Saturday, December 30, 2006
What I've been juggling this week is what I imagine every fitness enthusiast juggles when they travel to visit relatives: the somewhat random unfolding of events as a captive relative; being a guest in other people's homes, adapting to their schedules, attempting to schedule some "personal time" without seeming standoffish or unsocial.
Some things are important and some things are urgent. Some are both and some are neither. All are subjective. The most important thing to me this week has been to get to spend time with people I love and rarely get to see. So far it's all worked out pretty well. I planned ahead and brought my KB and planned not to plan specific times or programs. I've been persistant in looking for "down time" in the socializing but left that time open to train, write, or even nap. Above all though, it has been patience that has been the most important. Patience with others, patience with automobile traffic, patience with airport and flight snafus, but mostly patience with myself.
I think I might actually return from this vacation having seen everyone I could, enjoyed the time we spent together, in better KB shape and still somewhat rested! That would be a major accomplishment!
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
A recent example of this for me was Steve Cotter's recent blog entry entitled, What is your meditation? While not limited to athletic movement as a way to access a meditative state, Steve's post raises what I think is an important aspect for many people when they exercise and that is the aspect of fulfillment as it pertains to what they are paying attention to. Steve's observations come on the heels of a conversation I had with an old sweet heart of mine who recently completed her Masters in Clinical Psychology. She did her thesis work with a brilliant psychologist named Mihaly Csikzentmihaly, whose book Flow: The Psychology of Optimum Experience I had read years earlier and had turned her on to while she and I were still dating. Flow, while not intended as a blueprint for a happier and more satisfying life, certainly provides a lot of clues based on empirical research as to what ingredients do contribute to a happier and fulfilling life.
Flow is not something you do so much as it is a psychological state that arises as a by product of engagement with an activity or activities. Meditation as an activity certainly produces what one could call a Flow state and Flow certainly has characteristics one might describe as meditative but I would hesitate to say they are one and the same. For example, the so called runner's high could be an example of either phenomenon depending on how you want to categorize it...meditation is perhaps more rightly described as a metaphysical activity while Flow perhaps more accurately is characterized as a psychological state.
What is Flow? Well, one way to think of it is as a state of total engagement with what you are doing. Some aspects of it are:
- Completely involved, focused, either as a result of training or simple curiosity
- Sense of being "outside" of everyday reality; heightened experience of reality
- Competence: skills are adequate and confidence is high
- Unselfconscious- no worries about self, other's evaluations or judgements
- Timelessness -complete focus , you don't notice time passing
- Intrinsic motivation - the activity is it's own reward
Artists and musicians are quite familiar with the above Flow characteristics. However, virtually any activity can produce it. Csikzentmihaly has documented all kinds of Flow experiences from all kinds of people in all walks of life. However, Flow is more common with people who have learned to organize their lives so they stay busy with activites that they find fulfilling and satisfying and engaging. Although all the above characteristics interweave in ultimately unquantifiable ways, in my opinion the key factors are internal focus and something of intrinsic value has to be produced.
Flow for all intents and purposes seems to be synonymous with "being happy". Generally speaking, people who organize their time and expecially their leisure time around activities that suit their skills and interests report higher and more frequent levels of happiness than people who rely on passive entertainment, such as T.V. to pass the time. Happiness is a product of being engaged with some activity. It doesn't matter what the activity is...Csikzentmihaly monitored all kinds of trades and professions and found assembly line workers who were profoundly in love with their jobs and just as engaged with their work as corporate CEOs or performing artists with theirs. This simple fact, that it isn't the activity alone that produces the satisfaction, means something else must be going on. This something else is the individual's habits of thought and judgement.
Maybe what is standing in the way between fulfillment and drudgery is simply a judgement call. What if a sensible nutritious diet plan and regular exercise aren't drudgery in reality at all. Maybe "drudgery" exists only in your experience and is based on your judgement or perception: on what you say ? It's your opinion that counts from your viewpoint. It's what you believe to be true that appears to be true for you. Perhaps the key to success and happiness in all things, not just exercise is simply a matter of how one thinks about things whether by habit or by choice. Someone once said, you are entitled to your own opinions but you aren't entitled to your own facts. So consider the possibility that it might not be an actual fact that a sensible diet and regular exercise is drudgery, but it is a fact that you say it is.
