Thanksgiving 2018

While I could spend some time thinking about gratitude any day, I think Thanksgiving serves as that national time we look around and remember the things we take for granted, the experiences that have happened over the year in such a way that gives us perspective moving forward. It reminds us who we are, what we've overcome or dealt with, and how we can be better as individuals and groups. 

(In no particular order)

I'm really thankful for powerlifting, and for the hurricane of things it makes me feel, for the people I've met along the way, the opportunities it's provided me to learn more, to grow as a better person. Since last Thanksgiving, I got to prepare for a world championship for the second time, fly to a different country and represent the USA, ultimately walking away with a win. The community of people I've come to see and know ranges across ages, countries, interests and goals, mindsets related to powerlifting, temperaments, and so on. Despite all that, it's really cool we can bond over a barbell at our best moments, discover things about how to coach and train better and put more kilos on the barbell as time goes on. We get to use powerlifting as a teaching tool to learn patience, dedication, analysis and critical thinking, focus and calm under pressure, and perseverence.

In that wonderful umbrella of powerlifting, I get to thank the athletes who have let us serve them with The Strength Athlete. TSA started off as just me working with a handful of people and has expanded to a roster of coaches, each with their own strengths and coahing skills. The athletes have all put massive amounts on their totals, but more importantly, they've grown as people--learning to better assess and modify their own training without the guiding hand of an ever-present coach, learning to approach sets with repeatability and performance mindsets, refine techniques, treat lifting as art and science. This year, we've crossed our five year anniversary and have looked back and seen all the growth we've made in coaching abilities. How to better individualize volume and intensity, how to connect and meet athletes where they are, how to make better game day strategies. It's been a sometimes painful process full of mistakes and triumphs. In those moments where athletes succeed, I think we get to really be thankful we're here helping on the other side of the screen. To the athletes, thank you. You let us help you in the best ways. 

The coaches I've gotten to know over these years have formed and made TSA what it is, and I'm truly thankful for their service, their hard work, their humanity. I've formed deep friends in Eric, Hani, Chris, and Joe and have leaned on them in times of deep depression, maybe not as much as I could have. I'm looking forward to year 6 and year 10, my friends, and seeing what we can keep making better for athletes. 

My own personal journey in sport this past year felt like a really rocky one, and I feel like I never took the time to appreciate everything for what it was. Instead I often just felt bad about performances, about a lack of progress in a few areas. I spent more time dwelling on the negative than remembering how wonderful powerlifting is, how good even a bad day really is in the scale of things. I'll try to be better about that this stop and smell the roses. Despite that, I learned that pain doesn't mean bad performances (all the time), and I learned that sometimes a step back really does mean a few steps forward. 

This is in part thanks to my wonderful coach, Eric Helms. Eric has been a guiding light for me not only in powerlifting, but in life; he is a mentor, a role model, and a wonderful human and I just feel like the luckiest dude. Eric, I strive to take the best in you and make it my own. Thanks for being there with me in dark times just as you are in good ones. I dont know where I'd be in life, let alone lifting, without you. 

Last year around this time, I was in a relatively shitty place, having recently ended a divorce and kind of trying to find a way forward into who I am and what I want to be going forward. I needed to remember what I cared about, who I was in my own right, how to be me. That process feels like it's not quite over, but getting much better and out of some dark places where I felt like there was no place for me in the world. I'm thankful to be alive, to have my brain and body. I'm thankful for my health and well-being, my personal history and memories and for the time I get to be alive. Despite a divorce, I'm thankful for the memories I've experienced, good and bad, that helped shape me into who I am today. At the same time I'm okay letting them go and creating a future for myself. 

To that end, I'm so, so thankful for Natalie and the person she is, how easy and wonderful it is to be around her, about our shared sense of humor and opinions, her beautiful smile. I'm thankful for her guidance in my darkest times, her company in the best of times, her companionship. She listens to me, she takes care of me and I try my hardest to do the same in return. I love you. 

