Strength, Thoughts

Built on Solid Foundations.

My journey is like most: it began with an idea, a route, and a destination. The idea was strength, the route is powerlifting, and the destination is strength.  My journey is circular. It cannot end. I might encounter plateaus at times, and I might regress at times, but this is a lifelong journey I am undertaking.

So what now? I have used this blog to reflect on the time I have spent on my journey so far. But this blog is not just about my strength journey; it is truly a reflection of my life as a whole. I have focused on my strengths, but what I have learned through this part of my life is that: you don’t get stronger by focusing on your strengths; you get stronger by focusing on your weaknesses.

I have truly taken this to heart. This came into my life 4 years and 4 months ago on a bar stool in Avon, Colorado. It slowly gained ground in my life in the days, weeks, months, and years after that day. It staked claims in my psyche; it started to lay foundations; it built monuments.

My journey is not one of monuments. It is one of foundations.

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Powerlifting, Strength

An Imposingly Beautiful Life

Now, I have written about what powerlifting means to me and how it has influenced my life.  Some might ask: Is powerlifting for me? Short answer—Yes.

Long answer: powerlifting is some of the most fun a person can have in the gym. I can tell you this till I’m blue in the face, and you probably won’t believe me. You may say things like, “I read your post about grinding. That sounds like a horrible experience. I want nothing to do with that.” Powerlifting is a sport that can only be experienced. The tales of powerlifters are tales that are relatable only though the experience of powerlifting. Sure, I can tell you about the time I squatted my bodyweight for 20 reps; unless you have experienced it, you will have no idea how truly rewarding it was to get the final rep.

Powerlifting isn’t just for people who want to be strong for strong’s sake. Powerlifting is for people who want to be able to pick up a couch when they are moving and not set it down every three steps because they are tired and have lost their grip. It’s for the people who want to increase their performance in other sports. Strength is always translatable, whether it is everyday life or high performance athletes.

When powerlifting and healthy eating habits are combined, they produce a body that is ready for almost everything. With the fuel of healthy food, the ability of the body to adapt to the stresses put on it during training is amplified. The result is a base of strength that can be applied to many situations.

One of my favorite quotes about strength is found in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. Melville writes, “Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic.” I found this quote before I became interested in powerlifting and fell back to it during some difficult times in my life.  With my newly found passion for strength sports, I look at it on different levels. Later the passage makes references to ancient statues of figures like Hercules, and if you removed the strength of the subject, the statue would not have the same impact. I reference this passage when I look at my past, when I was a younger person I was not mentally or physically strong. This quote had a hand in changing that. Powerlifting has changed the quote. I look at my former self as the statue with the strength removed. I look back and see no beauty in my life. As I look forward, with my strength, I see a life that I regard as “imposingly beautiful”.

When people ask me if I think powerlifting is for them. I simply reply with the answer I think works the best. “Do you want to be strong?”

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Powerlifting, Strength

The Backbone for Strength

Of all the lessons powerlifting has taught me, the most important is what it means to be truly strong. Many are solely for the gym, but there are a few that have left the gym with me. Of these secondary lessons, grinding and stepping out of comfort zones are the two I reference repeatedly.

The idea of grinding is not a difficult or abstract concept. A “grinder” in the gym is a slow difficult lift. All grinders are maximal effort lifts. They may not be the maximum weight you can lift, but they are the lifts that you have to give your absolute all to complete. I have experienced three textbook grinders, one in each of the big three. Honest, all three were horrible, terrifying, and exhilarating.  There is something to be said for giving every ounce of your strength to complete a single lift. The feeling of a grinder is hard to describe unless you have felt it before. The skill of grinding is not. There comes a time in everyone’s life where circumstances keep piling on. Sometimes, it feels like your whole life comes to a screeching halt, and no matter how much you try life just doesn’t want to let you up. Then, suddenly, something amazing happens, and you figure it out. It may take a day, a week, maybe even more. But there is a time when you just know that these burdens aren’t affecting you as they once were. It might be a painfully slow process, but eventually it happens. The act of getting through it is the skill of grinding.

