Friday, November 24, 2017

my new friend fear

I've found new life in the old idea of befriending your enemies. There is value to be found in exposing yourself more to what frustrates you, challenges you, and/or scares you. For me, fear is mainly rooted in the unfamiliar. I'm learning to turn the no-I-can't/never-have into yes-I-will.

Lifting has clued me into my weaknesses--physical is the part of iceberg exposed, the obvious thing revealed. So much of progress is mental, even before hands touch the bar. For a while I bought into hesitation and allowed myself to back off when things felt maybe too tough or sketchy. I went right up to my limit and hovered for months, setting up camp on the plateau that inevitably happens when you stop truly challenging yourself.

Never has this been more true than with bench press. I cannot explain why fear felt more prominent for that one movement than anywhere else in my program. It might have to do with dropping the bar on my chest one or two times...once getting stuck to the point of needing help from a stranger working next to me. Shaken, but fine. Maybe it's because the bar is overhead, and in the past I've never been really strong in my upper body. I've always been leg dominant. And chest? Forget it. Before lifting I didn't even understand the reason or worth in training chest. Naively I thought bench was for big boys, ground I had no reason to cover.

For close to a year, my 1 rep max on bench press did not move. I kissed it a few times, shakily, but never felt confident enough to work past it. While I've been successful programming linear periodization for my other lifts, I could never lock in a progressive workload for bench. Also, I only exposed myself to it once a week. It wasn't my favorite, it made me nervous, and therefore it was easy to not make it a priority(or even equal to my other lifts).

This summer, I started reading more about programming--what works, what doesn't. I gave more thought to body symmetry--training the back chain as frequent and as focused as the front. I made a decision that I did not want any weaknesses. I broke down the three main lifts and took all the weight off so I could lock in form first. After being asked multiple times by friends and strangers if I was training to compete and always saying no, I started to give honest thought to it. Maybe I should, I'd think after a great session. I had plenty of rep goals, weight-on-bar goals...but a competition? It was an interesting thing to start considering.

Fast forward to now and I'm just finishing week 3 of a new 4 month block that will take me all the way to peaking for my first powerlifting meet in April. There's been a real change as the leaves turned a burnt sienna and drifted off their limbs. I lift with purpose. Going back to the beginning and locking in form helped me understand the numbers are nothing if you aren't lifting them right. I decided to befriend bench. Flat, incline, decline, dumbbells. I went back to having nothing on the bar so I could get comfortable with 45 pounds over my face for as many reps as I could stand. I started to trust myself. I quit approaching the bench with a thought of "there's no way..." or "I'll be lucky to get [enter measly number] pounds off my chest more than once." I started sticking to the numbers I wrote down. I made my back stronger to support the push movement. In the simplest term, I worked my ass off. I hit a new 1 rep max in early fall.

Bench is my buddy now. There's still a bit of that nervous adrenaline, even if I know how to bail when necessary. Instead of letting that residual fear balloon up into blockage, I've turned it into a power source. Fear is motivating. Fear makes me move the damn bar. Fear is giving me some of the best sessions that I've ever had. And for the first time ever, I can see my chest split in the mirror(an unexpected bonus to getting stronger I guess).

At this point I have no idea what my attempts will be for the meet this spring--I have plenty of time to grow and that's exciting. By the time April is here, my current max might be my opener. Ah a lady can dream. And a lady can do.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

new goals

The weekend before last I attended my first ever powerlifting meet(USPA). I've been watching videos, following lifters, and reading everything I can about what goes into competing. I felt as informed as a spectator could get. Still, attending took my knowledge to an entirely new level and, more than that, a spark was ignited. I've been lifting for about two years now, and during that time I've done it for fun and therapy. I didn't give serious thought to competing.

Until now.

I have my eye on two USPA meets in April 2018. My plan is to register for one of them. There are a few in November but I want to give myself plenty of time to prepare. April it is. Since then, I've acquired a copy of the rule book(all 52 pages), and I'm devouring it. I think this decision to put all my work to actual use has been in the works for a while...going to an actual meet confirmed this. I can do it. I have no doubt in my mind that I can do it. I want my first official Wilks total. I keep track of my numbers and progression diligently--I'm confident that I can program for my first meet successfully. It would be an added bonus to have an actual coach, but since it's my first meet I'm not going to create additional pressure.

