Archive for month: April, 2016

This is my idea of dietary relief. Having a few slices of pizza every now and then allows me to continue to make smart food choices over the long haul.

Last summer, I added a new item to my services to complement the release of my e-book, The Beginner’s Guide to Macros. My one-time macro calculation service was provided as an option for individuals who had purchased my product, read through and understand the ins and outs of how to track their nutrition, and wanted a trained eye to get them going with a solid starting point on their nutrition journeys. This, in my opinion, was the perfect pairing, as people could use my e-book as a guide to help them structure their own diets such that they would meet their prescribed macronutrient numbers (grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats) everyday and also learn to gauge their own progress and make tweaks to their programs on their own. I’m happy to report that I’ve helped hundreds of people with this service since then, and feedback from customers has been overwhelmingly positive.

This has also proved to be an invaluable learning opportunity for me as a training and nutrition coach because with every questionnaire that gets filled out, that’s more data for me. And over the past several months, I’ve been noticing some interesting behavior trends.

Here are just a number of observations I’ve made:

  • The majority of individuals struggle to see lasting fat loss progress because the target calories they set for themselves are far too low. This usually stems out of a stubborn desire to be more aggressive with the diet, lack of patience, and the false belief that they can white-knuckle their way through the diet indefinitely. Setting a steep caloric deficit would actually not be much of an issue so long as people could adhere to the program, but most cannot. The stricter the diet, the more deprived you are. The more deprived you are, the higher the chances that you will cave. If and when you do cave, calories typically skyrocket – either for one meal, one weekend, or through several days – and any caloric deficit that was initially created is effectively erased. We find ourselves back at square one.
  • Calories aside, women in particular tend to try and be too “good” with their food choices during the day, which backfires by the time evening rolls around. (Please note that I’m putting the word “good” in heavy quotations, as we all know that we don’t qualify foods as good or bad around here. Rather, I’m using the term simply to illustrate the mindset that individuals tend to harbor with their diets: if they’re trying to be “good,” they’re typically avoiding added sugars, extra grease, and any food that may be considered fun.) A full day of feeling deprived leaves them highly vulnerable to overindulge on junk at night, and they end up shooting themselves in the nutritional foot. People are not building enough dietary relief into their nutrition.
  • Many over-rely on physical activity (specifically, in the form of steady-state cardio) to try and shed bodyfat and underestimate the importance of proper nutrition. Admittedly, this does work for some individuals, particularly those who genuinely do not mind performing extra exercise in exchanging for keeping more food in their diet. However, most people want to retain (or even gain) muscle mass while shedding body fat, and in order to accomplish this, strength training should be prioritized first above cardio (Ballor et al., 1988). This applies to both men and women.
  • “High carbohydrates” is relative, as is “high fats”. I’ve found it especially curious that many folks will tell me that they prefer a higher carb diet, yet report to me that their daily intake is 120 grams. This is not high. In fact, this would be considered a relatively moderate intake for a petite, mostly sedentary woman, and fairly low for more active individuals.
  • Most who come to me for help come from a background of yo-yo dieting for several years and getting fed up with not seeing results, yet refusing to try and adhere to anything but the strictest diet out of fear. Fear of what? Fear that deviating from anything considered “hardcore” would lead to instant, rapid weight gain. Yet ironically, it is their very extremist behavior that ultimately keeps them stuck in a perpetual cycle of frustration and misery, and this eats away at their quality of life.
Surprisingly, some are afraid to enjoy the occasional sushi roll because it falls outside their list of "allowed" foods.

Sadly, some are afraid to enjoy the occasional sushi roll because it falls outside their list of “allowed” foods.

Extremes are easy; moderation is hard.

Put another way, extremes are enticing and easier to stick to in the short-term but disastrous in the long-term, while moderation seems boring and ho-hum in the short-term but is far more sustainable.

Restrictive, cookie-cutter programs only work for so long, which means that the results that accompany said regimens tend to be equally as short-lived. So why, then, can’t we do the dang thing?

Because we glorify the difficult.
Because we’re overeager.
Because we’re the generation of instant gratification.
Because of the hot-cold empathy gap, the psychological phenomenon that describes our inability to fully appreciate how difficult or unpleasant a “hot” situation will be when we are currently in a “cold” state (Loewenstein, 2005). In essence, we overestimate our future abilities and underestimate the difficulties of a given scenario, thereby affecting our decision making.

Damn it!

All is not lost, however. It’s entirely possible to take the more moderate approach, even though it can seem scary.

“Have the courage to take things slow,” as Dan John would say.

First, let’s start with what all diets – and by diets I’m referring to the way people eat – have in common. We can all agree that, regardless of how you choose to eat, all healthy diets consist of the following:

  • includes a variety of fruits and vegetables
  • covers both macronutrient and micronutrient needs
  • provides sufficient protein from complete sources
  • allows you to maintain quality of life

Now let’s discuss what sets diets apart. The most perfect nutrition program out there isn’t going to work for you if you don’t enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy something, you’re not going to stick to it over the long haul. You’re eventually going to jump ship, and then all the hard work you put in will be for naught.

Don’t try to cram a square peg into a round hole. Rather, find the nutrition puzzle piece that fits nicely into your life, not your favorite fitness model’s.

