Negativity as motivation

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As we ease into the 2nd week of 2018,  I contemplate my upcoming workout.  Rotator cuff issues mean that I still can’t low or high bar squat so my workout today will feature safety bar box squats and the Wenning belt squat station for a reasonable amount of weight and volume as well as working up to some heavy triples on bench.  On the bright side of the injury report, my hamstring seems to healed to an extent that I can start easing into some more meaningful lower body training.  2 days ago I did my first deadlift training in 7 weeks for light to light/medium weight as the objective was to see how the hamstring felt and above all concentrate on form, form and more form.  I did snatch grip DLs, conventional DLs and then high rack pulls and barbell shrugs with a bit more weight.  I also did glute ham raises and some farmers carries.  The surprising result is that my legs feel fine (perhaps because I have been training them continuously with light weights and/or body weight) but my upper back and traps are feeling it.  My rotator cuff injury means that a lot of back/shoulder exercises are out of the question for now which makes exercise selection a bit of a challenge.

Two simultaneous injuries suck, but powerlifting is life so off I go to the powerlifting gym.  It’s a bit of a hike from my house but I will go there today primarily because it has the specialized bars and stations I need to do the exercises listed above.  Also,  we can blast music at improbable volumes and use healthy amounts of chalk all in a pleasantly mirror free environment.  The best things about this gym, though, are  the people and overall vibe.  It’s overwhelmingly positive (much of this is thanks to M, the gym’s inimitable owner and head coach) and it’s a blast to be surrounded by motivated, like-minded people. It’s sort of like Cheers, everybody knows your name.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I still go to a commercial gym about half the time as it’s close where I live and work and therefore convenient. One of my team-mates recently told that she avoids this (commercial) gym like the plague because, even though it’s very well equipped, because it’s awash in negativity and gym haters.  She’s not wrong.  Many commercial gyms, and this place is no exception,  have the social dynamics of a middle school playground – cliques, rampant gossip, dirty looks, the works.

In a weird way I enjoy the dysfunctional ambiance which is useful as I’m obliged to train there so often.  It’s a dose of Yang to balance out the Yin of the other gym. There are a lot of type A personalities and some inflated senses of entitlement, both in the locker room and out on the floor.  It’s a struggle to stay Zen sometimes.  I find that it’s almost a form of moving meditation as I try to block out the extraneous foolishness and focus on training.  I just navigate around the gym in my ratty t-shirt, Chuck Taylors and track suit bottoms with the tell-tale heavy-duty wrist-wraps and chalk bag in my pockets.  (Chalk is sort of frowned on but to the gym’s credit, they haven’t hassled me about it.).  And, yeah, there are the odd fun moments when you quietly install yourself on a bench next to a bench being used by some Instagramming, lycra clad bros and, slowly but surely, use their 1RM for paused-rep triples.

A certain amount of stress is required as a catalyst for growth.  This is the underlying principle of strength training, of course, as well as one of life’s greater truths.  As the French say, to make great wine the grapes must suffer.  As a man, you will not meet quality women or do anything else of note if you fear rejection.  You have to really embrace rejection or failure before you can see that it’s your fear, and not failure itself, that is holding you back. Fear is the mind-killer, the gains-killer and the get me some of that fine booty-killer.

So, boo-hoo, I’ve got 2 simultaneous injuries that are the direct result of me having enough time and resources to train in an activity I really enjoy and – gasp – I sometimes have to do such training in a big well equipped gym surrounded by the terminally shallow.  First world problems, to say the least.  If confronting your fears is important, so is gratitude.

 

Gym Etiquette – Unsolicited advice vs. Solicited advice

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Warning – this post will likely appeal mostly to hardcore gym rats and/or inveterate students of human behavior.  As I have said in a previous post, a gym is to human behavior what a watering hole is to the Serengeti.  You see a lot of different types of behavior concentrated in a relatively small space.

Today’s topic of discussion concerns what is perhaps the thorniest topic in the entire canon of Gym Etiquette – unsolicited gym advice.  Should you ever offer advice to somebody at the gym and, if so, under what circumstances?  Also, how should you handle unsolicited advice?   Finally, on rare occasions you might be asked for advice or will ask somebody else for theirs – what is the best way to do this?

First let’s establish the parameters:  we are talking about a large commercial gym and you are interacting with somebody you don’t know.  I will also assume that you, dear reader, are reasonably adept at reading social cues.  In a commercial gyms we need to:

  • Realize that a big commercial gym is, sociologically speaking a public space akin to a subway or a shopping center.  The norm for interaction with strangers in these cases is usually limited to a brief smile or nod and maybe brief eye contact.  You might speak briefly to strangers in all of these contexts, but you would not normally  share your unsolicited opinion.  It’s the sort of behavior that makes people change seats on the subway.
  • Realize that people in big commercial gyms have wildly different goals.  Some people want to lose weight, others just want to get jacked, or just get out of the house, or might not even have a clear goal just yet.  How do you know your advice is relevant to a complete stranger?
  • Be sensitive to social norms when travelling.  Social norms for public spaces such as gyms differ from country to country.
  • Realize that the business model of most large commercial gyms does not always empower the client.  It’s more profitable to install weight machines (almost zero knowledge or technique needed), change half-baked classes frequently (Zumba-combat) and have trainers who run people through bosu ball and mini-trampoline workouts.  Novelty sells.  In short, a lot of people in the gym aren’t learning a new skill or any useful information.  It engenders constant beginner syndrome which is psychologically fatiguing.  Approach with caution, Mr. Knowitall.

