Props to Josh Hancott

As most people in the powerlifting loop know, Josh Hancott has decided to pull out of the World Championships this year. This is kind of a big deal – Hancott was nominated first in his class, and its his last year as a junior, so why pull out? If you haven’t watched his video yet, you can see it here.

Since dropping this video a few days ago, Hancott has received a phenomenal amount of undeserved flak, from seemingly all directions. The comment which stood out to me the most is here, below. (And in fact, I wasn’t even going to write about Hancott’s decision, but this comment stuck with me and I felt like I had to put my two cents out there.)

What are these so-called tremendous sacrifices he says he made? Powerlifting isn’t a very time-intensive sport and he’s never paid attention to his diet. He has incredible work ethic in the gym but that has nothing to do with sacrifice. Obsession? Get real, we’re all obsessed about something.

To be entirely clear, I don’t agree with the above quote at all. Maybe if you’re a hermit, training hard for 12+ hours per week, sleeping 8+ hours per night and not eating whatever you want whenever you want isn’t a sacrifice, but for the rest of us, that has severe social costs. That means time with friends and family is limited. I know Josh used to really like playing ice-hockey, but you can’t do that when your career depends on you not being injured. These things make university hard, they make relationships hard, they make careers hard. I (a stranger on the other side of the world) fully support Josh – I think he’s made the best decision for himself.

More than a few people have said that Josh is selfish for pulling out of worlds, and I can’t fathom why. Because Josh is pulling out, that means someone else gets to go and represent Team Canada in his place, someone who might never have gotten the opportunity otherwise. That opportunity might mean everything to someone else, Josh would be selfish to take it when it doesn’t mean anything to him.By not going to worlds, Josh is loosing a lot of opportunity to push his personal brand and his company (Gold Signature Coaching). Not going to Killeen is actually one of the most selfless acts Josh could do right now.

As an outsider, it seems like Josh is jaded (chronically tired, burnt out, maybe depressed). There’s only so long that you can hold high focus for. Have you ever had a series of really good, high intensity training weeks, followed by a week where you just couldn’t stay focused? Or maybe when you were studying, you had a few really good days, then a day where your mind would just wander, no matter how hard you tried. Imagine taking that really good period, and stretching it out over months and years. Can you even imagine how exhausted you would be when you came down? If there is anything that can destroy your passion, surely it would be the crushing tiredness of months on end of high mental intensity.

So, to Josh Hancott (on the off chance he ever reads this) – good on you. You need to make the best decision for yourself. Everyone else can do or say whatever they want, but at the end of the day you’re the only person that you need to sleep with for the rest of your life. You need to be at peace with that person.

I honestly think (or maybe hope?) that Josh Hancott will come back to powerlifting one day in the not-too-distant future. Maybe all he needs is some time to himself, to unwind, to relax, and to feel like a human being again. My guess is sometime in the next year or two, he’ll start feeling energised, and start coming back to reclaim his world title with a vengeance. Until then, he needs to look after himself, and we all need to let him.

To summarise, if you’re sitting at home and telling yourself that Josh Hancott is selfish or weak because he has pulled out of worlds (because you certainly would never have pulled out) I suggest you take a good long look at yourself. Do you respect yourself enough to make the decision that is best for you, despite what other people think?

This post ended up sounding a lot more harsh than I meant it too, but at least it’s not as nerdy as my last one. Hope everyone’s training is going well, See you on the platform soon!

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Why I want to be a Jedi

When I was a youngling, I wanted nothing more than to be a Jedi. Sometimes, I wanted to be a wise old Grand Master, like Yoda. Other times, I wanted to be a BAMF like Mace Windu, leading a clone army. Now that I’m older, I still want to be a Jedi, but for very different reasons. No, not so I can move the bar with the force (though that would be pretty bad-ass), but because Jedi allow their emotions to guide them, without ruling them.

That sounds like an odd thing to want, so allow me to explain. This isn’t a blog post on why I want to be a sci-fi monk, but rather a blog post on why I’m learning to understand my own state of mind. Below, is a performance – arousal curve with arbitrary units. As sexual as that sounds, what this curve actually shows is how your power or force production changes as you get hyped up.

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At either extreme of arousal, stoner-chill mode or hulk-rage mode, the performance is low, and somewhere in the middle, performance peaks. The exact shape doesn’t matter, and in the general case it isn’t symmetric.

