Hypothalamic Amenorrhea - Losing a Period as a Weightlifter

This article gets a bit personal, and I’ve been sitting on releasing this one for several months now because of how close it cuts to my heart.

But, I realize the best thing that I CAN do in order to inform everyone else and to bring light to such a big issue is to post about this. I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m not looking for a bunch of sorry messages and posts about, “oh, I’m so concerned for you honey!” because I already know, and I’m working hard to reverse the damage done.

I feel that the topic of lost periods isn’t really bounced around much in the world of weightlifting or CrossFit, yet we see this medical symptom all the time in other high intensity sports where there’s huge pressure to maintain lower body weight for performance, such as running, triathlons, gymnastics, and many other endurance activities.

Hypothalamic Amenorrhea (HA) is a loss of a menstrual cycle due to hormones not behaving the way they should – specifically the ones that are linked to the part of your brain (the hypothalamus) responsible for general survival and regulation of reproductive cycles. Usually most women experiencing this have very low level of hormones (progesterone, estrogen). HA  often a “diagnosis of exclusion” meaning you have to rule out all possible other issues (PCOS, hypothyroidism etc) to be able to conclude that this is the issue. Please see links and other resources listed at the bottom of this post for more information.

Most of the stereotypical women we hear about who experience HA are huge endurance freaks, are underweight, constantly doing TONS of cardio, severely low in body fat (< 19%), and under a BMI of 22.

BUT, I’m a weightlifter – I have a BMI of 23-24 (I currently weigh 54-55kg on a daily basis at under 5’0″) and seriously am approaching the “overweight” category.

I only have 4 training sessions a week of just lifting – no crazy intensive hours of “cardio” or what have you. My BONES are even strong because I freakin’ LIFT WEIGHTS (even got a Dexa scan to prove this, because women experiencing the female athlete triad are generally more prone to lower bone density due to lower estrogen levels from low body fat%)

Yet, I still don’t have a period?

Listen, ladies, it CAN happen to you unfortunately. Here I am, as a moderately competitive national-level athlete coming out of the woodwork to share my experiences and warning to many of you. This is my story dealing with this inner battle between wanting to be competitive in weightlifting, but also wanting to be healthy, and deciding which of the two I value more in my life. As a disclaimer, note, I am not a medical professional by any means, and I HAVE made visits to my primary care doctor and gynecologist to do some testing necessary to reaffirm what’s the real cause or culprit of my problem – I’ll touch on my experiences with this in a future article.

Those Inspirational Strong Bodies – Are They As Healthy As We Thought They Were?

Now, this is probably because I have lived and trained in the world of crossfit and weightlifting now for several years. My entire facebook feed, instagram feed, community I surround myself with and social groups are all obsessed with crossfit and lifting. Every day I keep seeing photo after photo of top regional and games athletes, world-class weightlifters, and even just friends or clients I train and members at my own gym doing amazing things with their bodies because it’s simply what shows up on my feed based on who all my friends are and who my community is. (Yes there’s a lot of baby pictures and Tasty videos and dog videos as well, but you get what I mean.)

“Strong is Beautiful.”

It’s about what you can do and not necessarily how you look, right?

Problem is, I’ve been striving to achieve what I thought was “my ideal body”now for my whole life. I’ve always thought that having this body composition would make me happy and give me much more joy and satisfaction in my life. People give me praise all the time for how lean and strong I look, and all of the things that I can do and all the weight I can lift with my body. This body is and has been my identity now for several years.

Being Too Lean vs Where I am Today - Developing Secondary Amenorrhea as a Weightlifter

 

But now that I’ve achieved this body, I’ve come to realize that it’s actually not as healthy as I perceived it to be…nor what the media or a lot of people I surround myself with perceive it to be.

Sometimes the body that we *think* we would like to have and that will make us happy (and that we constantly see a lot of athletes have) is NOT a true healthy body.

In fact for women, I’ve shifted to the mindset that a truly beautiful and healthy body is a fertile body.

I would honestly love to know how many weightlifters, crossfit athletes who are supposedly ripped, less than 18% body fat actually HAVE their periods or who have developed secondary amenorrhea. I NEVER hear any high level athletes discussing or talking about it out in the open. Because of this, many of us who love to weightlift, who love to crossfit or engage in this type of training (even not at a competitive level) start to lose our periods and think that “it’s not fair!” “why is this happening to me?” when supposedly other females out there who seem to be training much harder, who have much leaner bodies haven’t said a word or still have their periods.

Is it really not fair?

The Dark Side of Being Too Lean – Reasons Why I Think I Developed Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

I don’t have a period right now.

This is not. a. good. thing. Doesn’t matter whether I’m a competitive athlete or not, or “whether I’m not as lean than they are”…this is serious business.

My story of how I developed HA will undoubtedly be much different from yours or anyone else’s.  I can’t say that the answer to solve this issue will be the same for you, me, or everyone, because we all have our own unique individual circumstances, bodies, hormones, and lives. Mine never came back after I got off of birth control. Many others find they lose theirs through means of restricted eating, cutting weight, exercising too much, or other related variables.

But here are a few of the possibly culprits and reason why I think mine never came back to me and how I developed hypothalamic amenorrhea:

 

1. I probably developed HA because my Body Fat % is too low despite having a regular “BMI”

It’s kind of disheartening and upsetting to me that even at the weight I currently am for my height that I still fell victim to developing a loss of a period.

It’s not like I cut way down to a 48kg class (like many women at my height choose to for competition) – in fact, I had to accept that the 53kg class was where I was meant to be to retain my sanity (and not feel like I was restricting and cutting my food all the time for the amount of lifting I was doing), but also for general feminine health.

Turns out, my body weight is still not heavy enough. Or rather…my body fat percent is too low.

After recently doing a bod pod test and finding out that I sit at around 17% when I’m near competing for weightlifting…I realized my body fat is too low for general female health reproduction.

Apparently, ovulating and conceiving a healthy and happy child is nature’s way of expressing that your body is in a hormonally balanced and healthy state. When a female does not ovulate, it means that she is probably too stressed or not in a state that she can grow a happy baby. Note though, that we might feel mentally stable and happy on the surface (lifting & smashing PRs in the gym and all the things!) – but it’s our primal senses (AKA the hypothalamus) which drives our very basic functions and needs and actually decides if we are “stressed”. If you want to read more about this, the book No Period Now What is a fantastic read.

Although I am considered almost overweight, unfortunately stress of being a competitive weightlifter, meeting training requirements, watching my food intake like a hawk, alongside a general obsession of “having an attractive body” has led me to develop HA and maintain it for the past few years.

2. I probably developed HA because I have a history of having a very strong “dieting” mindset of monitoring food

Although on the outside I seem so proud and happy of the body composition I have achieved and I strive to eat “healthy”, my inner mind is screaming at me for undergoing such “restriction” for an extended amount of time. Truth is, I can’t lie to myself and I can’t cover it up. I thought for the past several years that my new healthy ways – my strive to maintain a diet focused on mainly whole, nutrient-dense & unprocessed “paleo” foods – was much better for me than my former overweight high school / college self. Turns out, I’m partially wrong. The past few years I have been:

  • Saying “no” to certain foods because I felt they would make me too bloated or gain weight when I was trying to maintain a weight class (i.e. NO GLUTEN which is true, I do get a little puffy with bread)
  • Watching my macros & weighing my protein intake – I’ve always striven to hit numbers when it comes to food, and really ignored my body’s natural hunger signals because I didn’t trust them because I would literally eat ALL THE THINGS if I listened to when my body wanted to eat and what it wanted to eat all the time. A whole avocado instead of 50 grams? I could down that easily! Because I didn’t trust myself, I fled to hard numbers and science to make sure I was eating AS MUCH as I could to still maintain my weight class. Zone, Renaissance Periodization, you name it.

And well, it comes to no surprise that it was when I started having this very restrictive mindset about food a few years ago that any sign of a period disappeared.  So, even when I did stop being on any birth control in hopes of getting a period back – even after 1.5 years it still has not returned.

BUT WAIT, how can you say that?! I’m eating healthy, wholesome, non-processed foods. Most of y’all know me – I really don’t drink, have pizza, pasta, donuts, fast food, or anything like that often at all.  What gives? Shouldn’t my health be even better?!?

Well, this is just one possible culprit – not saying it’s the only one, but there could be many factors at play here.

3. My HA probably resulted from a slow, unnoticeable shift towards more physical stress due to wanting to PR and be better at everything.

It’s tough to say that there was one big major event that caused everything. In fact, there are a LOT of little factors that all individually have contributed and built up into one larger problem over time. Every last little piece needs to be accounted for:

  • diet & nutrition
  • body composition
  • training volume & frequency
  • hormone level changes
  • having been on birth control for extended periods of time
  • stress of life & work
  • stress of moving across the country
  • weight fluctuations with training & cutting for meets
  • stress of competition
  • mindset <======== this one should not be overlooked that easily.

As much as I wish it was just ONE big thing I could change in my life, working to get my period back means working on improvement and tackling ALL of these areas in my life. That means shifting my mindset away from one that I’ve had for the last several years of what a REAL healthy female body should be like.


Where I am now and what I’m working for:

I’m a bit stubborn, honestly.

I love lifting, and I love competing. I know for certain if I decide to give up my life of lifting for an extended amount of time and just gain back a bunch of body fat, stop working out all together that my body will result back to the fertile self it used to be several years ago. But I’m too stubborn to give up just yet.

I cross my fingers that there is some hope that by having a huge shift in mindset from “being as lean as possible” to “be as absolutely plump, fat, and nourished as possible while still being able to compete as I can in the 53kg class” that I may get it back soon.

That’s right, you heard me….”fat”. And I’m OK with that. As in, I’m done trying to work to maintain some “6-pack” anymore. I’ve accepted my body needs some more curves, bumps, and jiggle. But as much as possible while still lifting as a 53kg… (which by all means isn’t a low body weight for my height, it’s just that I have so much darn muscle mass!!).

I currently have been working with Working Against Gravity to monitor my macros and find the right caloric needs for me that allow me to stay around the weight class that I need choose to be at while minimizing any amount or feeling of restriction. Again, I’ve gotten done plenty of blood work and tests…I don’t have any other abnormal medical issues (such as PCOS) or thyroid issues per what my doctor/OBGyn say so far, though possible second opinions might be needed if things don’t change over time.

I hope that one day, many other top-level strength-focused athletes whom have these “inspirational bodies” that we wish we had can come out and confess whether they also deal with amenorrhea or not – that the many (or few) of us who do don’t feel alone anymore, or that something is “wrong with us” when really it’s a much larger issue that it appears to be.


I invite many of your comments and questions you have about my experience below and I’ll respond to them as truthfully and as honestly as I can.

 

Some Resources:

National Institute of Child Health & Human Development – Secondary Amenorrhea

Paleo for Women: Hypothalamic Amenorrhea

Book: No Period, Now What? (a really good read for those of you experiencing HA…warning, very emotional)

Training With The Seasons - Taking Intensity Easier Cover Photo

In other words…why your workouts are probably leaving you feeling more out of shape and beat up more than usual this summer!

Sorry it’s been quite a couple of months since I’ve posted – I’ve been going through some MAJOR life changes lately…so some updates to catch you all up:

  • I did Crossfit from January through about Mid-June, placing 27th in the region (which was ONE spot away from being picked for Regionals this year!)
  • My husband and I moved out of our apartment and into his parents house to start saving some money
  • We’re now searching for our first house! (and I’m a little obsessed with spreadsheets)
  • I’ve picked up tons more business on my sole-proprietor Etsy stationery shop and have been working on that full time now that I’m out of school for the summer.
  • I’ve stopped tracking my nutrition so…strictly…and have just been eating what I feel like I want to eat.

So…a lot of stressors!

If you’re in the same boat as me lately, this humidity and summer heat has also been leaving you feeling DRAINED of energy – or that you’re not as able to push as hard with the workouts.

…and that’s totally normal and OK!

We can’t train at 100% or even 80% intensity all of the time, all seasons of the year. Well…we can certainly “try” but…in the long term we might risk a heavier burn out, intense adrenal fatigue and negative affects that will dig us into a deep hole that will take considerable effort to dig out of effort-wise.

We have to train with the seasons.

In the fall when the weather cools, or the early spring after we’ve spent a couple months considerably stuffing and feeding ourselves with delicious holiday foods and hearty winter squashes and carbs, we are more ready to pick up the pace and dive into intensity! (AKA, have better focus on building up that back squat to a higher number, or working towards PRs in the lifts).