Along with the grinding, powerlifting has taught me to step out of my comfort zone. There is little that is comfortable about powerlifting. The lifts are by design not comfortable. If it was comfortable, it wouldn’t be hard. If it wasn’t hard then everyone would do it.  To powerlift, you must regularly step out of your comfort zone. Even if it is just adding 5 pounds to your 1 rep max. If you are improving, you are stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s just how it works. This transcends the gym too. There are times in life where you have no choice but to experience something that makes you uncomfortable. Without this, life gets stagnant and you never add to your max.

Now, these two lessons sound like they are similar to my personal definition of strength. In fact, these are the two aspects of powerlifting that formed my definition. To me, they are the backbone of strength. A person who wants to be strong—needs both. If you can grind it out, but never step out of your comfort zone, eventually you will lose the ability to grind. If you never step out of your comfort zone, you will never increase your ability to grind. When the two come together, they are a force that drives a person toward strength, in gym and in life.

 

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Geared, Powerlifting, Raw, Strength

Choose Your Battle Suit

If you could put on a piece of clothing, say a hat, that increases your IQ by 50 points would you? Now, what if I told you that once you removed this hat your IQ would return to normal, would you still wear it? Would the academic feats you accomplished while wearing the hat carry the same weight as your feats done without the hat?

This is a simple analogy for the world of geared powerlifting. Geared powerlifting has clothing that does exactly what the imaginary hat does in my analogy. Granted, the gear doesn’t increase one’s intelligence quotient. However, the gear does increase the amount of weight a powerlifter can move in the big three. Each of the big three has its own gear, squat suits, bench shirts, and deadlift suits. Depending on the suits construction they can increase the pounds on a lift by 80-200 pounds. But just as my mythical hat, your numbers return to normal when you take it off.

You might be asking, with such increases possible why would anyone not wear a suit? Well simply put, some think that geared lifting is cheating. I disagree. Cheating implies that one gets an unfair advantage over others. This isn’t really the case in geared powerlifting. You compete against others who lift geared. Since everyone is using gear, there is no advantage gained with the addition of gear. This fact alone puts geared lifting into a different sport from raw (no gear allowed, but belts are) powerlifting.

I love raw powerlifting. I don’t think that geared is as interesting. I think that geared lifting is amazing, but not as amazing as raw lifting. There is something magical when there is simply a loaded barbell and a person lifting it. Some of the magic is taken away when you add a suit or a shirt.  This doesn’t mean that the feats of strength aren’t amazing. The geared world record squat for the superheavyweight class (more than 308 pounds) is a whopping 1,265 pounds. For comparison, the raw world record squat for the same weight class is 943 pounds. Both are amazing.

The differences between geared and raw lifting are more than just the amount of weight moved. It isn’t just throwing a suit on a good raw lifter, and they will have a huge geared lift. (It’s probably more likely than the other direction). The techniques are different, the training style is different, and the mentality is different. I’m not against geared lifting; many of the competitors have huge raw numbers, too. These numbers aren’t showcased; they are hidden away in the gym. Which is a shame.

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Powerlifting

The Big Three

When powerlifting, one competes in three lifts, the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. All three—known as the big three—are strength movements. All three are important to a powerlifter, but the squat is the benchmark of powerlifters. Common greetings within the powerlifting community are “How much do you squat?” and “What are your numbers?

The squat is the arguably the king of all strength exercises Many  lifters think of squats as primarily a leg exercise, but  those people are doing it wrong. When performed heavy and correctly, the squat incorporates (and taxes) everything you have. Setting any weight on your back, sitting down till your hips are below your knees and standing back up is hard. You need all your muscle to do something if the lift is to be done correctly and successfully. Your back and abdominals steady the weight as you descend. Your arms pull the bar into your back, forcing your chest up.

The deadlift is neck and neck with the squat for the most important strength exercises, the queen if you will. Just like the squat, the deadlift is misunderstood by most. However, it is probably the most taught exercise in the world. If you have ever been told, “Lift with your legs” then you have received a small tutorial on how to deadlift. The deadlift is just like the squat in that it takes every muscle in your body to perform it correctly. Your legs start the movement with the quadriceps. Then, your posterior chain (think from your feet to your neck on the back of your body) fires to complete the lift.

