Sandbagging: Disaster relief, deliberate slow down, or tough workout?

My first recollection of the term “sandbagging” was when I lived in the St. Louis, MO area, and each spring, the news would announce volunteers were needed for sandbagging the banks of the Mississippi River to help prevent or slow flooding. I was impressed that such a simple tool could save lives and protect property by reducing the flow of water.

In college, I learned another definition of “sandbagging” when working on moving trucks. It was usually referred to in one of two ways, depending on the driver and crew. If the driver liked to work hard and finish as efficiently as possible, then a person might be accused of sandbagging if he stayed in the bathroom too long. On the other hand, if we were not charging a customer by the hour, a driver might encourage sandbagging to ensure we had a 40 hour work week. The concept of sandbagging to reduce efficiency was foreign to me and never felt right.

Last year, I learned of a third form of sandbagging, related to the first in practice, but instead of preventing a flood,the purpose of the exercise was to produce a flood of sweat. If you have never exercised with a sandbag, it is like a heavy version of a two year-old throwing a temper tantrum. Because the sand shifts every time the bag is moved or jostled, the weight is inconsistent and variable from one step to the next. For those new to sandbagging, the challenge is to position the bag into the most compact size possible to prevent shifting and to provide a firm grip. This takes considerable practice to master.

Lighter sandbags
An early introduction to lighter sandbags.

Today, at Pankow-Performance, we included sandbagging as part of a 3 round pull, push, carry medley, and, interestingly, sandbagging (definition 2) while sandbagging (definition 3) only makes things harder. For all 3 events, the weights were very reasonable (I was doing clean and jerk with more weight than the sandbag I carried), but together, the exercises challenged each of us. In the first round, I tried the 200 lb bag, as I figured I could lift 200 lbs overhead, so it should be easy enough to  lift to my chest and run. Unfortunately, I lifted the weight to my chest, but I could not run with it once it was there. I moved down to the 150 bag and found reasonable success for two rounds. On the third round, I was exhausted and could not complete the 50 yard course (25 yards down and back).

It was the third round of the carry that gave me the most growth, as I learned to lay down my burden when I could go no further. Dave was standing nearby offering coaching, encouragement, and, most importantly, the advice to evaluate what my body needed and listen to it. With this advice, I decided my body had reached its physical capacity to move the sandbag safely. Could I have muscled it up and finished the course? Possibly, but in order to do that, I would have risked injury in contorting my body to inch the weight along. There would be no benefit in doing this simply for pride and ego.

Why is this important? Because “a man has got to know his limitations,” as Clint Eastwood’s character Dirty Harry once said. Whether exercising, working, enjoying libations, or a multitude of other activities, we must learn and acknowledge our limitations. For me, this is one of my toughest lessons to learn and exercises to practice.

When Giving 110% Sets You Back

We have all been told at some point to “give 110%!” While in some situations, it is necessary to dig deep and perform beyond our normal capacity, it is not a sustainable goal for effort, and if one is not careful, it can lead to detrimental actions.

For me, I still struggle with the concept that I am not trying to make the starting team, so I have approached my workouts with the same desire to perform to impress that I did in my youth; however, many things have changed since then. I still love to leave a workout dripping in sweat, but my body is less forgiving than it was 25 years ago, and cheating reps can have more serious consequences.

This week at Pankow-Performance, we moved from our establishing our maximum lifts on bench, squat, and deadlift to working on a 12 week strength training program based on percentages of those weights. Monday, we worked on pressing, starting with 5 sets of 8 reps with a weight that was 60% of our max bench, so I started with 205 for the first 3 sets, and since I felt good, I moved to 215 for the final 2 sets. Next, we moved to 5 sets of overhead press followed by banded pull-ups or lat pull-downs. After 2-1/2 sets of 10 pull-ups, I moved to pull-downs. Like bench, this overhead press was at 55-60%, so I started at 115 for 3 sets and move to 125 for 2 sets. Our final set of lifts for the day were dumbbell presses. We were to do 12 reps, then 10 reps, and finally 8 reps. If we felt like we could add weight safely, we were encouraged to do so. I started with 70s for 12, 80s for 10, but when I got to the last set for 8, I tried 90, and I only got 5, and my final reps were not with strict form, so a spotter couldn’t assist me with the weight to get the final reps. I had tried giving 110%, and I ended up at only 75-80%. Dave reminded me to be more aware of how my body really feels, not just what my competitive mind is telling me to do in a non-competitive situation.