Given the social dynamics we’ve just explored, in my opinion, I think you could or should offer unsolicited advice in the following situations:

  • Imminent danger – Barbell training is a skill that has to be learned.  Done improperly you can potentially harm yourself.  People new to the sport sometimes unintentionally put themselves in danger.  I have pulled failed bench presses off solo benchpressers who didn’t use safety pins or ask for a spot.  I’ve also had to jump in more than once to re-rack bars for people who squat backwards (i.e. go forward out of the J hooks and then back up (blindly) to re-rack the weight).  Deadlifts are a grey area, sometimes you will see somebody with terrible form attempt weights that are way too heavy.  In most cases, I don’t say anything unless they are kids or seniors.
  • Advice hacking – Every so often, I’ll be in a commercial gym and I can see that somebody in the rack next to me who is obviously new to barbell training but visibly enthusiastic about it.  Clues include new weightlifting belt and shoes while making some obvious beginner errors (example, knees caving in while squatting or leaving that foam thingy on the bar).  I have soft spot for these people because I remember how enthusiastic I was in the beginning and also how (at first) I had nobody to teach me the finer points.  So I might start-up an innocuous conversation  (hey, I am looking for a pair those shoes, where did you get them?) and if the conversation progresses, talk a bit about technique cues that I like to do.  Notice I did not say “you should fix a, b and c”.

Those are only scenarios in which I think one could or should interject themselves into a strangers’ workout.  I should also point out that I’ve never attempted to give unsolicited “beginner” pointers to a woman I don’t know.   One could be accused of Mansplaining, having ulterior motives, etc.  Finally, I should point out that the unsolicited advice dynamic is not the same in speciality gyms (powerlifting, etc).  These gyms are smaller, people share the same specific goals and the social dynamic is more like a club than a public space.  Chances are people are only too happy to get feedback or discuss technique.

I have received my share of unsolicited advice in commercial gyms and it doesn’t bother me.   I don’t understand why some people get so butt-hurt about it.  I think in most cases it’s simply a way of starting a conversation.  It shows some concern on the other person’s part so God bless ’em. Also, I have actually received some pretty good unsolicited advice – it’s not all bad.  Yes, sometimes you run into Gym Haters but that is the topic for another post.  The unsolicited lifting advice I find objectionable is usually outside the gym.

Solicited advice:  Sometimes I’ll see an experienced lifter doing something new or cool.  In most cases, I might just straight up ask them about it.  If you ask a legit, intelligent question most people love to talk about themselves.  The other day a guy asked me about floor presses I was doing as an accessory to my bench workout.  It was a good question so of course I was cool with discussing it for a few minutes.

That time I did a Strongman contest

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About 18 months ago I did a very, very silly thing.  I participated in a local Strongman contest on a whim.  I just signed up a week before the contest and then I participated.  “How hard could it be?”, I thought naively.  I should preface this by providing some context at this point:  I know the organizer and for some mistaken reason I was under the impression that the contestants would be mostly my fellow Powerlifting (PL) team members and maybe a few other people.  So I thought it would be fun afternoon with a bunch people I basically know.  At the time I was doing a fair amount of overhead press, Atlas ball and some weighted carries in addition to squat, bench and deadlift so I thought I had an advantage.  Well, an advantage in the sense that I did more of this than some people in my PL gym so, since I thought they would be my main competitors.  Did I bother to learn about Strongman rules, strategy or do at least minimal contest prep?  Of course I didn’t.

I should also explain that at this point in time I was a strength-building “bulking” phase which is just a cool way of saying I was eating a lot (clean, yes, but a lot) and getting, well, sort of thick around the middle.  So, yes, I was relatively strong but my cardio capacity was even worse than usual thanks to the additional weight.  Additionally,  I had badly sprained my ankle 2 weeks before the event.

Sunday morning comes around and I nonchalantly roll up to the parking lot where the contest is being held.  First thing I noticed is that event looked a bit more “serious” than I was expecting – nicely set up, TV cameras, the works.  Second thing I noticed is that there weren’t many people from my PL team in attendance.  Those that were there were helping the organizers, not competing.  OK, I thought, no big deal.  Then as the other competitors arrived I realized that they were all Crossfitters and I easily had a good 18 years on the next oldest male competitor.  The horrible realization dawned on my that I had made a very foolish and potentially embarrassing decision to compete in a sport I know next to nothing about against a bunch of young guys with the strength and cardio fitness of race horses.  However, the only thing more mortifying than actually competing would have been to chicken out, especially in front of people I know.  My goals were clear – finish the competition and, for my self-esteem, not come in dead last.

Things got real even before the competition started.  The organizers took the competitors through some warm up stretches and light cardio.  In my “fuscular” bulking state, I was winded from the light cardio, and hobbling around to boot due to my sprained ankle.  It occurred to me as the events and rules were explained that Strongman is a lot more cardio intensive than I had anticipated and that, dear reader, did not bode well for yours truly.

The first event was the yoke carry over a 100 meters which I, of course, had never practiced.  Guess what, it’s harder than it looks, much harder.  Carrying a very heavy yoke over 100 meters takes a great deal of cardio.  (Strongman in general demands more cardio conditioning than people (or maybe just me) suspect)  After my carry I discretely went over to the side of the parking lot so fewer people would see me retching into the bushes.  I was the last to do the yoke carry so of course I was first up for the next event – farmer’s carry.   I was already winded to the point of seeing stars and now I was expected to pick up two weighted frames and move them 100 meters.  Ugh, my grip strength is my greatest weakness in the best of times, but in my tired state and with a sprained ankle, it wasn’t pretty.  I was dead last, by a country mile, in that event.

Two of the crossfitters were just absolute beasts, strong as hell and in all around excellent shape.  They were literally running away with the competition.  As the competition progressed I saw that the rest of my competitors were young (20 somethings), in much better cardio shape than I was but for the most part not as strong as your average powerlifter.  I did fairly well in those events that required upper body strength and/or resemble squatting or deadlifting.  So I placed well in one event that required us to pick up a 70kg ball off the ground and throw it over our shoulders for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) during one minute.  I came in second in the log press (pressing a weighted metal cylinder overhead for AMRAP during one minute) and probably would have done better if I knew how to do a push/press (i.e. utilizing your legs to help push the bar overhead).  People were screaming at me to stop doing a strict Overhead Press (which does not use the legs) but it was the only technique I knew.  Yep, a little contest prep would have gone a long way.

