Posts in strength
Mass-Hysteria

A paused-tempo front squat for 2 reps at 245#, easily makes most men feel sheepish.

This article is hard for me to write, I think in most part because I am a male, in a male-dominant industry. To consider my opinion in and of itself should be taken with a grain of salt, as I will never fully comprehend the situation. But this may be why I also think it’s important for an outsider to address the issue - if not just for the exercise in empathy and perspective. The subject of women being muscular might be a recent one, but the issue of women being strong is a deep rooted historical battle. I'm not convinced that my speaking out will change anything, especially in the outlet of a small time blog, and a few social media accounts, but doing so, along with others might help influence a shift in how we perceive females.

 

Women training, women in sport, women with muscle, specifically women who choose to stand and be strong, both emotionally and physically by determining their own physical outcome and their own identity are constantly berated - even in some instances by other females. I don't expect the world to be a homogenized space for us to live out our time untouched by conflict, in fact, the fight might just be what gives a specific subject meaning, as metal untouched by fire will remain either too brittle or too soft, so do we humans. The internet can be a place for great ideas, but with it also comes the subconscious truth of personal opinion that gets spewed out in the haphazard comments of a social media post. The trickle down whispering and backhanded aggressions made in comments of photos and videos of some of the most muscularly impressive women on the planet, quickly habituates a perception, the idea that females can become “accidentally too bulky”, as if it is an easy look to attain or comes about by happenstance. It seems harmless enough, people should be able to choose what they want aesthetically but this nuance is pervasive, it polarizes what we have been forced to believe throughout history; that women must submit to the ideals of a more powerful dominant male, that they should be frail and controllable. It is a knee-jerk reaction to a constraint we may not acknowledge exists. With CrossFit emerging as a sport and drawing more and more female competitors, as well as increased participation in weightlifting, this notion gets challenged daily, as the requirement for success is inevitably more lean mass. With the "look" comes the accusation of exogenous performance enhancement, as if the visibility of abs is only available through injection. This perception is founded on limited education, and ignorance of the most basic dietary and physiological truths.

I find the first reaction from most people when shown an impressive feat from a female athlete that may be developed perfectly for their sport, is to comment on her appearance, to note the attractiveness first, and the ability second. It happened when my my step-daughter - at the time a 5-year old emphatic dancer - messed up during a recital, but was commended for her performance because she was still "cute". It was an ignoring the opportunity to give feedback that could lead to improvement and instead pigeoned the idea of success on pleasing others visually first. It shouldn't be beyond anyone why this practice should be looked down on, we are a society now heavily influenced on a meritocracy, yet there is nothing of merit to appreciate about looking like what society deems as "attractive", there is no growth found in the idea that we can overwrite results with nicely inherited facial features. A few years ago I was watching a video of Olympic Weightlifter and gold medalist Lidia Valentin setting an event best Snatch, Clean & Jerk, as well as total. She moved beautifully, she was frighteningly strong; it was a heart-warming victory for one of the sport's most adored athletes. I probably watched it a dozen times, struck in awe. I made the mistake of showing a friend; his response was a cringe, as I had forgotten his stance on women that are “bigger” (165lbs), as he referred to them as “monkeys in dresses”. It wasn’t the first time I had heard the term, and before the end of our friendship he would address my wife as a “borderline monkey in a dress”, after his opinion was unconstrained by the vigor of vodka. This was somewhat heart breaking for me, as my wife at the time was 132lbs. At 5’8” she had worked for years to put lean mass on, as a previously competitive runner she weighed a slight 122lbs in-season - “skinny” doesn’t begin to define what she looked like - but it was supportive of the effort, so the look or “attractiveness” of it came second. The difficulty wasn’t just the eating, and training, it was overcoming the perception that muscle on females is undesirable to males and other females. Although it takes years to add 8-10 pounds of muscle, it takes longer to view your reflection in the mirror without the weight of public opinion defining how you should see yourself. To her credit she brushed it off and continued to reach for her goals that to most ride against the societal designation of being "dainty", the very next day out squatting the person in question by over 50lbs, my smile couldn’t possibly represent just how proud of her I was, and it had nothing to do with how "pretty" she looks doing it.

