Everyday Strength

There are two general types of strength. There’s your peak strength, which is what you want to enter a competition with. Then there’s your everyday strength, which is what you can do when you’re as off-season as can be. This is the strength you have just sitting there, accessible at any time.

Just a regular day.

Just a regular day.

Right now, I’m thoroughly off-season, and my numbers are downright embarrassing on the competition lifts (squat, bench press and deadlift). That doesn’t mean these numbers should be embarrassing, per se, but because I know I’ve lifted much more weight with greater ease, it feels sucky.

For reference, my best ever squat was 2x150kg (in competition I went for 155kg but failed — I peaked early and have since confirmed that the worst thing I can do prior to a competition is to take a deload), my best ever bench press was 95kg in the gym (only 92.5kg in competition), and my best ever deadlift was 190kg in competition, which felt easier than I thought, suggesting I probably could have gone for a heavier weight. These numbers were all set while weighing 70kg.

This week, having barely lifted above 80kg on anything for about 3 months (I’ve been working on various techniques to increase muscular activation throughout the rep without increasing the weight used), and having not deadlifted once in that time, I decided to test my 1RM’s and see what my baseline strength levels are. I did this for the 3 powerlifts, but also for overhead press, pull ups, dead rows, front squats and high bar squats.

What I found interesting — but not at all surprising, is that on the non-competition lifts, 3 months of light lifting has had a relatively small impact. In fact, I even hit a couple PB’s this week! On the competition lifts, it’s generally been a bigger deal. I currently weigh 65kg. Here are my results:

Powerlifts

  • Squat: 130kg (failed at 135kg) vs historical best of 2x150kg (theoretical max even higher)
  • Bench Press: 85kg vs historical best of 95kg
  • Deadlift: 170kg vs historical best of 190kg

General Lifts

  • OHP: 55kg (failed at 60kg) vs historical best of 60kg
  • Pull Up: +30kg (12.5kg PB)
  • Dead Row: 70kg — I could have gotten more weight up to my torso from the blocks, but not without massively cheating; I’ve never tested my max before, but the heaviest I had previously performed was 3x60kg, and the same day as this week’s test I did 5x60kg, so that’s a rep PB
  • Front Squat: 100kg (5kg PB)
  • High Bar Squat: 130kg vs historical best of 140kg

It’s interesting to note that of the general lifts, the only ones in which my strength had demonstrably decreased were OHP and high bar squat. This is interesting because the old PB’s I have in each of those lifts did actually occur from doing peaking programs for them. The strength I’ve maintained on my OHP is particularly interesting because I actually had done any overhead training in over a month prior to this week, due to schedule issues. And the strength I maintained on high bar squat is particularly interesting because it’s the same amount as my competition low bar squat.

Implications

Strength isn’t just about your squat, bench press and deadlift, nor is it about what you can do on competition day. While your numbers in a competition are a measure of strength, they aren’t indicative of what you can normally do. Over time, you should be getting stronger across a variety of lifts and movements, throughout different rep ranges and volumes. Focusing on a few lifts to peak in is all well and good (and I encourage it), but don’t forget about the broader groundwork of everyday strength that those peak numbers are launched off of.

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Beginners Barbell Training Template

This is a template that I use (more or less — I do deviate from it on a case-by-case basis) with my clients to get them started in strength training. On average, it works really well, giving significant improvements in performance while building up technique safely. Add in some half-decent nutrition, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for being stronger, leaner and better-looking in a few months time.

Front Squat Man and Woman

We’re going to start with two alternating workouts. Ideally we want to perform 3 workouts per week, but that isn’t always viable. If you can do 2 workouts a week, you’ll still get good results. If you can only do 1 per week, that’s when we really need to start deviating and blending the two alternating workouts into one.