But, it’s tough for me, at least, to feel like I can focus or maintain a high intensity when the weather is considerably warmer. Not only that, I find it hard to do too many intensive cycles back-to-back that are focused on increasing lifts!

I thought I was taking a “break” by switching from 100% weightlifting training to 95% “crossfit” programming with our classes…but it ended up being more of a mental break for me, and not so much a physical  break. I actually amped up the volume even moreso, working out more days of the week than I was in the fall. I also began to coach more often, meaning I was on my feet more periodically and thus, burning more energy and calories than usual.

So the result? I’m DEFINITELY READY to start weightlifting again.

But now the problem is, I am physically burned out now.

Also, it doesn’t help if you’re going through other non-gym related stressors in life, such as moving out of your apartment and moving in with the in-laws to save money as you start stressing out over bank accounts trying to figure out how much you can afford for a first-time home buyer. OH, the stresses!


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How training changes with the summer heat

You probably first thought, “It’s summer, this is the TIME TO GET MY BEACH BODY ON and push hard!”

Well…you should’ve thought about that in January.

Now, some of you might be totally thriving right now and making PRs left and right…and that’s cool! Your seasons of training are probably aligned a little differently and this time of the year is probably your ideal time to shine. 

But for me, I’m in a season of backing off. And it’s important to be able to identify those times and seasons when you can push harder for weeks at a time, but also when you need to take it much easier for both mental and physical breaks.

Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of my friends at the gym feeling a lot more drained and tired in this heat. We’ve definitely had quite a hot summer here so far with temperatures averaging in the 80’s to 90’s most days of the week. The workouts leave us feeling lightheaded, in a constant crawl for hydration, and like we can’t push as hard as we normally can.

The high temperature already makes us work harder than normal. Our “75%” effort in 85 degree, humid weather feels just the same as our 95% effort in cool, breezy 55 degree fall weather. Therefore, how can I ever expect to match anywhere close to 95% or even 90% of what I can lift if I can only put in 75% of the usual effort?

By the way, those percentages are not based off of any scientific evidence. They are based solely off of personal opinion, intuition and feel.

Thus, we see a change in the type of training and programming we need to do: Less working on smaller reps and sets of high weights, and more “hypertrophy” and accessory work based training – this is the time to focus on moderate weighted movements and movements that work on developing structural strength, fixing muscular imbalances in the body (one side stronger than the other), and movements that don’t necessarily require as sharp and keen focus to “make or break the lift,” but are rather meant to maintain and develop a base for building up heavier in the coming months.

So instead of the typical “5×5 back squat,” it’s a great opportunity to work on front-rack kettlebell lunges, farmers carries, snatch balances, speed in power snatches, one-arm kettlebell rows and/or press variations, all of which have much higher reps (8-15) for lighter weight.

But you get what I’m saying…it’s TOTALLY OK that you’re not working up to numbers that are as intense as they were back during a strength cycle. Take the time to ease back and be happy that you’re just getting to the gym, and maintaining the habit of being active, even if you feel like you need to pace things back at only 70-80% of your normal effort. That’s how you (and I) should think of it…we are maintaining the habit of staying active so that it’s easier to hit the floor and start running at full speed when fall starts and the crisp air will make the catches in your snatch just as crisp!

So just CHILL. Literally.

Get an ice cream. You’ll sweat the calories away in no time.


That’s all, folks! I’m hoping to post MUCH more often and keep these blog posts much shorter for your sanity, my sanity, and to make things much easier to read.

When Cues Don't Work Or Resonate With You Weightlifting Woman
Why do you, coach, always throw the same five words at me all the time!? I don’t even think I’m any better!!!

coaching cues…some creativity necessary.

 

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Ever had a coach throw out a couple words or cues while you’re lifting and they just didn’t seem to make sense, or it gave you a less-than-desired result?

Or, you had a cue that you were really determined to cycle through your mind right before you began the lift…but once you picked up the bar that cue apparently sprouted wings, flew out the window and went for a lunch break?

And you missed the lift. Or your coach just continues to shout the same words over and over again because apparently it wasn’t enough.

But…but…but I just wanted to pull higher in the lift and I wanted to land on my heels and not my toes but WHY DIDN’T MY BODY DO THAT?!?!

What do you do when certain cues don’t resonate with you?

You know what the ideal should be, but you just don’t know how to talk to your body properly to get it there.

Let’s talk about why we have cues first…and then, why some cues just don’t work for us in the moment!


What’s the purpose of a “Cue”?

*as a note, cues can be verbal or tactile…a tactile cue is when a coach touches or moves you (either with hands or with an object) to a certain position so you can feel what the position is like when audible words don’t work. For the purpose of today’s discussion, we’re going to focus on AUDIBLE cues. 

By my definition, cues are short, brief words or phrases that a coach can use to quickly guide an athlete towards better movement mechanics. Cues prompt the athlete to make some type of change, or to encourage the athlete to continue applying force or moving in the same way. A coach is always trying to push you towards the ideal.

 

Why be 96% perfect or work towards 96% perfection when you should be working towards 100% perfection all the time in your lifts?

 

From my experience being a coach and  being coached, I find myself on a constant exploration for the right cues and the right words for the right situations.

With cues, the ultimate goal is to be able to generate a quick phrase or a set of words that resonate with either you or the athlete being coached – The cue resonates if it elicits the correct feeling the person needs to feel in order to take a step closer towards better movement mechanics.

Heres where developing the right cue becomes tricky – what we see does not always equal what we feel. A coach can really only make judgements of an athlete based on what they are visually perceiving: The coach is visually perceiving these things:

  • what positions the athlete hits at each millisecond
  • what speed they meet those positions during the movement.

Coaches (hopefully) view a person’s movement like frames in an animation – they notice what posture an athlete has throughout each still frame as it plays, and whether the body demonstrates the correct geometric angles or correct placement of body parts in the right areas.

Coach Views Lift Like an Animation Sequence

A good coach will be able to identify the particular position an athlete is in at different “still frames” of an animation and whether it’s the right angles or position relative to the frame.

If a coach notices an athlete shortens his or her extension on the 2nd pull of a clean, the head doesn’t reach a certain height requirement “in the frame,” and is not as upright as the athlete should be, the coach’s first instinct is to tell the athlete to extend taller before pulling under.

Well, a clean happens REALLY QUICK – so the cues have to be just as quick so the athlete can hear the word in the moment timely enough to use it while doing the lift. No long sentences here….because the athlete is already done cleaning the bar by the time you finish saying “come up on the toes like you’re 7 feet tall, shrugging your traps and shoulders at the top, keep your chin up and pull the elbows high.”

So, a coach might say “GET TALL” or say “STRAIGHT UP” or “SHRUG HIGH” – which are all short quick, snappy phrases that all lead the athlete to the same position.

But to the athlete…what does “straight up” feel like? What exactly does my coach mean by “shrug”? By “trap” do you mean snare or mouse? or neither?!?

What if I’m having trouble with the 5,176 other things that I also need to think about when cleaning the bar!?!

For a cue to work, the coach and athlete must both mutually understand and agree upon these things:

  • how the athlete perceives direction
  • what mechanical or mobility limitations the athlete has that prevents him/her from going in certain directions
  • what movement habits the athlete has consistently engrained into muscle memory
  • that the athlete knows enough about basic anatomy to understand what things like “lats” and “traps” are.

 

Working Towards 100% Perfection


So…what actually makes a cue?

We can probably breakdown most cues into two parts:
[ACTION]  + [ANATOMICAL PART] +  [POSITIONAL WORD or DIRECTIONAL WORD]

 

For example,

DRIVE + CHEST + UP   |    KEEP + FEET + SHOULDER WIDTH APART   |  DRIVE + KNEES + OUT   |    EXTEND + ON + THE TOES   |   PUSH + ELBOWS + UP


SOME DEFINITIONS:

Action: How the force is applied to the body part cued (twist, screw, push, pull, loosen, drive, extend, tighten)

Anatomical: Cues that address or pose reminders to a specific body part (back, heels, head, traps)

Positional: Cues that address certain placement of where something needs to be positioned in space (wide, low, tall, on, apart)

Directional: Cues that prompt the athlete how and where to move (up, down, back, left, out)

STATIC-BASED vs DYNAMIC BASED CUES:

Static-Based Cues: These are usually given to establish proper set-up position – perhaps how wide the feet are set, how low the hips are, where one should grip the bar, where to place the chin.

Dynamic-Based Cues: These are usually given to the athlete while in motion or while a lift is happening to help guide the athlete to the proper position as visually analyzed by the coach.


Basically, cues tell the athlete to move or position a certain body part in a certain way. Take out all the excess words in a sentence such as “the, with, your, a, of, those” and you turn a long sentence such as “Keep the heels down and push the ground away with your feet” to something as simple as “HEELS DOWN, SCREW THE FEET.”

Cues don’t have to include all of these parts to work. If an athlete has already been working with a cue for quite some time, such as keeping the heels down in a squat, then they may not need the lengthy instruction, but rather something quick and snappy to just remind them to focus on that one thing:

“HEELS”

This assumes that both the athlete and coach have established mutual agreement that the athlete needs to work on this particular thing, and that this cue is bring the athlete closer towards ideal movement mechanics. Otherwise, “heels” to another athlete in the wrong situation might cause him/her to shift the weight too far backwards if that’s not what that particular athlete needs.

 

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Now that we’ve established the purpose of cues and how cues are “made”…let’s take a look at a couple cases first and then come back to why cues don’t resonate…

 

Exhibit A: The athlete who “leans back” too much while extending through the 2nd pull on a snatch.

Ideal: The athlete’s extension is straight upwards, perpendicular (90 degrees) to the ground.

Problem: When reaching extension in the snatch, the athlete tends to propel his/her upper body backwards rather than straight up while pulling under to catch a snatch. The angle the athlete’s chest/back leans is about 80 degrees to the ground (this may or not be realistic but I’m giving numbers for the purpose of this visual explanation)

Cues the coach gives: “straight up,” “get taller”

Result: the athlete still leans back, but now at about 85 degrees instead. A little more upright, but not perfectly 90 degrees.

So is the cue working, even though the result still isn’t the ideal? IS the cue actually resonating with the athlete? Are these still the best cues to use?

Well, the athlete SEEMS to be more upright than before, right? What can we do to get the athlete to be even straighter along that Y-Axis? Should the coach tell the athlete to jump “forward” instead of “up” so that the athlete somehow ends up at 90 degrees even though the jump “feels” forward, because the athlete has a tendency to lean back?

 

Exhibit B: Keeping those darn heels on the ground in the bottom of a squat!

Ideal: The athlete maintains entire surface area of the foot on the ground in the bottom of a squat, not allowing the heels to come off of the floor.

Problem: When catching the bar in the bottom of a snatch or doing a front squat, the athlete’s weight distribution shifts towards the inner arches of the foot and the ball of foot, and the outer edge of the heel pops a few millimeters off of the ground. 

Cues the coach gives: “knees out,” “heels,” “screw the feet in”

Result: the athlete still lifts the heels in the bottom, or has shifted the body weight back so far that he/she is stuck in the bottom of the squat and can’t drive up anymore and bails.

In this case…the cue didn’t even work, or ended up making the situation worse!

 

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Why Cues Don’t Resonate With You.

 

Now we’re at the bulk of this article. What are the main reasons that cues just don’t work and you end up missing a lift…or still don’t hit those ideal positions to satisfy the coach?!

  • The cue is trying really reaaaaly hard try to change your long established habit of moving
  • You, the athlete, are limited in mobility to be able to be in that ideal position of the cue
  • The cue interferes with your timing of a movement
  • You just don’t know how to feel out that body part to make it look like the way it should to the coach. Feeling does not equal visual output.
  • The cue might be the right cue, but just not in the right stage of your training in the moment.
  • The cue shifts the focus away from something else more important in your movement that needs addressing

The cue is trying really reaaaaly hard try to change your long established habit of moving

Let’s face it, you’ve been moving a certain way for many minutes, hours, and days of your life. Who says a miracle is going to happen and all of a sudden, when you think of a body part and a direction, your body automatically wants to do it? You’ve gotta coax your body how to progress in that way and establish new habits of moving. Which leads us to the next point…

 

You, the athlete, are limited in mobility to be able to obtain that ideal position

Because you’ve established so many habits, your body has learned to move only in ways that it absolutely needs to and has thus restructured its cells, muscle length, and bone density to match the environment your body is accustomed to being in. Maybe you can’t drive your elbows up because you spend more hours of the day with your shoulders positioned forward while sitting instead of being in constantly moving positions that provoke a more open chest and looser thoracic area. Maybe that long car ride you did the other day on a road trip tightened your hips more than normal so that you can’t keep your knees out in the bottom of a squat.

