"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

WW: Gracie Media

These are never wordless on my blog but I missed Media Monday in favor of this post that I'd been working on for 3 weeks (!!), so I chose to fit these in on Wednesday instead. XP

These are from last Thursday.

How do you know if your gaited horse is engaging correctly? 
When her withers are higher than her croup, like dis.

Leg yielding towards the rail on a circle.

3 legs in the air. :)

I swear I work her evenly in both directions; Carlos just has a knack for snagging us mostly in one direction.
Any media is better than no media though, and his is usually outstanding anyway. :)
And some video clips:

Monday, December 10, 2018

Another One for the Record Books

Facebook reminded me last week that I posted this in December of 2012, right after we moved from South FL to MD.
It is still true today.

If you work hard at something long enough, eventually your results start to unfold in the most amazing way.

Thanksgiving week was one of those weeks.

It was a streak that ran the length of the entire week, with me hitting PR after PR (PR = personal record.) Wednesday, however, was the best day of all.

Coach A posts the next day's WODs and Strength programming the evening before at exactly 7:00 pm. At 6:30 pm, you can usually find me counting down the minutes until the time I can go online to check what we'll be doing the following day.

On Tuesday night I excitedly read through the programming...and gulped.

My powerlifting programming for the following morning was supposed to be intense as well with all three lifts on the menu: squats, bench press and deadlifts. I had the option of skipping powerlifting and only doing CrossFit, or vice versa. But I really wanted to work on all 3 lifts in one day (it doesn't come up all the time in the powerlifting programming) and I also really really wanted to re-test my 1RM for the squat at CrossFit. So I decided I'd do both workouts: powerlifting first, where I'd save some gas in the tank for later, and then go to CrossFit afterwards.

My squats at the globo gym were pretty. I was really happy with my setup, which is starting to shape up like that of someone that knows what she's doing. What does that mean for me? It means that my setup is becoming predictably consistent (aka I go through the same motions every time I get under the bar) and that I'm bracing and lifting the bar off of the rack in such a tight way that the bar initially feels light regardless of how much weight I put on it.

Why is this important? Because your setup and the way you initiate your lift can determine the success of your actual lifts.

I would get to test this out later in class. :D

I went home, showered, ate a snack, and then headed for the box.

I won't deny I was a little nervous this time around. I really wanted to one-up my 1RM from last time, which had been 185 lbs. However, though it felt better after the morning's workout, my entire lower body was consistently sore from all of the squatting the powerlifting programming was having me do (4x/week) and I wasn't 100% confident I'd even be able to reach the 185. My plan ultimately was to just listen to my body and see how much I could do without overdoing it.

I played Daddy's Groove & Jaxx Da Fishworks' "I Stay True" song on the short drive over to the gym.

Which meant I walked into the box PUMPED. Lol

Coach D was teaching this class and he took us through a short warm-up before we walked over to the squat racks to get to work.

We did one warm-up set with the empty bar, and then it was on to adding weight. I was happy with the weight progression I ended up choosing (which involved a calculator because I cannot math in my head, especially when working out!) because I was able to put to use everything that I've learned about my own strength and how to reserve it for maximum efforts.

For the initial 5 reps, I started with 141 lbs: I can do bodyweight (135 lbs) for 10 reps without issue, so I wanted to choose more than that while still being conservative so I could have plenty of gas in the tank for the one rep efforts that would come at the end.

The 141 lbs felt light for the 5 reps. I finished, re-racked the barbell and added load, jumping up to 155 for my following 4 reps because I know 155 is easy for up 6 reps depending on the day. Again, not a max for that set of reps. Coach D stepped up to spot me when I got ready to unrack the barbell.

Again: easy. For my 3 reps, I only added 5 lbs to jump to 160 because again, I was not trying to max out during these reps. Coach D again spotted me.

I came back out of the hole with so much force that the barbell bounced slightly on my shoulders as I pushed back into full standing position on the third rep. I re-racked the barbell. "That was light for you!" Coach D observed.

"I'm thinking about adding 15 lbs for the two reps," I said to him.

"I think that's perfect," he confirmed.

So I added 15 lbs. 175 guys. Only 10 lbs from my previous 1RM of 185...and I was going to do it for two reps.

I waited my two minutes before going for it again, watching the other ladies in the class do their squats while I rested and listened to the music playing over the gym loudspeakers. Coach A and Coach D have excellent taste in music and their selections are usually spot-on (for me at least!) with what we're doing in class.

5 Seconds of Summer's "Youngblood" started to play right as I put my hands on the barbell.

"Remember the words you told me, love me 'til the day I die..."

I smiled involuntarily. The first time I heard that song, I was absolutely killing it during a deadlifts session and it's become one of my favorite lifting songs. The lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with anything going on in my life; I just really like the singer's voice and the thumping bass beat.

The video, however, effectively illustrates the way I feel when I hear this song: like a badass.

The speed is perfect for powerlifting. The fact that it had just randomly come on right then was so appropriate in my world, there were no words for it. As in, if my life was a movie and it had a soundtrack, that is the song that would have played in the movie at this moment that I'm describing!

Coach D saw me getting ready and again came over to spot me.

I slipped under the barbell, shifted my shoulders underneath it so that the iron was resting right over the top edge of my scapulae, and pointed my elbows down to create a shelf for the bar with my traps. I took a deep breath, straightening up as I made my body rigid, bringing the barbell up with me to unrack it in one smooth movement.

"You push and you push and I'm pulling away, pulling away
From you
I give and I give and I give and you take, give and you take..."

The barbell felt...light.

Right foot stepped back, left foot stepped back. I glanced down to make sure my feet were even, then eyes went back up, looking straight ahead as my mind went still. I inhaled again, tucking in my abs...

Say you want me
Say you want me
Back in your life
So I'm just a dead man crawling tonight..."


Down into the hole.

I came to a grinding stop right below parallel...then ascended back out of the hole as I exhaled.

There is so much in common in the sensations between diving and squatting heavy. Even the breathing, that releasing of your breath as you swim towards the surface where you'll be able to inhale again, is the same.
I locked out at the top of the squat again and noticed the barbell bounce slightly again across my shoulders with the power of my body straightening under the weight of the load. I again inhaled, braced, and sank back down into the hole. Pause at the bottom, swim my way smoothly back up to the top.

"Good job!!!" Coach D said, as he helped me re-rack the bar. "That's still light for you!"

"What do you think of adding 10 lbs?" I asked.

"Go for it!"

I quite literally danced around the barbell to the beat of Youngblood as I added two more 5 lb plates to the bar.

Guys. I was going for 185 lbs for my first single, with two more singles still to go.

Same process as before. I unracked the barbell but in my giddiness over confronting 185 lbs again, I had not braced appropriately and it felt heavy. Dauntingly heavy. I did not step back to initiate the lift though: I knew what I had done wrong and there is nothing that says that once you unrack the barbell, you have to commit to it. This isn't like jumping: you actually do have time to identify your mistakes and correct them before initiating action.

So instead, I re-racked the bar so I could release it entirely, paused for a moment in order to clear my head once more, took a breath, got underneath the bar again and went through my usual mini ritual.

You cannot botch your setup when you start moving so much weight.

This time when I inhaled to rise up and unrack the bar, it felt light. It's crazy how starting off properly can make such an enormous difference in how the weight feels.

"You've got this," Coach D and the inner voice in my head said at the same time.

I stood still, exhaled slowly, then inhaled sharply, braced, and sank into the hole....

...and pushed that bar right back up like it was 30 lbs lighter.

Coach D helped me re-rack the barbell again...and once the bar was safely in its place, I bounced up and down around the squat rack while he laughed over my ecstatic joy.

I would go on to move 190 lbs for my next single.

And then I added yet another 5 lbs and made 195 lbs my bitch for my new 1RM. 195 was, finally, hard. It took every ounce of strength in my legs to push that barbell back up inch by inch, with Coach D shouting encouragement. My heart was pounding as we re-racked the barbell but if it could have been measured in megawatts, my grin could have lit up my entire island after the hurricane.

"Good job!!!" Coach D said with a grin, as I again bounced up and down around the squat rack like an 8-year-old, chanting in a sing-song voice, "I beat my max by 10 lbs!"

We were done with that part of the WOD...there was still a whole other part to go!

And it involved running. :D

It was a cold day. We were going to be doing a running version of the hero WOD "Diane." While I've been running outside in colder weather than ever before this year (because blecch the treadmill!!), my cutoff is 40 degrees. Anything below that is a "nope." The high for this particular day was 36. I was originally going to request to row the running portions of this WOD but on a whim had decided to toss into my gym bag a long-sleeved wool shirt, a fleece hat, my running sneakers and a cropped sleeveless hoodie by Doughnuts & Deadlifts that I am totally in love with as an extra layer for running outdoors.

