Tag Archives: commitment

On Being Smart and Pacing Your Passion

So I am doing my utmost right now to actually be smart. I know, I know… why start something so radically different for myself now? Isn’t it a little late to show up to that party?  Probably, but I’m also a crazy dreamer.

My decision to engage the rational and logical parts of my brain for a change (as opposed to the parts enamored with XBox, muscle cars and the supreme hilarity of Tosh.0) stems from a bit of a setback in my training program.  A few weeks back I was absolutely ROLLING.  Things seemed so free and easy and new records (at least on several on my important lifts) were coming almost every week.

Heck, I even was able to reach one of my all-time goals of hitting a 500 lb. squat.  I have video of it, but I am debating about putting it up just yet.  Why?  Because once I finish the set and realize what I just accomplished, I lose my collective mind like an utter fool.  In a positive way.

Ahh… but what cometh before the fall, my children?  Pride, of course.  I just hit a 500 lb squat!  Who knows what mountain was there to conquer next and yield to my steely will and chiseled handsomeness?  So I kept pushing at the same pace… umm… and I decided I should try to get ready for soccer… and I started sprinting a few times a week… and hey, wouldn’t it be great to be a little leaner too?  Yeah, yeah… throw that into the mix… plus the utter hectic pace of work.

Whether you realize it or not, everything I just outlined is a recipe, but not a recipe for some kind of completely decadent pumpkin cheesecake of goodness.  Oh, tut-tut my friends.  That would be crazy talk.  No, this recipe would be more like a steaming 5 lb. ball of rat poop.  Deelish, n’est-ce pas?

That’s when my lifts were going down instead of up.  And while I mean that in terms of overall performance, I also mean it like “I tried squatting that weight and on my 2nd rep, the weight went down but… uhh… it didn’t go back up.  Yeah, not so much.”

And that’s when the conundrum of this site’s very motto… “Relentlessly push yourself forward”… found itself a wee bit out of sync with how I was feeling.

And therein lies the issue for so many people with passion for something: how do you sometimes pace your passion?  This is a real sticky wicket for a lot of people who are all about weight training (especially guys who have an easy time letting ego, pride and machismo get in the way of using an ounce of simple common sense).  We can be excellent at going at something full bore, but what about then easing off the throttle and collecting yourself for the next round of fun?  Hmm.  Maybe not my best quality for sure.

What's that body?  You have something important to tell me?

What it really got down to was a lack of listening to the signals my body was giving me loud and clear to chill the hell out.

Our passions move us. Drive us. Give us the chance to risk big, fail big and (hopefully) win bigger than we could ever imagine. They should… no… must be celebrated and cherished.

But it’s also OK to give them a few moments of respite so they can soak up their energy anew and burn oh-so-brightly again.  They won’t hold it against you.

The Fine Line Between Possibility and Stupidity

People who lift weights… I mean really lift weights… tend to get viewed through a certain lens by a large bulk of society. Muscle = moron in a lot of contexts. You need look no further than your average Planet Fitness commercial. It’s as if there is an inversely proportionate relationship between size and smarts. It’s fairly ridiculous, but since it tends to make for an easier way to categorize or pigeonhole people, then hey… why the heck not? There are certainly people I’ve met who reinforce the view that weight trainers are not even as bright as the iron they throw around, however, there is also an inherent sense of wisdom in those who take their lifting seriously that I don’t think anyone outside of the lifting community ever really understand.

Let me see if I can illustrate a bit.

I stroll into my basement gym on the day I will be doing deadlifts. Now, the deadlift is a fairly straightforward exercise: the bar is on the ground and your job is to pick it up off the floor to a standing position. There is more technique to it than just that, but at the end of the day, that’s about it. Bar on floor. Bar being held in standing position. Ta da!

Bar waiting for a deadlift

But the deadlift, like many big lifts in weight training, is also a greater truth serum that sodium pentothal. Either you can pick up the weight or you can’t. There is no debating with it. There’s no reasoning with it. And the beauty… perhaps the misery… of the deadlift is that when the weight is too much for you, it stays completely stuck to the floor. On a lot of other lifts, there can be a modicum of movement before you bomb out and sometimes you can pull the bar a few inches up in a deadlift before all hell breaks loose… but much of the time, there is absolutely nothing.

