Archive | June 2014

The Meaning of Strength

I don’t quite understand people who say they found new kinds of strength when they went somewhere nice and happy.

Maybe it’s due to differing definitions of strength. I am more familiar and more often work with the physical definition (ability to apply high amounts of force), but I think that the most general definition is this little entry in the online Oxford dictionary: “The capacity of an object or substance to withstand great force or pressure”. I therefore don’t understand how you can go on vacation – a place that by definition is without stress or pressure – and find strength.


Basically, I believe strength emerges and is built in situations of stress. I have never felt anything resembling in idyllic circumstances – probably, I think, because there is no need to exert any force at all. If you have nothing weighing you down, you won’t have to push back.

Strength is self-discovery. You don’t guess at the limits of your strength; you learn what they are when you put yourself under pressure and see how well you handle it. You don’t walk around and relax and suddenly find new levels of strength. There are other forms of self-discovery in such circumstances, but not strength. Strength is tested in fire and improved under pressure. You cannot be strong when sitting on a couch. You can be strong when you’re trying to stand up against the pressure of 120kg on your shoulders. You cannot find strength taking long walks through a mountain. You can find strength trying to climb up a frozen cliff. 


You cannot find strength when everything goes your way, or when you set your bar so low that it requires no work. You will learn strength when everything feels broken and all you have is whatever you can dredge up in your gut.


The Hole of Comfort

So I got kind of pissy during the pre-workout briefing tonight. My bad. I should never do that. The problem is, it really gets on my nerves when the first thing anyone does upon reading the programmed workout is ask, “What’s the regression for everything?” I find it particularly annoying when it’s always the same person – someone who has, it must be noted, been “training” with us for a couple of years. I place the word “training” in quotation marks because I believe that to say you train denotes, among other things, a mindset bent on progression towards an objective or standard. The person whose main concern is finding the easy version does not “train”, because that person does not want to progress at all. In fact, that person is actively seeking a drop in capacity, hence the addiction to the word “regression”.

Regressions are meant for people whose physical capabilities fall below what is asked for by the workout. Should someone be incapable of performing a 20″ box jump, that person will be regressed to simple jump squats. Regressions might be necessitated by injury, certain medical conditions, or simple physical inadequacies in strength or power. A regression is not the version you pick when you’re being lazy. You don’t get to ask for it every single time something comes up, and you don’t get to call on it three days a week for two fucking years.

Too many of the people who enter our gym wind up digging themselves a hole of comfort. Within this hole, they are capable and happy. However, because they are happy, they will not climb out of it, and so they will never advance. See, the thing about holes is that they put you below ground level, meaning you are in fact somehow substandard. Once you decide that you’re going to live in your own little hole, you accept that you will remain substandard forever.

This, I feel, completely defeats the purpose of ever entering a physical exercise program. You are not there to have your ego stroked by being able to say “Oh, I do strength training”, when the reality is that you shy away from anything that requires even an ounce more exertion than what you’ve been doing for years. You are there to improve, and that requires climbing out of that comfortable little hole and trying something new and often difficult once in a while. Now, my job is not to pat you on the head and tell you that you’re right to fear change – it’s to yank you out of that hole, by your hair if necessary.

Tonight, the jump rope was one of the things that set me off. We tell people that if they have difficulty with timing, they can drill themselves towards it by spinning the rope with both ends in one hand while they hop to the rhythm. The problem is that many people have become accustomed to this drill to the point where they have forgotten the original purpose. Instead of trying to use the drill to learn the timing, they simply stick to it whenever jumping rope appears on the board. It is not uncommon to see people whose hops very obviously do not coincide with the rope’s strikes against the floor. There is no attempt to progress using the drill – they are content to do something that only vaguely matches what is called for, and they will undoubtedly (I know that at least two people do this) misrepresent themselves to others by claiming they can, in fact, jump rope.

Thus, I reminded everyone that the off-side skipping was a drill meant to train them up to proper jumping rope, and that I would not be particularly tolerant of long-time students who still refused to try even one 30-second interval of actual rope-jumping.

If you find yourselves sticking to the comfort of regressions, haul yourselves out of that hole. If you legitimately fail an attempt at the given standard – and often you are not a good judge of this, so don’t even think about it – then you will be provided a suitable regression and adequate time to make the improvement. Note, though, that you are expected to reach that standard eventually, which cannot happen if you stubbornly cling to your comfort.