My dad and brother, I love you guys. Though we're separate by some miles, no love is lost and I can't wait to see you guys again. I love our catchups, I can do better to make for more of them and more often. 

Thinking on John Rawl's theory of the veil of ignorance, "I" could have been born in any gender, ethnicity, location, social status, health, and so on. I'm thankful to have been born healthy and I know that I've benefitted from being a white male. 

I'm thankful for all the leaders of the past who have shaped the world for what it is, for the critical thinkers who have pushed past the archaic ideas and fairy tales of the past into a future we can all be proud of. Through hard work and sacrifice they've pursued their own passions to make the lives of people they have never or will never meet, measured over science, health, medicine, agriculture, social rights and freedoms, and economy. When I visited the Nobel Museum, I was humbled in the presence of how mighty and varied their accomplishments were, and I know that scratches at the surface of the true breadth of individuals leading the way. 

We're sensing beings, so I'm thankful for my eyes and ears, hands and feet, that I get to experience the world in the brief time I get to spend here. 

I'm thankful for my dog Sequoia who has weathered many storms with me. She is a blessing every time I come home. I smile multiple times a day at her sheer presence. I love her. 

I'm thankful for my small apartment with concrete floors and minimal furniture. I feel safe, centered, and both sufficient and self-sufficient in it. 

I'm thankful for music, for experiences that you're so elated you can't put into words. 

I'm thankful for technology and social media that despite its shortcomings, allows me to reach across the world in a way I have never been able to before, to create in ways I've never been able to. 

I'm thankful for the travel I've gotten to do! I never thought I would ever travel as often as I have been. This year I've been to many places and soaked in so many wonderful experiences, half or more where powerlifting has been the motivator and thing allowing me to experience these. 

I feel like there's a ton that I take for granted, that there's this background of existence that you have to, by pure fact that you can't constantly be in gratitude of every facet of existence, just continue on. Its those times those things are taken away that you really notice the value in their presence. I'm thankful for that opportunity. 

Inexhaustive list, but I'm thankful that I get to close this laptop and get into a kitchen with warm food with a roof over my head, with people I love, in a house I'm safe in. I think we're built on a global network of interconnected successes, failures, transactions and histories and I have to be thankful that it brought me to here, in this brief slice of the universe's history. 

I dunno man, I just feel very undeserving and I feel that way most of the time. All I can do is try to keep being better and connecting in authentic ways, and aim to live a life I build, with help from people I love, into something I care about. 

Food's ready. 

Bryce LewisComment
Slippery slopes in programming, coach-athlete communications

While I'm not really sure the logic from a related field applies specifically to our experience as lifters, I'm going to attempt to make a jump. Research may already or may bear this out in the future, or may not! I was reading Sapolsky's Behave again and came across a section on the so-called 'broken-window effect', where areas of cities with small signs of crime and disrepair see larger rates of larger crimes. In a few large-scale tests, zero tolerance rules to minor infractions of the rules ended up having downstream effects that reduced the rates of larger crimes. 

The underlying idea is that if you see signs of disrepair or crime, you're more likely to break the rules yourself because there's a background that it's okay, that it's normal. More concretely, this was shown in New York City in the 1990s, where a reduction in small rule breaks led to a steep drop in rates of serious crime. This was repeated in Lowell, Massachusetts where an experiment was run on just a single area of the city, and finally shown again in more specific case studies in the Netherlands. "When bicycles were chained to a fence (despite a sign forbidding it), people were more likely to take a shortcut through a gap in the fence (despite a sign forbidding it); people littered more when walls were graffitied; people were more likely to steal a five-euro note when litter was strewn around." It's as if the scene of degeneration paved the way to minor acts of breaking rules. Sapolsky notes the effect is large, in some cases doubling the rates of rule breaking. I'm sure there are bounds here; seeing a bike chained to a fence won't make you want to murder someone. It's about making acts seem more permissible when they aren't, increasing your already-present tendencies and desires. 

