B is for Bench

I am a bit surprised to realize that I wasn’t nearly as nervous about this morning’s bench press session as I had expected to be. I was back at a commercial gym, and I managed to bribe my eldest son to come along as my spotter. It might have been harder to convince him to come with me than it was to actually bench, but I am glad that he did agree. He thought it was weird, but it would have felt weirder and more nerve-wracking for me to have had to ask a stranger to do it. Since I knew my son was already reluctantly agreeable, I decided to only do my bench pressing and band pull-aparts, which made for a short and sweet training session.

1a. bench press-competition grip, with legs and arch

45 lbs x 10, 65 x 6, 85 x 5, 95 x 3, 105 x 3, 115 x 3

125 x 1, 135 x 1

115 x 3

Today was my last heavy bench day. My coach’s instructions were to work up to 125-135 for singles without grinding or missing a rep. I’ve been mildly stressed all week thinking about the heavy singles. I knew I was capable of hitting both 125 and 135; however, I’ve only hit 135 pounds once and that was a couple of months ago. Even though I’ve always felt I was strong enough for more, my competition bench press has been stuck at 132.3 pounds since October 2015. Every time I’ve attempted to do more, I’ve failed and that has been frustrating. It’s messed with my head a fair bit, I think; so I have been nervous all week, wanting to hit 135 again but afraid that it wouldn’t happen, especially knowing that I shouldn’t even attempt 135 if 125 was slow. But this morning, I didn’t feel stressed out at all.

One positive to come out of my lengthy back pain battle is that I have done a lot of benching without an arch and without leg drive, which essentially put me in a less advantageous position, making pressing harder even with lighter weights. While I can’t say that 100% of my reps have been perfect, I have really dialed in my technique. It is more consistent, smooth and solid. Although we don’t test my maxes very often, we do believe that my bench is stronger. Okay, so sometimes Michael probably believes that more than I do! But I believed it today.

My warm-up sets all moved well. The single at 125 was fast and smooth, so I had no doubts about going up to 135. In the moment, the single at 135 felt a bit slow but decent, but it looks a bit faster in the video than it felt. Perhaps I can walk away from Provincials next week with a new bench personal and Provincial record!

9

Another not so great sleep. Another early start to the day. My body feels somewhat achy…a combination of the back, the shoulders, the neck, and mild muscle soreness. I am tired. Sounds like a broken record, I know. Do young people these days even know what a broken record sounds like?

My coach is still away, but I was blessed to be able to train at a friend’s house this morning. She has a lovely squat rack, one with reasonably spaced holes so I didn’t have to worry about awkward rack heights. It was a little odd to train in someone’s home, but it was also kind of nice. And I was glad to have someone “spot” my heavy squat attempts. Although a squat fail is rare for me, heavy weights can be scary and intimidating, so having someone there is comforting.

1. squats-low bar, with sleeves

45 lbs x 8, 95 x 6

with belt: 135 x 5, 165 x 3, 185 x 1, 205 x 1, 215 x 1, 225 x 1, 225 x 1, 225 x 1, 205 x 2

I am reasonably confident that my coach isn’t going to read this blog post, which may be a good thing, because I kind of did a little more than he probably would have liked. In my defense though, he had only given me the vaguest of instructions…on Thursday you could work up to 225 for singles…did he say single or singles? I don’t remember, but I don’t always do well with vague instructions, depending on the situation. I’m a details kind of person.

Ironically, my coach texted me as I finished the first rep at 225; however, his feedback was a little too slow to prevent me from going ahead with two more singles at that weight. By the time he texted that the first single was enough, I had already done two more! The first one was alright. The second one was more of a grinder than it should have been, which means I should have stopped. Sometimes I am stupid. The last one was okay, better than the second. The reason I went ahead with the third single was that the second one had issues. As I was stepping out with the bar, I hit the racks significantly. I should have racked the bar and refocused, but I didn’t. Then I was focusing on making sure I hit depth. I survived, but I know that my coach would have shut me down there based on bar speed.