Wednesday, we were introduced to “speed-work” for squats and deadlifts, which consisted of 8 sets of 3 reps with 50-55% of our max lift. This meant that for the squat we were to aggressively lower into the full squat, then we were to explode up with control and maximum speed. I started with and stayed at 205 lbs for squat as I am still getting comfortable with it.  Because I am still a little apprehensive about the squat movement, I probably didn’t challenge myself as much as I physically could have, but I was satisfied with how the reps felt, and I had good form on almost all reps. On deadlift,I did all of my sets with 245, and Dave pointed out a few simple corrections in my form, including to not bull my neck when lifting, as it adds unnecessary pressure and stress on the neck and shoulders. His other advice was to be my shoulders and back in alignment before trying to lift. My tendency is to lift the weight then shrug at the top, but Dave said that it weakens the delivery of power, so I needed to work on that.  My following sets improved in form, and I felt good.

The lift that got me thinking about the dangers of 110% in everyday effort was the trap bar deadlift. Because the trap bar makes the deadlift easier, we did 3 sets of 5 with our last set being for as many reps as we could get. The weight was to be approximately 80-85% of our max deadlift, so I was working with 385. The first two sets went pretty well, with mostly proper form, but on the 3rd set, I wanted to get into double digits. While I lifted the bar 11 times, my partner for the lift said he would have credited me with 8 due to form and for pausing too long between my final 3 reps. His honesty made me realize that after the 8th rep (when a reminder was given to me about form), I should have stopped, but I was so intent on reaching a goal, that I missed the real objective: good, healthy lifts that make perfect form the priority so it becomes 2nd nature.

As I move through this program, I must remember quality beats quantity, especially if sub-par quality prevents any further quantity due to injury. It is good to be reminded to slow-down and to not feel like I am in competition every day; rather, I am in training. Perhaps this can apply to other parts of life as well.

What I learned from my daughter’s Girl Scouts

P80 Lifting Day 8-9-15
P80 Lifting Day with my new group of friends.

This weekend, I learned a lesson in how valuable the Girl Scouts can be in achieving my fitness goals. No, this has nothing to do with Thin Mints; rather, their song, Make New Friends, applied to my Sunday fun and helped me grow in my training.

For those unfamiliar with the song, it goes:
Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver, and the other’s gold…

I have known and respected Dave Pankow for over a year, and he is my mentor and trainer through these weeks ahead of me before my first strongman competition. In the Girl Scout song, he would be the “keep the old” and has proven himself to be worth the weight he can press in gold (he presses far more than he weighs). In my short time of training with him, I have already started to learn more about my strengths, where I need improvement, and some first steps I need to take to get there.

Over the weekend, I got to enjoy the other part of the song, “Make new friends.” I had met some of the guys and gals on previous weekends, either at workouts or volunteering at an event, but this was the first time I was going to be in a foreign area with people I barely new and challenging myself physically and mentally as I tried to grasp how to successfully complete lifts with odd implements. With accomplished athletes all of whom packed on the muscle, I arrived intimidated and concerned about my place…that changed quickly.

From the first lift to the last and from the newest lifter to the most seasoned veteran, each person sought to help the other. Adjusting weights, spotting, advising on form or safety, and preparing equipment for the next event, people worked together in a friendly environment. At the end of September, each may be a competitor, but until then, the goal was to help each person be the most successful version of his or her self. While that should be the goal of all friendships, I found it unique and very impressive that while confidence and competitiveness abounded, there was no room for arrogance or belittling those who had much to learn.