That’s humbling. It never feels good. You know what else it is? An incredible learning experience in the shape of steel and iron.

When you get pretty serious about weight training (as I believe I generally am), there is a pursuit of pushing yourself a little further all the time and over a period of time. You are continuously pushing the outer edge of what you believe to be possible for yourself. I could deadlift 405 lbs. before and suddenly… huh… I can lift 425 lbs… and now I can do 445 lbs… and I never thought I would get there. Then one day… BOOM! I’m stuck. I can’t get any more than 445 lbs. I know exactly where I stand at that moment – again, the weight simply does not lie.

But what I am trying to do is move past that limit and see what else I can accomplish. At it’s most basic level, when I go down into my gym and lift weights, I am constantly looking to see what my limits are and how I can exceed them. It’s as if the entire activity has nothing to do with getting bigger or getting more muscle or any of that and everything to do with learning more about who I am, how I handle adversity and whether I can pick myself up when I get knocked down. It’s a constant learning and testing experience when done properly. In some ways, those who take this activity so seriously have a finer understanding of who they are than 99.9% of the people on the planet.

It’s certainly not just weightlifters either. Endurance athletes looking to run farther and faster or the Crossfit devotee who is looking to finish their WOD with more weight in less time fit the bill as well.

Everyone in this community who takes training (not just working out or going for a light jog or looking to “tone” up for Summer) seriously is always walking the fine line between find out what is possible and pushing themselves too hard to potentially get hurt, burned out or maybe just get funny looks from family and friends. To many, all of it looks more like stupidity than possibility. But sometimes you need to risk a bit in the search for greater self-knowledge. And trust me… I don’t want to get hurt (been there a bunch of times) or burn out (I am there right now because my ego outstripped my recovery ability)… but I must confess I do enjoy the funny looks from time to time. 🙂

So before you see someone who takes their weight training incredibly seriously as basically a semi-evolved primate… stop and ask yourself… when was the last time you put yourself in a situation where you were forced to figure out what was truly possible? And then think about what it would be like to do that 3… 4… 5… maybe even 6 times per week.

If you realize it’s been a while, then I would prescribe a little bit of iron therapy. You would be amazed at what you will discover about what is possible within you.

Welcome to Milquetoast Nation

I like a good commercial.  There is something great about taking an attempt to get you to buy something and transcending that medium to make you think, laugh, cry or just get plain pissed off.  Whether it was the famous Apple commercial from back in 1984 to signal their assault against the bland groupthink of personal computers or even last year’s Snickers commercials with Betty White.  I just enjoy something well-crafted and memorable.

A commercial I’ve seen recently and had a bit of a chuckle to was from Planet Fitness:

Now, Planet Fitness has a very particular business model for their “gyms”… and yes, I placed that in quotes and you’ll soon see why.  They have really low monthly rates and are incredibly proud of their “Judgment Free Zone®”.  If you’ve never been there, this is how they describe it on their Web site:

As the most innovative health club brand in the United States, Planet Fitness is known for a lot of things – our absurdly low prices, our Lunk™ Alarm, and most of all perhaps, for our Judgement Free Zone® philosophy, which means members can relax, get in shape, and have fun without being subjected to the hard-core, look-at-me attitude that exists in too many gyms.

What does this mean in practice?  Well, for starters, their dumbbells only go up to a certain weight because having more than that would attract the “lunks” in Planet Fitness-speak.  They also don’t allow any grunting, dropping of weights or… apparently… “judgment”.  And for that matter, they don’t seem to allow anyone who really and truly gives a damn either.  Let me explain.

While no one really wants to train in a gym with guys (and let’s face it… the biggest maroons I’ve seen acting like complete fools in gyms are 99.9999% of the time guys) who are there to call attention to themselves by needlessly dropping weights, hogging up sections of the gym floor and just being a general jackass.  However, what Planet Fitness is also driving out with their overly broad and… surprise!… completely judgmental approach is anyone who actually gives a damn about their training and is looking to improve.  The guy in that video might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but you don’t end up looking like he does without a lot of hard work and sacrifice.