2. bench press-competition grip, with legs and arch

45 lbs x 8, 65 x 6, 85 x 6, 105 x 3, 110 x 3

These were easy and solid today. I just had to keep the bar moving well and with good speed. The heavy bench single will be Saturday.

My Provincials count down is now in single digits at 9 days! It feels so incredibly close but still so far away.

Hitting Depth!

Competition is 3 weeks from tomorrow. Excitement is beginning to blossom, slowly and cautiously. This competition will be unlike any of my previous 7. Indeed, nothing in my training/peaking has been normal for heading into a competition. It wasn’t too many weeks ago that my coach asked me if I was certain I actually wanted to compete still. As stubborn as my intention to compete has always been, the lingering disc/SI joint issues have definitely messed with my head and confidence. My expectations have had to change, which isn’t always an easy thing to accept, but this is reality. Whether I like it or not, this competition is not going to be my best ever. That chafes. I am competitive, and I strive to be better every time. Sometimes that won’t happen, and that should be okay. I know that is true, but I can feel the inner tug-of-war between accepting my limitations and striving for more.

My coach asked me today what I am hoping for at Provincials. That’s a tough question to answer. Obviously I can’t base my hopes on a completely healthy body and ideal peak, but the limitations to my training have been significant enough that I honestly have no idea what I might be able to do. The only personal best expectation that I have is for my bench press, because I’ve been stuck at the same weight in competition for too long and should be able to surpass it. Aside from that, my response to my coach was that I would really be happy just to go 9 for 9.

1a. squats-low bar, with sleeves

45 lbs x 8, 95 x 6

with belt: 135 x 3, 165 x 2, 185 x 3 (RPE 7), 185 x 3, 185 x 3, 185 x 3

Michael told me to treat each rep almost like a paused squat, so I controlled my eccentric and almost paused at the bottom. And you know what that did? It allowed me to finally make legal depth! Yeah! I think there might have been one rep in the final set that was iffy for depth, but the rest were all good. Finally!

1b. bench press-competition grip

with feet on bench: 43 lbs x 10, 63 x 5, 83 x 3, 103 x 1

with feet on floor and arch: 115 x 1, 125 x 1, 130 x 1, 130 x 1

The first single at 130 was a bit slower than what Michael was expecting. It was slower than I expected, too. I focused on some inner frustrations before the next single in order to make it faster, and it worked.

2. TRX rows x 15, x 20

Just a Squat That I Used to Know

Provincials are 25 days away according to my countdown app…just under 4 weeks, which means I really only have 3 weeks of real training. The final week will be for deloading.

1a. squats-low bar, with sleeves, slower eccentric

45 lbs x 8, 95 x 6

with belt: 135 x 5, 165 x 3, 185 x 2, 200 x 1, 210 x 1

The set at 135 pounds actually felt really good. Michael even said that he might pass most of the reps. The slower eccentric helped a bit, but I’m still mostly hitting parallel for depth. We took video of the 185 and 200 sets to assess. It’s difficult to judge the depth with certainty. Maybe I’ll have to start wearing my singlet. One thing that was quite obvious in the videos was my ankle mobility and extreme angle of my shins! My body is doing all sorts of things in the effort to squat safely, to protect my back, and to try to hit depth. Unfortunately, that also means that my squat looks different almost every time I go to the gym! But my final single did move better than my heavy single last week. Hopefully my body is getting used to the feel of heavy weight on my back again.

1b. bench press-competition grip

with feet on the bench: 43 lbs x 10, 63 x 6, 83 x 5, 103 x 5

with feet on floor and arch: 113 lbs x 5, 118 x 3, 118 x 3

My back is still not 100%. I’m hesitant to even attempt to rate the state of my back at this time. It is definitely improving and has improved significantly compared to a few weeks ago, but I can still feel a degree of pain or discomfort through most of the day. There may be a reasonable chunk of time with almost no pain, but then the simplest thing, like taking a step up a stair, can jostle the back uncomfortably. Although my back generally feels okay at the gym, I want to keep it feeling that way through my training session and beyond, and this is why I elect to do as much of my benching with my feet up on the bench. Having my feet on the bench enables me to have less of an arch…or no arch, if necessary. It’s not my favourite way to bench, but sometimes you do what you gotta do. Benching was all solid and smooth today.