In this case, the coach can only do so much to tell you where to go…because you just can’t go there. The coach might as well prescribe you mobility drills at this point.

 

The cue interferes with your timing of a movement

Lately, my husband has been telling me the same cues over and over to help with my extension on the clean, “TOES!”

But the problem is, when I focus more on extending through my toes, I happen to lose the speed of driving my heels to the ground! The cue has redirected my focus towards engaging a certain body part – but because I’m putting in more thought and mental energy towards that body part…it’s taking time for me to drill that feeling into muscle memory so it’s second nature and so that it happens quick. I spend a millisecond longer on my toes, making me slower to land on the heels in a stable position.

If a new cue provokes you to focus on a different feeling for a body part than what you’ve had before…well it will take time to develop that motor skill. So when you’re in a movement that happens super quick (where the position that your body is in every millisecond counts), you end up messing up the positioning in those milliseconds just enough to throw off your whole lift.

 

You just don’t know how to feel out that body part to make it look like the way it should to the coach. Feeling does not equal visual output.

How do you get someone to feel what “lats” are when they’re completely new and have minimal lat strength or experience engaging the “lats”? Chances are, you as the athlete (if you’re not familiar with how to actually engage this body part) may have to do other supplemental moves that build up your ability to feel that body part in motion – to develop the ability to tighten a muscle, or flex/extend a joint angle when cued. Developing feeling and awareness in the body will take time and different ways of stimulation until you actually “get it.”

 

The cue might be the right cue, but just not in the right stage of your training in the moment.

Has a coach ever given you a cue waaaaay long ago that never seemed to resonate, but suddenly after several weeks or months of training, they give you that same cue again, you have an “A HA!” moment and it finally clicks? That’s because your body needed some time to adapt to a certain timing or way of moving (either with other cues or other moves) before this particular cue was the perfect one for you in the moment.

 

The cue shifts the focus away from something else more important in your movement that needs addressing

This ties back into the issue with “timing,” where putting more thought effort towards one body part takes away from addressing how another body part should be properly moving. The coordination isn’t there and the muscles haven’t practiced firing quick enough where they should be so that you spend less time “thinking” and your body just “does.”


So what’s the takeaway from this all?

  • If a cue doesn’t resonate with you right away…give it some time. Don’t resist or fight against it, but work little by little towards it as best as you can. Change, when it comes to correcting habits of movement, takes time to adapt.
  • A cue that may not work with you today may work with you weeks from now, once you iron out any timing issues or patterns in the way you move between now and then.
  • Work with your coach to develop a different shared vocabulary – maybe the cue is pushing you to point Z when you need actually to hit point B first, so the coach needs to be able to give you words that push you in the steps you need to hit first to get you where you’ll eventually end up in the long run.
  • Your coach should know what your mobility limitations are based on how you move and react to certain cues – and thus, give you ways to help become more mobile so you can progress to better movement mechanics.
  • If you ever get a chance to video or view the way YOU move….DO IT! What you see is not always what you feel, and sometimes seeing how you yourself move can help you to elicit the correct sensation you need when coach from an outside perspective can’t feel what you feel based on what they see.
  • Lastly, TRUST THAT YOU ARE MAKING PROGRESS. Even though the coach keeps repeating these to you…they are only trying to get these feelings engrained in your system so they become second nature and you won’t have to actively think of these words anymore. You probably ARE and HAVE improved when you do focus and act upon these words…it may not feel like a *significant* improvement, but little by little these improvements will add up to a larger improvement in the long run,

Is it better to focus on just one cue, or 5 cues all at once?

Well, that depends, because your ability to move in one way can link to the way other parts of your body move, especially in complex movements that involve a lot of coordination and lots of direction. A single cue can be hard to isolate on its own because the way you move your body to fit that one cue might affect the way it moves in other areas.

Your body moves as a symphony, not as separate sections of an orchestra. Yes, perhaps each section of the orchestra may need to practice on their own sometimes, but they must come together under the same coordination of the conductor or their speeds won’t appropriately line up.

Trust in the cues, give them time to resonate – and perhaps one day when the time is right and your body is ready to progress, they will click. 

How Not Doing Crossfit but Weightlifting Made Me Better at Crossfit Cover Photo - Weightlifting Woman

What first comes to mind when you think of the typical “CrossFit” workouts? Lot’s of high intensity intervals, varied movements, jumping on boxes or with ropes, pull ups, handstands, barbells being tossed around for several reps at moderate weights, rowing, running, sled pushing, climbing ropes…

…and anything where you record your final “time” or how many rounds/reps you completed in X amount of time.

I’ve come to the realization that I’ve gotten better at CrossFit…by not actually doing any of the above.

Sounds strange right?

Well, if you take the definition of “CrossFit” as defined by founder Greg Glassman – basically it is “functional movements that are constantly varied at high intensity” (CrossfitDefined.com). Put all different kinds of workouts in a lottery wheel, and regardless of which workouts and combination of movements randomly pop out, you should be able to nail them every time.

CrossFit measures how competent you are in these ten different domains of fitness:

  1. Cardiovascular and Respiratory Endurance
  2. Stamina
  3. Strength
  4. Flexibility
  5. Power
  6. Speed
  7. Coordination
  8. Agility
  9. Balance
  10. Accuracy

Basically, if you are lacking in any of these ten areas, then you’re technically not as “fit” as you could be, even if you have incredible domination in one of the areas. A marathon runner, for example, may have incredible cardiovascular endurance, but could be extremely lacking in strength. Likewise, a weightlifter or powerlifter may have good power and strength but lack stamina or cardiovascular endurance.

Now, what’s interesting is as of right now, CrossFit still does not take into account or consideration a person’s size or weight class when measuring a person’s performance for the purpose of competition. We do see people of various sizes, heights, builds and body compositions doing CrossFit everywhere, but it’s probably safe to say that the average body height & weight measurements of the athletes who consistently make it to the “Games” level each year probably fall around certain numbers that give those athletes enough of a mechanical advantage in most of the movements to be all around well fit. There are certainly outliers, of course, but it’s clear what their goats and weaknesses are when a smaller statured athlete has to lift the same weight on the bar as someone much larger.

In fact, according to this article on the CrossFit Games site analyzing the evolution of the average Regionals athlete statistics, the “ideal build” for someone to be competitive at CrossFit is:

Men: 5’10”, 191 lbs.

Women: 5’5″, 142 lbs.

According to those stats, I am an extremely small “pint-sized” athlete. The amount of lean muscle mass I have is considerably lower than another who weighs, 30, 20 or even 10 pounds more than me. Thus, the amount weight I am able to lift comparably is a LOT less. I would have to be lifting world-class numbers to match up to a woman who weighs 140lbs but who lifts at just an “advance level.”

Strength & Power…those are where my biggest weaknesses lie.

Sure, I could probably address a few other jarring weaknesses I have, such as my inability to keep extremely consistent double unders, or that I’m so short that a wall-ball target requires much more power output for me because I have to move weight a greater distance, or that I have a disadvantage on a rower because of my short legs and shorter pulls against the flywheel.

However, my biggest limiter was definitely my strength.

And actually, if you think about it, if you’re stronger and you can generate more power, you’ll most likely require less time to lift X poundage compared to someone less powerful. Therefore, any workout that includes a barbell movement will always give the stronger, more powerful athlete an advantage because she will have more time and energy to put towards any body-weight movements that happened to be paired with it (and the athlete who generates less power will have used all their precious energy and time trying to lift the barbell).

As a pint-sized crossfitter, I should of course play up the advantages I do have and make sure I’m the absolute best at the things where my body composition would be favorable (body-weight movements, gymnastics, burpees, longer distance running, handstand pushups, and lifts with short ranges of motion such as deadlifts, pistols, or thrusters). Because, if anyone with a larger frame than I can do more pull-ups or faster burpees, then clearly I’m not as fit as the other person in those domains despite having the supposedly mechanical advantage.

(Now that I think about it, I have an “efficiency” advantage on some lifts because I don’t have to move the weight as far or as high to be able to catch it.)

Regardless, I should try to build up my strength and power generation, and maximize my efficiency in the lifts so it’s at least on a comparable level to someone heavier who can lift a lot more. I need to be able to generate enough power in workouts that contain barbells to allow me enough energy to still outperform the stronger athlete with the movements that favor smaller people.

Enter weightlifting.


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Focusing on Weightlifting Made Me Better at CrossFit.

Now, when I first started weightlifting, I decided to dismiss “CrossFit” as the sport that I would try to become good at because I knew I had a big size disadvantage and that I would have much more potential doing well as an athlete in a sport that is based on weight class. In fact, once I switched to weightlifting, I was already competing at the National level whereas in Crossfit…I was relatively one of the better athletes just within my gym.

I had no intention of ever trying to “make it to regionals” or to the Games ever but chose to do (and coach) CrossFit for fun, and as a mental break from weightlifting.

So for the last 2.5 years, my focus has been primarily on weightlifting training and improving my snatch, clean & jerk, as well as all the lifts that supplement that (back squat, front squat, presses, etc). I did very few met-cons…almost no burpees or box jumps and hardly touched a pull up bar or some rings unless it was to demo a movement to a class I was coaching. No running at all either…because that type of training would inhibit growing the types of muscle fibers necessarily for weightlifting.

“Metcons” were the types of workouts I was good at…but I didn’t need to work on those except only for the purpose of maintenance. My endurance and stamina levels were already sky high compared to most…so why work on those when I could still be at the top of the pack in those areas even if my endurance and stamina just decreased by a little?

Yet, at the end of weightlifting season when there was a huge break between the American Opens and Nationals, I chose to sign up for the Opens (with no intention of ever needing to repeat workouts or go 100% when it was my “off season”), mainly because I wanted to perform alongside the community at our gym.

But what is amazing is…even though for the majority of the time I wasn’t doing traditional “CrossFit style training,” I noticed I placed higher and higher regionally each year.

Why? Because I’ve gotten much stronger.


Snow Charpentier Crossfit Opens Placements 2012-2016 - Weightlifting Woman
 

Back when I took on weightlifting as a sport, I didn’t see the clear line then between “improve weightlifting = improve at CrossFit.” Things just happened to fall in place and I only discovered and analyzed my progress recently.

Now, you could argue that maybe the majority of the workouts the last 1-2 years were more favorable to my athletic abilities and to smaller athletes (which may have been true this year) compared to the ever increasing pool of athletes each year…

…but consider that all the workouts in 2016 contained a barbell. Therefore, most of the workouts required some element of strength that you needed to have in order to achieve a certain number of reps or time in comparison to other athletes.

If Athlete A’s 1RM overhead squat is 115# whereas Athlete B’s OHS is 175#, although Athlete A might be much smaller than Athlete B, Athlete A will have a super rough time stabilizing a 65# barbell overhead for the lunges, doing light weight snatches at 55#, or probably even doing thrusters at 65# compared to Athlete B…and thus Athlete B will have more energy to put towards the bodyweight-based movements such as chest-to-bar pull ups or burpees.

Check out this comparison of me attempting a 1RM clean & jerk at 175# about 2.5 years ago, compared to the 16.2 Opens workout containing a squat-clean ladder with 175# and ending at 205# (sadly, didn’t make 205# even though I’ve cleaned that weight a handful of times in a setting without an extremely high heart rate and time crunch.)

Cleaning 175# – Aug. ’13 vs Mar. ’16 from Snow (Powers) Charpentier on Vimeo.

 

Clearly two years ago, I would probably not even be able to make it past the 3rd round, or even the 2nd round considering my strength was no where near where it is now. Although there are several Games athletes out there who can probably power clean my 1RM squat clean, I’ve developed just enough strength to allow me to squeeze into the 99th percentile of a workout with a huge focus on strength, pending there are other movements paired with it that favor smaller frames.

The 2016 Games took me incredibly by surprise, because I went into the Opens signing up “just because” and only had the goal of trying to retain (and hold alone) my title of Fittest in the State of Rhode Island alongside Ashleigh Cornell, whom I tied with last year. You can ask everyone I talked to – I said “It’s not my goal to make it to Regionals, I just want to perform well.”