Since the meet, my training has shifted, both mentally and physically. Physically, I'm obsessing more over form and cue. Lifting in a meet is different than a typical training session--deadlift, squat, and bench involved cues for the competition lifts. Bench requires the most, I think. A competition bench requires a pause with the bar at chest before receiving the cue to "press." In a typical training session, there is a very brief pause at chest level, if one at all. I've started to incorporate this cue into my warm ups, and on my first attempt for each increasing set. I'm making sure I have good form across the entire set before moving onto the harder one.

Mentally, it's game on. The brain, the gut, the heart--all three are on fire now. There is a more precise motivation to get it right, not just to get it done. I'm paying more attention to how I approach the bar, not just getting under it as quickly as possible. I'm filming lifts more as well--form, form, form. If it's sloppy, I can play it back, make note of it and correct it. It's no longer just therapy. It's no longer just work. There's a new hunger attached to it.

I'm incorporating the three lifts into my weeks more--instead of deadlifting and benching once a week, I've increased it to twice a week. More practice, better form. Better form means moving heavier weights. Honestly, this increase has left me much more tired than usual. It's a good tired though--one of accomplishment. I've also started removing my gloves halfway through the majority of my workouts so that I can get used to a bare grip on the bar. I won't be using them in April, so I need to start the weaning process now. This is another thing that you can file under improvement but it also sucks. My hands are tender. The plus side is that every grip feels more purposeful. Increased grip strength has helped my confidence grow, especially in regards to my left hand. My left hand has always been a little weaker than my right.

I'm hoping to chart more of my progress and work in this space as I get closer to competition. I'm pretty damn excited. My bench total is moving, my deadlift total is moving, and I'm nearly ready to retest my squat, which I estimate is comfortably over the 200 mark. Onward and upward.

Thursday, September 7, 2017


Triceps have been a weak point for me. The picture on the left is from February 2017. The one on the right is from June 2017. I'm due to update my progress again(next week hopefully). For growth: close-grip bench press, skull crushers, increase in rope and bar pulldowns, and dips. Nothing too fancy, just a renewed desire to improve and go heavier.

Friday, August 11, 2017

hypertrophy, week 7

- I am back in the land of high volume. On glute day I hit 8,000+ lbs of volume on back squat alone.

- I love how high volume has tested my discipline. I write almost all of my workouts down before I get to the gym, and I do my damnedest to stick to the plan. Sometimes I have to scale it back or improvise in the moment(if, say, I had a long day at work and I’m not feeling well), but I love the satisfaction I get from setting the bar and climbing to reach it. There are times when I am on my third or fourth set of squats and I try to con myself out of doing less reps on the ones to follow. I’ve grown to be quite good at telling that naysayer within to shut up though. I’m not really into selling myself short anymore.

- The loads are getting heavier, the lifts are getting harder, thus the DOMs(delayed onset muscle soreness aka hurting the day after the workout) are raging these days. I’m trying to stay consistent with my yoga/range of motion stretches, because it does help a lot. I need to foam roll more. Due to continuously overloading(progressive overload IS the key here) I find myself more tired and in need of more recovery post-lifting. I think I’m going to have to restructure my rest days vs working days to support the increasing workload.

- For squats, I switched from high bar to low bar. This means the bar placement on my back has changed from high(the bottom of my neck) to low (base of my traps). Instead of keeping my hands wide on the bar, I pin them in against my body, aiming my elbows down instead of winging out backwards. It took me a few sessions to get used to, but now I can’t imagine having my arms wide again. Keeping the arms pinned in helps me keep my chest up, and I can “pull” the barbell across my back and create a better “shelf” for the bar(think I used enough quotes?). Overall, it results in better form.

- I also end up like this when I pack my gym clothes in the dark of 5am:

at least I was kiiiiiiiiinda close

My bench press is finally climbling. I've been teetering around the same number on bench for nearly a year. In the winter I started over completely--I wanted to improve my form because it was fairly hideous. Hypertrophy work(lots of reps) has helped me lock in form and increase my confidence under the bar. That confidence is everything. Next thing to accomplish on bench: stop hesitating to ask someone for a spot. I need to push myself and I think not having a spotter keeps me in a comfort zone. No more comfort zone.

I'm going to purchase a food scale this month. I follow a fairly regimented diet and steer clear of junk. I'm a laissez-faire macro counter. The scale is going to help me keep better track--I'd like to bulk/increase my size a little. It's pretty much eggs/carbs for breakfast, rice, tuna, veg for lunch and occasionally the same thing for dinner(or udon noodles, and maybe chicken since I do eat that again now). Fairly boring from the outside, perhaps. No complaints here though. Special thanks to sesame oil, nutritional yeast, and hot sauce.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

update! strength block, retest, new max, onward

Long time, no post. Apologies for that. I'm not even sure if anyone reads this part of my blog, so if anything apologies to myself for not archiving this shit better. Granted, I am dedicated to tracking all of my lifts so that I can properly progressively overload, but still. This space needs love too.