So I stumbled from event to event in an exhausted, hypoglycemic, trying not to retch daze.  Then, almost magically, the competition was over!  I had managed to get points in all of the events (not a given – some people, for example, couldn’t do even 1 rep of the log press and therefore got no points for that event).  Lo and behold, I managed to not place dead last.  OK, I was 6th from the bottom but on the other hand, I was old enough to be everyone’s father.  Aside the public humiliation that was my farmers carry attempt, I didn’t completely disgrace myself.

As I hobbled back to my car, every muscle and sinew in body was crying out in pain.  Uh-oh, I thought, this going to be even more sore tomorrow.  And indeed tomorrow was not kind.  I staggered into work and grimaced in pain every time I did radical things like get out of a chair or walk down a few stairs.  I am a manager in a conservative bank, where the sport of choice for people like me would be golf, tennis or running.  I am always the weirdo nursing some sort of injury like torn-up hands (due to deadlifting) but for the most part these injuries fly under the radar.  Impossible to remain un-noticed with the DOMS I was feeling from that competition.  I have never felt that physically trashed after a sporting event.  So big, big respect to all you strongman and strongwoman competitors out there.  You’re crazed masochists, the lot of you.

As I reviewed the video from the event I also came to the realization that there is a fine line between bulking for strength and looking like you’re wearing one of the tires you’re supposed to be flipping.  I also realized, in rather dramatic fashion, that I had an appalling lack of cardio conditioning.  I learned some honest to goodness respect for crossfitters.  It’s fashionable in some circles to talk trash about crossfitters because they are the jacks of all trades but masters of none.  You know what, if taught well and practiced with strict form, crossfit turns people into beasts.  If I was 20 years younger, I might be tempted to search out a really top-notch crossfit box.  Any sport that gets masses of people excited about compound barbell movements is all right by me..And, finally, it was fun to push the envelope a bit.  Wish I had done some contest prep and actual training for the events, but hey, hindsight is always 20/20.

 

Down the Youtube rabbit hole

Over the last few years I have realized that I tend to watch more Youtube content than I do mainstream TV.  My habit began when I realized that YouTube contains some fairly solid powerlifting content.  Then I discovered a number of good cooking resources, some excellent podcasts, alternative journalism and down the rabbit hole I went.  While the recent “de-monitization” policy has hit certain youtube content providers somewhat hard, I find it’s still viable and capable of producing informative content.   Below is a list of past and current favorite Youtube channels:

General interest

  • Joe Rogan Experience –  Yeah, he’s a guy’s guy and the talk tends towards the locker room but I know of no other podcast that addresses so many different subjects and fascinating thought leaders.  I was initially floored to find out he’s an intelligent, hard-working and highly capable interviewer.  This one goes far and wide – excellent to listen to while driving or getting ready in the morning.
  • Casey Neistat – just because…admit it, he’s strangely watchable.
  • VICE – Thought provoking journalism that covers a huge range of topics.
  • Great Big Story – similar to VICE, a bit less edgy.
  • Tim Ferris – Similar to Joe Rogan, but more geared towards personal growth.  Also very good to listen to during long trips or in the morning whilst shaving.
  • First we feast – Hot Ones:  How can you not love this premise?  The guests eat increasingly hotter buffalo wings while the host peppers (sorry, it was low-hanging fruit) them with questions.  Also, the guests just keep getting better and better the more popular the show gets.
  • BroScience Life – Gym behavior is fertile ground for parody and, surprisingly, only “Dom Mazzetti” has consistently funny material.  The Buff Dudes mine this same vein (with better production values) but lack the gonzo riffs and creative edge.
  • Awaken with JP – Love this channel, love it.  His deadpan delivery is second to none.  The Prancercise video went viral recently…but there are so many other good ones on this channel as well.
  • Bill Wurtz – Unique, mind-blowing animated shorts.  “history of the entire world, I guess” is the single most brilliant thing I have seen on Youtube.

Powerlifting/Strength Training –

  • Supertraining06/Powercast/Silent Mike – Supertraining06 was the very first powerlifting youtube channel I followed and via guests/collaborations introduced me to a host of other excellent channels.  I’m aware that I listed 3 different channels and that Silent Mike is no longer affiliated with Mark Bell, Super Training gym and the PowerCast but to my mind these 3 channels were at their peak when Mark and Mike worked together.  I don’t watch these channels nearly as much as I used to.
  • Alan Thrall – Tons of great information done in an engaging style.  Alan recently drank the Starting Strength kool-aid which is fine.  I have nothing but respect for the SS body of knowledge regarding form, linear progression, etc.  Like just about everyone else, I own a dog-eared copy of Starting Strength.
  • Omar Isuf – Very informative, one of the original OGs of youtube Powerlifting channels.  Collabs quite a bit with Silent Mike and Bart Kwan of Barbell Brigade.
  • Barbell Brigade – Like Supertraining06, I used to watch this channel quite a bit but now much less so as the content has become less entertaining and almost devoid of information.  It’s now more about marketing than lifting.  BB seems to have fallen victim to their own success.  Say what you will about Mark Bell, but Supertraining06 is about the sheer joy of lifting, not hard-selling his products.
  • Juggernaut Training – For the serious strength athlete.
  • Calgary Barbell – Not a huge following yet, but excellent production values with informative content for the serious powerlifter.
  • Starting Strength – An excellent resource for the beginning powerlifter or anybody interested in Strength Training.  Yet, while I respect his knowledge I find everything else about Mark Rippetoe to be extremely grating.  People say CrossFitters are smug and condescending but they’ve got nothing on the SS community which is dogmatic to a T.  Still, if you had to pick only one channel strictly for information on how to do the lifts, this is the one to pick.
  • Buff Dudes – Lots of very good general strength training content as well as the aforementioned parody skits.
  • Brandon Campbell – How can you not like the homey from RI?  His low-key humor, training vlogs and equipment reviews make this a must watch for Powerlifting nerds.
  • Strength Wars – the bonkers German channel that a few years ago came up with the brilliant premise of pitting various types of strength athletes against each other.  Pure entertainment with no educational value.  Nobody in their right mind lifts like this, which is what makes it so compelling.
  • Strength Sensei – Charles Poliquin has forgotten more about strength training than I’ll ever know.  Lots of information regarding training and nutrition here.
  • Elliot Hulse – this is more of a Hall of Shame entry.  WTF happened, Elliot?  Elliot used to put out somewhat informative strength training content liberally interspersed which his thoughts on life, philosophy, the universe, etc.  Elliot was the sort of guy who always had an answer to everything, though that answer might be 90 percent pure BS.  It made for offbeat, interesting content so Elliot gained a large following.  At which point he started believing his own BS, got full of himself and the videos became unwatchable.  You’re not the next Messiah, Elliot, chill.

