At some point, you need to be honest with yourself.
Sometimes it’s about goals. Sometimes it’s about the extent to which you will push yourself to attain them. Sometimes it’s just admitting that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. These kinds of honesty – which I would say are actually rare, and more often used to disguise the fear I generally rail against – can be painful because they may involve admitting that you simply aren’t as good as you thought. It’s a serious blow to the ego to not only have to drop 5kg off a planned work weight, but to modify a workout halfway through because your jerk fails, just doesn’t feel good. It’s especially frustrating to remember the days of 10-minute clean and jerk EMOMs and realize I couldn’t start one of those and expect to finish safely. Every excuse I can come up with, kind of falls short against the simple fact that trying to jerk 60kg in a tired state nearly caused me a serious injury. The lift is probably going to have to stay out of programming for a while – at least until I can rebuild my shoulder stability and hip power.
It was unrealistic to walk after a couple of weeks without power work and expect my Olympic lifts to be where they were last month, let alone where they were last year when I was doing barbell work two or three times a week. I was having difficulty jumping the weight off my thighs in the clean, which indicates a drop of power that was also evidenced by my poor jerk attempt. Part of it, I’m sure, is due to my degraded technique, but the power issue is probably more important. With my changing schedule, it’s unclear how much time I’ll have to rebuild the base I developed over the last couple of years.
Knowing where I am, though, is extremely useful. It helps that the Olympic lifts are brutally honest about any deficiencies you may have – if you can’t jerk 65kg, you’ll know instantly. There’s no way to disguise it from anyone, let alone yourself. Every truth – no matter how depressing or seemingly insignificant – is crucial to proper programming towards your goals. With a clear end in mind and a good understanding of how to progress, it becomes easier to decide what, how, and when to train and progress.
If you want to get better at the Olympic lifts, you need to realize just where you are. There’s no way around the fact that you need to be working more with barbells and progressing in weights; technique and power take time to develop (or re-develop, as the case may be).
Honesty must overcome ego. Ego can drive you to achieve great things, but honesty is what lays the foundation for these acts in the first place: honesty about your capabilities, where you want them to be, and how hard you must work to close the gap.
It would be nice if life were that easy to figure out.
5min Row @ progressive pace (work to 2:00/500m)
5x10s hard / 50s recovery row
2×5 Goblet Squat @ 20-25kg
2×5 Overhead Squat @ 20kg (empty bar)
2×5 Jump Squat
1 round per 30s for 10min @ 60kg (i.e. 20 sets)
1x Power Clean
1x Front Squat
Back Squat Work
3x @ 85kg
2x @ 90kg
1x @ 95/100/105kg
5×3 @ 90kg / 90s rest
One round per minute for 10min (i.e. 10 sets)
I started at 40kg, but bumped it to 50kg halfway through.
1x Power Clean
1x Hang Clean
1x Front Squat
5×25 Seated Calf Raise @ 85kg
Stretch to cool down and be sad
There are numerous articles circulating the Internet that remind – or should I say, teach – people that despite the massive popularity of CrossFit and similar boot camp gyms and programs, exercise should not be treated as “an all-out war on the body.” The mantra of “no pain, no gain” and its iterations are attacked almost as frequently as they are trumpeted, and it’s nowhere near uncommon to see both popping up all over one’s Facebook feed.
Now, I am in complete agreement with the idea that you aren’t supposed to feel like you were physically abused at the end of each training session. The body and mind cannot handle constant destructive efforts without an eventual breakdown, which is why rest and recovery days are always programmed into any smart training cycle. Most even include a deload week wherein the loads (read: weights) used are set far lower than might be expected in order to allow the CNS and muscles to properly recover without detraining.
The problem is when this perfectly valid reasoning is misused to defend outright avoidance of hard work in the gym or on the road.
Improvement means adaptation to discomfort. Discomfort can sometimes be painful. For example, muscle growth is the result of myofibrillar microtears that are repaired by nutrient flow during rest periods. Before recovery can begin, however, there must be that moment of stress that causes the microtears in the first place. This is why bodybuilders, strongmen, and weightlifters alike must all lift heavy: there will be no increase in size and strength without forcing the body to proactively prepare itself for greater stress. Similar principles are why runners train in intervals at race pace and why a sprinter should know her best 100m time.