What did I learn from my new and old friends this weekend? I learned how to clean and to press a log with better form with greater conservation of energy. I was actually able to get the 210 log up (30 lb increase over previous attempt. I also learned what the frame carry and the yoke felt like, as well as the fact that if equipment can be adjusted and you need it to be to be safe: ask. My short legs had difficulty getting the 560 lb yoke off the ground when it was set for the taller guys, but when it was lowered, I was able to do it better. I learned not to fear but to respect intimidating equipment as we wheeled a 900 lb wheelbarrow. Finally, I learned to listen to people when they offer advice and instruction. When I had last tried a 210 lb Atlas Stone, I struggled immensely. On Sunday with the 215 lb stone, I struggled on my first attempt as I focused too much on what I was doing that I missed instruction. My 2nd attempt, I listened, and when I did as instructed, the stone was easier to lift over the bar. Now, I only need to add another 100 lbs to the stone in 6 weeks.

If you get the opportunity to challenge yourself, do so, especially if you have great friends to guide you through your journey. If strongman interests you, find a great trainer/mentor, like Dave, to help learn the lifts and to help guide you through the muscular development needed to safely lift strange items. I am thankful to have made news friends and to have kept the old. I look forward to the day they all are gold.

Learning the 900 lb wheelbarrow

Steamed Muscles For Pre-Workout and Recovery

No, I’m not talking about the seafood mussels; rather, I am fortunate to work for a sauna and steam room manufacturer, and l believe in the benefits of heat bathing, so I have purchased and installed an infrared sauna and a steam shower in our home. Though both make me perspire almost as much Frank’s great bootcamp class at Fitness Revolution, they achieve the sweat in a different way, which lends themselves to being used differently.

Most days, I choose to use my Amerec steam shower, as it is integrated with my existing shower. About 15 minutes before my workout is scheduled to finish, the steam generator is programmed to preheat the shower. By the time I make it home, the shower is 110 degrees and ready to soothe my aching muscles and sometimes sore joints. During construction, I added a shower seat to let me relax while in the heat. As I enter the room, I add a few drops of Eucalyptus oil which both invigorates and helps to clear my sinuses (have been having allergy issues the last couple days).

The heat from the steam shower is warm and soothing, much like a hot tub but without the chemicals, need for extra maintenance, or constant drain on electricity. The heated, moist air feels great on the skin, and I feel both physical and mental stress start to melt away in the heat. Because the temperature is relatively low and most of the heat is transferred to the body through the water vapor, the heat doesn’t penetrate too deeply into the muscles, but when I use it almost daily, it helps to keep my body, skin, and mind fresh, clear, and ready to approach each day with vigor.

Amerec Steam Shower with Chromatherapy
My Amerec Steam Shower is my morning refuge after a tough workout.

Today, I will be using the Helo B820 Far-Infrared sauna before I go with Dave to train on strongman events. I have had a very tight supraspinatus which can limit my lifts as it clicks and causes some pain in my left shoulder. I have regular massages, which work wonders on it, but while hot air ballooning the last two nights, I have felt a little extra tension in the muscle, and far-infrared heat, unlike steam, penetrates 1-1/2″ into the muscles and tissue of the body, thus it helps as a pre-workout warm-up to increase circulation to the area and to loosen the muscles without excessive stretching.  Since far-infrared begins working as soon as it is turned on, I can use it for 20-30 minutes without preheating, which helps when on a tight schedule. When my muscles feel a little more fried after a workout, the infrared helps to release tension deeper within the muscle, so I will often fill a couple glasses of water, turn on a movie I can watch on the TV I can see from within the sauna, and spend as much time as I need taking several innings in the sauna until I am feeling like a million bucks.

Helo B820 IR Sauna Ready for Use
My Helo B820 IR Sauna heated and ready to go with a soothing chromatherapy lighting.

I am excited for today’s workout, and I am happy that I get to use both the sauna and steam today to prepare for and recover after the workout. My evening and weekend will finish with another night of ballooning (crewing tonight), so I need to be physically ready for lifting, pulling, and towing everything for the setup, launch, landing, and packing of the balloon for Wicker Basket Balloon Center.