What I started thinking about was how this could apply to our little sport. If I skip my accessories one day or see my fellow coached athletes skip theirs, am I more likely to skip my own accessories, overload main lifts or go off program? Is it about the culture present in a lifting group enabling a behavior? And just like the experiments done in New York City and elsewhere, would a heavy-handed zero-tolerance policy on minor infractions to one's training approach drop the rate of athletes not following their training approach? 

How about athlete updates or response times. Do small lapses there on both a coach or an athlete's side lead to setting the scene for it being okay own the line, making the rule breaks the norm? Where else might we see this play out in sport and individual and team expectations? I imagine it might play a role in dietary and recovery modality adherence too. I'd be really interested in some experiments where zero tolerance policies on athlete reporting, completion of training, or some other quality we care about was enforced and observe if there's a difference in rates of similar but more severe behaviors in the future. 

I don't want to set up the idea here that our natural tendencies are toward misbehaving and breaking rules, and the only thing stopping us is a system of expectations and social pressures. Human behavior is complex, and this is just a single (potential) piece of the puzzle. But something to think about, anyway.  

Bryce LewisComment
The mesolimbic/mesocortical dopamine system, a passage from Behave, by Robert Sapolsky

(As a note before the passage, I'm transcribing this both in an effort to remember it better, rather than just looking up the associated words in a Kindle version of the text, and secondarily because it's the most visceral description of a phenomenon of rate-decreasing pleasure in repeated, wonderful experience that I've seen. It makes sense, I sympathize with my own biology as I feel a sense that there's nothing I can do but carry on, or limit peak rewards. Plus, I want to share it with you, who may never buy the full book. I'll use bold over sections I particularly resonated with, but otherwise the text is reproduced faithfully.)


Reward, pleasure, and happiness are complex, and the motivated pursuit of them occurs in at least a rudimentary form in many species. The neurotransmitter dopamine is central to understanding this.

Nuclei, Inputs, and Outputs

Dopamine is synthesized in multiple brain regions. One such region helps initiate movement; damage there produces Parkinson's disease. Another regulates the release of a pituitary hormone. But the dopaminergic system that concerns us arises from an ancient, evolutionarily conserved region near the brain stem called the ventral tegmental area (henceforth the "tegmentum").

A key target of these dopaminergic neurons is the last multisyllabic brain region to be introduced in this chapter, the nucleus accumbens (henceforth the "accumbens"). There's debate as to whether the accumbens should count as part of the limbic system, but at the least it's highly limbic-ish.

Here's our first pass at the organization of this circuitry:

  1. The tegmentum sends projections to the accumbens and (other) limbic areas such as the amygdala and hippocampus. This is collectively called the "mesolimbic dopamine pathway".
  2. The tegmentum also projects to the PFC (but, significantly, not other cortical areas). This is called the "mesocortical dopamine pathway." I'll be lumping the mesolimbic plus mesocortical pathways together as the "dopaminergic system," ignoring their not always being activated simultaneously.*
  3. The accumbens projects to regions associated with movement.
  4. Naturally, most areas getting projections from the tegmentum and/or accumbens project back to them. Most interesting will be the projections form the amygdala and PFC.


As a first pass, the dopaminergic system is about reward--various pleasurable stimuli activate tegmental neurons, triggering their release of dopamine. Some supporting evidence: (a) drugs like cocaine, heroin, and alcohol release dopamine in the accumbens; (b) if tegmental release of dopamine is blocked, previously rewarding stimuli become aversive; (c) chronic stress or pain depletes dopamine and decreases the sensitivity of dopamine neurons to stimulation, producing the defining symptom of depression--"anhedonia," the inability to feel pleasure. 

Some rewards, such as sex, release dopamine in every species examined. For humans just thinking about sex suffices.** Food evokes dopamine release in hungry individuals of all species, with an added twist in humans. Show a picture of a milkshake to someone after they've consumed one, and there's rarely dopaminergic activation--there's satiation. But with subjects who have been dieting, there's further activation. If you're working to restrict your food intake, a milkshake just makes you want another one. 