Case in point: D&D cropped hoodie over Smartwool long sleeve, Virus International compression tights, and my Altra sneakers. Spontaneous photo taken by Carlos during one of my runs in downtown.
Actually...this is the exact same outfit I wore for Diane!
Different day, different run, different Smartwool shirt, different Virus pants, same cropped hoodie, same sneakers. 
It was indeed cold outside but there was no wind and it was sunny. I ultimately decided I would run.  I threw on my additional layers, swapped my Nike Metcons for my Altras, set up my barbell with 111 lbs (a weight that I knew I could lift for 21 uninterrupted reps to start with) and grabbed a pair of 10 lb dumbbells: the scale for the handstand push-ups was seated shoulder presses. Coach A explained the scaled distances for the running portions. The RX (prescribed) distances were 1 mile, 800 meters (1/2 mile), 400 meters (1/4 mile), 200 meters (1/8 mile). The scaled distances were 800, 400, 200, 100 meters or even 400, 200, 100, 50 meters. Rowing was the other alternative for those that couldn't run that much. Coach A just wanted participants to choose distances that they could complete without having to stop to walk. I had no qualms about running the full distances: running a full mile straight has not been an issue for several months now.

So the unscaled version of Diane was: 1 mile run, 21 deadlifts, 21 handstand push-ups (or dumbbell shoulder presses); 800 meter run, 15 deadlifts, 15 handstand push-ups (or shoulder presses); 400 meter run, 9 deadlifts, 9 handstand push-ups (or shoulder presses), and finish with a 200 meter run. We had a 25 minute time cap for this portion of the WOD (aka we had 25 minutes in which to complete the whole thing).

It was a small class on this day. B, J and I were the most advanced in this group, with B and J being light years ahead of me, especially when it comes to upper body strength. J has competed in the CrossFit Open and B is able to do RX movements and weights for pretty much everything. I was not surprised that it was just us three choosing to run on this day. B took the lead and I found myself pacing easily with her, while staying an even 10 strides behind her. J was several lengths behind me. We all ran in silence. I had brought my phone and headphones; I slipped them on while running and swiped over to SoundCloud to Mau & Ricky's Mi Mala.

Yup: I tend to start runs listening to slow songs to keep myself from going all out at the beginning.

"Quien iba a pensar que con la misma lengua
Estarias tocando timbre en otra puerta
Quien iba a pensar que con tu billetera
Estarias comprando pan en otra tienda..."

I was surprised, though, when B made a sharp turn at the point where the initial mile could be scaled to 800 meters. I actually stopped in my tracks for a moment, debating scaling the distance too. J was still a ways behind me and I wondered if she'd scale it as well. I have never scaled running distances for CrossFit though...it is thanks to CrossFit that I discovered that I can, actually, run a mile straight through without pausing to walk. It still amuses me though that I, the girl that used to be the literal WORST runner in PE class (legit last every. single. time. we had to run for anything in school) is now considered among the fastest runners in the box.

During one of the running WODs over the summer, Coach A had said, "Let the fast people start in front," and everyone had stepped behind me, "Nicole should go first." I had looked around in surprise. This was a pretty large group...but I was the only Nicole in the class. "Wait, what?"

Or that other time when we were doing Beowulf, which has a half mile run at the beginning and at the end, in addition to rowing. I love rowing but it is NOT my strong suit. I am the literal slowest rower in the entire box right now. Beowulf is a benchmark WOD and it is the toughest thing I've completed to date...and I finished in second place that day in the largest morning class against some of the gym's longer-term members, my placing being exclusively to making up time during the running portions of the workout. I had flown past Coach D at the end of the WOD, feeling (and apparently also looking) completely recovered and he had exclaimed in a somewhat reproachful tone, "You're such a runner!" Given that he is into lifting heavy things and not cardio, it wasn't exactly meant as a compliment...but I also knew he was half-joking and I had laughed.

Me. A runner.

It blows my mind.

And so now in the present, I realized just how tight that time cap was going to be at the full distances. I had a choice:
a) Scale and make the time cap for sure, knowing that I had chosen the easy route.
b) Go for the full distances as planned and potentially not make the time cap...but truly challenge myself.

There was no reason to go easy when I knew I could do the more challenging version and potentially still succeed. "I might not make the time cap...but I'mma try," I thought fiercely. And so I turned back in the direction of the mile and kept on running.  It wasn't long after that I realized J was no longer behind me: I was indeed the only one going for the full running distances in this WOD.

And so I continued on, alone, past the office buildings along our gym's one-mile route, crossing the main street that runs through the complex, and on towards the warehouses that line the homestretch. Just me and my music against the pavement and icy breeze.

As I hit the last quarter mile of the homestretch, I looked down at Endomondo on my phone. I was about to complete my first mile in around 8 minutes.

When I was 14, despite hating running because I was the absolute worst at it, there was also a part of me that wanted to love it so badly. Whenever we had running in PE, I would take off as fast as my feet would go, reveling in the feel of flying on my own two feet...and would make it exactly 1/4 of the way around the track before I had to stop, gasping for air, my heart feeling like it was about to pound its way out of my chest, my legs burning, screaming for me to stop. I had always wanted running to be as effortless as it felt for those first few meters, to be able to harness that feeling for miles and miles. To be able to go on forever without the burn and the pain.

I had thought back then that it was an unreachable goal. That runners were born, not made.

It was a crazy juxtaposition to the present, where I was the only one running the full distances now in this workout because I was the only one that believed at that moment that she could do it.

"And believe in yourself so fucking hard that no one can ever take it from you."

And so I smiled now at the end of this first mile as I incrementally accelerated my pace until I was outright sprinting as I made the final turn around the warehouse section, our gym now within sight. That afterburner feeling, where my legs feel like powerful pistons relentlessly propelling me forwards, is unlike anything I've ever experienced in my life before.

Do my legs and lungs still burn? Oh hell yes, especially at the speed I was going. But part of conditioning yourself is knowing just how far and for how long you can push yourself beyond that burn, knowing that you will recover from it.

And that's how I FLEW back into the warmth of the box to my waiting barbell. I kicked off my cushy running sneakers (because feet as close to the floor as possible for deadlifts for stability) and removed my fleece cap (so the heat from my exertion could escape: I would overheat otherwise while doing deads and shoulder presses and I did not want to be dripping sweat when I ran back outside because cold air) and got to work on pulling 21 deadlifts as quickly as correctly possible. I then sat on the floor next to my barbell and got to work on the 21 dumbbell shoulder presses. I finished, set the dumbbells down, shoved my feet back into my running sneakers, yanked my fleece cap back onto my head, and sprinted back out the door to run the next half mile.

And so on and so forth.

I didn't pay attention to what anyone else was doing. I knew everyone would finish before I did. As I sat down to do my last 9 shoulder presses, B walked past me and grinned, silently mouthing "Good job!!!" I grinned back. Her encouragement meant so much right then!

I got up, glancing at the timer above the gym doors. I had two and a half minutes in which to complete 200 meters if I wanted to finish within the time cap. My brain was beyond the point of being able to math my current pace over distance in order to have an idea of whether that was enough time or not...it didn't seem like a lot of time, so I took off, flinging myself back outdoors into the wall of cold air that was waiting for me and me alone.

It was just 1/8th of  a mile.

I hit the pavement outside flying and dug in, realizing that I might be breathing hard but there was still plenty of gas in the tank. I sprinted to the mark on the asphalt that indicated 100 meters, turned around in one leap and ran back towards the gym, pumping arms and knees as fast as they would go, the tears from my speed streaming backwards from my eyes as I ran headfirst into the stiff, cold wind.

I flew back into the box. Everyone was there waiting for me. I glanced up at the clock as I ran past it and gasped when I saw my time.


"Holy shit!" I exclaimed. Not only had I made it within the time cap, I had done so with a minute to spare!

"GOOD JOB!!!" everyone else exclaimed.

I came to an abrupt stop in the center of the gym and doubled over to catch my breath for a moment. My lungs and core were on fire from the exertion while my extremities felt icy from the cold air outside. I needed a moment for my body to choose a temperature and settle down...which really only took half a minute: within the shelter of the box, my body chose warmth and broke out into a sweat as my heart pumped the hot blood from my core out towards my arms and legs, down to my fingers and toes.

Feeling like I was radiating heat along with joy now, I walked over to the gym member board where I victoriously wrote down my time and weights lifted for the WOD before going over to my spot on the floor to break down my barbell and put away the equipment used.

Once that was finished, I returned to the board.  A new PR section had just been delineated the day before, so gym members can keep track of their personal bests.

My squat 1RM was the first number on the board.

"Nicole 195# 11/21/18"

Friday, November 23, 2018

Gracie Gets Fitter

In my last equine post, I told you guys about gaited horses that trot, and how in these individuals the horse ceasing to offer the trot is often the strongest indicator of that gaited horse's increasing fitness. (Well, I didn't say it in exactly those words but it was implied when I told you about Indio.)

I finished Gracie's loading doses of Chondroprotec (generic Adequan) at the beginning of November. I do the much more aggressive loading doses for IM joint supplements recommended by Susan Garlinghouse for endurance horses: one dose of IM supplement once a week for 4 weeks. This has always worked amazingly with Gracie in the past and this time was no different.

Halfway through her loading doses, she stopped offering to trot to the left (her stronger side) and was offering it minimally to the right but would hold the correction to gait instead if I requested it.

Gracie demonstrating a nice medium trot to the right, her weaker side.
Two weeks later, she stopped offering the trot entirely + started to "sit" so much better in the gait as she felt more comfortable in her hocks. I started to ask for short stints of canter in both directions and working more on transitions within her special gaits as well as adding walk and canter.