I like this quote, which Csikzentmihaly includes in his book Flow:
If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you, but your own judgment of them. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgment now. -Marcus Aurelius
Perhaps happiness and Flow states are most simply described as "getting out of your own way". Habitually negative judgement is a way of getting in your own way. I know as a chronically negative thinker myself that I have to manage this aspect of my personality very closely. It is an odd way to speak and the words don't quite capture the sense of it but I am happiest when I'm not present. I am happiest when I am the activity. Maybe the key to being happy while exercising is to not try to escape the discomforts through T.V. or "Cardio Theater" or the Ipod, but to go deeper, get out of your own way and experience the activity for what it is. Finding Flow, as another of Csikzentmihaly's books is entitled.
Please post your thoughts and share where (or if) you find Flow.
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Rex Mclaren and I have three things in common:
- we both started off with the same powerlifting coach...a brilliant Master lifter named Terry Unger
- we both grew up in the same small town and went to the same small high school in rural west central Illinois
- we are both masters age group lifters
The similarities end there, however. I am a duffer Olympic Weightlifter who was a mediocre powerlifter. Rex has always been an elite powerlifter...from the day he picked up a barbell he has been strong...Pig Strong, as Terry used to say. When he was a 105 lb beginner he could bench 185.
Rex competed and won the IPF Masters I category Bench Press competition this past summer in Miami. At age 44 he benched 145kg in the 60kg weight class....that's 319lbs at 132lbs bodyweight for those who don't do kg. Not too shabby. By Rex's reckoning he is likely the first American in at least five years to win in this weight class.
Here's a link to a short article from the local newspaper with an interview.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Or are you just happy to be Marc Huster? I didn't intend to start a theme of scantily clad Olympic Weightlifters, but I couldn't pass up posting this photo which appeared along with an article on Huster around the time of the Sydney Olympics in the German magazine Stern. Huster won the Silver in Sydney losing out on Gold for the second time to Greece's Pyrros Dimas, who collected his third Gold Medal in as many Olympiads in Sidney. But there's more than beefcake posted here as I hope you would expect. This post is really about extra effort, professional pride and not being willing to rest on one's laurels, Olympic or otherwise.
The upper right photo is of Huster in his work clothes celebrating with one of his trademark leaps after setting the Clean and Jerk World Record for the 83kg class four years prior to Sydney at the Atlanta Games. Only moments before, Dimas had just set the new WR mark but Huster took it away by 1/2kg. The WR had to be the consolation prize for Huster because it still wasn't enough to win the day as he was too far behind Dimas after the snatch portion of the competition to catch up and he knew he had to settle for Silver. It is worth noting that Huster had the Silver all sewn up before attempting to take the WR from Dimas. He knew that the world record attempt wouldn't be enough to win the Gold. He could have just called it a day and let Dimas walk away with Gold, WR Snatch, WR Jerk and a WR total. But he went for it anyway, denying Dimas a complete sweep.
Huster retired in 2001. But Dimas, who could have retired after Sydney as only the third weightlifter in history to win three Gold medals went for one more Olympic moment. Even though he was injured and a little past his prime his effort was rewarded with Bronze at the 2004 Athens Games and he became only the fourth weightlifter in history to medal in four different games and only the third lifter to do so in four consecutive games. In the bottom photo, perhaps taking a page from Huster's playbook, Dimas elevates in celebration on the Athens platform.
Dimas's team mate in Athen's Kakhi Kakiasvilis also of the three time Gold medal club, bombed out in his bid for a fourth medal; thus meeting the same fate that the other member of the club, Naim Suleymanoglu, The Pocket Hercules, met going for his fourth medal four years earlier in Sydney.
