Monday, May 19, 2014


Saturday was my first powerlifting meet.  It was just a little bitty one at my gym.  It was judged on Wilks score (a calculated relationship between bodyweight and total), which favors lighter lifters (heavier lifters have higher totals, lighter lifters have higher Wilks scores, that's just how that goes), so I knew I wasn't going to win or anything, but I wanted to do it anyway.  Until last Monday, I'd never even tested heavy singles, let alone tried to set serious one-rep-max personal records, let alone tried to set serious 1RM PRs in front of a whole bunch of people.  In a singlet.

Because powerlifting meets mean singlets and weigh-ins.  I think I was more anxious about that than about the actual lifting of weights.  I took the bus to my gym at 8:15 in the morning with my singlet in my bag repeating in my head, "Holley Mangold can do it.  Sarah Robles can do it.  Holley Mangold can do it.  Sarah Robles can do it."  And then, when I whipped my dress over my head and stood on a scale in bra & underwear in front of one of my coaches (the one who is a woman, don't worry), I learned that I can do it too.  And I can stand around in a singlet for hours in front of tons of people, many of whom are wielding cameras.  The little gym was packed, with lifters and volunteers (loaders, spotters, refs) and loved ones of lifters and a couple of people wielding high-level recording equipment.

As soon as I got acclimated to that, I got anxious about the actual lifting of weights.  I felt pretty confident about my openers, but everything after that was unknown territory.  The deadlifts in particular were freaking me out; my deadlift has been giving me trouble in sets of five for the past two months.  There was a lot of waiting around.  It was hard to time the warm-up right, and I didn't know how high to take it.  I ended up going up to singles just under my openers, risking spending strength for the gain in confidence.

My first squat, at 230, got one red light for depth.  But two white lights (there are three refs total) means good lift.

I am pretty sure the adrenaline rush hit me right about here, because I don't remember whether I got red-lighted on either of the next two squats. which were both good.  My second squat was at 240.  My final squat was at 250. It came up pretty easy, and I think it was all white lights.  The head ref was the coach who'd weighed me in; she said it was my best of the bunch.

After squatting, I sat with my boyfriend, ate a bagel (in a singlet! in front of a lot of people!) and watched the big guys squat.  A dear friend texted to ask if I wanted to hang out in the park, I responded that I could not because I had weights to lift, and she asked if she could come watch.  I told her she could; she arrived just after my first bench press attempt.

In that first bench press attempt, at 140, I jumped the command.  You have to demonstrate control of the barbell before you start the descent of the lift, so the head ref will say "start."  I didn't wait for that—realized it immediately after I'd started the descent, pressed out again, realized it was too late, then completed a hackneyed, cockeyed bench press.  Three red lights, obviously.  No lift.  I took the opener again on my second lift and got it pretty handily.  I went up to 145 for the third attempt and failed it.  In addition to the command to start the bench press, you rest the bar on your chest until you get the command, "press."  This is really different than the way one trains a bench press, where you just touch the bar to your chest and send it right back up again ("touch and go")—it gives the weight the chance to go dead on your chest, and the difference between a touch-and-go press and a paused press is HUGE.  There was not a goddamn chance I was getting 145 up.  Which made the first failure less galling, because if I wasn't going up anyway, it didn't represent a wasted opportunity.

While I paced and hopped between bench press attempts, I saw my boyfriend & my friend chatting happily & watching the lifting, and I felt just on beyond warm and fuzzy.  I thought how handsome he looked, and how lucky I am to have a partner who will show up to watch me do things that matter to me even if they don't much matter to him, and a friend who is psyched to brag about how strong I am.  I love that they get along so well now, and I love that they care enough to want to show up and watch me lift weights.  I'm a lucky kid.

So, deadlifts.  I was probably most nervous about deadlifts, because my training deadlift sets have sucked.  I've been cycling between getting 245x5 and failing the fourth or fifth rep for weeks.  I rush my setup.  I psych myself out.  So starting much above that kind of freaked me out.  I was opening at 250, and I'd done a single on Monday at 255, so I knew it wasn't crazy, but I also knew my deadlifts are erratic, and I was planning a second attempt at 260, an untested weight.  And then beyond that—?

