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.

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Great Expectations and Failure

At some point in their life, anyone who ever tries to do anything worthwhile will fail. Specific to powerlifting, at some point you’re going to walk into the gym for a training session or a meet, and the shit is going to hit the fan. Maybe you go 3 or 4 for 9 (or bomb), maybe you miss a PR that should have been easy pickings… whatever, it doesn’t matter. At some point you have high expectations, and you fail to meet them. How do you bounce back from that? How do you take a loss and use it as a learning experience? It would be so easy to storm out of a meet after your squats going badly (“Fuck powerlifting, it’s a stupid sport anyway!” etc.), or to fall into a slump.

We’ve all seen the motivation quotes on Instagram (“I’ve found a thousand ways that didn’t work, what they see vs. behind the scenes, blah blah blah”) as captions to photos of some Instagram model in a bikini, but how do you really turn it around?

Goal Setting

To quote Jean-Luc Picard, “it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not failure, that is life.” If you go to a meet, go 9/9, set three PRs in every lift, a total PR, a wilks PR, and have a great day, but you walk home with the silver (or no hardware at all), but your only goal was to take home the gold, then in your own mind you are a failure. It sounds riculous to me even writing this, but there are plenty of people who think that way.

At the risk of sounding like one of those “S.M.A.R.T. Goals” posters you probably saw in high school, goals need to be things that are under your control. I’m about two weeks out from a meet now – is it appropriate for my only goal to be to win? Of course not. A better goal might be “total 580 kg.” If that brings me a podium finish, then that’s great. If it doesn’t, its still a huge competition PR for me, and that’s always a win.

One other idea I heard recently on The Canadian Powerlifting Podcast was using a tiered goal setting system. I think this is a great idea – there’s almost always something good you can take away, even from a shitty meet or a terrible training cycle. Here’s an example I’ve just whipped up for my own upcoming meet, with Tier 1 being my top goal downwards.

  1. Silver Medal. There’s a guy nominated way ahead of me, the only way I can beat him is if he bombs.Myself and one other lifter look tight for second place, but there is one more lifter close behind us. So top goal? Bring home the silver (in saying that, if there’s even an outside chance of finishing first, I’m taking the shot.)
  2. 580 kg total. This would be a big competition PR, would give me about a 370 wilks, and would require (modest) PRs on all lifts to be realistic.
  3. Go 9/9. Not missing any lifts would be a big achievement for me.
  4. PR on squats. Squats are my bugbear lift (for now; I’m going to fix this for nationals) so even a modest PR would make the entire day a win for me.
  5. PR on bench and/or deadlifts. Any PR is a good PR when you live life 2.5 kg at a time.

So there is my 5 tiers of goals. Good goal setting is step one to having realistic expectations of yourself, and not letting yourself down.

What’s really important?

Why do you lift, why do you compete, what is your why? You don’t lift for fame or money, there isn’t either of those in powerlifting. I doubt you lift for your family, they probably don’t even understand what powerlifting is. Maybe you lift for your team mates, or maybe for yourself. Either way, it helps to step back and ask yourself what is important. Are you less of a person if you fail your last squat attempt? Will you lose your job, will your significant other leave you? Probably not. Although I strongly encourage everyone to treat themselves as an athlete, powerlifting is, at the end of the day, a hobby sport. There’s no money, no university scholarships, no Olympic medals (yet.) It can’t be your everything, it can’t (totally) rule your life.

The really important thing in powerlifting is personal progress. There’s no way to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced, but the greatest feeling on Earth is to set a goal and work, maybe slowly, but surely, towards it. I love competing, but even if I could never compete again I would still set goals and work towards them. I think that mental aspect is one of the best things about our sport. Its hard, but over time you can learn to shape yourself and your environment, and that things worth having take time to earn.

So, when you fail to meet a goal, and you feel bad about yourself, sit down and think about what’s really important. (Especially if the failed goal was squats. You still have two more lifts, and the really important thing now is not letting one shitty lift ruin your entire day.) 

