The First Training Session
I won't deny I was both excited and quite nervous about the first session with Trainer after my sour experience with Coach.
It was 6:00 am, two days after my last session with Tony. I walked into the gym not knowing what to expect.
"What music do you like to listen to?" was Trainer's first question after initial hellos. He was setting up his phone for music. Him and Tony have an amazing Bluetooth speaker system set up in the gym that they connect their phone playlists to. Like I said before, this is a small private gym similar to a Crossfit box and it's usually one trainer and his client(s) (they also have group training sessions) working there. The gym is locked when there isn't a trainer present. So it was just Trainer and me. Hence getting to choose music.
"Anything. As long as there's music." I appreciated the question though. He chose an alternative rock station that was in line with the type of stuff that I used to listen to in college when I had my punk rock band, and we got to work.
I had been expecting a brutal high-energy lower-body focused workout, so I was surprised when he explained we were going to work my back.
"This type of competition is won from the back," he said. Not butt back (that's a focus in other divisions...), but your torso's back. He explained what parts of my back needed more work and why. This was an odd feeling: I'm used to looking at my horses in the field and thinking, "Hmmm...Gracie's hunter's bump is more prominent. We need to work more on collection," or "Lily's loins are looking weak. We need to ramp up the hill sprints," and then proceeding forth with these plans and having the satisfaction of watching their bodies change the way I'm expecting them to.
|Lily a couple of months before she became mine in 2011. 4-year old, average-looking post-legged TB type bay mare on a hay-only diet that had not been worked consistently in nearly a year.|
A completely blank slate.
|Beefcake Lily in 2013, back when we dressaged a lot more than we trail rode.|
I was aiming for Working Equitation with her.
|Endurance Lily at the end of her first 50 in 2014. Photo by Dom. I was happy with her muscling but not with that much rib showing. We were still figuring things out conditioning- and nutrition-wise.|
Beast Mode Lily in 2016 at our first 50 that year. Photo by Becky Pearman.
I had finally figured out the right combo of hills, distance, dressage and nutrition for her endurance conditioning.
She looks like 4 different horses in these photos, no? I was solely responsible for each of these transformations.
There is something undoubtedly amazing about taking the body of the most supreme athlete of them all, a horse, and being able to mold it to what you and they need to succeed at x sport.
My wish in 2016 was to be Lily's equal while we competed. Which I think should be every rider's goal: it is only fair that you be as fit as you expect your horse to be.
He had me go through different exercises that worked both the upper back and rear delts (back of shoulders). Most of them were familiar with some variations and some were completely new. An interesting one was basically a lat pulldown with a resistance band, modified into a row so that it also worked the rhomboids. (The muscles between your shoulder blades.) The band was tied to one of the overhead beams used for pull-ups; I was supposed to grab the end of the band with both hands and bring my arms backwards, bending elbows until my upper arms were parallel with my shoulders.
Trainer demonstrated and I watched what he was doing with his arms so I could get all the angles right when it was my turn. It seemed easy enough...
Except I couldn't get the movement right. He tried using different imagery in an attempt to get me to understand what he wanted me to do: "Keep your shoulders back." "Now release your shoulder blades." "Let your arms slide forward."
"Like that??" I wasn't getting it and was starting to become frustrated. He had me pause and took the resistance band himself so he could demonstrate.
"Watch my back," he said.
He pulled the band straight back towards his face so that his upper arms were parallel with his shoulders without letting his shoulders creep up towards his ears, tightening his rhomboids and then letting his shoulder blades slide forward across his ribcage as he released the movement. In doing so, his back opened up, appearing twice as wide as it did in his normal stance.
"OH!" I got it then.
He said it out loud just as the thought clicked into place in my brain: "And THAT'S how you open up your back for posing too. It's the same exact movement." And he demonstrated the pose.
I nailed it.