2a. pause squats-low bar, with belt, 2 second pauses

155 lbs x 3, 175 x 3

I love pause squats! There is something about doing a pause squat that allows me to nail my technique. Michael was hoping that having a slower eccentric on my regular squats would have the same result, but it didn’t. I’m not sure why, except for maybe the difference in knowing that I will be staying in the bottom for a bit when doing pauses. Pause squats have always been a good tool for me, but we mostly avoided using them over the past few months because of my back and not wanting to put more strain there. That was likely a good decision, but I’m glad that I am able to use the pause again.

2b. hanging leg/knee raises

x 12

I started off raising my legs and switched to knees at some point. There was some minor back discomfort doing these, particularly with the legs straight…the feeling of muscles being pulled or stretched more than they want to. That same sensation has been present at the bottom of my squats since the back problems started. It’s only been in the last week or so that I’ve been able to squat without feeling it, so I’d say that’s progress. Several weeks ago, I couldn’t even do hanging knee raises without significant discomfort. More improvement!

4 weeks and a day

The week isn’t quite over yet. I have one more work day to go before my weekend, but this week has felt rather long. At least a dozen threads of thought are floating inside my head wanting to be tugged and put to words. And yet, if I try to focus my attention inward, I find my eyes glazing over and my focus sucked into a black hole of nothingness. Maybe a solitary tall Americano simply wasn’t enough caffeine for the day. Maybe I didn’t sleep as well as I thought I did last night, but I am on the wrong side of the bed. The work day was steady but good, except for spilling several litres of frapp roast all over the fridge, the floor, and myself. My training session was decent, I think. I have eaten fairly well today. Had plenty of water. Regardless of the cause, I am fading fast.

1a. squats-low bar, with sleeves

45 lbs x 8, 95 x 5

with belt: 135 x 1 + 5, 165 x 3, 185 x 3, 190 x 3, 190 x 3

My coach was training alongside of me today, so we were sharing the squat rack. I was squatting, while he was doing Anderson squats. That meant the safeties needed to be changed every set. For my set at 135, I lifted the bar and walked it out, braced and squatted. Clang! We had forgotten to change the safeties after Michael’s set. Made the change. Reset. Finished the set. Ironically, a couple of sets later, we forgot to change them again, but this time after my set which meant that Michael was squatting deeper than anticipated.

The rest of my sets were okay. A couple of reps had a slight forward pitch. These past several months have taken my squat and turned it into something else. It’s still a squat, but it isn’t exactly how I used to squat or how I should. After Provincials are over, we’re going to deconstruct my squat and start at the beginning, but that’s something to think about in 4 weeks plus a day or two.

1b. bench press-competition grip

with feet on bench, small arch:

43 lbs x 10, 63 x 5, 83 x 3, 103 x 1

with feet on floor and arch:

115 lbs x 1, 125 x 1, 125 x 1

115 x 3 paused each rep

2. TRX rows x 20

Now almost time for bed.

Hips, Knees, Benches & Bretzels

My husband had his hip replaced yesterday. It seems to have gone well, and he’s already been up and taking short walks down the hall of his hospital ward. Assuming that everything continues to progress as expected, he will likely be sent home tomorrow morning and that’s when the real fun will begin. Found out that we will need to switch sides of the bed, which means I now need to make some adjustments to the furniture layout in our bedroom so he can get the walker between the wall and the bed on that side. I will also need to move my alarm clock to the other side. Although it will be quite a few weeks before he is able to do a lot of things, at least his recovery should be fairly smooth. I hope.

