Push It Too Far

For as long as I can remember, my Mom has always scolded me a bit about how I take things too far. I am known as the most emotional one of the three boys in my family and I think that’s a pretty fair assessment. I can be all or nothing, no doubt about it. When I am focused on something, everything else falls away a bit. This can be both incredibly useful and less-than-helpful – useful when I am diligently applying myself to a positive task and bad when I push myself to the point of burn out. It’s for this reason I try to keep myself much more even keeled… with varying degrees of success, but I do try.

But sometimes? I completely don’t give a single rip about balance, moderation or anything in that bland milquetoast middle that I sometimes see people getting sucked into (and I have as well at times – full disclosure). There is a time for a balance and there’s also plenty of times not to settle. To push the boundaries of both good sense and what you thought was possible for yourself.

Sometimes, you have to have moments like this:

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What happened here?  Oh, it’s a pretty simple formula: sunshine + 30 degree weather + less-than-bright guy x Prowler = flat on your back, staring skyward. And feeling utterly alive. Gasping for breath and woozy, but really, really alive.

I don’t recommend this on a daily basis or even weekly… but you will never get the chance to see what you can be until you get to the edge of your comfortable boundaries and begin to nudge them a little. Or maybe more than nudge them… maybe run into them headlong with wild abandon.

You may very well get knocked flat on your bee-hind. I did, as is so obvious. However, I also learned that I could do a little more than I thought I could. Next time it will probably be easier and now I will be standing at some new point and thinking, “Hmm… now if I made this a little harder… then what?”

You don’t need to be Herculean or superhuman or possess the steely nerve of an Old West gunslinger. What you need is nothing all that special and you probably have felt it before or feel it right now. What is “it”? Just a bit of an itch to get out of the everyday and into something special or different. That’s it. That and the catalyst to act on feeling that way.

But admittedly… being a little crazy doesn’t hurt either. And just think… if you do hit that wall and end up on your back, you may have a beautiful view of a bright blue Winter sky like I did. How could you let that pass by?

How I Do That Voodoo I Do So Well (Or At Least Decently)

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I’ve just hit a point where it occurs to me that I’ve never really gone into much detail as to what exactly I do when it comes to lifting, conditioning and all of that happy nonsense that keeps me fit and sane… or at least as sane as I’m ever going to get. I do touch on bits and pieces of it all, but I’ve never really laid the whole thing out before in this blog. Time to correct that today. Maybe you will find use in it or at least a moment to peer into what makes me tick.

Now, like my friend pictured above, I do enjoy hoisting some heavy objects around and I have yet to find something that gives me the same kind of satisfaction. There’s something purely primal in weightlifting and its ability to help you reshape your body that is utterly and hopelessly addicting.  And therein lies the cornerstone for my own physical training philosophy. Strength first and then figure out where everything else falls into place. Here’s what it all looks like:

Strength Training

Always best to start with my favorite piece. First and foremost, the goal of my training is to keep getting stronger over time. I’m sure there may come a day where that will be more about maintaining that strength as opposed to building upon it, but that day isn’t today and it sure ain’t going to be tomorrow either.

The template I use is Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program, which you can find right here if you are interested in it. The beauty of the program is really three things: simplicity, effectiveness and the notion of improving over years, as opposed to “Get hawt abz in 30 days!!!” Also, it’s a template that can be used by anyone. Truly. From rank beginner to very experience trainer. From someone looking to play high level football to a soccer mom looking to get in better shape. It’s a flexible thing of beauty.

I am not going to go into endless detail about how it works, but basically you use four major lifts as your foundation: squats, bench press, deadlifts and overhead/military presses. Each lifting day focus on a big lift first and then you need to decide how to fill in the rest depending on your goals. Fear not – guidance is provided in the book on this sort of thing.

The 5/3/1 comes from the fact that in the first round through of those lifts, you do sets of 5; on the second round through, sets of 3; and on the final wave, you do a set of 5, a set of 3 and a set of 1. The twist is that on the final set in any week, you are really shooting for more than the 5, 3 or 1 that is set up for that week.

Anyhoo, my focus is to use this template to lift with three times per week.  This basically means that I don’t get to all of the major lifts in a single 7 day period, but it rolls more into a 9 or 10 day period. I find I recover better this way and I feel a lot fresher when I do get to my lifting.

So, this is the big base after which everything else follows. I think it’s important in any training plan to prioritize things accordingly or else you will end up with a big soupy mess of awfulness. Seriously. That’s science.

Mobility/Flexibility Training

Ahh, mobility and flexibility. My oft-ignored friends that have reared up to bite my behind with a fierce (and mighty?) vengeance. This has taken on a whole new life for me because I really gave it short shrift for far too long.

