Training after the Covid-19 Lockdown – First, the good news…

Depending on where you live in the world, things are either opening back up slowly or they are going to Hell in a handbasket because things never really “shut-down” in the first place.  If you’re lucky enough to live amongst a majority of people who don’t think that every possible issue is proof of a huge consipiracy and a have a modicum more self-discipline and sense of civic duty than sugar-crazed toddlers than chances are that gyms are opening back up.  And that, of course, is at least a small amount of good news in  seems to be an unending stream of bad craziness.  If 2020 was a person, it’d be that person you hooked up with very briefly in your early 20s before you realized they were absolutely bat-shit crazy…mad, bad and dangerous to know.  For a brief unsettling period you are on high alert, ducking and weaving,  as you scramble to extricate yourself and come out the other end with your sanity, finances, health and reputation intact. Yep, 2020 it a bunny-boiler of a year.  Adversity, sayeth the hackneyed cliche, is opportunity in disguse.  So what have we learned from this shit show, what nuggets of wisdom and metaphorical chicken soup for the soul can we glean?

  • Mindfulness – This is the biggest payback from all the  fear, loathing and general unpleasantness of this situation.  The best news?  You’re not trying and pitifully failing to become mindful (via silly apps, youtube videos, etc) – it’s a byproduct of the situation.  We’ve stopped taking a whole lot of things for granted and realized our true priorities.   Enjoy this time (yes, even now) with your loved ones.  Being present comes easier when we are forced to realize don’t have a lot a time in this mortal coil and nothing is guaranteed.  The rest, as the Buddhists say, is maya or as I like to call it, bullshit.
  • Gratitude – see above.  You can’t and won’t be mindful if you don’t have gratitude.  Are you and your family/friends healthy?  Do you have a place to live and enough to eat?  If the answer is yes, chances are you’ve been contemplating this a lot recently, and gratitude has manifested itself even in your bling, bling, cheeto-eating, Kardashian-watching vacuous lifestyle.  And we’re all the better for it.
  • Good habits are reinforced because, well, we don’t have a choice – Just before the lockdown, my Ex and I put our jointly owned appartment on the market.  As we wanted to show it “empty” she moved into my place for what was going to be 2 months, tops (the RE market was red hot where I live).  Yep, the sale we had lined up within 2 weeks evaporated like petri dish of water in Death Vally with lockdown (talk about bad timing).  Next thing you know, we are all stuck in lockdown at my place and we’re obliged to get along for an extended period.  She and I instinctively knew that we didn’t have a choice so we better buck up and be adults for the duration.  Patience, consideration and a sense of humor are the only way to get through a situation like this.  Ditto, self-discipline like making your bed and keeping the house clean all by your entitled lazy-ass self.  When your back is against the wall, you’ll rediscover those attributes.
  • Training related good news – Yes, you will have lost strength  It’s inevitable and you won’t be shocked or depressed when you finally return to the gyms as you know that a 3 month break in training does not equal mad gainz.  It’s also true that you’ll muscle memory is indeed a thing and you’ll regain the strength faster than you thought.  I’ve been back at the powerlifting club for about a month now and I’m encouraged by the progress.  Hell, I’m just grateful to be able to train. 

The best “plain” rice you’ve ever had

Probably the biggest sin for a Carribbean cook is to make boring rice. Carribbean cooks have, of course, a number of rightly famous and delicious rice recipes (red beans and rice, dirty rice, congo beans and rice and, of course, the inimitable Haitian riz djondjon to name but a few). Their biggest “hidden talent”, in my opinion, is to make absolutely amazing “plain” rice, so tasty that you’d happily eat just the rice by itself. In retrospect, this is a crucial skill in a poor country, when many times there isn’t a whole lot else to “go with” the rice.