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

I read a book recently called Mindset, by Carol Dweck. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you add it to your reading list, its fantastic. The author postulates that there are two broad ways to view yourself and others – as either fixed or changeable entities. When you view yourself, or some characteristic of yourself as being fixed, the habit is to only display it when you know you’re going to do well. You’ve probably heard someone say “I’m not going to compete until I’m sure I can win” before; that’s an example of a fixed mindset. Its hiding yourself from the risk of failure and potential embarrassment. People with this fixed mindset at the people who walk away from lifting the first time they have a bad meet, or when they miss a PR they’re sure they’re good for. Missed a 180 kg squat (or whatever)? “Powerlifting is fucking stupid anyway, I’m going to do something else instead.” Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but you see it all the time.

By contrast, people with a growth mindset use these same failures as a chance to develop. They realise that people aren’t judging them (people only care about themselves anyway), so they can use their bad experience to improve themselves. That same person fails a 180 kg squat, and asks why. Did some aspect of their form break down? Is there some muscle holding them back? Identifying that weakness then means that they can improve in the future.

It sounds cliche, but no-one remembers the guy who quit, everyone remember the guy who came in first. The classic powerlifting example is probably Layne Norton. The story goes that Layne was an aspiring natural body builder with twig legs. The fixed mindset person would say that they have small legs, they can’t be a body builder or a powerlifter. Maybe knitting would be more appropriate. The growth mindset person (Layne) said that no-one who can squat 500 lbs has small legs, so he set out to do just that, despite his awful proportions for squatting (Layne’s femurs are like 28% of his total height, which is part of why he has so much forward lean when he squats). Now, he has the world u93 kg IPF squat record – 303 kg.

Wrap Up

Everyone fails to meet their own expectations at some point. The first step to bouncing back from those failures is to have properly set goals from the outset. When you do fail, use that failure as an opportunity to grow. After all, how strong can you really be (mentally or physically) if you fall at the first hurdle?

I hope everyone got something out of this. Maybe its helped you set some goals of your own, maybe you saw a damn good world record squat, or maybe you just realised that Rory thinks way too much!

I hope everyone’s training is going well, see you on the platform!

What (Functional) Overreaching Feels Like

This week I have really struggled to adult, and that is, in part, because I’m going through a part of my training at the moment called “overreaching,” which is an important and thoroughly unpleasant thing to do. I realised sometime in the middle of the week that most people never experience this at all, so decided to write a little something on it. If you’re a competitive powerlifter you’ve probably done this a number of times before (and probably seen more than a few others sitting in the corner with dead eyes between sets), and hopefully this resonates with you. If you’re not a powerlifter, or are just getting started, maybe you’ll gain a bit of an understanding of what exactly we’re going through!

What is Overreaching?

If you have some sport science background, you can probably skip ahead a couple of sections. 

You have a limited capacity to recover. That capacity can change over time, and it depends on a huge number of variables, (age, training age, sleep habits, eating habits, passive recovery habits to name a few). The amount you can effectively recover from on a microcycle-to-microcycle can be referred to as a Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV, good but long video here). This is true for all athletes, runners might express it as kilometres/mile per week, ball sport athletes probably express it in terms of hours of training per week and so on. In powerlifting, it can be expressed in terms of tonnage, reps per week, hard sets per week, or any similar variable (e.g.I can do 6 sets of squats at 80%, twice per week and recover in time to repeat it the next week – that’s my MRV for squats.) The important bit here is recover. Most moderately well trained people have a work capacity that exceeds their MRV, that is to say they can do more squats in a week than they can recover from (this is probably untrue for unfit people/novices. To follow on from my last example, I could probably do 8 or 10 hard sets of squats in a single session, but there is no way I could do it twice a week and still be okay for the following week.)

Briefly exceeding your MRV can and should happen regularly, about one week a month for competitive strength athletes. When planned properly, this could be called functional overreaching. You can also end up over reaching because your MRV goes down (you get sick, you start getting insomnia, you’re stressed at work or whatever), which is non-functional overreaching. This second kind should be avoided if possible! After a period of functional overreaching an athlete typically goes through a deload or taper, before continuing training or competing.

Why Would You Want to Overreach?

