Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble: Weightlifting And Humility

Lifting weights requires humility. Two weeks ago, a couple of days before I began a week-long vacation with my family–a road-trip to Cincinnati to visit my in-laws, that is, my daughter’s grandparents–I squatted 255lbs for three sets of six repetitions. (The sixth rep in there aims to add a little volume to my training.) I finished my sets satisfactorily; they were heavy and tiring, but still manageable. I looked forward to adding five pounds to my barbell for my next lifting session. Because I was going on vacation, I planned to visit a gym in Cincinnati and do my next squatting workout there.

But vacations can disrupt the most well-laid of plans. Once ensconced in Cincinnati, I sought the couch everyday, and proceeded to stuff myself with sundry goodies on a day-long basis. (These goodies included desserts of many stripes.) I did not run, lift weights, or do a single push-up, pull-up, or sit-up for those seven glorious sedentary days.

This indulgence left its mark. I returned from vacation an indeterminate number of pounds heavier, feeling bloated and sluggish and stiff. I dreaded the return to the gym. And for good reason: last Wednesday, my front-squat warm-ups felt ponderous and painfully heavy. I had squatted 225lbs at 3×3 before I left, but there was no way I could hit 230 now. I settled for a single at 215lbs and then squatted 185 lbs for nine reps. On a good day i.e., with no interruptions after my last lifting session, I could easily have easily squatted this for 15, but now, I walked the weight back in. I was humbled.

Then, today, I returned to the back squat. I would have been scheduled to lift 260x6x3 if I had continued after my last workout but I had to reconsider given my two-week break. I settled for trying 255x5x3. The weight would be the same as the last attempted load, and the reps would be just a little less. There would be no moving onward and upward for now, just an attempt to hold on.

I warmed up as usual: 45×5, 135×5, 185×3, 225×1 and finished the first set at a slow grind. Every rep felt heavy; my knees did not stay out entirely. Unsurprisingly. In the second set, I forgot to check the barbell before I began my lift, and paid for this lack of attention. One side was loaded with an extra twenty-five pound plate. As I stepped out of the rack, the imbalanced load pulled me off-kilter. My re-rack attempts were comically inept, and I needed some help from my spotters. When I stepped out again with the correct weight, my mind was still awhirl and distracted. The reps felt heavier; the struggle under an incorrectly loaded bar had taken a lot out of me physically and mentally. Reps three and four were a real struggle, and suddenly, I was not sure I would finish the fifth rep.

So I walked the weight back in to the rack. It was an admission of defeat, a surrender of sorts; I did not fight it out on the fifth rep. But I did not want to bail the barbell on the fifth rep either. I hate bailing on squats; a failed squat stays in my head for weeks. I would rather pack up a set early than take a chance on an awkward bail–especially when I could already sense I was distracted and still processing a less than ideal set-up for lifting heavy. So that was that.

But I still wanted to do the third set. All five reps of it. Which I did. And which worked as a nice confirmation that I wasn’t completely wrecked as a lifter.

So two nice lessons for the day: one, a modest return to resuming lifting is a good idea–not only do you need to get the body firing again, you need to get your mind used to heavy weights; two, during training, don’t bail unless you absolutely have to; it’s perfectly all right to live to fight another day.

Perhaps next week, I’ll feel like I did two weeks ago. Two steps forward, one step back, and all that other good stuff.

A Tale of Two Wendler Waves

In December, on returning from a four-week vacation to India, one marked by considerable dietary indulgence and a non-existent workout routine, I found myself out of shape. As I made my way back to weightlifting, I found my strength and confidence considerably diminished. Over the next few weeks, I struggled to retain some form and to approach my former numbers in the major lifts (the squat and the deadlift looming especially large for me). But there was no getting away from it: I was weakened and needed to build back up.

In mid-February a new lifting cycle began at my gym, Crossfit South Brooklyn. We were given a choice of doing a Wendler 5/3/1 cycle (fully described here) for the squat and deadlift or doing a 2×10 for the former and a 1×5 for the latter. I opted for the Wendler cycle; I’ve done it before and quite enjoy the challenge of its max-rep sets.

