Deciding and preparing to compete in powerlifting

Soon after I started training with Bull Stewart in the group class, in March, I found that I was still pretty strong despite inconsistent, non-methodical workouts during the past couple of years. The gym business had taken up more and more of my personal time. I saw myself creating structure for our clients so that they could gradually, methodically increase their strength, while I learned that my own training was so sporadic that when I had the time and energy, I didn’t really know my high end any more. I only did one or two individual heavy lifts a week. Should I squat to 185 or 205 for sets of five? I was never quite sure.

I would have been satisfied to maintain rather than gain strength, but that’s a tricky thing to do if you don’t lift every week. To be safe, I made up my mind at some point to always squat to a maximum of 185 lbs for five reps, deadlift to a max of 205, press whatever I could for five (usually 75 or 80), and bench press to about 85 for 8-10 reps — keeping that one light for safety reasons as I often had nobody around to spot me. (I had spotter bars, but I didn’t like to actually fail and have to use them.)

It was so much fun to start training with Bull, Hikeem, Asuba, and our group after I closed the gym.  I quickly realized I was still inspired by strength and fitness, suddenly unburdened by the need to keep a business going, and ready to participate with enthusiasm in Bull’s new program that he developed for us at Cha’s request.

The program turned out to involve a little bit of heavy lifting, a lot of dumbbell lifts and abs, and a lot of intense bursts of cardio. A lot of fun, though not strictly a strength program. But it was okay. I was now working out three days a week, like clockwork, and walking an hour on off days, so I regained some general fitness/conditioning. And while we did some heavy lifting, I supplemented that with occasional lifting at home, and I kept careful track of what I lifted each workout. Within just a few weeks I noticed I had methodically added a little weight to the bar each time and was close to the strength levels of five years ago.

This was so gratifying. While I had lost a little bit of “barbell strength,” I had not lost enough to be starting over nor enough to make me unsafe when pushing myself.

When Bull offered me the chance to compete in this meet on his team, I was ready to sign up. I saw no reason not to. Why had I never done this before? I didn’t know. (Now that it’s over, I have some ideas why.) As the meet got closer, I started to practice the pause in the bench press with the help of either Bull or with Tom at home. I tested my 3-rep max and 1-rep max deadlift. I tested my 5-rep max squat and set a personal record. Then it was time to rest during the last six days before the meet.

I’ll write about the meet in my next post. When Tom and I were hanging out by the pool on Friday after checking in, it hit me why I’d never competed before. Sitting there relaxing, I felt such a clear sense of mental clarity and capacity. We sat and watched a few CrossFit Regionals videos, read, and watched kids playing. I thought, wow, just for today I’m an athlete waiting to compete — this is a nice life — I have no responsibilities until tomorrow morning.

When I had the gym, I never had the sensation of no responsibilities. If I had decided to go to a meet, my mind would have been racing with the endless gym-admin mental checklist the entire time I wasn’t actually about to lift or lifting. While sitting by the pool, I would have been making lists, returning emails, brainstorming ideas to solve problems. I would have been talking with Tom about that, not about visualizing my lifts for the next day.

My mind was always on the gym, always searching for solutions to problems or for tasks I may have forgotten to do. I had to train myself not to be so mentally vigilant all the time. It was exhausting. I had to remind myself not to feel bad that I didn’t work out as much as I had in the past.

After closing the gym, I started working out elsewhere on the very first Monday, and I quickly realized that post-gym-closure could turn out to be a really fun period of my life. This has been correct so far. I’m glad my mind “straightened out” so quickly so that I could rediscover my love of working out AND even try a new sport with a new coach.

 

Bench press PR “with the pause”

Today I benched 125 with Bull spotting and “Mailman” (actually Austin — a guy on the team) calling out the meet commands — Start, Press, Rack. I’m no longer freaked out by the requirement to hold the barbell at the bottom and wait for the Press command. Bull said, “You’re ready!” To Austin he said, “She’s tough!” It is a nice compliment that sinks in, but on the other hand, the fact is I’m not particularly tough. It’s more that lifting is one thing I’m well-trained at, and I’m lucky to be able to do that.