Each workout will consist of a squat, push, pull and hinge exercise. Workout A will use a heavy squat, push and pull variation with a light hinge. Workout B will use a light squat, push and pull variation with a heavy hinge. Beyond those staples, we will use assistance exercises to develop technique and/or muscles that aren’t worked sufficiently through the above movements. So, the workouts will look like this:

Workout A

  • Heavy squat
  • Heavy push
  • Heavy pull
  • Light hinge
  • Assistance work

Workout B

  • Light squat
  • Light push
  • Light pull
  • Heavy hinge
  • Assistance

On the four main movements of the day, we will periodise progression as follows by starting out with 2×15. The starting weight should be so light that at the end of the second set you feel like you could still do more reps. The focus will always be on technique and form ahead of weight and volume. We won’t increase the weight unless form and technique are passable, and the goal will be to continually improve form and technique.

Form is the positions you get into throughout the range of motion. You always want to be in a safe and mechanically advantageous position when training. Technique is how you get into those positions, and includes issues such as appropriate tightness vs suppleness, which muscles are working, speed, and what you are mentally trying to do with each rep.

After a few weeks, we will decrease the volume to 2×12. Ideally we will have added weight each session until this point, but if not we will definitely add weight now. The first session at 2×12 must be heavier than the first session at 2×15. This pattern will continue will each incremental decrease in reps. When the reps go down, the weight must go up.

This will continue into 3×10, then 3×8. If max strength is a priority, then we might peak, starting with sets of 5 and working towards a 1RM, which we like to put up on the leader board. But that isn’t always the goal.

There’s no exact time period for each rep range, but we will usually aim to be there for at least 2 weeks. So, conservatively, the plan looks like this:

Periodised Rep Range

  • Week 1-2: 2×15
  • Week 3-4: 2×12
  • Week 5-6: 3×10
  • Week 7-8: 3×8

Often we’ll spend longer than that in a given rep range, but, doing 2-3 workouts a week, this guarantees at least some improvements in each rep range before moving into the next one.

Sometimes we will have to deviate from these rep ranges. For example, when doing pull ups/chin ups, we normally just do 1 set for every set of the push exercise performed in that session. That set might only be 1 rep. Or it might be 10. It might be assisted. It might be weighted. But as a tough bodyweight movement, it’s pretty obvious why no one will be doing 2×15 in their first workout.

On assistance exercises, rep ranges aren’t so strict. Typically we’ll work between 10 and 20 reps, but it depends on the exercise and its purpose. Single-rep and 50-rep assistance exercises are less common but far from rare.

Heavy vs Light Exercises

What defines an exercise as heavy or light for our purposes isn’t how hard you go on the exercise. Each exercise should be performed with a load that is challenging but manageable, with an eye on progressive overload (adding weight whenever you safely can, especially when rep ranges drop). But there are some exercises that you can load up more than others. Invariably, the “heavy” exercise choice will be one which you can load up more than the “light” exercise choice.

So, for heavy squats we might work on back squats, and for light squats we might work on front squats. If someone has an interest in powerlifting, the heavy squat might be low bar, while the light squat might be high bar. For someone who has bad leverages for back squats, the front squat might be “heavy,” and the light squat might be goblet squats, split squats, step ups or lunges. Nothing is set in stone here, it all comes down to the individual’s abilities and needs.

Bench Press (2)

For heavy pushes, we will usually be looking at a bench press variation, while light pushes will usually be an overhead press variation. For a particular individual, it might be a bench press variation for both heavy and light pushes. For another individual, it might be overhead all the way. One person might do push press as a heavy push and push ups as a light push. But most of the time heavy means bench, light means overhead.

For heavy pulls, we will usually be working on pull ups or chin ups, whereas light pulls will usually be some form of row. For people who aren’t ready to start learning chin ups, it’s likely to be a heavy and a light row (eg dead rows and 1-arm rows).

For heavy hinges, we will typically be looking at deadlifts, including conventional, sumo, block/rack and deficit. Light hinges are more likely to be RDL’s, SLDL’s, goodmornings, bridges and hip thrusts.

I_HEART_Deadlift

Assistance Exercises

The most important thing to know about assistance exercises is that they’re assistance exercises. They might take up as much effort as one of the main exercises, but they shouldn’t take up more than that. Especially not with beginners.

Again, rep ranges aren’t as strict here. We might periodise our assistance exercise rep ranges, but that isn’t always the case.