He had me do supersets with that exercise + two variations of lat pulldowns. By the time I was going into the third superset he commented with a grin, "Your upper back has grown 4" just from these exercises." This is what is called a "pump": when you work a specific muscle or group of muscles, you increase blood flow to it, making it appear temporarily larger. It goes back to normal when you cool down, but is pretty cool to see in action when you understand what is happening. Horses do the same thing but in a slightly different way: they sweat over the muscles they are using.
I couldn't see what was going on with my back but I sure felt it!
The rest of the exercises involved weight. The weight he was having me lift/pull/push was more than I would have done on my own...but it was also less reps: only 10. However, the biggest change was the speed at which I was working. I normally didn't go fast, but I needed to go even slower.
"And hold it at the end of the movement."
Those last two reps for each set and each movement were killer. By the end of the session I had the speed down so that it was automatic; he didn't have to continue reminding me.
My shoulders and upper back were exhausted and burning in a good way by the time the session was over.
This was the literal opposite of Coach's training style...and I liked it. Throughout the session I asked questions about nutrition, cardio, how the program evolves (it is not supposed to stay the same throughout), and got his opinion on the contradictory information I had found while researching. Trainer teaches college level personal training courses: he does his own research and enjoys explaining. It was pretty awesome to see his face light up as he went over the nitty gritty details of why he does things a particular way.
I was already hooked. I had one more trial session but I had already made up my mind that I wanted to proceed.
"Slow down" became a motto in every other aspect of my life after that.
Pacing by Tep No.
I love this song, and its soothing music was perfect for the speed I was working out at.
Food! So Much Food!
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Note and disclaimer: I'm discussing this in a fair amount of detail so my readers can understand the complexity and challenges of all of this. I want to emphasize that this diet was temporary. Macros tracking can be done on a permanent basis, but carb cycling is not meant to be done as a long-term thing and it is considered a bodybuilding-specific plan meant to help drop fat faster while complementing a pretty intense workout schedule where heavy lifting is a priority. Some people use carb cycling as a way of learning how their body reacts to certain nutrients and which ones their body prefers. This is used to the person's advantage during the last phase of prep and can also allow for better tweaking of future preps. Just like you can't cookie cutter a training method with horses because each one is different, every *body* is different. (I can't stress that enough!) Some people respond well to carb cycling, others do better on the keto diet (high fat, moderate protein, low carb), and others simply go with higher-carb clean eating throughout their prep. Age, metabolics, gender, hormones, baseline fitness, previous workout history, diet history and genetics can all affect how your body responds to certain foods. Your body is not going to respond to the same food in the same way as mine does. In fact, after this prep and watching how my body responded to specific moments in the cycle as it became stricter towards the end, it's already been discussed how the cycling will be tweaked for the next one. It was a huge, and valuable, learning experience.
Continuing on with my story: Signing up for IIFYM at the beginning of the year ended up being a great intro to this. Trainer's initial carb cycling version (there are MANY different variations of carb cycling) involved two very low-carb days; one moderate carb day (about the same as what I would eat when prepping for an endurance ride, hence why it was the easiest day for me); and one super high carb day that Trainer warned would most likely be the hardest for meeting macros. Protein macros were high and stayed about the same throughout all days in the cycle; the only other thing that changed was fat: as carbs increased, fats decreased and vice versa. Calorie counts stayed about the same if you were hitting all the macros; I was told to NOT watch calories because it didn't matter as long as I was hitting the macros.
Trainer was not kidding about the super-high carb day being difficult when I saw the numbers: I had to buy maltodextrin powder (a complex carb popular in human endurance supplements, such as those by Hammer Nutrition) to hit the carb macros on the high carb day because otherwise it was impossible to meet the requirement without also going over on fats and protein. What I chose to eat was flexible as long as I was hitting the macros in a healthy way. Unlike IIFYM, there was no eating cake or ice cream to reach carb goals! That just made it all that more interesting: having access to grocery stores with an enormous variety of healthy food like Wegmans and the smaller mom & pop organic/farmer's markets in our area made the project of finding food to keep the diet interesting even more fun. I like variety, color, and tons of flavor. Our pantry has the typical Latin seasonings you would expect, like adobo, mojo, cumin, bay leaves and jerk rub...as well as Indian flavors like curry, garam masala, and coriander; and the typical things in everyone's pantry like oregano, herbes de provence, rosemary, basil, paprika, etc. Meat, chicken and fish are usually marinated for at least 24 hours for additional flavor, and I was able to continue doing that during this phase of prep.