In my world view, people are either “Team Rice” or “Team Potato”. At the risk of pandering to sterotype, in my experience and travels I’ve found it absolutely true that the Irish have an almost irrational love of all things potato. And Carribbean peoples are highly skilled rice cooks and, ooooh yes, critics. Don’t ever serve them plain old white rice, mes amis, you won’t hear the last of it…ever. Due to my upbringing, I’m firmly on “Team Rice”. My mother, a midwesterner of Irish/German heritage, is absolutely “Team Potato” in spite of many decades of living in “rice” dominant countries. I suppose one’s formative years play an important role.

I didn’t learn how to make rice until I left home and had moved to the States. I quickly tired of my own limited culinary skills so every time I came home for the holidays I was really motivated to learn so I coud recreate my favorite dishes. I learned this recipe many decades ago and have been making various iterations of it ever since. It goes something like this:

The Best Plain Rice

Serves 4 people (or 2, if they really like their rice)

1 coffee cup full of rice (or whatever measuring vessel you choose, the size or volume is up to you). The type rice you use is a personal choice but I find that long grain white rice works well.

Vegetable Oil or Coconut oil

2 or 3 cloves of good pugent garlic

1 bouillon cube – vegetable bouillon if you want to keep it vegan/vegetarian, otherwise chicken bouillon is a good choice. Maggi cubes are, of course, the Carribean cooks’ “gold standard, if you trying for “authenticity”.

1 respectable heavy duty cooking pot with a heavy lid.

Optional but highly recommended:

2 or 3 heaping tablespoons of Epis/Sofrito (see here for my version):

1 whole Scotch Bonnet pepper

Put a decent amount of oil in a decent size heavy pot or sauce pan. We are going to infuse this oil so you must put enough oil in the pot, a generous amount to cover the bottom, but don’t exaggerate. Put the burner to medium.
As the oil in the pan heats up, give each garlic clove a decent whack with the flat of chef’s knife and throw them in the hot oil. Using a wooden spoon, move the garlic cloves around in the oil so they do not burn and, more importantly, infuse the oil. You don’t want the cloves to burn or blacken, but a slight crispy note is about what you are looking for. This should take maybe 2 minutes.(At this point, you can add the optional epis/sofrito and mix it with the infused oil/garlic for another minute or so. )
Now add the coffee cup/jam jar/whatever of rice and mix it with the infused oil in the pot briefly so all the rice grains are covered by the oil. Turn the burner heat up to high and add your water, which would be 2 times the volume of the rice, so in this case, 2 coffee cups full of water. As the pot come to a boil, add the bouillon cube and stir the mixture sufficiently so that the infused oil and bouillon are diffused. Once you’ve achieved the boil, immediately reduce the heat by half, or maybe even just a tiny bit less than that.
At this point, you can add the optional Scotch Bonnet pepper. If you do add it, make sure it’s whole, with no rips or tears and preferably with the stem still on it. Put your tight fitting lid on the pot. It’s important that lid is tight. In a pinch, put heavy stuff (within the bounds of reason and safety) on the lid to make sure it’s doing it’s job. Let the rice cook for roughly 10 minutes. Never less than 10 minutes, and possibly a little bit longer. Once you are familiar with the rice and the pot that you use, you’ll have a feel for how long it takes. DO NOT, under pain of excommunication from Team Rice, lift the lid before the rice is done.

That’s it, the rice is ready to eat. Lift the lid and carefully extract the optional scottch bonnet pepper, if you added one. Grab it by the stem, if possible, and chuck it in the trash.

** Nutrional Commentary

I get it, white rice is just sort of nutrionally barren carbs and the bouillion cube adds sodium, etc. However, I think the infused garlic oil not only makes this dish tastier, it helps make it healthier. If you add the Epis and/or Scotch Bonnet pepper, the tastiness and nutrional value goes up exponentially.

What not going to the gym feels like.