There's a fine line between knowing when to concede the game and when to put it on the line just one more time, knowing enough to know the difference between a pipe dream and a calculated risk. Huster in Atlanta. Dimas in Athens. Kakiashvilis and Suleymanoglu both knew it would have to be a Perfect Storm for them to place in their respective efforts but trained and went for it anyway. But that's what they hand out the big kettlebells for.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Monday, December 4, 2006
E-SB: Mistress Krista…thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. I first discovered your strength training website in 2003, I think. How long have you had your site up?
MK: Since about 1996 or 1997, I think. It started as a very small project, with only a few articles, and it just grew!
E-SB: Wow, you’ve been on the internet almost as long as it’s been in existence…almost since Al Gore invented it. I confess to being a big fan of your site and of your writing. I share your website with everyone, male or female because I think it has a lot to offer in the way of quality training information. What have you been up to lately and what’s up with the future of the website?
MK: Well, I’ve been helping out a women-only boxing gym, one of the first I know of, in Toronto. I’d like to develop some instructional materials for boxing coaches who would like to train their fighters with weights/resistance exercises, but need some assistance in developing a program. And there are about 1000 more articles in progress for the site – I keep thinking of things to add, but life intervenes and I can only add them little by little!
E-SB: That’s great…I’d be happy to forward some contacts to you that should be able to offer some help with designing weight training programs for fighters.
How long have you been training with weights, Krista?
MK: I first got a taste for it in high school when I took a weight training course, and then in first year university, but I fell off the wagon for a long time and didn’t get back into it consistently until I was 50 lbs overweight in grad school (about 1996). So, I’d say it’s been consistent for 10 years.
E-SB: Well, you certainly took control back because you’ve managed to get and stay very fit. Did you play any sports growing up?
MK: I’d always liked individual sports: cycling, hiking, gymnastics, dancing and so forth, and at heart I am an active person who enjoys getting out and doing physical things, but I was a bookish kid and hated organized physical activity, especially team sports. I was always the kid picked last for the team! It took me many years to figure out that my inability to catch a ball, and my even greater inability to care about making the ball go in a little hoop or over a net didn’t make me a physical loser. I just had to match my sports to my personality.
E-SB: I can identify with all that…I played organized team sports in high school mostly because of peer pressure. The rah-rah “pep club” aspect of team sports always turned me off as somewhat phony, inauthentic behavior. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve moderated that position considerably...as you say matching the personality to the sport is key. How did you get involved with strength training and lifting weights?
MK: I was, as I said, 50 lbs overweight, with sore knees and hips, and totally unsatisfied by the exercise offerings available to women. Lifting weights is something that anyone can do even if they are a klutz, and I was also attracted to the results – getting stronger is very satisfying. So, I saved up for a gym membership (I was a starving student at the time and putting together the $50 or whatever it was for a gym membership was a big deal), and never looked back.
E-SB: When you started out, did you have trouble locating qualified instruction?
MK: Very much so. Far too many trainers are, I’m sorry to say, poorly educated, not terrifically bright, and not critical thinkers. They constantly steer women away from serious training and towards pointless junk that wastes their time and reinforces the idea that women should be weak stick insects. On the other hand, I was really lucky to meet some amazing people who really knew their stuff. I also had the benefit of working at a university where I had access to an academic library – this meant that I could simply go and read books on physiology, anatomy, etc. and know that the information available in the mainstream media was unsubstantiated garbage.
E-SB: Your writing on the subject is very learned…it is also very entertaining which reflects a level of mastery of the topic very few people have. Do you have any certifications or academic credentials in the field of strength training?
MK: Nope – just a decade of experience and an active commitment to ongoing learning. Most credentials aren’t worth much more than toilet paper, though. Very few carry any real weight.
E-SB: I definitely agree with that judgment. I’ve had one or two of those certifications myself and in retrospect wish I had saved the money for a book. Who have been your biggest influences in the field?