**footnote: And, in a fact that hints at a world of sex differences, dopaminergic responses to sexually arousing visual stimuli are greater in men than in women. Remarkably, this difference isn't specific to humans. Male rhesus monkeys will forgo the chance to drink water when thirsty in order to see pictures of--I'm not quite sure how else to say this--crotch shots of female rhesus monkeys (while not being interested in other rhesus-y pictures).

The mesolimbic dopamine system also responds to pleasurable aesthetics. In one study people listened to new music; the more accumbens activation, the more likely the subjects were to but the music afterward. And then there is dopaminergic activation for artificial cultural inventions--for example, when typical males look at pictures of sports cars. 

Patterns of dopamine release are most interesting when concerning social interactions. Some findings are downright heartwarming. In one study a subject would play an economic game with someone, where a player is rewarded under two circumstances: (a) if both players cooperate, each receives a moderate reward, and (b) stabbing the other person in the back gets the subject a big reward, while the other person gets nothing. While both outcomes increased dopaminergic activity, the bigger increase occurred after cooperation. 

Other research examined the economic behavior of punishing jerks. In one study subjects played a game where player B could screw over player A for a profit. Depending on the round, player A could either (a) do nothing, (b) punish player B by having some of player B's money taken (at no cost to player B), of (c) pay one unit of money to have two units taken from player B. Punishment activated the dopamine system, especially when subjects had to pay to punish; the greater the dopamine increase during no-cost punishment, the more willing someone was to pay to punish. Punishing norm violations is satisfying. 

Another great study, carried out by Elizabeth Phelps of New York University, concerns "overbidding" in auctions, where people bid more money than anticipated. This is interpreted as reflecting the additional reward of besting someone in the competitive aspect of bidding. Thus, "winning" an auction is intrinsically socially competitive, unlike "winning" a lottery. Winning a lottery and winning a big both activated dopaminergic signaling in subjects; losing a lottery had no effect, while losing a bidding war inhibited dopamine release. Not winning the lottery is bad luck; not winning an auction is social subordination. 

This raises the specter of envy. In one neuroimaging study subjects read about a hypothetical person's academic record, popularity, attractiveness, and wealth. Descriptions that evoked self-reported envy activated cortical regions involved in pain perception. Then the hypothetical individual was described as experiencing a misfortune (e.g., they were demoted). More activation of pain pathways at the news of the person's good fortune predicted more dopaminergic activation after learning of their misfortune. Thus there's dopaminergic activation during schadenfreude--gloating over an envied person's fall from grace.

The dopamine system gives insights into jealousy, resentment, and insidiousness, leading to another depressing finding. A monkey has learned that when he presses a lever ten times, he gets a raising as a reward. That's just happened, and as a result, ten units of dopamine are released in the accumbens. Now--surprise!--the monkey presses the lever ten times and gets two raisins. Whoa: twenty units of dopamine are released. And as the monkey continues to get paychecks of two raisins, the size of the dopamine response returns to ten units. Now reward the monkey with only a single raisin and dopamine levels decline.

Why? This is our world of habituation, where nothing is ever as good as that first time.

Unfortunately, things have to work this way because of our range of rewards. After all, reward coding must accommodate the rewarding properties of both solving a math problem and having an orgasm. Dopaminergic responses to reward, rather than being absolute, are relative to the reward value of alternative outcomes. In order to accommodate the pleasures of both mathematics and orgasms, the system must constantly rescale to accommodate the range of intensity offered by particular stimuli. The response to any reward must habituate with repetition, so that the system can respond over its full range to the next new thing. 

This was shown in a beautiful study by Wolfram Schultz of Cambridge University. Depending on the circumstance, monkeys were trained to expect either two or twenty units of reward. If they unexpectedly got either four or forty units, respectively, there'd be an identical burst of dopamine release; giving one or ten units produced an identical decrease. It was the relative, not absolute, size of the surprise that mattered over a tenfold range of reward.

