Trending Topics II: How You Feel

In the Weightlifting community, at least in the West, there’s this popular notion that how you’re feeling is is a lie. That, if you let it, your body will nefariously convince you not to pursue the gains you deserve… Or something like that. And yet, in Weightlifting, another popular assertion is that you must find the feel, and pay attention to every detail about what and how you`re feeling. I’m admittedly guilty of parroting both concepts without much further examination. I realize now that: 1) I’ve probably confused some of you by contradicting myself and 2) that this is a dichotomy ripe for deconstruction!

Upon further reflection I think that both assumptions are correct, just poorly explained and delineated. No, what we have here is another example of gym-folk wisdom that, on the surface makes a whole lot of sense, but upon further analysis doesn’t have much of an explanatory thrust. Here’s what I think upon further reflection: The disagreement in this case has to do with incorrect assumptions about what the correct “feel”or feelings actually are. How you’re feeling, as it relates to training, is only a lie if we presume that you ought to be feeling comfortable when you train. What you’re feeling when you train, as it relates to how you’re moving, is not a lie, and is important information. This article is about reconciling what is relevant about how you feel when you lift, and what is not.

Before we begin, I’m going to have to let the anthropologist in me out for just a moment. I suspect that this attitude we’re questioning, the idea that your body is lying to you (ostensibly because you feel “bad”) has its roots in a cultural expectation we have in N. America. That, one of the central tenets to living a good life includes feeling comfortable, and that feeling discomfort is counter to our expectation of the way life ought to be. I know that’s a rather grand claim to make, and I’m feeling particularly lazy about providing evidence so I’ll leave you with this: just take a peak at our economy, and you’ll have your evidence. Take a glance at the sheer volume of goods and services being offered to make your life more comfortable, convenient, happy, etc. Not that being happy is bad nor is it unreasonable to want comfort in life. It’s just that sometimes you can’t always be assured of that expectation of comfort in everything you do; especially sport. Weightlifting is an inherently uncomfortable experience much of the time, and if you want to perform at a high-level (or be better than you are now), it can be a torturous experience. It doesn’t help either that this is an individual sport where your performance is entirely contingent upon you, and not the collective efforts of your team. From that, then, I’m sure you, just as I, can see how our attitude towards that discomfort might be more reactive than analytic. Your body isn’t lying to you; you probably do feel like you’ve been beaten up by the bar. As coaches, what we really mean with that statement about your body lying to you is that feeling significant fatigue isn’t necessarily an acceptable excuse to dial back on training. Nevertheless, because of the cultural milieu we reside in, it’s not surprising to see that, when the reality of a situation is so counter to that of one’s general experience of the world, their response might be outright rejection as exemplified in the: “your body is lying to you!” trope. Of course, it’s also just easier for a coach to tell you to stop being a damn wuss than deconstructing your cultural world to explain why training hard is, well… Hard. Anyway… let’s go ahead and look what a coach might really mean when s/he says your body is lying to you.

The whole notion of “how you’re feeling is a lie” is predicated upon one simple fact: athletes have been able to pull off brilliant performances when they self-report feeling like shit, and, by the same token, have utterly shit the bed despite proclaiming that they’re feeling amazing. That, whether you feel good or not, this is not a reliable predictor of performance in the immediate future. It makes an intuitive sense, then, does it not to claim how one’s body feels is a lie given these results? Again, here’s where we see that cultural expectation poking its head in, where it’s assumed as though that, in order to be productive, we must be comfortable and fresh first. What’s confusing, however, is that later on in the same session where you’re slogging away, working through your pain, that your coach may instruct you to pay attention to how a lift feels because you’re all over the place… Right after having told you at the beginning of the session that how you feel is a lie. I know I’ve done it. So what the hell is coach actually getting at?

The problem of the “how you’re feeling is a lie” concept has to do with what we conflate our feelings as being. Feeling good versus feeling bad, feeling tired, feeling sore, comfortable versus uncomfortable, these are only a part of how you feel. Because of our cultural upbringing these feelings are central to our notion of how we’re feeling, but just because they’re central doesn’t mean they’re the only things we sense that constitute how we’re doing. How you feel, in this respect, isn’t a lie. It’s just often irrelevant and/or out of context.

How you’re feeling, as it relates to the way you’re lifting, is relevant, and is what your coach is actually getting at when they ask you to focus on feeling. For instance, do you feel like you’re staying over the bar long enough? Does the bar feel close as you turn it over or is it getting away from you? Does your receipt of the bar feel sloppy and weak or tight and strong? These are are all more relevant measures of how you feel as it relates to lifting. Focusing on this kind of feel has no cultural or strong emotional value attached to it, and is directly relevant to your performance; in short, it has nothing to do with a warm and fuzzy training experience. It’s also far more germane to your coach’s efforts to help you succeed. I can’t do a whole lot to help with feedback like: “Ugh, coach, I just don’t feel good today. I’m tired. My butt hurts, too.” That’s nice. I’m stiff and sore all the time. You want me to pat your head? No, what’s useful is if you tell me: “Coach, I feel really slow in getting under today. My arms feel fatigued when I catch my Snatches, and I’m having trouble staying over the bar. What do you see? What should I do?” Notice how much more specific, and thus, meaningful the latter statement is? The nice thing about the last example is that you’ll also learn a lot more about how you both respond to, and work through fatigue because, in the end, that’s what we’re talking about. What was it that made your body “lie” to you in the first place? Training and the accrual of fatigue. Being fatigued is an unpleasant albeit necessary experience. It’s how you adapt to training, and get better. The best athletes are those who accept this, and can then, with precision, navigate through their emotional, physical, and performance states as they relate to their bodies. The reality is that we’re not discreet beings so we’re going to be feeling all kinds of different things all the time, some more dominating than the others (e.g. Our preoccupation with feeling “good”). The task at hand is learning to navigate and respond to them appropriately. I’ll give you a few examples of my own.