We are 2 months into this pandemic and gym rats the world over are agonizingly jonesing for an “iron fix”.  Yes, not being able to train really, truly sucks.  Some of the ways it blows are obvious and there is also some unexpected “suckage” which I will outline shortly.  Suprisingly, though, there a few silver linings to this flab-inducing, gainz-stealing cloud.  So, with no further ado, here is my take on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the great Covid 19 Gym Drought:

Obvious Suck Factors:

  • Bye-Bye Gainz:  You consistently train for years and months and are forced to throw it out the window.  This is beyond frustrating.  Literally 2 days before everything shutdown I did all time Bench and Deadlift PRs in the gym.  I was on track to smash  competition PRs in my scheduled May competition but alas…
  • Home bodyweight workouts just don’t cut it:  Sammy Hagar won’t drive 55 and I just can’t muster any enthusiasm for dreary, lonely bodyweight workouts.  Look, if that’s your thing, my hat’s off to you.  I do them, but no as regularly as I should and with little joy.
  • There goes what little social life the majority of weirdo Powerlifters have in the first place:  Hey, we all miss the social aspect.  If you spend that much time at the gym training it’s de facto part of your social life.  For many of us the daily routine was work, gym and then  home and now it’s work at home with no gym, for the vast majority of us.   Hello, cabin fever.
  • Endorphin withdrawal:  For most of us, training was a sustainable, effective method to relieve stress.  Also, the emotional satisfaction of hitting training goals and achieving PRs was/is indescribable.  It’s no surprise that alcohol consumption is sky-rocketing which, is unfortunate.  Alcohol as horrible, extremely short-sighted and wildly counter-productive method of stress reduction, but I get it.  The only reason I know this is I drank all the beer, all of it, and so am uniquely qualified to report that it don’t work, folks.  If I was still on the sauce, you wouldn’t go wrong buying stock in the beverage company of your choice right now.

Less Obvious Suck Factor

  • No more “Super Power”:  Okay, this going sound funny to the uninitiated..and hell, maybe I’m the only who feels this way, but here goes.  When you train in powerlifting for a while, you get strong, and it’s actually a lot of fun to be strong.  Lifting heavy stuff is a real gas.  And, let’s face, there is is more than a little pride mixed into the equation.  However, if you’re not training, you’re getting weaker and it’s a bit a pschological hit.  Not a major one if you’re relatively well-adjusted, but a bummer nontheless.
  • Going from Fuscular to, er, well, flabby:  Powerlifters do not train for aesthetic reasons but nonetheless one does get jacked from training, albeit perhaps still somewhat “fleshly” for some of us.  If you’re not training, you’re losing muscle, which means you’re just another Cheeto eating slob watching Joe Exotic on Netflix.

Silver Linings:

  • Injury Recovery – Let’s face it, if you train seriously for any period of time, you are walking around with a series of injuries in various stages of recovery.  2 months off of “forced” recovery will allow you to heal.  I am finally resolving a nagging shoulder issue, so there’s that at least.
  • More time for family – I am spending more time with kids which is great.  Before, during the work week it was work, gym, home, fix dinner, bed.  Now it’s it’s work, go biking with the kids in the early evening, make dinner with them and, yes, bed.  This is priceless, especially since they are teenagers.
  • (Re)discovering other physical activities – As I said above, biking is one of physical activities available to us, as is hiking.  We live near a number of forests so that is an incredible bonus.  There is no better stress reliever known, not even power-lifting, than walking or biking deep in a forest on a beautiful spring day.  I used to do this quite a bit before my kids were born and now we can do it together.  Also, and this is weirdly specific, I’ve become fixated on my ab-roller when at home.  I used to avoid ab training like the plague, but now it almost seems “new”.

Life imitates meme…or why the gym is always packed the first week of January.

It commonly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  And yet, in spite of decades of gym-going experience every December I find myself tut-tutting at all those lame “new year’s resolutioners” memes and snarky posts to forums and Facebook groups.  Every year I tell myself that this phenomenon is exagerated, it’s not really a “thing”.  After all, human beings aren’t lemmings and human behaviour, even group dynamics, is often far from being predictable.  Finally, and this is probably the biggest reason, I find it hard to believe that somebody would wait until January 1 to do anything.  I’ve started, and failed, quite a few good resolutions in my time but never have I waited for an arbitrary date to do so.