Bull was telling stories about other competitions, high-school coaches who encourage their athletes to use gear like bench shirts when it’s counterproductive, athletes who have had to be removed from teams because of the use of anabolics (which can disqualify a whole team, he said), and more. I’m thankful to have learned to lift from good teachers and to be confident and skilled to lift correctly and strongly without accessories. Nothing wrong with some of the gear if you need it, but it’s good to feel that so far all I’ve needed is a belt, and that rarely. I’ll use it for the squat and deadlift at the meet.

This meet is going to be really fun.

February 2017

I feel like I’m in a really fun period of my life in some ways (ie, selfishly). At CrossFit 206, as the owner and a trainer, I worked hard not to judge myself for being definitely not the fittest person in the gym. I would have been miserable if I’d felt I needed to compete with my customers.

While not wanting to beat myself up, I also didn’t want to get too far out of shape. I did reasonably well. I maintained the discipline to work out several days a week with either barbells, CrossFit, or both. Despite being the gym owner, it would have been incredibly easy to fall off the habit of working out. What helped me maintain the discipline? Wanting to do what my customers did; wanting to be one of their peers; wanting to be able to talk about CrossFit from the inside and mean it; wanting to be a good example and an inspiration if I could be. I often literally pretended I was among a group of my trainees when I worked out by myself.

Deciding to close the gym, I started to worry about really getting soft. As easy as it would have been to fall off the workout wagon while I owned a gym, it seemed it would be even easier not to work out once I was really on my own.

On the very first Monday after I closed, Feb. 13, I went at noon to another local CrossFit and worked out with them. It was so much fun! I was SO thankful I wasn’t the teacher. One week later, I’ve now had three workouts at other people’s gyms:  two at CrossFit RE and one at Columbia City Fitness/Jackson. I now see. Working out is nothing to be scared of. The trainer’s job is to tell you what to do. You just have to make an effort to do it. It’s up to you whether to try hard or slack off. That’s all. One thing at a time, one moment at a time. Then you’re done.

I am now a lot less worried about getting soft. In fact, I think I have a good chance of getting into better shape than I’ve been since 2010 when we opened!

Today at Bull Stewart’s Columbia City Fitness/Jackson, the workout class was as follows, with just me and Bill in attendance. It will be fun on Wednesday when the others are there.

Back squat 2 sets 5 at 200

Have to get used to someone RIGHT BEHIND ME yelling (“easy weight! Easy weight! Piece of cake! Yeah girl!”) and ready to spot me. Disconcerting at first!

25 to 30 lb dumbbell muscle cleans to push press onto toes

10 lb dumbbell triceps kickbacks

Something else with dumbbells

Upstairs on floor or machines:

Three rounds

Side plank cable pulls, rowing style unilateral

Two arm supine cable pulls with leg raise, similar to toes to bar

Three rounds

Triceps pull downs with handle and with rope

Machine shoulder presses two positions

Leg press

Three or four floor abs things

Stretching

This was a lot of fun because the trainers who worked with us — Bull’s son Hakeem, teammate Asuba, and Bull — were so engaged and nice and positive. They always are.

January and February

My ability to get quality sleep on the nights when I have to get up early — Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights — fluctuated a lot, and my degree of tiredness each day affected my workouts. It was a struggle just to warm up some days, but once I did, I would usually do some sort of a non-CrossFit workout. I’d do a medium-heavy barbell lift only, or a kettlebell and pull-up workout that I like, or just go to karate, or walk to the gym. I went to karate twice a week or three times a week every week and I completed the Whole30 in January without going off-plan. I felt discouraged about my fitness and strength, as if I were on the brink of losing it overnight.

I developed a routine of taking a 30-minute nap most afternoons in the middle of an hour spent reading a book in the bed. I think this down time and nap are really important to my staying healthy and letting me enjoy karate one or two evenings a week.

