Iron and the Soul – Henry Rollins

I’ve quoted this essay before, and likely will again, because of everything I have ever read, this has left one of the greatest lasting impacts. I think everyone should read it at least once. Whatever stage of life you’re in, whatever your passions and goals, I think you can take something away from it. Originally published in Details Magazine in January 1994 (this essay is older than I am), it hasn’t lost anything with age.

Here is Iron and the Soul, by Henry Rollins.

I believe that the definition of definition is reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself.

Completely.

When I was young I had no sense of myself. All I was, was a product of all the fear and humiliation I suffered. Fear of my parents. The humiliation of teachers calling me “garbage can” and telling me I’d be mowing lawns for a living. And the very real terror of my fellow students. I was threatened and beaten up for the color of my skin and my size. I was skinny and clumsy, and when others would tease me I didn’t run home crying, wondering why. I knew all too well. I was there to be antagonized. In sports I was laughed at. A spaz. I was pretty good at boxing but only because the rage that filled my every waking moment made me wild and unpredictable. I fought with some strange fury. The other boys thought I was crazy.

I hated myself all the time. As stupid at it seems now, I wanted to talk like them, dress like them, carry myself with the ease of knowing that I wasn’t going to get pounded in the hallway between classes. Years passed and I learned to keep it all inside. I only talked to a few boys in my grade. Other losers. Some of them are to this day the greatest people I have ever known. Hang out with a guy who has had his head flushed down a toilet a few times, treat him with respect, and you’ll find a faithful friend forever. But even with friends, school sucked. Teachers gave me hard time. I didn’t think much of them either.

Then came Mr. Pepperman, my advisor. He was a powerfully built Vietnam veteran, and he was scary. No one ever talked out of turn in his class. Once one kid did and Mr. P. lifted him off the ground and pinned him to the blackboard. Mr. P. could see that I was in bad shape, and one Friday in October he asked me if I had ever worked out with weights. I told him no. He told me that I was going to take some of the money that I had saved and buy a hundred-pound set of weights at Sears. As I left his office, I started to think of things I would say to him on Monday when he asked about the weights that I was not going to buy. Still, it made me feel special. My father never really got that close to caring. On Saturday I bought the weights, but I couldn’t even drag them to my mom’s car. An attendant laughed at me as he put them on a dolly.

Monday came and I was called into Mr. P.’s office after school. He said that he was going to show me how to work out. He was going to put me on a program and start hitting me in the solar plexus in the hallway when I wasn’t looking. When I could take the punch we would know that we were getting somewhere. At no time was I to look at myself in the mirror or tell anyone at school what I was doing. In the gym he showed me ten basic exercises. I paid more attention than I ever did in any of my classes. I didn’t want to blow it. I went home that night and started right in.

Weeks passed, and every once in a while Mr. P. would give me a shot and drop me in the hallway, sending my books flying. The other students didn’t know what to think. More weeks passed, and I was steadily adding new weights to the bar. I could sense the power inside my body growing. I could feel it.

Right before Christmas break I was walking to class, and from out of nowhere Mr. Pepperman appeared and gave me a shot in the chest. I laughed and kept going. He said I could look at myself now. I got home and ran to the bathroom and pulled off my shirt. I saw a body, not just the shell that housed my stomach and my heart. My biceps bulged. My chest had definition. I felt strong. It was the first time I can remember having a sense of myself. I had done something and no one could ever take it away. You couldn’t say shit to me.

It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn’t teach you anything. That’s the way the Iron talks to you. It tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.

I used to fight the pain, but recently this became clear to me: pain is not my enemy; it is my call to greatness. But when dealing with the Iron, one must be careful to interpret the pain correctly. Most injuries involving the Iron come from ego. I once spent a few weeks lifting weight that my body wasn’t ready for and spent a few months not picking up anything heavier than a fork. Try to lift what you’re not prepared to and the Iron will teach you a little lesson in restraint and self-control.

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character. It is the difference between bouncers who get off strong-arming people and Mr. Pepperman.

Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.