But before I began, I had to settle on what my starting training max–ninety percent of the one-rep max–would be. I knew I couldn’t use my older 1-rep max for this calculation. We tested our squat one-rep max shortly before the lifting cycle began, and I had to swallow my ego and admit my best numbers were down by thirty pounds or so. Last year, I had squatted 305, but this year, the best I could manage–early in February–was 275. I hadn’t tested my deadlift one-rep max (a very old one is 325), but decided I would use the same number–275lbs–for it. It wouldn’t matter if it was a little light; I figured I’d just get a little added volume on my rep-outs.

The following were the prescribed weights for a one-rep max of 275 and a training max of 247.5:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Set 1 160lbs x 5 173lbs x 3 185lbs x 5
Set 2 185lbs x 5 197lbs x 3 210lbs x 3
Set 3 210lbs x 5+ 222lbs x 3+ 235lbs x 1+

Some creative rounding up and down gave me the following table instead:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Set 1 165lbs x 5 175lbs x 3 185lbs x 5
Set 2 185lbs x 5 195lbs x 3 205lbs x 3
Set 3 215lbs x 5 225lbs x3+ 235lbs x 1+

My numbers for the first cycle were as follows:

Squat repouts in third set: 215×21, 225×15, 235×12

Deadlift repouts in third set: 215×14, 225×12, 235×12

You will notice my deadlifts begin weaker than my squats and then slowly catch up.

For the second three-week cycle, which we began without going into a deload week, I changed my one-rep max to 285lbs, which led to a training max of 256.5. This gave me the following table:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Set 1 166lbs x 5 179lbs x 3 192lbs x 5
Set 2 192lbs x 5 205lbs x 3 218lbs x 3
Set 3 218lbs x 5+ 230lbs x 3+ 243lbs x 1+

Again, some creative rounding up and down gave me the following:

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3
Set 1 175lbs x 5 185lbs x 5 195lbs x 5
Set 2 195lbs x 5 205lbs x 3 215lbs x 3
Set 3 225lbs x 5+ 235lbs x 3+ 245lbs x 1+

My numbers for the first cycle were as follows:

Squat repouts in third set: 225×20, 235×15, 245×14

Deadlift repouts in third set: 225×17, 235×16, 245×15

Again, my deadlift numbers start off weaker and then catch up and go just beyond.

Despite these repouts being the best I have done at these weights, I do not know if my one-rep max is back up to its former levels primarily because I do not know how well these gains at lower weights translate into gains at higher weights. But, I do know that spending as much time as I have under and over the bar has helped me regain a great deal of confidence in squatting and deadlifting. A long repout rapidly becomes a test of form and breathing technique as well; the ones I have performed over the last six weeks have provided ample opportunity to work on these.

Much more work remains to be done on both these lifts; all in good time. I’m in for the long run.

Rebuilding the Squat, One Set at a Time

Writing lifting reports can be extremely self-indulgent: look at me, I lift weight. But they can also be honest reckonings of weaknesses, failures, setbacks and all the other roadbumps that interfere with our smooth progress towards long-set goals. So I write ’em; I haven’t done so too often out here but this year, I hope to rectify that.

So, here is the year’s first report. This time on the year’s squatting thus far. As is the case with most who take the squat seriously, it rapidly becomes the centerpiece of one’s lifting; no other lift’s ‘numbers’ matter quite as much; no other lift is tracked so extensively.

I feel especially inspired to write a brief note on my squatting because of having carried out what amounts to a successful reconstruction and rebuild of the lift this year.When the year began, I had lost some contact with a regular lifting schedule thanks to my new-born daughter’s arrival. I returned to squatting in mid-January and completed a cycle of squatting at Crossfit South Brooklyn, spread out over six weeks or so. I missed only a couple of sessions and slowly started to recover some strength, with my numbers creeping back up. I then began a second cycle and early in it, injured my back at the bottom of a squat. I was not squatting very close to a maximum; the week before I had squatted 240 pounds for sets across (three sets of five reps at the same weight), and on this occasion, I had been squatting 225. But the back felt bad and that was that. The next week, after resting, I tried again, and felt the soreness and stiffness again. No bueno.