The human body is a huge homeostatic system, which you can influence using external factors, like your training and diet. If you push a properly damped homeostatic system in one direction, negative feedback loops force it to bounce back in the other direction (think a pendulum, pull it one way and it swings back the other before settling down), before eventually returning to the original state (the human body is a very well damped system!) This “bounce back” is called super compensation. We can view this on an SRA Curve (Stimulus Recovery Adaption). Here’s an example of an SRA curve I stole borrowed from truefn.com. Strictly speaking, this curve doesn’t show overreaching, but this same principal applies to all time frames – in an overreaching case, instead of one training stimulus before allowing supercompensation, you might perform a second, a third, fourth etc before allowing yourself to recover!  Properly planned overreaching periods, fitted within a well periodised program, result in good long term performance.

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Wow, overreaching sounds great. Why is Rory whining so much?

What Overreaching Feels Like

Honestly, kind of like you’re dying.

This mesocycle (which is going generally well, by the way) I mistimed my overreach – instead of starting on the Monday of week four, I ended up exceeding my MRV around the Wednesday of week three. I went from 5 days of overreaching to 10, so I reserve my right to whine more than usual. (Lesson learnt.)

This mesocycle I have had some of the worst triceps tendinitis I have ever experienced – in both elbows simultaneously. On the Friday of last week my arms (elbows and shoulders by referral) felt like they were on fire in between sets. I probably would have gone to the hospital if I didn’t understand what was happening. I dropped my pressing volume this week in an effort to survive the mesocycle, but my left elbow is still pretty bad. (My knees and hips hurt too, but not as acutely.)

Small things heal more slowly. You ripped out a callous? Sucks to be you, that’s not healing until you take some down time. My skin ends up getting quite bad, like it isn’t recovering well either.

I generally feel flat all the time. Your body goes into this kind of long term fatigue state (vs. acute fatigue, like at the end of a training) where every spare bit of energy goes into surviving. Your NEAT (non-exercise activity thermo-genesis) drops; it becomes hard to focus, you might doze off or end up day dreaming more often than usual. Small day-to-day tasks end up leaving you very tired. I’ve barely cooked all week because just the thought of making some rice and putting some mince in a frying pan leaves me tired. I don’t know when I last shaved, but I certainly haven’t been bothered recently. Libido drops, the desire to socialise drops (I’m introverted anyway). When you might normally feel fine after 7 or 8 hours sleep, now you need 9 just to feel moderately human-like. Coffee doesn’t do shit any more. I feel snappy all the time (apologies to anyone I have been short with in the past 10 days. I’ve felt like a zombie. I’m working on it, but please be patient with me.)

Oddly, one of the symptoms of overreaching (I haven’t had this one this week, but I’ve had it quite badly before) is that your appetite disappears. I’ve had days where the thought of eating makes me feel physically sick. I don’t know why this happens, it doesn’t seem to make much sense from a natural selection standpoint (maybe to encourage you lying down and sleeping instead of going out searching for food?) but I’ve heard plenty of people complain about it.

Other common symptoms are pain in joints you didn’t even know could hurt (SI joint is a common one) or swollen joints. Retention of water seems to happen sometimes, complaints of “sticky” feeling joints (shoulder especially), starting to catch colds, forgetting basic and/or important things… If you’ve ever heard of Sheiko flu, or “the dark days” in Bulgarian training, these are noth referring to overreaching. It can feel like your body is giving up on you.

Tips to Surviving Overreaching

  • Don’t stop eating, even if your appetite disappears. Loosing weight will only make things worse. Try to keep some micronutrient dense food in there, but sometimes downing an entire pizza (or two) will do you some good too.
  • Try keep your sleep habits good.
  • Drink plenty of water. I feel like this helps, though I have no idea why.
  • Don’t make commitments you don’t need to make. Don’t feel like going to that party? Don’t go. If they’re your friends, they’ll understand that you need some time to yourself for a bit.
  • Stick to the plan. If you’re overreaching on purpose, don’t stop/cut back training unless you’re at risk of hurting yourself. If you have a coach, you should tell them when you start overreaching, because its important information for them. If you do your own programming, make a note of what is maintainable for you etc.
  • Let people you’re close with know. Your partner/flatmate/parents/friends will likely be more understanding if they understand you’re feeling beat up from training!
  • Focus on what counts. Think about why you’re doing it. Spend some time on your own, or quality time with your family or significant other.