So I felt supremely vindicated from January 1st to 5th, as I trained away at the Globo gym near my work.  All the “usuals” were there, as as we always are, week after week but there was no tsunami of Gymshark-clad noobs.  “Yaaassss”, I thought, “people are rational, idependent minded beings after all”.  We aren’t swallows going back to Capistrano or salmon swimming upstream driven by some antediluvian instinct.

Then I went to the gym on Monday after work.  Or should I say, I spent 15 minutes trying to find a parking space any where remotely close to my gym (there are 2 other gyms within a 3 block radius as well) before giving up and parking far, far away.  As I battled my way past the front door the scene that presented itself was part Lord of the Flies, part Star Wars bar scene and part outtake of a “Black Friday riot at the Tulsa Walmart” youtube video.  Everybody and their actual grandmother was there, resplendent in fresh from under the Christmas tree gym-wear.  Heck, even the Prime Minister was there…Ok, to be honest, he’s a semi-regular so his presence was far less remarkable than the sheer mass of humanity that managed to pack itself into the gym that night.  No joke, I began to wonder if we hadn’t attained the building’s occupancy limit.

Unfortunately, it was my night to train bench press and yes, it was Monday (aka International Chest Day) so the six flat benches were all taken by the time I got there.  Luckily, it didn’t take long for a bench to free up because, as is always the case in this scenario, the following happens:  Noob approaches the bench, doesn’t think a second about warming up with, say, just the bar… and slaps on what he thinks is a good working weight but is actually much closer to his 1RM.  The young gent (feet up on the bench, of course, never planted firmly on the floor) then attempts to bang out a set but barely manages to get the bar off of his chest for 1 rep.  He then reduces the weight, but not enough, and manages to squeeze 2 or 3 more reps before deciding that the Pec Deck looks more inviting.

Back, however, to the subject at hand.  So, yes, a crowded gym in January is not just a cliche or urban legend.  It’s a fact of life, in the same way that airports are crowded just before Christmas.  It’s also true that by Febuary things will be right back to normal.  Aside from the glaringly obvious (guilt over holiday excesses, corny resolutions, promotional deals by gym owners) I honestly don’t why it is such a thing.  Gym training, like running, is not seasonal.  And speaking of running, the sidewalks aren’t suddenly clogged with joggers in January.  So, what gives?

In the end, I suppose, who cares?  I’m glad they are there, whatever their motivation.  It’s nice seeing some new faces and, quite frankly, I’m hoping that as gym going becomes more and more the norm, the market will mature and prices will drop in the country where I live.  I pay extortionate rates at my Globo gym and (considering the amazing value) very reasonable rates at the Powerlifting club. And finally, as somebody who is considering entering the industry at a future date, it’s comforting to know there is an absolutely reliable annual cash cow.

Veganism and Strength Sports

What follows are my personal, unscientific, non-triple blind tested observations on the effects of a plant-based diet on training for strength sports. Is it better, is it worse and, if so, why? Is it harder to stick to a vegan diet? What are the non-sports benefits? What is over-rated about a plant-based diet? What are the unexpected benefits of eating plant-based? How much cooler would eating plant-based be without certain vegans ruining it for everyone? Finally, faux-meat, a “faux pas”? Come with me as I meander into the cultural minefield that is VEGANISM…

*** Disclaimer: Gentle reader, know that your esteemed author is not, by most definitions, a vegan. However, to employ a hackneyed phrase, some of his best friends and favorite family members are down with that plant-based life so your intrepid scribe is well versed in the milieu. In fact, he rarely eats animal products himself, but when he does he likes to wear a velvet smoking jacket like the suave old dude in the Dos XXs ad. Seriously, though, I have gone through extended periods of eating only plant-based in the past 2 years, and even now when I do eat dairy, eggs or meat, it’s maybe twice a week.

