Friday, August 9, 2013

Trusting the Process

Sure, I'm going to mention today's workout a bit, but this isn't a post about which metal plates I've been moving around in the gym lately. It's more about the plates I haven't been moving today--or at least, not moving as much as I'd like, and dealing with that.

My workout protocol calls for five sets of five being completed at a given weight in order to move up five pounds the next time the workout comes around. If I don't get that, I've "stalled" on that weight, which means that I'll be trying the same weight again next time. Today, I stalled on both squats and bench press. Gah!

I was frustrated when, on my third set of squats, I got two, went down for the third and couldn't get back up. Not only did the workout suddenly feel unsuccessful (I mean, I stalled! I didn't get the weight I was going for!), but I knew I had two more sets to do, and that's tough mentally. I mean, if I stalled after just 2 reps, what's the next set going to look like? It was a minor victory that I was able to push out 3 reps on each of the last two sets, but it still feels like failure.

From there I went to bench press, where I've been feeling pretty good for weeks. On my third set, I got all five, but the fifth one was rough. I took an extra thirty seconds in my break between sets... and stalled on the fourth rep of the fourth set. I had it maybe halfway up, and it just wasn't going any further. The minor victory here was that I kept pushing and pushing until I just couldn't, instead of giving up right away. I got four on the fifth set as well.

So if it's frustrating to stall on one exercise, what is it to stall on two? The thing I had to remind myself of, though, is that this is okay. It's all part of the process. It's expected that stalls will happen. It's not as though this program is designed such that hitting 5x5 every single time and moving up 5 pounds is the only outcome that's okay. Yeah, I'd like to do that, but stalling is part of the process. If I never hit a stall point, I'd be worried that I wasn't pushing myself hard enough and that I wasn't really growing. If I was really afraid to stall, I should have followed the recommendation to start with an empty bar on all exercises--I'm sure I could have had several months of stall-free lifting... which wouldn't really have challenged me.

What it comes down to, then, is that I have to trust the process--a process that knows stalls will happen from time to time and has a system for dealing with them: try it three times, adding rest time between sets; if you don't get it on three tries, you take off 10% of the weight and get back on it, focusing on technique. And if that doesn't work... there's a plan for that too. Trust the process.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Catching up on the Training Log

I haven't posted any update--much less a training update--in almost a month, but that's not because I haven't kept up with my training. All in all, it's been a good summer for training, though the last several weeks have seen it evolve somewhat. By the way, I don't really expect this to be of much interest to anybody--and my expectations have been similarly low with all these training updates. They were helping me to stay accountable to myself, but I'm not sure what kind of accountability I'm imposing on myself by updating 3 or 4 weeks of workouts now. Maybe I always knew I'd catch up eventually?

The second week of July didn't finish particularly well: I missed my Thursday workout, spent much of my Friday driving to Detroit or getting ready to do so, then once I got there I spent a few hours trying out for Jeopardy (woot!) and picking my wife and girls up from the airport, but I did get in a short, lousy workout on the hotel treadmill. Saturday morning, we left for a week at a beach house in Canada.

I took the weekend off, but Monday morning I got back to my body-weight workout  routine and Tuesday saw me doing a long run on the beach--it was hard to track accurately, but I'm pretty sure it was about 7 miles, making it my longest run of the summer. Wednesday of that week saw a big shift in my summer workout routine.

You see, with my body-weight routines, the pattern into which I eventually settled was 3 days per week, alternating two workouts (so one week workout A is done twice and B is done once, then that's reversed the next week). The basic pattern was based on StrongLifts 5x5, with the thought that I would transition to that program or something like it in mid-August when I go back to work (which is also to say: back to the gym). Up in Canada, I decided to go ahead and take my workouts to a gym, because I didn't have the equipment otherwise to do pull-ups or Australian pull-ups (or anything comparable). A quick google search showed that most "gyms" in town actually looked more like cults, so I settled on Physical Culture Gym, which not only happened to be closest to our beach house but also the least cultish. The owner seemed like a heck of a nice guy, too.