The Chondroprotec and the added fitness from dressage-centric rides are the only things that have changed in her maintenance. She gets a small amount of ration balancer mixed with ground flax and warm water to turn it into a mash when I'm at the barn and that's it...she doesn't need the grain; we basically feed her when we go out to the barn so that she associates us with food more so than work. She does not get oral joint supplements because a) I personally don't believe in them and b) I'm not out at the barn every day. The IM injections are a million times more effective, are so much easier to administer (a once-a-month injection vs every day for oral supplementation), and are more cost effective in the long run as well (one $50 bottle gives you a 2-month supply.) I also discontinued giving her bute pre-rides once I started her back up on Chondroprotec.

Last week I brought out the saddle for the first time in...almost two years. I have ridden Gracie mostly in the bareback pad for the majority of the past two years. I can count on one hand the times I've used a saddle!

On this day I was hoping to be able to do a little more demanding work in the saddle, since the Alta Escuela holds me in place and all I have to focus on my actual riding. Riding sans saddle on Gracie has become second nature and is honestly my preferred way of riding: it fulfills my childhood dream of #neversaddle, where I wanted to be just like the Native Americans in the movies. But no matter how natural bareback feels, there is always a part of your subconscious that is focusing on balance. Occasionally going back to the saddle allows me to focus entirely on the cause and effect of my riding.

It ended up being an amazing ride that I had hoped to write about at the time but there was no media: I was by myself at the barn that day, and I was working on a bunch of other stuff as well so I never got around to it. The hallmark of that ride was that it was the first time where I've been able to work with Gracie on the 10-10-10 exercise with only clear, sharp transitions between her special gaits: 10 strides walk, 10 strides collected singlefoot, 10 strides medium singlefoot, 10 strides rack. And then I'd mix it up so she wouldn't anticipate the transitions. I love that exercise because when done correctly, the horse starts to get more and more and more in front of your leg as she starts to understand that she must maintain herself perpetually ready for whatever change you're going to request next. It is an awesome feeling.

We did a couple of rounds in each direction and I called it a day right when I started to feel her lose her sparkle in the changes: that exercise is tough physical work regardless of the horse's fitness level. Also: neither Gracie nor I enjoys drilling for the sake of drilling. When she "gets" it, we're done. And I've been fortunate to work with both trainers and coaches that use the same approach when training me. So I can empathize.

I didn't get to ride again until yesterday, when I pulled the Alta Escuela out again.

Carlos was with me and he grabbed G-Mare from the field while I prepped her mash. I've been using the wash stall next to the boarder's tack room to feed and get Gracie ready for rides, as it blocks off some of the arctic wind we've been having this winter already.

On this day, Gracie walked into the wash stall with her head up and what I call "dragon snorting": it's the particular blasting snort that she makes when she's amped. In typical Gracie fashion though, there was nothing else about her that showed tension: she had been calmly walking next to Carlos on a slack lead and she calmly walked into the wash stall, dragon-snorted once at her feed bowl (which made me crack up; she is ridiculous sometimes) and then noisily dug into her food while I went about knocking the meringue mud from the field off of her and tacking her up.

Gracie waiting expectantly in the wash stall on a different day.
She walked calmly next to me but I could feel the fact that she was looking forward to moving on this day. I put her on the longe briefly before getting on just to confirm that her brain really was in her head. She cantered around first to the right, dragon-snorting and flagging her tail, but with one ear cocked towards me. I let her go around and around a few times and then bowed towards her, "Whooooaaaa..." I said quietly. She immediately slammed on the brakes and turned towards me. Good girl. I asked her to change directions and we repeated the same thing to the left. Same response.

I praised her and got on.

She felt like a freight train in the best way possible: we're at a point in our relationship where her feeling "up" does not intimidate me. Quite the contrary: it's when she gives me her best work because she wants to work.

We started out gaiting. The longer we went, the more she gathered herself up underneath me in collection. I was grinning like an idiot because she felt like a loaded spring with which I could do anything. It was an amazing feeling.

Very collected gait here. Note how her withers are taller than her croup. This mare is naturally built downhill and she has a loooooong body. You can't tell either one of those things by looking at this picture because she's so compressed!
Cute little haunches-in here. Please ignore my contortions.
She felt like she wanted to canter, which you can see in the video below. So I went ahead and requested it outright...

Except she wasn't really ready to canter yet and she gave me a big, "Eff you!" that made me burst out laughing. You can see all of that in the video too. It was not malicious in the least. It was just a solid, "NOPE." She kept right on keeping on as if nothing had happened, and I just had her continue at her gait.

It was FRIGID in the outdoor though: wind chills were in the 20s on this day and within 5 minutes I couldn't feel my fingers inside my gloves. Poor Carlos was standing at the arena fence trying to take shelter from the wind. I rode Gracie to him, "Let's go to the indoor!"

"YES PLEASE," he exclaimed. I dismounted and we led G-Mare over to the indoor.

You have to walk through the main barn to reach the indoor, which involves two very dark hallways. Gracie dragon snorted and opened her eyes wide when I opened the barn door to an ocean of darkness, but she followed me without hesitation and without rushing me nor barging into me.

Once in the indoor, I set her free so she could run and be a goof. She obliged by galloping around, flagging her tail and snorting loudly. She wasn't scared or nervous: she just wanted to GO. So I let her. Not to wear her out but just to let her get the willies out so she'd be able to pay attention once I was on her.

Gracie goes, "WHEEEEEEEEEE!"
Such a dork.
When she had settled down to an enormous floating trot with maximum suspension, I called her to me and she eagerly came and waited for me to mount up.

"How much suspension can I get at the trot? Dis much suspension!"
Can I say how awesome it is to have a horse that just stands there quietly with the reins loose while you get settled in the saddle, patiently waiting for your cue to move? Even when she's in Energizer Bunny mode? I was never able to fully train Lily to just stand. the. fuck. still while I got myself situated after mounting up.

 We had a wonderful, quality ride. G-Mare gets tired pretty quickly in deep footing and while not as deep as the arena at our previous barn, the indoor's footing is deeper than the outdoor's here.

Have some media of what a gaited horse looks like when she's working on the bit and in front of your leg.

I freaking love this video. We start out gaiting to the right, with a change of bend across the diagonal while changing directions. She goes into a really nice shoulder-fore at my request once we go left. We change direction again, again with a change of bend, and I request an extension once we start going to the right again. 

A smooth collected canter. It looks somewhat disunited and lateral in some parts because of the footing: like I said, deep sand is hard for her. It's the #1 reason why she used to hate arena work: the footing made it so much more difficult for her to work. She is great in the outdoor at this barn because it's just firmer stone dust. She still prefers working outside of the arena, but she is far more enthusiastic about arena work in general in our current enormous outdoor thanks to the kinder footing.
So I was thrilled that she was able to do this in the indoor while still maintaining a very slight inside bend. Maintaining a balanced bend at the canter would have been impossible for her not that long ago.

We worked in both directions and I threw some spirals in & out in the corners, along with baby leg yields across the diagonal. 

Some video stills from our ride.
20 minutes into this session, she started to get heavy in the bridle as she began to tucker out from the footing, and I called it quits for the day

We walked out on a loose rein so she could stretch.

And that was it. Mareface was all about the snuggles after.

I swear she thinks she's a full-sized My Little Pony.

She was untacked and released back into her field with her friends.

Monday, November 19, 2018

A Series of Fortunate Events aka How I Worked a Powerlifting Meet O_o

You guys.

I'm not sure anyone out there will relate, but I am ridiculously excited about this and want to write about it for me to remember later, as I always do with these fitness posts. If you need to understand the importance of the events I am about to describe, I suggest skipping to the last part of this post to the quote in italics, and then coming back to this paragraph. :) Or you can read it in chronological order and find out at the end and hopefully get the goosebumps I did when I found that quote. ;) Sometimes my posts write themselves from back to front...this is one of those posts.

So. I need to start at the beginning, and the beginning is powerlifting. I wrote a post about that last year when I was doing my powerlifting block during my bodybuilding off-season with Trainer. For references on what the sport is (and it's whole darn history because boy did I do my research), go to that post...and please ignore my initial description of the deadlift. That is how I was being taught to do it, but for regular conventional deadlifts squatting below parallel to initiate the lift is incorrect...unless you are getting ready to do an Olympic lift like the clean or snatch (which I wasn't.) Live and learn!

Story of my life.

I'm going to try to explain as clearly as possible, assuming that my average reader has a basic concept of gym equipment and the headliners of what each strength sport is. Powerlifting is my world right now but most people do not know what it is or what it entails, especially at the competitive level. Please refer to my powerlifting post for additional information: I did a ton of research to write that post. (Start reading at the "My Favorite Bar" meme.) If you're curious and have questions about the sport, please let me know below: I am happy to explain more in the comments! :) I'm also taking the opportunity to fill in timeline gaps because a lot has been going on at once on my end of the computer screen that I haven't written about here.

Anyway. In late fall of last year, I fell head over heels in love with powerlifting. Like I wrote here:

225 lbs x 15...and then breezing through the rest of that workout like it was nothing: it was intoxicating. I can't even begin to describe how or why this made me feel this way. It was akin to the first time I jumped 3'6". The beauty of lifting right now is that it has helped me remember how much I used to love jumping. I don't miss jumping itself one bit and have no intention of returning to it (sorry guys) but I had missed loving a sport so much. Jumping was all-consuming for me. It was all I could think of. Lessons over fences, once I found the right trainer, were the highlights of my week. And then proving myself to myself in the arena at shows was the ultimate test of what I was learning. This is the same: it is exactly the same feeling. 