When it comes to developing muscles, the most common areas we’ll work on with assistance exercises are: calves, shoulders, arms, abs and glutes. Thighs and the upper torso don’t tend to need much added help. When focusing on a muscle, we’ll typically go with an exercise that is easy on technique, making it easier to get right into working the muscle (which, in turn, is hard and grueling). Normally we will only work on one body part through assistance training, with 1-2 exercises.

For calves, calf raises are the obvious choice, with an emphasis on actually using your calves rather than your Achilles tendon. For shoulders, we often work on the lateral or posterior deltoid — added attention to the front of the shoulder is almost never needed. Lateral raises, upright rows, reverse flies and face pulls are all common choices. For the arms, broseph knows what he must do, but we will tighten up technique, and often make a point of limiting the work here (no, Mr Beginner, you do not need 4 difference biceps exercises). For abs, we will often work more on the deeper transverse abdominus than the visible rectus abdominus (AKA your 6-pack), because that has greater carry-over to technique on everything else and does more for trunk health. But if a 6-pack is what you want, we’ll work on that, too. Lastly, for glutes, having already worked on them through extension in squats and hinges, we will often focus on lateral movements like clams and banded hip abductions.

When it comes to more direct technique training, we will often use a variation of one of the main exercises, but with something modified to work on a specific point you need to improve on. This could be as simple as adding a pause into the main exercise, which forces you to learn how to maintain form and technique in a tough spot.

If you like the look of this template, I encourage you to give it a try. Always train responsibly, make technique a priority and seek coaching if it will allow you to do more safely (which it usually will). There’s a not-so-subtle plug here for you to come train with me to develop a program that specifically targets your needs and makes the most use of this template. But I am legitimately happy to see this method help anyone, anywhere, so if you use it and get good results, I’d absolutely love to hear from you. Likewise, if you have any questions about how you can make this work for you, comment below or ask me on facebook, and I will do my absolute best to answer you ASAP.

3 Squat Variations to Fix Your Munted Technique

I’ve been teaching people to squat for a while now. If seven years of PT has taught me anything, it’s that the average person needs an intervention in the way they control and move their bodies, because frankly their movements are out of control. And the barbell squat is an exercise that reveals disorder plainly.

"Try squeezing your chest up some more."

“Try squeezing your chest up some more.”

Sadly, this isn’t only true of the beginner who’s never trained before, but is also true of people who have been training for a long time. So whether you’ve been training for two weeks or two years, there’s a good chance you have a lot to work on.

Here’s a short list of the big, obvious issues that need a lot of attention in many lifters:

  1. The back rounds (or, in some circumstances that need immediate intervention, isn’t extended in the first place), especially towards the bottom.
  2. The knees don’t splay out around the body on the way down, or they cave in around the bottom.
  3. The glutes are not active, loaded and in control throughout the entire range of motion.
  4. The hips shoot up faster than the shoulders on the way up, turning it into some really fugly variant of a goodmorning (this is affectionately known amongst lifters as a “squatmorning”).
  5. The body isn’t tight.

Note, when I say “short list” and “obvious issues,” it’s to highlight some of the most overt problems. There are many others technique issues you might have, which might be painful to see or very difficult for an observer to pick up on. The list of things that might be wrong with your squat is a very long list, indeed.

The good news is that a single variation can help you overcome multiple technique problems. We’re going to look at three big variations you could put into a program to assist in the development of your main squat.

Variation 1: Paused Squats

ISSUES WORKED ON: 1, 2, 4, 5.

Pick a weak point in your squat (this will usually be right at the bottom or around the sticking point, which is usually a little bit above parallel) and pause your rep there.

Whenever you do a paused rep, you build the strength to hold a position and you increase time under tension in a very specific portion of the range of motion. It’s absolutely important when doing paused reps that you don’t stop working just because the bar isn’t moving. You need to focus on all of your normal technique points and keep the whole body tight. Your chest should be up, your glutes should be active, your feet should be screwed into the ground, your knees should be driven out, and your core should be tight (either pushed out against a belt, or drawn in through the naval and pelvic floor).