  • Plant-based diet for strength sports: Yeah, yeah, of course you can…there are veritable scads of vegan body-builders, powerlifters, strongmen, and cross-fitters who compete successfully. All high level competitors have to on top of their diet but I’d say that vegan competitors have to be even more dialed in to make sure they’re getting enough protein, B6, etc. Have I noticed a difference going from a conventional diet (albeit a healthy one) to a much reduced animal products diet? I can’t say hat I feel any better or worse. My lifts have gone down some from my all time PRs, but that’s probably more because I’m not training as seriously as I did in the past due to recent work constraints. Verdict: Doable, yes, laudable, I guess so, slightly more complex to track, yep and does it make me stronger or weaker, jury is still out.
  • Is it hard to “go vegan”?: Somewhat, in my experience. Bear in mind, however, that I live in Northern Europe in what is essentially small town, albeit a very well-heeled one. I already cook a lot, so the fun part was coming up with wholesome plant-based menus that covered all the nutritional bases. I even discovered that I’m much better at plant based dishes than meat-based. Though it pains me to admit this, my meat game was/is relatively weak. So it takes effort and planning at first to go plant based at home. The real challenge is going out to eat. It’s limiting at the best of times in my town. There are a few vegan restaurants but mostly they suck, are overpriced and are populated by smug yet weirdly tense individuals. In big cities like Berlin, London, NYC and Toronto it’s much easier. Not to mention in places like Toronto or Boston, most of your fellow vegan restaurant goers will have recently blazed a big ol’ legal joint and are thus markedly more chill than in my town.
  • General benefits of a plant-based diet: I am not convinced that 100 percent plant based diet is good for all people, all the time. I think the same applies to any dietary regime. People react to food differently. However, does vastly limiting your animal product intake have health benefits? From a common sense perspective, I’d have to say yes. More important that being stringently one diet or the other is the quality of the food you are stuffing your face with. Avoid processed foods and eat organic as much as possible and you’re going in the right direction. So the big biggest benefits I have noticed regarding a plant-based diet is that the raw materials are often cheaper, one is much less concerned with spoilage and for the most part I feel good, not lethargic, after eating plant-based or mostly plant-based meal. Also, if you source your products carefully, it’s good for the planet. The same can be said for animal products but it’s MUCH harder and more expensive to find local, organic animal products from sustainable agriculture.
  • Plant-based – is it over-rated? In many ways, yes. It won’t make you into Superman overnight. If you had a crappy, processed food diet before and then implement a carefully considered plant-based diet then, yes, you will notice health benefits. It’s entirely possible to eat vegan crap. Hey, the vegan Ben and Jerrie’s flavors are just as awesome as the other flavors, but sadly no better for you. As the market matures, more processed vegan-junk food is being made available which I think is a step in the wrong direction. Again, done well, it’s a healthy dietary regime for many people that is sustainable for the planet…but the same argument can be made for well considered vegetarian and omnivore diets.
  • The less well-know benefits: For me, it’s increased mindfulness regarding what I eat. I know more now re: the dietary benefits of many legumes, herbs and vegetables than I did before, and how they all can be combined to make a wholesome diet. I tend to plan my meals at last a few days in advance. Now, even when I do incorporate animal products, I fit them into the bigger nutritional picture of what I will be eating that week.
  • The annoying-a** Vegan: We all know at least one, and many of us know dozens of them. Veganism is both a diet and, for many, a philosophy or way of life. And that’s absolutely cool. I’m always impressed when I meet somebody, get to know them and then discover, in more of less discrete way, that they have strongly held beliefs that influence their actions. They are not virtue-signalling, they are just living their lives according to their principles. Unfortunately, there are always attention-starved dip sh((s in any group who tend to ruin it for everyone. Some vegans can truly come off as unhinged as tinfoil hat wearing flat-earthers, or worse. Perhaps one of the worst vegans on Youtube is “Vegan Gains”, a deeply troubled young man who ostensibly talks about veganism and strength sports…but really just uses the platform to spew hateful invective. Way to help the cause, guys.
  • Faux Meat: I will say this, I just tried the McDonalds vegan burger and it’s really, really good. I was expecting to be underwhelmed but it’s genuinely good. Much better than any Mickey Ds meat product, however that’s setting the bar pretty low. McDonald’s, aside from their fries, is pretty rank. And I say that as somebody who eats meat. It works so well because a fast food burger is more about texture than quality meat, which you will not get at that price point. This is encouraging because if a large percentage of McDonalds customers switch to vegan burgers simply because they taste better, that’s a win/win for everyone and the planet. If you’re going to eat meat, even occasionally, don’t blow it on a fast-food burger. On the flip side of the coin, in my experience the “vegan versions” of meat dishes in many hipster vegan restaurants are often nasty. I can still not the get the taste of a vegan “Philly Cheesesteak'” out of my mouth. Blech…