I got so involved with it, heart and soul, during the training block, that I kind of forgot that this was just supposed to be a phase before switching back to bodybuilding. I lived and breathed powerlifting during that time: it was all I wanted to read about, write about and do in my spare time. I wanted to meet other powerlifters, hang out with powerlifters, talk with powerlifters. Just like what showjumping had been for me. Except I didn't know any other powerlifters nor was around any of them ever; the only gym in the region that is a known powerlifting-specific gym is 35 miles away and out of our budget. Trainer had done some powerlifting training himself so he was the only person I really had to talk to about it. The more I learned about powerlifting, the more thoroughly I wanted to do THAT as my chosen sport...which led to a lot of questions for Trainer that he wasn't always thrilled with...because a lot of times he didn't know the answers and he didn't want to admit it. He was a bodybuilding trainer, not a powerlifting coach.

I went and got All the Things though:

I joined a third gym (!!) at the time just so I could have access to a squat rack on the weekends at 5:00 am.
The day my powerlifting belt for squats and deads arrived in the mail.
I found lifting shoes on sale in my endurance colors: orange and neon blue!
I knew that the day I was done with bodybuilding, I would want to switch to powerlifting. In fact, I would have chucked bodybuilding for powerlifting STAT if Trainer had been more excited about it. Given what he was having me do during the powerlifting block and how it ultimately adversely affected my strength, I had known deep down that it would be a terrible idea to ask him to coach me for a meet: he was only allowing me to do each one of the big lifts once a week. In true powerlifting training, you're doing the lifts multiple times a week and the accessory work can be intense. There is a reason why a lot of powerlifters have to split their training workouts into two sessions/day, and that's just lifting...2x/day! They don't do a separate cardio session like I had to do for bodybuilding.

I need to train legs FOUR times a week in order to see and feel a difference...so I guess that makes me an Extra edition of psychopath??? It also means I fit right in with both powerlifters and CrossFitters. :D
Not surprisingly, only working back, legs, chest and arms once a week each meant that I lost a significant amount of strength and my squat and deadlift got weaker over time. I can regain previous fitness levels in 2 weeks of working out consistently, but I need to be working out 5 days/week and working large muscle groups at least 2x/week each in order to continue gaining. Ultimately I lost so much strength during prep for the March show and afterwards, that I gave up on the idea of powerlifting entirely. I thought maybe my strength in the late fall last year had been a fluke. After all, we had never been able to repeat my impressive one-rep maxes of 245 lbs for the squat and 225 for the deadlift. But because I am a knucklehead, I stubbornly kept my belt in my gym bag all this time, refusing to take it out and put it away.

So as described in multiple posts recently, I've been doing CrossFit since May of this year. Choosing this particular box was determined by fate: a friend of a friend had been a member and part-time coach there for years and loved it; she suggested we try it out. So that's how Carlos and I ended up trialing it last October. I had loved it: the environment, the coaches, the workouts. I had thought CrossFit would be impossible but I hit the ground running, almost literally, thanks to the fitness acquired through bodybuilding at the time. Both Carlos and I joined but I ended up having to quit only a month later: when Trainer and I formally started my powerlifting block last November, he didn't want me doing any cardio at all.

Carlos stayed in CrossFit all this time though because he genuinely enjoyed it. It was really hard: he had a minimal fitness base when he started. He'd get exercise-induced asthma and have to constantly use his albuterol pump during WODs. He struggled with basics like air squats, pull-ups and push-ups and had to scale everything. But he kept on keeping on. Nowadays he very rarely requires albuterol while working out. His asthma has improved significantly even outside the gym. He can do chin-ups and squat his body weight for reps. It's pretty amazing, and it's proof both that a) CrossFit can be modified for anyone if you have good coaches and you really want to try it, and b) time and perseverance always pay off.

So of course when Trainer moved away from training clients for good, I returned to that same CrossFit box to work out alongside Carlos.

I forget how I look. Constantly. I have this persistent mentality that only I can see my own fitness and that I look like a "normal" person to everyone else (until I walk into the globo gym and all the men step away from the dumbbell racks to give me space...that never gets old!) Sometimes it's a bad thing because people see my biceps and shoulders and there are expectations: to the average person, I look like I should be able to do a pull-up. I look like I should be able to do push-ups to infinity. I look like I should be able to do handstands.

Progress pic taken this past week.
Yes, I technically have the looks. But I don't have the upper body strength yet: this is the drawback of carving out muscles with lower weights and higher reps, which had been all we had been doing in bodybuilding from January through May of this year: the heavyweight stuff was never revisited after the powerlifting block. Light weights + high reps doesn't generate true strength. (Neither does eating a low carb diet for extended periods of time!!! You need to both lift heavy and eat carbs, which is what I was doing when I wrote this post, and it was the two big things missing before & after the March show. You. need. carbs. to. gain. strength. PERIOD.) Which means I sometimes still get looks of surprise from other CrossFit members when I choose to scale certain movements because at this moment, I have to. Our head coaches see it though: I don't have the upper back muscle development to be able to do all the stuff I want to be doing; it just takes time. They encourage being patient with myself.

In other words: you can look the part and not have the strength. And you can also not look the part at all and totally have the strength! You can also have both the looks and the strength, but that combo takes the most time and discipline to achieve, and it is a never-ending work in progress for the ammy athlete regardless of sport.

So I put my head down and got to work, transferring all of my previous work ethic for bodybuilding and my love of powerlifting into this new strength sport. And I hired a nutrition coach because, as explained in this post, I knew that I was not eating anywhere near enough what I needed to be eating for what I wanted to be doing, and I felt completely lost as to how to go about that, in addition to retaining my appearances from bodybuilding. Nutrition coaching was my way of getting someone more knowledgeable in strength sports and sports nutrition to tell me what to do with my food and macros so I could achieve my goals.

The serendipitous thing here that I did not know when we initially joined this particular box? They host powerlifting meets every few months! (Fyi: this is NOT typical for CrossFit gyms.) The space and equipment get rented out for meets and our head coaches help run them. Not only that, but The Big Three are taught to powerlifting standards, which isn't always true with CrossFit versions of deadlifts, squats and bench press.

So I start training with my new coaches and it isn't long before I'm facing off again with The Big Three that I had loved so much when introduced to them by Trainer. There had been so many arguments about form back then with him: what I was reading said was correct vs what Trainer said was correct, the problems I was having that he wasn't sure how to fix, and some of his notions about lifting heavy. I also self-admittedly have a problem with being told, "You'll do this this way because I say so," especially if you're a man saying that to me. NOPE. Not an acceptable answer. I want to know why. Even when I was a child, my mother would explain why. That ain't changing as an adult.

Under new eyes, some bad habits I didn't know I had and things that I had been erroneously taught were corrected. Focusing on form made it easier to ignore that I was starting over with all of the lifts: that 89 lbs while squatting felt heavy for 10 reps when done to correct depth, whereas at one point I had been able to pull off 10 sets of 10 reps of squats at my body weight (135 lbs at the time...so that was a total volume of 13,500 lbs lifted in one workout...not only that, I had outlifted Trainer that day: he was doing the same workout and weight as me, and he quit at the 9th set)...except I did it all at not quite parallel and it was not corrected at the time.

I keep talking about "parallel" and squat depth. If you watch people squat at the gym, you'll see a LOT of people squat like the example on the left. "Parallel" means that the top of the person's knee and their hip crease (where the thigh connects to the hip and the pant fabric bunches up) are at the same height. Aka your femurs are truly parallel with the floor. You'll also see a lot of people almost hit parallel but not quite. The heavier the load gets, the harder it is to achieve correct depth. Below parallel on the far right is considered correct also, as long as your glutes and hamstrings are remaining active. There is a point at the bottom of the squat where you can go too low and your glutes and hamstrings disengage. You can hold the bottom of this disengaged squat forever because your muscles are relaxed. But that's precisely why it can be a problem when you have a ton of weight across your shoulders: it can make it that much harder to come out of the "hole" of the squat. That said, what is too deep for one person is fine for another: it's one of those things that is relative to an individual's anatomy, genetics and strength. There is a whole debate on the subject that is explained pretty clearly and objectively in this article
Because I was working on fixing form and mechanics, I could ignore that my 3-rep max for the deadlift was just 155 lbs. And bench press...Ha! Bench press has always been a joke. I was happy if I could do 75 lbs for reps. But I was jumping up and down on the inside when Coach D in CrossFit taught us how to bench with the powerlifting arch...and I suddenly added 10 lbs to my bench press weight for reps!

Kelsey Horton demonstrating the bench press arch. Photo from her Instagram.
And so I continued chipping away at everything that I could practice. Coach A, our head trainer, does all of the programming ("programming" = selection of exercises we'll be doing) for the gym, and that includes both WODs and Strength Classes. The Strength Classes are meant to provide accessory work for CrossFit: the exercises are selected with the intention of further strengthening you so you can make progress in the WODs.