I chalked, took the platform, took my time to set it up—stay over it, pull the slack out of the bar, keep it close—and pulled 250 no problem.  The rounds of deadlifting go really fast because there's no rack to adjust, so I felt like I was back on the platform with 260 before I knew it.  Went up easy.  I'd talked with my coach about "going for broke" with a bigger jump for my last deadlift, so I asked for 275 for the final attempt.  The beginning of my flight was a lot of successful final attempts, so I was nervous that I was going to be the first failure.  But I did not actually need to worry—it came up without a grind.  It felt light.  It must have looked light, too, because my coach on the mic reported the three white lights and then made some comment about it being too easy that I can't recall verbatim because I was busy being hit by a freight train of an endorphin rush.

At the end of a weightlifting meet, everyone is hopped up on adrenaline and grinning like lunatics.  The guy who pulled a five-plate deadlift (495#) and had skipped his own graduation to be there to do it hopped off the platform and ran to hug his dad when he got it.  The woman next to me slung her arm around my shoulders when we were waiting to hear the results.  I felt clear-headed, unselfconscious, expansive, joyful.

As predicted, I didn't win, except in the sense of a deep and hard-fought and satisfying victory over my own fear and my own previous bests.  Which is sort of the thing about a weightlifting meet, it turns out.  Everyone in the room knows what it's like to fight for a lift, and everyone there can see when you're doing it—when the littlest lady in the place grimaced and shook coming out of the hole with 115 on her back, the room got so loud for her.  Every lifter in the place may squat more than she does, but everyone in the place also knows exactly what she's doing right there, sticking with it, refusing to quit, driving her heels and her knees and holding her tension and pushing hard for a weight she's never gotten before.  And she got it, and people clapped and shrieked in celebration.

So I totaled 665 (squat 250 + bench 140 + deadlift 275).  And now I have a benchmark, and am formulating new goals.  And I want to do more meets, like, immediately.

We barbecued after, and someone warned me that I wouldn't be able to sleep, because I'd still be too hyped up, which was true, I couldn't.  I can still feel it a little two days later.  Someone put a picture of my 275# deadlift on the gym's Facebook group, and I do not look cute in it, let's just say—the bar yanked up under my gut, my arms locked out against my sides for full fat-smooshing effect, my chin tucked under and my lips sucked in and my hair pulled straight back—but dude, that is a picture of me pulling 275#.  The photographer captioned it "no sweat, no strain, no problem."  I look pretty cute, actually, in the picture where the women are all standing around waiting for results—"strongest women in Brooklyn," that one's captioned—but that's not the picture I sent to my parents.  Because that's not the one I'm proud of.  That's not the one that counts.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

"Everyone was built to do something"

With the shoulder pain I've been having, squatting has been tricky.  I've had to switch from a low-bar squat to a high-bar squat (or more accurately, a kind of fucked-up hybrid with a high-bar thumb-wrapped grip and a lowish-but-not-all-the-way-low bar position).  I can't quite engage the grip on the right side, which means I'm listing to the left a little, and that's resulted cumulatively in some mid-back pain on the left side.  The shoulder injury isn't serious (I have full range of motion and little if any strength loss—it just hurts like a bitch when I try to get under the bar in low-bar squat position), but it's chronic and irritating—I'm currently dosing heavily with aspirin, per doctor's orders.  The total effect is that my squat, which is generally the lift by which I gauge how I'm doing in the gym, is pretty stagnant.  I squatted the safety bar for awhile, then switched back to the Olympic bar.  I've worked it back up slowly from 185 to 205 despite the shoulder, and I'm working on form.  The two things I'm worst at are keeping my knees out and getting the rhythm of the rep right.  I tend to drop down too quickly, pause at the bottom of the lift, and then let my knees come in to take the weight onto my quads for the drive up.  In the absence of pushing weight up, I'm trying to work on knees out (i.e. hip drive, posterior chain activation), on getting the stretch reflex at the bottom, on controlling my descent and maintaining my core tension.  All of these improvements will help me put weight on the bar more quickly when I'm back at 100%.  The stretch reflex will be particularly important—the coach who works with me the most often points out that a pause squat is an assistance exercise that people squat less on than they can when they're using the stretch reflex, so if I can learn to stop pausing, I should get some mileage (poundage) out of it.  And if I can squat 205x5 with solid technique even when I'm not 100% without feeling like I'm about to die, I know I'll be able to blow through 225 again.