Don’t believe me that some of these gyms are not for people who actually care?  OK, let me throw this out to you then.  Which environment do you think is better for improving yourself in?  A place where you are surrounded by others that strive for excellence and consistently push themselves to be better?  Or a place where we don’t want people to be TOO good because… gosh… then others may feel bad about themselves?  The latter is what you get at a place like Planet Fitness.  Me?  I would rather lift completely by myself as I have done the last few years or find a group of likeminded people to surround myself with to push me each and every day I train.  I couldn’t do this at Planet Fitness because if I suddenly let out any noise while lifting, I risk being kicked out.  Instead, I would have to sit there quietly and never do anything that could possibly offend my purple and yellow overlords.

Are there people who are serious at Planet Fitness?  Of course there are… just not as many as there ever COULD be.  I’ve had the dubious pleasure of training in a few Planet Fitness locations before and I can never imagine going back there again.  If you want to be surrounded by people who think the check-in-the-box of just showing up at the gym is good enough, then feel free.  Have a ball.  If you are only spending $10 or $15 a month, that might be fine for you and, in truth, some exercise is better than none at all.

But if you want to get results?  Something tangible to show for devoting your time and energy to being fit, strong and healthy?  Go elsewhere.  Find a smaller training studio with a well-certified strength coach or trainer.  Put the money down to get yourself to truly commit to making positive changes instead of just checking the box.  Find a place that won’t set off alarm bells if you did a deadlift.

Reject the Milquetoast, my friends, and embrace the chance to be good or even great… not by anyone else’s standards… but by your own.  Give yourself the chance to know the deeply incredible feeling of pushing yourself through a difficult training session and knowing when you’re done, that you weren’t content to just be average and passive.  It’s not just good for your body, but it’s good for your soul.

Alternatively, you could just join a gym where you can ring their alarm every time someone who cares and might have a few muscles comes along:

Planet Fitness Lunk Alarm

Because why should anyone dare to aspire to be their best?  It might just hurt someone’s feelings…

Reject the Milquetoast.  Save your soul.

Lessons Learned: My First Strongman Competition

When I first began lifting weights, probably during my freshman year of college, it was really about aesthetics.  Unless I completely miss my guess, I think I was getting out of high school at around 145 lb. or so at my robust 5 feet 7 inches of dominating height.  The rather small weight area at Fairfield U. was not glamorous, but it seemed liked it would get the job done for my purposes.  I never had a plan or a clue back then and I’m wholly surprised I never did anything to damage myself permanently.

In the ensuing years, I became a little more knowledgeable, put on a few respectable pounds (currently up over 50 lbs. from my high school weight), read up on the subject more and began to create a semblance of a philosophy when it came to my own physical strength and conditioning.  In fact, I truly believe… wait, scratch that… know that my best days are ahead of me in my lifting career.

The most interesting development of all is less about my physical state and more about my mental state for training.  I tend to think of my physical training a lot more as it relates to my mind and spirit (and vice versa) than I ever have before.  Lifting is not simply a physical act for me – it’s testing myself against my own preconceived ideas of what is possible… it’s seeing if something I once thought as out of reach (a weight, a kind of lift, a time sprinting up a hill) is really something continuously on the horizon or right at my feet, ready to be conquered.

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Don’t get me wrong – I don’t stroll down the stairs into my home gym, put on Yanni and lift as if I were some kind of mild-mannered poet.  Hardly.  The philosophy is more for the time outside of the gym and is used to then drive the motivation inside of it.  So when I walk in, I’m looking to bring intensity to each lift and attack whatever the exercise is with abandon.

Where am I going with all of this?  Well, as the title of this post suggests, I did my first strongman competition a few weeks back.  For those not familiar with strongman events, they are similar to those Met-RX World’s Strongest Man competitions you see on ESPN… except that’s the elite level of the sport with weights and events far beyond what I was experiencing December 5th up in Paxton, MA.