I was also still doing my own thing in addition to the box's programming: I was practicing on my own, I had subscribed to a small add-on program meant to get you to where you could do your first pull-up, and I was doing occasional bodybuilding splits in addition to that. (When done as cross-training, bodybuilding is a great way to correct side-to-side imbalances and maintain aesthetics.) My problems started when I realized I wanted to progressively get better at certain things: after working under the direct supervision of a trainer that created workouts specifically with the goal of progression, I knew that to get better I couldn't just haphazardly start adding more and more weight to the barbell and expect to get stronger that way. It's not quite that simple.

My nutrition coach, Jilda, is also an experienced CrossFitter. As in, she was training for elite level competition at one point. I can talk to her about far more than nutrition, and that's precisely why I chose her. One of our routine check-in questions is, "How are you feeling this week physically and mentally?" I brought up my frustrations with feeling like I was doing way too much without any specific direction. "What are your goals with CrossFit?" she asked in her response.

I already knew the answer: I wanted to eventually maybe compete locally at the smaller gym-hosted CrossFit competitions. I didn't need an extensive skill set for that: I just needed to be stronger in my deadlift (my squat was fine already by the time this conversation happened), continue improving my Olympic lifting skills (I've been taking lessons in this as well!), and be able to do pull-ups, a skill which would transfer to the less-scary gymnastic work. With Jilda's help, I decided to sign up for Hybrid Performance Method's deadlift protocol, which I talked about here. The accessory work for deadlifts would also translate into strengthening my upper body and grip for pull-ups. It was a twofer.

The "problem" became when I started seeing enormous progress in my deadlift. It was only a month in a half before I was suddenly pulling 175, 180, 185 lbs for reps...for the first time in close to a year, I was toeing the line of 200 lbs. And I was fucking loving it.

The day I pulled 190 lbs. 
I continued practicing squats on my own, focusing on slowly ramping up the weight while still achieving correct depth. I hit that 1RM of 185 lbs in my squat with my coaches in class...and I started wanting more.

These were from an "All the Squats" session where I was doing lighter weight for more reps to turn it into a cardio workout during one of my deload weeks. I am currently only 10 lbs away from having a bodyweight front squat, which is amazing considering how much I struggled with this particular variant just 8 months ago when I did them for the first time on my own.

And I also started practicing bench press once a week. My strength gains in bench started rolling in with amazing speed: all I needed was to start doing it consistently! I used to hate bench press with a passion because I was so awful at it, but now that I was armed with the powerlifting arch it was a very different story.

End result? I finally admitted to myself that I wanted to do the Big Three. I wanted to train for all of them. I adored my deadlift protocol but I wanted that same type of progression with my squat and my bench press as well.

By admitting that, I finally conceded: I wanted to jump into powerlifting training. 

The best part? Hybrid Performance has a very thorough, very comprehensive Powerlifting Program that is used by both beginners and experienced lifters for training, improving their lifts, and prepping for meets. And all I had to do to start was switch my subscription. No extra charge.

On a Sunday night I made it official: I changed my programming. It's hard to describe the giddiness and butterflies that I felt when clicking on the sign-up button for the Powerlifting program. It was akin to when I sent my first entry to an endurance ride.

"OH MY GOD I'M DOING THIS! I'm doing the thing!"

The next morning I got up early, sizzling with electric excitement, to go to the box for Open Gym so I could start my training.

I was cracking up over being so excited over something that literally involved nobody else. It was just me and the barbell and these lifts, with written programming that I can do at my own pace if I feel like it. I don't have to report to anyone, I don't have to meet up with anyone to get the training done, I don't have to go to a specific gym to do it as long as I'm at a gym with barbells and weight plates, squat racks and bench racks (not all gyms have these. Planet Fitness, for example, does not have any of these.) I have access to online coaches through Hybrid if I want form checks, which is one of the reasons why I film my lifts (as seen on IG) but also so I can see what I'm doing and correct it myself in the next set.

For the first time, I was walking up to the barbell for real with only my own mind to cope with.

With the 25 Questions blog hop, everyone has talked about how horses have improved them. It applies to all of us; it's why we all continue being crazy enough to choose them.

But the barbell...The barbell is something else entirely. Kristin Pope, an Olympic Weightlifter that competes at the national level, describes it on her blog and it resonated so much with me:

One week I am attempting to clean a PR at 165# and a month later I am attempting to clean a PR at 185# . . . literally, it went that fast. 185# was the first weight I did not go under. I remember the day clearly. I walked up to the bar, like any other attempt, and felt totally different. I felt a chill come over my skin. I felt a tremble in my usually steady hands. I felt like it was a bad idea. I put my hands on the bar, and then froze. This is how my fear used to present itself. In gymnastics it is referred to as “lost movement syndrome” and it is a very real condition. The brain decides to act out against the body and refuses the signals to be sent to the appropriate muscles to move. There is no explaining it. You can want to do it until you are blue in the face- but the mind is too intelligent when it comes to fear and its’ fight or flight mechanics. So what do you do next? I have worked with athletes with fear problems for the last 8 years, having never experienced what they go through until now. I was very fearless in gymnastics- I would throw just about any trick I was asked to on beam- aerials, back tucks, back layouts, gainers, blind landed jumps… on a 4″ wide piece of wood. So how could I flip over that beam over and over for years with no hesitation yet not find a way to pick this 185# bar up that I am more than capable of lifting. . . ? It makes no sense.  Thereafter, my coach at the time says to me after many failed attempts at trying to force myself to go for the lift “i am going to leave if you don’t lift that weight” and so he did, and I am ever so thankful for it. I sat on my platform alone for a while and pondered whether this sport really is for me or not. “Maybe I am not cut out for it?” is the main thing I remember thinking. After falling into somewhat of a depression I decided to be bigger than the fear. To embrace it. To accept it for what it is. I stand before that barbell and think of all of the things that could go wrong . . . we have all seen the “pancake” videos on youtube (I have since done a snatch pancake) . . . I picture myself being completely crumbled by the weight and in the gym alone with broken bones. And then I decide that weightlifting is not for the weak. That lifting weights is for the brave. It is for a small percentage of us that can overcome challenge after challenge day in and day out. It is for people that fight through not just aches and pains but full-on injuries, that push out pain signals, that are mentally tough, that ignore the soreness, that wrap up bleeding body parts and keep on lifting, that starve to make weight, that are willing to GO WHERE OTHERS DON’T IN THEIR MIND TO TAKE CONTROL. So that is what I did. I took control. I want to be one of those special few. I want in the club. Bad. So I lifted that 185# ….several times…like a boss. I overcame something that could have held me back from achieving my goals. That would have kept me from qualifying for nationals. That would have stopped me in my tracks that are heading somewhere great. All because I embraced fear instead of neglected it.

Powerlifting does not quite carry the risks of Olympic Weightlifting, where you are ripping a barbell with plates that are x times your bodyweight off the floor and accelerating that weight up towards the air above your head at ballistic speed while you simultaneously drop to the floor underneath that weight, trusting that your body and strength and mind will be able to keep that weight up in the air above you so that it literally doesn't crush you.

Kristin Pope demonstrating the snatch and the clean and jerk (this is a video and you should watch it. It's only 2 minutes.) Like with powerlifting (I'll explain this later in this post), you select 3 attempts for each lift, with each attempt getting progressively heavier. Usually you want your third attempt to be more than you've ever lifted before. Athletes at Kristin's level are often trying to break national records. The first 3 lifts shown are for the snatch, and the last weight she lifts is 200.2 lbs (91 kg). For the second set of 3 lifts, she is doing the clean & jerk, where she goes up to 220 lbs. Note that she fails the first clean attempt...but she didn't let that get to her. The best part of this video is her ginormous grin after each successful lift. That, right there, is how any lifter feels the first time they nail a heavier weight than ever before.
Kris weighed 141 lbs at the time of this competition, guys. Getting that amount of weight over her head, and then standing up with it, is an incredible feat. And it's par for the course with Olympic Weightlifting.

But the mindset is the same. When you step under a barbell that has 2x your body weight, lift it up from the squat rack, step backwards away from the safety of the rack in order to drop into the deep dark hole of the squat, you're trusting that your body will hold up against the weight...and that it will be able to push that weight right back up. Why? Because you have trained your body and your mind to be able to do it.

You're not counting on your horse to get you over a jump whose approach you miscalculated, or to choose the correct path over a muddy downhill slope on a rainy-day 50, or to get you back home because you forgot which direction you turned at the last fork in the trail, or to respond correctly to your cues across centerline despite you being a giant ball of tension. You're not guiding a 1,000 lb animal with a mind of its own that will often step in to save you, if you've developed your relationship with him the right way.

No. This is just you against heavy, unyielding iron, with the strength of your muscles and your own mind to deal with, alone. There is no emotional feedback from the barbell. If you're such a giant ball of tension that you can't even set up for your lift correctly in order to complete it, it's all on you. It's...a different headspace from riding and running. I took up running in college when I didn't have time for riding and was thrilled that it took me to the same place as riding did. Riding and running are a moving meditation for me: my thoughts just flow freely.

Lifting is different because it's the only time when my mind truly is absolutely still.

That place. That stillness.
This was the day I graduated to the prescribed 35 lb kettlebells for hand-release KB swings.
I finally nailed the swings when I made my mind shut up.
Photo by our Coach A.
I love CrossFit with its explosiveness and speed and endurance factor. Your mind needs to be quiet so that you can stay out of your body's way when moving at lightning speed. But I adore the slow heavy methodical push and pull of powerlifting with its own accompanying mind game.