|Homemade chicken, pepper and mushroom stir-fry over brown rice with a side of roasted asparagus with garlic and balsamic vinegar = dinner on a high carb day. Clean food does not have to taste like freaking cardboard!|
It took a while before I got the full swing of carb cycling. Planning ALL meals ahead was a huge help. Eating out was very much minimized (it's hard to track precise numbers when you don't know exactly how food has been cooked or the exact portion sizes) except on high carb days: on those days it was so hard to reach those carb macros that Carlos and I would occasionally eat out if we were both off of work: I could order pasta with marinara sauce or rice or stir fry; most of the restaurants in town like Cafe Nola and The Orchard have super healthy options that fit the bill just right.
Note: I don't care what anyone says, it is expensive to eat healthy unless you're able to grow everything in your backyard. It is also time-consuming to prep all of your meals for the workweek in advance when you're making breakfast, lunch and dinner for all days for two people. But meal prep is the only way to go about it if you want to make sure you are eating the right things at the right times. Jumping into both eating healthy AND doing this type of program would have been overwhelming if I had been starting both together for the first time, but having a solid knowledge of food nutrient content and already being used to 90% of the time choosing healthier foods made it so much easier. Our grocery expenses didn't really change throughout this.
On My Body Responding
|Ok well, yeah, maybe...lol|
And then came the steady changes: a network of veins appeared over my lower arms. I suddenly had the beginnings of bicep veins, which had been a lifelong wish. And a shoulder vein started to materialize. And later there was one across my left clavicle. And an ab vein that wanted to come to the surface.
|I freaking love this.|
Even then, the transformation my abs went through alone on this program was...it was just wow.
|Only 6 weeks between these photos!! The first was taken right before starting to work with Coach; the second two weeks after starting with Trainer. Note the difference in waist size too...|
"I weigh the same, though," I added.
"Okay, GOOD," he said in relief. "That's how it should be. We don't want you losing too much too soon."
It was such a refreshing difference from Coach and her fixation with weight.
"Okay, we can do legs too." So my second session was legs.
I was warmed up with barbell squats and then moved on into deadlifts. The first weight plates Trainer set on barbell I lifted with ease. "Okay, we need to make this harder," he said, moving to change the plates.
I watched Trainer swap out the weight plates on the barbell and made a note of not looking at the number on the plates. A quiet and very familiar thrill moved through me. "Will I be able to lift this?" This was new, this type of lifting...so why was the feeling familiar?
It was familiar because it was the same quiet thrill I would get during my jumping days when the trainer I trusted would go around and raise the height of all the jumps. I never counted the holes the top bars were being raised to; I chose to simply ignore the increasing height and face it as if it was just another course. "Will I be able to jump this?" And the unwavering certainty that was, "Yes, I will."
I stepped over to the barbell and looked down at it. "Yes, I will," was the answer now as I wrapped my hands around the bar, breathed in, and drove down through my heels, engaging every ounce of power in my lower body to explode upwards with the bar in a deadlift.
"HA!" I thought, grinning. That thing was heavy, guys.
"Good," Trainer said, arms crossed in front of his chest. "Now do it slower."
My eyes widened but I obeyed. I lowered the barbell and came back up, slower this time. My legs had the strength to lift the weight but it turns out that my hands did not. My hands and the little
What ensued was comical.
"Can I get my gloves?"
Trainer made a mock grimace. "If you must..." Gloves are frowned upon by real lifters.
I ran to my gym bag and snatched my weight lifting gloves.