And now, onto the things.

I successfully completed a strength block. This block lasted roughly 4-5 weeks, with a retest at the end of it. A strength block means lower volume, heavier lifts. I kept most of my accessory work in the high rep range, but made a conscious effort to push myself on the amount I was pulling/pushing. My bench progress stalled out during strength, which kind of sucks, but to be honest I'm over it. I'm okay with bench press remaining my weakest lift of the three major ones. I'm sure this is partially to the times I've failed lifts and couldn't get the bar off my chest. For me, that's scarier than missing a squat or not being able to pull a deadlift. Being physically under the bar face-up is already daunting. 98% of the time I lift without a spotter. I've learned to leave the clips off the bar when I bench--this way, if I do need to bail, I can easily tilt the bar in one direction to slide the weights off. Haven't had to do that just yet, but it's important to lift smarter before going heavier.

I slowly progressed my weight on squats and deads until I felt ready to retest. A retest means you are intentionally going for a (hopefully new) 1 rep max. Initially I wanted to retest all 3 main lifts, but due to varying circumstances I only retested my squat for this cycle. I've started a new program specifically to increase my deadlift(thanks to megsquats for the free program), so I wanted to wait on that one, and my bench(as noted earlier) is kind of stalled at 100/105. In this cycle I will finally retest my max on that, but for now I'm focusing on slow increases and solid form.

Retest day was super exciting for me. I went to work that morning already in dork-mode, visualizing my warm up and thinking about how much I wanted to shatter my old maximum number of 185 lbs. I ate smart for breakfast and lunch, and even added in an extra poptart with my afternoon coffee before driving to the gym. I ended up taking large jumps with my warm up sets--it's hard to make the body instantly attempt a new max without a climb to it. I started with a few reps of 145 and hopped to 155, then 165, 175, 180, then 185. Then I slid plates on to attempt a new max.


I hit pause on Spotify and slid my armband off, not wanting any distractions. There was a little voice in my head, an annoying one, that said "hey it's okay if you don't hit this. No one will care. No big deal. Shit, don't even try." This thought was tiny but neon in my brain. I am, however, my father's daughter and stubborn might as well be stenciled on my forehead. Having that little voice around made me want it even more. I was going to do more than try. I was going to lift that shit.

So I did. On my back, down and up. 190 pounds. In the moment, I know I could've grinded out 195, but I was so over the moon about 190 that I stopped there. My goal has been 200 for months now, and I'm ten pounds from it. Easy. I was so excited that I immediately texted various friends and my sister. I was grinning for the duration of the drive home.

After my retest, I jumped right back into hypertrophy. I'm not on week 3 of this new cycle. I've moved the chains--doing high reps of heavier weight than my last high volume cycle, which is the point. Progressive overload. I think this one will be 8 weeks, maybe 10. Then another strength block, then another retest. I'm enjoying the hell out of this process. That's what matters above all else. Of course I want to progress, want the numbers to increase, want the gains to continue. But what's the point if it isn't fun? It requires commitment and I try my damnedest to make every session worth the sacrifice of time and effort. So far, so great.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

brief babble on hypertrophy, start of week 5

Today I started week 5 of my hypertrophy block. I'm getting to that slightly insane part of training where everything almost always hurts--not in a bad way, but DOMS for days. I've slowly been increasing my volume with each week--if the volume were an actual knob on a stereo we would be just a few decibels shy of 11.

Squats are nearing a brutal point. Late last week I hit a new 8 rep pr on back squat, and this week I set a new pr to beat that one. I've started incorporating pause squats(the pause is just above horizontal to increase power pushing out of the hole) in hopes of getting a little break amongst all that volume. Ha, break my ass.

I love the absurd mental game one has to indulge in during a high volume workout. During set up I'll nod to myself before that heave upwards to take the bar completely on my back. The nod is kind of involuntary. My brain and body check in with each other, find agreement, and then we go. I'm also visualizing a lot more, which is starting to help me strengthen my left side. Since I am right-dominant, my left side is naturally a bit weaker--something I've been working on correcting for some time now. It's too easy to go through the motions, mentally check out, and let my right side handle most of the work. Staying present and picturing the muscles at work really helps me balance the load from right to left. Higher volume is helping me lock in good form, which is going to be oh so necessary once the strength block starts. I want those 1 rep max prs. I want them bad.