As for me, I definitely feel as if my back is finally seeing more progress and fewer set-backs. It’s still not normal or without varying measures of pain and discomfort, but it’s exciting to realize how much more I can do. This morning at the gym, I sat on the floor to put on my socks, knee sleeves and shoes, which is something that I haven’t been able to do for a long time! Although I still avoid sitting as much as possible, I have had to do more sitting over the past two days than I am used to, and the back has held up fairly well. Okay, so for a while yesterday I was mildly concerned that I was about to take backwards steps again. The SI joint was a bit achier than it had been for the previous few days, not too bad but not quite as good; however, it seemed to settle back down by mid-afternoon. One of my biggest questions these days is always how far can I push myself without negatively impacting my back/SI joint. Unfortunately, I cannot always answer that question until I try to see what I can do. My coach often has exercises that he would like me to do in the gym, and he will ask me if they are okay for me to do. There are a couple that I am reasonably certain would not feel good on my back at all, but most of the time I simply can’t say until I try it. There is also no guarantee that what felt fine before will always feel fine and vice versa. Ab wheel roll-outs were fine early on in this ordeal, but the last time I did them a couple of weeks ago they were more uncomfortable. I couldn’t do hanging leg raises at all a while ago, but I managed to do some leg raises last week using the dips bar. One thing I am fairly certain would not be a good idea is sit-ups on the glute-ham device, so I’ve rejected that option every time Michael has presented it. The biggest tests will be once I get heavy enough weight on the squat bar and when I get to try deadlifting again.

1a. squats-low bar, with sleeves

45 lbs x 8, 95 x 7

with belt: 135 x 3, 165 x 1, 185 x 1, 205 x 1, 215 x 1

215 lbs for roughly a 10 second hold, twice

Squats didn’t feel too bad today. A few reps felt a bit deeper but probably still not quite deep enough, although I honestly felt like at least one rep might have been legal depth. The single at 215 felt a little heavy, tough, and ugly, so Michael had me do a couple of holds with the weight to get used to having it on my back again. The first hold felt super awkward, because he didn’t even want me to walk the bar out, which meant I couldn’t have any forward lean to make the low bar position remotely comfortable. For the second hold, we raised the safeties and I was allowed to walk the bar out. It felt a bit better but still not nearly as good as it should. This is one of those areas where Michael has ideas that he wants to incorporate but isn’t always certain it will be good for my back. Obviously I need to re-familiarize myself with having heavy weight on my back, and I don’t have a lot of time to get to that point. He thinks doing some holds or walking with the yoke rack would be good. I don’t disagree with him, and I’d be willing to try. He just wants to be careful with my back.

1b. bench press-competition grip, with feet on the bench and small arch

47 lbs x 10, 67 x 6, 87 x 5, 107 x 5, 112 x 5, 112 x 4

Benching with my feet on the bench allows me to better keep the arch in my back small, which should help me to avoid aggravating the SI joints. It’s akin to deadlifting from a deficit. It will make me stronger, but I do miss being able to use my leg drive. My butt came off the bench on the fifth rep of the first set at 112 pounds. That is not typical of me, but I suspect the need to use leg drive was too strong to resist on that last rep. Oh well! In powerlifting, only the first rep matters. 😉 As for the final set, there was supposed to be 5 reps. Shake it off! I know I am stronger than how my bench felt today.

2a. Spoto presses-with feet on the bench still

97 lbs x 6, 97 x 6, 97 x 6

I think the first set felt a bit tougher than the next two. Sometimes that’s just how it is…as if my body needs a set to remember what it is supposed to be doing.

2b. back extensions-holding a 20 pound dumbbell

x 20, x 9, x 10

This is another one of those exercises that is hit or miss for how it makes the back feel. Actually, today these were completely hit and miss. The first set was horrible. I felt so much strain around the back of my knees that I had to drop the dumbbell midway through and repositioned myself before picking up the weight to finish the set. Honestly, I have no idea how I managed 20 reps that set.

