The Road

This is about deadlifting, but really it’s not just about deadlifting.  And this is a difficult piece for me to write because I am uncomfortable talking about personal accomplishments, particularly athletic ones–however few touchdowns I may have scored, I was raised to take the ball into the end zone and just hand it to the ref, such as it is.  But I am writing this because I think it will be helpful for folks to understand how many false starts, detours, and falls it is possible to take on the road to accomplishing something that you have deemed meaningful, and that perhaps those pit stops are small catalysts in their own right.  I hope this is encouraging, and that it helps those of you who are experiencing doubts or stasis begin to take steps towards forward motion.  We are always here to help.
Old Saw #1: Most people overestimate what they can do in a month and underestimate what they can do in a year.
Last October I deadlifted 565 lbs at our in-house Practical Strength Woodshed Total.  This was a 12 lb PR (I’d set a max in September) and a 45 lb meet PR, and it was the product of the hardest training cycle I’d ever worked through.  I was proud, excited, and I wanted more.  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my boys what I’d done.  Now, I had thought this might be my last meet before transitioning into the more general strength and conditioning work we do in class, but after the last lift I felt like I had maybe left some weight on the bar.  Leaving the gym that day, I thought: I want to deadlift 600 next year.  This would remain in my mind for the year that followed; this was the goal, even when I forgot it was the goal.

For the first couple months after the meet, I futzed around.  I was really sore–my knees and back particularly.  I had squatted a lot over the course of the training cycle with the safety bar, and the forward lean I took during my squats and the high volume of squats themselves had taken their toll.  I was pretty burned out, so I thought about changing things up, hired a new coach to program my training, and bought some competition kettlebells (the big yellow ones…I will bring them back!).  I did a ton of swings, cleans, and goblet squats in my office at home on a timer while listening to 80s punk.   My shoulders didn’t feel awesome because I was probably doing way too many kb presses, but my back and my knees were starting to feel better.  In the back of my mind, I was conscious of hinging my hips every time I bent over to pick up a kb–I wanted my low back to remain strong.  I was just having fun working out in my house and sweating a lot, but I needed my low back to stay strong.
Weird Thing #1: If someone had asked me if I was “back at (my) my training” or even “back on track” (I hear folks talk about the gym and their training in this manner often), I would have said no way.  I didn’t feel like I was training for anything in particular, I felt rudderless, I was just sweating and yet, I never forgot about deadlifting 600…even though I wasn’t thinking of it at all.  But whatever I was doing, I needed it.  I was starting to feel better and things were getting fixed that would put me in a better position to train harder at some point.  Looking forward to sweating and just doing some timed work for a while was wonderful in retrospect.
After I’d been at the kettlebells for a while, I started to get itchy for barbell work again.  Given the winter we had last year, it is hard for me to uncouple the memory of spring’s onset from the idea of returning to barbell training, but my training log tells me that I started to mix barbells back into things around March.  I did some barbell complexes, some safety squats, and some benching.  This was relatively inconsistent and my log tells me I was benching more of my own volition than anything else, but I was getting into the gym 2 or 3 times a week.  I deadlifted a little bit.  I was afraid to not be good at it anymore.  Like legitimately afraid to go over 50 or 60% because something might have changed.  But I was thinking about 50 and 60% of 600 in my head.  That was different.  I never did that shit before–I always work off numbers I’ve actually hit–but it was like I was trying to set up some sort of preliminary barrier I needed to hop.  Or keep that number in my head even though I was still scared of it.
True Thing #1: I was scared for sure.  Scared to let myself down.  Scared of what would happen if I tried and failed in front of people who knew me.  I’m not sure or willing to stipulate that this made having a goal more meaningful, or me more likely to succeed, but it was new.  I hadn’t ever been scared like that before, and even now, I don’t like writing that.
I contacted a couple of my mentors in the spring and talked with them about deadlifting 600.  I think I had mentioned this to Bethany and Alicia–I can’t recall–but this was the first time I had written that phrase to people outside of my inner circle.  At that point it was like, okay, things are different now.  Just saying it aloud.  I know that is sort of pat, and what everyone either tells you you have to do if you’re going to reach a goal (or that you should keep it to yourself), but for me…yeah, telling folks who know more and are stronger than me that I wanted to deadlift that weight made it more real.  Not that I would do it, but that I would attempt to.