The hard part is taking the time to figure out your unique nutrition strategy. That could be any one of the following:

  • Eat bigger, less frequent meals if you like to feel satiated. You might be better off eliminating snacking altogether if tiny portions do nothing but piss you off and add to your waistline. Eat smaller, more frequent meals if you like to graze throughout the day. You might like this approach if you dislike the sensation of fullness and enjoy having multiple opportunities to chow down.
  • Utilize intermittent fasting if you’re not hungry in the morning and don’t care for breakfast. From a lifestyle and practicality standpoint, this could work great for many of you.
  • Carb backload (consume the majority of your carbohydrates in the evening) if you crave carbs and calories at night.
  • Consume higher carbohydrates on a day-to-day basis if they give you good energy. Consume higher fats on a day-to-day basis if they fill you up. Consume higher carbohydrates on some days and higher fats on other days if you enjoy variety in your diet.
  • Eat less during the week when you’re busy with work and have a structured routine. Then on the weekend, you can bump up your energy intake by a few hundred calories and enjoy your social hour. Rig your numbers such that your weekly average still yields a caloric deficit if your goal is fat loss. (This is a strategy that I’ve recently been implementing with more and more clients with great success. They report that this works beautifully for them from a lifestyle standpoint.) Just make sure you’re not bouncing from starvation mode to all-out binges; be more conservative with your fluctuations in food intake.
  • Sprinkle in treats, like a few squares of chocolate, into everyday if that helps you stay sane. Alternatively, you can save your indulgences for more isolated occasions, such as Wednesday and Saturday evenings, when you’re out with your friends. Either way is perfectly fine so long as you stay in the moment, keep an eye on food quantity, and then move on with your life.
  • Count your macros and adhere to a prescribed set of numbers if you haven’t the slightest grasp of how much you’re consuming and need a little structure for the time being. This might also be appropriate for you if you’re trying to get contest-lean or if your hunger signals are out of whack. Or intuitive eat if you don’t care to spend the time playing with a nutrition app and don’t mind slower progress. Just be mindful of your portion sizes and keep an eye on how your body looks and feels over time.

There are so, so many ways to do this. I can’t tell you which path to take, and neither can anyone else. This is something that you’re going to have figure out on your own. After all, you know yourself best. You know which foods and meal sizes make you feel great and which make you feel crummy.

Pay attention. How are your energy levels after eating a given meal?

The more painless the process feels, the more likely you are to adhere to it over the long-haul. And that’s ultimately what this is all about, isn’t it?

This is my idea of dietary relief. Having a few slices of pizza every now and then allows me to continue to make smart food choices over the long haul.

This is my idea of dietary relief. Having a few slices of pizza every now and then allows me to continue to make smart food choices over the long haul.

Be careful not to allow your short-term goal override the long-term big picture.

Do you want to see results right away and get to your final destination sooner rather than later? Sure, who doesn’t? That’s completely understandable. But more than that, you should want to maintain those results indefinitely. Adopt a nutrition strategy that you can adhere to with relative ease day in and day out. You should ask yourself if you can stick this particular way of eating a year from now – if yes, then you’re on the right track; if no, then I’d recommend re-thinking your plan.

Have the courage to take things slow.

When we say that we want to drop body fat or build muscle mass, what are we really coveting? It’s the meaning we attach to having a lean physique (and not the body itself) that’s appealing to many of us.

Improved health, sure.
Decreased health care costs, of course.

But when you boil it all down, what we desire is this: a body that allows us to live our happiest, fullest lives.

That’s it. Full stop.

This is impossible if you’re forcing yourself to adhere to a program that provides no relief or enjoyment, that does not take into account your work schedule and eating preferences.

Here are some testimonials from my one-time macro calculation customers. These are people who came to me after making the decision on their own that utilizing a macro-counting approach to achieve their fitness goals was the way to go for them.

one-time macro customer testimonial

one-time macro customer testimonialone-time macro customer testimonialone-time macro customer testimonialIMG_6494IMG_6493

 

Make your nutrition fit your life and not the other way around.

 

References

Ballor, Douglas L., et al. “Resistance weight training during caloric restriction enhances lean body weight maintenance.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 47.1 (1988): 19-25.

Loewenstein, George. “Hot-cold empathy gaps and medical decision making.” Health Psychology 24.4S (2005): S49.

Locking out at the top of my pull and waiting for the "down" command at my most recent USAPL meet.

The basic premise of any powerlifting meet is as follows: you compete with other individuals in your gender and weight class, and you have to perform the back squat, deadlift, and bench press; you have three attempts for each lift, and you only have to select your opening attempt before the meet begins; you need at least two white lights out of three in order for an attempt to count.

That’s all fine and well, but chances are, if you’re new to the sport of powerlifting, you have 101 questions. Where do you begin? How should you approach your training? What if you don’t fit in?

Here are 20 things you need to know.

1. Anyone can be a powerlifter so long as you can perform the back squat, deadlift (sumo or conventional), and bench press. There are no specific strength requirements that you need to qualify for by any means, so remove those “I’m not strong enough to compete” thoughts from your head. I’m far from an elite powerlifter, but I probably have more fun than anyone, both during training and at the meets. There’s no reason to ever be ashamed of your numbers – I know I sure as hell am not.

2. If you’re on the fence about competing, find a local powerlifting meet near where you live and check it out as a spectator. You’ll notice pretty quickly on that no one is jeering or mocking anyone who fails a lift or doesn’t have world record-breaking numbers; in fact, the environment is overwhelmingly positive and supportive. Cheering and hollering and clapping are the norm for athletes up on the platform. Even spending an hour in the audience will give you a pretty good idea of what a meet is like and will probably get you pumped up to participate as a competitor one day.