Cooking, Nutrition and Health –

  • Food Wishes – Chances are whatever recipe you want to make, Chef John had already made video about it.  The unique delivery and bad puns keep me coming back for more.
  • Jamie Oliver – Like Food Wishes, Jamie Oliver has a huge back-catalog of recipe videos.
  • Gordon Ramsey – Love him or hate him, you can’t deny the quality of his recipe vids.  I can’t say I’ve ever actually used one of them to cook a dish, but they are informative.
  • Binging with Babish/Basics with Babish – a must for cooking nerds, one that is becoming a sort of pop-culture reference in some circles.
  • Dr. Josh Axe – “food is medicine” One of my go to channels regarding nutrition and how our food choices influence our health.
  • Dr. Eric Berg – Another excellent nutrition channel.  Not as slickly produced as Dr. Axe, but informative nonetheless.
  • Bon Appetit – Strangely enough, more gonzo and personality driven than dryly informative, but that’s OK.

Life under the bar

black-and-white-alcohol-bar-drinksAside from spending time with family and friends my absolute favorite things in life are reading, physical activity and, during a certain period, booze.  Reading, if one reads broadly, is obviously a way of cultivating one’s intellect.  Physical activity (running, yoga, weight-lifting, etc) is  the second part of the equation – Mens sana in corpore sano.  Most of us adopt these habits organically, not consciously adopting them because they are “GOOD HABITS”.  Like an anxious dog who has been locked inside all day, your body and mind will give you explicit hints that they need to be exercised.  Weak and flabby is not a great feeling, whether it’s intellectual or physical.

Addiction, in all it’s forms, is the flip side of the coin.  Addicts have an instinctive need  to retreat from some aspect of their life.  All addictions, be it alcohol, weed, social media or cheesecake, are methods of changing one’s brain chemistry and ultimately changing one’s perception of reality, however briefly.  Addiction is also an attempt, albeit very counterproductive, by the addict to assert control over their life.  It’s an attempt to quiet the ceaseless background chatter, the ever-present feelings of anxiety that lurk in the margins, the monkey mind.  The irony of addictive behavior is that in the immediate aftermath of a binge, the background chatter is foreground and the volume is pegged at 11.  Interesting that clichés about addiction employ circular imagery; a vicious circle, a downward spiral, spinning your wheels, etc.

It’s not surprising that gyms, yoga studios and running clubs are filled with ex-addicts.  For one, it’s a logical reaction to want to offset the damage of the addictive behavior.  Physical exercise can also be somewhat addictive (in a good way) unless taken to extremes (which, let’s be honest, are rare).  It’s a time-honored tradition to swap an addiction for one that is relatively harmless (i.e. people guzzling coffee at AA meetings).  Most important, I think, is that physical exercise begets a calmer state of mind and ultimately puts one far closer to the goal of quieting the monkey mind than guzzling tequila till 4 in the morning.   When you start to train seriously you set in motion behavioral patterns  and interests (exercise, nutrition, quality sleep, meditation) that reinforce each other and, yes, help you become that “best version of you”.  (Eeech, horrible phrase, but fitting in this context.)  Physical training makes you feel better, look better, clears your mind AND gives you regular hits of endorphins.

Probably less well-known is the number of people who still engage in addictive behavior and for whom training is a way of offsetting, somewhat, self-inflicted damage.  It’s also a handy psychological crutch, it allows you to feel just a little bit better about your sorry-ass, bleary-eyed self if you drag yourself to a heavy squat session.  And, yes, sports training is the ONLY way you’ll offset all of the calories you’ve ingested and clear the cobwebs a little.  (It goes without saying that this refers to people in a certain stage of addiction, not hardcore addicts. Also, I am not referring to addiction to extremely dangerous drugs such as crystal meth or opiates) In a way, training might empower some people to continue their addictive behavior by serving as a physical and psychological counterweight.  I like to think, though, that if the person stops the destructive behavior, the good habits they formed in training will help them through the rough patches on their way to sobriety.

I have mixed feelings about alcohol.  I appreciate good wine and beer.  I was a wine enthusiast for many years and did, at one point, take some preliminary steps towards a job in the wine trade.  The closer I got to this goal the more I realized that I didn’t want to make my living from a product was potentially harmful.  Like many,  my life has been negatively impacted by alcohol.  I have family and friends who were alcoholics and are now sober, some who are still fighting that battle and 2 friends who ultimately lost their lives as a direct result of their alcoholism.    In high school, college and “after work” I binge drank with the best of them – only I couldn’t keep up.  I was usually, but not always, the drunkest of the group.  I have done a number of idiotic and dangerous things while drunk and it’s truly astonishing that I’m still here to tell the tale.  Worse still, a perpetual hung over state meant that I often “less than present” for family or on the job.  Some people can take or leave alcohol while others are on a spectrum of “where have you been all my life?”.  I’m in the latter camp.  It’s only in the last few years that it dawned on me that  alcohol was getting far more out of me than I was getting from it.  So I decided to spend less time in the bar and more time under it.

It might surprising, then,  that I still go out for the occasional beer with friends or have wine with some meals.  I also like to scuba dive, hike, go camping and pursue other interests that have inherent risks.  An intelligent adult identifies and mitigates potential risks as much as possible.  A better analogy is having an aggressive dog in your house.  If you aren’t in control, the undisputed Alpha, that dog is going to bite you on the ass eventually.   I haven’t had hard spirits in my house for decades, and I rarely have wine or beer in the house.  I don’t go out much any more, especially when the occasion is a thinly veiled excuse for excessive drinking (which is most of the time in the country I live in).  If I do go, I offer to drive (thereby taking myself out of the boozing equation) or I go only if it’s within public transport or taxi range.  It’s matter of recognizing what could happen.  To thine own self be true.