And perform well I did.

After the first three workouts, I was still within the top 35 women in the region…the highest I had ever been ever! One of the workouts (16.2) was even strength focused. Although I didn’t have the strength to clean 1 rep of 205lbs after all those other earlier cleans…consider I was probably one of the lightest females in the world who made it to the final round in 16.2 and because of that, I felt proud of my performance.

So in the end, I got better at “CrossFit” because I improved my strength, my coordination, and my power…not just relative to my own body weight, but relative to everyone else as well!


Takeaways: So, how does this apply to you, who might want to be better at “CrossFit”?

 

Identify your major weakness and spend quality time building up those.

I’m not necessarily saying “you must focus on exclusively weightlifting” if you want to be better at CrossFit or to be more athletically well rounded. That’s what worked for me because that was my weakest link. For some of you, you may need to work developing your gymnastic strength, or build up your stamina to sustain the same level of effort at the end of a 15 or 20 minute workout. There may even be several things you need to work on, but the key is to tackle the largest gaping hole first when you compare your abilities to the averages across the world.

Most likely, you can get away with a little sacrifice in the areas you excel in because the gains you will make in focusing on your weakest points will more than make up for it immensely.

 

Develop Better Technique to Become a More Efficient Athlete Overall

Good form is efficient, period. And if you’re efficient, you don’t waste your power and energy in moving weight around.

There’s a reason why you see almost all of the top Games athletes with perfect form almost 80-90% of the time…it’s not just because of meeting the “judging standards,” but having correct form in everything you do is just genuinely more effective at energy use and conservation.

 

Most People Will Probably Improve their Fitness Just by Increasing their Strength-To-Weight Ratio.

Consider that all five of the open workouts this year had a barbell in them, although some were much lighter than others. If you’re stronger, then that barbell load will feel relatively lighter to you and will allow you to have more energy to put towards non barbell-bearing movements. This also applies to developing more strength to support your own body weight on movements such as hanging from a pull-up bar, or pushing up on a handstand pushup.

 

Step Outside of your Local Bubble To Really See How You Compare

It’s easy to see what your strengths are in comparison to everyone in your own gym or urban area, or at local competitions that you happen to place high in. What’s cool about the CrossFit Opens is the ability to really compare yourself to a larger range of athletes undergoing different programming, different coaching techniques and at different settings.  Expand your view to a national level. Competing nationally in weightlifting took me out of the bubble of the local CrossFit community and gave me a sense of where I stood on a much wider scale.

 

Maintenance is Necessary But Shouldn’t Be a Priority.

By switching to focus on a different discipline or aspect of fitness, you will end up sacrificing a bit of your skill in other disciplines. Some main reasons for this are:

  • You’re developing different muscle fiber types (slow twitch for longer sustained efforts, vs fast twitch for more explosive, short-term efforts) to correspond with the type of load or training you’re undergoing.
  • You’ve lost that neurological connection with how those particular sensations feel (losing the timing for double unders, or how forgetting how it feels to have your heart rate sustained above a certain % of your max HR)
  • Undergoing a body compositional change (more/less muscle, more/less weight) depending on how your training and activity level has changed.
  • You’re getting used to different volumes, intensities and durations of training, and thus different rates at which you require oxygen….which your body will get used to over time.

However, that doesn’t mean you can totally just dismiss those areas for several months if you still want to be great at them. Dipping back into those other disciplines can be helpful for maintenance every few weeks or so, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the current training cycle that you are on.

For example, if you choose to focus more on the discipline of weightlifting and building strength (and developing the muscle fibers for high intensity, short powerful efforts), then you’ll want to limit the number of met-con style workouts you do which require many repetitions at lighter weights, promoting muscle fibers for moderate intensity & longer duration. A great time to reincorporate these may be in between cycles or during a deload week where you use the met-con as a method to get the “feel” back for the workout, going at moderate effort and not necessarily looking to *improve* in that area.


 

Well, what if I don’t have individualized lifting programming and follow what my coach gives the whole class?

Let’s say you’re looking to improve your strength and technique in the oly lifts, but you’re trying to figure out how to make that the focus when you’re following what your coach programs for everyone in the class. I understand…not everyone has the luxury of having personalized program or having the time to work on individual needs outside of class. The best thing you can do in this situation…

  • If the programming’s focus incorporates some type of “strength cycle”…is to make sure you’re there on the days for all of those strength movements (and making sure you make up those days relatively quickly if you miss them) and really stick to working with the prescribed percentages. DO NOT see this as an opportunity, though, to start doing your “own strength” on the side if you’re not getting enough WITHOUT discussing your intentions with the programmer first about your plans to get stronger, because you don’t want to do anything that will inhibit your gains or recovery planned during that cycle. 
  • Focus on technique throughout everything you do, including your warm ups. In fact, expand your warm-ups and come a few minutes before class to work on a few reps with empty or lighter barbells so you have more practice developing that muscle memory.
  • On the flip side, make it a point to not go all out 100% on the days that are just met-con or endurance focused. In fact, you can even use these days as your “rest days” so you place more effort and energy towards doing well on the strength focused days.
  • Ask your coach/programmer if there are any supplemental movements you might be able to incorporate to fix strength imbalances – there are some smaller moves that you can do to complement the strength work (without taking away from it) if you feel you’re lacking in areas such as core strength, hamstring strength or overhead strength. These are usually done with lighter weight for many more reps (8-12) with focus on quality. Examples are: light barbell or banded good mornings, overhead/farmers carries with kettlebells, dumbbell rows, romanian deadlifts, etc.

 


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Can you still become “better at CrossFit” everyday without necessarily taking the time to exclusively focus on one area?

Yes, absolutely! However, if you’re looking for maximal changes in your ability to address all the ten domains of fitness in a shorter amount of time, it’s more worthwhile to focus on building up your major goats since those areas have much more to improve in than your other areas will have to compromise.

 

 

Training Intensity & Volume Variation Across a Weightlifting Cycle - Weightlifting Woman

I’ve gotten a lot of questions asking how I space out my training volume and intensity across the seasons – both throughout the week but also throughout each “cycle” and throughout the entire year. Thus, I’ve put together some helpful charts and graphs to visualize my perceived volume and intensity across different time periods.

Note that the following information is reflective of my own personal goals and needs as an athlete (and what I want to get out of my life in terms of being physically active) and is by no means reflective of how you or anyone else necessarily needs to focus your training. But, it’s what’s been working for me so far based on my current goals, and it’s just cool to see how stuff is laid out, right?

 

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First off, let’s start with this chart…which sort of shows EVERYTHING at a glance.

Training Volume and Intensity Year Long Graph Chart - Weightlifting Woman

CHART 1: Here’s a quick visual snapshot of how my training goes across a year and corresponding to the major events that I participate in. There is no actual “value” or number for the Y-axis…well I guess you could call it “training load” but it’s not like I tie an actual number or % to it.

 

First off, note that these charts that I have drawn are not 101% accurate to the intention of the programmer, but rather based on my perceived effort  (and just how I see the training load vary throughout the year). The charts are NOT generated by numerical spreadsheet calculations at all and are free-hand illustrated by me using my favorite graphic design illustration software so it’s not like it represents very strict numbers.

 

I consider myself to be a very active person, even during my “off seasons” as I try to get in at least 30 minutes of activity (sometimes just walking, or light aerobic work, or yoga if need be) at least 5-6 days a week.

I usually don’t take more than 1 week throughout the year where I don’t do any type of intensive exercise whether it be aerobic, strength, or a combination. For example, last year on my honeymoon we went at least 4-5 days without “touching a barbell” or dropping by a gym to do weights although we trying to get in plenty activity through large volumes of walking everywhere.

Some key points to take away from the above chart #1:

The Pink Area Under the Curve – Volume

First thing’s first – notice that my overall volume of training (indicated by the pink area) is NOT THE SAME throughout the whole year! No, in fact I purposefully cycle up and down the amount of actual (and perceived) volume throughout the year because…well if I went at 100% all year then I would totally burn out!

My volume of training increases throughout a training cycle (starting about 12 weeks out) leading up to a major competition – but also I give myself a high training volume around the time of the CrossFit Opens in order to work on my metabolic conditioning and strength-endurance – my heart rate stays sustainably high whereas with in a weightlifting cycle, I only have spurts of increased heart rate every 1-2 minutes whenever I do sets of lifts.

What exactly do I mean by “volume”? I define it as the amount of time I spend under load, resistance, or with an increased heart rate multiplied by the intensity of the weight I am bearing (amount of weight on the barbell, or how much power output I have to give).

DURATION OF WORKOUT  x  INTENSITY OF LIFTS = TRAINING LOAD 

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The Blue Line – Intensity (heaviness of weight lifted)

I wanted to represent the amount that I was lifting relative to my “max lifts” throughout the year – which usually peaks just twice…at the American Open and for Nationals. Throughout the Crossfit Opens, my goal is mainly to maintain strength and to also work on strength endurance (lifting higher volume of light-to-moderate weight) without necessarily trying to PR any lift.

 

The Green Dotted Line – Focus on Aerobic & Metabolic Conditioning Work

Since I still love to stay active when I’m not “actively in training” for a weightlifting competition, I tend to use my off-season to focus more on building up the gas tank – as in…doing longer duration, sustained activity where I maintain my heart rate in the “cardio” zone. Although, I want to mention the moments where the line builds up a little during peak moments in my weightlifting cycles are because I like to add in 2-3 days of 30 minutes of aerobic activity as my active recovery days to promote a little extra fat loss and to lean out before I have to weigh in on competition day (trying to make weight).

 

The Orange Dotted Line – Strength Focused Training

This basically coincides with the “intensity” line but demonstrates the amount of focus my training has towards building purely “strength” rather than aerobic conditioning.

 


 

Let’s narrow down the time frame now into what volume/intensity would look like in a 12-week training cycle leading up to a major weightlifting competition:

Intensity Within a 12-Week Training Cycle Chart - Weightlifting Woman

CHART 2: Here is a graph showing approximately how I approach intensity across a 12-week training cycle leading up to a major competition (American Opens or Nationals) where the goal on the 12th week is to “peak” and be at my absolute strongest.

 

Some key points to take away from this chart:

  • At the start of the 12-week cycle I’m definitely nowhere hitting close to my 1RMs or PR weights – in fact, weights that are about 80% of my 1RM usually feel like a 1RM at the time! During the first 3 weeks of the cycle, it’s all about getting my central nervous system back into check and feeling the loads of barbells on my body.
  • I build up to competition day in “waves” that are about 3-4 weeks at a time. I find that after 3 weeks of increasing percentages of my working weights little by little that I need a week to back off a bit and deload so my muscles and mental energy have time to rebuild and refresh for the next wave of 3 weeks.
  • About 2 weeks out from competition I usually end up going for maximal effort lifts (PRs, etc) before I back off for a couple weeks – this is to allow some time to deload before I go all out again.
  • I usually schedule 1-2 smaller local meets in preparation for the larger meet as a “tune-up” and to use the day to focus on strategy for how my warm-ups will go and how to make sure I sustain energy for both the Snatch portion and for the Clean & Jerk portion a couple hours later.

 


Lastly,  let’s look at a “week” at a glance.

 

Here’s what a typical week looks like for me while in the midst of a weightlifting training cycle – in terms of how intense my days are.

Weekly Intensity Weightlifting Cycle

Here’s a chart showing the variation of intensity throughout the week…this is an example how a week is laid out although there will be lots of varations of what movement happens on what day depending on my focus for that cycle.

 

I actually used to “lift” 5 days a week, and then in the past year whittled it down to just 4 with more recovery-focused days in between because I think 5 days of intensity was beating me to the ground. I also found 4-day training to fit into my schedule better also having a full time job and two part-time gigs on the side as a coach and as a freelance designer.

The weekday workouts had to take place in the afternoon after school, and weekends I could basically pick a time in the middle of the day to get done.

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Main points to take away from the chart:

  • I usually have one “very intensive” day where I work up to my heaviest weights for the week – though this day isn’t always increasing week-to-week. Some weeks I don’t work up as heavy, and some weeks I go all out if I’m performing well.
  • I hate dead rest days where I basically don’t do anything, unless it’s a day right before a super big competition where I really need to not walk around and deplete my energy stores. I like to get in some moderate aerobic activity that gets my heart rate up to about 50-70% max HR without going much over that.
  • More rest days programmed around more intensive days.
  • Back-To-Back lifting days usually alternate more leg-focused vs more overhead / shoulder focused.
Example Weekly Programming Weightlifting - Weightlifting Woman

Here’s an example of how I might spread out movements across the week – although I don’t follow this same structure all the time. The movements might vary day-to-day depending on what my focus in on that cycle.