I told myself I was feeling the pull of the sedentary life of middle age, and that I might as well acknowledge that. I’d rather work on genealogy than gardening. I’d rather do office work for the gym than work out. I continued to believe that every active thing that I did — any kind of exercise — was part of the discipline that would lead me back to harder workouts when I was ready. Harder workouts meaning CrossFit or the kind of heavy lifting that tests my strength, heavier than 85% for instance. I trusted the discipline I’ve developed, while being aware that I was resting more than usual. I had not done a CrossFit “WOD” in a few weeks.

This bothered me a little, but I knew I had not lost interest in training. I used my shifted personal priorities to explore the ways I did want to train — strength and skill combination exercises like my get-up / windmill / pull-up workout  — and then I turned it into a class. This was a good thing. I also started doing CrossFit WODs again on the same day that I gave the first of my new strength-training class (about 10 days ago).

This week I’ve done at least two CrossFit workouts plus barbell lifts, practiced karate and went to class. Starting this past weekend I noticed myself feeling stronger and warmer (cheeks a bit flushed) and somehow feeling lean. I haven’t weighed myself — my weight has been up around 137 for the past three months or so. It’s more than I’d like, but, on the other hand somehow it doesn’t bother me much!

It does feel good to feel strong and energetic. Weighing five pounds too much doesn’t affect those things. Today we were supposed to shoulder press 6 sets of 3 reps at 75%. I estimated my 1 RM at 80 (because I’m sore/fatigued from renegade rows) and completed 6 x 3 at 60 lbs, decided it was too light, and completed another 6 x 3 at 70 lbs for a calculated 1RM of 93. That’s quite good. I can tell when pressing that the strict, hollow pull-ups I’ve been doing are letting me use my entire “front” (abs, etc) more than before in the strict press. That was a delightful surprise.

The workout I’ve been going back to over and over, and used twice in my strength class, is:

5 windmill per side (8 kg)
5 strict hollow pull-ups, neck to bar as best I can
3 TGU per side (8 kg)
5 strict hollow pull-ups
5 windmill per side (12 kg)
5 strict hollow pull-ups
3 TGU per side (12 kg)
5 strict hollow pull-ups
5 windmill per side (16 kg)
5 strict hollow pull-ups
3 TGU per side (16 kg) (repeat the 16 kg set if time)

I also hop up and do 5 hollow strict pull-ups whenever I think of it. I feel good and I’m still inspired by training my clients and I can keep plugging along indefinitely.

What makes a program a lifelong commitment?

I liked CrossFit so much right away that I didn’t bother to sort out why it was more compelling than the fun boxing workout that Tom and I had done for the previous three years. But within a few months, I had let my boxing-gym membership lapse. There was just something about moving weights around that I found incredibly exhilarating, whether it was light dumbbells, cumbersome kettlebells, or heavy barbells. Even before that, I liked the seemingly endless variety in the CrossFit workouts.

I’ve had no trouble staying with CrossFit for 10 years and counting. I never stopped for any longer than it took to go on vacation. I don’t think I’ve ever even considered quitting. This is despite the fact that one can’t progress forever, becoming endlessly fitter and fitter. It has been a long-term commitment without feeling like one, because it is FUN. That’s something the other training philosophies overlook when they criticize CrossFit as creating a plateau in strength terms. I’ve also made it a long-term commitment because I’ve learned how important it is to maintain my pure strength and muscle mass as I get older.

What about skill? Is there an endless unfolding of new abilities? Well, no. If I focused on weightlifting only (ie, the clean and jerk and the snatch), then yes there could be a lifetime of skill acquisition–but then I’d be in a sport, not a fitness program. So for me, CrossFit is a really good compromise between valuable pure strength, fun basic movement skills, and conditioning that keeps me functional for just about anything else. Those are the values I hope everyone quickly finds compatible with their own goals when they start, so that they will stick with it.