It was time to deload. I set my work weight all the way back to 205, and recommenced my lifting sessions again. With a difference: this time I did sets of 5, 5, followed by a repout (i.e., as many reps as possible). This way, I hoped to continue to work on strength as well by adding a little volume to my lifts at a sub-maximal load. It worked; the following were my lifts over the next few weeks, leading up to today:

205: 5, 5, 10

210: 5, 5, 10

215: 5, 5, 12

220: 5, 5, 10

225: 5, 5, 10

230: 5, 5, 10

235: 5, 5, 10

240: 5, 5, 10

245: 5, 5, 11

250: 5, 5, 10

At this point, I began microloading in 2.5lb increments, as I was getting close to the maximum weight I have ever done for reps, 260 lbs):

252.5: 5, 5, 9

255: 5, 5, 10

257.5: 5, 5, 10

260: 5, 5, 9

Today, for the set above, I think I had the 10th rep but my back was getting sore and tired as I was waiting too long between reps to catch my breath. When I went down for the 10th, I collapsed at the bottom and couldn’ t stand back up. Still, nine was not bad at all. This session now counts as some kind of personal record for the last time I had squatted 260 lbs, I had done it for three sets of five reps.

These last few weeks of squatting then have been deeply satisfying: when I began them, I was injured, scared, and worried that I would not regain strength, and remain injured and out of action. But thanks to some judicious ego-swallowing and a patient, yet ambitious approach to recovery, I was able to lift my way back into some real strength gains.

Much hard work to be done over the summer (especially on squat technique), but for the time being, at least the squat is back in business.

Watching People Lift Heavy Things

I have written about my weightlifting experiences on this blog on previous occasions. (Sometimes, about my experiences with, feelings about, and lessons learned from, particular lifts like the squat or the clean.) Today, I am writing about watching others lift weights. More specifically, I am watching some friends of mine complete the so-called Crossfit Total: three attempts to establish maximum weights at the one lift of the back squat, deadlift and press.(I have also written on a pair of Crossfit Totals I have attempted in the past).

So why is watching other people lift a good idea?

For one thing, it is straightforwardly educational. Part of the process of becoming a good weightlifter is to study lifting technique and form. But studying weightlifting doesn’t just mean looking at YouTube videos or reading books about it (though both of those are certainly very useful activities and I have done my fair share). Yet another way to study it is to watch others lift weights–with an appraising eye. There is a wonderful variety in the human form: height, weight, the length of the legs and arms, the flexibility of hamstrings or the shoulder joints, all of which make a difference to the ease or difficulty of executing lifts. (Lifters with short legs have an easier time with the squat for instance; taller people face their own particular challenges when deadlifting.) A Total provides an opportunity to inspect the form of a diverse set of lifters attempting to resolve their own particular idiosyncratic take on a lift. Watching lifters solve these problems–sometimes on the fly, sometimes under extreme stress–is edificational in the extreme.Watching lifters lift close to the limits of their capacities is also instructional: how does their form change as they approach that maximum? Part of developing a strong critique of one’s own lifting is to look for common faults and see if they show up in these stress situations. Every lift, every attempt is a veritable laboratory, a chance to look and learn, and troubleshoot.

Then there is the inspirational aspect of it all. The lifters at this Total have finished eight weeks of training, they have worked hard three times a week, lifting progressively heavier weights building up to this crescendo. Now, they are faced with a test of that training and hard work. Some of the lifters are relative novices, having started from a baseline of not being able to lift very much weight at all. Yet others are more experienced hands, capable of squatting or deadlifting twice their bodyweight. But in each case, the effort remains the same: they strive for their limits, trying to find out how hard they can push themselves, whether they have it in them to dig themselves out of the ‘squatters hole’, whether they can find it in themselves to execute each lift as it gets harder and harder. Lifting is not easy; the platform is often an arena where one’s fears and anxieties bubble up to the surface; a weight on one’s back can be an implacable foe.  Watching an ordinary human being master these fears is euphoria inducing in its own way.