These studies show that the dopamine system is bidirectional. It responds with scale-free increases for unexpected good news and decreases for bad. Schultz demonstrated that following a reward, the dopamine system codes for discrepancy from expectation--get what you expected, and there's a steady-state dribble of dopamine. Get more reward and/or get it sooner than expected, and there's a big burst; less and/or later, a decrease. Some tegmental neurons respond to positive discrepancy from expectation, others to negative; appropriately, the latter are local neurons that release the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. Those same neurons participate in habituation, where the reward that once elicited a big dopamine response becomes less exciting. 

Logically, these different types of coding neurons in the tegmentum (as well as the accumbens) get projections from the frontal cortex--that's where all the expectancy/discrepancy calculations take place--"Okay, I thought I was going to get 5.0 but got 4.9. How big of a bummer is that?"

Additional cortical regions weigh in. In one study subjects were shown an item to purchase, with the degree of accumbens activation predicting how much a person would pay. Then they were told the price; if it was less than what they were willing to spend, there was activation of the emotional vmPFC; more expensive, and there'd be an activation of that disgust-related insular cortex. Combine all the neuroimaging data, and you could predict whether the person would buy the item. 

Thus, in typical mammals the dopamine system codes in scale-free manner over a wide range of experience for both good and bad surprises and is constantly habituating to yesterday's news. But humans have something in addition, namely that we invent pleasures far more intense than anything offered by the natural world. 

Once, during a concert of cathedral organ music, as I sat getting gooseflesh amid that tsunami of sound, I was struck with a thought: for a medieval peasant, this must have been the loudest human-made sound they ever experienced, awe-inspiring in now-unimaginable ways. No wonder they signed up for the religion being proffered. And now we are constantly pummeled with sounds that dwarf quaint organs. Once, hunter-gatherers might chance upon honey from a beehive and thus briefly satisfy a hardwired food craving. And now we have hundreds of carefully designed commercial foods that supply a burst of sensation unmatched by some lowly natural food. Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world. 

An emptiness comes from this combination of over-the-top nonnatural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation; this is because unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation. This has two consequences. First, soon we barely notice the fleeting whispers of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn, or by the lingering glance of the right person, or by the promise of reward following a difficulty, worthy task. And the other consequence is that we eventually habituate to even those artificial deluges of intensity. If we were designed by engineers, as we consumed more, we'd desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get. More and faster and stronger. What was unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won't be enough tomorrow. 

(the book continues)


Bryce LewisComment
On the plight of modern female strength athletes and related topics

A number of problems exist in strength and conditioning and athletics that have meant an unnecessarily unbalanced and uphill climb for female athletes and strength coaches, and I'd like to elucidate some of those concerns here. Far from speaking definitively, it's my hope just to bring my own perspective as an athlete, a coach, and an observer. Forgive me if my writing either does not match your scope and view of the problems at hand, does not accurately portray the problems, or seems exclusive of specific groups, interests, or ideas.

Speaking to norms of beauty:

While the modern concept of a "gym" and of resistance training as a casual pursuit outside of sport-specific training has only been around for less than a half century, there have been societal pressures on females to look (and act) in specific ways back as far as I've been aware in history. These norms include pressures to be attractive as defined by the style and culture of the time, not for one's own sake, but for the sake of mate attraction and preconceived notions of beauty. One doesn't have to look far to find self-destructive practices built into the very ideas of beauty themselves: small feet, small frames paired with exaggerated reproductive features, signs of youth such as smooth skin, clear eyes, healthy hair and eyelashes. The pursuit of these and more have left many women idolizing either real or in most cases impossible physiques (thanks, Photoshop, Barbie, etc.) to the point that modern and prior cultures have embraced. We see females seeking breast/butt implants, fake eyelashes, makeup covering blemishes, fake hair, colored eye contact lenses, Botox, skin surgery, and on and on. The nature of an exaggerated and singularly driving message that "this is the standard image of Western beauty, and if you don't have it or aren't it, you must work to achieve it to have value as a human in your own eyes and the eyes of others" is a destructive message.