Starting our flight over Milford Memories
Starting our flight over Milford Memories

Focus on Form: A Key to Quick Gains?

This morning, we finished establishing our one rep max lifts for generating our plans.  Today’s lift was the deadlift, and for inspiration, I watched this great video of Jon Pall Sigmarsson:

While I don’t have a strong history with deadlifts, I was more pleased with my performance on the deadlift than I was on the bench press or squat because I actually exceeded what I thought I could do. I topped out at 445 lbs, which was 10 lbs better than my previous best attempt, and it will likely improve with better form, which is true of my squat as well.

Despite having lifted my first weights 25 years ago, two lifts I never did until a year ago were squat and deadlift.  For squat, I was concerned I would hurt myself because of the pressure on the spine. I figured a leg press was a fine substitute.  For the deadlift, it wasn’t taught in the gym in high school, and I was never comfortable just trying it, so I didn’t attempt it until this last year. While I have received excellent instruction, my coordination on compound movements is not great, so I am still working on technique. My weaknesses in form became evident, without being dangerous, in my attempts at max lifts on squat and deadlift.

So what makes me think if I have struggled with coordination that this strength training class will help me achieve better form? Repetition. Lots and lots of repetition with more class time devoted to lifts instead of needing to balance strength with cardio. Yes, there is still conditioning, but the core goal of the class is to improve strength.

At the end of lifts this morning, Dave had already identified parts of my lift that were holding me back from better performance. With more time to work on these kinks in my form, I expect to be on my way to stronger lifts quickly.  Add to that stronger muscles, there is potential for great gains by the end of September. I am excited to see what happens next week.

The Marriage Diet

I have a love affair with food, though it is less steamy (vegetables) and more frigid and sweet (ice cream) and includes over-indulgences; however, Dave shared with me a simple plan he gives his clients that when practiced can change the “love affair” into a “healthy, nurturing marriage.”

In his guide, he divides common foods into groups, identifies their common properties, and describes what a healthy portion is for each, including how many portions are recommended in a day, depending on the needs of the client. Though there are some foods and drinks that should generally be avoided, there are times for exceptions to add a little spice to life. His goal isn’t to create a restrictive diet; rather, he wants to create a sustainable lifestyle where healthy choices are enjoyed daily and indulgences are enjoyed on occasion without guilt.

I think of this diet like marriage because it helps to identify a healthy relationship with food and to nurture that relationship to encourage a lifelong commitment to it. Like a good marriage, a healthy diet based on simple principles provides the body what it needs to thrive in all endeavors. Like the saying goes, “Behind every successful man is a successful woman;” “Behind every healthy body should be a healthy diet.”

As mentioned in the beginning, I do love food, especially desserts, and Dave’s plan allows for this with “cheat” meals, or as I would prefer to think of them in my marriage diet, “role playing with my food,” as there can be ways of adding variety without the guilt of “cheating.” Good, fresh, healthy meats, fruits, and vegetables can be extremely satisfying most of the time, but when you feel a little naughty, acknowledge the desire and allow it in limited amounts. When it is time to indulge in a dessert or other “forbidden pleasure,” be honest with yourself about how much you need, set limits, and enjoy it. When you’re done with your experience, put it back in the drawer and know it is available again in the future, but it isn’t a daily occurrence.

Looking at my food through the lens of a relationship will help me want to stay the course. Just as I wouldn’t stray from my strong, healthy, nurturing marriage, I hope to stay true to this “marriage diet,” though on occasion I might dress up peanut butter in beautiful chocolate ice cream with a little whipped cream on top.

Need a little help with your diet and exercise plan? Dave can help you find the way.

A delicious healthy meal
A delicious well-balanced meal that could be enjoyed “’til death do us part.”
The occasional indulgence
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A Little More Than Diddly Squat

Today, we determined our one rep max on back squat.  Having never squatted before last year and still learning good, proper form, I was nervous for how this might turn out.  Fortunately, Dave took the time to explain the reason for the lift (to help determine our program based on a percentage of our max effort) and there are a couple ways to determine a maximum lift.