Let me make this as simple as possible: If you are an office working desk jockey, you need to be doing A LOT more of this. Period. There is just something wholly unnatural about sitting in a chair at a desk for hours on end every day. I didn’t need to see any of the recent reports on how sitting too much is bad for you to know that. I have long contended that for a lot of people, it’s not the aging process that really does in their bodies as much as it is the sedentary lifestyles that often accompany being a working, responsible adult. I am utterly convinced that even with all the lifting I do, it’s really the sitting most of the day that has done a world of hurt to my lower back.

So I am trying like heck to be better about this. Before every time I lift (and most times before I do a conditioning session), I go through a pretty darn thorough mobility circuit that I had custom-built for me by Eric Cressey at Cressey Performance outside of Boston. If it’s good enough for a bunch of professional athletes, then it’s darn sure good enough for me. I spent a few hours with Eric several weeks back to get myself all sorted out and for a custom plan to use going forward. Since then, I have truly begun to feel a heck of a lot better and move better as well. I’m not all the way where I would like to be, but it’s getting better. With hips tighter than a snare drum (see the sitting most of the day reference above), it’s not going to happen overnight.

In other words… don’t be that guy or gal who thinks this is just a nice-to-have. It’s a must-have.

Conditioning

I keep my conditioning pretty simplistic. It involves one of 3 things: playing a sport (soccer or basketball), pushing my Prowler or doing hill sprints. That’s pretty much it. What’s great about all of these activities is that I don’t need to carefully craft some kind of program for them – I just do them 3 or 4 times per week and try not to kill myself in the process. When I first got my Prowler, I quickly realized what I had read before was true – just go out, push it and you will just know when you are done. Sure enough, it’s 100% true. If you put a lot of weight on it or use very short rest periods, you will be done sooner.

And since this video still makes me chuckle, I present my pain for your enjoyment:

Ahh… the good ol’ days when I was still new to the pain and agony of the Prowler. Now it’s just a welcome friend… well, if you have friends who consistently make you drop to your knees, stare at the sky and wonder what would possess you to willingly go through something so awful. But maybe I just have odd friends.

The Goal

So what exactly am I training for? Fair question, no doubt. It seems to be morphing over time. In short, I want to be able to get out, play sports, be athletic and be strong on any given day. That’s the more general, over-arching goal. There are other goals too: squat 550 lbs (I hit 500 lbs a few months ago), deadlift 500 lbs and bench press 315 lbs. Those are the more clear-cut tangible ones I am aiming for.

Anyway, I hope this post was at least semi-interesting to some of my readers out there. I thought about including a bit on diet, but this already feels like it is running long.

This is a huge part of what makes me who I am. The good. The bad. The completely ludicrous. I am proud of it all.

Antonio Banderas – World’s Greatest Strength Coach

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Antonio Banderas. Acclaimed actor. Handsome fella. Totally sweet name that is ridiculously fun to say. Great accent. World’s greatest strength coach.

Wait… what?

Oh you read that right. World’s greatest strength coach.  Oh you want me to actually explain that to you?  Really?  Man, we are getting soft as a society when I have to spoon-feed y’all the obvious… but I will indulge your need to be coddle just this one time.

A few years back I was watching one of the various news magazine programs like 60 Minutes or Dateline: NBC and Mr. Banderas was on being interviewed.  He’s actually a pretty interesting, thoughtful guy, but it was one thing he said that really caught me and stuck with me until today.  I cannot find the exact quote, but to paraphrase he said (and please imagine it in his kick-ass Spanish accent), “People today seem to live their lives where they expect to have this kind of orgasmic joy in every single moment.  That if they are not happy every single moment, something is wrong.  I want to actually have moments of up’s and also the downs and the sadness.  That’s part of life and I think not having those sad moments makes you worse off as a human being.”

And yes, he really did use the word “orgasmic” when describing the kind of joy some people feel they should have every day in every moment they experience.

Every person who engages in strength training I think can actually benefit from the point he is making.  Lifting in the gym is never going to be that kind of “orgasmic” experience where every single repetition feels like you could hold the world like Atlas.  You won’t set PRs every single session and sometimes, you will actually do worse than you did before.  Sometimes you will be flat or tired or unfocused.  It simply is going to happen.  If you somehow expect this to be otherwise, then you are in for an utterly frustrating training career and please accept my sympathies now… except if you truly felt this way, I’m really not going to be sympathetic to your plight.

There is actually true value to those low moments where you push through and find out about yourself.  OK, so you didn’t crush out a 10 lb. personal record.  Did you still push yourself as best you could despite feel off or like crap?  How will you plan going forward?  Will you be thoughtful about why things went poorly and try to address those things you have some control over?  Or will you curl up in the fetal position so you can rock back and forth while muttering, “Can’t be happening… can’t be happening… find my happy place… happy place…”?

Nobody wants the moments of coming up short, but since you are going to have them anyway, it’s best to get at least something positive out of them.

That’s what Antonio Banderas would do… he’s the world’s greatest strength coach.