Lastly, the simultaneous simplicity and complexity. of weightlifting is a marvel in its own right. Yes, all of it just boils down to: pick a weight up off the floor; raise a weight above your head; stand up with a weight on your back. But in each case, the devil lies in the details. Inspecting those details is where the fun begins.

Nietzsche, Power, and Bible-readers on the Subway

Last evening, after a full day of work teaching Philosophy of Biology, a seminar on Nietzsche, and conducting a teaching observation of a graduate fellow, I left campus for my evening weightlifting session. I was feeling run down, and not a hundred percent. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, perhaps a nagging cluster of cold-sore throat related symptoms that were insidiously undermining my ability to face up to the world. As I rode the subway to the gym, I felt uninspired and sleepy; the book I had intended to read only had a few of its pages turned.

Thankfully, the lifting went well. I was scheduled to back squat (Crossfit South Brooklyn is following the Wendler Cycle for our strength programming), and after lifting 185×5, and 205×5, I did my maximum-repetitions set at 230 (for 12 reps). By the end of it, my legs were shaking, I was close to hyperventilating, and a clarity-inducing  surge of euphoria had seemingly cleansed me of the sluggishness of the afternoon.

I changed, and made my way to the 7th Avenue subway station to head home. As I waited for the train, I pulled out my copy of Karl Jasper‘s Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of his Philosophical Activity (JHU Press, 1997) , and, somehow emboldened, began to read:

The pyschology of the feeling to power: Nietzsche’s conception of the ‘will to power’ is by no means identical with his conception of the drives that aim to provide a feeling of power. The one relates to genuine being that has become extra-empirical; the other to observable psychological experience. The one involves an abstract will, intent upon determining the course of its own being; the other, the conscious pursuit of the enjoyment attending the feeling of power.

I stared back at the page. Really, was this where I had left off, and now, resumed reading?

As I sat on the bench, a lady on her way back home sat down next to me and opened up a book. It was the Bible. She opened it to Numbers 25, and began reading. I sat there for a few seconds, and then, unable to resist, spoke: “Excuse me, are you reading the Bible straight through or picking selections?” The lady smiled, and said, “I’m reading it straight through.” I then asked, “Have you read the Bible before?” She smiled again, and said, “No, I’ve read it many times before.  This time my reading has been a bit slower; I got bogged down in Leviticus for a bit.” I nodded; sometimes I too, get mired in parts of books I read.

A B train pulled in and discharged its passengers, who swarmed around us to head for the exits, as we sat there with our books open on our laps. I wondered if my new acquaintance would ask me about what I was reading, and how I would describe it if she hadn’t heard of Nietzsche. She then spoke again, “Are you a believer?” I replied, “No, but I’m always curious about people that appear to be serious readers.” Her reply was made inaudible by the arrival of the Q train. I bade her take care as I headed for a subway car.

I wonder what Nietzsche would have thought about it all: a hundred years after his death, philosophy professors, on their way home after weightlifting, reading books about his writings, sitting next to readers of the Bible, all the while ensconced in the bowels of a gigantic subterranean transportation system in an American city.

An Ode to the Squat

There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.

So what else might there be to say? To offer just another note of agreement would be pompous; more to the point, I’m not sure I’m qualified to offer straightforward affirmation of Mark Rippetoe‘s quote above. Still, perhaps a few words about my personal experience with the King of Lifts won’t be remiss.

The squat, like the deadlift and the press, is an elementary lift. In the deadlift, you pick a weight off the floor; in the press you raise a weight above your head; in the squat you put a weight on your back, squat down with it, and stand back up. Simple. (Note: a correctly executed squat requires proper training and much attention to form.) The loading of the lifter’s body frame with the weight and the nature of the movement–squat down, stand up–contribute to the lift’s systemic impact (as eloquently noted in the note above). Moreover, in a squat you can ‘move’ more weight, more frequently than any other lift; deadlift payloads invariably tend to be higher, but in a week of lifting, almost nobody can deadlift as many times as they can squat.