 

Well, that’s the end of my whinge session (wow, that was cathartic!) Hopefully some of this rings true for experienced athletes, and for those who have never overreached, hopefully you’ve gained something of an appreciation for what it feel like to be getting ready for a big event. Time for me to take a bit of an easy week, then my peaking block for Auckland Championships begins. Train hard guys!

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.

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!

Ed Coan Seminars: My Thoughts

The IPF recently released this post via their website. The TL;DR is the seminars being held by Ed Coan are off limits to IPF lifters, as Mr Coan is a life-time banned athlete, and WADA rules prohibit “[working] or [associating] with individuals who are serving a period of ineligibility due to an anti-doping rule violation.” This seems to have been met with a lot of criticism from the Internet’s lifting community, and honestly I don’t understand why.

Background

For those of you who don’t know who Ed Coan is, or why he is a big deal, he’s widely considered to be the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) of powerlifting – the equivalent of Michael Jordan to basketball or Jonah Lomu to rugby. He has an “equipped” (inverted commas because equipped in the 90s was very different to now) squat of about 460 kg, a bench of 265 kg and an effectively raw deadlift of 410 kg, all at around 100 kg bodyweight. Whether or not he is the GOAT is not a question I am equipped to answer right now, but he is certainly one of the greats. Unfortunately, Mr Coan also failed three drug tests; in 1985, 1989, and finally in 1996. The third failure resulted in a life-time ban from the IPF.

Ed Coan mostly spends his time these days helping new lifters and doing his best to encourage growth in the sport. By all reports, he is one of the nicest guys you could meet.

My Two Cents

I am so fucking confused by why people are up in arms about this.

The Non-IPF Lifters

There are some non-IPF lifters who are using this as an opportunity to deride the IPF. In accordance with Godwin’s Law, Nazi comparisons abound, along with poorly thought out arguments and irrelevant opinions. To those non-IPF lifters who are weighing in here, this is not your business. You do not compete within the IPF, their rules do not apply to you. I’m not going to otherwise address these opinions, as they are not relevant.

The IPF Lifters

Every single person registered to an IPF affiliate has signed a WADA (or local affiliate, in my case Drug Free Sport New Zealand) form agreeing to a set of rules and conditions of competing. Among the clauses in that document is a section saying words to the effect of “I will not associate, either in sport or in my professional life, with any athlete or support person who is completing a ban for doping violations.” (Full version not written out because the relevant section is really long.) Every single competitor in the IPF has signed this document, therefore you cannot be surprised when these rules are enforced. On the flip side, if this rule was not enforced, just as many people would be weighing in about inconsistent application of rules. Nobody made you join the IPF, so there is little argument to be had about if this is fair or not. This is the price we way for legitimacy.

I think this is a dumb fucking rule. I would love to go to an Ed Coan seminar, I feel like there is a lot I could learn (maybe I would even get stronger by osmosis). What I want, or what anyone else wants for that matter, does not have the slightest bit of influence here. The IPF wants become an Olympic sport, and to do so means following the rules laid out by WADA. I think being an Olympic sport would be one of the best things for the growth of powerlifting (I also think powerlifting fits well into the IOC Values and the Olympic Charter). As such, we need to play by the rules. No cherry-picking of rules, no playing favorites, but strict adherence to the rules.

To quote a friend, “If this was any other sport, there wouldn’t even be an argument,” and he’s totally right.

Drugs, Steroids, and Cheating

Yesterday Jesse Norris, a (relatively) famous American powerlifter, failed a drug test for a stimulant called phenylisobutylamine (that’s n-ethyl-1-phenylbutan-2-amine for the chemically minded among you). As far as drug violations go, that’s reasonably minor, but that’s not the point. Jesse claims he accidentally took the drug in a contaminated pre-workout called Craze, but that’s also not the point. The point is that whenever you cheat, you steal from people you probably haven’t even though about. If you cheat intentionally, or if you cheat through carelessness, you’re robbing something from other people.