The event was Paxton Strongman 6 and was comprised of 5 different events:

  • log press (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • tire deadlift (as many reps as possible in 1 minute)
  • front hold (holding a weight out at arm’s length for as long as possible)
  • farmer’s walks (walking 40 feet with some serious weight on long handles, turning, and walking back 40 feet)
  • barrel and sandbag medley (carrying a barrel/keg a distance, running back, carrying a sandbag the same distance, running back and carrying the final sandbag to the finish)

I compete in the lightweight novice class which was for guys who have either never done a strongman competition or have only one done maybe one before.  The funniest part is that for novices, they want to include as many people as possible so the weights used are lighter than “open” competitors and the size of the weight class is much broader… 230 lb. and under.  I have no idea where else in the world 229 lb. is lightweight, but hey, there ya have it.

I finished in 9th place out of 12 competitors, which I guess is OK for my first ever competition… but in the end?  It’s not as much about placing as what I learned from it all and how it’s generally applicable to a lot of every day situations.  So here are my lessons learned from my first strongman competition:

You will be humbled. Embrace it.

The picture above was from the first event of the day – the log press.  The weight is 170 lb. and must be cleaned up off 2 tires and then pressed overhead to a lockout position as many times as possible in 1 minute.  I got 4 or 5 and the winner got around 11.  When I was prepping for this event, I was closer to around 8 or so reps on this lift… but a funny thing happened on the way to this event for me.  I was the last possible person lifting for this event out of everyone competing.  See, they run all the weight classes side-by-side on these events so that 4 or 5 people go for the same minute within their class… but my class was last and I was the clean-up person in my class.

Technically, that’s an advantage because I know exactly how much reps I need to come in first place… but there is a wee bit of a snag for me because I had to wait longer than anyone else and I had never done this kind of thing before.  To say I got anxious would be akin to saying a marathon is a brisk little jog to shake out the morning cobwebs.  I was convinced I was going to puke when I was setting up to start this event.  That’s not going to help anyone be focused on performance.

So what happened?  I performed poorly and it made catching up later in the competition harder than it should have been.  I saw guys who I am fairly certain I am better on this lift (and others) do better than me… and kudos to them for stepping up and performing well.

All of this taught me something important: when you get your ass kicked and do so in front of a whole bunch of people, accept it.  It doesn’t make you less of a person or a failure or a loser.  Being humbled like that is part of the fire that now drives me to do even better in my training because I want to do this again and really crush it.  I’m not sure I would be pushing myself quite like this if I finished with an overall solid performance – I might have felt a little too self-satisfied.

This was not failure, my friends… this was a lesson in where true motivation is born.

Nike said it best: just do it.

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When I first contemplated doing this contest, I was in touch with Matt Mills, owner/trainer of Lightning Fitness.  I decided to sign up to train over at Matt’s place in addition to the lifting I do in my beloved home gym, Fierce and Mighty (which you have hopefully found as well on Facebook at the Fierce and Mighty page).  Matt has done a few strongman competitions, winning a few along the way as welling as setting a national record for the log press (210 lbs for 15 reps in 1 minute… that’s absolutely sick).  I hemmed and I hawed about doing a competition that was less than 2 months away and kept saying I wanted to be more prepared before I placed myself into the white-hot crucible of competition.

Matt relayed to me the same advice he had gotten before his first powerlifting competition: if you are thinking about competing, sign up and compete.  It won’t be about where you place, but about what you learn when you compete (as this entire blog post is about).

And beyond that, there are few things that will focus your attention like an impending goal with a lot of public attention.  All of my friends and family knew I was doing this and quite a few of them showed up to cheer me on.  I really didn’t want to let them down and I think that, despite my own lack of satisfaction on my overall placing, it really made me push harder.

For people not interested in carrying around 170 lb. sandbags or deadlifting 370 lb. for 1 minute straight (which I hit for 19 reps, thank you very much!), you can use this same tool as well.  Going on a diet?  Book a trip to someplace warm where you want to wear a bathing suit.  This can hone the focus of many, many people.  Even beyond that, make public whatever your goal may be so your friends and family know what it is.  That alone will make it far more challenging to give up on.

But regardless of what it is, do something to get yourself moving and started.  Rare is the time in life when inaction is better than action, so take steps… however small… and get yourself going.  Small steps make momentum and progress until you find yourself pleasantly surprised to look up and find yourself in a better place than where you began.