Don’t ask me to regress a fucking medicine ball slam. Don’t ask to be allowed to use 5lb weights for a deadlift (unless you have an actual medical condition, as one of our trainees does – in which case I handed her Single-leg Romanian Deadlifts as an alternative, which she was more than glad to take because it meant she got to work instead of fuck around). Don’t claim you can’t jump more than 6 fucking inches off the floor.

And ultimately, don’t be surprised that you could never be counted among the higher levels of the group if you refused to tear down your mental walls. You can’t perform at a low level forever and miraculously become as good as everyone else. If you don’t understand why the girl who started later than you has already learned to jump rope while you cannot, ask yourself whether it has anything to do with the fact that you used the fucking side-skip drill for everything and never even took it seriously.

I have no problems with mediocre physical output. I don’t hold it against the 120lb girl who can’t automatically squat half her bodyweight for 60s straight. That’s fine. We can work towards it, if she deems it a worthy goal. What I hate is mediocre mental effort: clinging to comfort, hiding behind excuses and the like, anything that you use to avoid having to face failure and the necessity of improvement. Safety is paramount. Form is crucial. Intensity is important.

Comfort? Fuck that.

The Lie of Assistance

Originally posted on my Facebook account, 31 March 2014:


I think one of the most interesting essays Mark Twight has written is his stand on performance-enhancing drugs. Essentially, his main problem with people who won while using performance enhancers is that they are lying about human potential, forcing everyone to believe that they can only go so far before they absolutely must resort to unnatural means of improving their performance.

What Twight didn’t discuss – perhaps because he simply meant to leave the implication there for people to pick up on their own – is that this isn’t a lie limited to performance enhancers. The fitness world is full of things that people claim you need if you’re ever going to improve, from lifting belts to expensive footwear to hundred-thousand-peso machines. Everyone who refuses to work without any of these things can be lumped into Twight’s category of liars about human potential.

I had someone tell me recently that I should probably start using lifting belts and straps if I want my strength to improve. I quickly asked that person what his best stats were and why they qualified him to give me that advice, given that my major lifts all hilariously outstripped his.

The secret to achievement is not a secret. Everyone knows that it requires metric tons of hard work and sweat. It’s much easier to simply assume you couldn’t manage a new deadlift PR because you didn’t have the right grips, or because you should’ve had a belt on, or because you aren’t using the right combination of pre-workout supplements.

Bullshit. You failed because you didn’t put in the work, which means so much more than just showing up and doing the workout that someone handed you without a second thought. Did you figure out the logic behind the exercises? Have you taken the time to fix your form? Have you been recovering properly? Do you understand the programming used? Did you bother trying any of these things, or did you simply decide to hand off responsibility to someone else, knowing you could blame them when you failed?

Benedikt Magnusson holds the world deadlifting record at 1015lbs. He set this record wearing a weight belt and a singlet – no wraps, no grips, no specialized deadlifting suit (yes, those exist). His record trumps Andy Bolton’s 1009lbs, which was set using a belt and a specialized suit, although grips weren’t allowed either. There might be a dozen reasons Magnusson succeeded – one of them probably being that the deadlift doesn’t benefit from equipment as much as other lifts – but the main one is that he put in the time and effort.

Today, I set a front squat PR of 120kg, or 264.48lbs. That’s close to 150% of my body weight. That’s on tired legs and too little sleep – and no equipment save the clamps. No supplements but a shake of whey protein and coffee. This isn’t even considered a high level achievement, meeting rough international standards for “intermediate” lifters, or those who’ve been weight-training for about two years. It is, however, a 30kg increase since August, and it is the weight at which I began deadlifting about a year ago. It is also a weight I’d already failed to squat twice in the last month or so. If I had accepted from the start that I’d need to be ready to spend tens of thousands on belts and wrist straps and specialized P10000 lifting shoes to manage it, I probably would have never bothered trying to work towards that goal in the first place.

I won’t lie: it’s always going to be hard. You will sometimes fail. It will sometimes feel like you just don’t have what it takes. Those are the moments that tempt people to look for excuses like doping and equipment and a full staff to work with. You will probably never have those – does that mean you’ve accepted that you’re going to fail?

Don’t. Just try. Show up. Put in the work. Put in the time. Be honest. You cannot accidentally become strong, but you can surprise yourself from time to time with what you can achieve, so long as you made it a habit to push yourself to get better WITHOUT looking for a crutch.