does not elicit the same fear and/or nervousness as walking into a ring with a real badass or facing down a fastball pitcher with control issues.  Nevertheless, it is scary.  I find that I’m only really motivated when I put some “serious” weight on the bar and think, “holy %$#@, how am I going to move this”.   This afternoon I was at the powerlifting club to train “safety bar” squats, as I still cannot lowbar squat without pain.  Safety-bar squats are the “ego” killer, you will suffer at weights you think are ridiculously low.  I did my programmed sets, and then my assistance work, but honestly it left me a bit depressed.  I needed a bit more.  Safety squats suck because there doesn’t seem to be a technically clean way of doing them.  You can’t work the leverages as you can with a good technical low-bar squat so you are forced to lift much lighter weights.  At the same time, your core works extremely hard which is really the hidden pearl of this exercise.  In any event, I did heavy singles, purely for motivation.  Full transparency, my heavy single in a safety squat bar is a good 50kg less than in a low-bar squats.  You get the weight down to the hole, but then how you get it up is less obvious.  Brace like a mofo and push, basically.

While I was squatting my son was skateboarding in the parking lot of the powerlifting club.   My son, as I’ve described on previous posts, is obsessed with skateboarding.   He is a chip off the old block.  He’s not a hell for leather let’s ollie 15 stairs sort of skateboarder.  He’s extremely technical, and he works many, many hours on “finesse’ moves.  In short, he’s not reckless but he takes risks for sport he loves, and he consequently gets hurt quite a lot.  For those of you aren’t familiar with skateboarding, it’s not possible to progress in the sport and not hurt yourself and/or face your fear on a daily basis.  My son is actually quite good for his age at skateboarding and partly it’s because he’s able to able to master a risk/benefit analysis.  He is driven to keep trying, to land a trick cleanly…and sometimes that means you hurt yourself.  Also, you need to have the drive to try the same technique thousands of times until you master it.  There is nothing so hard as making a skateboarding trick look easy.  He is such a careful little dude but at the same time he’ll try seemingly crazy tricks because he knows he’s analyzed it and should be able.

So at the same time I can’t just do 5×10@80kg safety bar squats.  It’s awesome and it works the lower body but it’s not sustainable.  It’s boring, I won’t do it because I’m not hchallenged.  Let me push the envelope and I’ll be happy.

 

 

 

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 bench-press: It’s not just for meatheads any more…

In honor of Monday (aka International Chest Day) and my upcoming competition this weekend, this post will examine why the bench-press is so misunderstood, why you should do it and some surprising tips I’ve learned over the years that have helped me improve my bench-press.

As I sit here alternating between sips of black coffee and apple cider vinegar/cinnamon/lemon juice/cayenne pepper detox drink, I contemplate my upcoming Powerlifting meet this weekend in Germany.  I will only compete  in the stand alone Bench-Press as my jacked -up left biceps/shoulder area preclude me from the traditional 3 lift powerlifting competition.  I haven’t been able to low-bar squat for a few months now and have only been able to seriously train the deadlift recently.  For this competition there is a pretty deep field of competitors for the Bench event in my weight/age category,  much more so than in the 3 lift event.  I think this might be testament to the popularity of the bench-press and also that a number of my “older gent” competitors might have injuries like me.

Bench-pressing is, in some ways, a victim of its own popularity.  Most people think that since it’s so popular amongst “gym bro” meatheads that it’s to be avoided like dodgy sushi in an all you can eat buffet.  Never fear; the first thing to know about the bench-press is that performing the exercise will not lower your IQ or give you a man-bun.  If you had told me, my friends or my family 10 years ago that I’d one day I’d compete in a bench-press competition you’d have been met with a healthy dose of skepticism if not outright hilarity.  I would have thought, above all, that I was absolutely incapable of seriously competing (albeit in a very amateur federation) and, besides, I wasn’t macho and hairy-chested enough.  Wrong on both counts, it seems.  Even if you never compete, here’s why I think you should do this exercise – and some tips to do it better.

  • The bench-press is the single best compound movement for the upper body.  If you do it correctly you’ll give your chest, shoulders, arms and, to some extent, your back an excellent work-out.  Pair it with overhead presses and you have a very comprehensive upper body training regimen.
  • The bench-press is not macho:  Really, trust me on this.  It’s an exercise like any other and should be treated as such.  For dudes – don’t treat it as a test of your manhood…that’s just plain silly.  Besides, I’ve found that the vast majority of guys that brag about how much they can bench are, how shall I put it, “mistaken”.  A real 1 rep max of a bench-press involves controlled descent of the bar until it lightly touches the chest, a slight pause (i.e. no bounce off the chest), pressing the bar back up and then re-racking.  This is harder than sloppy YOLO bounce off the chest,  spotter helping you on the ascent style of bench press so you need to completely check your ego.  Therefore, train intelligently using weights that you can do with good form.  Always respect the weight – if possible do all of your bench-press training in a squat rack or bench that has “safeties” to catch failed lifts.  DO NOT intentionally train to failure with the bench-press.

A blog post is too short a format to discuss all the finer points of bench-press and, besides, here is one of the most comprehensive how-to videos I’ve seen on the subject:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FWDde2IEPg

Excellent though that video is, I feel I can add some additional hard-won tips/cues:

  • For the first half of the bench-press, treat it like a pull-up:  Above all, retract your scapulae.  This will recruit your lats, give you a strong base and put your arms/shoulders in correct position to push-off, utilizing your triceps, shoulders, lats and, yes, your pecs.  Retracting your scapulae is fundamental to all of powerlifting, squats and deadlifts included.
  • Tuck your elbows in as much as possible:  This cue is also known as “bend the bar”.  I like to imagine that I am trapped on the ground with a heavy object on top of me.  Flaring my elbows just won’t do the trick.
  • A spotter is not a training tool:  The very best lifters don’t fail a lot of lifts in training because they train methodically.  They train to peak exactly at the time of their competition.  They may be doing a lot of heavy triples and doubles but rarely wildly attempt new PRs.  For one, failing too many heavy lifts, especially in the bench-press,  trains your brain to equate really heavy weight with a “panic” response.  So I don’t wildly attempt unrealistic PRs even when I’m benching in squat rack with the safety bars correctly set up.  Secondly, an excellent spotter is a very rare thing, capable of judging when to grab the bar, neither too early nor too late.  Finally, I’ve seen far too many bad spots, including some that almost resulted in accidents, to think that one should rely on spotters.  The only spotters I somewhat trust are the two spotters you get in competitions – and that’s only because there are two of them and, in case they screw up, the competition bench has safeties.
  • Assistance exercises that have worked best for me:  I use a fairly wide grip for my competition bench.  During training, however, I like to vary the widths I use to recruit muscles differently as well as avoid over-use injuries.  Floor presses, I feel, help to improve that crucial sticking point i.e. pressing off of your chest from a dead stop.  For me the bench-press relies heavily on the triceps so I do a lot of additional triceps training.  Finally, pulling exercises such as pull-ups and Pendlay rows help develop the back musculature which is crucial to balance out the shoulders, pecs and triceps development.

Anyway, wish me luck.  Hopefully this time next week I’ll be posting with some good news such as I made the podium.  Either that, or the silence will be deafening.  Just kidding, if things don’t go as planned, I’ll try to honestly analyze why they didn’t.  My opening lift will be my previous competition PR.  This weight is now my “any day, any time” weight so provided I make that lift and a subsequent heavier lift I should at least have a new competition PR at the very least.

 

 

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.

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?