Yukio Mishima said that he could not entertain the idea of romance if he was not strong. Romance is such a strong and overwhelming passion, a weakened body cannot sustain it for long. I have some of my most romantic thoughts when I am with the Iron. Once I was in love with a woman. I thought about her the most when the pain from a workout was racing through my body.

Everything in me wanted her. So much so that sex was only a fraction of my total desire. It was the single most intense love I have ever felt, but she lived far away and I didn’t see her very often. Working out was a healthy way of dealing with the loneliness. To this day, when I work out I usually listen to ballads.

I prefer to work out alone. It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it’s some kind of miracle if you’re not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.

I see them move from their offices to their cars and on to their suburban homes. They stress out constantly, they lose sleep, they eat badly. And they behave badly. Their egos run wild; they become motivated by that which will eventually give them a massive stroke. They need the Iron Mind.

Through the years, I have combined meditation, action, and the Iron into a single strength. I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind.

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.

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Dieting (the smart way) – part 2

So my first mesocycle is done and dusted (see here for the training plan and here for the first part of the diet stuff) and now I’m into my strength block and maintenance calories for four weeks (I’m actually a week an a half in now). I was extremely happy with the results of my diet, so here I’m going to present a) what I did, b) results, and c) how I felt about the whole process. So, on with the show.

What I did

My goal calories were 2500 Cal per day, consisting of 220 grams of protein, and with minimum fat and carb goals (which is basically me saying fill up the rest of the calories with anything.) I gave myself a leeway on calories of +/- 200 because I am a total novice at everything to do with nutrition, and I didn’t want to have it end up ruling my life. I did try to make each week average to 2500 though, so I wasn’t eating 2700 every day.

In accordance with the principals outlined in The Renaissance Diet I tried to make sure my fats were far from my training, my high GI carbs were close to my training, and my protein and lower GI carbs were spread out through the day. Because I tend to train in the evening (but before dinner) this means fatty breakfast, balanced lunch and dinner, and a preworkout meal high in high-GI carbs (“shitty carbs.”)

An example day might be:

Breakfast
Shake (300 ml milk, 1 scoop whey, 2 tablespoons peanut butter)
Lots of coffee

Lunch
250 grams mince on 3/4 cup (rice cup that is) of jasmine rice, 200 grams mixed frozen vegetables

Snack
Banana, oat bar
More coffee

Pre-Workout
1 scoop whey mixed with 1/5 cup of sugar

Dinner
300 grams chicken breast, 3/4 cup of jasmine rice, corn cob

I also took a few supplements. I took a multivitamin each morning, to cover my micro-nutrient bases, Metamucil twice per day (a fibre supplement), 5 grams of Creatine Monohydrate in my morning shake, and 400 mg of magnesium each night (sleep aid.)

To track myself, I took a bunch of measurements once a week or so, and weighed myself each morning.

Results

Capture

But wait, how did you gain lean mass on a caloric deficit?

It’s pretty difficult for non-novice athletes to be able to put on lean mass while on a caloric deficit, which makes some of the numbers in the above table kind of unbelievable. It’s worth considering a couple of things:

  1. As far as hypertrophy goes, I was chronically under-trained, so it is possible that I was responding to a new stimulus like a novice
  2. There’s a fair amount of measurement error

How I Felt

Fine. I felt fine. In the past when I’ve gone on diets (and done so poorly) I’ve ended up light-headed, losing strength, cranky, hungry etc etc but for the most part I felt absolutely fine. By the end of the 5th week I was starting to feel a kind of general craving to eat more (it wasn’t really hunger as such… not exactly sure how to describe this) and I think that if I’d intended for my diet to last 8 weeks or more I would have incorporated refeed days or maybe a week long diet break, but as it stood I didn’t need those things to feel generally satisfied. I even managed to work in the odd bit of ice cream or cookie.

The other thing is I felt balanced here – I wasn’t scrambling to measure and weigh everything, which I think (for me at least) is quite healthy. It meant that the food/diet didn’t become an obsession, and that it’s probably possible for me to maintain this level of tracking indefinitely.

I did slip up on occasion, there were days I didn’t weigh myself or lost track of my macros, but they were few and haven’t hampered my progress in anyway. It’s all a learning experience anyway, and I’m better now than I was when I started. (Even Layne Norton advises the odd “YOLO Macros” day, and I think that’s a good approach.)