The bench press is almost an afterthought compared to the squat and deadlift. The bench press works everything, but is less reliant on the legs than the other two. The legs come into play, but are mainly used to keep you stable on the bench. They provide a little drive to get the weight off your chest (in powerlifting the bar must rest on your chest, until you are given a command to press it off.) After this initial drive, the upper body takes over the movement. Maybe that’s why the bench press is used in powerlifting. The other two lifts only use the upper body as an element for stabilization. The bench press flips it and makes the legs the stabilizers.

All of the big three are more than just strength. They all combine strength with coordination and concentration. These last two protect the lifter from injury. Is the level of coordination to the level of other sports like football and soccer? No. The coordination seen in powerlifting is muscle firing coordination. The big three are all compound movements’; meaning more than one joint is involved along with many muscles. Compound movements rely on coordination. If you get out of order on the firing, then you open yourself up for injury.

Similarly, a lack of concentration increases the likelihood of injury. I would argue the level of concentration for powerlifting is the same as you see with other sports, such as baseball and basketball. However, the duration of this intense focus is much shorter. Concentration is what insures your form stays consistent and correct. When your form slips and you get out of the optimal alignment, you risk of injury increases.

Injury is the mortal enemy of strength. And with the amount of weight on the bar for powerlifters in the big three, the utmost attention must be paid to everything that will prevent injury. When you are injured, you are not getting stronger.

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Powerlifting, Strength

Where Have the Giants Gone?

I’d like to take you through a common gym day at your neighborhood box gym (think Bally’s Total Fitness®, 24 Hour Fitness®, or Planet Fitness®). You open the door and feel the nice comfortable temperature. Your ears are filled with uncomfortably loud, up-tempo, popular, remixed top 40s music. You know the music that complies everyone’s exercise playlist. There is a huge area dedicated to various types of cardio vascular machines. It’s filled. People stand and wait to run inside. You’re greeted by a muscular man behind a counter who asks for your membership card. “Hey! Have a great workout!” he says a little too enthusiastically. The main room of the gym is full of machines. They resemble some sort of odd, ancient torture devices. But the attractive personal trainer everyone gets one session with swears by them. Across from the machines is the land of the free weights, an area that is intimidating to many gym goers. There are sweat covered men and women in revealing clothes, heavy objects, an abundance of mirrored surfaces and a perceived lack of safety.

The people in the box gyms are usually beginners, people who are starting a new year’s resolution, want to tone up for summer, want to look good naked, and occasionally a hardcore bodybuilder. They focus on the latest magazine generated workout for obtaining the ever elusive 6-pack, the latest 4-minute workout, or whatever has promised to not make them too bulky. Low weights at high repetitions are the staple of big box gyms. The social aspect of the gym can overpower the exercise portion.

Now, to contrast the big box gym, let’s take a trip through a powerlifting gym. It’s a warehouse. It’s hot, there is no air conditioning, the music is at a reasonable volume but it is aggressive the primary sound is iron plates colliding with each other. The cardio area is one treadmill from the 1970s and a spinner bike. The equipment is always open. It’s used to raise your heart rate. No one is checking membership; the fact you are inside is enough for the others. You walk in, and everything around you is designed to make people stronger. The machines have been picked out for the crossover to the competition lifts. They are still set up across from the free weights, but the attitude toward them is opposite. The machines are the exiled and to be avoided. You use them when you have to.  The workouts are not focused around them. Here, the focus is free weights, particularly barbells. The bars’ loads are increased.

Very few of the gym members are beginners. They cut their teeth in the big box gyms, but found something lacking. Most found they needed like-minded people; here everyone has the same goals, physical strength. These people read books like, Starting Strength, The Westside Book of Methods, and Dinosaur Training. All of their books promise one thing—strength. There are no section on how to shortcut your workout. The work is done with high weight, low repetitions. There aren’t mirrors on every wall; your form matters, and workout partners are focused. They’re there to push you as much as they can, help you get stronger, and possibly save your life if you fail a lift.

If you work out at a big box gym, I’m happy for you. Hell, if you do any exercise, I’m happy for you. If you are attempting to lose fat, gain muscle or both, I’m happy for you–and I’ll support you in that journey.

My personal strength quest has led me to the land of giants, the land of powerlifters. A land that most don’t know about, and much less understand.

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