The simple fact that butt implants are a new phenomena shows that the definition of what "attractive" is in societal and male-dominated perspectives is an ever-changing one. The simple (massive) increase in spandex and form-fitting clothing has tended to sexualize the fitness space in a way that shouldn't belong, and turned the gym into a place where women can expect to receive unwanted attention despite their best efforts. If I can wear tight/compression leggings because it gets fabric out of the way and I'm able to complete my training better, women should be afforded the same opportunity without expecting advances and comments, or it immediately sexualizing training movements when that hasn't even entered the intentions or expectations of the athlete at hand. 

I'm doubtful we will ever be free from a norm reference for beauty, but I'm hopeful that we can (1) make it a more realistic (actually real) standard and (2) that we can build in a message of acceptance, that there is more to life than looking a certain way, that one can find self-acceptance, happiness, pair-bonding and deep contentment without any of this. To be sure, males engage in peacocking as well in attempts to seek mates or sex. Putting oneself in their best light to improve chances of success plays itself out on a daily basis an around the world in physical means, cognitive means, in conversations and cultures. And I dont think it's wrong to engage in this practice! We're all looking for love and acceptance, relating to others and feeling beautiful on the inside as we feel on the outside.

My hope is that we, culturally and individually, aim to make things more real going forward. It takes bravery to shun social norms of beauty when everyone around you isn't, when that's not the message you're receiving more broadly.

Speaking to norms on being an athlete:

To my previous point, resistance training for most females, if they engage in it at all, is only a new tool to seek the same end--achieve a predefined definition of beauty, which has now shifted at least partly toward an athletic build. By and large the majority of women engaging in the "fitness industry" still are focused on cardio and weight loss by all of the archaic and outdated methods that have been popularized by charlatans wanting to make a dollars on the hopes and dreams of well-meaning women. It's upsetting. "Fitness" for females has been the sideshow carnival of  waist trainers, jazzercise, Zumba, bogus fat loss pills and "lose weight quick" schemes, fad diets, specialized girly routines that "tone", and on down a list of ill-founded plots. Women deserve better. 

Nowadays for women, there is a relative pressure to conform to leanness, exaggerated shoulders and glutes, thigh gaps, and large breasts, if the magazines are to be believed. I have to remove myself from my powerlifting lens at times because I realize that powerlifters (even those people who regularly squat) make up a paltry percentage of the American population, a tiny subset of those engaging in resistance training regularly, which is then a subset of those engaging in health training practices. Removing myself from this myopic lens allows me to see the plight of more individuals that span ages, heritage, abilities, etc. 

This isn't to diminish the problem. I have seen study after study showing the advantages to self-esteem, confidence and motivation, self-image, etc. improve with goal-centered resistance training. I'd like to help bring that to more people, and to more women specifically. The likes of SmartFitGirls and other organizations are showing the problem and presenting solutions with grassroots efforts, and I hope to see organizations like that one continue to grow and thrive. More people deserve to feel what it is like to work toward something, to realize the successes of their efforts, have a positive self-image, relate to others who feel the same, feel athletic and accomplished. 

At its best, this is what being an athlete actually includes. By focusing on performance first and appearance in a reduced role, we focus in on an achievable and very personal goal. It's not something society or men have stated as a goal: it's your own goal because you chose it and you want it. This is one of the great things about being an actual athlete and it's not just something men should be able to experience. As such, men and women in high-visibility roles need to use their voice and shout for acceptance and inclusion--that resistance training and yes, even powerlifting and weightlifting are worthy pursuits for all people. 

Women athletes continue to face an unfair double standard of wanting to focus on athletic performance and excellence, and still face norms to be lean and attractive where men don't face this same standard. A look across baseball, powerlifting, many strength-based sports and onward show that female athletes face a pressure to perform well AND be lean, men do not face that pressure. It's okay to be performance-based across all aspects of your involvement with a sport; it's expected. 