Gyms are full of dogmatic cliques;  cardio freaks, Crossfitters, bodybuilders and powerlifters.  While each group looks down on the others they are united in their disdain for the New Year’s Resolutioners that pack gyms in January like salmon swimming upstream to spawn.  OK, it’s annoying to be in a more crowded environment but we all know that by February things will be back to normal.  I really love seeing new people in the gym, people who are little out of their element(for the time being) but are giving it a go.  There are so many good excuses to not go to the gym;  I’m tired, it takes too much time, it costs too much, gyms are full of shallow, judgemental douches, I feel self-conscious etc.  I say silence that background noise, get greedy and go get yourself some.  The bar will lift you up.

 

An Ode to Powerlifting Meets

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Powerlifting is the sort of sport that you generally fall into.  I’ve never heard of an absolute beginner walking into a gym with expressed intent of competing in the sport.  It’s a sport that you might gravitate to after you’ve spent a certain amount of time in a gym and have decided you have an interest in strength training.  Also, powerlifting gyms and qualified coaches are few and far between.  Unless you are very lucky, you’ll have to go out of your way to find them.  Lastly, compound movements like the squat and deadlift are relatively technical and intimidating to the uninitiated.  (It always blows my mind that people afraid of the squat (which is relatively easy to “bail”) and not the bench press, which involves lifting heavy weights over your face, throat and chest)

Sooner or later, you might realize that setting goals and getting stronger are powerful motivators.  So you search out qualified coaching in one of the more common strength sports like Crossfit, powerlifting or Olympic lifting.  As you surround yourself with like-minded people and get stronger, chances are that you’ll eventually be encouraged to compete.  As your gym mates will tell you, nothing focuses your training as much prepping for a meet and, besides, powerlifting meets are a lot of fun.  While I didn’t doubt that prepping for a meet makes you extra focused, I declined to compete because I told myself that I lift for myself, not for external validation.  Besides, like every powerlifter ever, I felt I should only compete when my lifts were “good enough”.  See, my squat is average for my weight and age, my bench press is actually well above average but I have a “poverty” deadlift.  It’s OK for a commercial gym goer, but it’s rather below average for a powerlifter.  “Ridiculous”, said my coach and the PL team members, “Nobody cares.  Just do it, get out there and compete”.

I finally allowed myself to be talked into signing up for a competition.  I noticed – and I remember this phenomena from my days of competing in martial arts tournaments – time seemed to telescope.  All of the sudden, 4 months did not seem like a very long time.  Every workout, every week of training and every phase of my programming became of utmost importance.  So, yes, you become very focused almost immediately.  Powerlifting is actually more athletic than most people would suspect.  It’s very common for a lifter to be good in 2 of the lifts and struggle in the 3rd.  It’s relatively rare to be strong in all 3 lifts.  Most commonly, you’ll see lifters that have a pretty good deadlift, a decent squat and an OK bench press.  So the challenge, when you’re training for a competition, is to maintain or improve your strength in the lifts that you do well, while striving mightily to improve the lift that presents the most problems.

Powerlifting is not bodybuilding so the most common body type is what I’ve heard referred to as “fuscular”.  Jacked, for the most part, but not exactly 6 percent body fat.  Everyone you speak to you will tell you that the biggest error a novice competitor can make is to cut weight for a competition.  Nevertheless, a week out from my first competition, I weighed myself and realized that I was on the borderline between 2 weight categories.  I had signed up for the -100 kgs class…and if I didn’t weigh in at 100 kgs or under, I would be put in the -110 kg class.  I shuddered to think what those guys deadlift, so I changed my diet.  Not radically, but no beer and no sugar outside of whole fruits.  I drank only water and black coffee and ate very cleanly, protein with lots of vegetables and limited amounts of rice and quinoa.  I realized when we got to the competition for the weigh-in that my team mates and most of the other competitors had been dieting as well.  As I weighed-in at 97 kg, the woman recording the weight said “That’s it, you’re good – time for a cheeseburger!”.

The vibe at a local level  powerlifting meet is indescribable. Yes, there are lots of jacked women and men walking around and yes, there will be nonstop rock and rap blaring from huge speakers near the lifting area but, nevertheless, it’s one of the most chill, laid back, kumbaya sporting events you’ll ever witness.   Everyone (including your direct competition) couldn’t be nicer or more encouraging.  It’s as if lifting really heavy things is roughly equivalent to eating a pot and Ecstasy laced brownie.  Everyone is happy, hungry, talkative, laughing, literally hugging virtual strangers, etc.  Bear in mind that I live in Northern Europe, so the behavior I just described is even more remarkable.  And while the physical effects of heavy lifting go a long way towards explaining this phenomenon, I think a contributing factor is the opportunity to be around like-minded people.  Powerlifting is very much a niche sport.  As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s a somewhat lonely passion and one that is sometimes prone to being subtly or even overtly discouraged by one’s family, friends and co-workers.  The complex programming, the nutrition, the endless tweaking of technique and the training itself take a huge amount of time.  Outside of one’s powerlifting team mates, nobody understands or even cares about it.  You hear plenty of semi-marathon prep chat, and not a little bragging, around the water cooler at work, but mention a 5 rep squat PR you just hit recently and an awkward silence will follow.  So a powerlifting meet is really just a large-scale geek out for powerlifters, a rare opportunity to let their freak flag fly.  It means that a few times a year you are surrounded by people who “get it” and are just as passionate about all the minutiae as you are.