Anyway, a woman I really like was watching me squat during her own set break (and this is a thing I can do, now; I can handle people watching me do things while wearing spandex, like specifically observing my body), and was very complimentary about my squat.  She said something about my anthropometry, and one of the coaches who was standing around listening said, "Everyone was built to do something."  

It's just really good to have found the thing I'm built to do.  My body was built for this.  I am low to the ground, I am compact, not too long-limbed (means shorter distances for lifts to travel).  I am flexible in all the right places except maybe my shoulders.  

But my mind was not built for this, and that's I think a place where lifting has been so, so productive for me.  My biggest lifting challenges are mental challenges.  I psych myself out on lifts I'm anxious about.  I finally got the 245x5 deadlift set last Wednesday, then failed it again on Saturday—my coach, the main man, was watching closely, and he gave a cue I didn't quite understand on my fourth rep, and I tripped myself up trying to follow it and couldn't lock out the rep.  "You got mental on it," he said, echoing what he says whenever I fail something he's watching.  He can see my brain over-engage.  "Stop thinking," he always says.  

This is the metaphorical portability of weightlifting, that the way I fail a lift is the way I fail anything else in my life.  I overthink, over-analyze, freeze up, lose confidence, get scared.  If I can learn to believe that I can do it, I will be better.  Dissertation and deadlift both.

P.S. Banged out 120x5x3 on the bench yesterday.  Creeping closer to the big plates!  My presses are coming along lately.  It took me like 4 sessions to get 115x5x3, but 117.5x5x3 and 120x5x3 have both gone fine first try since I did.  

Sunday, March 16, 2014


I've been absolutely swallowed by the new gym (also dissertation, but, you know, that's par for the course).  Swallowed whole.  I love it there.  I can't remember what it was like without coaching, without a community of lifters around me, without the possibility of competition as an incentive.

There's a meet in August and one in September.  By then I'd like to be competitive with the current New York State records in my weight class (90+ kg, women's raw open), which are shockingly attainable—the squat and bench press, at least.  The deadlift's a little ways off mine.  I'm working on 245x5 now; the record is 380.

The squat record is 280.  My five-rep max is 225; I got it twice and then tweaked my shoulder and have been working under it ever since.  But getting it was still a big deal—225 is a two-plate squat, which was my maybe-one-day pie-in-the-sky goal when I started lifting.  The first time I tried it, from a competition stand with one large man on either side, I panicked during the last rep of my second set; they had to pull it off me.  My coach looked me in the eyes and told me I was safe, surrounded by people who were there to help me and root for me.  I got the third set, and then I went home and cried.  Came back in, tried it again, got it.  And once I get my shoulder dialed back in I'll get it again, prettier this time.

My squat form continues to be my pride and joy.  I was sharing a platform with a new girl the other day; she was struggling with 95 and I remembered being there.  I busted out a quick warm-up set with 135, and she said, "You make it look so easy."  I told her I'd just been doing it longer than she had, that was all.  I remember getting 135 for the first time at the Y, in the little nook with the rack and the Smith machine back to back, and being so glad for that nook so none of the guys could see me get teary.  And now it's an easy warm-up set.  One day 225 will be an easy warm-up set.

And I'm working on 115x5x3 on the bench, creeping closer to the big plates.  The record on the bench is 140.

