My Failures and Successes and How I Got There

Self-examination is always good for a reality check. As I dig into giving this blog a purpose, I have read through past posts and pages to see what still applies, what needs editing, or what needs to be ditched. I came across a list of my goals, and it was an eye-opening look at what was important to me in 2014 (some of the goals were accomplished in 2014, some in early 2015).

  • Get to 15% body fat
  • Compete in a strongman competition
  • Compete in a powerlifting competition – Done
  • Earn my trainer certification before my 39th birthday – Done
  • Squat 450 pounds
  • Deadlift 500 pounds – Done
  • Overhead Press 225 pounds
  • Bench Press 315 – Done

The Failures

Body fat percent – 2014-15 saw me riding the old weight loss/gain roller coaster. I attribute this to trying to do too much too fast. The net change in 2014 was probably additional body fat as I continued to struggle with getting a handle on dealing with ankylosing spondylitis. This type of arthritis is not a forgiving disease. When it flares up, I am down for the count. And setting up a training plan that was too aggressive contributed to flares. And that meant no training or very low intensity training. But the real reason for the fat gain was sub-optimal eating. Fat gain is not caused by lack of training. It is always caused by overeating.

Compete in a strongman competition – didn’t happen because of training difficulties with ankylosing spondylitis. I felt fortunate to be able to get through the powerlifting competition in early 2014. Honestly, I am not sure this will ever happen because of the demands of the sport. But I won’t rule it out just yet.

Squat 450 – I got close! Very close! My top squat for 2014-15 so far is 425. I am hopeful that I can get the strength back throughout the last weeks here in 2015. It would be great to at least hit my old PR. I struggled to get past 425 because of some technique issues, and of course, my old friend AS (ankylosing spondylitis). I think I’ve got a better handle on both of those now, so I expect big things in the coming months.

Overhead Press 225 – I cracked 205 once upon a time, but just couldn’t seem to get beyond that, or do it consistently. While I was chasing the 500 pound deadlift, I dropped the priority on this lift. It is back at top priority for 2016, and that training is already underway.

The Successes

Compete in a powerlifting competition – Signing on the dotted line and paying out money has a funny way of helping you commit. That’s exactly what I did, and even though I felt less than optimal for performing on the platform, I got in there and did it. I didn’t set any records for myself, but I learned a lot through the process.

Earn my trainer certification – This was actually the second time around for me. I earned my CFT from International Sports Sciences Association in 2014. I am in the process of laying the groundwork for an online coaching business, but am taking clients now. A hallmark of personal training and coaching is that the service should be personal – designed for you, with your goals in mind. It is up to me to create a method that gets you to your goals, and teach you all along the way so that eventually, you can be independent.

Deadlift 500 – One of my proudest achievements in 2015. I finally worked out a progression that allowed me to improve consistently. There were some scary moments along the way when I thought I’d wrecked my back, but I hung in there and stuck to the plan. I am also happy that I was able to make this lift at Iron Sport Gym in Glenolden, PA under the approving eye of Steve Pulcinella. I learned a good bit of my work ethic from him. Go train there if you have the chance. PRs are guaranteed.

Bench Press 315 – Another proud moment from early 2015. I’ve got some gnarly stuff going on in my shoulders and chest muscles from old wrestling and martial arts injuries, so I am grateful for any progress in the upper body lifts. I’d like to see improvement on this lift, but I’ll look for the gains through my overhead pressing. It won’t be a major focus for me in 2016.

When I look back over the failures and successes of the last year or so, I can see that it all comes down to one word: consistency. Where I failed, I consistently failed to stick to a plan. Sometimes, that was because of my choices, sometimes because of illness. Where I succeeded, it was because of consistency. And in every case, if I’d been more consistent, the results may have been even better. It wasn’t fabulous programming (although, I have to say that I think mine is pretty good); it wasn’t supplements; it wasn’t specialized equipment. It was just good old-fashioned hard work.

Now it is time to take some lessons from the failures, and time to build on the successes. I’ll do that by building on the habits I’ve already established, and replacing bad ones with good ones. I look forward to sharing the journey with you!

Training Log November 24

Pretty straight forward work today on the chest. I went a little wild, though, and added incline bench press. I don’t think I’ve done that lift in 15 years. So it was time. Felt super weird and was hard to stabilize. That means a weakness, so I think I’ll do it regularly now.

The rowing got a lot harder. Sometimes that happens when you adjust your technique and actually do it correctly. I didn’t have the sequence (legs, hips, arms) working quite right before. Now I do, and I feel more of my body engaging in the movement. More tiring, but ultimately, much more effective.


Training Log November 23

Today’s mental discipline is brought to you by the squat. It is all about the habits and patterns.

Death grip on the barbell
Brace the upper back
Step under the barbell
Left step back
Right step back
Big breath
Brace the spine
Smooth drop
Explode up
Press the traps back into the barbell
Lock out

Seems like a lot, right? All together, it takes 10-15 seconds, maybe less. And this is why making it all a habit, every step, is critical to the success of each lift. There is not much time to correct an error once you get started. And an error can result in a failed lift.

The more automatic you can make these steps in your mind, the more likely you will be to succeed. The steps become automatic when you start slowly, do them often, and focus on the goal.

