Challenges are Teachers

As I mentioned during my last post, I am in the  midst of Dan John’s six-week Mass Made Simple bulking program.

And it is hard.

But also so, so worthwhile. I am having breakthroughs and “A-ha!” moments regarding how to further improve my form on the bench press and back squat. After almost a year of focusing intensely on kettlebell training, I am reuniting with barbell-centric training in a manner that is simultaneously intense and sustainable. I am learning through direct experience about a classic program. And, yes, I’m getting bigger.

Choice One: How Much Weight to Put on the Bar?

I mentioned in my previous post that I am working the program exactly as it is written; I read the book cover-to-cover multiple times, and really let the suggestions and guidelines sink in.

However, I should mention that I actually have made one adjustment: the book seems to make the assumption that everyone who follows the program is male. As such, it prescribes weights to lift for the high-volume back squats based upon body weights for the supposedly male participants. I decided at the onset, since I have never done any programming the likes of what appears in MMS, that I would simply adapt by doing the weights prescribed for one weight class lower than my body weight.

This was choice number one in regards to how to approach this program: given what I know about myself and this program, where should I start? I believe I made the prudent choice, and that it was also the right choice. I know enough about myself as a lifter to have had a good idea of what amounts of weight I could move with good form for the volume that they were prescribed, and I allowed this experience to guide me.

(I also suspect that the next time I do this program, whenever that might be, I will challenge myself to use the weight class for my body weight without shifting down a weight class… because by then I will be fortified by more time training and previous experience with this program. Which just goes to show that the right choice at one point in time can be different than the right choice at another point in time.)

Choice Two: What Do I Do in Response to Change?

But then something happened this week… my weight had increased enough during the first week-and-a-half of the program that I had jumped a weight class. I then had a decision:

  1. Say to myself, “Well, this is already hard, so I’ll just stay where I am,” or
  2. Say to myself, “I committed to doing this at one weight class lower than my weight, and dammit that’s what I’m going to do.”

I went with choice 2, and jumped up a weight class. I have often said to my clients/students, “Train with integrity. Lift with integrity. Live with integrity.” I say it to them because I believe that integrity is important, and that no part of my life is exempt. I made a commitment to myself regarding how I would move through this program, and I am going to do everything within my power to bring my actions into alignment with my commitments.

Choice Three: What Do I Do When I Don’t Want to Do Anything?

I also reached a point this week that, while rare, does occur for me: I didn’t want to train on one of the days when a full, heavy training session was prescribed.

I ran through the checklist that I described in my post “Step Back or Stepmost-champions-are-built-by-punch-the-clock-workouts-rather-than-extraordinary-efforts-quote-1.jpg Up?”: I wasn’t injured or feeling pain, I was adequately fed and rested, I wasn’t sick, and I wasn’t over-trained. So I cowgirled up, put on my favorite gym clothes, and headed in to the gym.

It wasn’t my most inspired-feeling training session ever, but I dug deep and completed every planned rep.

As an aside: I love training so much that resisting a training day is rare for me, but I’m human enough that it does happen sometimes. I think that this is a good thing for me to acknowledge openly, especially to my students/clients: no one wants to train all the time. It is normal, expected, and 100% human.

It’s okay to not feel inspired to train.

It’s even okay to sometimes miss a planned training session. I do, of course, encourage you to do a few things when you do this: be honest with yourself about why you’re missing the session, acknowledge that it was a choice rather than an overarching statement about you and your commitment to movement, and then get back to moving sooner rather than later to avoid the all-or-nothing thinking that sabotages health and balance.

In the same way that I mentioned in Choice One that the right choice in one moment isn’t necessarily the right choice in all moments, I will emphasize here that the right choice for one person isn’t necessarily the right choice for all people. Different people have different goals, and that will obviously influence their priorities.

Dan John himself has written that “Most champions are built by punch the clock workouts rather than extraordinary efforts.” And he’s absolutely right. Elite-level athletes and fitness professionals aren’t people who only train when they feel like training: they do what they need to do to continue progressing no matter what because it’s a choice they’ve made based on their priorities.

And so I made the choice that was consistent with my life priorities and my goal of becoming an elite-level lifter.