You see a lot of “Lift Angry” type #hashtags around, and there certainly should be a certain amount of anger brought to your lifting, but (if you believe what I’m saying) there is an optimal level of anger: you can be too relaxed, but you can certainly be too hyped up. Think of it like an exam: at one end of the spectrum, you can walk into an exam totally relaxed and sleepy, or you can go into an exam at maximal academic arousal with six cups of coffee, and be too jittery to do a good job. Neither option is going to get your best result, so you need to find some kind of happy medium. Powerlifting is exactly the same. Everyone has approached the bar too relaxed before, and most people have probably approached the bar too aroused before (and might not have even noticed it). To maximise your force production you need to find your space.

Why does this happen? In a hand-wavy kind of way, your performance initially improves with arousal as you are able to focus better, your venous return improves (hence muscular oxygen concentration improves), and there are some hormonal responses (adrenaline, or if you’re American, Adrenaline.) At some point though, the arousal becomes too much. You start to forget cues, maybe you rush things and make a mess. Think about heavy (85%+) deadlifts; if you walk up to the bar completely flat, at best it’ll feel heavy, and worst it won’t even move. On the other end of the spectrum, if you run at the bar yelling and screaming, there is a tendency to lose your set up, and make a mess of the movement.

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Brett Gibbs, Jedi Knight, Preparing to Squat

Different tasks, and different people (and, I assume, the same people doing the same task at different periods in their life) have different levels of optimal arousal. Like anything in highly individualised pursuits, you must seek to find what works best for you. Is your peak far to the left, far to the right?

I used to really struggle with this. Sometimes, I would go to the gym to deadlift, and not even be able to break 80% off the floor, while other times it would fly (as it should.) It’s taken me longer than I would like to admit to figure it out, and you’ve probably guessed by now, it was emotional arousal. Since then, I’ve figured out that deadlifts only move well between an 8 and 9.5 RPE on my imaginary arousal scale. That varies based on the task though; if I approach a heavy bench press at a 9.5, I’m probably going to staple myself. I tend to bench best between a 6 and an 8 (squats are somewhere between bench and deadlifts.)

Now that I know where I perform best, there is a second problem. How do you get into and maintain that mindset? It’s really hard to get focused to a 9.5, and there’s no way that I’m going to be able to maintain that for the entire 40 minutes it takes to deadlift in competition.

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Yoda,  Elite Powerlifter (Image from Wookiepedia)

Honestly, this still feels like a bit of an art to me (I’d like to be able to get it to a science.) Right now,I use music, imagery, and  chemicals (caffeine and ammonia) to help modulate my arousal level in competition and training. Mindfulness exercises have proven useful over the past few weeks simply for being more aware of myself.

This is all a very new topic to me, I’m really only starting to come to grips with what it is that I don’t know. I’d like to be able to be able to shut down the dozen streams of consciousness  I have at any time, to be able to modulate my state of mind without external cues, to have more of an understanding what it is that I’m feeling at any time, and most importantly, how that affects my lifting. I’m not very good at it right now, so I guess I have a whole lot of work to do!

In Summary

Going back to the original thought that sparked this blog post, I still want to be a Jedi. The ability to feel emotions, to lift angry if you will, without  sabotaging ones own performance is more or less the core of being a Jedi Knight, or being a good powerlifter. I’m not either (yet), so I have a lot of work to do.

I hope this wasn’t too nerdy or too philosophical. If there’s any topics you would be interested in discussing, send me an email (twowhitelight@gmail.com) or hit me up on the social media – (IG – @rawrylynch) See you all on the platform soon!

Seductive Science

Science is sexy, we all know that. There is a proliferation of pro-science Facebook pages, Instagram accounts, and way too many memes, both for jokes and for serious discussion, and that’s great. (My personal favourite sciency Facebook page is Research Wahlberg).

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From Research Wahlberg

There is a bit of a downside to this though, as has been bothering me this week. What do you get when science and original research becomes more and more common among a largely scientifically illiterate population? Broscience. It’s so easy to read the abstract of an article, not fully understand what you’ve read, read the results and think you understand what is going on.

I’ll give an example of poor interpretation of research: recently, a paper comparing benching with bands vs benching with straight weights was shared on a Facebook page I’m a member of (you may have seen it.) At a quick glance, the paper concluded that the group benching with bands improved more than the group benching without (9 kg vs 7 kg.) There was actually some really good stuff done in the experiment; learning periods, randomised crossover design, the statistics were sound… But there were a few things that really bothered me.

  1. There were no p-values reported (“p < 0.05” doesn’t count, the difference between 0.05 and 0.01 is huge)
  2. n = 11
  3. Each intervention was only three weeks
  4. The subjects were untrained

When you add all those factors up, it leaves me with “Interesting, but not useful.”