They made no difference. I did two reps before ripping them off again with a snarl. Trainer burst out laughing, "I told you!"
I understood then why gloves are a no-no at the upper levels of weight lifting: they might help somewhat with preventing callus formation (I still had mad calluses on my palms even with gloves) but they do not help with strengthening grip.
My grip was better without the gloves but I was furious that I couldn't make my hands obey. I had read about this being a common problem with women, where we have the lower body strength to perform these moves with insane amounts of weight...but our grip gives out long before our legs and glutes do.
"How do you strengthen grip? Is there anything specific you can do?" I asked at the end of the set. We had just figured out my hands' (not my glutes'...) 5-rep max. -_-
"There aren't specific exercises for strengthening grip, no," he said. "Doing things like the Farmer's Walk helps."
|Farmer's Walk, featured. Guess where the name comes from. ;)|
And that's how all variations of deadlifts became a part of the regular Leg Day schedule around here. Sans gloves.
I later did the math on the plates. I used to be sore after performing deadlifts with two 20-lb dumbbells. The bar at Tony's gym weighs 45 lbs alone...I had just finished a full set of deadlifts with 115 lbs. (That is nothing by weight lifting standards but it was pretty eye-opening for me!)
He was not kidding about working shoulders. I've never had my shoulders worked so hard, so intensely, so completely or so frequently. Which explains why they did a 180-degree transformation in only a couple of weeks and continued to rapidly change from there on out.
Shoulder presses became my nemesis and Trainer caught onto that fast. Which meant doing more of them, with heavier weights. For a while the only exercise that could make me hiss from effort on exhalation was shoulder presses (because you're clenching your jaw and breathing out through your teeth)...until we moved on into phase 2. But more on that later.
Shoulder Day became a Thing, and it was added x2 into the weekly workout rotation. Mind you, shoulders got worked any day I was focusing on chest (front of shoulders are involved) and upper back (rear shoulders come into play) as well. So basically my shoulders were some degree of sore all day erryday. But that's okay because holy shit:
|Right before starting with Trainer|
After 4 weeks of working with Trainer. O_o
(Photo is slightly distorted because it is a very cropped-down iPhone pic that had been taken at a funky angle...but still: you get the idea.)
I was almost 4 weeks into the carb cycling when we returned from our May trip to the Outer Banks (that I have yet to write about!!) Up until the trip, I had not had an issue with being hungry all the time. I was eating on a regular schedule (about every 2-3 hours) that coincided right when low-grade hunger pangs started but this is pretty much my norm when I'm super active anyway so it wasn't new to me.
At OBX I had had a harder time keeping my macros in order, which was to be expected when eating out, but I still made them fit about 90% of the time. Over the course of that weekend we had been so active that I realized I was low-grade hungry all the time instead of just when it was time to eat again. At OBX, within an hour or two of eating, I'd be truly hungry again. As in starving. And I wasn't eating rice cakes and spinach here: I was eating oatmeal made with milk and real fruit for breakfast before strength training at the apartment, scrambled eggs for second breakfast before running out to the beach for HIIT, chicken or beef stir-fried at the apartment with a ton of veggies over brown rice for lunch, drinking thick protein shakes where I tossed in half an avocado into the blender with the milk and protein powder to give it the consistency of cake batter, and snacking on mozzarella cheese, hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese or Icelandic yogurt (I like it better than Greek because it's denser), and then finishing the day with fish for dinner. Carlos said I had achieved true Hobbit status.
|Once a nerd, always a nerd. ;)|
Seriously: 6-7 meals a day. Trainer's orders.
The 7-hour drive back to Maryland was torture in the hunger department. I had packed snacks so that I could still eat at 2-3 hour intervals. It was the second low-carb day, which should not have been an issue because I'm allowed to eat higher fat on those days, but all I could think about for the 7 hours back north was how hungry I was. I would eat, feel sated for maybe 15 minutes, and then the hunger would start up again. The last 3 hours of the trip I went quiet and tried to entertain myself reading because I was just outright hangry. Anything I said would come out cranky and it wasn't Carlos's fault.