MK: I’ve been strongly influenced by the old school strong men and women, along with sports scientists and researchers. This includes the late Dr. Mel Siff, William Kraemer, Dave Draper, JV Askem, Bryce Lane, Duncan MacDougall, Digby Sale, Tudor Bompa, Vladimir Zatsiorsky, Stu McGill, and so forth. I love the system that John Berardi is working on with his Precision Nutrition, which is really more of a way of eating than telling people what to eat. Scott Sonnon has some interesting ideas and I’m told his martial arts skill is amazing to watch. The Crossfit folks have produced some quite creative and demanding workouts, and it’s nice to see a “back to basics” approach taking hold. I’m sure there are a zillion people I’m forgetting (I hope nobody will be offended).
In general, I prefer people who have a flexible, questioning approach that tries to get at the roots of movement itself, and understands the importance of individualizing training – there is no one size fits all method.
I’ve had the benefit of learning some of the great old-style lifts from the folks who themselves performed those lifts several decades ago. When I was hanging out on the newsgroup misc.fitness.weights in the late 1990s there were some amazing people too, who shared their experience and knowledge freely. But I also steal ideas shamelessly from everywhere else: martial arts, belly dancing (great for spine rehab), etc. I’m an exercise kleptomaniac and I improvise. Just like when I try a new recipe, as soon as I learn something, I immediately think, “How can I mess around with this?” I try to avoid getting too tied in to any one school of thought or “leader”, because it limits you. As soon as you declare yourself a disciple of XYZ, even if XYZ is great, you run the risk of limiting new opportunities for growth and learning. Education comes in the most unexpected places sometimes.
I’ve also been really inspired by the “plain folks” who have used my advice in their own lives. It’s worth so much to me when, for example, a woman in her 60s writes me to say that because of my website, she is kicking ass in the gym; or some proud father writes in to tell me about his teenage daughter who has a killer squat. As cliché as it sounds, my site readers are actually my biggest inspiration. I’m not particularly inspired by “natural athletes” nor elite competitiors – they take care of themselves. I am, however, energized daily by these average people doing exceptional things, and/or overcoming whatever daily life challenges they face.
E-SB: I recognize many of those names and they are some of my big influences too. A couple are new to me…I’ll have to get googling. You do have an amazing “Letters” section on your site. I love what you said about being energized by average people doing exceptional things. That's what it's all about. You clearly love weight training…have you ever thought of competing in some iron sport like power lifting or Olympic Weightlifting?
MK: I thought about competing in powerlifting briefly, and set about training for a competition. I quit after three months because I wasn’t having fun. I know some folks thrive on competition and find it very motivating but to me, competition sucks the fun out of things. I was obsessed with three lifts and already bored; working on a shoulder injury from all the bench pressing, and just not enjoying myself. To compete, you need to have a very clear focus on one particular thing, and I didn’t have that. My life is stressful enough as it is, so I decided not to add more stress, and just keep weight training as a pleasant hobby. However, of all the things one could compete in, strength sports are one of the best. The community is very supportive. I compare this to bodybuilding/fitness/physique-based competition, which often seems very harsh and critical to me. There isn’t much bragging in the strength competition community, because everyone knows either you can lift it or you can’t. Your actions speak for you.
E-SB: I agree…there is a real camaraderie amongst strength athletes. One of the fears many misinformed men and women have is that women will get too “butched up” (as you put it in one of your articles) Russian Kettlebell Instructor Lauren Brooks wrote an excellent essay on why women should train like men which you have posted on your site…any woman afraid of getting too butched up from weight training need only look at Lauren’s physique to put that fear to rest and get a more affirmative idea of what a woman’s physique produced by serious strength training can look like. Do you incorporate kettlebells into your training at all?
MK: Yes, I do on occasion, and I enjoy them. But I have to admit I get a little turned off sometimes by some folks who claim that kb training is the be-all and end-all. Kettlebells are great fun, and there’s something very satisfying about throwing them around, but on the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t limit myself to them. I’ve been privileged to chat a bit with the guy who created kettlestacks and he’s a very inventive fellow – I always enjoy seeing what he comes up with.