Press on, press on, press on…

I’m not normally one to quote the Bible, but there is always one passage that’s stuck with me (partially because one of my best friends from high school picked it as his senior quote).  It’s Ecclesiastes 9:11 and it reads, in part

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race [is] not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…

There were some very strong guys and gals competing that day in Paxton.  None of them were are gloriously handsome as me, but I’m used to that… happens everywhere I go.  Umm… wait, where was I?  Oh yes… the competitors.  But you know where I think a lot of people separated themselves from their competition?  By how willing they were to push themselves just a little bit harder than everyone else.

For instance… when you are doing one of these events where you need to lift something for a minute straight, you feel like death by the end.  No one walks away from that feeling fresh as a daisy – it’s hard as hell.  But in the course of that minute, your mind begins to rebel a bit and wants to tell your body “Hey!  HEY!  Meat sack!  This is your brilliant intellect up here!  What in the name of all that’s holy are your DOING?!?!?  This HURTS!  STOP!”

The people who come out on top of these events are either able to make that inner voice quieter or push past it entirely.  See, even if you keep lifting until they call time, if you give into that voice just a little, you might lose a few reps… and that might mean the difference between 1st and 8th.

You want to win?  Step up to whatever your challenge is and never, ever, EVER lose sight of what you are looking to achieve.  Keep saying it to yourself over and over.  When you practice and prepare, say it over and over.  Make it such a habit because when it’s game time and you feel nervous and everyone is watching… it will pay off.  I wish I did more of this because I know I would have placed (and I kid you not) at least 3 or 4 spots higher than I did.

The longest of any of these events was a minute.  That’s it.  One, single, solitary minute.  Your challenge may not be a minute, but for 99.99999% of the population… your challenge will NOT last forever.  Press on.

So, those are the big 3 takeaways I had from all of this: (1) Embrace being humbled; (2) Action is always better than inaction; and (3) Every hard situation you will ever face will pass.  Be courageous until it does.

And if there is a lesson #4 in all of this, it would be that blogging is good for the soul and I probably shouldn’t wait 4 months between posts.  Press on.

My Insanity is the Sanest Thing I’ve Got

If there’s one area that I tend to cause puzzlement in my friends, family and co-workers, it’s the way I approach my training, exercise and diet regime.  It’s not that they are necessarily amazed at my being into health and fitness (since lots of people are), it’s really the specifics of my philosophy and approach that give them pause or cause them to cock their heads, look at my askew and remark (after an extended sigh) “Seriously… why???”

It can actually be a little odd to explain to someone outside of the worldwide family of lifters and physical culture devotees who make this kind of strenuous exertion the best part of their days.

I have talked to or exchanged ideas with on forms a lot of people who are as into training (I almost never call it “working out”, FYI) or even more so into training than I am.  There seems to be a fairly common thread that ties all of us together into one big, borderline irrational family:

The power of transformation.

With training, you will truly get back from it what you give to it.  If you learn a bit and then work hard at what you learned, the results will come.  They just will as sure as day follows night.  They will come faster for some and slower for others, but they do come when you give yourself over to the training.

Can you see the appeal?  Think of how many areas in life where despite your best efforts and all your smarts and all your talents and all the sweat of your brow… you get diddly-squat back in return.  Zip.  Zilch.  Nada.  It’s ridiculously frustrating.

A few years back I went to a doctor for my lower back.  He was a pretty good physician, but very, very old school.  He took a look at my x-rays, showed me how one disc was a bit narrower than the others and simply said, “You need to stop all exercising that loads your vertical spine.”  I gave him a look of “Umm… you gotta be kidding me, dude.”  He went on to say, “I don’t know what it is with you weightlifters and why you can’t seem to stop.  There are so many other wonderful kind of exercise out there.”  You can tell I really didn’t listen to him and I am trying my best to be a lot smarter about how I train… but I ain’t quitting.

I think this is why when I had someone very special and very close to me going through leukemia for several agonizing years, the weight training I did was utter salvation to me.  I could not fix her horrid illness which ravaged away at her for those 5 long years.  It was excruciating to feel so powerless to do much except to be an unyielding form of support the whole way.