The bit that really bothered me was not the research itself. The paper, while not perfect, provided an interesting data point. Like any other (low-power) study though, it can’t tell the whole story by itself. You take six studies like this, or eight, and then it begins to tell you something interesting. What really bothered me about this was that so many of the people commenting on it were almost immediately accepting the paper as gospel (I should really stay out the comment section on social media, it does bad things to my blood pressure).

There’s nothing wrong with reading original research, but you need to understand what you’re reading. Given that, I’ve written out a few broad guidelines of what you should be looking for in publications and some alternatives to having to slog through dozens of boring physiology articles!

Guidelines to Interpreting Research

P-values. A p-value tells you something about the strength of evidence. If you want to get technical, it tells you the probability of finding results at least as unusual as those found, under the assumption of the null hypothesis. Statistics is weird and full of double and triple negatives, so it is sufficient to think of it as the weight of evidence for something happening. Here’s a brief summary of one way different p-values could be interpreted.

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A couple of notes:

  1. p = 0.05 is often taken for significance in literature. Be very careful when you see this, it’s mostly for historical reasons and really should only mean that you might be on the right track, not that you’ve figured it out!
  2. If p-values are reported as ” < 0.05″ or “<0.1” you basically need to assume it is only just under the actual number, 0.049 and 0.099 in this case. It’s also a warning sign for other things: why might someone want to hide the exact strength of their results?

Sample Size – no matter what your girlfriend said, bigger is better. You saw an effect in a sample of five people? Cool story. You saw the same effect is a sample of 500 people? Now that’s a different story.

It’s pretty intuitive, but here’s an example. Say you want to know the average maximum deadlift for 83 kg powerlifters in the NZPF, so you randomly draw a sample of one person from a list of all of the 83 kg powerlifters in the NZPF: there is an equal probability of drawing Brett Gibbs as there is of drawing anyone else, and then you’d conclude than an average deadlift is 320 kg. You would have made a sampling error: your sample was not representative of the population as a whole. There are all sorts of nifty tricks to help minimise this, but they all require you to take a somewhat decent sample size.

There’s still some critical thinking required here. Some populations are much smaller than others, some are harder to get hold of, and importantly, some experiments are just really hard for people to do! If you had an experiment that took 30 minutes, and your population was untrained males between the ages of 18 and 30, you could get a huge sample size. If an experiment took six weeks and you needed to be an elite powerlifter, it would be much harder to get a good sample size.

The Population Being Studied – This is easy to overlook. Who is being studied? If you’re a member of the population being studied, cool, you might be able to directly apply the findings to yourself. If not, how close are you? The further from the population being studied, the less applicable the results are to you. The study from before was on untrained men of “university age.” The difference between a trained person and an untrained person is pretty phenomenal: can results  be transferred directly into a trained population? No, not really.

Applicability of the Protocol – Is the protocol being used something that you could apply? What was the time frame? In the study from before, the length of the intervention was only three weeks. I don’t care what happens to my bench over the next three weeks (neither should you) – I care what happens over the next three months, 12 months, three years etc.

Weight of Other Evidence – You can never look at data in isolation. One paper doesn’t tell the whole story: a combination of Type-I Errors and publication bias means that sometimes you only see the odd paper where some spurious correlation has been made. If you see one journal article that says something, it might be worth filing it away for future reference. When you see three or four on suitably similar topics, then you can start drawing conclusions in an informed way.

Alternatives to Original Research

Lets be honest, journal articles are (usually) really boring. Fortunately, meta-analyses and textbooks exist. A meta-analysis is where some poor soul reads as much literature on a single topic as they can and rolls all of the research into one coherent and digestible chunk.  They’re usually really good because someone else gets to do all the boring reading for you, and tell you what you should think of some body of literature. They’re often easier to read than the original articles too. Textbooks are another good alternative: they’re usually a step more readable again, and fortunately for us they usually start at quite a basic level (journals usually assume quite a high baseline knowledge of a topic.) Unfortunately, writing a textbook is an arduous affair, and so textbooks are often a little out of date, even those that were just published. (Fortunately for us, the basics of sport science don’t change much over time, only the minutiae.)

In summary, science is seductive, but you need to make sure you know what you’re looking at. To round off my huge rant, I’m going to leave you with a quote I quite like (emphasis my own.)

Some people hate the very name of statistics, but I find them full of beauty and interest. Whenever they are not brutalised, but delicately handled by the higher methods, and are warily interpreted, their power of dealing with complicated phenomena is extraordinary. They are the only tools by which an opening can be cut through the formidable thicket of difficulties that bars the path of those who pursue the Science of man.

Francis Galton

I apologise for such a dry blog post this week, I promise to talk about something more interesting next week! Anyway, I hope your training is going well, and I’ll see you on the platform sometime soon.