E-SB: I’m a certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor myself and have assisted at the RKC certifications in Minnesota. They are fun and very challenging and perhaps for some people they satisfy every need, but I agree with you there is no reason to limit yourself to them unless you simply want to. Most of the KB enthusiasts I know incorporate them with some other form or forms of training. To follow up on the above question, I’ve encountered plenty of women who eschew free weights for fear of becoming too “masculine”, but I’ve never run across any men who worry that using machines will make them too “feminine”. Why do you suppose that is?
MK: Ha ha, great question. I never thought about that one, although I do recall a few men sneaking into the back of the step aerobics classes I used to take in the early 1990s. I think in general, exerting any serious effort is considered masculine, so machines can conceivably fall under that. I also think that there are levels of manliness – for most folks, the effort alone is enough, and most men consider the really tough free weight guys a sort of unattainable ideal. I do know of men who quietly set the pin to a higher weight when they’re done, so that people will think they used more weight than they did (as if bystanders care). The funny thing is, it’s been my experience that the scariest biggest guys in the gym are usually the nicest.
E-SB: Uh-huh…I once saw a guy reset the pin on the seated adductor machine (which we derisively dubbed the “leg spreader”) I had to wonder what kind of acknowledgement he was hoping for? And I agree totally with your assessment of big, scary guys. It’s funny, really because one popular commercial gym franchise here in the States has made the newspapers recently with its “no grunting” rule, which if violated will cause a siren and lights to be set off. Repeat grunting offenders stand to have their membership cancelled. This policy is designed to protect members from “offensive and intimidating behavior”. Even if it’s a little, scary guy doing the grunting.
MK: There is plenty of offensive and intimidating behaviour in gyms, and grunting really doesn’t fall under that – unless perhaps they have a different kind of grunting there. J I recall a woman years ago who used to scream like she was in labour when she squatted. It cracked us up, but at the same time we were all like, “Hell yeah!” because it meant she was actually exerting some effort. Sure, nobody wants to hear a howler monkey in the weight room, but at the same time, if you’re moving some serious weight, those grunts sneak out. And besides, sometimes you need a little “ungghh” to get that stabilizing intra-abdominal pressure!
E-SB: Yep. When it comes to training in a commercial gym, most of the men (and women for that matter) I encounter don’t know a power clean from a power washer, and worse, most don’t seem to care. I’ve never had much luck with converting others to the “dark side” even when casual interest is expressed. Do you ever “proselytize” at your gym or do you simply lead by example and leave the withering commentary and cutting asides for the website?
MK: I’ve heard it said that you don’t change people’s behaviour by telling them what to do; you change their behaviour by building a relationship with them. If people aren’t in a place to hear what you have to say, there’s no point wasting your breath. But if they are, then there’s definitely a lot of opportunity for learning moments. Sometimes, all it takes is people seeing that I’m not a monster, and they get interested – this usually means they were at least a little bit interested before, and needed “permission”. Sometimes it takes education. Sometimes it takes a little encouragement. Sometimes they want to see your results first. It all depends. But leading by example is always the best way – “Be the change you want to see”, as the saying goes. One big thing for me is supporting other women in the gym. Women aren’t always as supportive to one another as they can be, especially when it comes to fitness-related stuff, and building a community of women interested in lifting helps make the gym a friendlier space. I have been known to hand out my web address in quite a few locker rooms after a brief chat with a stranger.
E-SB: Well said. Sometimes people are curious but just don't know how to open the conversation. How are you training these days? How do you register your progress and plan your training? Do you keep a log? What goals help you organize your training? Do you train alone or with friends? Any favorite exercises or routines?
MK: My goal these days is simply to keep to a daily or near-daily training schedule in the face of overwhelming pressure to do otherwise. Job demands, two hours of commuting a day, and other life challenges all vie for my time and attention, so I consider just training regularly to be progress. I also had a serious sacroiliac joint injury that lasted over a year, so it was huge progress for me to squat heavier again, even though the weights I was using were less than I did before. That being said, I do try to make long term progress, but at my stage of things, it’s slow.