For those who did not wish to push their limits to the edge, a multiple rep max could be used to calculate an approximate maximum squat.  Usually, the number of reps used to determine a max is low, 3-5 reps. I was tempted to go this route, as it is what we had used in the Bootcamp classes at Fitness Revolution, but I decided to go the traditional method for determining a max: try until you barely succeed.

For those who don’t know me well, I have very large, muscular thighs. My thighs are between 27″ & 28″ around, which is a couple inches larger than my wife’s waist, so in theory, I should be able to lift very heavy things with my legs, but without proper form, my legs are only as sturdy as an oak tree would be if planted in sand.  Lose any form in the base or support system, and the whole thing can come tumbling down.

My max effort for the squat was 365 lbs, which is only 30 lbs heavier than my bench; however, I have been doing bench press, on and off, for 25 years, and I am comfortable with the technique. I am looking forward to training with Dave to learn techniques to ensure my form allows my legs to realize their full potential.  For bench, I can set a goal of 400 lbs in 7 weeks, because I know I have lifted more than that before; however, I am not sure what to expect in the same period for squat. Are form and fear holding me back more than leg strength?  A couple things I know for sure:

  • Dave will help me realize my potential and will give me the tools to continue to develop
  • I know I will never look as good as Big Z (I am older than he is) when it comes to squatting

Enjoy this snippet of Zydrunas Savickas squatting at the World’s Strongest Man in 2011.

Rest, Relaxation, and Recovery

To me, “rest” is a word with a twisted meaning. Examples:
“Do what work you can, and I will finish the rest.” OR “Eat whatever you want, and I will eat the rest.”

Dave has challenged me to encourage a healthier meaning of the word “rest.” For over a year, despite recommendations by the great trainers at Fitness Revolution of Wixom, I would not take a rest day. The day after completing the Detroit Half-Marathon, I was back in the gym for a 6 AM metabolic workout. Dave advised me that if I want to see significant gains, I must allow my body to rest and recover.

As much of a challenge as I may find it to honor my rest days, I will work on relaxing and recovering for the next many weeks. I know my washing machine will be happy to not have so many loads of stinky, sweaty workout clothes to wash.

Here’s to rest, relaxation, and recovery.

Relaxing in the hammock.
Relaxing in the hammock with my daughter. It has been about a year since I last did this.

Changing Gears: From general fitness and conditioning to strength training for strongman.

In high school, I was strong and lean (at least by comparison to my body today at 39).  I had a 400+ bench, could run the 40 in under 5 seconds, and I hovered around 200 lbs.

After high school, my weight varied with college years ranging between 210 and 230 (worked on moving trucks, but never worked out). After college, my weight ballooned to 270, but with encouragement from friends and a desire to help a friend reach a goal for his 30th birthday, I dropped weight to 204 lbs to prepare for the Detroit Marathon.  Though I looked much better at 204 than I did at 270, my body composition had changed from the 200 lb range I had in high school.  A bench over 400 was a dream.

With the birth of our daughter, I quit running and largely stopped exercising.  By March 2014, I hit my heaviest body weight of 295 lbs, and I decided I needed to change, so I joined Fitness Revolution of Wixom at the Total Sports Complex.  Between diet and exercise, I dropped about 55 lbs from March to September 2014.  During this time, I met Dave and learned of his classes and his success in strongman competitions.

A year later, I have achieved some goals of physical fitness, but I am intrigued by the strongman competitions, as I have always enjoyed watching them.  I am excited to see what gains I can make with a focused strength training program with Dave over the next 7-8 weeks.

Today, we took body composition numbers, weight, and max bench.

First Day Training @ Pankow Performance Bodyweight: 257.4 Body fat: 26.9% Skinfold Chest: 20 Skinfold Waist: 43 Skinfold Thigh: 20 Max Bench: 335
First Day Training @ Pankow Performance
Bodyweight: 257.4
Body fat: 26.9%
Skinfold Chest: 20
Skinfold Waist: 43
Skinfold Thigh: 20
Max Bench: 335