If you never feel any kind of discomfort whatsoever, then you have no idea what your maximum capabilities are, and your body – and mind – will feel no need for the process of adaptation. Once in a while, you need to step into the gym ready to discover how far you can go without breaking down. You need to realize just how heavy a 265lbs. front squat is, or how terrible a 2km row can get, before you can start working towards improving them. And along the way, you will have to push yourself right up to the precipice before smartly stepping back. That’s the idea behind 5 sets of 2 reps at 80% of your 1-rep max, or 4 100m sprints at ~3s less than your PR. You will adapt with each trip to the edge, and by doing so push it just a little bit farther.
It always hurts to go all-out. Coming close will be almost as bad, and about as terrifying for all that you know about what the edge is like. You can’t avoid it forever if you’re serious about pursuing excellence, and it always pays off to know just how far and how hard you can go.
To reiterate, I don’t think you should destroy yourself every single day. Believe me, I know perfectly well how bad things will get if you do that to yourself. Get some sleep. Take a day off every week or so. Throw in some light recovery days, especially if you’re feeling wasted. First and foremost, however, you have to work hard to have something to rest and recover from. Pressure produces diamonds. It can be strategically applied and carefully managed, especially if you’ve had a good coach, but it must exist. Be ready to go in hard every now and then, and don’t use the words of others to disguise your fear. Face it, accept it, and overcome it.
5min Ride @ progressive pace (work to ~30kmph)
5x10s hard / 50s easy pace
20s work / 20s rest
Push Press @ 2x20lbs
3x Pistol Squat per minute for 10min (i.e. 10 sets)
8 rounds @ 2x25lbs / 30-60s rest
Don’t set the kettlebells down between exercises.
6x Double Swing
6x Double High Pull
6x Double Clean
6x Front Squat
6x Double Jerk
Lately I’ve had to repeatedly face the challenge of focusing my training time. It began when a former client started asking me a few months ago how to properly integrate all aspects of fitness into her schedule, which lead to interesting discourses on training in general. This coincided with my own realization of just how much time I had to micromanage if I were to achieve all my goals simultaneously. The result is that I’ve been revisiting and reviewing the issue of focus and my stance thereon.
Until about this time last year, I was training twice a day, six days a week. Sessions lasted 30 to 90 minutes and covered just about everything I could imagine needing to cover: lower body strength and power, upper body strength endurance, general power endurance, flexibility, cardiorespiratory endurance, and skill work were all incorporated somehow. This meant a lot of time, a lot of different exercises, and a lot of writing and calculating. At the time I didn’t think too much about cutting down my training time because I was improving everything – building a wide, solid foundation of fitness, which is what I want. Now, though, I find that not only is it more difficult to manage my daily schedule, I am less certain that everything I was doing was entirely necessary to achieve that level of general physical capacity. For instance, I used to put in roughly three hours of running a week. Now, however, I’ve effectively removed running from my programming simply because – other than preparing for a race – I don’t see how the health benefits of running cannot be achieved by another exercise that I might enjoy more. Rowing may not burn as many calories per hour, for instance, but I enjoy it more and find it more beneficial to respiratory training and recovery efforts.
I have also been studying the length of each workout. I realized last month that my main workouts – as opposed to short, focused sessions that usually last around fifteen to twenty minutes – take about ninety minutes to two hours. Early Sunday morning, this isn’t a big deal because I have the entire day. At six in the evening on a Tuesday, though – with eight hours of work the next day – ninety minutes seems like a lot of time to spend not eating or sleeping.
The logical conclusion seems to be that I should dedicate more effort to trimming down workout time. Cut rests, remove non-essential exercises, etc. However, this raises the issue of whether I would then have to accept lower standards in certain areas.