 

Above, I’ve included an example of what lifts I would do on certain days…although looking back at past history of programming the last 2 years this definitely is not the exact way I’ve done everything day-to-day…but I hope it gives you a glimpse at least of how things are laid out.

Basically…I do not lift heavy everyday all the time. Recovery is your best friend (and my best friend) when it comes to gains.

Depending on what my focus is for those few weeks (working on a stronger jerk, or building up pulling strength, or just building up the squat to a higher number) sometimes the movements and where they happen in the week (and how often they happen) will vary.

The main consistent piece though throughout the week is usually the intense day that happens once a week (either Saturday or Sunday depending on schedule) where I usually work up to something heavier than the percentages I do throughout the middle of the week for working sets of doubles or triples.

Also, note that I rarely every have veered away from this programming throughout my cycle at all – I actually prioritize my daily schedule and activities so I can be certain to get in my lifts on the days they are programmed or prescribed. Every now and then I might have a day where I have to stay at school for an event on lets say…a Wednesday, and can’t get the workout in so I push it to a Thursday. Yet, I really religiously try to stick to the days of the programming as absolutely 99.9% as I can because consistency is the only way you know if something is really working for you. 

Minimize the variables and control all the controllable factors as strictly as you can. Diet, workout schedule, sleep…that’s all stuff you can control.

weekly-intensity-crossfit

 

I wanted to show this chart as it relates to how I’ve been structuring the intensity of my weeks during the Crossfit season where I’m not “weightlifting” day-to-day but going with the class programming. Note I really don’t have any extra special personalized programming at the moment when it comes to this…I’m just dropping into the classes I coach throughout the week and maybe spend an extra 5-10 min after class working on a skill or so. I really don’t do extra workouts though (other than 30 minutes of light rowing) beyond what our gym programs.

This is because I’m using Crossfit at the moment as a means to “mentally recover” from being so weightlifting focused. Although the volume I’m feeling is physically very high, mentally for me it’s not as intensive as being focused on a specific end goal of a major competition.

During these couple of months, I don’t want to feel like I’m tackling on an individualized program with an intention of hitting X [number] on X [date]. I’m doing this for fun and for some variety, and if I happen to place high or make it to regionals then that’s pretty cool! But I know my bio-mechanical advantages lie more in weightlifting as a sport for me as opposed to Crossfit because of my height and bodyweight and how weightlifting utilizes weight classes.

However, I feel that I can keep driving myself further month-after-month and year-after-year through switching things up, never getting bored, and always feeling refreshed with different things aside from always being so barbell focused.

Even still, although I’m doing different type and volume of training, I still make it a point to include some rest/active recovery days, as well as days that feel more intensive (and some moderately intensive).

 


 

OK, So how do I know if this is all working? How do I know if this is the best way to approach my training load month after month?

Well, to be honest, I really don’t know if this is the 100% best way for me!

BUT, following this progression consistently so far has given me significant improvements in my strength and lifting and has continuously built me up stronger every year in many ways. In fact, my “Crossfit” performance has even sustained or improved with just focusing on Weightlifting for a few months (in which strength is my largest limiter when it comes to matching up to other athletes in the sport of Crossfit).

The biggest thing that I can vouch for is that I have stayed consistent with a programming when it’s given to me and haven’t really experimented with too much variation or different types. The biggest gains I have seen are when I stick to specifically programmed days that have a goal or end focus at the end of the cycle (or waves within a cycle) without throwing in too many random variables or other things that could affect the level of muscle fatigue, recovery time, physical load or mental load – such as choosing to squat heavy on a day that doesn’t have squatting.

A program is written with factors in mind such as how much power output there is each day, the intensity and volume, what muscle groups are being utilized, the load and duration muscles are under each day, and most importantly, the recovery time needed to get the most gains while still stimulating the body to deal with more intensity. I’m literally afraid to do anything that will heavily impact the intent of the program (such as going much heavier than the percentage prescribed to me for that day even if I’m feeling strong) for the purpose of not over-taxing my body earlier than I need to during a cycle.

You’ll never know if a program is “working” as effectively as it could unless you adamantly stick to it.

Another thing to note is…the stronger you get and the more advanced you get at your sport, the more precise and focused you need to be to many any sort of marginal gains. Beginners and amateurs gain a lot through getting strong quickly…but it’s the advanced lifters and the elite who gain more in the end through absolute refinement of technique so it’s 100% perfect when paired with pure strength.

That being said, depending on what my goals and focus are, I can choose to stick with a similar method of programming or try to experiment with something else if I feel it addresses what I need most as an athlete and as a competitor in the sport I want to compete in. I definitely vouch for sticking to something consistent at least for the “cycle” of a couple or a few months because I believe that’s the time it really takes to see progress and effectiveness long term. Yes, there are definitely “short” cycles out there that are meant to help with short-term, quick gains but if you’re looking to improve overall technique and strength at an advanced level, you need to build up that base strength over several weeks and months.


The Big Takeaway

All in all to summarize, I hope this article has given you a bit of insight as to how a weightlifting training program might be structured generally across a year, across a cycle and also within a week. However, please don’t consider this to be THE way to do things, as I (and my coaches) are always changing things up and experimenting with different ways of structuring workouts and movements to benefit me as an athlete, and to help me focus on building up my weaknesses and enhancing the strengths I do have.

What can you take away from this all?

  • Intensity shouldn’t be maintained at the same level day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and possibly even year-to-year.
  • Same goes for volume – your body needs breaks throughout the seasons in order to recover and build effectively without burning out.
  • Recovery, again, is your best friend. They are just as important to schedule into your week as your “workout” days are.
  • You might find it helpful or necessary to have mental breaks along with physical breaks – try out new things, switch up programming, or get away from a barbell (or just weightlifting focused) for a bit in order to refresh yourself every now and then so you can come back with more vigor.
  • The above is just oneapproach to programming…but of course you and I are very different and you might require different waves of volume or intensity at different times in the weeks, months, or throughout a year to adapt to your age, training age, lifestyle, schedule, life stressors, past injuries or mobility limitations, and other factors.

There you have it. If you have any questions about anything above please PLEASE feel free to add a comment below and I’ll answer it here!

Happy lifting!

Want to be Competitive? Respect the movements, respect your body.

I don’t think I really started to develop as a competitive athlete until I removed myself from the stimulation of a competitive environment.

I took myself out of a community that was constantly pushing to “try again, try just one more rep,” or with people who were yelling at my face to finish the round and keep picking up the bar, or with people who always wanted to repeat workouts all the time just to get slightly better scores just so they could prove that they were better than the score they received. Yes, I used to do that.

But looking back, the only thing I really gained from that type of environment was learning how to tolerate pain better “in the moment”.

Not all competitive environments are like this though – rough, tough, in your face, pushing until failure each day, trying to get a better score than the guy next to you every day. Some environments really have a huge respect for the science behind developing athletic performance – the perfect blend of intensity, volume, accessory work, recovery, stress management combined with encouragement and effort to develop a person from amateur, to intermediate, to advanced, to expert, and to elite or master. But it can be hard to really focus on these things unless you mentally remove yourself away from the overwhelming emotional desire and impatience to be “the best” and from people who are always pushing you to *beast it*.

I took a risk and left a competitive environment a couple years ago – I left a gym whose major goal seemed to be training athletes to get to Crossfit Regionals…I left a community of athletes I used to train side-by-side with who were also striving and pushing towards that goal…to coach and train at a place focused more on emphasizing and developing longterm, sustainable health (competitive is not sustainable) – and surprisingly, what awaited me here was a new environment that allowed me to gain more respect for form, for overall health and wellness, for recovery, and for not necessarily pushing the body to its limits all the time. It wasn’t until I learned and gained this respect that I become much stronger, and a more well-rounded athlete.

To become a better athlete, I needed to respect the movements, and respect my body for what it is capable of and what it needs.


I think we have this mindset that to be a top-tier athlete, we need to be constantly in the gym for hours because we see some of the professional athletes doing multiple workouts a day like it’s their full time job.

Um…well that’s because that basically IS their full time job – they have the hours and scheduling of the day to be able to move their bodies around all the time. Oh, what a fantasy life that is – to be paid for your performance. How stressful is that? I mean, didn’t most of us get into the sports we are in because we wanted an outlet away from the rest of life, and because we wanted to become “fit and healthy” for the long term?

Reality check. Many of us who are trying to be competitive don’t have this luxury (if it is a luxury?) of being paid to be a full time professional athlete. We have full time jobs, schooling and classes to take, families, kids, loans to pay off, mortgages to pay off, and other obligations that prevent us from putting in 24/7 effort into training to be paid based on performance. In fact, many of us partake in athletics because it takes us away from our other obligations – because it’s a hobby and because we have passion for it and because we want to live for many decades and to see our grandchildren grow and possibly great grand children.

So in our situation, where time is money, stress is around the corner, and restrictive schedules surround us…to be competitive, you have to train SMART, train strategically, and train with just the right amount needed (scratch that…the minimum amount needed) to get the maximum amount of gains so we don’t over stress ourselves and burn out.

Training to get to an expert or an elite level becomes more about the quality of the training, and not necessarily about the quantity of the training. There is a point in a day’s training program where you’ve reached the peak amount of time and stimulation needed to get the maximum benefits of those movements and intensity – and any minute spent or pound lifted thereafter will only give you diminishing returns on your performance…or worse, prevent you from recovering quicker because you’re just physically stressing your body more than it needs to be.

You have to focus on the quality of the movements themselves – the form, the mechanics, the right marriage of intensity and duration, and gain a respect for the movements and for what your body is capable of performing that day to truly get the most of your workouts.

This are the things that I have just now come to discover as a developing athlete who only started a few years ago – and still have a long journey to go…and I just want to share some of my thoughts and experiences with you who are also just starting out, who have the fire in your eyes to be competitive, and want to really grasp more out of your training to become a better athlete.

So, how do you truly become a better athlete and learn respect for the movements and for your body?

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EDUCATE YOURSELF ON THE MECHANICS OF MOVEMENT

Understand that the basic movement patterns and foundational strength need to be built before diving into details and complex movements.

Know what the ideal should be. Know what efficiency and effectiveness truly looks like – but also, know what kind of core strength is necessary or what might be missing when addressing the things you are struggling at.

The answer to becoming better at a movement is not necessarily just “doing more reps” and getting more practice and more muscle memory, but understand what type of movement and feeling is necessary to obtain and repeat (you certainly don’t want to be repeating form that will only work against you when you get to the refined level).

Sometimes, you have to break a complex movement down into pieces, or components (such as focusing just on the starting position and pulling up to the knees, or focusing on the top of a snatch pull where you “flex the triceps”, or developing enough thoracic mobility to be upright in a snatch, or feeling out how to transition from below rings to above the rings on a muscle-up) before you can put the whole back together again. You probably aren’t struggling with the WHOLE movement, but just a piece of it, and you need to identify that piece.

Also, don’t just look to the people and coaches immediately surrounding you. Look to the professionals, the elites, the coaches who coach the elites, and for science and research for answers. Pick up books, read articles, take seminars, expose yourself to a variety of different voices so that you can start to view certain movements in as many different ways as possible – then you are more likely to figure out the parts you are weakest at and the parts you are strongest at.

I think a lot of athletes (and just people looking to get into shape) can benefit immensely from just simple education on functional movements, what comprises more complex movements, what muscles are meant to be stimulated with certain exercises, and HOW you will benefit from certain exercises.

Even moreso, try out different coaches. I actually had the opportunity to train a couple times with Vasily Polovnikov (my husband has been training under his coaching supervision for the past several weeks now) – and learn how to break down the weightlifting movements again from complete scratch and with 100% different cues and 100% different way of approaching things. I felt like I was relearning everything again – but in the end it gives me a better understanding of the movement, more respect for the movement, and a better understanding of what it takes to be a competitive athlete.

I think we get caught up in the same way of doing stuff all the time and close ourselves off to new voices and opportunities once we’ve found our little niche and comfort zone. But, in order to get better, you have to learn how to break complex movements down to their essentials, and be open to exposing yourself to new ways of looking at things – or new cues, or perspectives from other coaches and people who will see new things that you haven’t noticed yet, and break out of that comfort zone for a bit.

