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.

The Year That Was, Here, On This Blog

The formal two-year anniversary of this blog was sometime back in November; as I was traveling then I couldn’t put up a commemorative post; this year-end dispatch will have to do as substitute marker for that occasion.

2013 was a busy year for blogging here, though I blogged on fewer occasions than I did in 2012. (In 2012 I put up three hundred and twenty four posts; this year, only two hundred and ninety-four.) Like 2012, I took one long break–of four weeks–from blogging because of travel; last year, I had taken my furlough while I was out road-tripping in the American West; this year, because I was traveling with my family in India. I also took occasional breaks from blogging while I traveled outside New York City; this was not a luxury I had allowed myself in 2012, but I was more fatigued this year thanks to parental responsibilities, and I took any chance I could get to catch a bit of rest.

As I noted in my first-year anniversary post last year, this blog still lacks focus; I do not have a particular subject of focus and write on almost anything that catches my fancy. My daughter’s birth sparked a particularly self-indulgent set of posts responding to her presence; I presume those readers who were parents found this understandable, while other readers’ tolerance might have been severely tested. I also remained tardy in replying to readers’ comments; I hope they will continue to indulge me and reply to my posts as I struggle to improve my response time to them. I do not know what lies ahead in 2014; I think my frequency of blogging will diminish just a bit as I spend more time on other writing projects. Do stick around though.

The five most viewed posts this year–a series started last year–were as follows:

Alan Dershowitz, Pro-Torture Plagiarist, Deigns to Lecture Us On Intellectual Honesty: When Alan Dershowitz decided he wanted to interfere with Brooklyn College’s academic departments’ rights to conduct academic events on campus, I was incensed, and said as much. The posts on this ‘BDS controversy at Brooklyn College’ also brought in a record number of comments, which should not have been all that surprising given that they were, after all, about Israel and Palestine.

The Peculiar Allure of Blog Search Terms: This post, my nod at the peculiar, intriguing, fascinating, sometimes disturbing search terms that bring readers to this blog (and others), was picked by WordPress for their Freshly Pressed series. My thanks to the WordPress folks for that; their selection certainly brought in many new readers to this blog.

American Horror Story and Torture Porn: This post was quite popular in 2013, and sometimes I wonder if it’s for all the wrong reasons: are people looking for ‘torture porn’? I don’t have any to offer, unfortunately, just some commentary on the cinematic laziness and possibly problematic morals of the genre.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective: This post featured a guest contribution by my wife, who wrote an impassioned rejoinder to a wildly skewed, superficial and misleading article on Jezebel.

Male Anxiety in the Workplace: The Case of Academic Philosophy: I continued writing on womens’ station in academic philosophy, and here, in this post, I addressed the anxiety their presence seemed to cause to men.

Crossfit and the Military: A Way Forward

As a long-time member of Crossfit South Brooklyn, I have blogged here on Crossfit-related issues before (posts on Crossfit and the military, Crossfit and women, and of course, some training notes on weightlifting.) I’m not done yet writing about Crossfit, especially when it comes to issues of inclusiveness. On that note, I’m glad to welcome a guest post by Noah Barth, also a fellow Crossfitter, who has written a thoughtful post on the vexed relationship between Crossfit and military culture, a topic which I discussed–a while ago–in one of my most-read and discussed posts.

Noah offers a critique of Crossfit-military ties and goes on to suggest a possibly new orientation and focus for the community at large. It is his hope that by writing this post, he can spark a broader discussion about Crossfit–its past, present,and future.

Without further ado, here is Noah:

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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.

Crossfit, Women, and ‘Tough Titsday’: A Woman’s Perspective

I have often blogged on Crossfit here in these pages. In large part that is because I genuinely enjoy my experiences at Crossfit South Brooklyn (CFSBK), a very unique and distinctive space in which to work out and pursue the ever-elusive objective of being mens sana in corpore sano. It is also because I find a fitness phenomenon an interesting context within which to think about–among other things–the issues of masculinity, militarism, sexism, and misogyny. So, I’ve blogged here on Crossfit and strong women, the question of Crossfit’s relationship to the military, and for a long time, have wanted to write something on whether Crossfit provides a female-friendly space.

That last post will get written soon, but for the time being there is this: yesterday Jezebel ran a blog post that accused Crossfit South Brooklyn of sexism and/or misogyny.  I found the charge baseless, and so did many of the other folks that work out with me. Crossfit South Brooklyn, for its part, posted a rejoinder here. (The comments are worth reading to get a broad perspective on all the issues raised by the article and CFSBK’s response.)

My wife–who works out at CFSBK like me–and has participated in the Tough Titsday program and meet, was moved to email me the following:

If anyone could take something good and misread it completely, it is cheap and frivolous publications like Jezebel. That article, loaded with preconceived notions of what Crossfit is, and armed with the rantings of a single, incredibly imperceptive female visitor to the gym, actually does a great deal to strengthen a misogynistic view of women in its attempt to “expose” Crossfit South Brooklyn’s imagined affront by naming its female-centered strength training course and competition “Tough Titsday”.