Michael told me to keep my knees slightly bent to avoid the strain, so I did that on the following sets. It alleviated a great deal of the knee strain but not quite all of it. I was wearing my squat shoes for the first two sets and took them off for the last set, thinking that might be part of the problem. The last set wasn’t a whole different than the second. Maybe the pad was set a bit too far? I don’t know. Also, although the extensions didn’t make my back feel worse, I could feel some discomfort while doing them, which between that and the knees made me cut the reps short. However, it did feel sort of nice to carefully drape my body forward over the pad so my head was hanging down, stretching out the lower back in a way that it hasn’t liked to move for a while.

Yesterday my chiropractor gave me a new stretch to do…the Bretzel. If that makes you think of a pretzel, then you’re thinking in the right direction! If I’m not careful, this stretch will threaten me with a cramp and it doesn’t feel too pleasant on the quads, but I kind of like it. Not the unpleasantness, of course. I can see why my chiropractor says this is one of his favourite stretches, and I think it is one that I will continue with for a long time.

Keep Breathing

So often lately I feel as if I am walking around holding my breath. Both my coach and my chiropractor frequently tell me to breathe, but this current spate of breath-holding is more figurative than literal. These months of living and dealing with disc and SI joint issues have been a roller-coaster ride, up and down, twisting and turning. Now I enjoy riding roller-coasters. The adrenaline rush of the ride is exhilarating, but then again I also know that the ride will end after a complete circuit. This back pain roller-coaster ride is not fun in any way. The ups are good days with less pain and less restriction, while the bad days have more pain, more limitations, more frustration. Just when I think I’m reaching a plateau, the track gives out beneath me and I’m plunging back towards the ground. So I hold my breath on the days where the pain is less, on the days where I can move more freely, because I am afraid to let my hopes get too high, knowing that the pain seems to keep coming back. I like to think that I am a dreamer, a believer, an eternal hoper of good things, but I sometimes think I am a pessimist. In actuality, I am probably just a realistic dreamer. I cling to my hopes and dreams and look for the positives, but I also see the potential pitfalls, the failures, the alternate realities.

My SI joint was in a lot of pain on Monday and Tuesday. Although it wasn’t quite as extreme on Wednesday, my coach changed up my training and asked me questions that made me grumpy. (I know he has to ask them; he’s just doing his job and being a good coach. There’s more I can say about that conversation…at another time but not today.) Yesterday, the SI joint was feeling even better but still not normal. This morning, I was able to lift things at work that I couldn’t on Tuesday morning. The back was still feeling decent but not normal. This is why I hold my breath. The little positive steps forward make me feel hopeful. What if the positive doesn’t last? What if the back pain ramps up tonight? Tomorrow? But I wore my ‘believe achieve’ socks to the gym today, because I can’t stop hoping…

1a. squats-low bar, with sleeves

45 lbs x 8, 95 x 6

with belt: 135 lbs x 6, 165 x 3, 185 x 1, 205 x 1, 205 x 1

Here is one of those little positives that cause me to hold my breath. For the first time since the back issues began at the end of January, I did not feel any tightness, pulling, or stretching in my lower back at the bottom of the squat! My depth probably still wasn’t quite where I need it to be, but most of the reps simply felt better, like I was in a position to hit depth.

The first single at 205 was a little slow. It felt a little heavy, and I was tentative. Then again, I haven’t had that much weight on my back since 2016! The second single was better.

1b. bench press-competition grip, with feet on bench and small arch

43 lbs x 10, 63 x 6, 83 x 5, 103 x 3, 115 x 1, 120 x 1

105 lbs x 3 pause the last rep

105 x 3 with a 3 second eccentric on last rep

105 x 3 with a 3 second eccentric each rep and a pause

2a. barbell hip thrusts

95 lbs x 13, 145 lbs x 15, 145 x 15

2b. seated cable rows

90 lbs x 13 x 2 sets

2c. leg raises using the dip bar

x 11, x 12

The back felt pretty good through my training session, so now I will keep holding my breath.