 

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DON’T SETTLE FOR LESS THAN 100%

By 100% I don’t mean just effort. I mean FORM.

If you settle for 80-90% good form, or even 95% good form, then you’ll only become a 95% decent athlete.

But to be competitive, elite, and to show mastery at something, you need to be in that top 1%, or top .05%.

And to make world records, those athletes are at 100% because they just make it look so darn beautiful and easy (because when you do it 100% correct then it clicks!)

In just the two sessions of training I had with Vasily watching my form, I really began to understand how important CRITICISM is when learning things, and ACCEPTING CRITICISM because it will make you better. It sucks being told, “still not pulling hard enough….still not straight enough…etc” because I felt like I was trying to focus on improving every other part of the lift too and that wasn’t being acknowledged at all and I’m not getting anywhere!!!

But in the end, accepting anything less than 100% ideal form (regardless of if it’s a lighter “easy” warm-up weight or 95% of your max) will not make you a high level athlete – and even though you “made the lift” there are still improvements to be made. Even though in my mind I thought my lift felt and looked beautiful, or I had finally nailed down the “arch the back, chin up”, Vasily still told me “higher pull, more toes, straighter, still going too far back, blah blah blah.”

So discouraging, right?

Unless you are always striving to hit the ideal, you’re always just settling for less…which, if you are trying to be competitive, will not make you a master of anything. That’s because masters don’t settle for less than 100%. In the end, even though I still kept constantly being criticized for little things here an there, I ended up a better athlete at the end of the day because of how much more focused and stingy I was on perfecting form.

 

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FOCUS AND “STUDY” A COUPLE KEY AREAS AT A TIME

As a metaphor – think about college…where you have to take classes to specialize or major in a certain subject. In order to become specialized and develop expertise in a certain area, you must take classes that are thorough and specific to that area – classes that are very concentrated, that dive into the intricacies, ins and outs of that particular subject. Then when you finish the class, you have a much greater understanding not just of that subject, but also of the type of work and focus it takes to exploit a topic to its fullest (that you can then take with you to learning other subjects!)

Training is the same – there are areas in which you will need to spend much more time honing in on…and the best way to do that is instead of taking a “variety of classes” (focusing on developing everything at once), you take a cluster of concentrated classes for a cycle or two (focusing on thoroughly developing just 1-2 of your weaknesses).

You place all of your time, thought, and energy into really extracting all the details of these focused subjects so you don’t get distracted by other things – and then once you have developed these areas up to match your other strengths or have learned a sufficient amount, then you can take a step back to reassess the other areas now that you need to improve or “take classes on.”

But before you can do that, it might help to identify what your weaknesses actually are, and what’s really setting you back. A good coach can help you to identify these things. An flexible mind will help you trust that this is the right thing to do.

For me, that was understanding that my weakness was my lifting and barbell strength (because I’m short and pint-sized, you know! That’s a huge disadvantage for me!). I focused on weightlifting full time with minimal “crossfit” – I even cut out all the long distance and short distance running I used to do because I didn’t want it to take away from my strength gains. Lo and behold, I am now much stronger (still not as strong as many other bigger women) and am much more efficient and powerful at workouts.

 

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IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT PROGRAMMING…BUT IT HELPS.

First of all, I didn’t choose to switch away from the environment I was in ONLY because of its “programming.”

Programming alone will not make you a better athlete.

Understanding the MOVEMENTS and how to train the movements and recover properly from the movements MAKES YOU A BETTER ATHLETE.

Anyone can be given a program with X-movements and Y-reps but if you don’t practice and perform them properly, work on form and technique, nor understand how the programming truly contributes to your potential as an athlete, then you’re just doing mindless reps and sets.

Now, with that being said, programming that is appropriate for your skills WILL initiate you to focus on developing an understanding for the movement (beginner programming focuses on developing the basics, and more advanced programming will assume you already understand the basics and now need more refinement of skill). As an amateur or intermediate athlete, you probably will see a lot of initial gain and improvement simply because you’re starting from scratch, building up new muscle and developing your central nervous system to respond to new physical stimulation.

But for you athletes who are seasoned, who have some training age behind you, have proficient coordination and muscle memory and who are beyond the intermediate level – simply adding in more reps and higher weights, more volume and more intensity will not get you anywhere.

And definitely, putting yourself in a “competitive” environment where the people around you are pushing you, constantly yelling in your face to “do one more rep,” encouraging extra work afterwards will not make you a better athlete. Again, it just teaches you how to tolerate pain more.

Programming has to be specifically tailored to meet your own individual and personal needs – it addresses your weaknesses and helps you to focus on the things that you need most to help you become a better athlete. For example, I realized that I had a proportionally strong squat, but my “pulling” strength was lacking in terms of being able to power a weight high enough to catch in a snatch or a clean. Also, my overhead strength and core wasn’t as stable when it came to controlling a weight overhead once I caught it. So for awhile, my programming focused on pulling mechanics, incorporating a lot of lower back and hamstring strengthening accessory lifts and a lot of core stabilization exercises such as double overhead kettle-bell carries, single sided rows, front rack lunges, Romanian deadlifts and good mornings. Actually, it was a lot of emphasis on accessory work and supplemental work and not always “lifting big” and “big lifts” all the time.

 

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UNDERSTAND THAT YOUR BODY WORKS AS A SYMPHONY.

To become better at “crossfit” and constantly varied movements, you need to realize that every movement builds upon other movements, and that no movement sits on its own island by itself.

  • The mechanics of a squat take a role in a lot of movements (wall balls, pistols, leg positioning when rowing, box jumps, ball slams, olympic lifts)
  • The engagement of core muscles and their stabilization role basically gets used in almost 100% of movements (too many to list here)
  • The understanding of power generated from legs, hips, and full body extension (and all the other parts of the body that work too) carries over to many movements we do.
  • Pulling movements carry to other pulling movements
  • Pushing movements carry over to other pushing movements
  • Lacking mobility in one small area can affect and entire lift because it will throw your entire body out of alignment because you are limited in one area.

Your body has so many muscles, nerves, bones, and parts that work together as a symphony to move you in certain positions, to generate power, to stabilize, to mobilize, to hold up things, to push things, to pull things, to create speed and to create accuracy. To become better at one little thing, you also must address how your body works as a whole from core to extremity to focus on that movement.

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KNOW WHEN TO STOP, WHEN YOU NEED TO RECOVER.

Watch your ego and stop being so damn impatient and wanting to get better NOW!!

The two times I got injured were when I pushed myself beyond what the programming asked for – and specifically on days that were at the peak before tapering. I wasn’t satisfied with the reps I did and I really wanted to hit a certain weight for a 5RM back squat, or for a double hang-clean – and when I didn’t make the lifts I tried again, and strained my hip from over-squatting, and sprained an ankle from not having enough power left (from trying too many times) to properly catch a clean and having the bar crash on me.

I injured myself because I was stubborn and impatient – and the consequence was losing a lot of strength from having to hold back training and spend even more time trying to regain it all back.

There’s something neat about not always wanting to push to see what your max truly is for that day – or pushing because you “know you can do it,” or pushing until failure when you don’t have to (even when it’s in the program to work up to a max) because you’re always leaving a little bit more for later.

It’s like saving yourself those last extra couple bites of cake or brownie for later. Instead of eating them now (when you’ve already gained the stimulation and satisfaction from the previous bites of cake), you’re saving some pleasure and some anticipation for the future.

It’s easy to think “oh, that won’t happen to me” because it seems like everything is hunky dory until it does happen and you do get injured…and then you kick yourself in the butt asking “why didn’t I stop there?”

Strength comes in not just being physically capable of doing something, but being mentally capable of knowing your limits.


 

I could probably go on and on about this topic forever, because it’s something that I’m going through and experiencing now…and has taken me a couple years to finally understand the outer edges of. Even still, I have a long ways to go as an athlete, and the more I train and educate myself, the more I realize how much of an amateur I still really am to all of this.

Train smart. Train strategically. Respect the movements. Respect your body.

The ABCs of Goal Setting and Reaching Point Z - Is there even a Finite "Z"? by Weightlifting Woman @powersofthesnow

I sometimes feel it gets increasingly harder to get better at something once you’re somewhat “experienced or good at it”

…and even harder to progress even further.


I decided to write on this topic today based on many conversations and encounters I’ve had with athletes at my gym – athletes who seem frustrated that they aren’t “progressing as fast” as they thought they would, or who look to others who seem to be way ahead and wonder…why can’t I also be there?

Wait for it…here it comes…my whole spiel on “goal” talk. wahphwahphwahph

One of the best ways to start getting yourself places and progressing to whatever that may be (have some muscle definition, have more energy, finish a certain distance of race, be mobile enough to do an overhead squat with the bar with full range of motion, deadlift a certain amount of weight, etc.) is to…set goals.

Hard numbered, data-backed goals that are specific, measurable, and attainable (with some effort required, of course) in an realistically indicated amount of time…by you. SMART goals…basically.

*Note that these goals that I’m going to talk about are “inner” expectations that you set for yourself, not necessarily “outer” expectations that others would expect of you, or that you *think* others expect of you. These come from the heart…from deep down. You might want to do these because in the end it’s for someone else, but not because you feel that they expect you to.

But when we reach these goals…well is that the end? Whoop-dy-doo we’ve hit the target, now we can stop and cruise, right?

Nah, I’ve never found that to be the case.

In fact, meeting goals has pushed me to further set even higher goals…ones that I wouldn’t have even considered before even setting previous goals. Or, perhaps I would have envisioned one day miraculously being able to achieve these higher goals but they were just a “dream” and not necessarily a real goal.

A dream is just a big goal at the end of a line of several smaller goals and benchmarks that set you up along the way, making the dream actually seem achievable and possible.

Comparing Goals to the Alphabet: A Personal Interpretation

Because I like using metaphors, I’m going to use the alphabet as a way to explain my way of approaching goals. We all start somewhere (letter A) and we all want to end up somewhere (letter Z). Now, we can approach this way of comparing the alphabet to goals in two different ways:

There is a finite “Z”

Z is the ULTIMATE ending where we *dream* we want to be someday (such as weightlifting in the Olympics…dang that’s a HUGE goal!) and steps B through Y will be all the little steps to eventually get us to Z. Think of “Z” as a little kid’s fantasy of one day becoming an astronaut or a firefighter. We might actually get to Z if we try hard enough and decide to drop everything we’re doing and put all our efforts towards getting us towards that one goal. Perhaps, at the end of life, we just end up getting to “P” or “Q” and being satisfied with that.

For many of you, this “Z” is the ideal – Z is a distant dream that may or may not be achievable (but it is achievable because others HAVE done it), yet you know that you’re definitely no where close to that right now.

There is NOT a finite “Z”

In fact, Z is always changing, because A is always changing.

Once you actually hit “Z”, you reset yourself, start back at A again and now are on a journey towards a new “Z”.

If you follow this interpretation of the “goal alphabet”…then you’ll make sure Z is always within close reach (still taking steps B through Y to get there). Z is perhaps just making it to the end of a 30 day nutrition challenge, or the end of a 4 week training cycle without missing any days of training. “Z” in this case might also just be making it to the end of the day without “snacking on any holiday treats” (and B through Y is every hour you have to deal with when coworkers decide to bring in glutenous cookies)

Z is always changing…and because it’s always changing, you never know where you’re going to end up.

 

Which of these theories – when it comes to approaching your goals in life – do you think is correct?

Are they both correct?

Well, regardless of whichever way of thinking you decide to fall into, we can’t argue that in order to get from A to Z that you haven’t go through steps B through Y. Now, that progression of steps may not necessarily be linear (for example, when you get to step K you realize you have to jump back to step D), nor are all the steps equally the same (Step B might be just getting in 8 hours of sleep per night, whereas Step “M” might be making all of your squat sets without failure). Regardless, you need to make it through steps B through Y in order to achieve your end point.


 

So, why did I just go through all this effort to compare goals to the alphabet? Well, it makes it much easier to analyze and make sense of why we do what we do, and why we “fail” (or actually, miss or skip a step) in our journey to reach the “Z”.

So now, let’s talk about some of the stumbling blocks – why might someone not ever make it to “Z”?

What gets in the way of us achieving the “Z”?