Hold the pause for 1-5 seconds. Time’s going to feel a lot longer under load, so remember your old primary school counting tricks (“one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi…”). You will need to use a significantly lighter load than you do for normal squats. Exactly how much weight you have to remove will depend on various factors, such as how long you hold for and how much rebound you normally get out of the stretch-strength reflex, which gets blunted out by the pause. For me, all else being equal, adding a pause at the bottom of my squat strips about 25% off the bar.

Here’s a video from Candito Training HQ that goes a little more in depth on how to get your paused squat lined up properly to assist your regular back squat:

Variation 2: Knee-Banded Squats

ISSUES WORKED ON: 2, 3.

A lot of people think that to get the glutes properly involved in a squat, you need to squat deep. If you already have great glute control, then deeper probably is better, because you’re increasing the amount of hip extension in the concentric portion of the lift. But there’s something else that has a much bigger influence on glute work during a squat, and that’s how hard you drive your knees out.

Enter the knee-banded squat. Loop a resistance band around your knees (I find just below the knee is best for setting a reliable position when I use my figure-8 bands or doubled-over loops; if you have mini-bands you might find that above the knee is stable), screw your feet into the floor and squat. Your form shouldn’t change one bit. If it does, it means the band is too tight/thick or you aren’t using your glutes enough. The beauty of the knee-banded squat is that it gives you something to drive your knees out against, which increases the load placed on the glutes. Effectively, the eccentric portion of the squat becomes a concentric banded clam, as your hips are going through transverse abduction against resistance.

Just like this, except instead of requesting Jack to draw you like one of his French girls, you have 100kg crushing down on your upper back.

Just like this, except instead of requesting Jack to draw you like one of his French girls, you have 100kg crushing down on your upper back.

It should be noted that if you have trouble activating your glutes in general, some more specific glute isolation work will help with activation, and will allow you to get much more out of knee-banded squats than you would otherwise.

BONUS: By combining knee-banded squats with a pause at the bottom, you get a fairly intense glute workout, which is worth considering if you either have particular technical difficulties in getting your glutes to work during squats, or if making your glutes the target area is important for aesthetic purposes.

Variation 3: Front Squats

ISSUES WORKED ON: 1, 4.

For a while there, the squatmorning seemed to be the most frequent technique issue among people who wanted to call themselves lifters (online, at least). As best as I could tell — from having worked through this issue myself, and from seeing it a lot in others using similar strength training resources — the common cause of the problem was something like this:

  • Novice lifters were not being encouraged to lead with their chest or shoulders in the squat — in fact, one popular source actively discouraged us to emphasise that.
  • Novice lifters were being encouraged to drive our hips up, as if the weight were on our hips and our goal was to shoot the weight up. Supposedly, this was how we would achieve glute drive.
  • Shockingly, when you tell an unco novice, or even someone with a little more experience under their belt, to blast your hips up hard and fast and not to worry about how fast their shoulders are rising, the hips often end up rising faster than the shoulders.

We were all told that this meant our glutes were too weak, so we should do actual goodmornings to assist our squats. But, while proper goodmornings are good, what really helped was dropping the weight and refocusing on leading with the chest.

For some people, it’s not just getting the technique points right. Sometimes there is an actual muscle weakness, but it isn’t the glutes causing this messed up movement — it’s the quads. The knees don’t just need to extend in a squat (after all, the squatmorning begins with lots of knee extension) — the extension of the knees has to cause the bar to move. In a squatmorning, while the knees are extending, the bar isn’t moving much, which means the quadriceps aren’t being used to lift the bar, but the glutes and hamstrings will be used to get the weight up when it finally gets going. While there are other possible causes, if you’ve been taught properly and you’ve learned properly, the most likely reason for this motor pattern is so that the stronger hip muscles can do the work instead of the quads.

Front squats are great at overcoming both bad technique and quad weaknesses.

Crossfitter Julie Foucher

Crossfitter Julie Foucher

As far as technique goes, you have to keep your chest up and your torso upright, and you have to lead with your chest. Otherwise, you will be immediately aware of the problem, because you will feel the weight falling forwards. You might be stubborn and try to save the weight from actually falling, or you might dump the weight. Either way, you will have immediate feedback letting you know that you need to back off and work more on the elegant side of things.