3. When picking a meet, take into consideration the federation you want to compete in, the date of meets available, and the geographic locations. The USAPL is considered the gold standard, so try and go that route if possible. However, if there are no USAPL meets available in the next few months that’s within driving distance for you, it’s perfectly okay to pick a different federation. 100% Raw and UPA are also good.

4. For your first meet, it’s probably better to register for the weight class that you can slide into without extra effort. This means that if you’re between two weight classes, go for the higher one. Unless you’re hovering just a couple of pounds above the lower weight class, it’s not worth cutting back calories to risk losing strength. (As an example, earlier this year, I was sitting at around 109lbs, and I thought it would make sense to diet down for the 103lb weight class – this means that I would have had to come in exactly at or under 103lbs. It only took one week in a mild caloric deficit for me to feel markedly weaker and realize that forcing myself into the lower weight class just to match last year’s numbers would have wasted a whole year’s worth of hard training.) The one exception would be if you know that you have the potential to set a record in the lower weight class and your strength numbers can stay intact or even increase while you diet down.

5. Take the time to learn the technicalities of how to lift like a powerlifter. For back squat, you typically have to hit parallel (hip crease in line with or lower than knee joint); a powerlifting-style bench press is different from a standard bodybuilding-style bench press, mainly in that a full pause is required at the bottom of the rep, and you want to get in a good arch to shorten the range of motion; and the deadlift requires a full lockout at the top. It’ll probably be in your best interest to recruit the help of a powerlifting coach – or at the very least, educate yourself on what proper form entails.

6. Pick a meet several months out (I would recommend 3-5 months), and then reverse-engineer your program so you always know how many weeks you have to train and where you are in your training cycle relative to the big day.

7. Recruit a training partner if possible. I was not able to do this for the meets that I competed in mostly due to geographic restriction and my time availabilities, but I know that having someone to keep you accountable, spot you on your sets, and push you during your grinders can make a huge difference in training experience.

8. When training, err on the side of caution. Go deeper on squats than you think you need to (this means going well below parallel), pause a smidge longer for your bench press reps, and squeeze those cheeks at the top of the deadlift. It’s better to be over-prepared come meet day than to be chagrined when you get red-lighted left and right.

Depth on the left is well below paralell; depth on the right is just below parallel. Note where my hip crease is relative to my knee joint.

Depth on the left is well below parallel; depth on the right is just below parallel. Note where my hip crease is relative to my knee joint. (Picture taken at Crossfit Magna in Phoenix, Arizona)

9. Make every set a quality set. Treat your warmup sets like you would your heavy working sets. The lighter sets are a perfect opportunity for you to really hammer home a strict setup and groove proper movement pattern. You don’t want to be chitchatting with your girlfriend while you’re repping our squats or letting your mind wander mid-rep.

10. Keep a training log and track your strength increases. You should be improving upon your big lift numbers from month to month. Pay attention to whether or not you’re actually progressing and how your body is feeling. While strength gains are not linear, you should be noticing a general upward trend over time.

11. Keep form as intact as possible. It’s not unusual to see some serious round back pulling at a meet, as that’s how many people are stronger. However, the more you train in this manner and the more you let your lumbar round, the higher the risk of injury. The last thing you want is to get hurt, as this will keep you sidelined for weeks, if not months and years. Practice good form whenever possible and minimize form breakdown.

12. Don’t underestimate the importance of rest. If you’re constantly grinding out every single working set day after day, you’re not giving your body a chance to recover. By rest, I’m referring both to how many days you’re taking off from the gym as well as the quality and quantity of your sleep. You should also have scheduled deloads throughout your training so you don’t run yourself into the ground – this is one thing that my coach and I did not do during my most recent prep that likely contributed to my poor bench press performance.

13. Keep an eye on scale weight. Unlike a bodybuilding, figure, or bikini competition, in powerlifting, it doesn’t matter how you look. There is zero focus on your aesthetics; all that matters is what weight class you’re in and how much weight you can lift. You don’t have to become obsessive, but you would be remiss not to keep a pulse on how much you weigh just to ensure that you’re where you want to be. For me, I typically set a 4lb window and I try not to let myself lower or higher than that range. If you’re too heavy, you won’t make your weight class; if you’re too light, that may mean you’re not consuming sufficient calories and your training will suffer. Find that sweet spot where you can eat enough and continue getting stronger in the gym.

14. Check your particular federation’s approved gear list early. You don’t want to be that person (eh hem, me) who doesn’t think to look up the gear list until two weeks out from her meet and then have to scramble to make sure that everything is purchased and delivered on time. This is irresponsible and adds unnecessary stress. You may be restricted to a specific brand of singlet, t-shirt, wrist wraps, knee sleeves, and belt, so purchase these early. You’ll also want the time to be able to wear in your belt and wrist wraps in particular.

15. Practice the commands. For squat, you have the “start” and “rack” commands; for bench, you have “start,” “press,” and “rack”; and for deadlift, you just have the one “down” command. Familiarize yourself with these so you don’t let your nerves get to you and you accidentally squat before you’ve been given the go-ahead.

Locking out at the top of my pull and waiting for the "down" command at my most recent USAPL meet.

Locking out at the top of my pull and waiting for the “down” command at my most recent USAPL meet.

16. Shoot for 9/9 at your first meet. This means that every attempt for every lift is considered a go and no attempts have been disqualified. It’s better to walk away from a meet thinking that you could have totally ripped 10 more pounds off the floor and use that as motivation to smash it out of the ballpark for your next meet than to try at a weight, fail, then kick yourself for letting your ego get in the way. Your first attempt is a confidence builder (so a weight that you have easily hit multiple times during training), your second attempt should be close to your max, and then your last can be a PR attempt.

