Friday, January 30, 2015

Why strength sports are (for me at least) the most solitary sports

I read yesterday an absolutely brilliant article by Greg Nuckols (really outstanding, you must also read it if you have the most passing interest not just in barbell sports, but in the human condition in general, it's that good: What it takes to break world records) that shocked me for its sincerity amidst an environment (let's call it "strength and conditioning Internet literature") notable for its zaniness and overall lack of respect for the truth. In most articles of this kind you typically start reading how the author (be it a "true" record holder like Nuckols, who I admire a lot, or a more suspect one in some obscure federation with limited reach, lax judging and very lenient regarding gear in both senses -equipment and steroids, for those not in the iron subculture) was a lanky kid, not specially strong or gifted, and through sheer grit, determination and some smarts ended up being strong as hell...

Well, in this case Greg openly states he was damn strong already the first time he put his hands around a bar (a Xmas gift that allowed him to bench 150 pounds and deadlift 250, not having more plates to test... when he was 10 years old! for reference, my 15 year old son, albeit I've never allowed him a true 1RM, is currently benching in the 80s and deadlifting below 200). He recognises hard work and smart programming are important, but they definitely pale in comparison with the genetic predisposition the different individuals already have. He puts himself again as an example and states that although he underwent the most idiotic programming and didn't pay much attention to recovery or any other variable that gurus today say is a top priority he managed to squat 700, bench above 400 and deadlift above 600 when he was still a teenager. For reference again, after many, many years in this game, and knowing a thing or two about programming, recovery, nutrition and staying injury-free I'm still inching, ever more slowly, towards a 400 pounds squat, 300 pounds bench and 500 deadlift... and I consider myself pretty strong.

That's something I more or less already knew: when I see Chad Wesley Smith, or Brad Gillingham, or Andrei Malanichev, or Konstantin Knostantinovs lifting I know that even if I could train consistently for a million years I would get nowhere near the amazing weights those guys move, and I really don't care if some of them are on the juice or not, even with free access to a swimming pool full of steroids and no conscience or care for the consequences would I ever squat, bench or deadlift in that league. And what applies to the powerlifting world, where I consider myself more accomplished (at least I'm an "advanced" lifter according to most tables in the three powerlifts) applies even more to weightlifting and shot putting (maybe even more so, as I retook those endeavors being already quite old, and age affects much sooner the ability to move explosively, the fast twitch fibers of the muscles being the first to start withering away), where putting half the distance Werner Guenthoer or Randy Barnes putted, or lifting overhead half the weight Ilya Ilin lifts seems an utterly unachievable feat.

Which is essentially OK, as Nuckols gently reminds us being stronger or lifting more weight has very little to do with how good a human being you are (I like to believe I would be so nonchalant about the importance of strength vs character were I so damn strong as him, although the general bent towards arrogance of my mindset makes it difficult to be too confident about it). And that takes me (in the usual somewhat roundabout fashion) the the main theme of my post today: the pursuit of strength is, except for the chosen few that had the luck to win the genetic jackpot, a most solitary enterprise. Before I set up my home gym I used, like every other Joe, to go to commercial gyms to train and get stronger, and I remember being utterly shocked to witness how little committed most people there seemed to be: not only did you see them moving the same weights month after month, year after year, but the way they approached the iron was pretty telling: with their smartphones around so they could talk to some distant friend between sets, chatting with one another about the most mundane matters, failing to properly record the reps, sets, weights and RPE (rate of perceived exertion) in order to track progress and adjust their program accordingly... until it finally dawned on me: most people go to gyms (at least to your generic neighborhood gym) with a distinct lack of purpose: "be more in shape" (¿in what shape?); "shed some fat" (¿how much? and if they are not morbidly obese ¿why on earth would someone want to shed fat, when it is a wonderful store of energy and allows for longer, more intense training sessions); "look good naked" (¿to whom?) or just to socialize a bit, make friends or pass some time without too much exertion or pain. Well, my friends, I have moderately bad news: getting strong requires exertion, pain, discomfort, effort, sweat, torn calluses, sometimes crippling soreness, and enough panting and straining to make communication between sets a hopeless intent for anything beyond "bro, that was hard!". The news are only moderately bad, because, in the depths of their hearts, nobody (specially in a globo gym) gives a potatooie about getting strong.

So in the end you do this: train being so sore you can hardly walk; taping the open wounds in your palm so you can make that extra set of pulls to complete the session as programmed; go to the gym although you feel like shit with the flu, or not having slept at all, or with a serious hangover; daring to go under the bar although the previous set with 10 kg less almost stapled you to the ground and you seriously doubt you can make it but you will rather die trying than renounce the attempt; exchanging your workout for lunch because that's the only hour of the day you have free of other commitments, and all the little insanities that you end up doing for yourself and for nobody else. Not to get to any podium (not the right genetic material, baby), not to achieve anybody's admiration, not to "share" in Facebook or to get any amount of "likes" from people you do not even know, not to attract the ladies (most definitely! they tend to consider most things about strength mildly abhorrent if not downright scary), not to impress friends (they couldn't care less), not to leave a legacy with the kids... just because you were bitten by the iron bug, and you have that friggin' unexplainable desire to get better than... yourself, and nobody else.

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