The mechanics of the front squat also put a lot of torque through the knees relative to the hips, while putting the knees through a much greater range of motion than the hips. That’s a double-whammy for shifting the focus onto the quadriceps.

The combined elegance and brute strength that go into (and come out of) front squats go a long way towards preventing the torso from collapsing and the hips from flying up faster than the shoulders.

Application

With these three variations added into your program you can overcome some of the biggest technique issues. Of course, they won’t improve technique on your regular squat unless you prioritise technique in each of these variants. Each of these squat variations will require you to use a lighter weight than you would for unmodified back squats. Keep your ego at the door and make every rep count. As you hold your pauses, keep tight throughout the entire body. As you drive your knees out against the bands, focus on controlling your thigh position with your glutes. As you front squat, make a point of leading with your chest and feel your quads.

If the goal is purely to help with technique on your back squat, only use the variations that address your technical needs. If the goal is more aesthetic, use every variation to hit the quads and glutes in lots of different ways, accumulating a high workload.

Paused squats and front squats tend to work well in low rep ranges, while knee-banded squats are a bit easier to manage at both high and low reps.

On a split program with two lower body days, here’s how you might put all of this together:

DAY 1

  • Back squats 3×10
  • Paused squats 3×6
  • Compound glute-ham exercise 3 sets
  • Isolated glute-ham exercise 3 sets
  • Calves as needed

DAY 2

  • Front squats 3×6
  • Knee-banded squats 3×10
  • Compound glute-ham exercise 3 sets
  • Isolated glute-ham exercise 3 sets
  • Calves as needed

3 Reasons to Lift, Even When You’re Cutting

One of the most common questions I encounter from people seeking fat loss is whether they should start lifting now, or wait until after they’ve lost the fat.

Many trainers tackle this issue by hyping up the metabolic benefits of strength training and hypertrophy. Building muscle certainly does have its metabolic benefits, but they aren’t as big as they’ve been made out to be. In fact, you probably won’t even notice them in the short term.

Nonetheless, my answer is almost always to start lifting now, unless there’s a reason why it would be irresponsible to do so.

But why?

Reason 1: Muscle Looks Good

This is purely my opinion, but then if you’re asking about resistance training, I can only imagine you have some inkling towards the aesthetic beauty of muscles, too. If you’re thinking is that you want to be toned rather than overly muscled, that’s fine. But remember, tone is muscle!

Toned Upper Back

Now, if your goal includes looking better, then why put off part of the process of making yourself look better? If you need to lose 20kg and gain 5kg of muscle, there’s no point in deliberately holding off on gaining that 5kg.

Reason 2: If You Don’t Lift, You Will Lose Muscle

That should be pretty compelling if you don’t want to become skinny-fat. When you lose weight, your body gets rid of whatever it doesn’t need. That will always include some fat, but if you aren’t heavily training your muscles, it will include them, too.

The outcome is that when you finally lose all the excess fat, you will have to do more to get the desired amount of muscle. Let’s say that in losing 20kg of fat without strength training, you also lose 5kg of muscle. That means you’ve lost 25kg all up (in reality, to lose that much muscle and fat, you’d actually lose even more body weight from other tissue, but let’s keep the numbers simple). If you’re guided by the scale, that’s good. If you’re guided by the mirror or your health, that’s not good.

Reason 3: The Scale Will Undersell Your Results

Sticking with 25kg of weight loss, here are three possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: As above, you lose 20kg fat and 5kg muscle mass.

Scenario 2: You lose 25kg fat and maintain muscle mass.

Scenario 3: You lose 30kg and gain 5kg muscle mass.

In each scenario, the change on the scale is the same. However, the difference between scenario 1 and 3 is dramatic. In scenario 3, you’ve actually lost a whole extra 10kg of fat, and you end up with a whole 10kg of extra muscle mass on your body. While scenario 2 is more realistic, because it’s exceedingly difficult to build any muscle at all while losing fat, you want to be as close to scenario 3 as possible and as far from scenario 1 as possible. Lifting on a cut will make this possible. Waiting until afterwards to start building muscle will not.

