Fail because of Strength, not Form (by Dana McMahan)

The weights got heavy this week. And my form went to hell. I jumped 20 pounds on the squat and 30 on the dead lift. And all the work to develop correct form that will keep me from injury and allow me to succeed went out the window. Impatience doesn’t pay in power lifting. I just can’t resist the challenge though, so I have to, have to, pay more attention to doing it right.

I felt good last week after squatting 130×4. I felt strong and prepared for more. I knew I’d be ready for this Friday’s 2 rep max at 140, maybe even 145. Then Ben threw out the number that was just too tantalizing. He offered me the chance to try 150. That number just sounded magical — a milestone, the culmination of a quest. Was I really ready? I wasn’t sure.

I warmed up with lighter weights, finally working up to one rep at 135, a new personal record. I even got to use the big plates for the first time, swapping my 10 and new 25 pound plates for the massive 45 pound ones. Ben slipped the plate on his side like he was putting on a pillowcase and walked away to check on someone else. I picked up the plate for my side, trying not to look like I was struggling, and lugged it over to my bar. The bar was at about shoulder level. Could I even get 45 pounds up that high and maneuver it onto the bar? Well if I couldn’t I had no business trying to squat that much weight. I heaved it up there, a workout in its own right, and managed to slide it on, pleased with myself for even accomplishing that task.

The 135 pound squat felt good. I felt confident. It was time for the big lift of the day. I could take the sure route, at 140. I could take a risk at 145. Or … Ben asked “what’s it going to be? Are you going to go for the gusto?” It’s only 15 more pounds, I thought. 135 wasn’t hard. Surely I’m strong enough to do 150 twice. With false bravado I said “let’s do it! It’s just a couple more little weights.” Ben was amused. It seems I’m not the first to think that.

Heart hammering as he loaded the bar I asked, “You say nervous is good, right?” “If you’re not nervous you’re not ready,” he answered. “Then I’m really ready,” I said. A demented flock of butterflies was partying in my gut and my heart was turning somersaults. Ben and a second spotter took their places. I’d never had — or needed — two spotters. That added to my nerves.

Time to do it though. I took the bar off the rack, managing not to stagger under the weight. After a deep breath I bent my knees and got down. The bar was heavier than I could have ever imagined. A fraction of the way up my chest caved and arse came out. “Knees out, knees out, you got it, you got it, push!” yelled Ben. I got my knees out, I pushed, and rather lopsidedly, I came up. Completely freaked out. One more to go and the bar may as well have weighed 500 pounds. “Chest up, chest up!” Ben said but I couldn’t even lift my head. I took raggedy breaths and tried to get calm but I couldn’t with that weight on me. Furious with myself for being such a chicken, I still couldn’t do anything but panic at the thought of going back down with that weight. Surely frustrated, Ben ordered me to put the bar back.

The deep-down relief in my gut that I didn’t have to do it again only made me more ashamed and disappointed to have failed. My worst fear in the gym is not that I’ll get hurt or pass out or throw up; it’s that I’ll cry. And refusing to let my eyes even water was harder than lifting any weight.

I went on even more determined to prove myself in the rest of my workout and managed to bench 75 pounds, a new record, four times when I only intended to do it three, and do three sets of three chin-ups when I’d only managed to ever do one set before. Still, failing so dismally at my squat goal hung on. Ben showed me the video and explained what I’d done wrong. Like a sports team after a lose, I needed to analyze what had happened. Why did I get scared? Why did my chest cave?

It almost made me feel worse when Ben told me I was strong enough to have done the weight twice. My failure was in form. He said I focused on how heavy the weight was, instead of on proper form. “Fail because of strength, never because of form,” he said. He’s said it before. You can get stronger, that’s easy to fix. But if your form is bad, you won’t get anywhere.

I’m still puzzling over why I was scared. I can’t get injured, not with two spotters. Ben said it’s because spotters can’t protect me from muscle strains, and I’m sure that’s part of it on a sub-conscious level. But there is something almost primitive in the fear that came with that heavy weight, some kind of self-protective instinct that wanted me to get the weight off of me as fast as possible. To get my form where it has to be so I can lift the weights that I want to, I have to overcome that fear. And I’ll do it by learning and proving to myself that I am strong enough. Because at the end of the day, even though I didn’t do it twice, I still accomplished something that would have seemed astounding even a few weeks ago. I squatted 150 pounds!

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