Stefi Cohen with one of her legendary 400+ lb deadlifts.
She is one of the coaches for Hybrid Performance's Powerlifting Program.
Because if you've done your homework right, the only thing that's going to keep you from moving that super heavy barbell is your own mind.

So that first day of programming? It was squats and bench press with the accompanying accessory work. Angels didn't sing and no special glowing light shone from above. It was just another morning in the CrossFit box, me doing my own thing with my headphones in place, listening to the music of my choice.

A still from that session. 141 lbs on the bar.
It was later that I received the email.

Our box was hosting a US Powerlifting Association meet that upcoming weekend and they were looking for volunteers; the email had gone out to all of the members. I had already moved things around so that I would be available for helping at the meet, so I immediately clicked on the link provided in the email and was thrilled to realize there was one spot still available for the loader/spotter position. This meant I would be working placing and removing weight plates from the barbell on the competition platform (which is exactly what I wanted to do!), and also spotting lifters: the spotter's job is to catch the barbell and/or lifter if the lifter fails in order to keep the barbell from injuring the lifter. If it sounds dangerous, you are absolutely correct: some people are squatting upwards of 500 lbs at these meets...given the size of some of these competitors, you might be moving over 800 lbs of combined muscle and iron in order to keep that athlete safe.

No experience was required; they'd train us on site. Not only that...this wasn't a volunteer job after all. This was paid because it was such hard work!

I had instant butterflies upon sending my confirmation. This was it! This was the first time I would be able to be around this sport and its people for real! I was giddy about getting to finally learn how a powerlifting meet works, in person. The timing of the email and the fact that we were being paid to help out seemed like the most awesome reward for me finally making the decision to dive head-first into powerlifting.

Sidenote: I did not feel this magnetism towards bodybuilding one bit, that desire to be involved in every aspect of the sport. I did not want to go to a show before competing myself because I was afraid I would run away screaming from sheer intimidation. The only sports I have ever felt this eager to be 100% a part of have been:
1. Showjumping: I went to as many of my barn's shows that I possibly could back in Puerto Rico with my trainer, whether I was competing myself or not. I got a huge kick out of assisting my teammates, helping them get tacked up, warming up horses, wiping down boots before riders went into the ring, etc.
2. Endurance: I crewed 3 rides, including Liz's first 50 and her first 100. The whole reason why I crewed the OD 100 was because I was originally going to compete Lily in the OD 75, which was going to be a first time they held that distance that year. But Lily came up lame at the very last minute and the 75 got cancelled anyway due to lack of entries. We had everything packed and ready to go...so we just went and spent 24 hours helping Liz.
3. Now powerlifting.

I haven't been so excited about helping out with a competition since my days training with Ron on the island. I was as jittery as if I was going to compete myself. On Friday night before the event, I was at the box doing Open Gym while Carlos did the WOD. Coach D was there helping the powerlifting meet organizers get everything set up for the next day. The event organizers had indicated in my confirmation email that they wanted us there by 8:00 am on Saturday but I double-checked with Coach D, since he was going to be the one managing us as loaders and spotters. He said to be there between 7:30 and 7:45 am so he could go over some things with us first.

Competition platform with the competition squat rack. That squat rack is really, really cool and is more like a set of really sophisticated jump standards than your average gym squat rack. I'll go into that later because that squat rack and I would really get to know one another. The competition equipment was fascinating to me...wait till you see the collars for holding the plates in place!
Warm-up area set up behind the competition platform with our box's equipment. Our gym has kilogram plates: any time you see numbers on plates I'm using in this setting, it's in kilos, not pounds. For the non-medical readers: 1 kg = 2.2 lbs. The big CrossFit joke amongst us is that the hardest part isn't the workouts: it's the math involved in determining how many pounds you're lifting! All international-level strength sports calculate weight in kilograms so it makes sense to lift in kilos if you're participating in any of these sports.
On Saturday of the meet, I woke up before the alarm, had a big breakfast and was at the CrossFit box by 7:40 am.

Our group was 6 people, including Coach D. Coach showed us the super-thin metal competition plates and had us pick up 25 kg red plates so we could get a feel for them...they were 55 lbs. They were so pretty...and so deceptively heavy!

We would be playing with Ivanko plates like these. See how thin they are?
They are exactly as heavy as they say they are. :) They also look like plastic in photos and from afar...nope, they are painted iron.
He showed us how the squat rack worked when it came to adjusting it. It seriously reminded me of a high-tech version of jump standards.

This was the exact squat rack that was being used at this meet. It's called a combo rack. The bench was removed for squats, but was bolted back on for bench press. 

This is a close-up of one of the squat rack's "standards." See the large arrow pointing at that blue piece on the left? That's the rack's lever or jack (like a tire jack.) Those two notches on the lever fit on either side of the pin indicated by the smaller arrow.
Like so. This photo is looking at the lever from the opposite side of the squat rack; the lever in this photo is fitted under the pin. You then press the lever down, which makes the squat rack standard rise to your desired height (the mechanism uses leverage, very similar to a car jack); you slide a second pin into the hole that determines the height you want it to be at, and then release the lever. Here is an explanation of how the whole thing works. The height of the squat rack had to be changed for pretty much every single lifter on platform. Also: the height is changed with the weighted barbell in place on the rack (it's significantly faster than unloading the barbell, removing it, adjusting the rack height, replacing the barbell and then adding weight plates again): things got real interesting when there were 400+ lbs of iron on the squat rack. You absolutely needed two people just to adjust the height of the squat rack, one person for each side of the rack, or rack "standard." I had wanted video of this whole thing just for blog purposes because this is what I did for 2/3 of the day, but cameras weren't allowed on the platform for obvious reasons (no distractions! We were supposed to help keep the lifters safe!) and Carlos was working.

Coach then showed us the competition powerlifting collars.

These were the ones we would be using. They were the size of my two fists put together.
They are starkly different from your regular barbell collars found at commercial gyms. Each one of these guys weighs 2.5 kg/5.5 lbs of solid steel and their weight is factored into the total weight being moved by the athletes. You do NOT want to drop one of those suckers on your foot because it will fracture a toe. You slide one into place on each end of the barbell and swivel the screw pin on the top to tighten the collar. You then also spin the smooth ring of the collar to tighten it even more. This keeps the plates from spinning around on the barbell when the barbell is moving.

Colored metal Ivanko plates on a competition barbell with the collar described above in place. See how smoothly and tightly they all fit together?
Keeping plates from spinning makes a surprisingly big difference when moving massive amounts of weight: we use rubber bumper plates at the CrossFit box for barbell work, which sit flush against one another on the barbell.

Rogue rubber bumper plates on a barbell; these are pound plates, unlike the kilo plates at our box but it's the same concept. The rubber helps keep them from sliding against one another and also means you can drop the barbell, as lifters often do with Oly movements. Note the black plastic collar on the end of the barbell keeping the plates in place: this is my favorite type of commercial barbell collar. You snap it on and off: easy.
When I started occasionally lifting again at the globo gym with its metal plates that spin no matter how tight you get the collar on the barbell, I was shocked to realize that I had to change my entire setup, especially for deadlifts, just to accommodate the plates spinning: it really unsteadies you when you start lifting more than your own bodyweight.

It was really hard to find a photo where you could clearly see what I'm talking about...but do you see the amount of shadow between one plate and the next here? These plates fit against one another but not tightly, which means they will spin to some degree when the barbell is lifted. This photo also shows the metal collars available at most commercial gyms: they have a spring mechanism and I HATES THEM because I can't ever get them on snug enough. I bought my own plastic collars like the one shown in the Rogue bumper plate photo, that I carry with me in my gym bag. They come in obnoxious colors. Mine are blue. :)

So it made absolute sense that this was SO important when prepping the barbell for competitors.

We had a stand with plates split by weight on each side of the squat rack so each set of loaders would have their own plates to choose from. L and I organized each stand with the plates to our own preferences, in a way that both made sense to us and would allow us to move as quickly as possible.

The competition goes in the following format:
1. Squat
2. Bench Press
3. Deadlift
There were four divisions, with the first one being all the women. The other three divisions were men: despite what I see online, powerlifting is very much a male-dominated sport. There were 60 lifters total. Each athlete had three attempts at each lift. As described in the caption under Kristin's video previously, in Powerlifting the athletes also decide what weights they will move for each of the three lift attempts. Each division would go through the squat rack for their first attempt, then they would all go through again for their second attempt, same for the third attempt. Then switch to bench press and start over. Then the same for deadlifts, when the competition rack would be taken away entirely and the barbell would be directly on the platform. (You pull the barbell from the floor for deads, so no rack needed.)

Johnny, the event organizer, explaining the rules. This was still early in the morning so lots of empty seats. The place would be PACKED by 10:00 am.
So with the weights each athlete picks:

1. Typically as a powerlifter, you want each consecutive attempt to be heavier than the one before. It is generally recommended that noobs start with a weight they know they can move for their first attempt at each lift, and then depending on their experience and confidence, to have the second attempt be their training max or just beyond their training max, and the third attempt be a weight they have not tried before.