Ryan’s Hungry Jack’s Diet

As you know, personal trainers are paragons (heh) of integrity when it comes to fitness. We never skip a workout, we never half-arse a set, we never lose perfect technique on any exercise, we never drink anything that isn’t water, we never eat carbs, we never eat fat, and we certainly don’t ever eat junk food!

As you might have also secretly suspected, that’s a steaming heap of skubala (skubala = Ancient Greek for exactly what you think it means). I for one skipped yesterday’s workout after several workouts in succession of half-arsing it and realising I need to take a few days off to miss training. After not working out, I took a trip over to the health food restaurant known as Hungry Jack’s.

Friends

Healthy food. 100% chance that these boys did it because girls.

 

I ate quite a bit while I was there, too. About 6,700kJ (or 1,600kcal) worth, according to their nutritional information. That’s pretty wild, right?

Well, not really.

Throughout the rest of the day, my energy intake was pretty low — about 2,950kJ or 710kcal worth, according to Calorie King. That puts my total intake for the day a little over 2,300kcal, which is under 10,000kJ. If you’re used to diets that sit around 1,200kcal (which are disturbingly popular in glossy fitness media, especially female fitness media), this still sounds like a huge amount.

And it still isn’t.

A neat rule of thumb for fat loss energy consumption is to target 10-12kcal per pound of bodyweight, which equates to 22-26kcal (or 92-110kJ) per kilogram. For a 70kg adult, that’s 1,540-1,820kcal (or 6,470-7,640kJ) per day.

I’m not aiming to lose fat. I’m currently working on rebuilding my metabolic rate after a fat loss period, before focusing more on building muscle. For this reason, I (weighing a little bit under 70kg) generally want to be consuming more than 1,800kcal/day. In fact, to maintain bodyweight, a good ballpark figure is about 14-16kcal/lb bodyweight, which is 30-35kcal/kg. In my case, that works out to be 1,950-2,275kcal/day.

In other words, my copious amounts of fast food did put me above my calculated target, but not by an amount that will make a noticeable difference.

I’m sharing this anecdote for two reasons.

  1. I want you to know that you can have a flawed diet and still get good results. If you made up your energy consumption with healthier food, would that be better? Yes. No doubt about it. But you can get real results without having to completely overhaul your diet.
  2. I want you to know that when you do eat unhealthy, you haven’t committed some grievous atrocity that you need to rack yourself with guilt over. We all deviate from perfection in our diets. So what? You can fit it into your total energy consumption without messing up your goals, and even if you do go significantly overboard, you can always get back on the horse tomorrow and get on with the goal. It’s a setback, but it isn’t the end of the world. If we didn’t have setbacks, then we’ll all have landed our dream jobs on our first day out of school and we’d live in perfect homes and we’d get perfect sleep every night because babies wouldn’t keep us awake and we wouldn’t know sexual frustration and our relationships would be perfectly fulfilling all the time and people would love it when we burp because rainbows would sparkle from our mouths. But we’re mortals and we have to make do with that.
refeel

The best thing about Hungry Jack’s.

Super-Average Heroes and Body Image

Recently, Bulimia.com posted up a set of comic book covers edited to make the heroes look more like the average American (which is about on par with the average Australian, minus the beer and thongs).

It’s reasonable to say this comes from good intentions, and in the context of a support resource to help people overcome eating disorders, it may be helpful. I don’t know. Time will tell, I suppose. The stated purpose is to help people respect themselves.

“If these characters had a figure more like that of the average person, perhaps more people could look up to their favorite superhero without feeling the need to emulate an impossible physique. Ultimately, what’s truly heroic is respecting yourself, your body, and your health.”

But there are issues that, whether or not they apply to people with eating disorders and clinical body image problems, do apply to the rest of us. Maybe I’m just a contrarian, but I can’t avoid looking at this and saying: “Yeah, but…”

Yeah, but…

…the post opens with the acknowledgement that about 1/3 of Americans are obese, and 2/3 overweight (we have similar statistics in Australia). To be physically average is not something to celebrate unless it’s an improvement on where you have been. Again, in the context of eating disorders, maybe average is a victory. But in the current climate, average is dangerous. Again, the original post itself acknowledges that average means increased risk of all kinds of preventable health problems.

