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Friday, July 22, 2011

A New Perspective

by Gillian Mounsey


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Society rewarded me for this very unhealthy body – photographers wanted to shoot me, manufacturers wanted me to wear their clothes, and supplement companies wanted me to push their products. Once again the paradox: looking “great” while performing poorly.

I recently spent 10 days in Wichita Falls, Texas training with Mark Rippetoe at the Wichita Falls Athletic Club (WFAC). My husband and I made the 1,400 mile trek on our motorcycle seeking a higher level of proficiency in Olympic weightlifting (Snatch and Clean & Jerk), the slow lifts (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Press), and expert coaching. My goal was two-fold: first, to improve my own knowledge and technique of the lifts to better myself as an athlete, and second, to improve my knowledge in order to share with clients, friends, and family. What I got was a whole lot more. The most important things I learned were intangible - they cannot be quantified, and have little to do with technique.

I learned to respect myself as an athlete. I learned to appreciate the gifts that I have been given and the abilities I worked very hard for, rather than to dwell on the things I do not have. I learned to train with purpose rather than for atonement. It was the perfect vacation - training is my favorite pastime – eat, train, rest, eat, hot-tub/pool, nap, train, eat, socialize, and maybe eat again before going to bed for the night. What made it special was that my time spent at WFAC was filled with purposeful training, recovery, and education. I met inspiring people that cared about two things: self-improvement and helping those they came in contact with to be better through expert knowledge, unparalleled generosity, and attention to detail. I spent the week as part of a team, even though weightlifting is often regarded as an individual sport.

During my week of training, focus was on my performance and the effort I put forth. At some point I realized that aesthetics was not the focus - my appearance was never discussed, and as a result my comfort level soared. I was reacquainted with a fact I already knew: what we look like is a result of genetics, consistent hard training, and eating enough to perform at your best. When I wasn’t training I spent my time with Stef, Juli, and Shelley. These women are strong and beautiful and seemed not to worry about the size of their jeans or if they weighed more than the 100lb cover girls seen on the pages of fashion magazines. These women are proud of their hard earned muscle and strength, and they sport it with a confidence that I envy. They are smart, healthy, and incredibly capable. To me, those are traits of real beauty.

As a result, I came to realize that my self-image was not as evolved as Stef ’s, Juli’s, Shelley’s, and several other very impressive females I had the pleasure of meeting. I still worry about fitting into size 2 jeans and I panic when the scale climbs over 140 (I am 5’4?on a tall day when my hair is big). I am my own worst enemy when it comes to being the athlete that I could be. I know the amazing things of which I am capable, and now I have to stop standing in my own way. Unfortunately, being a CrossFitter for 3 ½ years (until 3 months ago) only further contributed to my skewed body image.

I spent my childhood as a competitive athlete – primarily a gymnast from the age of two. In high school I continued gymnastics, but my focus moved toward track and field after multiple injuries. As a result of these injuries I was skittish and developed a fear. This ultimately led to a degradation of physical performance and the mental willingness to do dangerous routines. My track coach encouraged me to be an 800-meter sprinter. He believed the anaerobic time domain would improve our performance on other events. And at local meets there was little competition in the 800 meter event. At 16 years old, I ran a 2:07 800m, was a decent hurdler (100m and 400m), and threw the discus. Javelin was illegal in NYC, and the hammer throw was not done at the high school level (though I learned to throw at an outing to St. John’s University and was good at with the hammer as well). For whatever reason I didn’t identify with shot put; if I am honest, the big girls scared me.

I was accustomed to training and practicing 20-30 hours a week. My identity was largely related to my athletic success and physical capabilities. During and after college I yearned for competition – training was the pastime I knew and it kept me balanced. I fell into bodybuilding and the life of a gym rat in my 20s. Bodybuilding came easy, my muscle was already there and I needed only to learn the diet. I won every competition I entered, but it was unrewarding and felt empty. At the time I didn’t realize what was missing. It was a paradox to me: when I stepped on stage in contest condition I was weaker and unhealthier than I had ever been. My entire life I took pride in being an exceptional athlete with strength and physical capabilities that were rarely - if ever - matched. At the time I supposedly looked my best, I had about 10% of my normal capacity. In short, I had starved myself to the point of destruction.

The training designed for bodybuilding didn’t make much sense to me, but I followed along and did what I read in the magazines and saw others do in then gym. The concept of training a bodypart versus training movements was foreign at first, but in time became my norm. Instinctively I knew that many of the bodybuilding exercises which involved machines put me in odd, non-functional positions on equipment designed for somebody much larger than me.

Today, I try not to giggle when I hear someone say, “I am going to the gym to train bi’s and tri’s” and then complain that their arms never grow. Somewhere along the way I determined the best way to grow muscle was by creating the biggest systemic response, and this occurred when recruiting the most muscle tissue around multiple joints at once. If it didn’t feel like hard work and render you incapable of talking during your set, it probably wasn’t doing much for you. My very large, developed arms are often a topic of conversation and teasing. Please refrain from calling me Smith and Wesson – I hate it! I wear stretch lycra and tank tops because my arms and back do not fit in women’s blouses unless I pre tear the seams or buy a size big enough to be a tent. No laughing matter – this causes me major distress when shopping for business and formal wear. To the surprise of many, I have not done a stitch of direct arm training in about 12 years – not a single dumbbell curl, concentration curl, hammer curl, tricep kick back, cable tricep extension, or skull-crusher. I could feel that I was working harder when I did pull-ups, dips, barbell rows, bench presses, and handstand push-ups.

I never understood why other bodybuilders would split their upper bodies into three or four days and then devote only one day to “legs”. I knew from Anatomy 101 and Physiology 101 that at least 60% of your muscle mass is located below the waist – so give it at least 60% of your training time. Some of the best advice I got was from the film “Pumping Iron”. Schwarzenegger said that you have to squat to grow. I listened and (while I was not squatting correctly at the time) squatting was the exercise that had the greatest impact on me). I performed my favorite workout on Saturdays, which was 10 sets of 10 squats on the minute with as much weight as I could handle – then I would go off and do abs. Another of my favorite ridiculous leg workouts was a mile of walking lunges on the track without stopping. In those days I gauged effectiveness by delayed onset muscle soreness: if I couldn’t walk, I was golden.

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