17. Take your taper seriously. The week of the meet, try not to introduce any new foods into your diet. Stick to what you know your stomach can handle. As well, this is not the time to go skydiving for the first time or split your shin open doing high-rep box jumps taking a last-minute bootcamp class. Lay low, stay out of trouble, and keep the theatricals to a minimum.

18. Bring plenty of food and drink for the day of the meet, but again, keep your options safe. You want to stick to mostly easily digestible carb sources. I like to toss a few Monsters and Gatorades into my bag as well as bananas, dried fruit, gummy bears, peach rings, and other fun snacks. My friends Karey and Eric also brought me a bag of donuts for after weigh-ins, and I ate two throughout the course of the meet. You may not have much of an appetite, but it’s better to have leftover food than to run out of sustenance.

19. Rather than comparing how your numbers stack up to other individuals in your class, focus more on how you can perform your best. Then, if you decide to do another meet in the future, you should strive to beat your own personal best numbers.

20. Keep a positive attitude and be a good sport. Cheer for others, even those in your weight class. You may do extremely well, and that’s something you can celebrate. If you miss a lift or get called for a technicality, it’s not the end of the world. The worst thing you can do is throw a tantrum and look childish. Use your mistakes as a valuable learning opportunity so you can do even better the next time around.

Earlier this week, I worked out with Rachel Steinberg, who competed in the same weight class as me on April 2 and beat me. I'm inspired by her and happy to have a new fitness friends!

Earlier this week, I worked out with Rachel Steinberg, who competed in the same weight class as me on April 2 and beat me. I’m inspired by her and happy to have a new fitness friend!

Competing in a powerlifting meet involves a lot more than simply getting strong in the three lifts. Powerlifting can be incredibly fun as long as you dot your i’s and cross your t’s, so make sure you have all of your ducks in a row in preparation for the big day.

 

Bikini competitor by day, powerlifter by night... or something like that.

I recently competed in my second powerlifting meet in the USAPL federation on April 2 in Chandler, AZ in the 52kg (114lb) weight class. My first was the 100% Raw meet on May 30, 2015 in Tucson, AZ. Over the past year, I’ve continued to lift heavy, I’ve competed in a bikini competition, and most importantly, I’ve had a ton of fun along the way.

I hope you enjoy reading my wrap-up of the most recent meet below.

Why I Decided to Powerlift Again

Most people think of me as a bikini competitor first and foremost. And I can’t blame them; I’ve got a small frame and I’m not very muscular at all. Plus, I won my IFPA bikini pro card last fall after taking first place in my height class, so there’s that.

OCB Nationals in October 2015

OCB Nationals in October 2015

If I’m (supposedly) more successful as a bikini competitor, then why would I bother still dabbling in powerlifting?

It’s pretty straightforward to me: I love staying sufficiently fueled in the kitchen and chasing strength in the gym. There’s not much more empowering to me than setting a new personal record (PR) in a given exercise. My workouts have more meaning, and my definition of success is not contingent upon how lean my abs look or what the scale reads in the morning. Honing in on the big three lifts also helps to shift the focus away from aesthetics (which, when taken to the extreme, can lead to body dysmorphia and take away from quality of life) and more toward performance.

Not everyone is cut out to be a world-class powerlifter – me, least of all. It’s unlikely that I’ll develop elite strength levels even after several years of dedicated powerlifting. But the pursuit? Ah, the pursuit. That’s what makes my heart flutter.

I decided to compete in my second powerlifting meet because I find joy in the process and I wanted to improve upon my numbers from the previous year.

How I Prepared for the Meet

Training

I started my powerlifting prep in late December of 2015. Under the guidance of my coach Bret Contreras, I trained anywhere from three to four days a week. The first three training days were the most important, with each workout beginning with either the squat, bench, or deadlift. The fourth day was an optional accessory day.

I should note that there are many, many powerlifting programs you can follow to improve upon your big three lifts. We learned from my first powerlifting prep that my hips do not like squatting frequently and cannot handle much volume, so while some athletes can squat heavy up to three, four, or even five days a week, I can only do so once every five to seven days.

We incorporated plenty of accessory movements. For squats: pause squat, front squat, Bulgarian split squat, high step-up, deficit reverse lunge, goblet squat, barbell hip thrust, band hip thrust, single-leg hip thrust. For bench: close grip bench, incline bench, tricep extension, pushup from the floor. For deadlift: speed deadlift, Romanian deadlift, American deadlift, dumbbell stiff-legged deadlift, barbell hip thrust, band hip thrust, bodyweight hip thrust.

Rep ranges varied anywhere between 1 to 5 for the big three lifts depending on where I was at in my training cycle. For the accessory movements, reps were typically at 6 to 30. The higher reps were reserved for glute burnout exercises, such as band hip thrusts, to round out a training session.

Each workout had 4-8 different exercises, and I was typically done within an hour and a half from beginning to end. I would have been done sooner, but I would at times rest up to 8 minutes between working sets of the big lifts so I could get PRs.

Closer to the meet, I threw in heavy sets of barbell hip thrusts (285lbs x 3 for a PR) and band hip thrusts in order to help with my deadlift lockout. As a conventional round back puller, I’m fast off the floor, but my sticking point is right around mid-thigh level, so these movements helped me tremendously.