That does not mean that it was the “right” choice in any absolute sense. It was simply the choice that was consistent with my goals.

So, when you’re confronted with the desire to not do something hard that awaits you, whether in or out of the gym, ask yourself honestly about the importance of doing the hard thing: will stepping forward into the challenge move you closer to where you want to be or not?

If it will, I encourage you to do the hard thing.

Choice Four: Should I Rack the Bar Yet?

Through the first five training sessions of the MMS program, the exact volume of every single exercise is prescribed: you know at the onset how many sets you’ll be doing and how many reps there are to be in every set.

Do three sets of 2-3-5. 

Do five ten-second holds. 

Three sets of 30 reps. 

There’s no decision-making involved: you either do it or you don’t.

(To be technically, 100% honest, there is one exception on Training Day 4, but I’ll talk about that later.)

Then we get to Training Day 6, where instead of doing something unequivocal like three sets of 30 back squats, Dan John instructs the people who have made it this far into the program to do a “To Fifty” squat session (something which occurs a few more times before the end of the program, too). After a few warm-up sets of ten back squats, “You are going to do 50 squats total. If you can, do one set to 50, or break it up any way you want. Stop immediately if your technique sours, rest and start again. The goal is to do fewer total sets every session. Don’t stop on a predetermined rep like 5 or 10… the goal is to get all 50 reps.”

As I mentioned previously, the amount of weight on the bar is predetermined by the athlete’s bodyweight, and the total number of reps is determined, too.

However, the decision of whether to rack the bar or do another squat is up to the athlete, and must be considered before each and every rep.

The other situation in which an athlete who is doing MMS is confronted with a similar choice is in the bench press portion of the training sessions; occasionally, either a set or the entire bench press portion of the training session ends with the instruction to “do as many safe repetitions (with a spotter) as you can do up to 10 reps.” So far, I have encountered this instruction on Training Days 4 and 6; in both instances, the weight that is used is already prescribed.

And this is definitely where an athlete can learn a great deal about what their true philosophy is in relation to their training. Here, again, there are several options:

  1. 12627927_449259968592013_724228871_nLift with your ego. Interpret Dan John’s statements “If you can, do one set to 50”  and “up to 10 reps” as a challenge and set out to prove that you can do the maximum number of reps, completely ignoring the important statement to stop immediately when form starts to fall apart. Grunt and scream a lot, compromise on range of motion and form, and keep going no matter what until you are unable to complete a rep and/or injure yourself.
  2. Re-rack the bar when the reps start to feel harder. Possibly do 50 singles in the squats or only one bench press.
  3. Find the middle way. This could mean different things to different degrees.

I obviously aimed for the middle way. Before I even began my first “To Fifty” squat session or the “up to 10” sets of bench presses, I considered what I have learned in StrongFirst certifications regarding how to avoid training to failure. I decided that I would consider two factors when deciding whether or not to rack the bar: the speed of the preceding rep and how many more reps I honestly felt I could actually do with full range of motion.

My commitment to myself was that I would rack the bar when I had a rep that was 1. still completed with good form, but 2. noticeably slower than the preceding repetitions, and 3. where I felt that I could likely complete two more reps with full range of motion (but possibly compromised form).

No sooner, no later.

And there were times (particularly when squatting) when I wanted to rack the bar before then, but I knew very well that I wasn’t there yet. And so I did another squat. And another. And another.

And then there was my penultimate set on my “To Fifty” squats, during which I really wanted to just complete all of the remaining reps, but had to admit to myself that it was wiser to put the bar back in the rack and do the last few reps in a short final set.

What Challenges Can Teach Us

you-can-do-hard-things.pngI have learned a lot about myself through this process. Hard training can teach you a lot about yourself, too.

What is your relationship to difficulty?

Do you push yourself forward, pain and consequences be damned?

Do you avoid discomfort at all costs, preemptively getting in the way of your chance to discover your full potential?

Or do you approach challenges with coexisting willingness, determination, and self-love?

Some combination of the three?

Something else?

I don’t know what your goals are, but I do know that reaching them will involve doing something difficult and stepping outside of your comfort zone. I urge you to do so. Step into a challenge with curiosity and tenacity. See what happens.



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