The other week I had a rough Clean workout, missing three heavy attempts in a row. On the last attempt I must have stomped too hard (or something, I honestly am not sure what I did), but the next day my knees felt like junk. I started my workout the following day feeling great not really cognizant of my knee pain yet. It was only when I started playing around with the bar that my knees let themselves be heard. Even though it was to be a light workout that included Power Snatches, I couldn’t bend my knees and get into the right start position. I felt confident, strong, and ready warming up. I was in a good mood because, regardless of the Clean misses the night before, I had had a good session. But, there was just one angle of knee flexion that I could not reliably achieve and it happened to be the same position I needed my knees to be in to setup correctly. I tried extra warm ups, stretching, I lightened the load on the bar, and in the end, I still couldn’t move right. So I stopped. Well, actually… I was told to stop. But, that’s why it made sense to do so.. I couldn’t setup properly, and in spite of my enthusiasm, the bar wouldn’t move correctly. My coach decided I should stop since I’d just be moving improperly, and modified my workout as necessary. I’m a bonehead and probably would have tried to work around it anyway, so thankfully a clearer head than mine acted. Here’s a case where, even though I felt strong and confident that my physical discomfort was enough to throw me off. This is a case of feeling great, but having an uncooperative body. My body wasn’t lying to me here. It told me, in very certain terms, that it was not a good day to lift. If you notice, though, I only accepted that answer after taking stock of how I felt in the context of how I was lifting.

As a converse example, I recently Snatched 110kg. I haven’t done that in over a year. The day I did that was not one where I felt particularly strong or confident. I felt fatigued. Not too sore or tired, but enough that the thought of it being one of those sessions where you just do what you can entered my mind. I worked up, feeling a little slow, but everything was moving well. Mind you, I only felt slow because of my fatigue. Video evidence and my coach’s eye said otherwise. No, working up, I was hitting lift after lift… Until about 102kg. I missed that weight twice before the technical flaw I was making became evident. The video said it all: I wasn’t staying over the bar long enough, probably because my back was tired. So, I waved down, and then back up. But, as I worked back up, I really focused on feeling that tension in my legs and back, to really feel the positions I needed to be in. I even did a few Snatch Deadlifts with 100kg first under my coach’s supervision to ensure that what I was attempting to feel was indeed what I ought to be feeling. I repeated 100kg, then got the 102kg I’d missed before, feeling the weight, staying patient as I pulled it into my hip. At this point, I was starting to get tired, thinking “dammit, I still have to Clean and Jerk and Back Squat heavy.” Whatever, though, the bar was going up. I decided to continue being cautious since, even though I wasn’t feeling great, the weight was clearly going up. 104kg is a cinch. 106kg. 108kg. What the hell? I thought I felt beat up? Fuck it. 110kg. I approached the platform. I carefully grasped the bar, giving it a bit of a tug just to prepare myself for, an get a sense of the weight. That tug felt heavy. It was a struggle to stay over the bar, but I didn’t hesitate. Going into that lift I knew, contrary to my not feeling particularly comfortable, my body was there to lift. I didn’t hesitate. I wanted that weight. I knew given my other attempts that the potential was there, and that, ultimately, that was all that mattered. I knew that because I was feeling a little slower than usual that I not only had to do everything right, but I that I absolutely had to commit to it. This last lift ended up being one of the best Snatches I’ve ever put above my head, and was definitely one of the more satisfying lifts I’ve executed in recent memory.

The above example is probably one another coach might use to say: “Hey, see, your body was lying to you!” On the contrary, I think my body was telling me exactly what I needed to know. I was feeling tired, even unmotivated a little because I wasn’t feeling “on.” The truth my body told me was that, even though I felt fatigued, I was conditioned to lift 110kg that day. It’s the same truth I’d tell any lifter who didn’t feel great, but was moving well: that you have to go for it when your body and the bar are cooperating, that pushing yourself both to, and past your perceived limits is the essence of getting better. In reality, your body never lies to you, and how can it anyway? Your consciousness is the agent that pilots your body; it’s not like your arms can conspire against you because they don’t feel like locking out jerks after Snatches. No, the only lies being told are those you might concoct because you want an excuse not to push through discomfort. The truth is that you have to pay attention to everything, and you have to do so in a manner that doesn’t treat your relative comfort level and your performative ability as mutually exclusive. How comfortable you feel, in the context of having a leisurely training session, isn’t useful. How comfortable you feel can be indicative of how fatigued you are, however; it just has little immediate bearing when it comes to predicting your performance for the day. So, remember: how you feel does matter. It’s only meaningful when you place it in the total broader context of what you’re doing. The next time you feel like hammered shit, and are wondering how you’re going to finish a workout, stop thinking. Stop saying the phrase: “I feel” in your head, and give yourself a chance. Instead, opt to make observations like: “the bar is moving well, but I’m being slow in my turnover” or “the bar feels heavy, but I’m moving fast.” Then you can take stock of how you feel. I promise that, most of the time, you’ll be glad you did. Your numbers will go up, too.