Feels crummy man 😪 Glad to get this session out of the way. My deadlift sets felt way heavier than usual, so I pulled back and worked up to 225lbs only. (Contrast this with this past Tuesday's easy 240lbs pull.) I then moved onto hip thrusts and was able to work up to 285lbs x 3 for a PR. I finished with seated cable rows and DB skull crushers, then tucked my tail between my legs and scurried home. 💩 Physically, I'm beat. Mentally, I'm worn down. I'm 7 days out from my #usapl meet and I'm feeling tapped out – but this is to be expected. It's not easy trying to set PRs every session plus exerting so much mental energy on visualizing sets, picking apart form, and basically becoming obsessive over the big 3 lifts. #phew Looking forward to this taper over the next several days. #girlswhopowerlift

A video posted by Sohee Lee (@soheefit) on

Nutrition

Following the conclusion of my bikini prep last October, I continued to track macros for the first month or so in order to reverse diet back up to maintenance calories. After that, however, I opted to put away my food scale and simply intuitive eat so I wouldn’t have to spend so much thinking about food.

I still consumed ample protein. I still got in plenty of carbs. I still had the occasional donut. I was by no means eating like a glutton, however. I stayed mindful of both my food choices and portion sizes, but otherwise didn’t worry about the exact macronutrient breakdown of any given meal – and I loved it.

It's been nice being able to eat foods like sushi and not have to worry about the exact macronutrient breakdown!

It’s been nice being able to eat foods like sushi and not have to worry about the exact macronutrient breakdown!

Up until about six weeks before the meet, I’d been planning on dropping a few pounds of bodyweight to make the 47kg (103lb) weight class. This seemed to make sense, especially after having spent the majority of the winter in the 108-109lb range. But it only took one week at a caloric deficit to feel weaker in the gym and realize that it would not be worth the strength I would invariably lose just to make the lower weight class. This, in my opinion, was one of the smartest decisions I made during this prep.

My goals as far as nutrition, then, were simply to eat enough to feel good and continue to set PRs in the gym. Everything else, including how my daily fluctuating calorie intake would affect my bodyweight, was secondary. I thankfully did not have to worry about making weight as I had so much wiggle room to play with.

Results on the Big Day

In the USAPL federation, weigh-ins take place two hours before the meet begins. This means that athletes don’t have much time to drop drastic amounts of water weight, and thus must stay closer to their true weight so they can be hydrated and still perform well.

The 100% Raw federation allowed checkins to take place at 5p.m. the day before the meet, so we had much more time to drop weight and then re-hydrate and re-fuel. Last year, I dropped 4lbs of water weight in one day to make weigh-ins, and then woke up 5 glorious pounds heavier the next morning to compete. I ended up squatting 165lbs (but just to parallel), benching 105lbs, and deadlifting 226lbs.

For this year’s meet, I checked in at 6:30a.m. and weighed in at 7:00a.m. After having consumed a big meal of pizza and ice cream the evening before followed by a pre-bedtime snack of jasmine rice with butter and salt alongside several handfuls of Swedish Fish (what? I was nervous!), I clocked in at 50.7kg, or 111.8lbs.

For squats, I went 3/3 with 143lbs as my opener, followed by 160lbs, and then 170lbs for a PR. I’m really happy with the depth I hit, especially on my first attempt. You’ll notice that I went well below parallel there. For my second attempt, I bumped up to 160lbs and figured I’d determine the third attempt afterward. For the last attempt, I could have shot for 175lbs, but based off of how the second attempt had felt, I wasn’t entirely confident I would hit that, so I decided to play it safe and go for something I knew I could pull off.

For bench press, I went 1/3 with 93lbs as my opener and then failed 105lbs twice. This was probably the most shocking moment of the meet for me. I wish you could have seen the look of surprise on both my face and Bret’s after failing miserably at the 105lb bench press, as this was a weight that I’d hit several dozens of times over the past year.

Bret claims that my eyes welled up with tears after that second attempt. I will neither confirm nor deny this.

Interestingly, on March 28, I had practiced my intended attempts without a hitch (93lbs, 105lbs, 110lbs) and hit my all-time PR of 110lbs. And even more curious is the fact that just 4 days after the meet, I hit 105lbs back in the gym again no problem. There are a dozen different variables that could explain why this happened, but more than likely it was the fact that I did not consume sufficient calories in the days leading up to the meet.

For deadlifts, I went 3/3 with 226lbs as my opener, followed by 243lbs, and then 248lbs. I’ll admit that after my mediocre bench press performance, my confidence was temporarily shot. I became nervous and paranoid that I would bomb out of deadlifts for a few minutes until my coach told me to snap out of it and stay positive. I figured I had nothing to lose at this point and decided to give it my all and rip the bar off the floor. Honestly, for the last two attempts (both of which were lifetime PRs for me), my head felt like it was going to explode.

Learning Lessons for the Future

Looking back, I’m almost grateful that I didn’t have another perfect 9/9 performance for this second meet. Going 7/9 was by no means terrible, but it’s certainly made me think long and hard about my strategy.

Setbacks, mistakes, failures – they all build character. And remember growth mindset? I’ve made the active decision to use my failed bench attempts as a valuable learning opportunity to become even more focused in the gym and do better moving forward.

Here’s what I did well for this prep:

  • I never missed a training session and I tracked my workouts diligently. I think if you’re serious about making progress in the gym you have to have a training log to record your weight, sets, and reps for every exercise that you perform. I would spend a few minutes before each workout reviewing the previous weeks’ numbers and comments to determine my next loads.
  • I stayed properly fueled. I touched on this before, but cutting back my calories to drop a weight class would have resulted in a sizable drop in strength, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I had simply matched, or even gone lower than, my numbers from last year’s meet. I would have essentially wasted an entire year’s worth of diligent strength training. How silly would that have been?
  • For squats, I pulled back on weight so I could get better depth. As it turns out, USAPL is pretty strict on squat depth, and I know that last year’s 165lbs that I hit would have been red-lighted this time. So while on paper it looks like I only managed to get stronger by 5lbs in the course of a year, my depth was several inches lower.