2. Experienced lifters sometimes use all three attempts for each lift as personal records (PRs) and are often looking to break state and national records with their third attempts. I would be surprised by how many people were going for records: this is a fairly small sport at the competitive level, so the divisions for older athletes (Masters and thereon) were even smaller, especially in the women's division. Aka I would get to see a lot of record breaking on that platform, which I was not expecting...and it was really, really cool.

3. If you fail your first attempt at each lift, you can choose to drop your second attempt to that same weight. You just can't make second and third attempts less weight than the previous attempt. Ex: You choose 300 lbs as the weight for your first squat attempt, 310 for the second, 325 for the third. You fail the 300 lb first attempt. You can make your second attempt 300 as well. You just can't drop it to, say, 295.

4. There are 3 judges on the platform that determine if a lift is "good" or a "fail": two judges on each side, one on the front of the athlete so they can watch from every angle, basically. Each judge gives a pass or fail score and these scores are shown simply as three lights on a separate monitor. Red means fail, white means good.
3 white lights: good (aka all 3 judges agree it was a good lift.)
2 white lights and 1 red: good (1 judge failed the lift but two passed it. The lift counts because majority wins.)
1 white light and 2 red: fail.
3 red lights: fail.
Failure is determined by details in the athlete's performance: if they didn't hit depth in the squat, if they didn't pause at the top and bottom of the lift in bench or their butt came off of the bench, if they didn't lock out fully during deadlifts. It has nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with completing the lift correctly.

When it came to my job as a loader, there was a TV screen mounted on one side of the platform with the list of athletes, divisions and selected weights in the order in which they would be stepping up to lift. Lifting weight for each athlete was displayed on one side of the screen in large colored bars that matched the weight plates so it was very easy to just get a visual for how many plates you had to add to the rack. Each hole on the rack "standards" had a number: the screen also displayed the numbers to which we had to set the rack hooks to hold the barbell for each athlete. Every time we adjusted the rack, we were adjusting it to each athlete's individual pin numbers for the hooks.

Lifting weights for each division went from lightest to heaviest, which was nice because it meant we were only steadily adding plates to the barbell until everyone in that division had done their attempts. We didn't have to actually remove plates until the cycle repeated itself and the athletes stepped on platform again for their second attempts. The barbell again would progressively get heavier, and then once everyone had gone for their second time, we would start over again for third attempts.

Our crew for the beginning of the meet. That's Coach D with the gray and red shirt. The guy with the beard and dark baseball cap is one of our gym's members; everyone calls him Thor...and he lifts like Thor too so it's appropriate. The other woman in the crew is an upper level powerlifter herself who is going for a world record this winter (yes, an international-level lifting record, mkay? I got to work next to her. O_o) For blog purposes I'm going to refer to her as L. She had the most awesome sense of humor and was so down to earth. It took 6 of us for squats because with some of the really heavy weights, you need five people spotting the lifter. After squats, it was just Coach D, Thor, L and myself for bench and deads. L and I manned the squat rack levers, she spotted bench with Thor, and it took all four of us: L, Thor, Coach D and myself to load and unload the barbell for deadlifts, which is the heaviest lift of all three.
Also: I don't think my grin could have been any bigger if I'd tried!
Squats took the longest of the three lifts because the barbell would get so heavy towards the end of each cycle that it took all six of us working together to change the rack height and move plates onto the barbell. At one point L and I were each putting all of our weight onto those levers to push the rack hooks up into position and it was barely enough to get them to where we needed them to be. It took us a few tries to figure out how to most efficiently use our strength in order to get the jack up with less effort. Hint: hold the far end of the lever with both hands at chest height, lock your elbows against your ribcage, and then aggressively sink down into a squat or lunge position to drive the lever up. The rack would rise up to where we needed it to be because it allowed us to maximally use both the device's leverage and our body weights to make things happen. Coach D would then move the pins into position for us. It was SO much easier when we started doing it this way! If that sounds like a full body workout, it's because it was.

Technically the squat is the most dangerous of The Big Three because lifters usually have so much weight directly on their backs and the spotters have to be so quick in order to save them. There was a story of a guy at a previous meet that blew out both ACLs during a heavy squat that he failed.

Powerlifter getting ready to squat at a powerlifting meet. This is a three-point spot: there is one guy at each end of the barbell and another man behind the lifter, all ready to catch that barbell if the athlete fails the squat.  Aka 3 spotters total. There is also such a thing as a five-point spot, where you have two people at each end of the barbell as well as the one behind the athlete. So you have 5 spotters total.

Each cycle of attempts started from lightest to heaviest weight on the barbell. Each cycle also began with the women's division so I got to see them in action first.

Oh my gosh, you guys. The women. I have never gotten goosebumps watching athletes perform. But I got goosebumps watching them.

There are stereotypes for powerlifters but the reality is that there is no real body type for the sport. There were women breaking national records on that platform that looked like what the average person considers "normal." I'm going to say it again: the coolest thing about strength is that it is not defined by your appearance!! It was interesting to watch the sport up close because there are so few women and most of them were in their 20's-early 30's. The divisions for upper 30's-50's were very small indeed, sometimes just a handful of individuals. I was thrilled to see so many Latinas competing on that platform as well. One of my many favorites was when one of their friends would shout from the audience, "Dale que estas dura mami!!!" I grinned involuntarily every time.

There was one Latina who was only 2 years younger than me. I have no idea if this was one of her first meets or not because that information does not appear on the screen. It only showed pertinent information to this competition: each athlete's name, division, weight class, age, and the weight they were lifting. But this woman...she stepped onto the platform a ball of nervousness. It radiated from her. She stared at the squat rack with wide eyes like a deer in headlights. Her coach shouted encouragement and I watched her expression change from intimidation to stern determination as she shoved her nerves into a box and went into the familiar routine of setting up for her lift: grab the bar with both hands, shift her shoulders into place underneath it, lift it off the rack, and step away from the rack.

Stepping away from the safety of the rack for super heavy squats always feels like you're standing at the edge of a trampoline getting ready to dive into the depths of an unfamiliar ocean.

The spotters moved into place around her.

She took a deep breath to brace, then sank down under the weight of the barbell. Pause at the bottom, and then she slowly engaged every muscle in her lower body to push the barbell back up to her full height. She paused when she was upright again and I saw the second when, "I did it!" crossed her mind. She grinned. And then the spotters moved in to help her walk the barbell back into the rack.

How much did she lift? I don't remember despite being one of the people in charge of loading plates onto the barbell. The weight is irrelevant: 415 lbs is significant to one person whereas 174 is significant to another. Your personal definition of strength is different from another person's. When you start reading about and following powerlifters, you hear over and over that the general powerlifting community is super welcoming, that at the end of the meet no one really cares how much you're lifting. All that matters is that you did the work, showed up, and tried. That's what they celebrate: your effort. I got to see it with my own eyes: the loudest applause happened when lifters put their all into a lift and failed: the effort was still celebrated. The announcer would reiterate it, "She/he will come back to that weight and get it."

It's a different version of, "To finish is to win."

Squats ran past noon. Once every athlete had gone through the platform three times each, we rushed to screw the bench in place onto the combo rack and took quick breaks to have lunch. Lunch was provided by Coach A from a local BBQ place. I had a shaved turkey sandwich that I wolfed down in four bites and then rushed back to the platform so L could take her turn to eat...and also because I didn't want to miss anything.

Bench press is the most technical of the three lifts, as I've described here previously, and it was the lift that was failed by the most people. It is crazy how the smallest thing can shatter your bench press: the way the bar is removed from the rack, the way you brace, how/when you breathe, where your feet are placed. There is so much that goes into it that it is not surprising that it is the most difficult lift in competition format as well. We had our hands full as spotters so I didn't get to observe technique as much as I had originally hoped to.

Jennifer Thompson, a world record holder, demonstrating the bench press. Note the spotters on each side of the barbell.
Deadlifts came immediately after. There were literally no breaks in between lifts for us working: it was go-go-go. By the end of the day, I would have worked 12 hours on my feet managing the lever for one side of the combo rack and moving weight plates onto and off of the barbell.

A different barbell is used for deadlifts: it is called a deadlift bar and it is thinner and more flexible (they have more "whip") than your standard powerlifting bar. The flexibility of the bar means that many lifters can pull from a higher point before the plates lift off the ground, allowing them to potentially move more weight.

You can see the slight bend in this bar. That's what I'm talking about.
So that bendiness of the deadlift bar...it was awesome for the lifters and I can't wait to get my hands on a real deadlift bar...but let's just say it wasn't advantageous for us loaders once the weight started increasing.

You see, there is a thing called a full bar jack that allows you to lift the loaded barbell from the floor to make swapping out plates easier. Again, this is very much like a car jack concept: you hook the jack to the barbell. pull the lever arm up, and the barbell rises off the floor. (We have these at the box for our own use and I am now horribly spoiled when changing 200+ lbs in plates out on the bar the occasional times I'm lifting at the globo gym, where they don't have bar jacks...it's pretty entertaining to watch me struggle to get the damn metal plates off the bar!)

Rogue brand full bar jack. The long rod that points straight up is the lever. This is with the barbell lifted off the platform. Note that the barbell is not very far off of the floor: just enough to facilitate removing and placing full-sized plates on the bar. When you factor in a flexible barbell that starts to bend under the weight of the plates, I think you can understand why deadlifts was challenging for loaders: once lifters were pulling over 300 lbs, those plates were touching the floor anyway and we were having to insert and remove them at an angle, which is challenging when each plate weighs 55 lbs of solid iron and you're having to squat every time to slide them on or off of the bar. This was a very tough full-body workout!