My EliteFTS power rack (i.e. my baby)

But during that time while I was training?  I could effect change.  It was at least something I could control and for at least a little while, use to chisel away some of the hurt in the process.  It was also something that taught me a lot about myself and how to push through the challenging parts of life… and then I would use all of that to better support her day after day after day.  The two things began to feed each other and without that constant of my training, I’m not sure what all of those 5 years would have been like.

So the fact I hit a new personal record on my deadlifts (427.5 lbs for 5 reps, in case you were wondering… and I just know you were) tonight just makes me feel like a little bit more is right with the world… that things can make a little more sense… and that when it comes to my training, I will get back what I give.

All of which raises one question for me: If you don’t feel the same about your own exercise program… why not?

You might view me as nuts for what I do… I see it as a lone sane act in a sometimes completely insane world.

From Whence Shall Come the Quit?

Roberto-Duran-Gives-Up-001In exploring the connection of mind, body and spirit, I am a bit fascinated by the  moment of surrender.  It’s not from a morbid sense of curiosity, but more from the vantage of why does it happen when it happens.  What causes us to stop?  To relent?  To “No mas” a la Roberto Duran?  It can certainly depend on the activity in question.

The genesis of my fascination has nothing to do with obsessing over having given up at some point.  We all end up at that place one way or the other.  I want to figure out why it happens and then get better at pushing past that moment if possible… well, provided it’s an activity I give a damn about.  It’s not like I am going to study like a medieval monk to master the art of eating broken glass or some crazy nonsense like that.

So at the moment where it all comes apart, I want to know why.  An example may be in order:

Think of someone deep in physical training of some kind or another.  Perhaps it’s a powerlifter constantly seeking to move bigger and bigger weights or, at the opposite end of the training spectrum, the marathoner who conditions herself to run for 26.2 freaking miles.  (Umm, as you can tell, I am blown away by long distance runners because I cannot imagine trying to run that damn far).

For either of these individuals, which will usually quit first?  The mind as it obsesses over each pound or each mile?  The spirit as the will to go prove something wanes in the face of greater and greater physical demand?  Or will it simply be the body reaching some point of pure capability when one more pound or one more step is completely impossible?

In these cases, I find it is usually much less about the body and a lot more about some combination of the mind or spirit.  The body can accept an inordinate amount of physical work (for periods of time, mind you) provided the mind sees some value/end goal and the spirit stay strong.  The trick is to keep those things well in mind.

What about a test of the mind?  Does this change the equation at all in terms of the weak link from the body/mind/spirit continuum?  Possibly.  I think of people pulling all-nighters where their only limit is pure physical exhaustion (or running out of caffeinated beverages).  That being said, I am still tend to think mind and spirit may give out before the body.  The all-too-common declaration of “Good God, I think my brain is full…” jumps to mind for me, likely because I have uttered it a few times when deep in study back in law school.

In the end, I think that the greatest bang-for-your-buck in learning to push past previous points of failure is more of a mental and spiritual challenge, even if the activity you are seeking to improve is primarily physical.  Take Michael Jordan – physically gifted? Definitely.  But Michael Jordan did not become MICHAEL JORDAN because of his physical gifts… it was because of an absolutely indomitable will to win.  He was just plain mentally tougher than anyone else on the court.  Period.

And how do you build your will?  Great question.  For myself, I am going to take it in 2 parts since I need work on this as does… ohh… pretty much everyone.  First, pick some activity that is about discipline and work on it.  Second, build up this activity sloooowly.  For instance, I want to be better about developing this blog, so starting next week, I am getting up 30-45 minutes earlier in the morning to write posts, comment on other blogs, do Twitter, etc.  It’s not earth-shattering, but it requires extra discipline and sometimes there is something cool about doing a hard, lonely thing.  You need to do it slowly in order to notch up a few successes along the way.  If you are working on running a marathon, maybe you start doing a few of your runs at the crack of dawn or purposefully at the end of a really long day for the sheer purpose of knowing your mind will rebel mid-way through your run and will begin to rationalize why cutting it short and heading home for “American Idol” is really not that bad because you can run tomorrow.

Pick your hard lonely thing. Tell yourself you just need to push through it ONE time and then do it.  A few days later?  Do it again.  Let the momentum build and the will shall follow.

Be fierce.  Be mighty.  Above all else, just give it a shot so you at least know you didn’t let a chance for something better slide on by.