Reason 1: We start at “A” and see the amazing endpoint of “Z” but try to jump to Z too fast without considering or ignoring steps B-Y, or try to skip letters (from “C” to “J”) thinking it will get us there faster.

That’s where we get into problems – trying to skip over letters in the alphabet (or even worse, ignoring letters!)…trying to take the “short cuts” because we think it’ll take us to Z faster.

Examples?

  • Perhaps “Step D” is eating 5-6 handful servings of greens and vegetables per day, as well as a palm size of protein at each meal. Forget to eat your veggies and protein? Well, you might be lacking in essential nutrients and vitamins that give you the energy you need day to day, and you won’t have enough protein “building blocks” to build that muscle you’re trying to make with your workouts.
  • …Or perhaps “Step R” is doing adequate warm-ups before every workout to ensure you have best range of motion possible and that your muscles are prepped and warm to take on intense loads. Always try to skip over those pesky warm-ups? Those “10 minutes” or so of warm-up may not seem like much in the moment, but repeatedly doing them establishes a ritual and consistency for you at every workout that you can take with you to competition day, and they will overtime consistently establish (and maintain) adequate range of motion, better stability in the muscles and joints, and lesser chance of injury (we don’t wear a bike helmet just “occasionally” because we want to prevent injury – we do it ALL the time because we fear that *one time* when it will happen. Warm-ups are like bike helmets – they help to ensure – at least a little more confidently – less chance of injury.)
  • …Perhaps another example of “skipping steps” is jumping up in weight intensity too fast in the programming without considering the end effects of going too heavy too fast in the cycle. If a program is done well with a lot of thought, science, and data to back it up, then follow the damn program so you can at least stay consistent! I’ve definitely started cycles where that “70-75%” on the first week felt extremely light, but I know I have to hold myself back from wanting to go heavier knowing that the cycle will pick up quickly in the next couple weeks and I’ll regret going too heavy too quick (because I’ll have to deal with that load later when it really matters but my body’s already too fatigued trying to recover from that last load…oops!)
  • …Perhaps you’re trying to do a move that you’re not ready for (such as a complex yoga pose) because you haven’t built up the proper mobility to do it correctly and in good form without injury…or taking on a race or mileage you aren’t ready for because you haven’t build up the muscle endurance, stamina, or nutrition experience to withstand the volume. The experience of going through steps B through Y are just as viable and important as the end goal of step Z…and in fact, B through Y are “mini goals” themselves and not just steps along the way…they are benchmarks indeed.
  • Perhaps it’s trying to find some type of “miracle pill” or performance enhancing supplement that will give you artificial gains without you experiencing the true natural gains yourself or considering other factors necessary such as good sleep or nutrition (anyone rely heavily on “pre-workout” to feel like you have any energy at all? Feel like you HAVE to have a FitAid following a workout so you don’t lose those gainz?)

The other side of trying to “skip ahead” too quickly is getting frustrated and overwhelmed when you don’t meet up to the standards of the letters you’re trying to skip to.

DUH its because the other letters set you up to succeed at further letters down the line!!

 

Reason 2: We see “Z” but have no idea where “A” is

Literally, in order to start achieving goals you have to understand where you are currently at. You also have to be honest with yourself – do you have as much mobility as you *think* you do? Is your nutrition really as good (heh “80/20”) as you tell other people it is…and does your current lifestyle set you up to continue that?

Or on the other end…do you actually have more drive, more energy, and more willpower than you think you do at the moment? (are you constantly telling yourself you are too tired to do something when really you’re just trying to find excuses not to start and can’t see the immediate benefit of completing the task of B right away? Are you waiting for the days to pass by thinking B will “eventually happen” without just doing it NOW?)

Assess where you are…and be honest with the assessment. If you really have no idea where your “point A” is…well just jump in and start with something!

Starting somewhere (whether it’s the appropriate step B for you or not) is better than not even starting at all, because then at least you’ll realize whether you started in the right spot and can actually make the move to start in the correct spot if that didn’t work.

The cool thing is once you have made it to your “Z” (and if you’re picking your very first “Z” pick one that’s super easy to do) that when you “reset yourself” and make your “Z” your new “A”, you’ll never have to worry too much about what “A” is because you’ve already established that with each “Z” you achieve.

 

Reason 3: We try to adapt someone else’s “A to Z” thinking that’s the right alphabet sequence for us.

Literally one of the worst things you can do for yourself is trying to take someone else’s goals and make them your own. Ok, if you’re an Obliger-type and need to achieve something because your boss or workplace expects that of you…that’s a different story (because that’s an outer expectation that someone else expects of you, not an inner expectation that you expect of yourself).

We’re talking about inner, personal expectations.

Um…personal goals are supposed to be individually dependent and reflective of personal needs and experiences. You might have the same “Z” as someone else (first muscle up? 100kg clean and jerk?), but your “A” and your “B through Y” will undoubtedly be different because you have different genetics, a different schedule, different social expectations, different types of support, different experiences, different opportunities, and different everything.

So, there’s no “one size fits all” diet, programming, or what not. One person’s Step “Q” might be really difficult for them, but might be really easy for you and vice versa. You all probably have to take similar types of steps to get there, but the intensity and impact of each step will vary widely based on who you are.

Yet, you can’t assume that because everyone has “different steps” that they never went through the same steps that you went through, or that it was necessarily “easier” or “harder” – they probably did something similar at one point but just with a different flavor or interpretation that fit their individual needs. Your “Z” might be their “Step P” or their “Step D.”

The effort that it’s taking them to reach their next “Z” is taking just as much effort as it’s taking you to reach your “Z”

 

Reason 4: We get caught up and frustrated trying to achieve our current goals because we forget how far we’ve come.

OK, the one DOWNSIDE of going with the theory that there is no finite “Z” is that: because A and Z are always evermore changing, we forget sometimes where the previous Z’s and A’s used to be.

We forget how far we’ve actually come and how much we’ve actually achieved because we’re always constantly setting newer, higher goals.

It’s tough to be thoroughly satisfied (for the long term) once we achieve the “Z” – Perhaps momentarily once you’ve finished the race, or snatched that long anticipated weight that you feel some sense of achievement and a “yes I did this!”…but does it ever stop there?

We keep striving for more and looking for more challenges to keep us motivated because we rarely ever find satisfaction in just staying in the same spot. But with every new Z comes a whole new set of B through Y that may not take the same level of effort or experience. It’s not like you can continuously repeat the same B through Y and keep progressing at the same rate if you’re always resetting back to A for a new Z.

The new Step “B” that you are facing now is way, way, way much further down the line than the original Step “B” you first faced back when you started your journey. It’s not like A to Z resets like an infinite circle…it’s like a new step on a set of stairs that lead to infinite goals and infinite dreams at the end. You’re just a few steps higher than where you started, and higher elevation means tougher breathing, colder weather, and thus adapting to tougher conditions to get to the end (if there is an end?)..

At least with the theory of a finite Z, you can always look back and see where you were at point A, point B, etc.


 

So…when do we start the journey to “Z”?

Today.

Why wait until the “opportune” moment, or until the 1st of the month to start something? You can start picking away at steps B and C now so when you get to that “first of the month” you’re already prepped and part of the way there.

Perhaps you’re in between training cycles though and you feel like you’re in this “transition” zone…well in that case, you’re in a different A-to-Z where the Z will be the first day “back at it” and your current steps are simply putting yourself in the best position at the end of your “transition” period to hit the ground running at your new “point A” when you’re ready.

The worst you can do is send yourself backwards into a previous alphabet set so you have to take even more steps to get where you want to be…more or less just stay in the same spot.

Why is it taking so long to get to “Z”?

Well, either you set your Z so far ahead that steps B through Y are much longer to pass through, or you’ve just stalled on one of those steps in between and can’t figure out how to progress or get around it without “cheating the system.”

  • Perhaps one of those steps isn’t an obvious one that you can physically control and get results for NOW, but one that needs more information in order to solve – perhaps you need a bit more knowledge in order to pass a certain step that you don’t have at the moment, or a certain amount of muscle built up overtime (that can only happen as a result of growth over time) that you need in order to achieve a first pull-up or vice versa.
  • Not all steps can be instantaneously passed through quickly and not all steps and benchmarks can be achieved with the current knowledge, skillset, mindset or way of thinking you currently have.
  • Some steps involve some sort of risk…stepping into the unknown and into the unfamiliar, and some steps are just freakin annoying and you have to deal with it so you don’t end up stalling.

All I can really say here at the end is that…we all have our “Z’s” that we want to get to, or that we dream of getting to some day. But it’s about the experience of B through Y, and about the creation of new Z’s that come along that makes our lives exciting and what gives us constant drive to be better at something.

Don’t ever forget how far you’ve come, and how many A to Z’s you’ve been through to get to your current letter. Just know that it gets increasingly harder to create full complete sentences, paragraphs, statements, ideas, and thus “satisfaction” when you’re missing some key letters of the alphabet.

 

Pizza.

 

(gluten free slice for me, of course.)

 

Focusing on Converting Strengths to Weaknesses - Jerks

I used to hardly ever miss jerks. If I could clean it, then by golly I could jerk it.

That was back a couple years ago when I focused a lot more on “crossfit.” Cleans used to be my limiting factor in the clean & jerk, but it was because I didn’t have a strong enough pull to get the bar on my shoulders, not necessarily because I couldn’t “squat” it.


 

To achieve higher levels of anything, you really can’t just focus on improving everything equally across the board. You have to be willing to pick your battles and spend less time working on your strengths and really hone in on your weaknesses.

First step is being aware of what your weak points actually are though.

Fast forward to this past year – I placed a lot more focus on developing my pulling strength while also improving my squat numbers so I could get under those cleans…because again, if I could clean it, then I would be 98% sure I could jerk it.

That is, until the ability of my cleans and pulls actually caught up to my jerk ability…and even surpassed it. I started missing jerks left and right or didn’t feel as stable as I normally did when jerking overhead. In the past, if I had a new clean PR, my mind would think “yes! I cleaned it and I’m totally nailing this jerk). But now, I started to actually fear I would miss the jerk after cleaning it – and that mentally probably caused me to also miss a lot of jerks as well.

Yes, it turns out I focused so much on developing my other weaknesses and left my “strength” aside that the thing that used to be my strength now turned into my limiting factor.

What a bunch of jerks.


 

Figuring out How to Tackle Weaknesses

How do you begin to assess what your weaknesses really are and why they are weaknesses? Well, you might start by asking yourself these questions (I certainly did):

 

1. Do you have a particular movement or moment where you often question your ability to actually make the lift (do you fear it more than others?)

Once I started fearing that I would miss the jerk once I cleaned it, I knew that it was an area I had been lacking focus in. It wasn’t that I was “avoiding” it, but simply I had chosen to place my focus on developing other things until they caught up to my jerking ability. To continue growing, I had to re-shift my focus back to other areas.

 

2. Is there an area of your training that you have been focusing less on because you think you’ve been stronger at it, or it doesn’t feel as “important” anymore…and perhaps that lack of focus is causing loss of strength in that area?

Perhaps my lack of jerk strength wasn’t actually due to the fact that I wasn’t “jerking” enough or doing enough jerk-related exercises.

I think a lot of it had to do with lack of gymnastic focus.

I noted that I hadn’t been doing as much gymnastic or upper body work since I focused more on weightlifting and less on crossfit stuff. I wasn’t doing nearly as many pullups, toes-to-bar, muscle ups, push-ups, ring dips, handstand walks, lots of reps of shoulder-to-overhead, or the like as I was in the past when I was doing crossfit workouts almost everyday…and when my jerks were much more confident. I’m pretty sure that because my training had been lacking in those areas within the past year (whereas before I incorporated them a lot more into my workouts), that there was some upper body structural strength that I had lost that wasn’t there to help stabilize heavy jerks anymore.

I started incorporating some more gymnastic work a couple times a week to get that back.

 

3. How do your stats look and how do YOU look compared to others of similar goals and ability?

I video myself A LOT (if you don’t know already) – and why? Because I am very visual when it comes to learning.

(also because I am self-coached most days of the week).

I can certainly try to “feel” something when a coach tells me, but I also like to see what I look like from an outside perspective…and I compare that to what other lifters of my weight-class and potential ability also look like when they lift to see what I need to work on. If you’ve been heavily reliant on taking cues from how everyone else sees you move but you haven’t actually seen yourself move, it might be an interesting idea just to grab a video every now and then because you will learn an incredible amount from yourself just by seeing how your body interacts with space as you’re lifting or doing a movement.