I couldn’t be happier with the overall results of the diet and hypertrophy block combined; losing fat, gaining muscle and putting myself in a much better position for my coming competitive year. Hope all of your training is going well!

Being a Referee is Hard!

Yesterday I had the pleasure of refereeing a casual local meet called the GetStrength In-House (bit funny – it’s actually no longer a purely in-house meet, its just called that), and afterwards I realised that it was an aspect of the sport that many people never see. Most of the (especially highly ranked referees) are old men who no longer compete, and sometimes it can look like they’re being a bit cruel of unusual with their interpretations of the rules. I thought it might be beneficial if I wrote up a bit of a meet report from the point of view of a referee.

Weigh-Ins

I didn’t have to do weigh-ins yesterday, but I’ve done it before. I’ve only ever run weigh-ins for novice meets, so a lot of the athletes I deal with here have never competed before; they might not know the rules, might not know what’s expected in the weigh-in, and might not have their openers ready to go. My experience has always been trying to guide these inexperienced lifters with no coaches to making good decisions as far as their openers, knowing about pausing their bench, depth on squats and so on. I never want to give out red lights!  I’m sure this is easier for higher level meets, when everyone knows what to expect. Apparently some pretty weird things can happen during weigh-ins (one of New Zealand’s National referees once told me that at Nationals a few years back she was doing the women’s weigh-ins for a particular weight class, and someone flounced into the room, stripped down to their birthday suit and then stood on their head in the corner until the referee had caught up with the required paperwork. I’ve since learned that this was apparently an old bodybuilding method of loosing weight), but I’ve mostly just seen a lot of either excited, nervous people in their underwear.

Squats

This is the hardest thing to referee, I think. The rules are pretty explicit about what makes a squat. I’ve put the important points here (emphasis my own.)

The lifter shall face the front of the platform. The bar shall be held horizontally across the shoulders, hands and fingers gripping the bar. The hands may be positioned anywhere on the bar inside and or in contact with the inner collars. …when the lifter is motionless, erect (slight deviation is allowable) with knees locked the Chief Referee will give the signal to begin the lift. Upon receiving the Chief Referee’s signal the lifter must bend the knees and lower the body until the top surface of the legs at the hip joint is lower than the top of the knees. Only one decent attempt is allowed. The lifter must recover at will to an upright position with the knees locked. Double bouncing at the bottom of the squat attempt or any downward movement is not permitted. When the lifter is motionless (in the apparent final position) the Chief Referee will give the signal to rack the bar.

The parts I’ve bolded I am going to address more closely. Firstly, the hotly contended depth. I cannot count the times I have heard people say referees are being strict on depth, or that they always squat to depth in training so why can’t they hit it today.

squatasquatc

These diagrams are taken from the USAPL (American IPF affiliate) website, explaining squat depth. Diagrams A and B represent what would technically be “perfect depth” – the hip crease is perfectly in line with the top surface of the knee. If the red line illustrating that weren’t in place, there could be some arguments as to if that were proper depth of not. In real life, referees have to decide if that is depth in the space of about a second, with no replays, no discussion, and no superimposed red lines. Not that its an excuse, but referees are also human. At big meets, this could very well be the 300th squat they’ve seen in two days, and mistakes happen. Add in factors like lighting, people having really thick thighs or fat rolls hiding their hip crease, loose knee sleeves… Diagrams C and D show a “deep” squat, however given the reasons mentioned above, this would be more convincing to a tired and under-caffeinated referee. There are some context dependent decisions here too. In novice competitions I tend to give the benefit of the doubt – if I am borderline as to if it were high or not, I tend to give it. If I were supervising a record attempt, you’re going to need to make it convincing.

The other point I highlighted was the start/end position. “Slight deviation is allowed.” What does that mean? I’ve heard 15 degrees floating around before, but as you can see the rules leave it quite open to interpretation. What I look for is that your start and end position are the same. If you end with your hips more locked than you started, or vice-versa, then you probably weren’t locked to begin with (or aren’t locked now). There is also mention of knees needing to be locked, this tends not be as big of a deal, but if you have really big quads or if your knee sleeves are quite loose that can be hard to tell as well.

