This weekend, jevanses over at squats & starbursts set a 265lb squat PR. Seeing other people PR is exciting, but I was especially thrilled to see her video because I consider her my squat idol. It’s always nice to know that there are competent squatters out there, since I don’t rate myself among them. When I watch videos of myself squatting, I can’t help but think “What the hell? That doesn’t even look like a squat!” Anyway, I must say that my spirits were somewhat dampened by her thoughts on her squat: “I know I should be excited.” Excuse me? I’m excited for you! Why aren’t you jumping up and down and celebrating and doing the Shankle shuffle!? Doing something you’ve never done before – that you physically could not do previously – is supposed to be hella exciting.
On the other hand: I get it. We have high expectations for ourselves. There is no video proof and since this is the internet that basically means it never happened, but this weekend I finally benched a solid 135. My ass was down and my spotter kept his hands off the bar. There wasn’t even a bounce. Part of me just feels a huge sense of relief because I feel like I’ve been working towards that goal forever. But not a millisecond after putting up 135, my brain was already on to thinking: “God. 135 is such a small number. You shouldn’t be celebrating this. 135 is like… borderline respectable. Why isn’t your bench stronger?” All of those months spent working hard and whining about my 100lb bench? Conveniently forgotten.
The fact that I failed to see the beauty of a PR isn’t even surprising: the last thing that one of my teammates said to me before I got under the bar on Saturday was, “Listen: you’re not feeling well and this is huge progress. So if you don’t get this, don’t beat yourself up over it. I know you will anyway, but you shouldn’t.” The same friend told me on the way to the gym, “This is the thing: you expect so much of yourself. Like, you were so upset about failing your squats a few weeks ago and you were just having a bad day. You’re allowed to have bad days.” Which seems so self-evident when she says it, but then she is guilty of the same thing when she sends me a midweek e-mail mentioning her own lack of progress after setting her own bench PR less than two weeks earlier!
I find it funny that I can watch a video of a girl benching 135 and think “She is so strong!” but I can’t accept that for myself. Screw trying to out lift other people; I am my own biggest competitor. I distinctly remember a phase where my deadlift seemed stuck at 315 and I was enviously watching youtube videos of girls pulling new maxes of 260. In general, I find it very easy to be happy when other people improve their numbers because I know how much time, effort and dedication goes into that fleeting lift. So why can’t I feel the same happiness and excitement for myself?
One thing I’ve come to realize is that all of the lifters that I respect are very much the same way: a good lifter always wants to be stronger. Otherwise, we’d just accept our current maxes and I’d be stuck benching 135 until the day I die. But there has to be a happy medium between complacency and our unreasonable expectations of ourselves.
When I find that I’m beating myself up, I try to put things into context. I’ve only been lifting for a year and I frequently need to remind myself that world records aren’t set overnight. They take years of training and dedication and they’re earned five pounds at a time. Actually, that whole mentality was one of the reasons that I had such a successful meet in December: I’d read an article by Matt Gary on attempt selection where he advises:
“Selecting an appropriate third attempt is simple. If you are going for a PR, choose the next five-pound (2.5kg) increment…. I have never understood why so many people want to take a large weight increase to a huge PR when lifting five pounds more is progress…just be happy with five pounds.”
So following this strategy, I PRed across the board. Sure, they were 5lb PRs but that’s still way better than what would have happened if I’d tried for 10lbs more and missed my lifts. I recognize that building confidence in my max attempts is in itself important, especially since I’ve said before that as a novice I don’t have a good handle on what I can do until I actually do it.
Part of this approach has filtered over to my training, too. When I start feeling down about my bench, I remind myself that if I will never bench 225 if I can’t hit 135 first. And while I’m no longer in a position where I can add 5lbs every time I workout, that doesn’t mean I’ve stalled either, so what’s the rush? What if I squat 300 tomorrow and then stall for 6 months? I bet I’ll miss the 5lb increases, then! Objectively, I can see that it’s best to ease into a big number and then blow past it, instead of trying to put it up sooner than I’m able.
Theoretically, there is an upper limit to the strength we as humans can achieve, but where would the fun be if we just arrived at that ceiling overnight? Arguably, all of the small steps on the way to achieving our goals are much more important than the end goals themselves, which makes it even more important to recognize the value of those small steps. At the end of the day, what else can we ask for besides continual improvement and progress?
Actually, I’m going to end with a bit of a confession. I might be the only person on the internet who actually read Starting Strength, but it provided me with a useful mantra that’s stuck with me for when even my best lifts start to feel inadequate:
“It is always preferable to take smaller jumps and sustain the progress than to take bigger jumps and get stuck early…It is easier to not get stuck than it is to get unstuck.“
Of course, this must be true since it comes from the mind of Mark Rippetoe, one of the Gods of lifting. But perhaps it’s more relevant for me now than it ever has been before. Sometimes I just need to unstick my doubts, because ultimately I know how to improve my lifts even if the process is slower than I’d like.