Something I’ve learned throughout my life is that commonsense is not much of a virtue. Granted, you don’t want to have less than common sense, but ask an expert in any field about pretty much anything you think you know about that field, and you’ll probably find that the commonsense answer is wrong.

In the same vein, the current average physique is not something to aspire towards. Is that harsh? Maybe. Harsh…but true.

Yeah, but…

…they’re freakin’ superheroes! Some people actually hold to the notion that ideals are bad, because they make the rest of us look bad for failing to live up to them. How rude of those nasty ideals! But the reality is, even if an ideal is something you can never achieve in this lifetime, that isn’t an indicator that it isn’t something worth aspiring towards anyway, or at least appreciating in those who can be a closer approximation of that ideal than yourself. Taking a less physical example, wisdom is a good ideal, but while we can always develop our wisdom, we will never be maximally wise. Does that mean that wisdom itself is bad, that we shouldn’t seek wisdom, or that we shouldn’t appreciate the wisdom of others? Of course not.

Disavowing ideals in this way doesn’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s also a great way to invalidate people’s problems, which is honestly kind of dehumanising. Ever been told you’re perfect just the way you are? Of course you have — any time you express your insecurities and self doubts, it’s almost social contract that someone has to affirm your perfection. It isn’t such a priority that they affirm that they love you, or that your value is in your humanity rather than victories, or that they carry the emotional load of your flaws and validate your feelings. It’s much more important that they waive your pain and disprove it.

feels heavy

That 20kg you need to lose to be healthy (and — you know it — look and physically feel better)? That’s not a problem, because you’re perfect. That extra 5kg of muscle mass that will allow you to do more stuff and will again make you look and feel better? Nope, you’re perfect just the way you are. That really big, heart-wrenching fight you had with your spouse last night in front of the kids that damaged the trust that each family member has in each other? It’s not that you’re two imperfect adults with more responsibilities than you know how to handle, plus intellectual and emotional conflicts that are real, painful problems. There’s nothing wrong. You’re perfect.

Did I just go to a deep, dark place? Yeah. But for a reason. We are frail. We are physically, emotionally and intellectually frail. We screw up — constantly. We have good desires for ourselves and others that face every conceivable roadblock, and many of those roadblocks come from ourselves. But you know what? Acknowledging this in each other and compassionately sitting with this reality validates the frustration we feel from not being perfect. And that’s something the “no, you’re perfect” band-aid can’t do.

Backing off the emotional intensity a bit, it’s important to realise that over the decades, the images attached to each superhero have changed, simultaneously reflecting and informing variations in what is culturally accepted as ideal. The same superheroes have been bigger, smaller, more toned, less toned, thicker, thinner and so forth throughout their histories. But if the character is meant to represent an ideal, then yeah, they’re going to look pretty darn ideal. Close to perfect, in fact. They’re not supposed to be Joe and Jane Average — they’re supposed to be who Joe and Jane Average wish they could be. Being like them was never meant to be easy, and the very nature of super-powers has always been something that defies plausibility.

Yeah, but…

…there is an actual disconnect between how we judge ourselves and what we see in others. Physical beauty is an inherently good thing. If we see physical beauty in someone else (whether real or fictional) and instead of appreciating their beauty we translate that into some kind of self-hate, then it’s the inner monologue that’s messed up, not the other person’s beauty. Moreover, if our response is to change the way someone else looks in order to make us feel better about ourselves, that is messed up.

I need to reiterate that I’m pretty sure this whole project came from good intentions. Likewise, I don’t want to deny that there are real sociological factors that impact body image and self image, nor do I want to discredit the site responsible for making these images as a whole — I think it’s great that they are working to help people through eating disorders.