This applies to whatever you do in life. Are you paying attention to the steps that you do automatically that take you to failure? Identify those, and you can adjust, and move toward the goals that you want. It starts with the small things.


Training Log November 20


I was definitely feeling the effects of calorie reduction today (and yesterday, I suppose). I had hoped to do three sets of push press at 195, but I set up for the second set and felt like a boiled rice noodle. So I finished out the day with the high pulls to make sure all the shoulder complex muscles were equally boiled.

I am pretty happy with my progress on this eternal, infernal cut. I’m still getting stronger, and I’m still seeing the fat come off. If the gym scale is to be believed, I may have dropped below 290. And judging by the inches I’ve lost, I am certain I am going the right direction.

I am also really ready for a couple of rest days. My nutrition stays very balanced over the weekend, and the reduced activity provides the recovery necessary for smashing the training on Monday. Enjoy your weekend!

An Exercise in Discipline on Deadlift Day

I usually get really excited for deadlift day. It is by far my favorite lift. However, I just couldn’t generate the excitement. In fact, my frame of mind was more along the lines of “dreadlift” or “deathlift”. I just wasn’t feeling it.

But if I have learned anything since being diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, it is that I can usually ignore my feelings and whatever nonsense that my body is telling me. My body and brain are usually ganging up on me and trying to convince me that I should go take a nap, eat a pizza, and top it all off with a pint or two of Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby.

…which is exactly what I’ll be if I listen to my body.

So I chose discipline today. Discipline is consciously choosing to do what you need to do instead of what you want to do. Do it often enough, and what you need to do will become what you want to do.

My usual 500m row felt okay; the front squats following that felt stupid heavy; the deadlifts after that felt sorta meh. But I pushed on. And like usual, I found my groove and did some work. By the third set, I knew I could make a useful day out of my training.

I have never regretted making an attempt at doing some good training. Not all of those attempts resulted in good training sessions, but I never regretted trying. And most of the time, I really surprise myself. Today wasn’t fabulous, but it was good. The kind of good that will result in progress.

And that is the point. Discipline is deliberate.


New Year Resolutions

Yes, it is mid-November. And that is exactly why you need to think about your goals now. If you want to have any chance of accomplishing your goals, you need to start now. The new year and new you starts now. January 1 is only relevant in that it is just another day in which you should be practicing your habits and just another day that gets you closer to your goals.

You know that the vast majority of resolutions are abandoned after just a couple weeks of half hearted effort, right? And they are abandoned after 100% effort, too. Why do you suppose that is?

It’s brain science. Typically, people make a list. First mistake. When you choose several things to accomplish in the new year, you literally break the decision bank of your brain – the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for focus, short term memory, and abstract problem solving. Essentially, where your willpower lives. It’s a busy place. When you create a list of goals for the year, you are doing the equivalent of trying to break the world record deadlift when you’ve never touched a barbell.

Part of the problem is in how people frame their resolution. They say  they will ‘lose weight’. Or ‘get healthy’. Or ‘eat better’. Or ‘make the world a better place’. What do those mean? How are they accomplished? Where do you start? Where do you end? Will you pick the right methods? Will you have the time to do these things? And these are just a few of the questions that will plague your mind. For each resolution.

  • Lose weight needs to become Replace the daily doughnut (or three) with fruit and a protein source, like eggs.
  • Get healthy needs to become Replace 15 minutes of couch time with a 15 minute walk.
  • Make the world a better place needs to become Volunteer once a week at the local homeless shelter.

See how the general (abstract) becomes specific, measurable, and attainable?

Now, one more critical point – pick ONE! Start with one goal, one resolution. I suggest picking one that focuses on yourself, because when you take care of yourself, you are more able to take care of others. It may take about 3-4 weeks (maybe sooner!) for that habit to form. When it becomes automatic, when you no longer have to struggle to choose to grab the fruit and eggs, then move on to another resolution.

If you were to choose to change something about your eating habits now, and then your exercise habits in a few weeks, you’d be perfectly positioned to set a goal of learning powerlifting, or getting your first pull up as 2016 rolls around. You will already have established some good habits that will help you travel further along your fitness journey.

If your goal is something else like becoming a master photographer, you have to start with other simple steps. Like learning what aperture, DOF, exposure, and composition are. All those things can be learned for free and only take a few moments. Learn one thing a day. As your knowledge builds, you can practice what you have learned.

Write your goal down. Then learn what you need to do for an initial habit change. Then build on that habit. Success is a collection of tiny habits built on one another.

Next time, we will learn about discipline.


Training Log November 17

Since I am a bit of a rebel, I train bench press on Tuesday, rather than Monday (International Bench Press Day).


I am currently focused on building shoulder strength since that has been an area where I frequently deal with pain. All weight work is preceded by warming up and mobility drills to facilitate optimal movement.

Additionally, I am trying to build back strength and mass, so you’ll see many variations of rows and other pulling movements throughout the week.

Postural habits have created internal rotation in my shoulders, so that is the reason for doing so much pulling and shoulder work. I can always work on the posture, too, and am. It is a constant mental exercise to do so.

But that is true of all of this, right? Daily, sometimes hourly, choices to do the right thing for my body…and for my mind. As many of you know, I fight against ankylosing spondylitis, so movement and health are critical to functioning every day. And that health starts with my choices.