There are countless examples of women rising above the preconceived ideas of fitness, but there is most likely 10 times that amount of detractors, commenting, insulting, and badgering those that wish to rise above, those that want to be better than they are today. Those are the people I want to reach, the women that deserve encouragement for aspiration, I could care less about convincing the indoctrinated about the merits of physicality. This should serve as beacon not a complaint, or an entitlement for freedom from critical comments. The majority's constriction on women makes it even greater of a process to endure, as attrition builds the most sought after diamonds, so should be the task of attaining mass. My previous career did not help women, as a freelance photographer, make-up artist, and hairstylist, most of my work was through agencies, some were great jobs with great people, I created things that at the time I truly loved; fashion and beauty. Unfortunately my drive and desire was already molded, my notion of what looked good on film was decided for me, as anything outside this perception will not be bought, or sold. One of the worst parts about my job was to explain to impressionable girls that their body type would not be successful in the industry they wanted so badly to be a part of. To be fair, rarely is it about being skinny enough (as is often addressed by accusations of ‘fat-shaming’), and more or less a genetic predisposition for ratios in limb length and facial features, knowledge of this didn’t make the task any easier. The further I get from that industry the more clear the destruction becomes to the women it is meant to empower. Between magazine covers pressuring the conformity of being visually pleasing first, to the very real back and forth in comment threads arguing whether an actress that was cast is either too skinny or too fat, we have a system that is totally influenced on aesthetics.

 

This idea of appearance being more important than ability, has not surprisingly wormed its way into how we raise our children, and is a debt that we haven't quite realized the total cost of. Imagine raising a young girl, she most likely looks to you for how she feels about herself, some of this happens by what you tell her you think, but most of her idea is in observing the moments where you project what you think, like your backhanded remarks at the sight of a muscular female. We are not so clever that we can hide our real opinions from those we spend enough time with, eventually your reactions speak for you. Without directly saying so you are telling her just what you think about muscular women, about strong women, about how disgusted you are with women that decide to not fit into what you deem as “appropriate”. How we unknowingly address attractiveness first and foremost will undoubtedly poison future generations, and limit our female population from not just athletic prowess, but emotional empowerment as well. Maybe this sounds like a call to arms, like a clumsy revolution built on my boredom of reading: “you look like a man” on the timeline of some of the female athletes I look up to. It’s not, it’s more like a duty as a participant in an industry to address issues that I see those close to me deal with, it’s my promise to rectify myself first and influence those I care enough about to do the same. If I can’t help guide athletes physically, mentally, and emotionally then I can’t call my self a coach. If I can’t stand up for women and encourage them to be strong, then I can’t call myself a man, and if I can’t tell my daughter that her ability far outweighs the ideals of the dark ages then I shouldn’t be called human.

Going Long, Falling Short

Our current viewpoints shape our past and our hindsight; our outlook is artificially molded by our beliefs. Experience can be a motherfucker, as it guides us forward but it also lends to the disregarding of the truth, or even worse creates our own truths. Six-months ago a conversation erupted about the effects of different efforts. Short vs. Long and the condemnation of one or the other. Argument, in general is enjoyable, even if I agree; I believe the fire of it elicits new paths… if you are open to it. I started in this manner fighting with what I concurred. For the last decade I would have battled vehemently in the corner of “Long efforts” being superior to experience and exceptional for mental fortitude. That’s because my history would speak for me, I could only recall the truths that I knew. The slow methodical grind gives time to brew, time to decide whether or not to continue. Intensity, true intensity eluded me, sure I lifted “heavy”, I sprinted, I did “all-out” minutes, I hurt myself with physical trial. And so my experience shaped, err forced my opinion, as we can only know what we know. I fought back this idea to maybe prod or poke, to give way to a conversation, after all sitting in a room where everyone nods in agreement holds very little interest for me, even if that involves faking a stance.

