Sunday, October 28, 2012

You call that Failure? Lessons Learned in m.c.'s path to the Iron Maiden Attempt

What can one say about "almost" making a goal? Is a miss as good as a mile? Or is success still simply in just "showing up" as dan john says, and valuing the PR?

Of course the line is easier to draw under a goal as something "complete" when the objective is achieved: the accolades that attend are lovely. But that may just be selling oneself and one's practice short. As i said during the olympics - so few athletes get prizes but what does it take just to be part of that field? What of that story?

Stepping Up

This past weekend (saturday Oct 27, 2012 to be precise) i "showed up" for something called the Iron Maiden Challnege. This is part of the RKC kettlebell scene, and i've written about the challenge before, quite a bit in fact - i'll list a few articles at the end of this one for reference.

Iron Maiden Quick review.
There are three lifts: the pistol (a single leg squat) with the 24kg kettlebell, a pull up with a 24 kg kb hung from the waist, and a single overhead press with a 24kg kb.

My concern about a month out was that i had to big a hurdle to make for one move - the press - to get to the challenge - that i'd really need another two months to be solid, just based on progress to that point. As the time approached it seemed close enough however to give it a go: who knows what adrenilin might do?

Down at the First Hurdle? Ironically, both my attempts on the pistol - my strong event - ha! were disqualified, so i couldn't officially test the remaining two. It seems i'd practiced an incorrect form. Great time to find out, eh?

For example: here is K.C. Reiter's successful pistol - please note bell position relative to hips on coming up and any movement with the arms.

Now here's mine. Please note the same details:

So you can see where a person may be a wee bit forgiven for being surprised.

Now - a lesson learned here may have been to go up to the judges prior to the actual event and to say - does this look right - in fact i did that with my dead hang position for the pull up because that was the only place i had a doubt about form! Never ever did i think my pistol was wrong.

Here are the rules that i had from the 2010 RKC manual (which is a fluke that i had as i certed before then and they ain't in my manual):
The competitor must perform one (1) rock bottom Pistol holding the 48kg
(106lbs.) kettlebell.
‐ The competitor can choose which leg to use for the attempt.
‐ The competitor is granted two (2) attempts and can rest for as long as
necessary between attempts.
‐ The referee must give a clear “Go” signal before any attempt can be made.
‐ Chalk is allowed.
‐ The non-working leg must be extended to the front of the body.
‐ The non-working leg must be kept off the ground during the entire
‐ The knee of the non-working leg does NOT have to be straight.
‐ The hamstring and calf of the working leg must touch in the bottom
position of the pistol. (personally i was most happy at getting this hamstring/calf touch)
‐ The kettlebell may be held by its horns with two (2) hands in front of the
body or it may be cleaned and held in the racked position of either side of
the body.
‐ The foot of the working leg must NOT move during the attempt.
‐ The referee must approve the competitor’s attempt with a clear “Yes” or
“No” signal before the competitor may put the kettlebell down. If the
competitor fails to do this and does not wait for the signal the attempt will
be invalid.
‐ The competitor does NOT have to pause at the bottom of the pistol.
What disqualifies an attempt?‐ The competitor fails any of the above-mentioned standards.
‐ The competitor tries to stand up “around the kettlebell”. Notice the
subtlety of extending the working leg from the bottom position but
keeping the hip in a flexed position thus keeping the kettlebell in the
same vertical distance from the ground until the knee is extended and
then doing a “One-Legged Goodmorning” to stand erect. The increase in knee angle when standing up should correspond to a similar verticalelevation of the kettlebell.
THere doesn't seem to be anything in this version of the rules about arm movement disqualifying an attempt or that the arms have to do anything - which is what i was called on as "doing a curl" with the bell. In the rules that i have, however, it seems that as long as the knee doesn't come up before the bell, you're good. I don't think i'm doing a "good morning" around a bell and then pulling up the bell?

So perhaps - again - the rules got changed between 2010 and today and i should have thought to ask dragon door months ago when i started prepping for a copy of the latest version just to make sure there were no changes. It's just not something i anticipated!  If you're an RKC with a more recent version of the manual and can check for any other bits, please let me know if the rules have changed, and perhaps send me the changed bit...thank you. EDIT - have now seen this is the same wording in the 2011 RKC manual. Have just been told, however, that there is a change in the August 2012 manual that reads "The pelvis may not raise faster than the kettlebell."   Hmm.

The best solution i suppose is just to be prettier so there's absolutely no ambiguity about form, eh, so that judgement doesn't have to enter into it. How long to get a 24 pistol, with the bell in the rack?

Take away:  where and when possible - check with judges to ensure what you're doing is what they call right; get the version of the rules that will be used at the event well in advance.

Another irony? i was obsessive about getting the rules for recertification well in advance and making sure i had everything agreed on weigh ins and movements - but the challenge rules? Why did i miss that? JEEZE.

But at this point - you fail on one event, you're done! that's it for the rest of the event.

We Perform what we Repeat - who SAID that?