The old journeyman standard of 10, 000 hours was meant to ensure sufficient time and effort had been put into learning one’s chosen trade. While no one is quite as strict with counting hours nowadays, it still stands to reason that developing proficiency means a lot of practice. Consequently, if you want to become proficient in multiple areas, you need to spend even more time training. Can I – as someone with a very wide range of fitness goals – actually reach my target proficiency if I reduce the time I spend working on each one?
The issue of focus cannot be easily resolved. While the beginning of this post may have made it seem that I was resolved to lower training time, I remain uncertain that doing so will not have any negative effects – at least not negative effects that I can accept. A more detailed analysis is in order.
For now, I suppose that one of my catchphrases will have to suffice: “Figure out your life.”
Today’s workout is a power endurance fuckfest I dreamed up the other day, based on the Gym Jones workout of the same name. It replaced yesterday’s scheduled recovery work because I was feeling pretty good and kind of ornery. I did not feel so at the end.
5min Row @ progressive pace
2×5 Wall Squat
2×5 Overhead Squat @ 30lbs
2×5 Jump Squat
A former client has been frequently getting in touch with me for advice on her training. From what I can tell, she is trying to build what I would consider a foundational fitness base – that is, a general degree of fitness across multiple aspects, with some work on yoga and gymnastic skills. I’m happy to help, mostly because I kind of miss being a trainer and because this particular person is someone I was hoping to work with.
Anyway, I have been pleasantly surprised and impressed with her questions, especially in comparison to another person who has asked me for fitness advice. The latter – someone I’ve previously criticized, both on this blog and in person – prefers to ask “Yes or no” questions, having a tendency to try shoving things into his program with little critical analysis. The former tends to begin questions with “How” or “Why”, which leads to a longer line of inquiry that ultimately leaves room for reflection. This, I feel, is the right way to gather information.
First, asking a “Yes or no” question tends to hand off responsibility. For instance, if someone asked whether he should foam roll and instantly added it to his regime because I said yes, he could – should it fail to produce any improvements – claim it was my faulty advice that caused him to waste time. He himself made no mistake except to listen to someone who was wrong. On the other hand, asking questions such as “What are the benefits?” and “How would this help me?” eventually, if properly answered and analyzed, lead to the trainee himself being forced to answer the question of whether he should do it. In this case, responsibility falls where it should: on the person who actually benefits if he’s right.
Now, I understand that this might seem counter to the point of having a coach or someone similar to guide you in any way. I contend that a coach’s job is not to order you around, but to advise you on your options and help you along. Similarly, when you ask for advice, you should not be trying to get someone to tell you exactly what to do. You should be asking someone to help you gather enough information and be critical enough of it to make the right choice.
Second, pursuing a line of questioning displays curiosity and a willingness to self-analyze, both of which are crucial to developing a successful training program. Each aspect of the program should be geared towards the individual’s objectives, which entails careful study of both existing and prospective components. If you think you should learn to power clean, you should be ready to ask yourself why you would need to do so and whether the time and effort in learning and improving the lift could better be spent on something else. Moreover, you should be ready to ask others to help you answer those questions.
Third, what would you do if you asked a simple “Yes or no” question of ten people and received different answers? This is one way in which deciding to answer the final question yourself is vastly superior to fobbing off responsibility. While it doesn’t eliminate the possibility of conflicting information, being inquisitive instead of outright subservient narrows the questions down to what you, personally, think you should do, and whether you trust yourself. You aren’t trying to decide whether this person or that is more reliable, but whether you did enough that you think you can make a good decision. Generally, if you’ve done your due diligence, you can rest easy with your choice, knowing it was the result of a comprehensive study and is ultimately for your benefit.
If we accept that what separates training from simply working out is the pursuit of a goal, then we should also insist that we treat it as an educational process. Asking whether you should learn a new lift or integrate a new training tool should never be a simple question; it is a micro indicator of the entire training process and the trainee’s willingness to seek out the best option. By all means, go to a coach and ask a friend. They can guide you along and hopefully teach you everything you need to learn. In the end, though, it’s your success that hangs in the balance, and you should be willing and able to lead the chase.
4-way Jumping Jacks, 30x each
Uneven Push-up (hand on medicine ball)
Goblet Squat @ 5kg
5 sets of One-arm Push-ups. (Rep count: 4/6/4/4/8 on right, 6/8/6/6/10 on left. 90s rest.)