A little background for non-powerlifters (powerlifters feel free to skip this paragraph.) There are a number of federations for powerlifting, the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) being one of the dominant ones. There are a number of differences between the IPF and their affiliates and other federations, but the one I am focusing on here is that the IPF subjects itself to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) drug testing standards, whilst most others do not. The USAPL is the USA’s national IPF affiliate, the NZPF is New Zealand’s. I compete with the NZPF, Jesse competes with the USAPL.

There’s something rare about powerlifting that most sports don’t have – opportunities to compete completely untested. You could take all the steroids, all the stimulants, and all the recreational drugs you want and it wouldn’t be an issue. By choosing to compete with an IPF affiliate, you subject yourself to drug testing; you even sign a form saying you won’t do anything that would bring the sport into disrepute, including using Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). You didn’t have to do that. You could compete with the IPL, the GPC or anyone of a dozen other federations whilst taking whatever you want, and not cheat.

When you use PEDs you bring our entire sport into a bad light. It affects more than just you; it affects your friends and family who supported you, it affects your team mates and fellow gym-members, it impacts on public perception, and most importantly (in my mind at least) it impacts on your competitors. Others work hard and play by the rules and by cheating, which is what you do when you take banned substances, you’re taking something away from them. The lifter standing in second place on the podium is robbed of their chance to stand at the top, the lifter who finished fourth is robbed of their chance to stand on the podium at all. Everyone else has their integrity questioned, and a little bit of what they’ve done devalued. You’ve taken away these people’s chance at a fair competition, you’ve taken away their chance to earn what they’ve worked for. That’s one of the most selfish things I can imagine.

The closest analogy I can come up with is in academics. When someone else does the same degree as you and cheats to get through it, your degree becomes less valuable. Through their selfish actions, that person has taken something away from you, and they probably haven’t even thought about it.

I’m not strictly against steroids for personal use, but when you use them in tested competitions you are robbing other people of what they have worked for. That’s selfish, egocentric, and honestly a little arrogant.

So kids, if you’re a tested athlete, don’t do drugs.

My Introduction to Powerlifting

I am pretty certain that almost all university aged males end up in a gym at some point; to look good on the beach, to get better at sports, social pressure, to meet women, whatever.

I go there to squat, mostly.

If I rewind back to 2010 I was in high school, thinking about joining the army, playing hockey and a bit overfat. I decided to lose some weight to improve my chances at all of the above. By the time I started university in February 2012 I was down about 15 kg, and I decided to start going to the gym because a) I couldn’t find a martial arts club that was both challenging and affordable, and b) one of my mates wanted to go as well. You could describe my first two years with one (made up) word – fuckarounditis. I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did my mate. I lost a couple more kilos, but I was pretty much just spinning my wheels.

It all changed the day I saw the 2 m giant (okay, he’s actually a few centimetres short, but let me finish the story) squat 200 kg in the corner. “I want to do that, man.” That was the beginning of the end for me. I hopped on an actual program, and made more progress in 3 months than I had in 2 years.  I started reading (and never stopped).

I went from never having heard of this sport, to being a national competitor with medals and stuff to prove it in under 2 years. I’m the president of the Auckland University Strength and Powerlifting Association (AUSPA, what a mouthful), am qualified as a referee up to a regional level, and have met some of the best people I know through powerlifting.

On the other hand, I’m always sore, and I’ve hurt joints that I didn’t even think you could hurt. Every waking moment is consumed by numbers, weights, rep schemes, and percentages. I repeat the same tedious movements dozens to hundreds of times per week.

So why am I here?

I love powerlifting.  I love the process, the journey and the struggle to improve yourself. There is nothing than can compare to setting yourself a goal, and then growing into the person than can achieve it. I’ve found the community to be consistently positive and encouraging. I’ve seen direct rivals at meets loaning each other equipment and helping one another warm up. I’ve seen complete strangers coaching novice lifters through meets when they need help. Above all, I’ve seen dozens and dozens of lifters doing things they couldn’t do before, and there’s nothing quite like it. I think the world would be a little better off if there were more powerlifters around. I’m here, lifting, refereeing, handling, writing this blog because I want to share this passion I’ve developed with the world.

This was meant to be an introduction to myself and why I’m here, but I guess its ended up getting a little sentimental. Anyway, I’ll leave you with a quote from Henry Rollin’s famous essay, Iron and the Soul.

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 [his mentor].

 

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.