"What?" - m.c. learning her second
pistol attempt was also a form dud.
While the other competitors were recovering for their next lift, i did volunteer to try the press which has been my bete noir, and i did get it on the second attempt - but for my knees apparetly being "soft" - that means there was a bit of bend  in them (i didn't feel it) so that the press becomes a mini push press. Oh dear.

But - what is being repeated here? How i tend to learn a new load.  A first time load up when it's heavier than what i'm used to is usually with a wee push press - ever so slight - at first - and then gradually work out the knees. Apparently two reps (the first one being four days previous) with what i suspected was some knee (as i'd posted on FB) is not a sufficient number to work out the literal kinks.

As for the the pull up? I did a SINGLE attempt on that, too, and came within an inch of it. I'm not sure if asking to take the space to do a second attempt would have done it. At that point i own my heart was not as fired up as it might otherwise have been, so perhaps that factored into a less that glorious rep?

A Few (More) Lessons Learned 

Out on my "strong" event before the game had really begun, and on the other moves, "nothing neither way" to quote Hamlet. Four months of near obsessive focus - wasted?

That's a toughie: did i get what i came for? No. Was i surprised by the result? Really, no. Do i feel like the desired result is beyond me? No.

People of course tend not to ask folks who don't win how they did what they did - since End Results count for a lot. But sometimes learning from gaps can help inform improvements for the next soul.

Humbly offered, therefore, a few Personal Reflections (a new definition of PR?) that may be useful to your strength practice planning .

Where I began with the lifts: from about July 1, 
  • Pistols: i went from single body weight pistols to a pistol with a 24kg kb.
  • Pull ups: i went from zero pull ups in March due to a rehabbing shoulder to getting back a single pull up in July to clearing the 24 off site, and coming within an inch on the day. 
  • Press: went from a few trepidatious 12kg presses in July due to shoulder rebuilding from rehab to pressing the 24 on the day - and that solid press, no knees, was the THIRD press of the day with the dam thing, off to the side.
Related Wins-
  •  HLR i can do hanging leg raises, and have the negatives of the dragon flag. Not things i ever imagined doing, but boy what a good "hollow position." 
  • Lean. That i am as lean as i am right now is really cool for exploring bodyweight work - and it feels nice! i don't want to lose this, well, loss - but dam it it takes discipline to get here, never mind stay here. How's that gonna work? Leave that one for tomorrow...
  • Workout Fuel Tuning Learned how to optimise pre and post and during (peri-workout) nutrition for practice.
  • on the day 24 press
    Paul Simister, photo.
  • Relaxation as Astronaut Training. Learned how to relax before the event by practicing exactly what i do now before focuesed practice - and that i enjoy (that green tea ritual, ref below, works in many places - and that as a tip from Ken Froese)
Little pr's 
  • at the event i got my first ever free standing - no wall in sight - head stands - right out there in the middle of the floor.  
  •  i can consistently bottoms up press the 16 pretty easily now which last year at this time was unimaginable 
  • i have a handstand push up (against the wall) with head to the floor for reps
  • i can press a 20 on my left for reps now
  • i go the 24 on the day - if not quite at the right time.  

Beyond Strength (as one might say)

Beyond the particular personal records, there were related discoveries in getting to those places. Here's just a couple of finds that i would never ever have discovered without this attempt, and that are going to carry me forward in whatever i practice next.

Leanness and Strength. Most of us have heard that it's hard to gain mass or get stronger while also getting leaner. In fact one of the suggestions i was given when trying to get the last 1.5kg on my press was "eat." But it seemed i kept getting stronger while getting leaner.  Indeed, i have been doing the modified velocity diet (links below) since the start of august and peeled off ten pounds in 12 weeks, and am at about 13-14% bf if the harpendon caliper readings are correct. At no point did i lose strength while getting leaner. So it does seem to be quite possible - at least for me - to get a lot stronger while getting leaner. Which leads me to feel pretty deeply that strength is not always about more muscle fiber.

from first weekend in aug to third weekend in oct. 2012.
Pressing, pistoling and pulling up the 24 sopping wet at 5'6" and 122lbs
Motor Learning IS skills Learning; Strength is a Skill.
My sense from getting stronger despite getting leaner is that one might only worry about not being able to get stronger while getting leaner if one were a really advanced/experienced lifter. I would never claim to be any such thing. Hence, a lot of room to improve strength with technique, and with reps to coordinate the tissue already there.  That i did get stronger suggests a heck of a lot of skills training aka motor learning during the hours i put into my practice for this. I do feel that both my body has been learning how to make connections within itself, and i have been learning to make skills connexions.

Practice (i.e. high volume days in particular) is Exploration - of Skills
I have been fortunate to have been able to engage with several great folks in the course of this process. I'll introduce them in a moment. One of the things they each have had in common is to say that Volume Rules for owning a lift.

We know as well that in learning a skill so that it is automatic we have to perform thousands of reps. Even in four months, i have only performed hundreds.

Within this volume there is not only motor learning - the body learning how to groove an action. There is also the opportunity for deliberate practice: to think about what is happening and having the opportunity to explore these movements and what lets one advance and what may hold one back.