3x20s work / 20s rest per exercise
KB Front Squat @ 2x16kg
I have written about a disturbing tendency for people to drop their standards when faced with truly challenging tasks. I think I made my point clear in that post, so I won’t rewrite my entire argument. Essentially, I do not agree with relaxing standards in the name of self-inflation, as is the trend in far too many physical arenas nowadays (as well as several business ones, but we won’t go into those today).
There was a discussion not too long ago making its rounds about “the dad bod”, which The Odyssey identifies as a “nice balance between a beer gut and working out.” This physique’s popularity is attributed to the relative lack of discipline required to achieve and maintain it, which is supposed to promote a balance between minding one’s health and cutting loose. The “dad bod” isn’t intimidating or indicative of an iron head. It lets you know that its owner doesn’t work out twice a day and militantly watch his diet. It lets you know that this guy is relaxed, friendly, and approachable.
But does it, really?
People assign meaning to things. I get that. I understand that when you see a chiseled physique, you assume its owner must have little else to do but hit the gym and chug protein shakes. I understand that powerful physical specimens make you feel weak in comparison (a discussion I’d like to have some other time). What I don’t understand is the need to exclude those who pursue this perfection.
A while back, Eliana Dockterman wrote about how the film 300: Rise of an Empire and its predecessor 300 cause men to develop negative body images. Dockterman claimed that the chiseled physiques on-screen were responsible for weight disorders among men, and that the rigid training implied to be the key to such a body was actually detrimental to the psyche. She claims that the bodies you see on screen and aspire to match are an impossible standard that may be causing more harm than anyone realizes.
Now, Dockterman may have been attempting to represent the problem with how female bodies are portrayed in the media through a different lens. Since men do not generally suffer from anorexia or bulimia, she chose to use the 300 body – and the extremes to which the cast was pushed to achieve such a form – as an example of something unhealthy yet pursued. Now I’m not saying that everyone should go out there and turn themselves into Spartans, but I question the assertion that those who actually did that shouldn’t be role models for anyone.
First off, I concede that there is some truth to the stance that attempting the 300 challenge – as it were – can be dangerous. I likewise concede the risks in setting standards that are simply out of reach – God knows I’ve found myself depressed by failing something anyone else would have thought not even worth attempting, and I’ve even managed a couple of injuries by pushing too hard, too fast. It hurts, and it sucks.
Why, though, do we need to alienate people who are willing to go that extra distance? Do we really need to blame Mark Twight (the head trainer on both 300 films) or the cast for deciding that the Spartans needed to look like gods of war? Do we need to tell the guy with 20-inch biceps that he’s wasting too much time with the iron?
There’s nothing wrong with chasing fitness. I think we can all agree on that. Where we disagree is the extent to which one can chase his dreams before being shunned. I have no problem with someone who would rather go to the gym than grab some beers. I see nothing wrong with the actor who refused to take a break between shoots in order to nail his shirtless scene. It’s his choice, and his goal. As long as no one – himself included – gets hurt, why should we do anything about it, except perhaps respect him for chasing it?
For me, fitness isn’t about the body – it’s about the mental strength you develop, and the confidence instilled by overcoming physical challenges. It’s a question of how far you are willing to go for what you believe in, and I respect anyone who is ready to make the journey – whether they’re signing up at the starting line or on their hundredth kilometer.
Someone achieved a six-pack. Someone dumped his beer gut. They chose to work hard for that, and they did so. I’m not saying we need to feel bad about not being able to do the same – which is what both The Odyssey and Dockterman’s articles implied – but that we should give credit where credit is due. Aside from the occasional asshole, most gym-goers aren’t there to show off and make others feel insignificant. They are there to better themselves, and many will be all too happy to help you do the same.
You don’t tell the Straight-A kid that he’s a loser. You don’t call the Ph.D-holder a dork. Let’s not thank the dad bod for making us insecure about ourselves; let’s thank the Spartans for giving us a standard to aspire to.
15x KB Swing @ 24-32kg