But the real appeal of the squat arguably lies in the experience it provides for the lifter. While the deadlift and the press are elementary movements and as such are deeply satisfying to execute because of their intrinsic simplicity, the squat fascinates because it adds the element of intimidation to the movement of the weight. In the squat, the barbell threatens to crush, to drive down, to oppress. In standing back up with the weight, the lifter resists and triumphs.

Thus is the archetype at the heart of the squat established: you place a load on your back that could make your knees buckle and your back crumple if the body’s frame were not stiffened and prepared, and you move that load back up to where it can no longer threaten you so. And then you walk it back into the rack.

The lifter experiences apprehension as he steps out from the rack and sets up, well aware that he is about to make a ‘descent’ from which he might not ‘come back up;’ the nomenclature of the ‘hole’, the bottom position of the squat, acts as a vivid reminder of this possibility; they are often the things that we cannot climb back out of. As the lifter emerges from the ‘hole’ with a heavy load he hits the midpoint of the ascent, where the barbell’s formerly-seemingly-quick upward ascent slows. The moment of truth is at hand; can this barrier be transcended? The lifter soon finds out for himself. A few seconds later, the barbell is on the rack, and the lifter steps away, breathing just a little harder, amazed yet again, at how the simple act of moving iron through space can be physically and mentally inspirational.

A Tale of Two Crossfit Totals

A Crossfit Total is a simple test of strength: three attempts to find a one-repetition max in the back squat, deadlift and press. Add up those numbers, and you have a Total.

In September 2011, after finishing an eight-week cycle of lifts that tracked (quite closely) the programming prescribed in Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program, I completed the following lifts (weights in pounds for one repetition):

Back Squat: 265/275/285
Press: 125/130/135
Deadlift: 265/275/290

Comments: I didn’t fail any of the lifts, which would seem to suggest I could have gone a little heavier. Conversely, it also means I planned smart, and did my lifts right. In the squat and deadlift, I began with numbers that were close to the last completed workouts. In the case of the squat, I had done a 250x5x3 workout the week before, and in the case of the deadlift, I had done a 255×5 workout the week before. My back squat and deadlift numbers are too close; this is because my deadlift is my weakest lift. My weak and injured lower back requires me to be very cautious when deadlifting.

In December 2011, after returning to regular programming at Crossfit South Brooklyn, I did another Crossfit Total and this is what I completed:

Back Squat: 255/265/275(Fail)
Press: 135(Fail)/125/136(Fail)
Deadlift: 265/275/290(Fail)

Comments: Clearly my numbers fell off, which was initially disappointing, but in retrospect this was entirely understandable. A strength cycle is dedicated to squatting and pressing (bench or military) three times a week; the heavy squatting aids the deadlift numbers as well. Regular Crossfit programming doesn’t allow for such systematic, week-in, week-out, linear progressions in the lifts. It would have been surprising if I had pulled off the same numbers in the second total. In retrospect my second total numbers are actually quite good.

That said, there a few factors contributed to the lowered numbers.

First, my squatting coming into the total had been a little sporadic and to make things worse, a couple of my workouts had featured some off-color squatting (shallow reps, staggers on coming out of “the hole”). My confidence in the squat was not sky-high during the December total. I was happy enough to make the first lift I had made in the September total.

Second, in the case of the press, I planned badly. I should have started with a 125, gone for a 135 on the second if that had come off, and then tried a lift for a personal record on the third try. Lesson learned. I should know better by now, but there you have it.

Third, in the case of the deadlift, I simply lacked practice; I hadn’t deadlifted enough to be able to go for anything heavier than the 275 I did pull off.

I’ve now started another strength cycle (this past Monday). My starting squat number is 205, my starting deadlift number is 235. I hope to make it past 300 in both lifts, which should be doable if I eat right, and do enough stretching and post-lifting recovery work. A pair of tight hamstrings will sabotage both these lifts, so those need to be supple and limber. (I haven’t forgotten about the press; my starting number is 100, and for now, I’m allowing myself to dream of breaking 150; the press is extremely finicky, so who knows what will happen here, but hope springs eternal and all that.)