A worked example: the pistol as skill At the end of a  heavy day pistol practice - i decided to take some more time just to explore getting the 24 under control in the descent. All i wanted/expected was how to go down in control; not get back up. The first few times i came down under control but landed on my butt - and then i started to get the hang of how to stay balanced. 
Common wisdom would suggest that at the end of a workout when now just doing skills practice it's not time to go for a pr. But each time i used my other foot to help me get back up, i noticed i was getting a little higher up without help. So, i kept exploring this up-ness part, too. What it felt like to shift position, what was happening in my leg. And then, there is was. The first what i called "ugly" pistol with the 24. 
That success would not have happened without the willingness to explore one part of the movement - to play around - with intent - to discover how to do one part of the skill. It happened in that case that that particular practice lead to insight about another part of the practice.

Loads of examples of this - of just looking out a little further to find new connexions within a movement.

Time isn't After Us: 
Another part of volume that i had not considered previously was time: allowing for longer workouts - to keep exploring a lift especially on a heavier day so there's time for recovery. That i found absolutley revelatory. A greater VOLUME of TIME for training - not just volume of reps. At least at my skill level.

Everyone needs a coach - the right coach at the right time.
That i got as far as i did, as safely as i did i attribute to having a great coach. I have been fortunate to have great support through this process as well as great ideas at key moments.

The Kindness of Experts

Ken Froese:  For the past four months, via email, vids and the occaisional skype, Ken's been there to explore ideas to improve my practice sessions to tune them to move them along as best as possible towards the goal. It's been great to have another soul to say "what about this?" or "where next"?

We explored what i was doing, where i was at, reviewed and tested options.  Ken was never "this is the thing to do." We did not program this beyond we need to figure out the right combination of volume and load across these three lifts to make good and consistent progress.  What worked we kept; what didn't we analysed and might discard or revise and retest. Collaborative exploration - where i also trust the expedition lead. Knowing that i could send off an email to reality check what i was doing, and have empathy and guidance has been huge.

I only wish we'd have had more live session times - and i'd encourage anyone training with a remote coach to do whatever it takes to make it possible to work live every other week or so if training for an event. That's just a general lesson. More opportunities for more tweaking - so as not to fall afoul of technicalities....just saying.

A few other folks kindly offered feedback when i had specific questions about approach, and their feedback made a huge and immediate difference.

Dan John - when i asked if i could do this challenge, he said "yes of course" at the right time.

Pavel Tsatsouline - kindly offered exceptional feedback and training suggestions for my weighted pull up that i put into immediate practice and that had immediate effect.

Kenneth Jay - Kenneth Jay and i had some wonderful conversations about the role of volume in strength training and applying it. I think jumping between planes - or perhaps airports - he offered some awesome advice for getting the last couple KG's on my press in a short period of time. Excellent ideas again that had immediate effect

Eric Cobb - likewise while on the run, took time to provide council on accelerating the press. Likewise applicable, useful and usable - and big differnce.

My goodness. These guys are good.  And not only that, they're gracious. They are busy and expensive people and they made time to respond attentively, personally to what they saw when they quite easily and reasonably could have said nothing or that they were too busy or "gee i dunno."

Family Planning: the sine qua non

It is a pain in the ass for one's kin to go through this kind of training - especially when they don't know what they're about to go through cuz you haven't been through it before and you can't quite brace them for it - but now they're part of your "learning experieince" too.

TO have saturday workouts that used to take an hour suddenly take all morning. To change the dietary practices of the household. To find out that one really may well be obsessive compulsive in this regard - and how that must be to live with. To have the compass always pointing Due Practice.

All i can say is that it's a really good idea if ya think your plans MAY become disruptive to engage on these points in advance.  Know what i'm saying? People first, as Suze Orman says.

And So...Making Lemonade rather than Crushing Sour Grapes?

There's other stuff to be sure - this is a first wave unpacking of a rather intense four months of very single focus of what dan john calls "quadrant four" practice.

Am i dissapointed with the end result? of course.

But as said, i'm not surprised - and in a way i think that in and of itself is a learning too - that even a month out i could tell where things would likely need more time - and if my shoulder had been ready i'd have started earlier to get that time - but there it is. And  my family is likely delighted - given what eating (or more usually not eating) with me has been like over the past three months - that i didn't focus on this for longer.

So while i can't really bring myself to say (yet) that "it's all good" - it's not ALL good - i can say that more than 90% of it has been extraordinary, revelatory, and that's more than enough of an outcome to keep moving forward - and to know beyond a doubt that it seems, despite the seeming lateness of the hour, my path to better resilience, strength, self-understanding around strength practice, has just taken its first mature step.

Thank you again
Thank you to the kind folks who stood up during the Challenge and cheered - thank you to James Breese of Kettlebell fever for having a beautiful space for the event.

Thanks again to those Great Guys who offered such effective, generous council at key moments
Big hug to Ken Froese - Ken, thank you thank you thank you.

And to my family for so much support despite thinking me a bit crazy for putting so much into this odd moment.

Whither voyager? 
Like how to stay this lean? What to do next? more pressing? something else? That's tomorrow. Today, it's the first whole food breakie i've had in four months, more tea with milk than i've had in ages and tonight it's Cockneys vs Zombies.

Hope in the interim these thoughts may help your practice, too.

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