Here’s what I can improve upon for next time:

  • Double check the approved gear list for my specific federation. 100% Raw is much more lax with the brand of singlet, socks, wrist wraps, knee sleeves, and belt used, but USAPL has a very strict list of what is and is not allowed. This is something I didn’t even think to look into until 15 days before the meet. It ended up being fine, as everything I had to order came in on time, but I could have done without the extra stress.
  • I didn’t take a deload once during the entire 4 months of prep. Bret and I thought this wouldn’t be a problem, as I had continued to gain strength week after week and felt fine. But Bret thinks this may have contributed to my iffy bench performance, and he also suspects that I actually may have peaked the week before my meet.
  • I didn’t have a proper nutrition strategy for the week of the meet. As I mentioned before, I did not track macros for this prep; I simply kept an eye on scale weight to make sure I stayed within the 52kg weight class. It was the combination of not eating enough calories on the Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday before the meet due to stress and nerves, plus lackadaisical nutrient timing (which does matter for performance but not so much for aesthetics) that screwed me up. I should have consumed about 500 more calories per day and weighed in at 113lbs or so to perform my best. Moving forward, I’ll be sure to have a specific set of prescribed macronutrient numbers at least for the week of the meet, and I’ll be better about nutrient timing as well.

Why Should I Powerlift If I’m Not That Strong?

There are no prerequisites for competing in a powerlifting meet other than showing up, completing all three lifts, and having event-sanctioned gear. You don’t have to be at a certain strength level, you don’t have to be with a specific team, and you most certainly don’t have to be any given age. There are people from all walks of life who slap on a singlet and squat, bench, and deadlift away. We cheer everyone on.

I’m well aware that my squat is not that impressive, especially for an individual who’s been lifting for over 8 years (though in my defense, only the past 1.5 years have been spent actively chasing strength). I know that my deadlift, while pretty good, is also horrific for some to watch with my round back pulls.

But strong is relative.

So while my numbers may pale in comparison to some of the world’s most elite powerlifters, that doesn’t matter to me. All I care about is whether or not I’m improving upon my own previous best lifts.

Do you love chasing strength?
Do you enjoy the big three lifts?

Then you might want to try powerlifting.

Bikini or Powerlifting?

This is a question I’ve been asked a number of times, so I figured I’d address it here.

Bikini competitor by day, powerlifter by night... or something like that.

Bikini competitor by day, powerlifter by night… or something like that.

Bikini and powerlifting are understandably two extremely different pursuits. With bikini, the focus is on your physique (overall symmetry, muscle definition) and presentation (tan, makeup, hair, jewelry, posing, facial expression). Powerlifting doesn’t give two hoots about what you look like; all that matters is how much weight you can lift.

For now, I’m enjoying powerlifting far more. I have no interest in launching myself back into fat loss mode anytime soon, as cutting my calories is simply not a priority to me at this time. I have no plans to compete in bikini this year, and may or may not compete next year. I’d rather take the next several months to continue gaining strength with good energy.

In the gym, my next strength goals are to hit a 185lb below-parallel squat, 115lb bench press, and 275lb deadlift. If all goes according to plan, I think I can hit those numbers within the next year, but that remains to be seen.

There will likely come a time when I’m ready to get back into the bikini mindset. That time is not now. I enjoy sharing a bucket of buttery, salty popcorn at the movie theaters without having to worry about macros. I’m loving last-minute late-night trips to the diner for pancakes and bacon. I’m eating well and getting stronger – life is good.

Here’s to strength, food, and badass chicks who aren’t afraid to lift heavy weights.

Conventional deadlift progression over time

You can’t expect to put 10lbs on your squat every single week.

While that would be nice in theory, that means that if I were to start out with a 95lbs squat on January 1st, by the end of the year, I’d be going 615lbs rock bottom. Somehow, I don’t think that’s very likely.

Strength gains are not linear. This is a point that I find hammering home to my clients over and over. Just because you find yourself struggling with a particular weight this week that flew up last month, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are losing strength. It’s not immediate cause for concern.

Factors That Influence Strength

If strength were to occur in a vacuum, then perhaps gains in the gym would be more linear. How awesome would it be to increase your deadlift by 520lbs in one year, after all? However, life happens, and there are a hundred and one different variables that influence strength.

The most obvious factor to begin with: training experience. In general, beginner trainees will be able to see some pretty rapid strength gains in the first few months of a resistance training protocol. It’s not unusual to see upwards of 10+ pounds slapped onto the barbell per week during this time as the body becomes more coordinated and more practiced at a given exercise. This is not so much due to actual strength increases so much as neuromuscular adaptations taking place. Then, as you approach six months to a year of regular training, strength increases will necessary slow down. By the time you’re a veteran lifter with 10+ years under your belt, PRs will be hard to come by and incremental at best, and you’ll have to put in more and more work for increasingly diminishing returns. The sooner you realize this, the less disappointed you’ll be.

Next, we have caloric intake. If you’re in a caloric surplus (meaning that you’re consuming more energy than you expend), then you have extra fuel available to push it harder in the gym and set PRs. Conversely, being in a caloric deficit will probably mean that strength gains are harder to come by – though if you are following a sound training program, some strength gains can still be expected, especially at the beginning of a fat loss phase.