So, yes, you will see some great lifters and big lifts.  You’ll also see lifters of many different levels of experience and ability.  Everyone there understands the dedication, passion and nerve it takes to compete so there is huge respect for anybody who goes out there gives it their all, whatever the weight.  Many people imagine that a powerlifting meet is the sole preserve of anti-social skinheads, but I have rarely seen (outside of Mardi Gras) such an example of people of all races, nationalities and sexual orientation genuinely getting along and having a laugh.  After your first powerlifting meet two things will happen; firstly, you’ll kick yourself for being such an ass and not listening  to those people who told you to “just compete!” and, secondly, you’ll be even more motivated for the next one.

 

Divorce and dating across cultures.

restaurant-alcohol-bar-drinksRoughly 7 years ago I had one of those “damn, we’re really going to get a divorce” moments when you realize that something you’ve pondered so often is actually going to happen. Even if part of you welcomes the divorce, it’s a very strange feeling, especially after many years of marriage. It was a mutual decision and, while I was well aware of the disadvantages (we have 2 kids) I realized that, at the very least, I could start dating again. At this point I will put my cards out on the table: I never cheated on my ex-wife, not even close. If you think that enthusiastically searching out sexual partners(at least in short-term) is lame and shallow than you, dear reader, have never lived through the last few years of a dying marriage. So, yes, I was overdue and was I ever motivated.

There are many reasons why I have lived in this city for the past 20 years but one of the nicest is that it’s extremely cosmopolitan, the sort of place that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some sort of expat or immigrant (I guess you could say I’m both). It’s very similar to some neighborhoods in New York or London, only on a smaller scale. It’s the sort of place where you can constantly meet people from literally all over the world. This meant that in my roughly 3 to 4 year stint of post-divorce dating I met women from enough nations to get a quorum call at the UN General Assembly.

Disclaimer: What follows are some personal very generalized (the better to protect the privacy of everyone involved) observations. Certain examples might cleave to a cultural stereotype of that person’s nationality and, if they do, it’s because I did indeed observe this behavior. Nobody is walking national stereotype but culture is very strong force. If you belong to a culture you will share at least a few characteristics with people in that culture. Also, this particular post will be stupendously shallow. You have been forewarned. OK, so now on to the good part…

  • General Dating strategy – You’ll have realize that I was many years out of the game so my dating game was weak. Even in my earlier single days, my game was pretty bad. I was able to date some pretty fantastic women, but it was almost in spite of myself. I quickly realized a few things: a) I’ve more money and lots more life experience than I did in my 20s b) I managed to stay in shape and consistently look younger than I should do in spite of ingesting a Lake Superior of booze in my lifetime c) I was going to learn from past experience and not date people from work and d) I was going get out of my comfort zone and be more outgoing. So I did what just about every one does in the situation; I looked up old girlfriends, I did online dating and I forced myself to widen my social circle by meeting as many people as possible. What follows are the results of those strategies.
  • Looking up Exes: I don’t care what anybody says, this works like a charm. If you were decent person in the relationship, the sex was good (or great) and it just so happens your Ex is not in a relationship at the present moment, your chances are excellent. What’s more, no surprises and no illusions about the future. I have had newly single Exes look me up, and vice versa. You therefore have a pleasant time together (sex and companionship) and eventually go onto to other things. It’s more a friends with benefits sort of relationship. I have moved on, as have the Exes in question, but in most cases we remain on very good platonic terms.
  • Online Dating: This might be the most interesting facet, especially given the multilingual/multicultural angle. One complicating factor is that I am really not a fan of getting my picture taken or the whole Selfie phenomenon. The best pictures of me are invariably “action” shots taken while I am doing something else than waiting for my picture to be taken. I eventually found 1 or 2 recent pics and worked on creating concise tag-lines in 2 languages. While I find this sort of blatant hard sell abhorrent I find the idea of being celibate ever more so thus I jumped in with both feet. It was a funny experience and I met loads of women that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I certainly don’t regret it but I won’t do it again because a) it takes a lot of time and b) the type of people I met in person tend to correspond more to what I am looking for. Dating sites are the shotgun approach to dating. I did met some great women, some of whom remain good friends. I met a lot of characters and at least 1 or 2 women who had, shall we say, a somewhat tenuous grasp of reality. And I met some women who were just all about sex, asap (yes, ladies, it’s not just the men). Please note that I’m not complaining about that part as it’s one of my stated goals. However, when you walk into a cafe, talk for a few minutes or so and the woman says “Ok, let’s go, your place” (this actually happened to me once) alarm bells start to go off. I also met women who felt that a first date should be a “how serious are you” interrogation, seemingly forgetting if the date is not a fun experience, I’m not going to repeat it. I met women who, on a first date, would regale me with a litany of complaints about their ex-husband or who would try to grill me about my ex-wife. I learned a very valuable lesson from a few women, namely how to cut and run, done with class and consideration. Internet dating is a crap shoot and there will be times when you meet somebody and realize within the first few minutes that this person is not for you. At first, I’d suffer through a fairly long period (out of consideration) and then bring the date to an end. Women have much more experience rejecting the opposite sex and can usually do it decisively and tactfully if they so choose. Men, conversely, are much more used to rejection and we appreciate a “no thanks” when done with style. Bringing a non-starter date to a swift but considerate conclusion is a must.
  • Meeting women the old school way – This includes having friends introduce me to their female acquaintances, meeting women at parties, the tried and true method of going out to bars and clubs with friends and finally, from time to time, starting open, non-committal conversations with women in random locations . Considering all the time I spend in gyms, I’ve never dated or attempted to date women I meet at the gym. There are many reasons for this but primarily I work hard in the gym so I am a sweaty, red-faced mess most of the time. I met less women via the old-school methods than via the internet but there were distinct advantages. I wasted much less time and also I could perceive women (and they could perceive me) at face value, and not the result of some filtered internet search. In general, I find that I usually have more in common with women closer to my age. Via these methods, though, I often met and sometimes went out with women who were both younger and (a little bit) older than me. It’s easier to keep an open mind when the person is right in front of you.
  • Results: Bear in mind that during this period I was highly motivated. The end result was that I met quite a few women…and I slept with a quite few women. I easily slept with more women during this 4 year period than during my entire post high school/pre- marriage single period. In spite of no longer having the six-pack I did back then, I have a much more positive attitude which made an enormous difference. Concentrate on having a fun experience and chances are the sex will come. If I met somebody cool and interesting but did not have sex, that was fine too. Wasting my time on a dud date (no chemistry, conversation, negative vibe, etc) was really the only down-side. Conversely, rejection is not a big deal – everyone has the right to say no. Yes, some women I thought were cool turned out to not think the same of me. And that was fine – and makes me wonder why I dreaded that result so much as a younger man. Also, I was able to flip the script. A few times, as I attempted to politely say no to another date,etc , I’ve had a woman just lose her shit and get nasty. My loss, right, no reason to get worked up about it. It’s a virtuous circle, the less you fear rejection, the more fun you will tend to have. Final result I don’t necessarily feel the need to “met” women at any expense as I did “post-divorce”. If was fun (for the most part) and it pushed me out of several comfort zones which is something I think every divorced person needs.
  • Cross-cultural Observations (AKA is he really going to validate cultural stereotypes): I found that, in an extremely broad sense, cultural stereotypes tend to have some truth to them. Latin American, African, Asian and Eastern European women tend to expect and appreciate that you play the “man”, you take initiative make the decisions, open doors and, yes, pay for most things. No joke, You will reap benefits, shall we say, that would almost be unthinkable with upper middle class Aglophone (US, Canada, UK, Australia, etc) women but you must first Prove Your Worth. North-American women want their cake and eat it too – meaning that they expect full equality while at the same expecting you to pay for most things and still “take charge”. Sometimes. When, where and how to take charge is highly variable and woe unto he who misinterprets the signs. Western European women are somewhat closer to the North American end of spectrum meaning they appreciate their independence while still acknowledging that there are innate differences between the sexes. That being said, both groups tend to be lower maintenance which can be a real breath of fresh air.