But physical ideals are not a bogeyman in need of crushing (and besides, all these characters are muscular, so starving yourself or purging would never make you look like them). Ultimately, it’s not up to real or fictional people to be less ideal in order to make you feel better about yourself. You need some real internal work. You need to know that beauty is good but it doesn’t define you. You need to learn to appreciate your body, enjoying what’s good about it — which may or may not have anything to do with the mirror. You need to learn to enjoy your body without idolising it. You need to learn to look for things to like and admire about yourself, and you need to learn to like and admire others without condemning yourself . That’s all easier said than done. The only solace I can give is that I’ve been there, done that, and have learned along the way that you can feel quite good about yourself while looking far from ideal, and you can look ideal while having the worst feelings about yourself. Your reflection and your identity are not the same — don’t get the two confused.

This has been a touchy post. Did you find it helpful? Or do you think I missed the mark? Tell me below.

Why So Intermediate?

“Am I an intermediate yet?” ~ 90% of beginning lifters once they self-identify as a lifter and don’t want to be seen as anything short of the real deal.

Deadlift (5)

In strength training circles, a big deal is often made over whether someone is a beginner, intermediate or an advanced lifter. Of course, before someone starts identifying as a lifter (or whatever their niche fitness hobby/sport is — long distance runners, sprinters, cyclists and rowers do this, too), our egos don’t demand that we be really good at this stuff. Sure, no one likes to go into the gym and look or feel incompetent, and our egos can be a real issue, but we don’t have the added pressure of having to live up to being a lifter.

If you identify as a lifter, then you probably love lifting and this is a genuine part of your lifestyle. It isn’t just something you do to get from Point A to Point B — you actually like doing it and look forward to it. This is all good, but the added component of identifying with this behaviour means the standards you hold yourself to will be much higher than if this weren’t a part of your identity, so if you fall short, it’s a much tougher blow to the ego than missing the mark would have been otherwise.

Consequently, beginning lifters want to race to intermediate status. They know that advanced status is years away, but so long as they can be comfortably placed in the intermediate category, they won’t incur an identity crisis.

My psychological tip and spiritual guidance for the day is to not identify as a lifter, because placing your value as a human being in how many kilos you can deadlift is just silly. Now that I’ve pissed off half my readers…

There’s a lot of bad advice out there on how to tell if you’re an intermediate yet. Since there are a lot of intermediate training protocols out there, many people believe that because they can use those methods, they’re now intermediates. Another lackluster metric is arbitrary strength standards. If you’ve been around for a while, you actually know what these numbers are:

  • OHP 60kg (1 blue plate/side of the bar)
  • Bench Press 100kg (2 blue plates/side)
  • Squat 140kg (3 blue plates/side)
  • Deadlift 180kg (4 blue plates/side)

Those numbers are okay for some men to use, but obviously invalid for women. Regardless of gender, it goes without saying that someone with broad hips and shoulders and relatively large amounts of muscle to start with will have a much easier time reaching those numbers than someone with a petite frame. Numbers that are based on your bodyweight are more useful, but still miss the mark.

Really, you’re a beginner lifter until the following conditions are true:

  • You have achieved basic mastery of your key lifts. This doesn’t mean perfection. It means that to get the basics right doesn’t require a lot of thought, and if you quit training right now, you could come back to it in a year and after a couple sessions your technique would be back up to standard. It has become ingrained.
  • If your technique breaks down, it probably isn’t because of fear or anxiety. Frankly, strength training is scary. The closer we get to our maxes, the scarier it gets. Our tendency is to default to whatever movement patterns we had before we started lifting the instant we get scared. You stop using what you’re told works and start using what your intuition thinks will work. You’re no longer a beginner if your intuition is now in line with good lifting technique and mechanics, rather than the messed up movements you used to do.
  • You need to peak for 1RM’s. You can’t just do a proper 1RM and be better at it next time. For any Bulgarian-influenced lifters reading this, I’m not saying you can’t improve on daily maxes, I’m saying that a 1RM will take its toll.

If you emphasise technical mastery and progressive overload, you will reach this level within 3-12 months. That time duration will vary depending on consistency, the type of program you’re own, and all kinds of private factors. If either technique or progressive overload isn’t an ongoing goal, then you could spend years never advancing beyond the beginner level. But if that’s the case, you probably aren’t identifying as a lifter anyway, so you probably weren’t asking this question in the first place.