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The easy resolution is to promote and experience both, as most who come to training by way of GPP (general physical preparedness) sometimes do. This was not the point as the exchange was based on the emotional or psychological revelation exhibited by those who plunge deep into the time barrier of effort. This seems intuitively correct as watching the finish to a stage in LeTour is heartbreakingly wrought with emotion. Paradoxically the chest-thumping conclusion to a 100m sprint or the lion-like roar of a successful world record Deadlift looks masked with machismo and on the surface lacks mental evolution. How much could you possibly change in less than 10seconds or less than a second for that matter? Sure, the chemicals flowing through these very different athletes are dissimilar by nature, and not just the exogenous variety as they are both profoundly riddled with them, but the neuro-chemical pathways and hormonal profile are just organically different. Maybe. This was my intuition speaking, as I’ve read countless memoirs from endurance athletes whose poetic prose and description of sport has been able to elicit emotions and evolution in myself. I’ve also felt the transformative experience of a 10hr+ effort on a bike, the way it makes you examine and take inventory all in the dust of your own collapse. Conversely watching Bolt fly through in unbelievable speed to win gold, although impressive lacks personal inspiration. My opposing side with which I stood was looking bleak, as I was losing grounds in my argument. The added punch on the subject of risk involved in ultra-long efforts was icing, as the contrived comfort of an artificial battleground cannot possibly compare to the dwindling discomfort and lack of control a mountain range offers the astute adventurer. As much as I like the process of debate, I also despise losing, as these points were starting to look infinitesimally better than my own. I walked away, tail between my legs, but I didn’t give in, I had to think and evaluate, something about the notion of single sided superiority irked me, even if an hour previous I would have been the one nodding along..

 

Free will, opinion, choices, that which defines our consciousness, are merely illusions in most cases. Dozens of Nuero-scientists have now effectively published extensive proof that not only do we not really decide our own beliefs or actions, but also we confabulate our history, excuse our decisions, and most importantly in this scenario opinionate what we deem as fact and teach it as gospel. It’s tough to sift through empirical research that basically takes away what most think distinguish us from other animals. Being aware of our own existence necessitates little else.  If this is correct, why are we in search for the truth, at least the truth of our experience? Is it so hard to fathom that our experience was individually correct and also universally wrong? Is it damning to know we are not responsible for our drive, our decisions, that motivation and opinion are substantiated by an illusive passive thought? All of this must be considered when “taking a side”, and for that matter remaining on a side. Whatever side you choose in any situation, you will be congratulated, specifically by those who made the same choice. This will feel good, to have the troops rally around you so to speak, we depend on tribalism, our brains depend on social groups and hierarchy. Most at the lower end would take their position of bottom-feeder rather then to be expelled from a social group. Walking down the middle of a line is not celebrated, as perhaps it should be, it is a lonesome endeavor, as people love to be decisively black and white, it is easier to see in stark contrast. But the positives for walking a line do exist. Avoiding self-delusion is one that comes to mind, not avoidable completely, but dodging the ever-sticky trap of becoming the indoctrinated subordinate is. Essentially this debate put me in the middle, it cast me away from those that welcomed me before, and in doing so I questioned the merit. It is a simple removal from social status story without the dullness of a church or the danger of a suicide cult. There are many groups that claim “open source” and teach to be open-minded, but how many truly are, how many change when the information contradicts their way or more importantly their income?

 

I was not a good spokes-person, for my journey with short effort was even shorter. Experience drew a line through what I was yet to comprehend. A few years trying my hand at weightlifting didn’t earn me much, as my commitment was shallower than my argument against it. How can it possibly be right that only one type of effort leads to very specific development? In my experience the world has never been so cut and dry. And there in lies the problem, MY experience.