I should note that class differences were minimal. The women I dates tended to have the same level of education and professional development – if not more in some cases.

Pleasant surprises – Russian women are invariably pretty and expensively dressed, yes, but in my experience are also very cultured as regards to literature, dance and music. They can have dark, off-beat senses of humor. Romanian women are some of the most fun women in the world. They combine Slavic and Mediterranean looks while preserving a more sociable Mediterranean warmth. They can, and will, talk your ear off but it will never, ever be boring. Know that a 50 kilo Polish or Irish woman can drink your punk ass under the table, all day, any day. Anglophone women and women from Western Europe tend to be somewhat less drama prone than women from other cultures that I met.
Wow – didn’t really expect that: When I was freshly separated from my soon to be ex-wife, the idea that I could meet and eventually sleep with a decent number of fairly interesting, attractive women seemed, if not far-fetched, at least a tad overly optimistic. I soon learned that this is not the difficult part. The truly difficult part is the karmic price you pay. A quick example that happened to me no less than 3 times. Married female acquaintances made it clear that I could help add some spice to their daily routine. For so many reasons, this is a horrible idea so I didn’t…until, of course, I did, for all the usual reasons. 9 & 1/2 weeks territory, as in indulging in the majority of fantasies one has harbored for quite some time. I ended it before things could truly go south but in the bargain I felt like a real asshole for doing it in the first place. Gentlemen, know that if your marriage is going stale or on the rocks and your wife/girlfriend is attractive, well, she can indulge herself at the literal snap of a finger. To the “other guy”:  Don’t ever be the “3rd person”, ever.

Lessons learned – Do not take rejection personally, stay true to yourself and your morals, have fun and above all, “be in the moment”.  Don’t do things you don’t want to do with people you don’t want to do them with. 

Finally, the city I live in is sufficiently small and cosmopolitan enough that one meeting and dating somebody from another culture was\is pretty much a constant. Everyone is doing it, not just out of necessity, but also because they can. It’s fun and exciting. Yes, long-term relationships between people who share a culture can be easier (less misunderstandings, for one). All I know is that I’ve never been one to take the easier path.

Sofrito/Epis – The delicious secret weapon for Athletes – A recipe

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This is a recipe that I am publishing for all my brothers and sisters in the Strength Sport community.  It is a tasty method of injecting a tasty, highly nutritional component into your rice, stews, sauces and such.

What follows is a personal observation regarding the value of eating 100 percent organic.  Please jump to the next non-italicized paragraph if you just want the recipe.

When I was a young child to teenager going back and forth from the Caribbean to the US, it was the period just before (and the beginning of) the Obesity epidemic in the States.  There just weren’t that many overweight people when I was a kid.  My early to late teen years coincided with the paradigm shift in food production in the US and consequent rise in obesity.  I remember coming back to the US – every year or two – and literally noticing a greater percentage of obesity with each trip.  Meanwhile back in my “home” country, most people had a hard enough time eating every day much less worry about getting fat.      Amongst the vast majority of the population, having sufficient resources to fatten up would have been very welcome indeed.  Yet even amongst the upper classes (who were often fantastically wealthy) obesity was a rarity.

So people were generally slim and, furthermore, I remember noticing that younger adults who did manual labor (peasant farmers, construction workers, etc) were often incredibly ripped.  Those men and women could have made a fortune on Instragram had they been born a generation later.   The phenomenon that foreign adults remarked most frequently was a huge increase in libido(I was a teenager couldn’t notice a difference as my libido was already in the stratosphere).  The Caribbean was (and remains) a place were some people’s marriages went to die.  The often heard remark is that “there must be something in the water”.  Close, but no Monte Cristo.  My thesis that everyone was (and in the poorer more rural parts of the country, still is) eating 100 percent organic produce, meat and dairy.  We did this not because organic, local produce was a thing back then.  Big chain stores and processed foods were rare.  You bought most of your food in the outdoor market from peasant farmers.  You ate lots of fruit and vegetables, ate meat and fish occasionally (it was expensive).  You also get a lot of sun and therefore aren’t deficient in Vitamin D.  Basically, if you ate this diet in sufficient quantity (not too much or too little) it’s like being physically turbocharged.  You are firing on all cylinders.  Sofrito is the perfect example – it combines all of the proven health benefits of garlic, ginger, hot peppers, green herbs (parsley, cilantro, etc), onions and more.  A friend of mine eats a few spoon fools, uncooked, instead of taking vitamins.  It’s hard to think of a better, more bio-available way of getting quite a few vitamins and minerals in one go.

