6 Keys to Unlocking Your Best Self

For the past year I’ve struggled mightily with my weight. A mystery injury to my left Achilles has left me unable to run regularly (I finally managed to get an appointment with a sports injury doctor, very annoyed that it took this long). I bought some weights, used them somewhat regularly, but also had to deal with some family issues that left me exhausted.

This all cleared up (except the damn Achilles) about 3 months back, coinciding with my doctor telling me I had about 4 months to get in some kind of healthy shape or she was going to add cholesterol pills to my regimen. I’m already on bp pills (hereditary bp issues are no joke) and really didn’t have an interest in adding on. She, jokingly, prescribed that I should “Join a gym. Then actually go there regularly.” Snarky tone aside, I took her at her word. And because The Panther never does things in half measures, I went all in.

In August I had very little muscle definition. You couldn’t really see my collar bones. My arms were large but ill defined. I was 230lbs and not in a good way. But I had a business card. And a promise that when I was ready to call, Cara Westin would fix me. Until August I had not been ready, but this was the time.

If you’re not a power lifter, or a long time resident of Sacramento, you may have never heard of Cara. 30 year veteran of the police force, former nationally ranked power-lifter (now semi-retired from the latter and fully retired from the former). Robot builder. Lover of shiny toys. Geek. And lifter of very heavy iron.

I met Cara, oddly enough, at a Python meetup. Not the snake, the programming language. She was writing an app to track workouts. Like I said, she’s a geek. Which is awesome. We chatted and hit it off, but that was at a difficult time in my life and I couldn’t commit.

In August, I committed to her program. I told her I had two rules that were immutable for me starting a workout program:

1) We had to be careful and cognizant of my back/knees. The back was in terrible shape in August, and the knees were in great shape but had historical issues. She said it was no problem, and actually helped fix my back literally the first workout (mindful movement and positioning is powerful.)

2) NO. FUCKING. BURPEES. This is a thing with me. Burpees make me terribly uncomfortable. I have a bit of an inner ear thing, and I end up dizzy, pukey, and miserable. They are not close to being worth it for me in terms of the benefit I get from them. There’s many other movements that are as challenging but that don’t make me feel like ralphing 10 seconds in.

Cara’s reply to number 2 was surprising. She starting laughing. No burpees. No TRX. No gimmicks. No “workouts with a marketing department”. No problem.

She was true to her word. We do very basic things, but “basic” does not mean “easy”. Nor, as I found, does it mean “simple” either. The mechanics of the 3 main movements (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) don’t seem complex. But while they’re somewhat easy to do, they’re challenging to master. There’s a lot of moving pieces, but you have a huge incentive to learning “the right way”. I would estimate I can lift 20-30% more weight when I move the weight in the optimal way. That’s a huge difference, but I stand by it. I am more effective as well as safer.

In 3 months I’ve finally got my squat mechanics down. I broke 200+lbs for the first time last week and while I wouldn’t say it was “easy”, it pushed well and I came out of it uninjured and stronger. The bench is still a moving target. The optimal bar path is seriously complex, and I seem to be incapable thus far of hitting it on my first rep. This makes single-rep-max challenging to measure. And deadlift is going to require me to get my hamstrings more flexible than they are now. I’ve been over the 200lb mark for a while on the non-straight bar variant, but there’s still work to do before my form will allow me to move upwards. Little steps.

So, 3 months in, what’s my weight? Exactly the same as in August. I literally have not “lost weight” doing this program. But that is obviously not the whole story.

A couple months into lifting 3 times a week for about 2 hours (that’s 6 hours for you English majors out there), my wife commented on how she could really see the difference in my shoulders as they stuck out under my t-shirt. I now have distinctly visible collarbones. There’s dips and divots on my legs, glutes, upper arms and chest that were not there in August. My belt now is 2-3 holes tighter than it was (depending on the belt).

To quantify what my body composition was, I did a hydrostatic body fat test and it returned 23.7%, just barely into the “healthy adult male” category for my age and height. I can guarantee it was well over that 3 months ago (I wish I’d done it at the beginning too). So why was I still 230lbs?

Muscle weighs a lot more than fat, and powerlifting can put on a ton of muscle on a guy if you’re lifting heavy and taking in the right nutrients. And I was. While my diet didn’t change a huge amount (I actually eat more calories per day than before) one item I did change was to always be sure I was taking in more protein than I needed. Just to be sure. This meant that while I lost quite a bit of fat off my body, I also added heavy, dense muscle at the same time. Hence, no weight loss. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.

So, lessons here?

Commit. Find a program/activity that you will enjoy and then DO it. In 3 months I cancelled 2 workouts so far. One was right at the beginning as my body just couldn’t do 5 workouts in a row yet and was rebelling. The other was yesterday as I felt a cold coming on and didn’t want to get folks sick and could maybe fight it off if I rested. I’d already worked out twice and have another tomorrow, so we’re just calling it an extended rest. I’m already twitchy for tomorrow.
Challenge. There’s a guy in my gym with a shirt that says “Destruction breeds growth” and that is 100% accurate. Doing a few reps with light weights does nothing. Push yourself. If you’re a girl who “doesn’t want to get huge” don’t worry, your biology is actively fighting that. It takes years of intense training with ridiculously heavy weight and a crazy diet (crazy high calories) to “get big” (or steroids). Cara, who again was ranked nationally in the top ten, has pretty large arms for a female, but it literally took decades & eating huge amounts of protein. Get in there and work.
You don’t need to jump around like an idiot, hang from straps or use weird machines. We use barbells & dumbells for 90% of our work. The rest is stuff like pullups, push sleds and a variety of cardio machines for our 3-4 minute “conditioning” we do at the end of our workouts. Or we run. Or ride a bike. But the bottom line is, the stuff that worked 100 years ago still works.
A trainer helps, if you’re the type who likes having a trainer. I’m that way. Trainers are great for settings bars high enough. You can do way more than you think you can. And it reduces cognitive load, which is critical. When all you have to do is get under a bar and lift it 3 times, instead of wondering what the weight is supposed to be, it makes workouts more enjoyable.
You don’t need cardio. Seriously. This is an argument I keep having. We do around 4 minutes of “cardio” at the end of our workouts. We do it at an intense pace. But during our lifting, our heart rates go up into the same range. I’ve measured it. And the burn lasts past the workout as your muscles work to rebuild. I’ve never been so exhausted as I am, regularly, from a couple hours of pushing iron up and down. That includes my ultra runs. And when I run now, my cardiovascular system is totally fine. Hell, its relieved I’m not trying to lift a damn car up and down. CAN you do cardio too? Of course, just make sure you leave room for recovery. But it isn’t a required thing, as long as your gym time is quality time.
Don’t go in to lose weight. Go in to change your body. Diets don’t work long term. Sometimes they don’t work short term. For every person that loses an incredible amount of weight because they now “eat like a caveman” and manages to keep it off, there’s 1000 people who tried it, lost a bit, cheated and yo-yo’d back up. Its probably more like 1 to 10,000 honestly. And you don’t have to ask yourself if you’re the 1 in 10,000. You aren’t. If you were that person, you’d already have the tools needed. And more importantly, dropping weight without a workout is ultimately harmful. You need muscle density. You need strength. Say it with me: “STRENGTH IS NEVER A BAD THING TO HAVE”.

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