Since the rest of my summer has been influence by StrongLifts 5x5, I should probably say a few words about it. It's 3 workouts a week, and every workout includes 5 sets of 5 reps of squats. There's an A workout and a B workout--one of them includes 5x5 bench press, plus 3 sets of Australian pull-ups, dips (or, in some versions, push-ups) and ab work, while the other includes 5x5 shoulder press, 1x5 deadlift, pull-ups/chin-ups, and ab work. For the main exercises, the idea is to increase the weight 5 pounds at a time (maybe 10 pounds for squats and deadlifts, at least for a while) from one workout to the next. Now, I said earlier that my workout was "influenced by StrongLifts 5x5," and I say that because while I liked the basic idea of the workouts, I ignored a lot of his advice, so it would be disingenuous to saying "doing Stronglifts." I mean, if it works out well for me, I'm happy to give StrongLifts credit for good principles; if it fails, we can all say it was my fault for messing around with a winning formula.

The first change I made, which isn't that egregious, really, was that I didn't start with an empty bar on all my exercises, which is what he recommends. I mean, I've been lifting on and off (mostly on!) for the past 10 years now--I'm just not going to start off benching the bar and then add 5 pounds my next workout and add 5 pounds the workout after that, etc. Besides, Mehdi, the guy behind StrongLifts, says that when he's working 1 on 1 with clients, he often starts them at higher weights. I did appreciate the basic principle behind starting with lighter weight: he wants you to use perfect form and build up the weight gradually rather than trying to lift more than you can handle and rather than plateauing quickly. Fair enough. I used my two days at the gym in Canada to start calibrating where I would start my StrongLifts-like workout program, trying really hard to set my ego aside and not go too heavy too quickly. So, that said, I don't think of that as a major change.

The other thing I did, at least early on, was that I super-setted some of the exercises to make the workout go faster (super-setting, for those who don't know, is where you perform one set of one exercise and then immediately perform one set of another exercise with no break). I tried to be judicious in how I did this, not super-setting exercises that would work the same muscle group(s) or that would have me doing one of those same muscle groups immediately when I moved on to the next exercise. And I only combined the central exercises (squats, bench press, shoulder press, dead lift) with auxiliary exercises, or combined two auxiliary exercises. So, for instance, I did squats+pull-ups and shoulder press + abs in my one workout, or dips + abs in my other.

One more thing: the ab work that was recommended were reverse crunches the one day and planks the other day. Those are cool and all, but I've been doing myotatic crunches on the BOSU ball and torture twists for a minute at a time instead, since I'm in the gym

That said, this last week I've followed the StrongLifts program more closely (except the abs), because I was hitting a point where my squats and my shoulder press were "stalling" (i.e. I wasn't getting 5 reps on all 5 sets, and therefore couldn't go up in weight the next time), so I wanted to focus more closely on those exercises and using my breaks between sets to recover. It seems to have worked so far.

You might wonder why this program appealed to me. Why cut out a lot of exercises that I've done in the past to focus on just a few pretty basic exercises? And why the heck would you want to squat 3 times a week?! Most people avoid squats every time they go to the gym!

And that's pretty much why I'm doing it. My legs have always been the weakest link--except when everything was the weakest link! I've never been a fast runner; when I have lifted leg exercises, it's never been very impressive. I've tried not to be that guy at the gym who only does upper body exercises, but no doubt about it, my legs have always gotten relatively short shrift. In the midst of this StrongLifts-inspired training, I've found that my bench press numbers have been as good or even better than my squat numbers, and that just doesn't seem right. Even when I did leg exercises in the past, it was mostly the isolation type stuff: leg extensions, leg curls, maybe some calf raises. I flirted with squats, but I was usually trying to do too much weight and wasn't using very good form. The same was true of dead lifts when I did them. On the whole, I'm feeling much better about both lifts now, and it's good to feel like I'm making steady progress on both.

Oh, and after we got back from Canada, I dropped the running I was doing on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I'm not totally satisfied with that decision, but particularly as squats were becoming more difficult, it seemed to make sense not to lift heavy on squats (and maybe dead lift), then run 6+ miles the next day, then lift heavy on squats (and dead lifts, if I didn't already), then run again (albeit a shorter distance), and then lift heavy on squats again the next day. I expect that I'll get back to running at some point, but right now I want to focus on leg strength, which I'm expecting will help my running in the long... term.