I’ve found it a good system to have three types of workouts, all of which are generally more or less full body workouts every time:
-A workouts are heavy workouts (reps in 3-5 range with the occasional 1-rep max), basic movements like squats, cleans, weighted pullups, etc.
-B workouts are lighter workouts with speed and/or endurance as a goal. I’ll either use longer sets (10 to 20 reps or more, great for things like kettlebell swings) or shorter explosive sets. I put a lot of bodyweight and ballistic exercises here.
-C workouts are typically interval cardio type workouts. Lately I’ve been really getting into the rowing machine, but I might also run stairs, hit the heavy bag, etc.
I just rotate the three workouts and also throw in other activities like belly dancing, boxing, BJJ/MMA, running, rock climbing, cycling, etc. I also include active recovery from things like walking and yoga. I try to have a balance between variety and consistency.
I keep a workout log and note the usual stuff like exercises, set/reps but also things like bodyweight, how I’ve improved (if I have) from the previous workout, etc. I trained alone for many years although I had occasional workout partners. Now I’ve got a great workout partner and I’m quite enjoying it. She’s a tough chick and a lot bigger than me, so she keeps me on my toes.
My favourite things, in no particular order:
-squats and squat variations, esp. pistols, front squats, and overhead squats
-I used to LOVE deadlifting till my back injury forced me to quit – nearly pulled 2x bodyweight too, darnit
-weighted pullups – so freaking satisfying to strap that belt on and knock off the reps
-one-handed side press – this one looks cool if you can manage a full sized barbell (I can’t yet)
-any “manual labour” kind of movement like sledgehammer work, sandbag carries, or even running around with a wheelbarrow
E-SB: That’s a very eclectic and well rounded approach. I especially like the way you have the exercises organized and how you rotate the different modalities. I also admire the "manual labor" stuff...I've always thought someone, someday would invent a fad workout routine like Boot Camp training but using heavy laborer tools instead and calling it simply "Work". Changing gears here, I want to talk about your writing for a minute. In your autobiographical summary, you describe your school-age self as “precocious and smartassed”. What I love about your writing style is the excellent relationship you have clearly maintained with that “inner-child”. I’m certainly not alone marveling at the wit and verve you bring to what can otherwise be the fairly dry topic of lifting weights and strength training. Have you thought about publishing in a medium other than the internet?
MK: I’ve published in magazine articles here and there, but they do tend to sanitize my writing and blandify it for the larger public. I’ve been approached about doing a book, which I’d love to do, but for now it’ll have to wait since my “real job” also involves writing books! Also, the web allows me to say what I want, and be as political or as rude as I want. To me, the issue of women’s training IS a political issue, and one shouldn’t mince words about some of the stupidity that surrounds the subject. Having a website allows me to say that. It also allows me to communicate the enjoyment I feel doing this; I try to emphasize that training is fun, and rewarding for everyone! I think the jocks have taken over exercise and ruined it for all us bookworms. So, I try to bring back a little bit of that joy that one feels as a child before one learns to abhor and avoid movement. You can find my latest piece over at precisionnutrition.com – I’ve written a program for a beginner female and they’ve posted it in the forum. You can also check out back issues of Experience Life magazine: June, September, and October 2006 for articles on nutrition, knee injuries, and eccentric training, respectively.
E-SB: I share with you that motivation of helping people discover that joy of play and movement. I'll definitely check out those recent articles. Final question: How did the title “Mistress” Krista come about?
MK: Someone once referred to me on misc.fitness.weights years ago as “the squat mistress”. The name sort of stuck. I thought it was sort of a fun alter ego.
E-SB: It’s a great alter ego. Your contributions to strength training in general and to women's strength training in particular definitely "dominate". Krista, thanks again for taking the time. Continued success to you and let’s talk again soon!