I was out of the gym for two weeks housesitting for my parents upstate and I missed the gym so badly.  I missed the people, the sounds of the iron and the chat, the vaguely musty smell.  I lifted once at my dad's gym up there and realized I've become completely disadapted to commercial gyms.  No bar jack?  No chalk?  No house wraps?  No one whose job it is to yell at the guy in the rack next to me who's doing half-squats with 135 and then slinging more plates on the bar?  It's home, my gym.  I do feel safe there, cared for.  It's my favorite place there is, pretty much.  I'm doing one more week at 3x/week and then bumping up to 4x.  It makes my programming a little more complicated but the reality is that I just want to be there more often.  I love it there.  I'm so grateful to all these people for taking me in, for taking me seriously, for caring about me.

I cannot describe how strange it is to be most at home in the kind of place that has felt most threatening to me my entire life.  I cannot describe how I feel when I leave there in the cold in the dark and walk up the industrial street back towards my bus: how calm, how open to the world.

Soon I'll test my one-rep maxes for the first time ever, and then I'll know how much ground I really have to cover if I'd like to hold at least one New York State powerlifting record by September.  Which I would like to do, and which, mysteriously, is a reasonable goal.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

I Am Running Away And Joining A Weightlifting Cult

For my thirtieth birthday, my boyfriend, dear sweet man, bought me a session with a serious-business lifting coach.

It took me a couple weeks to schedule it because I was afraid.  I wanted it, and I was excited also, but I was afraid.  I was afraid that he would meddle in what I eat.  I was afraid that he would take one look at me and know instantly that I'm not worth his time.  I was afraid that he would start talking about fat loss goals.

None of those things happened.  This man is built like a brick wall out of which stare the kindest eyes I've seen on a human being since my teaching mentor left my university (it's a high bar).  And what he cares about is not getting ripped—it's getting strong.

We just squatted, the first session.  Air squats, then the bar, then adding weight.  After seeing me do a couple sets with the bar, he said, "You overthink things and it paralyzes you.  Just let go."  I almost cried.  I PRed my squat: 185x3, and he said he thought I could do more, that the bar speed was fast enough that it wasn't my real max.  He says he thinks a two-plate (225-pound) squat shouldn't be a problem, that I could deadlift "in the threes" and compete.  My bar path is good, he says (I don't totally know what that means, I confess, because you can't really see your own bar path, which is another reason that it is good to have a coach).

At some point I said that I was worried about losing my tension at the bottom of the squat because my legs are big and I felt like I was just sitting on myself, not holding myself up.  He looked at me skeptically and said, "That's very creative.  You'll have to draw me a picture of what you think is happening.  No.  Use the mass in your legs to drive up."

He zeroed in immediately: I roll my wrists under the bar, set up slightly left of center (this might actually explain why I feel like my right side lags my left—because it's actually bearing more weight), and most of all, am trying way too hard to keep my torso upright, which is resulting in an over-arched back and less stability than would be ideal.  I am practicing dropping my chest and keeping a neutral spine ("nothing should be happening in your spine") when I climb the three flights to my apartment.  It feels good.  It makes more sense, the position.

He said I could come to a couple open sessions for free.  I went yesterday, squats and presses, and even though there were like twelve people in the gym, I felt like I had his full attention: I need to work on locking out at the end of a squat set ("Judges look for it—you might as well practice now, in case you compete"), rerack too delicately, don't explode aggressively enough, tend not to hit full depth on the first squat of a set, roll my wrists under on the press too.  And, of course, I overthink.

Leaving the gym yesterday, he said, "So when's your next training day?" and I had to say that I am going to California for a week (though am taking gear & will be lifting at the Berkeley gym if I can), and he said, "E-mail me when you get back."  I don't know when he is going to ask me to pay him, but I guess I'll just wait until he does.