The base of much of Caribbean cuisine is “sofrito” or “epis” (as it’s referred to in the country spent most of my time in).  This preparation can be used in just about anything but especially in rice, sauces and stews.    There are many different variations depending upon the eventual recipe.  I whip up a batch of sofrito/epis at least once a week.  The components vary, but for me the back bone of any “sofrito/epis” is the fresh garlic and ginger.  I make a special effort to make my epis/sofrito as jam-packed as possible with various nutrients.  In case you were wondering, it  tastes amazing.  Below are the components of my current epis\sofrito recipe:

NB:  All components of this recipe should be sourced organically for the reasons I alluded to above.

Fresh Garlic, peeled (this should be one of the building blocks.  The amount is up to you depending on the eventual quantity. )

Fresh Ginger, peeled  (If at all possible not from China)

Fresh Curcuma , peeled – also you may want to wear some gloves when peeling and cutting, as it stains quite a bit

Spring Onions

Onions and/or shallots

Habanero Peppers – OK, this depends on how much heat you like.  I live in Europe where the Habanero come from either Kenya or the Netherlands – they are weak AF.  If I used 2 Habanero from the Caribbean or the Yucatan in my recipe, I’d be crying.  For now, however, 2 from my current sources provide a decent amount of kick.  Also, as with the Curcuma, keep the gloves on while handling these.  Anybody who has every cut Habaneros without gloves and then gone to the bathroom shortly thereafter can tell you why.

Bell pepper (partial) – for color and fiber

Cloves, 2 or 3 should do it.

Fresh cilantro and parsley

True sea salt (no additives).

Apple cider vinegar or lime juice

Olive Oil

A bit of water.

Put all of these ingredients in a food processor and mix to the consistency you see in the picture.  You will have to be the judge regarding the essential components and the liquids, but that is actually quite fun.  In most cases, saute this mixture in a bit of coconut oil before adding it to the rice, quinoa, stews or whatever.  Note that depending on the recipe some people may add tomatoes or what have you.  This an infinitely adaptable recipe.

Pro Tip – for the best and quickest Guacamole recipe known to mankind, add sofrito and peeled avocado halves in a bowl.  Thoroughly mix/crush with a fork until you achieve the required consistency.  You may want to add a pinch of sea salt to taste.

Detours – why getting there is half the fun…

Last Christmas, as an after thought, I bought my 10 year old son a somewhat crappy skateboard as a sort of oversized stocking stuffer.  I have no idea why I bought it nor did I have any clear indication that he’d like it.  And, in fact, when he opened this present he literally said “why did you get this for me???”.  He was genuinely puzzled and freely admitted he had absolutely no interest in skateboarding.  The next day, for the heck of it, we went to a covered garage with plenty of smooth concrete so he could test out his new skateboard.  My son put his leading foot on the skateboard, pushed off and, I swear to you, you could see a visible “Aha, where have you been all my life” moment as it happened.  He loves skateboarding, he is OBSESSED by it.  In the short space of 5 months he has racked up hours and hours of practice, innumerable  bruises and a growing number of tricks in his repertoire.

As any skateboarder, on parent there of, can tell you , the absolute foundation, the bedrock upon which modern street skating is built upon is a maneuver called the Ollie.  The Ollie is sort of hard to describe and, trust me, much harder to master.  The skater basically pings the back of the skateboard off the ground, jumps and simultaneously leads the front the skateboard with his lead foot so it levels off and creates “jumping motion”.  This allows one to jump onto obstacles or, even cooler, off of obstacles.  It’s an absolute bitch.  There are no short cuts, if you want to Ollie, you must pay your dues.  I have played a number of sports but I’d be hard pressed to find an example of a movement that is as timing and muscle-memory dependent as an Ollie.  As you might imagine, the past few months I have seen my son try to Ollie thousands of times.

Fast forward a few months, hours upon hours of practice, some broken then upgraded skateboarding hardware – my son can Ollie.  He ollie’s onto things, and off….and does all the other tricks he has already mastered and others that he  continues to master.  No other skill in any other team sport he’s played has been so hard won, nor so self-taught.  The victory, then, is that much sweeter for being so personal

Flashback many decades, I walk into a karate dojo at roughly the same age as my son when he discovered skateboarding.  This was the late 1970s when absolute ignorance regarding the martial arts reigned.  I went to the lesson as a lark, but I can tell you the “aha moment” is real.  I felt it, and was absolutely hooked for a numbers of years.  Almost nobody understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it…until such a time that I became demonstrably good enough to win competitions and garner other residual sorts of attention.  I realized that the desire to learn and to get better at this passion meant that other people would notice, as an almost unintended consequence.  Then you become known as the person who does that thing, and either you are comfortable with it, or not.  In this example,  I eventually succumbed to physical and, I suspect,  a morale burnout.  I regret doing that, perhaps a more mature person would have dealt with it better.

Fast forward a number of years – my son is happy with team sports but really finds himself, expresses himself with his skateboard.  His sister, my daughter,  has been competing for many years in international gymnastic competitions.  She is, at this actual moment, traveling to a competition in Northern Italy.  I remember her “aha” moment as well, when I brought her to gymnastics lesson when she was  7.  It was plainly obvious then, as it was with me and my son years later, that this was “her thing”.  When I was competing in Karate tournaments or boxing rings, I always had an opponent. In sports like Gymnastics, you are the only factor, the only point of judgment.  I respect the guts it takes to get up in front of hundreds of spectators.  She handles it far better than I or her brother would.

So, yeah, I powerlift.  Trust me, nobody is more surprised than me.   I love getting stronger, I love the challenge and difficulty.  I never would have predicted this but, then again, you can’t predict “aha” moments.  The trick is in appreciating the detour.