Unfortunately I hit a roadblock pretty quickly, like during my first workout of the cycle.  “Sister Christian” was on the stereo, and I was getting psyched because I love that song, and I got super lazy on a rehab set of deadlifts and overextended at the spine, which jolted me into dropping the bar and immediately saying fuck (and blaming the song, because of course it was Sister Christian’s fault).  I was incredibly discouraged and sent Dave an email asking him if this was a red light or a flashing yellow.  He responded almost immediately and we talked about what had happened (on the phone, even!), and set up some basic rules of engagement moving forward.  I had hurt my back like this before, and knew how to rehab it well enough, but the last time this had happened it had kept me from deadlifting for a couple of months and I couldn’t afford that this time around.
Piece of Advice #1: When and if you hurt yourself training, begin rehabbing immediately.  Even if ‘begin rehabbing’ means nothing more complicated than sitting down with a piece of paper to write out the things you can improve while the things that are broken right now get fixed.  I feel more strongly about this tenet than any other, and I think it might very well extend beyond injury and to periods of malaise, disengagement, and broken schedules.  What needs to be fixed needs to be fixed for sure, but what can you just absolutely crush in the meantime?
In my case, that was squatting with a standard bar.  Now, when I thought about doing the meet originally, I was thinking about just deadlifting!  I didn’t want anything to get in my way and yeah, I was going to be one of those dudes.  Just show up and deadlift.  I was willing to risk getting (deservedly) made fun of and heckled for sitting out the clean and bench and especially the squat if it meant I’d pull 600.  But without sharing anything proprietary about the coaching I paid for, I was doing a lot of squatting.  With a safety bar, and with the standard bar I hadn’t used in years because I’d told myself that my shoulders were too tight.  This was not something I’d planned on but the damnedest thing happened–I started to think about how much I could push up my squat by the time the training cycle was over.  Not how much I could squat at the meet, because I didn’t plan on doing that, but how much better it would be by that time.
Pithy observation #1: Distractions are good when you are stressed.  Especially ones you hold on your back.
My deadlifting by that time was back to a relatively standard flow.   We were cautious about pushing up the weight, but the rehab was going well.  As I began to work harder on my squats, it became apparent to me that I would be squatting and benching at the meet.  The goal was still the deadlift, and that had never left my mind, but somewhere along the way I started to feel like I would need to honor that deadlift attempt by paying the toll of squatting and benching beforehand.  I felt like it wouldn’t mean as much if I didn’t do it that way.  And to be honest, that was an incredibly pleasant surprise–I am usually so pragmatic/such a wuss (take your pick) that I won’t do anything outside of the bare minimum if I have something else on the table.  I’m not saying that to build myself up here, but because I was genuinely surprised when the whole thing started to matter to me.  I can only surmise that allowing the deadlift to blur a little bit made the difference here.  The goal was always the goal but starting to pay attention to the context was a gamechanger.   Being open to the possibility that I would be just as happy–differently happy, but just as happy–if I hit squat PRs instead of a deadlift PR…that was unexpected.  It was good, really good.  I felt like I was back in the game.
Upcoming Lesson #1 (It Will Be Hard To Miss): Listen to the little voice inside your head.
A couple of weeks before the meet, we were slated to go on vacation.  I had an important squat session planned on the day we were leaving, but I was too lazy to get it done early in the AM when the time was right.  I knew I was in decent enough shape for the meet with my squat, so I was going to just call it a vacation and hit it hard when I got back.

Alas, I drove back to the gym two hours later and set myself up in the cage.  I had never squatted in the cage, I was tired and nervous, and my right quad hurt after the first set.  There was absolutely no reason for me to be in there.  Even still…I got up to a heavy single and that was all I was meant to do.  It would have been fine to leave.  But I wasn’t sure about depth, so I put my belt back on and added a little more weight.  That is about five things I just never ever do and I would brain you all if you did the same things.  Sure enough, my right quad tweaked on the squat and I failed.  (Glad I was in the cage after all.)  I remember thinking to myself “this is dumb, you are going to get hurt” and yet…still did it.

There’s no twist to this part: it was stupid.  I don’t know why I did it, I wouldn’t do it again, and heating pads and ocean water work miracles.  I felt much better after my week off.  No harm no foul but God, that was stupid!
By the time the meet rolled around, I was pretty nervous.  But I had done the work.  I just kept telling myself that.  All you can do for a meet like that is to put yourself into a position to succeed.  Do the work, set yourself up for good attempts, and try like hell to flip the switch on game day.

My lifts went well (and it was incredibly awesome to see so many of our athletes PRing and doing awesome alongside), and when I deadlifted 570 on my second attempt, I knew that 600 would at least come off the ground on my third.  This was really the last step for me: just getting myself to that point where I knew I had a shot.

I made the lift, and I will talk about that in a second, but I don’t want to skip over this point: all that time, a year in training, with one number as my goal…and it hit me that actually, the most important thing I had done was simply to have gotten myself in position to try this.  Not the number, not the lift itself, but to have gotten to that moment.  It is hard to explain exactly but somehow as I waited for the bar to be readied for my last attempt, that was the only thing that mattered to me.  That I had done the work, that I was here, and that I had learned so many things along the way.

As for the lift, well when it went up I was pretty psyched.  Can’t downplay that–I felt like a million bucks.  And that is my wish for so many of you reading this–not that you will deadlift to a PR, not that you will even deadlift necessarily.  But that you will consider the journey: thinking of something that you might want to do, something that might take a year or two.  And then pledging your fealty to that process…even if it means you forget about it sometimes along the way, or take side trips, or learn things you didn’t expect to.  And even if (especially?) if you end up realizing the journey was the goal.

This was the best training experience of my life.  And I’m not sure it would have been possible without that number in my head–even if the number ended up meaning a heck of a lot less than all the things I learned along the way.  This would be the time to mention how unbelievable my coaches were–Tom for getting me back on track, DVS for everything capital E, Steel for walking the walk and always being the first text after every meet, and SJF for caring and believing.  Having a strong and capable support system is key.  I will talk your ears off in person about each of these people if you’re interested.

And really, I would love to talk to you all individually about how we can help you have similar experiences.  No goal is too big or too small, because no journey is unimportant.

And you…you are pretty frigging important my friends.  My door is always open!  Thank you for reading.


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