We also have to take into consideration training program specifics. How is your program structured? What movements are prioritized, with what sets and reps? How much rest are you taking in between working sets? (Remember, longer rest lends to better strength gains.) Are your workouts designed with strength as the main goal, or are your sessions haphazard, with every week being different than the one before?

Obviously, training program specifics are irrelevant if you don’t pay attention to training intensity and progressive overload. Performing 2×5 back squats doesn’t mean much without appropriate context. Are you simply going through the motions, or are you lifting as heavy as possible within a prescribed rep range while using solid form? (The answer, in most cases, should be the latter.) You can make any given set as easy or as difficult as you decide to make it, depending upon your intensity. If your goal is to gain strength, then you should be utilizing progressive overload and actually doing the things you need to do to, uh, get stronger. Investing in a training journal to log your workouts can help tremendously in this endeavor.

Pick up an #eatliftthrive training journal in our online store

Pick up an #eatliftthrive training journal in our online store.

What working set numbers won’t tell you is when you have a variation in form. This can include increasing or decreasing range of motion, fiddling with your stance, improving neutral spine, finding a better hand position, and so on.  This actually circles back to the point on progressive overload above, because if you’re squatting the same amount of weight as you were a month ago but you’re going four inches deeper, you’ve certainly progressed in that lift. So while on paper, 135lbs may seem like 135lbs, you should always note when your form is different in any way.

We also cannot overlook the role of sleep, hydration, and general energy levels on any given day. If your significant other kept you up late last night with his snoring, then you probably won’t have the most stellar workout today and your numbers may be rather lackluster. If you’re dehydrated, even losing a mere 3% of your bodyweight in fluids can be enough to negatively impact performance. And of course, sometimes, despite firing on all cylinders, you simply won’t have it in you and your energy levels will be lousy.

We should also talk about genetics. Why? Because people like to think that genetics don’t matter and hard work trumps all. For better or worse, genetics do influence not only our baseline levels of athletic ability but also the rate at which we are able to gain strength and muscle. Think about that chick you follow on Instagram who’s been lifting for two years and is already setting powerlifting records left and right, seemingly on accident. Then compare that with someone like little ‘ole me who’s been resistance training for over eight years and has the most mildly, mildly impressive numbers. It’s not she’s trying harder in the gym than I am. The stark discrepancies can be attributed to differences in satellite cell, mechanogrowth factor, myogenin, and IGF activation, amongst others.

Finally, it could be the case that you’ve actually lost true strength. This can happen when you don’t train a particular movement for a while, when you’re in a steep caloric deficit for an extended period of time, and/or when you take a hiatus from the gym (due to vacation, injury, etc.). Usually, it’s pretty clear when a strength decrease isn’t just a fluke – your numbers stay down week after week rather than bouncing back at your next workout, and weights that used to fly up during your warmup consistently feel markedly heavier.

Charting Strength Gains

To illustrate my point, I’m going to use myself as an example. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll walk you through my progress in the big three lifts (squat, bench, and deadlift) over the past year.

Back squat

A glance at the chart below might have you thinking that I got stronger last spring, then completely tanked in the summer, worked my way slowly back up over this past winter, and then dropped again around New Year’s. I’ve pinpointed two specific areas of interest that are worth discussing.

Back Squat Progression Over Time

From January through late May of last year, I was preparing for my first ever powerlifting meet. Admittedly, I hadn’t back squatted for several years, so my strength gains for the first several weeks were pretty rapid (not unlike that of a beginner trainee). The increases in my 1RM can also be attributed to switching from high bar to low bar and overall improving my form over repeated, practiced sessions. My numbers started to slow in the late February/March timeframe when I began experiencing some pretty bad hip pain from squatting three days per week following a Daily Undulating Periodization protocol. I took a week off of squatting altogether and then was able to return to squatting once every five to seven days pain-free, albeit with greatly reduced volume. I ended up hitting 165lbs at my 100% Raw powerlifting meet at the end of May.

For the next few months after, I moved away from back squats and threw higher rep front squats into my routine. There really wasn’t much carryover from my front squat high rep strength to my back squat strength, unfortunately (lesson learned and duly noted for the future). To add fuel to the fire, I took a trip to Italy in August which resulted in a 10-day break from heavy resistance training. By the time I returned home, my 1RM had plunged to 115lbs (first arrow). Yep, talk about serious detraining.

My back squat is not my forte to begin with. Throw a six-week bikini prep into the mix over the fall (entailing a caloric deficit) and a temporary shift away from a powerlifting-focused program, and it took me longer than I care to admit to simply get back to my baseline strength.

Regarding the second arrow, right around early February of this year was when I learned that the USAPL federation, which I had switched into, was far stricter on squat depth. That meant that going to parallel with 165lbs was not going to cut it, and I was forced to scale way back on weight in order to sink depth with my working sets.

Note the marked difference in depth between last year’s powerlifting prep:

145lbs x 1

And this year’s prep:

140lbs x 3

In the first video, I’m going just to parallel, and this is the same depth I hit 165lbs with at last May’s meet. In the second video, I’m sinking well below parallel, so while the absolute weight on the bar is lower, I’m not only getting better depth but also squeezing out more reps with ease. I should note as well that the above set of 140lbs for 3×3 was a submax effort.

Looking at nothing but absolute training numbers doesn’t tell the whole story, as you can see. With regards to my back squat, we can attribute the fluctuations in 1RM to actual strength loss (first arrow) and intentionally scaling back weight to improve form (second arrow).