It's unfortunate that despite their best efforts, those in high-visibility roles or even advocates for change are in for an uphill battle. There is a massive disparity in strength and conditioning currently, where men are seen as trusted sources of information, where a woman saying the same exact thing is seen as opinion-based and circumstance, or even outright wrong. Their opinions, even the same evidence-based and rational opinions that come from a lower-pitched and XY-chromosome-based mouth are seen as less authoritative. There are fewer females in strength and conditioning, and those females are lower on the hierarchical ladders of positional importance, paid less, and seen as knowing less. This is a multi-faceted problem that extends back to women not being shown exercise science as a viable and rewarding career path, social pressures against women in science compounded with women in resistance training, women in positions of authority, and so on. 

While I can't speak in place of female athletes or coaches, I hope to be a voice of reason and understanding, support, and solidarity. I understand as an observer some of what female athletes go through, and I hope to continue to be open to conversation and growth. I would like to see equality across expectations for men and women wanting to train and grow, to use resistance training as a tool for self-discovery and not feeling bad about that. I'd like to see equality in the cognitive realm of exercise science as well, that women and men are equally capable of brilliant, creative and nuanced insight on training and nutrition, capable of research, coaching athletes, manipulating training plans. I'd like to see payment and perceived value equal across men and women, with the same set of criteria concerning each--that we look to experience, to information content, track record, and the same set of characteristics we look for in men. I'd like to encourage more women to enter resistance training and powerlifting for the myriad self-supporting beliefs and changes to body image, and remove double-standards where possible.

Bryce LewisComment

On the surface, my competitive experience over the weekend wasn't too bad at all. Given a training cycle with a QL injury of sorts, some of the best handlers that exist in Matt and Sioux-z Gary, and some decent progress on bench press, I was able to finish at the SBD Arnold Pro American with a 655 squat, a PR 491 lb. bench press, and a second attempt 744 deadlift. I was close to blacking out after the second deadlift and declined against taking a third. That was enough to give me a win in the 105kg class, and only 7.5 kilos on the total outside of coming home with third overall and some cash. 

I really was barely there though and I remember the entire competitive experience as a haze, and spent much of Sunday crying in bed alone for the following and other reasons. I wasn't looking forward to this competition as much as I've looked forward to previous competitions, and I felt very much separate and distant from others, and a sense of wondering what competition is all for. For me, I have routinely found joy in the struggles and triumphs of training, not competing. External validation of my efforts is cool, but I could do the same lifts in training and feel really happy about my efforts overall. As a referee for powerlifting myself, I don't need 3 judges to tell me if a lift was good enough to pass  on a platform, though of course one of the whole points of competing is that you are required to do the lifts on a stage, in succession, while others are doing the same. I have asked myself "why compete?" and not been able to come up with a worthwhile answer. Records or the will to win and assert my dominance over others does not drive me. In powerlifting especially, we engage in norm referencing, where we compare our efforts against the efforts of others. I don't feel a strong need to norm reference at the moment. I want training to feel free, honest, and immersed -- self-centered and for me. On the contrary, training often feels that it's for others, that I'm an object of attention and not an actual person in my own right. I am one who lifts at such and such a level first and foremost, and secondarily I'm Bryce Lewis, the person experiencing a complex and changing life. 

I love the hell out of powerlifting, but there are aspects I've come not to like. Maybe all of this is burnout, but it feel like more than just sport-related overtraining leading to burnout, especially if my training volume has anything to say about it. 

This has combined with a few other factors over recent months to form a particularly toxic-feeling recent weekend competing and seeing people. I have felt I'm on a roller coaster I can't get off with the schedule of either winning or seeking to win nationals, winning or seeking to win worlds, and ever-increasing total for people other than myself, displaying and showing efforts and accomplishing external rewards because I felt like it was the appropriate thing to do. As such, lifting has lost much of the love and innocent, light-hearted wonder it has once had. Where I dance between sets, where I don't commit so heavily to the process that I lose sight of why I'm doing things, that I allow myself the space to have bad sessions and bad reps without generalizing to an apocalyptic sense that I've failed myself, my coach, or my peers. 

I am generally a good lifter and a bad competitor. 