My other organized physical activity is karate. I’ve been doing that for almost a year and a half. That is more highly skilled than CrossFit, by far. The black-belt practitioners don’t swagger around looking like they want you to know they could kick your ass. But they can move with such speed, power, and precision that it quickly became clear to me that this will be a lifetime of skill acquisition if I stick with it, and even if I do, I’m unlikely to get really good by starting at age 49. At this age, I’m probably losing my speed and plasticity. (The “probably” is because I’d like to be in denial!) So for now, I just stick with it one class at a time and try not to have high expectations. All I expect of myself is to pay attention, be serious, and do the best I can even if it’s not so good.

That’s why in my last post I said karate doesn’t count as a workout, and it’s in its own category. It’s a workout for my brain, and a skill practice session. It makes me feel physically not so much worked out as thoroughly limbered up and warmed up, especially in my hips and low back. It feels great. And I love memorizing the movements. I don’t love sparring and I don’t love the self-defense drills. Somebody got hurt during a self-defense drill recently.

Tracey told me last Saturday that she has wanted to quit karate many times. But she’s been at it for 22 years! Somehow despite getting discouraged she never quit. She says she saw it as a one-class-at-a-time thing, too, at least at first — try it and see how it goes. She said if she’d gone into karate thinking it was a 20-year commitment, it would have been too daunting.

I wonder if some people who quit CrossFit could be dissuaded if I could find out how they really feel about it from one class to the next. I think the most important part of “CrossFit” (which consists of so many things) is the barbell lifting for strength. If I had a client who was really serious about strength and just went through the motions on the WODs, that would be fine with me. Maybe some of our clients are that way — but I don’t see them like that at all. I think they all take the whole package quite seriously.

I guess what makes an activity a lifelong commitment is that you make progress, you see and appreciate it, and it spurs you on. Some of the parts of CrossFit by themselves could do that, such as barbell lifting or running, without turning into sports. But it seems like CrossFit as a whole, even if one doesn’t treat it like a sport, has enough sport-like “parts” (such as measurability and competition) that people keep going. Karate is a sport, but its skills alone are compelling enough for me even though I don’t plan to compete.

Disciplined, not driven

My back felt fine today, but my left wrist hurt with pushing or with hanging from the bar. So I deadlifted, up to a set of 5 at 190 and another set of 5 at 175. These felt normal/good. Then my workout of the day was: 15 kettlebell swings 24 kg, 15 butterfly sit-ups, 6 fist (knuckle) push-ups (because these didn’t hurt the wrist), 4 rounds. This took me 6:48 and felt good.

I didn’t feel like working out today. I often can too easily spend too much time in the gym working at the computer or cleaning. Daily I tell myself that if I don’t work out, I’ll be sorry when it’s time to go home and I did not work out when I was between things and had the time. I tell myself that either I’m a lifter and a CrossFitter, or I’m not. You are what you do. “How long ago was your last workout?” is a fair question for a trainer. My expectation is to be able to say that either my last WOD or my last lifting session was within the past two days, unless I had a really compelling reason not to have worked out. Also, saying I worked out in the past two days doesn’t include karate or going for a run — it has to be lifting or CrossFit or both. Running is just a little supplement, and karate is in another category altogether.

I don’t always force myself to do whatever’s on the whiteboard that day or to lift with a certain volume or intensity. I always write out a plan for my workout, on a whiteboard, but on a day like today, with recent back weakness and with current wrist pain in at least two positions, I’ll plan something that doesn’t make me nervous about conditions like those. I can always come up with something challenging enough, and once I get started, I go hard and I never quit unless something hurts in a significant way. For example, I’ll stop doing pull-ups if I realize my palm is going to tear, or I’ll stop doing handstand push-ups if my wrist suddenly hurts.

Sometimes I feel that I’m not fit enough because I’m not as fit as I was five years ago. But it’s not just a hobby any more. That really changes things, even though it’s not an issue of having enough time. I do have time, so I insist on maintaining most of my chosen benchmarks most of the time, but I refuse to try to maintain a standard of some imaginary, impossible perfection.