Bench press

Before I dive into an analysis of my bench press progression, it’s important to clarify two points: 1) for powerlifting, the bench press involves a pause at the bottom of every rep, so it’s not touch and go, which means that weight is usually lower due to the increased time under tension; and 2) strength increases in upper body movements are necessarily slower than that of lower body movements, so even a 5lb bump over the course of several months can be a pretty big deal.

Bench Press Progression Over Time

Through the first few months of last year, you can see a relatively quick increase in strength – again, this is due to neuromuscular adaptations and becoming more efficient with form. Up until that point, I had pretty much spent the past seven years of strength training sticking to the dumbbell bench press or incline bench press as my upper body horizontal pressing movements of choice.

You’ll see that my strength dips right around late March. I don’t have it noted in my training journal unfortunately, but this can likely be attributed to poor sleep, shoddy nutrition, or just subpar energy levels from that day. Notice, though, how the following week, my bench comes back up and I manage to set a PR. The same thing happened this year in mid-March – what should have been an easy 105lbs for me ended up being an ugly, grindy rep, and I was forced to conclude my working sets there. Bummer.

Just didn't have it today. ? I got a full night's rest and was mentally amped for bench today, but my energy levels just weren't there. Looking back, I likely didn't consume sufficient calories yesterday. ? I was supposed to go for a 1RM but stopped at 105lbs because it felt way heavier than usual (I had planned for a 109 or 110 attempt). I always pay attention to how my warmup feels and adjust my planned working set weights accordingly. My back-off sets were 95lbs for 2 and then 90lbs for 3 (shown above), and I made sure to get in a solid pause with good form for every rep of these. Mediocre session, but that's okay. I'll use this as motivation to do even better next time. Strength gains are not linear, and one isolated workout doesn't say much. I'm more concerned about long-term trends. 110lb bench, I'm still coming for you. ? #usapl#eatliftthrive

A video posted by Sohee Lee (@soheefit) on

However, the following week, I came back and set a PR of 108.5lbs and then 110lbs a couple of sessions later.

It’s not unusual to have a mediocre session one day and then knock the exact same exercise out of the ballpark a few days after.

The drop in strength from May to November of last year (see arrow) is simply due to lack of training specificity. During the summer months, I stuck primarily with incline bench press and close-grip bench press in the higher rep ranges (6-15). The good news, though, is that when I circled back to low rep pause bench press, I hadn’t lost all of my strength, and my 1RM was still a good bit above where I was when I first started. So while the graph may seem to indicate strength loss, this is actually a net win.

Conventional deadlift

Finally, we have conventional deadlift. Though technically this is my best (relative) lift of the big three, it’s also the one that I’ve wrestled with the most with my form. I’m far stronger as a round back puller, you see, and carefully toeing that line between continually getting stronger in preparation for a powerlifting meet while simultaneously not overdoing it and increasing my risk for injury has been quite the balancing act.

Conventional deadlift progression over time

My 1RM last January was 150lbs. You’ll notice that in the video below (my very first powerlifting workout ever!), I was actively trying not to round, but I still was not able to maintain a completely solid arch. The barbell also rolled away from me right before I pulled, which is far from ideal.

I continued in this manner until March, when my trainer Bret Contreras warned me that I was starting to round my back a little too much. The first red arrow is when we stripped weight off the bar so I could stick with arch back pulling.

Between March and late May of last year, I learned to get comfortable using a lifting belt, I gained confidence in my pull, and I got the OK to round back again as we neared the meet. I slapped on 50lbs to my deadlift in a matter of weeks and hit 226lbs at my meet. Fun stuff!

Over the summer, I switched to block pulls and other deadlift variations to mix things up. Interestingly, even while I dieted down for my bikini show, my pulling strength remained largely intact. By the time I returned to training like a powerlifter in late December, my 1RM was still pretty freakin’ solid (as noted by the second arrow) and from there, my numbers have only continued to move in an upward trend. The small dips in numbers you see in the graph above are from training in a different gyms (and therefore being in a different headspace mentally), and another time I tried to deadlift shortly after waking up from a nap. It turns out that naps and deadlifts don’t pair together quite so well for me! Still, despite the ups and downs, I most recently hit a 240lb pull with relative ease.

Focus on Long-Term Trends

In all three graphs above, you’ll notice the following:

  1. The strength increases are by no means linear – not even close! In fact, there are periods of time where it looks like I’m actually getting weaker. As discussed above, I actually did lose true strength in my back squat last summer, but the bench and deadlift trends could be explained by lack of training specificity.
  2. As a whole, I’m still stronger across the board now than I was a year ago, and that much is undeniable.

It’s not worth getting upset over one mediocre session where you couldn’t lift as much as you did two weeks ago. It doesn’t always mean that you’re actually weaker; it may simply mean that today wasn’t your day.

Some weeks you’re going to feel invincible, and you should absolutely take advantage of these times to enjoy your workouts, set incredible PRs, and gain confidence in the gym. Every now and then, however, you may fall into a rut and you’re just not going to have it in you. Oftentimes, there will be an obvious reason that can explain your ho-hum training numbers for the day, but sometimes you’re going to do everything right and still fall flat on your face.

This is okay. Take it all in stride.

Rather than throwing a tantrum over one isolated workout, take a step back and focus on long-term trends. Are you stronger than you were three months ago? How about six months ago? A year? The answer, if you’re been consistent with your workouts and diligently putting in solid effort, will most likely be yes.

Celebrate that.

Sohee-015web

See related:

What is Progressive Overload?
The Importance of Chasing Strength
The Case for Resting Longer and Lifting Heavier 

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