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.