 

My view has evolved, I’ve remained open enough about things that I don’t quite understand, and through this, revelation strikes. I think it’s in part what leads to good teaching, even if it is only teaching myself. Perhaps my evolution didn’t exactly come from the short effort but the long commute to discovering it. Along the way I participated in weightlifting, and still do. I separate this from competing as I was not a contender, and with that mindset is what I find the link between efforts becomes. You must contend, reach for something that pushes your known boundary, you must apply risk of some sort to reap a spiritual benefit. Why short hard efforts don’t seem to develop athletes similarly to their longer counterpart might just be because the interpretation while looking from afar. If the guy who wins/loses doesn’t break down into tears it can’t possibly define development, or does it? At least for us spectators, to show us that something was on the line. Matthias Steiner’s story exonerated my stance. In preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympic weightlifting event, Matthias was hit with the unfortunate death of his wife in a car accident. Weightlifting from a “long” point of view seems lazy and the athletes grotesquely “fat”, the event lasts about a second, the training for which is sitting and waiting for the next lift. There is no bad weather to deal with in the air-conditioned comfort of the gym. What isn’t realized is that volume and psychological stress is insurmountable. It is a daily process most often multiple times a day, where you must contend with a piece of metal that does not want you to win, the “rest” is to sit and confront the contempt you feel for it. The battle of attrition then is rarely seen, as the glory is the only aspect celebrated. My view is that long efforts develop the mind during, and the shorter are developed in preparation for. The mental platisicity to train for a series of 6 lifts inside sometimes a decade of training is anything but “short”.

Risk? If your experience with weightlifting is 150lb squat then I would agree, risk is not helping you experience mental acuity, but because of your lack of ability not because the experience is not available to you. I would argue the same in the opposite manner, if your scope of length is within an hour you are not participating in what we describe. Most endurance types cannot afford the time requirement involved to “feel” short effort realization, at least at the “elite” level. It might be worth noting the satisfaction of dedicating yourself specifically comes at the cost of other experiences. Those that dedicate the better half of their lives to putting 440+lbs directly overhead or unracking a 1000lb squat, only to feel their ribs break not only have a chance at greater mental clarity but also risk greatly. With this in mind, Matthias had a decision to make, as the story goes he continued to train at a loss, most likely being unable to hold up his promise of gold to his deceased wife. Effort, risk, mental evolution, emotional grit are the by-products of competition not distance or time, the annuity owed to us by our dedication. As I might have articulated the thought of literary fortitude in favor of the endurance athlete before, I would have been wrong. The exposure of my experience left me without examples, as has now been corrected by reading the works of life long power-lifters and weightlifters. Their description and in-depth transformation brings about something similar, which is just change, transformation. Matthias pushed his loss outside of his scope and focused intently on gold. He overcame great odds, mental barriers and risked everything in order to best his own insecurity, with what could be called one of the greatest sporting performances of all-time, I would recommend watching the entire story linked above. His emotional response to winning counter acts what we might have thought about depth of character involved in just “lifting weights”. I would compare his evolution to any great feat of overcoming odds. His story will inspire thousands, something we should all charge to do, and is what may be at the foundation of sport, no matter the distance.

 

Learning to lift weights in a way that leads to evolution has taken me the better part of my life, it has been every bit as enlightening as the miles I flogged in order to seek clarity through that domain. To side strongly to any camp and argue superiority is a crime against the title of teacher, as it was in this case, I believe this specific exchange happened as a defense of the profession not the stance. Teaching should not be just proving the benefits of your own experience but helping others find their own, and to this I hold coaches and trainers more accountable than the athlete who “just does”. Perhaps there is comfort with the thought that we have just done things the right way, the one true way. It vindicates our experience, confabulates our life story. The one thing I fear above being wrong is perhaps being right with a previous thought, therefore my personal growth would lead me away from truth and towards mental degeneration. By raising the banner of our single experience we lose the ability to see past the crowd gathered at our feet, and by just going long for so long we may just fall short.