What you feel and what you see of yourself during that moment can be totally different sensations.
Just by seeing how I move, I realize “wow, my front leg doesn’t actually go out as far as it feels like I do in the jerk” or “I come forward a lot more than I thought I did on the dip”.

 

4. What’s your body type? Do you have longer or shorter limbs compared to others your height, and how does that affect your lifting mechanics?

Physics. If you haven’t thought of this already, you should probably consider that a movement might feel more difficult to you because of your body’s construction. If you have longer legs then pulling or even squatting can be tricky. If you have longer arms in comparison to your torso, then locking out lifts overhead will be more of a challenge because it’s a longer distance the bar needs to travel (or longer levers to get into place to lock out that jerk or snatch).

These areas of disadvantage should always be an area of focus for you because they will always be slight disadvantages in the eyes of physics. You can’t really make your arms or legs shorter but you can modify your stance, increase your mobility, increase your speed, coordination and strength.

 

5. What are you *reaaaally* good at? OK, time to set that aside for now.

If you have a pretty big weakness that you need to improve, you really need to put a lot more of your energy towards developing that. Any effort you put towards any of your other strengths or areas will always take away from what you can put towards your weakness.

If I wanted to place a lot of focus on my jerk, then I probably couldn’t do too many excessive heavy clean pulls or focus too much on squats since my muscles would be tired after doing those movements and couldn’t be used as effectively to really focus on developing jerks. I wanted to be primed and at my best for jerk and overhead sessions and switch everything else to “maintenance” mode if that wasn’t my focus for the cycle.

On a bigger picture note – when I decided to pursue weightlifting full time, I had to drop any “running” or crossfit because I needed to develop lifting strength – and the type of energy I would use and muscle fiber type I would develop through running and metabolic conditioning would actually be against what I was trying to develop.

Now, I looooove running and I also wish I could do some of those crossfit workouts during class that I coach to our members – but I have to tame myself. You’ve got to tame yourself and stay away from those things you love and are good at (for just a little bit of time) to become better at the things that are holding you back.


97kg Jerk - Weaknesses Article

Nailed that 97kg jerk the other day after finally taking a few weeks to get my jerk back up!

So  now after focusing on a mini-cycle of jerk, overhead strength and more gymnastic strength, I’m proud to say my jerk has caught up with my cleans now! I still want to get to the point where I’m 100% confident I’ll make the jerk – but perhaps a lot of that is mental limitation and not just physical limitation.

Crossfit Themed Christmas Cards - PowerSnowDesigns @powersofthesnow

 

As a way for fundraising to help offset some of the costs of flying out to Reno for the American Open this year, I decided to put some of my crafty design skills to good use…

Crossfit & Weightlifting Themed Holiday Cards for Sale!

I’ve opened up an Etsy Shop (under the alias PowerSnowDesigns) where I am currently selling both pre-printed packs of cards, as well as digital PDF “Print-Your-Own” cards incase you wanted to print many more on your own or mix-and-match.

Crossfit Holiday Christmas Cards Bundle by PowerSnowDesigns @powersofthesnow

Neatly bundled in packs of 10 with red A2 envelopes

 

 

 


 

Currently, packs of ten A2 sized cards (10 of a single type of card) are $25 pre-printed with matching envelopes (that’s $2.50/card). I am also selling a BUNDLE set of 15 cards that contain 3 of each design for $31 (that’s $2.13/card). Shipping is $3 (though if you can meet me in person you won’t have to worry about that!

I also have DIGITAL PDF versions of the cards for sale to so you can print them on your own! (but not sell…just print to hand out to friends & family). Those run for $6 per PDF design you purchase, or $20 for the entire bundle of 5 digital PDF designs

 

Think of an idea for a design you want me to try out? I’m still in the mood and mode to design more, so stay tuned! I’d totally appreciate your comments, thoughts, opinions and suggestions below, thanks!

Lifting With or Without a Belt Feature Image - Snow Charpentier @powersofthesnow

I remember being extremely rebellious and skeptical to wanting to use a belt when I began my journey with a barbell – mainly because I thought using a belt would prevent building up a strong core necessary for supporting heavy lifts. If you’re always reliant on the support and stability of a belt to press your core against and keep you more upright (and tighter in the bottom of a squat), how will you ever teach your body to develop that stability without it?

What good is adding an extra 5 – 10lbs on your squat with a belt when your body certainly isn’t capable of doing it without the belt? Aren’t we trying to train our bodies to be stronger without the safety belt?

That was my logic for a long time – comparing lifting with a belt to using “steroids”, and I was always skeptical about ever needing a belt (or wrist wraps, or knee wraps, etc).


 

So I brought this topic up because…

…I just realized a couple days ago how having a belt really does matter when it comes to my lifts.

But not all the time.

In the last few weeks, my programming has required me to do sets of 5 squats twice a week, with each day getting heavier and heavier.

Twice now, I’ve done 3 sets of 5 at 235# (a few weeks apart) without fail. Just recently, I was supposed to repeat that weight for even more sets of 5. But I left my belt and knee sleeves at home and didn’t think the extra 10 minutes to drive home and back to get them was worth it. Except, I think it really was worth it.

I went ahead with the mentality of “I can still totally do this because 235# wasn’t that bad and I’ve squatted heavy before without a belt & knee sleeves”. How did I do? Only got to 3 reps, then failed. Those 3 reps felt extremely heavy and I didn’t feel as stable or as tight coming out of the bottom of the squats (despite me going into the lifts thinking I could nail them all).

I started to think maybe it was an accumulation of heavy CNS work and lifting on Sunday, plus the fact that Tuesdays were my long grueling days where I get an hour less of sleep because I have to coach 5:15am AND two classes in the evening. Not only that, I had to cram my workout in before evening coaching (so no time to get the belt).

But was my failed squat workout really due to the lack of belt and knee sleeves?


 

When (or why) does someone eventually decide to purchase or use any of these supportive pieces of gear?

I know a lot of people who take on using a belt early on to “help support their lumbar and lower back.” They think they might severely lose their form or lose the flatness and tension in their backs during a  heavy set of squats or a heavy deadlift. Most people start using wrist wraps because their wrists feel lot of pressure or pain while holding a overhead (either in a snatch or jerk grip) and the wrists seem to be one of the narrowest and weakest areas of our bodies. As far as knee wraps, I think most people start wearing them due to a knee injury or knee pain (either mild or severe) or because of excessive joint stiffness or cracking that happens due to “aging bodies.” Although, I have talked to a few people who say they love knee sleeves because it warms up their joints for heavy lifting later on, and also keeps them more mindful of staying tight in the bottom of a squat.

Generally, it seems most people either start using these to:

  • support a weakness or prior injury, or
  • to prevent injury from happening later on.

I think I succumbed to getting a belt eventually because I fell into the second category above, but also because of competition. To me, it seemed that everyone who was lifting heavy on the platform had a belt – I didn’t necessarily feel like I really needed to “support my lower back” but I thought it would keep me a little more upright and stable in terms of core strength when it came to squatting (and if it happened to add 3kg onto my clean & jerk I’d be happy with the result.)

Some people will literally treat these things as “safety belts” where it becomes mostly a mental assurance that they will make the lifts when wearing these things. If they suddenly forget to bring their belt or wraps to the gym they feel slightly incapable and less confident of physically being able to complete the task as strongly – but question is, can they still do all the reps and sets without necessarily needing to rely on these things? When does having a belt, wraps, or knee sleeves become a mental brace versus being a true physical brace?


 

The Mentality of a Safety Belt

I do really think mentality, when it comes to lifting, will certainly make someone better and stronger at lifting. If you go into a lift 100% confident that you’ll make the weight and know you have the strength to make it, chances are you’ll probably make it given you’re physically ready. You’ll feel a flow of energy and vigor, and will be able to attack that weight as you intended.

On the other side of it, your body may physically be capable of making the lift, but if you start to have mental doubts that you won’t make it then you’re increasing the chance of not making it. You’re constantly linking your brain’s activity to your muscles – and any lack of sureness or uncertainly during a lift may cause a sudden drop in stability or tightness that leads to a failed attempt.

This type of visualizing and thinking: “yes, I can make the weight!” or “I might not be able to” can happen with or without necessarily having your props – but for some, having that repeated stimulation of a belt, or feeling of wraps on their wrists and knees can keep their mind at ease because it’s a feeling they are using to having. When they forget their belt or wraps at home they just have this strong thought that “something is missing” and they can feel that something is missing because it’s usually been there.

I knew while I was doing the lift that something felt missing – that I was missing the stimulation of extra padded layers of neoprene around my legs or missing the feeling of rolls of fat around my abs pushing out around a thick block of stiff fabric cinching up my waist.

Reoccurances or habitual stimulations are comforting to us because we expect them – anything that breaks that expectation or pattern makes us mentally aware of the situation (OMG, combo breaker!) and thus, less certain and confident of the outcome. I’m more confident knowing my belt is there when the lift is heavy because it’s one less non-constant variable I have to deal with.


 

The Physical Stimulation of a Safety Belt

I started wearing knee sleeves not because of injury, but because I think it reminds me to stay tighter in the bottom of a squat and makes my knees more stable. The extra 1/2″ of neoprene padding does actually prevent me from going as deep in my squat (and staying a fraction of an inch higher DOES matter when it comes to leveraging weights close to your max). I also found other benefits to the sleeves – my knees are less scraped from the knurling on the barbell and they also make a great matching accessory to other pink gear that I own.

clean pull 220# - belt & no-belt comparison

Left = no belt. Right = belt. This was captured at the peak height of the pull

A belt, for me, provides a much more upright position (less slouchy). This upright positioning is incredibly key to retain at the bottom of a squat when the tendency might be to lean forward due to slight lack in hip, ankle, or thoracic mobility. The belt gives my core something strong to press against so it stays full and supportive of the load when at the bottom and while trying to drive upwards.

Another benefit of a belt is my clean and snatch pulls are noticeably higher and more powerful. For example, the left image shows the difference between a clean pull at 220# (+100%) without and with a belt – those couple of inches will make all the difference when it comes to how much time I have to pull myself under the bar (and how high I catch the barbell).

I force myself only to use a belt when I know I’m going heavy (above 90% clean & jerk) or heavy on back squats. So when I am on a “heavy” training day and I forget my belt, I can physically feel that the brace is missing – that my mid section is much softer, squishier and less held in during my lifts. On lighter lifts (below 85%), I don’t feel I need to rely on the belt to make the lift since I have enough base core strength to support that load.

When the lifts get heavier (and on days that I might feel more fatigued or at the heavy end of a training cycle), having that extra bit of support or brace there can make all the difference whether I make all of my heaviest lifts or partially make them.


 

Figuring out when you don’t really “need” the safety belt anymore

Take a guess…when do you realize you actually don’t NEED something?

…When you are able to successfully complete the thing you were supposed to do without actually having the thing that was “needed” and without any issues at all.

For this reason, I don’t wear wrist wraps anymore. One day, I simply forgot them and didn’t think about it. I ended up PRing both my snatch and clean & jerk on the same day without a single wrist wrap in sight (and without noticing). Therefore, I was questioning why I needed them in the first place…especially since I felt like they did limit my range of motion in terms of elbow turnover in the cleans. I thought I needed them “for support” and to reduce soreness, but clearly I had all the wrist support already built into my wrists from thousands of repetitions of holding heavy weight overhead, and thus my wrists becoming used to holding that load.

I thought this same way a few times in regards to my belt and knee sleeves.

Oops, I forgot them at home. WELL, If I was able to PR this and that without these other things, then I should be able to do OK without them, right?


 

The only way you’ll ever know if you really need that belt, or those supports, wraps, or sleeves, is if you just try  without them and let yourself be OK with that. I will say that by constantly relying on that stimulation of a belt that you become both mentally and physically reliant on that stimulation and will find it tougher to have the confidence to lift without it.

A belt shouldn’t also be used to “fix” or correct bad form. It should only supplement great form you’ve developed without it to start (at lower weights).

But try lifting with and without a belt various times and in different situations, because some days you’ll be more fatigued than others or have less strength because of where you are in the strength cycle – and you wouldn’t want to make any assumptions based on your “one time” experience.

Learn how your body manages itself with and without supports – and once you know how much your body can tolerate raw without the extra belts or sleeves or wraps, train yourself to that threshold without your supports as much as possible to develop that raw *unsupported* strength as fully as you can.