I was at my fittest in late 2009. Six months after “going paleo,” my weight was down to 123 and I was muscular, skilled, and fast. I clean and jerked more than my body weight and I could do bar muscle-ups. I felt that I looked my best. Today my weight moves between 132 to 135 although I’d like it at 128 or 129 (but really, WHO CARES) and I can’t clean more than 120 or do a bar muscle-up (though I can get those things back if I choose to focus on them). I’m not very self-critical about those things. I have plenty of abilities, I’m a good teacher who helps others, and I maintain my own personal benchmarks so that I’m a good example.

What are my benchmarks? Deadlift and squat over 200 pounds (and deadlift heavier than squat); press 90+; plenty of pull-ups such as 8 dead-hang and able to do at least one weighted pull-up with 35 pounds; cartwheel and handstand, not perfect but confident and competent; brachiate/monkeybar ladder/swing one-handed from ring to ring; pistol on each leg with some sort of weight, though I do have to wear weightlifting shoes or otherwise slightly elevate my heel. I may think of other benchmarks after I’m done here. In general these are the benchmarks I feel are “strong enough.”

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CrossFit Level 2 certificate seminar

I spent last weekend at CrossFit Belltown at the CrossFit Level 2 trainer seminar. The staff were Nadia Shatila, Todd Widman, Tommy Rudge, and Jesse Ward. They did a really great job of helping us trainees not to feel defensive and nervous — they weren’t just nice, but you could tell it was a deliberate, active effort to support us and make us as comfortable as possible. This was important because it’s hard to coach people under scrutiny from other trainers. This course isn’t graded, so it is really about the experience and the things you can learn about holes in your coaching.

I learned (not for the first time by any means) that I need to be more concise in cueing. When I make a correction while people are practicing what I have just taught, I need to slow down and stay with that person and that correction longer sometimes. This is to make sure they understand it, and have corrected it to the best of their ability, and that the others in the group understand what the point of the correction was (if I’ve pulled the person into the middle of the circle for them to see). I had to teach the push-jerk twice in a row specifically in order to slow down.

Earlier I had coached people in the press (I taught that one start to finish) and the med ball clean. Maybe the sumo deadlift high pull too, I’m already forgetting! In teaching the press, I used Rippetoe’s method. People found it surprising, but for me the point was to convey the information in an organized, effective, concise manner, and I find this method to be more technical and specific than the CrossFit method. Our coach for that session, Jesse, took this in stride but said it’s a bit nuanced for new trainees.

There was never any sense of defensiveness about information sources from outside CrossFit. In her wrap-up, Nadia encouraged us to look elsewhere as well as within CrossFit for training. I’m really glad I’ve always done that, because I’ve enjoyed it a lot and I appreciate that I have a pretty well-rounded body of knowledge (such as it is) because of this exploration.

Day 1 had small-group sessions where we worked on seeing, correcting, visual cueing, tactile cueing, praising, and one-on-one teaching. Day 2 had small-group sessions on group teaching and on programming. We’re supposed to “program for the best and scale for the rest,” so we invented workouts for Regionals-level CrossFitters. The weights and reps involved were so hard to relate to that if I’d been on my own, I wouldn’t have done a very good job. I would have been able to see and plug the holes in the sample programming they provided, but my workouts would have been too easy.

We had a fun workout at the end of each day. Day 1 it was, with one partner, do 100 wallball, then spend the remainder of 10 minutes doing barbell power snatches and see how many you can get. My partner was Christine from CrossFit RE, who I really liked. We used a 14# ball and did 59 snatches with 55 pounds. Prescribed was 65#. The idea of scaling was (1) not mentioned and then (2) scoffed at, but we did it because it seemed like a better idea.