On the Underrated Nature of Solitude

Quiet church at night
The quiet embrace of solitude in a chapel at night

I decided to head to church last night at the chapel of a local college as a way to cap off my evening.  I used to do this in college quite a bit – 10 PM Mass on a Sunday evening was my favorite time to go.  Everything was just a little bit more quiet and peaceful.  There was just enough soft lighting to add to the effect of seeking to be at peace and clear my head before starting a new week.  I got a little of that effect last night.

But it was also a bit different because… well… apparently they weren’t having 7 PM Mass last night.  I was there with a few other confused souls who waited patiently for some sign of services beginning, but it was not to be.  So I decided to wait out everyone else and have the place to myself.  I kneeled quietly praying, collecting my thoughts, reflecting on the week that was and the week that would be.  After 15 minutes… just me.

Now, anyone who knows me would know that I tend to view my own religious/spiritual beliefs in an intensely personal fashion.  I don’t push my views on anyone else, ever.  To each their own as to how they choose to follow (or not follow) a faith.  So it’s not something I chat with people about… at least not terribly often.  And I don’t plan on getting into it too much here.  Instead, I would rather focus on how incredibly refreshing it is to be completely alone in the utter quiet of a peaceful place.  It was amazing.  No other word does what I felt justice.

The world is a place with a flood of stimuli vying for our attention.  It can be utterly overwhelming, except I think most of us have instead become numb to it all as a means of coping.  But think about how often you check to see if someone responded to you on Twitter or Facebook.  Or the need to continuously look at your phone for every new e-mail and text message.  Or how we always need to be doing SOMETHING.  It’s as if we are afraid to be alone with our own thoughts.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone.  I did take a few steps to adjust notifications on my smartphone so that I wasn’t constantly checking it to see who was reaching out to me and validating my existence… I mean, isn’t that what all of the endless checking ends up being in the end anyway?  But I can be bad on this front.

So last night was such a welcome respite.  I knew I needed it because I didn’t even get restless as I sat there for 45 minutes in silence.  Instead, I actually had a chance to reflect for a while… let my mind work through any knotty issues that had been weighing on it… get my bearings a little bit… and then walk out feeling as good and as relaxed as I have been in a long, long time.  Because for 45 minutes… the constant buzz of life melted away and my mind and spirit felt completely unburdened.

And all of this leads to a challenge for myself and my snazzy tagline of “Relentlessly push yourself forward”.  It’s a simple challenge to describe, but more daunting to put into practice:

Stop. Unplug. Reflect. Think. Ponder.  Daily.

It’s a challenge I accept.

Competition with Balance

I am, by nature, a somewhat competitive person.  I don’t care too much for losing (few do), but I find that where I care more is about the showing up and actually competing.  If I go out and give my best or if my team goes out and leaves it all out on the field, then I’m good no matter the final result… but I would surely prefer the win over that ugly and often nagging feeling of defeat.

My competitive drive also varies based on the activity at hand.  I’m not going to get some kind of red-eyed rage if I’m playing Blokus with my family during Thanksgiving… and obviously, they would seem to share my view as this picture so perfectly illustrates:

Thanksgiving Blokus

Now, when I did that strongman competition last year, I was really and truly competitive.  Oh sure, I wanted the learning experience of it… to better understand what it’s like to be in the strongman arena… and that’s all true… but damn it, I wanted to do well.  Really well.  I did ehh and not much better than that.  It still bothers me a bit to this day because I know I could have and should have done better.  I view the experience as an overall positive… but damn it, I wanted a lot more out of myself that cold December day.

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Of late I have been giving more and more thought on what it means to compete… the value of competition… when competition is more of a negative than a positive… and how important it is to win.  I touched on this a bit in my post on greatness a few years back.

I believe this is, in part, driven by what has been going on in the news with the sex abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse… although really more by the Penn State situation where it seems painfully clear that a culture was created where as long as football wins (and the dollars associated with such wins) were coming fast and furious, then even the horrific could somehow be acceptable.  It all just left me feeling disgusted, as should surprise no one.

It then got me thinking about how I treat competition in my own life.  I remember one of my teammates on my soccer team saying that his high school coach would tell them, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

In the most charitable of interpretations, that quote could mean that you have to go out, play hard, push the boundaries to the utmost and leave it up to the refs to make the foul calls.

But there’s such a fine line between playing a very physical brand of soccer and take a lunge at someone’s knee during a slide tackle from behind.  And regardless, the quote is just an utterly horrible thing to say as a leader to a group of teenagers.  Nothing good can come of it.

My take on competition and winning has changed over the years and now that I stand with 39 years on Earth, I think I have it sorted out in a way that is philosophically consistent with my principles:

Outside of things done strictly for fun, I enjoy the act of competing and competing hard.  To quote Vince Lombardi from his “What It Takes to Be Number 1” speech, “The object is to win fairly, squarely, by the rules – but to win.”  I enjoy giving my all until the buzzer sounds, the bell rings or the whistle blows, regardless of the score.

Because in the end… my ultimate opponent… the one I try to best each and every time… is who I was yesterday.