I cannot really afford his gym.  My initial idea was that maybe I could do a training session like once every six weeks to two months in addition to training on my own.  But I think I am going to have to make it work.  The best-value version of his gym is more than double what I pay for mine, but if this is going to be a thing in my life, I think I kind of need him.  And I kind of want this to be a thing in my life.  I worry about group exercise, always, but I think this might work for me.  There are other women who lift there—there were women there yesterday—he made sure to tell me that the team he is taking to a meet this weekend is exactly half women—and I think this place is most of all about people who see lifting as a kind of quasi-spiritual personal practice, not that any of them would say it quite that way, more than it is about how good you are or how much you lift.  At our first session, the gentle-eyed ox-man said, "You can change your whole world coming out of a squat," and I know exactly what he means by that, and I believe that too.  And there was a guy next to me at the open session yesterday, brand new, squatting like 65, learning to power clean (I really want to learn to power clean) (it looks hard and fun) with a bare bar, and people gave him a berth because he was new and clearly a little self-deprecating, but no one looked at him like he shouldn't be there.  No one looked at me like I shouldn't be there.  I think maybe I should be there.  Like maybe a lot.  It feels like the right place for me.

So basically I am going to have to make some financial sacrifices if I want to join this weightlifting cult, but I think I have to join this weightlifting cult.  I think I need to give this a shot.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lather, rinse, repeat.

This week I fought off a flare of the crazies.  

Some days ago, both a skirt and my measure-y jeans fit differently than they were supposed to.  Tighter.  They've been touch and go (not the light-deadlift kind of touch and go, where everything is easy, either) for a bit now, but those jeans, man, they just refused.  Not even close to buttoning.  And one could say that I had a bit of a tantrum about it.  Maybe one could say that.  And not be wrong.

When the crazies start to flare my head starts to hum with anxious energy.  I try to play it off like I'm fine, no problem, it's just that my pants don't fit, and before you know it I'm up in the middle of the night at my boyfriend's place doing calorie math on my phone calculator.  ((Total daily energy expenditure calculation on an active day x 3) + (TDEE on a non-active day x4) - 3500) / 7 = daily calorie target.  And then how many weeks, how many months?  Do it again.  Google some more things.  Rerun the calculations to hold the same 500-calorie deficit over active and non-active days. 

It must be awfully boring to the people who have to keep hearing about it (my therapist; the internet) to hear me do this lather-rinse-repeat of symptomatic thinking-inkling of a clue-back away from the ledge. But...that is where I am.  That is what I'm working on.  When I am thinking symptomatically, it is very, very difficult not to run off in the direction I'm currently facing (the direction of dieting—calorie counting and "just wait half an hour whoops maybe an hour"-ing and weighing and projecting numbers into the long-range future).  It seems so reasonable when I'm there.  Or, if not exactly reasonable, at least necessary.  Urgent.  "Yes, I know, diet-y, but still so many more calories than the diets of yore, because now I'm smarter about my actual caloric needs and expenditures and have put in a bunch of time towards metabolic health!"  Even standing on solid ground now, there is a part of me that wants to start counting, start watching, start calculating and planning.  But: does it work?  (But this time I'll do it right.)  

Because the fact is, I would like to lose a little fat.  I would also like to gain a lot of strength, which is very nearly impossible on a deficit, and those conflicting goals are something to be discussed with a professional at a later date.

But for now I know that I cannot put myself on another plan.  I can't do it.  I'm not ready.  That feels weird to say.  It is never not a good time for a diet, right?  For a project, a promise?  But I'm not there yet.  What I'm doing now—regardless of what I will do down the road—is this: eating to hunger (even when that hunger is so vast that it frightens me, like yesterday and today), lifting a bunch of weights, and trying to catch myself before I hurtle down any appealing rabbit holes.  

I have been thinking about what I will tell a new nutritionist, whoever that person ends up being; how I will frame my central concerns. 

(I have an appointment with my own nutritionist next Tuesday.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"of course"

We can have a final session.  In which I will just cry?  So, that will be fun?  I mean, this is good news.  But it will still be awful.

I guess the agenda really is to express some of my reaction, and to define some next steps—like asking her who else in her practice might be a better fit, and/or where else I might want to go with this part of my treatment.  (Yes, I do have half a mind to just quit here, and I can't tell whether that's passive-aggression or just thrift—most likely a bit of both.)

Really what I want from a session is a chance to be heard, and some advice about the transition, and also to get totally clear on whether there is, in fact, any chance of being an exception (there is not, I don't think, but it's hard to quit thinking there is until I hear it from her).  I think this needs probably to wait until next week, so I can touch base with my therapist and clear my head a little.