I had a session with Trainer the next morning, and I told him about how insanely hungry I had been the day before despite eating well and on schedule. "Is this the norm from now on?" I asked him.
He gave me a knowing smile. "It is. Initially your body is sort of in shock as it adjusts to the constantly changing cycle, but then it all starts catching up. You eat and it's like you didn't eat anything at all. I'd love to say it gets better...but it doesn't."
I nodded, thinking of the cheese-smothered steak I'd had for dinner the night before, after arriving home (keto diet examples were my go-to for the low carb days of the cycle) and how I could have eaten the plate as well. I'm not a red meat person. I'm most definitely not a steak person. I ordered that steak because my body was outright screaming for it and I said, "OKAY FINE!" If you had told skinny waif 16 year-old me that one day in my late 30s I'd be wolfing down 2500 calories in a day and still wanting to eat everything in sight while fat continued to melt off of my frame like butter, 16 year old me would have smacked you.
"Did you try increasing your fats?" he asked, as he went about setting up the equipment that I would be using.
"I did!" I had been nailing the protein and carb macros on the low carb days but up until then had still been WAY low on the fats despite being allowed more: the jury is still out on whether high fat on low carb days makes a difference or not in the metabolism-accelerating department, so I'd been trending on the lower end of the fat range for these days. Not out of fear of fat in my diet, but because most of the food I have at home is just naturally lower in fat; I would have to consciously add fat to make the macros. "I actually went over," I continued. (By like 30 grams...the high range for fats on the low carb days was a whopping 80 grams, so I went over even that. My average is historically around 45-60 grams of fat/day.) "And then I was mad because of that, on top of being hangry." Trainer burst out laughing and I started the first round of supersets.
People legit think you have to starve yourself in order to achieve this type of body condition. It is the opposite. When you have managed to swing the body composition pendulum in the direction of "more muscle" vs "more fat," you start to understand the whole concept of "muscle burns more calories even when you're just sitting around." It's like there isn't enough food in the world. At least, not if you're eating the right kind of food. It's like you're feeding your body high octane fuel, which in turn makes your metabolism hum ever faster.
My workout clothes were fitting looser that week after the beach so I stepped on the scale out of curiosity...and I had literally shed 3 lbs over the course of the weekend.
The persistent low-grade hunger continued after that, becoming a state of being. I was usually busy enough that I'd be distracted from it...until my body would tap my shoulder and go, "Hey. Feed me NAO or I'll make you feel like ass by tanking your blood sugar!" And then I would have to eat because otherwise I really would feel ill. Small meals were better. I thought I would have a hard time with that but it was the opposite: given how much I had to eat, it was so much easier to just spread it out over the course of the day than try to get it all in at once in 3 enormous meals. Especially on work days when I can't ever sit down to have lunch: it was easier to keep my food in the small break room off of the ICU and swing in for a few bites of food at a time to keep the hypoglycemia at bay.
Trainer wasn't kidding: ravenous days like our return trip to Maryland from OBX would become more frequent.
It was so weird because while all of this would be hard work for most people, for the first two months I was basically putting together most of what I had already been doing in a different way, so the fact that it wasn't alien to me made it all fairly effortless...in the first phase. I was doing two things that I love: eating and working out...and losing weight + gaining muscle without having to kill myself in the process...or even think about it, really. I just did what I was told. I didn't have time to obsess over the mirror and I didn't want to. I'd just look up while washing my hands in a different restroom with different lighting and do a double-take, "OMG, when did that happen?!" I kept trying to document the changes via photos but there was no way to keep up.
|The bottom photo really did become my life.|
Waking up in the morning to eat real food before working out was amazing.
And I love The Rock, so there's that. ;)
And so went the gaining phase. My job was to put on muscle; leaning out would happen initially mostly thanks to the diet and as a side effect of gaining said muscle as my metabolism went into hyperdrive.