My only criticisms of this seminar have to do with the teaching methods. For one thing, they never mention that we should provide context for each lift by explaining its purpose before we teach it. This is especially important because they use 5′ PVC pipes, or in this case varnished dowels, to teach all the barbell lifts. Trainees need to know how the lifts fit together among the other lifts and in the context of one’s overall training. This leads to my second objection, which is that you can’t teach a deadlift without a weight sitting on the floor. Taking a dowel at hip height and pushing it down to mid-shin and standing up again is not a deadlift, and they shouldn’t say that it is. A deadlift starts on the floor, or it’s not a deadlift. My third objection is that bracing — how to breathe to pressurize the trunk for a safe back — was never mentioned. At one point I realized this and I talked about pressurizing while teaching the push-jerk. It was too easy to overlook this critically important piece of safety information when we were using dowels that weigh nothing.

Because the trainees such as myself were already CrossFit trainers, it might be reasonable to assume that they know to teach bracing, and that they know how the deadlift works. But some of the trainees had very little experience as trainers, only months in some cases, so I think we should have been really hammering on how to pressurize and make sure everybody got it. It’s not an easy thing to see when someone demonstrates it. And regarding the deadlift, it is so fundamental and so powerful that it should be taught with more respect to safety and how it really works.

“These movements are a part of your DNA … One of the funnest things we do is teach the deadlift to people who’ve never seen it before” The people in the video below look like they’re new to it, but this talk by CrossFit founder Greg Glassman still inspires me:

Catching up

Today: ran a mile in 8:39
Workout with Tom: 3, 6,9, 12, etc of wallball, box jump, deadlift, 11 minute AMRAP, I got into the 21 round for a total of 200 reps.

Thursday: slow eccentric front squats to 3×5 at 105, then two rounds of “DT” at 85 pounds in 5:06. I couldn’t get too sweaty because I had a massage coming up.

I’m still running a mile most days. The weather has been good. If I skip one, I run two the next day. It feels virtuous!

Barbells, karate, running

For the past couple of weeks I haven’t done a lot of CrossFit workouts. I’ve kept up with my barbell lifting, which I’ve learned is the most important part of all the exercise I try to do. Today: bench press up to 120 lbs for a set of 4, then 3, 2, and 2. Later, deadlift up to a set of 5 at 195. That was enough; I had a terrible migraine.

Later, after a migraine pill and a nap: ran 1 mile (around-the-block route) in my fastest time yet, 7:48. I picked up speed at the end, in the final long and short “legs,” that is, the final southbound on MLK and the half-block going westbound on Alder. I’m glad to say I can run a sub-8-minute mile!

I don’t know why my 5-rep back squat and 5-rep deadlift are the same (as are the 1-rep maxes). It’s been that way for at least a couple of years. Doing whatever it might take to increase the deadlift seems not worth the effort, as risk would increase as well.

This past Sunday I did a CrossFit workout with three friends from karate.

2 turkish get-ups per side
Farmer walk 100m (I carried 16-kg kettlebells)
5 push-ups
80m run
5 rounds for time
This took me almost 18 minutes. I started the TGUs with a 16-kg kettlebell and this slowed me down right away. I switched to 8 kg. I’d like to strengthen my TGU back to where doing it with 16 kg is relatively easy. I can do that.

I’ve been running a mile a day almost every day. Yesterday I ran two miles in 17:49. I had skipped the previous day because of tiredness.

Karate has been a lot of fun. I bought a new gi.

 

Karate practice, mile run

Today is Sunday. Tom had to go to work so I was home alone for a while. I moved furniture out of the way and practiced two katas for a really long time, in the living room. It was compulsive but felt great to spend the time doing them over and over. I took breaks but not for long. I watched a couple of videos a few times to see if I was doing them right. I must have spent more than two hours. Tom came home and I showed them to him and of course blanked out once each.
We both went outside and stretched and squatted for a while, then I went for my mile run here in the neighborhood. My time today was my fastest yet, 8:48. I didn’t feel any specific discomfort but didn’t think I was going faster. In fact, I set out from the start to NOT try to go faster. Except when I got to maybe 100 meters from the finish (home), I ran that last part faster. I was really surprised at being so much faster over all. This was day 6.