As such, I may jump off the perceived roller coaster and spend some time not competing in the near future, with (excitedly) no competition on the near horizon, no obligation, no pressure. At the same time, I feel a fear of a loss of identity. If I am not Bryce the athlete who is prepping for the next competition, Bryce the 105kg powerlifter, who am I? Somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but I have an urge not to feel forced into roles. I want to willingly engage to train, willingly engage to compete for my own sake and because it reflects the self-same goals that I've chosen I value. In fact my best lifts from an objective sense (a 700lb squat, a 495 bench, and an 805 deadlift) have been out of competition, on an unplanned training day, doing what I love. I think that's an important realization. 

Lately I've also been researching sports psychology, which, while wonderful has meant a certain self-analysis I want to be rid of. I've encountered this before when analyzing lifting technique (where one analyzes their own technique in light of what they've learned) or programming (where one analyzes one's own programming in light of new information). Separating self from study is a little easier when it comes to technique or programming, but it's been very hard for sport psychological concepts because you are the one experiencing things, and because it relates to thoughts themselves. I'd like to stop doing that, as it's caused me to realize problems I have, without realizing their solutions. 

Further, social media. I've felt a distaste for the fact that many high-level athletes, coaches, influencers, are narrating their life (or having someone else film them) and that they are the star of their own movie. I think that's a relatively recent phenomena, but the sensation that you are the star of the movie also means that you don't have that outlet to be you, the actor/actress. I an unable to feel free to post some things I think are worthy of people's attention, or to post a picture of myself without a caption just because I think it's a good picture, or to post my ass, my chest, etc, as a man, just because I'm proud of the work I've put in. Today, your goal is to weave a narrative of you as a person and the qualities that people are maximally able to relate to you with, combined with an outlet for directing that attention--either to a product, a service, or a website. The line between person and product I feel is blurred. Person becomes product. Person becomes larger than life, more than they actually are. I've felt a certain lack of authenticity and I fear that one of the only ways to correct the problem is not to engage at all. Simply being a social voyeur without posting exposes you to these same qualities in others, and as we imitate those we see, still bear some of those same aspects outward into broader life.

Especially at the Arnold this weekend, it was near impossible to distinguish someone's words from their intentions. Why are you offering this to me? Why are you talking to me? Why do you want a picture with me? I felt skeptical at many turns. It was not the place or the time for meaningful interaction. 

There is no need to narrate my life to a broader audience. There are things I would love sharing, but there is no need. There is no need to even have a social account, this thing we all willingly engage to participate in, and yet feel forced to display a certain type of content, frequency of interaction, consistency of lighthearted character. It's a choice, and if I have at times forgotten that, so have many others. 

Additionally, I've felt that I don't belong to the community of powerlifting and fitness, that there is a distance and a lack of love or care from many outside a closer group of friends. This is complex and I don't know the root, because the alienation is partly related to me not sharing myself more about how I am really feeling, but also about not having meaningful exchanges on a regular basis with people. Again I've felt an object, and I realize I don't have to feel that way. Instagram and Facebook are a huge way of how people connect though, and I remember the analogy that we are each armed with a megaphone all speaking as if on a hilltop to other people, instead of talking directly to someone else as an apt way to describe what social platforms can be. 

Partly because of this, because of the fact that I work from home, train alone much of the time, talk to few people, and really only know a small handful of people, I've felt quite alone lately. Especially when in my head I feel those relationships, the heat from that fire keeping me warm, is threatened. If I have warmth from a fire, I feel I can be a good and creative and amazing human. I must realize and reaffirm to myself that I am worthy of love, of life, of real and true support.

Anyway, this is how I feel at present and I'd like to experiment with some changes to see if I can feel and be better. I'd like to work with a sports psychologist and share my feelings with, change how I interact with people in the broader world, change my thoughts on training generally, and change my thoughts on competing specifically. I still do want real interactions, I crave them. I feel fragile and lost still at the risk of losing what I perceive is a part of my identity, and in changing many deeply ingrained habits. Thanks to the people who know they deserve it, as I strive to be a better version of myself always. 

Bryce Lewis