At this point in my hypertrophy block, I mentally struggle with the last set. There is a moment where I am tempted to cut it short, skip the final set of reps completely. Over the past week, I've been combating this impulse with some trainer treatment. Almost always, I train alone, but sometimes I wouldn't mind having someone rooting for me to suck it up and attack the last set, or someone barking a countdown next to me for that last push. Even after all this time I could use a kick in the tookus now and then. My solution is to turn the "maybe I'll skip this one" thought in my head into that of a trainer--the voice I need to tell me to go on and do it, pull my shit together and make it count. A time or two I've muttered "one more Nik" under my breath before tackling the last set. The best feeling is finishing the one I initially wanted to skip out on. The completion is incredibly satisfying. I need that motivation at this point in my training--each workout is harder than the last. Sure I'm incredibly sore, but I'm also pretty damn content.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Process of rebuilding

I’ve been relatively flu-free for three weeks now, hooray! Never underestimate the power of illness to afford you a little perspective and motivation. I’m aiming to use this unexpected hiccup in my training to reset myself so that I can train smarter and harder. To be honest, getting sick didn’t really give me a choice.

Getting back into lifting post-flu was a process. After a week of being ill, I went to the gym and tried my usual back exercise(with the intensity turned down a bit). After only 20 minutes, I developed a cold sweat and felt strangely winded. I was more shocked than frustrated—I didn’t expect to feel that genuinely awful after only 20 minutes. My body was not ready for it yet. She kicked and hollered in response to the stimulus, and I listened. I pulled on my sweats and went home, and didn’t look back.

I waited three more days before attempting another gym session. That next one was a glute day, and I was feeling anxious to get back in the squat rack and see how much power I had lost. I felt positive about it—I’ve been lifting very consistently for a long time now, so two weeks didn’t seem too extreme. Before the flu hit, I had just finished week 2 of a 4 week strength block. Part of me was hoping I could jump right back in and maybe be behind by only five pounds or so. I’ve been so excited with seeing true, actual process with the poundage I’m moving, so I went in that Friday with fingers crossed.

That glute day was brutal and humbling. I wasn’t anywhere near that second week of strength pre-flu. Reps of 135 felt like torture. I could only manage to do 3-4 reps at a time, and couldn’t get the bar heavier than 140. My stance felt off, my back was shaky, and after days of harsh coughing and congestion, it was tough to fully brace my core for each squat. I was worried about coughing mid-descent. This session lasted about 45 minutes.

I went home and stared at notes from my last strength block day. I allowed myself to feel bummed about it for all of five minutes. There’s no point in dragging out the woe-is-me. It was the flu. Not (thank goodness) a debilitating injury. Whatever I lost through illness, I could gain back and then some. Quickly the bummed out feeling bloomed into hopefulness.

Since then, I’ve been climbing my way back, slow and steady. I decided to scrap the rest of this strength block and reset with a hypertrophy block. Hypertrophy promotes growth and I want to grow a bit more before working my way up to potential new max lifts. This means low weight, high reps, high volume. Each week I aim to increase my overall volume in general, but mainly for the three major moves: bench, deadlift, and squat. I think switching back to hypertrophy training post-flu was a sneaky little mind trick for myself as well—I was feeling hung up on those numbers from the strength block, and mentally it felt important to redirect my effort in order to remain motivated.

Before the flu I could bench 95 easily, for multiple sets/reps. My first chest day back after illness was quite clumsy. I thought: 95? No problem. And I was wrong, to put it mildly. I did the first set of 2 okay—lots of push on the last rep but I got it. I went for a second set and during the last rep I knew I was in trouble as soon as I lowered the bar to my chest. I pushed a bit and it dropped back on me, thankfully not from very high. I had to call out to the guys benching next to me for a little help. Slightly embarrassing.

This is a good lesson for me to learn. There are so many lessons in weightlifting. Patience is an immense one. You have to be patient. Progression does not happen overnight. Sometimes the goal posts barely seem to be budging, but you’ve got to instill a bit of faith in the process. Patience is especially important when recovering—be it from illness, injury, a failed lift. When recovering it’s important to acknowledge your limitations, and respect them. Pushing too hard too soon will potentially result in a lengthier recovery. There’s no shame in a setback. It happens, and it isn’t the end of the earth. The plates are still there, waiting for me to pick em up and move them.