As someone who has both participated in the course and who has done quite a bit of strength training at Crossfit, I find the article itself insulting. First, it is clear that the author, Ms. Katie J.M. Baker, could not be bothered finding out anything about the institution she seeks to criticize. Although each Crossfit affiliate is its own entity with cultures varying widely depending on the coaching staff and the location, Baker chooses to assume all participants and Crossfit gyms are some sort of stereotypical “bro-fest.” And despite the fact that the Tough Titsday class was actually created by an incredibly forward thinking and badass woman as a way to encourage other women, many whom were initially intimidated by heavy weightlifting, to get on the platform, Baker insists on creating her own imaginary universe, one where the “douchey bros” in the gym simply decided to form a class for us, their harem girls, in which they could sit around and comment on our tits or something. It insinuates that the women that participate in this course are perhaps too dumb or self-effacing to realize that they are being insulted. Perhaps Jezebel imagines us as a bunch of air-headed sorority girls all too happy to be on display at the meat market.

Well, Ms. Baker may get her rocks off with her fantasies, but if she took a couple minutes to get off her lazy ass and do some real journalism, she would have found out that I share the platform with female economists, philosophers, prosecutors, stand-up comedians, teachers, mothers, and other genuinely impressive women who find strength in each other’s companionship and are motivated by one another’s accomplishments. And, unlike our disgruntled visitor, we think the name is funny.

This is not to say that we are unaware of sexism. Context is everything. If you don’t believe me, think about this joke: three women go for a job interview, one with a degree in economics, one with a law degree, and one with 10 years experience. Who gets the job? Answer: the one with the biggest tits. Told by a 40-year old white man, the joke is crass and offensive, but told by a 40-year old woman, it becomes social commentary. Without placing CFSBK and its Tough Titsday training program and meet, in the context of what it is– a gym attracting a wide array of people of different backgrounds, genders, and body types–and refusing to find out what type of community is being created, the article misleads and misinforms. It seems too obvious to have to point out, but because programs like Tough Titsday go out of their way to promote women’s strength, the context renders the name inoffensive.

As a woman and a feminist, I begrudge Jezebel for carelessly demonizing something that gives myself, and many other women at our gym, strength and confidence. But frankly, I don’t really have time to get too bothered over half-baked writing like that in Jezebel, I’m too busy kicking ass on the platform and in the courtroom, and playing with my beautiful 4-month old daughter.

A Crossfit Party with Strong Women

Last night, I attended a Crossfit party. During the party–held at Crossfit South Brooklyn–two very strong and fit women, Annie Thorisdottir and Lindsey Valenzuela, performed a grueling workout for ten minutes. (Perform as many rounds as possible of the following combination: five shoulder to overhead movements of a seventy-five pound barbell, ten deadlifts of the same barbell, followed by fifteen jumps on to a twenty-inch box).  There were bright lights, an MC, television cameras, loud music, a raucous, enthusiastic, admiring crowd that clapped and cheered as the two athletes went flat out, performing a workload, which would leave most normal human beings, if not dead, then at least violently sick. (Most folks in attendance were Crossfitters themselves; thus, at the least, they had performed versions of the workout themselves and known just how difficult it is to sustain that kind of non-stop physical effort for ten minutes.)

At the end of it all, Ms. Thorisdottir had performed twelve rounds of the workout and Ms. Valenzuela eleven. (And change for both.) This was the second of the extravaganzas that Crossfit stages in the ‘Open’ section of its Crossfit Games: worldwide, average Joe gym-goers perform a series of workouts; some qualify for the so-called Regionals; and then another cut takes place for the Crossfit Games. (Described rather elegantly by a friend as the ‘World Series of Competitive Exercise’.) Last night’s event, as befitting an organization committed to putting on a show, was announced midweek on a live streamed program, with the workout performed immediately as a contest between two athletes known for their proficiency and fitness. Ms. Thorisdottir has won the Crossfit Games for the last two years running and is a serious contender to go for a third this year. Both Ms. Thorsidottir and Ms. Valenzuela are accomplished weightlifters; Ms. Valenzuela in particular is a national level Olympic weightlifter and perhaps has aspirations to compete internationally. (A difficult time awaits her; American women weightlifters have struggled to make a mark in international competitions thus far; perhaps Crossfit’s embrace and popularization of Olympic lifting might make a difference in this dismal situation.)

Writing on the Crossfit South Brooklyn blog today, I described the workout-party as follows:

The carefully choreographed production of spectacle, the deployment of mass media high technology, the showmanship, the human body beautiful and strong, the invocations of gladiatorial combat, the centrality of women athletes, it all was quite something to witness.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the evening was the open admiration of men for women athletes, one not  couched exclusively in terms of their physical attractiveness. (Needless to say, the women in attendance were equally awestruck.) Sure, there was much talk of sensational derrieres, but overwhelmingly, the men present were in awe of the physical effort on display. This made for an interesting change from a pattern often visible at conventional sporting events; men often disdain the women’s events or accuse them of not working as hard, or performing as well, or being overpaid or some variant thereof.   Crossfit still has a way to go in addressing gender issues that arise in its spaces–more on that anon, someday–but it has managed to work toward providing a forum where female athletes are equally worthy of appreciation. Just for that, the event was a revelation.