As loaders, we had to bend down to slide the heavy iron plates off of the bar, lift them onto the stand next to the platform, grab a different plate and then bend down again to slide it onto the bar. When the barbell started getting heavier, it started bending when jacked...which meant that we had to kneel on the floor to get the 55 lb plates on and off the barbell at an angle. We had to do this 3 times for each of 60 athletes...so that is 180 times total that we had to swap out plates in just the deadlift portion of the meet. To say that I hit a wall by 4:00 pm is an understatement! Volume-wise, I have no idea how many thousands of pounds we moved that day, but holy shit was I hungry by 4:00 pm with still two hours to go before the meet ended. We were all starting to struggle by then but our little team was working so seamlessly that we were able to keep working efficiently and relentlessly: the meet flows only as fast as the loaders are able to work. No pressure! :)

I might have been slightly loopy from hunger, but I kept forgetting about that because it was so awesome to watch these powerlifters deadlift. Many of them walked right up to the bar, got their feet into position, lifted the bar, set it back down and walked away, making 300, 400, 500, 600 lbs and up look easy. I loved that one of the men wore pink Chuck Taylors for deadlifts. Others were in their sock feet: your feet should be planted to the floor for deads, so you want the thinnest, flattest soles possible between you and the ground...or nothing at all.

The women were badasses here as well. One of the younger girls, another of the Latinas, broke a national record and made it look like a piece of cake. After setting the bar down and getting her three white lights from the judges, she didn't jump up and down or squeal or show any huge outburst of emotion. She just had the biggest, most amazed grin...but her absolute joy over her victory beamed off of the platform. I think all of us were as thrilled as if we'd done it ourselves!

I had a lot of takeaways from getting to work this meet:

1. It was awesome to see how powerlifting competitions flow and are set up. It's always a different perspective when you get to work or volunteer backstage in the sport that interests you.

2. The equipment! Powerlifters wear singlets, which is a one-piece outfit of stretchy fabric that is meant to protect you from the bar by allowing it to slide off of your body. These are mandatory, and each association has different rules about what is allowed in a singlet.

Virus Performance's weightlifting singlet. It is approved for powerlifting. I saw a couple of people wearing this brand.
And yes, the men wear singlets too.
Most people wore lifting shoes with an elevated heel for squats. It was cool to see the different brands in action, though a lot of people wore Vans and Chucks for squats just like for deadlifts. It reminded me I haven't squatted in my lifters in months...I would pull them out of the closet for a squat session and realize that I apparently don't need the elevated heel after all: I do better with a flat shoe. This is not common.

3. My biggest takeaway, however, was seeing how important your setup is: when nerves take over, being able to go through the same familiar motions when approaching the barbell that you do at home practicing, will help you dive through that performance anxiety and see you through to the other side. So many of these lifters would step on the platform a whirl of emotion and the instant they placed their hands on the bar, all of that vanished into thin air and it was just them and the bar. The world around them completely disappeared.

It was one of the things that I had resented about bodybuilding: that you had to make eye contact with the judges and couldn't just disappear into your own headspace to perform onstage. Here you can forget about everything around you and just focus on moving that barbell. No one cares about the size of your deltoids or your glute-hammy tie-in or how striated you are or aren't, or whether there is a dimple on your left ass cheek. No one really even cares about how many pounds you are moving. All that matters is that you showed up to do the thing and tried to lift more than you yourself ever have before.

It truly is a sport about you vs you.

After deadlifts was completed, we helped break down the platform while the event organizer started the awards ceremony. We helped load up the organizer's truck with all of their gear and then stayed to help Coach A and Coach D clean and reorganize the gym. Carlos got out of work around then and stopped by to help too.

I was exhausted by the time we were finished but I couldn't stop grinning. It had been such a fantastic experience. There were so many moments that you'd only get by being there:

  • Before L and I figured out how to use leverage to our advantage, I was struggling with the squat rack lever to move the barbell up to the 19th hole (this was taller than my head) for a specific athlete and I was putting all of my weight on the damn thing and my feet were still completely off of the floor...I think there were close to 700 lbs on the rack and I could. not. get. it. to. budge! Coach D had to come over and helped me. "We need to get you to eat more," he had joked. I had started laughing and laughing. I'm tiny compared to everyone else, yes. But if he only knew that the least I eat in a day is 2,100 calories...
  • Coach D's expression when he realized that the tallest lifter in the men's division was also the one who would be lifting the heaviest. His eyes went wide: it was his job to catch the man AND the barbell if the athlete failed the lift...and the lifter positively towered over Coach D. This was turned into a 5-point spot for everyone's safety. Thankfully everything went well and the lifter totally nailed his squat!
  • A lot of people broke records with their deads...only to have them red-lighted. You see, you can allow gravity to pull the barbell back down to the floor with the catch that you CANNOT let go of the barbell. No dropping barbells when performing deads! BUT: you can't intentionally slam the barbell down to the floor either. If you slam it down yourself, you get red-lighted. After the third male lifter's dead was disqualified for this, one man stepped onto the platform, grabbed the barbell which was loaded with close to 800 lbs of iron, and slowly grinded that bar up into a fully-locked out deadlift. He paused in his lockout and then very, very slowly brought the barbell back to the floor and set it gently on the platform. It was his way of politely saying, "You better pass my damn lift." The crowd roared with applause. Both Coach D's and my jaws dropped involuntarily: guys, getting a maxed-out barbell off the floor is hard. Setting it back down gently is even harder! That had been the most impressive part of that lift! Of course he earned his 3 white lights. :D
  • L, Coach D and I were talking about the problems with being used to measuring weight in pounds...and then switching to kilo plates. L confessed that she was always greatly undercalculating the weights she was lifting in practice because of this. I nodded enthusiastically: the running joke in CrossFit is that the toughest thing isn't the workouts...it's the math!

  • Once we were done breaking down the platform, L and I ran to the restroom. I think I had only peed once in 10 hours by that point because I was so wrapped up in the event and OMG by then I really had to go! There's a locker area in the gym's restroom and I had placed my giant lunchbox with my 8 billion snacks in there. (Like I said: I eat 2100 calories on a rest day. That is a shit-ton of food when you're making 80-90% of it from healthy, whole-food sources. You don't want to know how much more I eat on high volume training days! :D) Before running back out of the restroom, I snagged a banana out of my lunch box (because carbs!) and was stuffing my face when I realized L was standing behind me doing the same thing with a protein bar. She saw me at the same time. We were both mid-bite. We both started laughing and laughing and laughing. I can't tell you why that was so funny, but for me there was something so relatable and human about sharing that moment with an athlete of her caliber. She was so awesome to work with and it was really cool to realize she is a disciplined macros counter as well. I knew I was on the right track with my nutrition (I think my results and performance speak for themselves) but it was awesome to see it validated by someone who competes at the upper levels of the sport.
  • Once the crowds were gone and it was just us CrossFitters and L cleaning up, Coach A brought out a round of beers for all of us. It made me feel like I was part of the family.

It was such an awesome, awesome day. I don't know if it's relatable to readers and I'm not sure how many of you will have read through this whole thing to get to this point, but if you did: thank you.

I returned to my own powerlifting training on Monday after the meet. I've kept on progressing...I recently pulled 205 lbs for singles in my deadlift. I was not maxed out yet. :)

205 lbs bitchezzzz!
There are minor things I can pick at about my form in this lift, but overall this is one pretty deadlift. 
And yes: I set it down gently. ;)


I write about my journey with the barbell because I sincerely hope that by me putting this story out there, it will encourage other women to embrace their own strength, be it in the gym or however they choose to find their inner resilience. It is a journey that I would not have been able to discover if I had not chosen to branch out from horses.

As for my reasons, I couldn't have said it better than Girls Who Powerlift and I'm going to share it because maybe some way, somehow, it will resonate with you too:

"A woman who lifts heavy is creating a stable, strong physical self, but an even stronger, and more resilient, mental self. 
Powerlifting is a sport that demands you do not suck in your waist, avoid food or remain quiet. It is a sport where heavier girls are stronger, and growth is celebrated. It is a metaphorical middle finger up to everything we were taught to define being a woman. 
When the weight feels heavy, we grunt. When we're afraid of getting under the bar, we stomp. When the bar starts to slip away, we cover our hands in chalk ... even if our nails are done.
We rise to the occasion, no matter how many times that day we were told we were wrong, silenced, objectified, insulted or ignored.
Every time I step up to the bar, I step into my skin, and out of a stereotype I was conditioned to believe was me. 
I no longer show up to places where I am made to feel unwelcome, I'm not quiet on controversial topics, I don't continue speaking with people who aren't listening, and my needs are always a top priority.
You say selfish, but I say self-respect.
I am not afraid to speak up, speak out, gain weight, stand out, look different, and especially not afraid of making misogynists feels uncomfortable. 
Because powerlifting is more than a sport, it is a teaching. It is a therapy for women betrayed by the system, a system built by fragile men that thrives on unrealistic expectations and lowered self-esteem.
So, I guess I'm not really a powerlifter because I am a feminist. But rather, I am a powerlifter, because I am, finally, just me."

Hi. My name is Nicole. And I am a powerlifter.