To sleep, perchance to dream…

An anecdotal account of the effects of sleep deprivation on training and general health

The internet is awash with well being and sports training advice. All of the reputable sources of advice and coaching, without exception, stress the importance of quality sleep. “Yes, yes”, you think, “I get it…it’s the low hanging fruit type of advice…thanks, Captain Obvious”. Sleep, they say, is THE most important component of your physical and mental well being, and the most important factor of your athletic performance. Your programming, diet, all of it is for nought if you don’t have quality sleep. “A tad exaggerated, perhaps”, you think.

Well, if my recent experience is a good indicator, it’s spot on. I’ve always been able to sleep at the drop of a hat. My fondness for naps is a running joke in my family. Over the last several months, however, my ability to sleep was severely impaired. As I’ve described in previous posts, a perfect storm of personal and professional stress battered me for over a year. Little by little I completely lost my ability to nap (no matter how tired) and eventually a good night’s sleep seemed like a feverish dream from another life. It’s insidious because the most immediate effect of sleep deprivation is on your mental state. You lose the ability to focus, to concentrate which means, among other problems, you’re even less equipped to resolve whatever issues/stresses are causing your sleep to degrade.

My sleep quality degraded over a period of time, so the mental effects were noticeable but gradual. I always thought it’d be OK if I was just able to get a good night’s sleep. Indeed, I’d get a decent night of sleep every 5 or 6 days due to accumulated exhaustion and I’d wake up feeling like I had some sort of mental super-power. I began to use my powerlifting training as a means to physically exhaust myself enough to sleep. This worked for a short while but the lack of quality sleep exacerbated my depression brought on by stress I was encountering. I never stopped training, but I lost my motivation and began to just “go through the motions”. My workouts were subpar so subsequently my lack of quality of sleep reached critical levels.

It was a fairly rapid loss of strength 2 months ago that made me snap out of my stupor and seek medical help. It’s a scary thing to have 1/3 of your strength seemingly evaporate over night. Suffice it to say my doctor saw the state I was in, not to mention my skyrocketing blood pressure, and immediately implemented a number of measures, many of which were aimed at improving sleep. Firstly, I had learn to manage my sources of my stress and fix what I could while letting go those things that weren’t fixable. It’s literally a matter of life or death. Secondly I became very serious about sleep hygiene and, among other things, bought a better quality bed and pillows. I made sure I was properly hydrated, avoided alcohol (very detrimental to sleep quality) and began to take valerian (an herbal remedy) before bed-time.

It’s been several weeks since I implemented these measures. My blood pressure, while still high, has reduced from “off the charts” as it was when I first entered my doctor’s office. Slowly but surely my sleep is improving. The better I sleep the more able I am to address the causes of stress and, as a result, the generalized feeling of depression has lifted. If I wake up at night, I’m actually able to go back to sleep Enthusiasm for my personal interests, such a power-lifting, has returned.

Yesterday, 2 days from my birthday, I equaled my previous PR weight in deadlift. 2 months ago I could barely lift 70kgs less. My training partners have seen my lifts increasing week by week in 5 to 10 Kg increments and they have jokingly accused me of being on PEDs. It’s simple, if you don’t have quality sleep you don’t have health and if you don’t have health, you can forget mental and physical performance.

 

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.

 

 

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.