Recommendations – make convincing depth in training, make convincing depth in competition. Sell your starting position and lockout with hard hip extensions.

Bench Press

Bench is a little easier. The things I tend to look for are butt coming off the bench and feet staying flat on the floor.

Ass coming off the bench is something I’ve seen a lot of lifters be red-lighted for (though none yesterday, which was nice 🙂 )I don’t have any real recommendations on how to sell your ass staying down, just practice it! If you’re in a novice comp an are wearing shorts instead of a soft suit it can be hard for the referees to tell, but don’t sell yourself short. When you get into a soft suit,it’s much easier to tell.

Feet staying flat is another one of those ones where there is a lot of subjectivity. A lot of people lift in chucks for example, which don’t have very flat soles anyway, so what’s the lifter moving their foot and what’s just the shoe sucking for bench press? In borderline cases I tend to look for changes in foot position – if there’s a small gap along the edge I’ll give it to you, but if that gap gets larger or smaller through the movement then your foot was off the floor at some point in the movement. I did have two people come and explain to me that the soles of their shows were bent yesterday and showed me the shoe. Having seen the shoe up close I can see what is the shoe sucking, but from 4 metres away, I don’t know that.

The other thing that came up was “soft” arms at the start of the movement. Your elbows must be locked or you simply won’t be given a start command.

The other thing that you might like to know is that the time for your pause is going to simply be as long as it takes for you to prove you have the bar under control. If the bar is wobbling around, or if you dive-bombed it into your chest, you’re going to have a longer wait before your press command. A controlled descent where the bar is held stable and level will get an almost instant press command.

Deadlifts

Deadlifts tend to be the easiest to referee, but there are still some points worth mentioning.

You’re only allowed one attempt at a pull. People who yank on the bar while they’re setting up can sometimes be red lighted as the yank could be thought of as a pull. A good rule of thumb is that if the bar comes off the ground it is considered your attempt, but I tend to only count it as an attempt if you’re in a good-ish position to pull. Because there is a little subjectivity there, its better if you just don’t do it!

Lockout – you must stand erect with your shoulders back. If your shoulders are rolled inwards, that isn’t a lock out and you won’t get the lift. I really recommend that you sell your lockout. Drive your hips in, pull your shoulders back. There’s nothing worse than failing a lift because you didn’t sell the finishing position, and as a referee its quite hard to red light someone for a lift they completed, just because they didn’t draw their shoulders back.

I red lighted some really good lifts yesterday in the deadlifts for things like hitching and weak/absent lockouts. It’s hard to give some a red light when you know the lifter is going to bomb if you do, or that you’re going to ruin their day, especially when they’re a friend. Fortunately, this wasn’t a qualifying event, and one of the lifters I red lighted actually thanked me for being honest and fair. It doesn’t make it any more fun, for either the ref or the lifter though.

Feels

It was hot, you don’t get to move around much. You need to concentrate pretty hard for most of the day, and if you mess up then it can ruin someones day (or for qualifying events it can ruin much more than just their day.) Don’t get me wrong, I like refereeing. I like being able to give back to the sport, and I love having front row seats for every lift, but just bear in mind the next time you’re getting annoyed with a ref that they’re human, and in very human circumstances too. (Side note that fits here: one red light could be human error. Two likely means you fucked up.)

Wrapping Up

So that’s pretty much what I’m looking for, lift by lift. The only other point that I’d like to mention is that even in a small meet, we see a lot of lifts (20 lifters x 3 lifts x 3 attempts = 180 lifts.) They all start to blur together after not very long, so if you want to talk specifically about why you were red lighted, you need to ask right away. That’s fine, and referees rarely mind, but if you ask 20 minutes later I probably won’t even remember what light I gave you, let alone why. If you can bring a video 20 minutes later that helps, but if its not from the same angle as I was on, then I can’t see the same things and it might not help much.

So, there’s my unusual meet report for the weekend – from the referees perspective! Hope you enjoyed and maybe even learnt something. Good luck for all your training!