In the meantime, my food is fine.  I've choked up on it a bit—added up my calories at the end of the day yesterday and skipped a pre-bed snack I might otherwise have gone for—but I'm not restricting quantitatively or qualitatively.

"Remember that you're the one who's done the work," my boyfriend says.

What I want is to see that she's sad.  That's what I want.  In addition to the pragmatic things.

Monday, September 23, 2013


...and, I'm diet-googling.

This is legible behavior.  This is "let's make a reason for it to be good not to have someone checking on you."  This is "let's get a hit of that single-minded drive."  This is "let's find a new standard, a new way to know that things are going okay."

When I was younger, I expected being able to interpret my own behavior to be the thing that made that behavior resolve.  I have been in therapy long enough to know that this is not the case.  I cannot change my behavior by knowing where it comes from or where it means.  Interpretation does help: it lets me drive a wedge between my thinking and my behavior.  It gives me space to reconsider and insulate that behavior from my destructive thought patterns.  But my behavior?  I can only change it by changing it.  Here, this means that I practice self-care.  I get enough sleep.  I get enough food.  I tell my boyfriend I love him.  I tell my father I do not have time to see him tomorrow.  If I can't get pages together by tomorrow afternoon, I tell my writing group I need to bump back to next week.  I get to the gym tomorrow evening, and then to my co-op for groceries.

And I remind myself that the solution to this problem is not ketosis.  (It's not.)


Two days ago, I got an email from my nutritionist saying that as she returns from her maternity leave, she will be discontinuing individual counseling sessions.

From the couch, my boyfriend saw me furrow my brow.  He inquired.  I burst into tears.

I don't even really want to talk about it, is how much I hate this news, so this is kind of a placeholder of a post.  I feel hurt and angry and a little bit convinced that I can talk her into changing her mind, making an exception.  I feel afraid.  I like the woman I've checked in with this summer okay, but it's not the right fit for a long-term working relationship.  She's not thoughtful enough; she's not interested in the specific experience of fatness.  (Also, she palpably does not find me charming in the way my own nutritionist finds [found?] me charming, which always makes me just a little bit of a performing monkey, crashing my cymbal for approval, trying to make my audience like me.)  I am afraid of my own internal negotiations without solid guidance, the way I can drift, the way I can vacillate.  The speed with which I can lose touch with common sense about food, with the goal I just had a minute ago, with which I can change track.

I have been waiting for her to come back since she left in May with white knuckles and she is not coming back.  I've been seeing her for about seven years, and she doesn't even want to have a final session.  (I thought about this for a solid day and a half, then sent an email requesting a final session, which kind of feels both totally undignified and also like a request that couldn't be turned down, but you know, we're in uncharted territory here, because I would also have thought that it would have gone without saying that one was necessary.)

It feels like she doesn't care what happens to me.

And it just feels childish, to have this kind of a collapse about this thing.  The intensity of my reaction is maybe unanticipated?  I had never given any thought to what my reaction here would be, because this is not a possibility I had considered, but I somehow doubt I would have said "weeping, collapse," had I been speculating.  And yet, "weeping, collapse" is exactly what happened.  I could not work this weekend.  I declined to answer text messages from friends about plans.  I just kind of sank.

I don't know what I will do without her.  I don't have a plan.

Here's what I'm noting: my unobstructed and prolonged grief; my nervous dread; my passive-aggressive inclination to make her sorry (I canceled the appointment I'd had on Wednesday with the woman I've seen this summer, mostly because it's too expensive to just go and cry in front of someone I'm not comfortable with when I can wait literally an hour and cry to my therapist instead, but also I think because it felt like the only avenue available to demonstrate pain); that I am still keeping a food journal in the usual way after a moment of "why bother?" but am also experiencing heightened anxiety about what I eat.

I just feel blindsided?  And/or abandoned?  And/or pissed at being dumped by email?  Everything about this is one hundred per cent terrible.