Sunday, May 3, 2009

Sometimes Nothin's A Pretty Cool Hand - By Chuck Miller

Originally posted on the old NS site in 2001.

For those of you who might remember the classic film, Cool Hand Luke, the title of the article espouses the lead character’s philosophy of life. Luke bluffed his way to a big poker win and became the leader of his gang of prison cronies. What did Luke have in his hand? Nothin’! Oh no my friend, there’s where you’re dead wrong. Old Luke had something in his hand all right. He had the biggest ace of all up his sleeve - confidence. He knew he could fool that bunch of dopes, and with his attitude, success was nearly guaranteed.

Now, you can’t really fake your way in lifting, and I wouldn’t want you to anyway. You either have the strength to make the lift, or you don’t. But, my point is that many lifters have plenty of strength but lack confidence. Consequently, they create mental barriers and routinely miss lifts they should make easily. The muscle is already there, but the mind is not.

In addition, confidence extends beyond your belief in your ability to make one particular lift. It applies to your whole approach to training. Many lifters incorrectly see a missed lift as a sign that something is wrong with their training program. They then rush home and spend hours writing a new schedule, agonizing over details such as rest intervals, volume, exercise selection, etc. They decrease all their training weights to "get used to the new workout." Things go smoothly during the break-in period and the trainee brainwashes himself into thinking he has found the one system that will permit continual progress.

Guess what? As soon as the weights get heavy, he begins missing lifts and the panic sets in again. Oh, he may tough it out for a couple weeks, but it is only a matter of time until the program is scrapped and the process starts again. Maybe this is what they mean by "cycling." As former Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips has said, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it." More than likely, the problem is not the workout; it’s the lifter. He’s not willing to work hard and be patient long enough to realize gains. Worse yet, he has no confidence or belief that basic, infrequent workouts can possibly work. This insecurity is not completely his fault. Newsstand muscle magazines have bombarded him with useless programs and advice. If you’re reading The Dinosaur Files, HardGainer, or some of the other lesser-known publications, at least you’ve managed to stumble onto a different message.

One of the best tools for gaining confidence is to cultivate a sense of perspective. By this I mean, try to see the big picture. What will really happen if you miss this lift? Will your wife leave you? Will your boss fire you? What will happen if you make it? Will Randy Strossen come beating on your door for a MILO cover shot? Will you take your winnings and retire to a life of leisure on the beach? Hell no! Either way, you’ll go home, take out the trash, and feed the dog. In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. As a famous football player once said, "If the Super Bowl is so important, why do they play it every year?" Ah..., the burden is lifted. The weight of the world is removed from your shoulders and all that remains is that pesky little 600-pound bar. You are now free to drive it through the roof!

In addition to providing confidence, this sense of perspective will help you pace yourself for the journey ahead. You will go months with no progress at all. Despite using impeccable form, you will have injuries that limit your training. Family and work obligations will interfere with workouts. You won’t always get a good night’s rest or eat properly. Still, the grind must continue. As in a grueling 162 game baseball season, you have time to overcome these "slumps". You’ll even have hot streaks where everything is going right and all your lifts are increasing. But, I promise, they will be followed by these inevitable lulls. This is how it must be for success with the iron. You must pay your dues over the long haul.

Otherwise, everyone who touched a barbell would taste success. If it were easy to bench 400 pounds or squat 500 pounds, you’d see a hell of a lot more guys in gyms doing it. Perhaps then the allure of training wouldn’t be so great. After all, the true iron warrior relishes the challenge. He doesn’t want to lift weights any other sissy could lift. So, he piles weight on the bar that sits in that proverbial squat rack hidden in the corner of the gym while others scurry off to the triceps press-down rope. Those who persist and meet the challenge day after day for years on end will achieve seemingly unattainable goals.

But for every success story, there are hundreds of dropouts flapping away with 20-pound lateral raises. This is why you must maintain perspective. One workout, no matter how good or how bad, will not make or break your lifting success. While it is important to make each session the best it can be, you won’t set new PRs every time you enter the gym. If you bench pressed 300 pounds for five reps last week or last month, perhaps you will only make 3 or 4 reps on this night. Big deal, this is not the time to trash your whole program. It is the time to knuckle down - get a little more rest, eat a little better, focus a little more intensely. If you need to, back off for a week or two and make another run at this problem weight.

This way, you can tweak your program a bit without disrupting all the hard work you’ve invested. This journey is definitely not for the impatient or weak-minded. It is built upon years of hard work stacked in succession. So, the next time you approach a new max, doubting whether you have the strength to make the lift, step back and take a deep breath. Picture Luke with a twinkle in his eye and that carefree swagger. Nonchalantly he says, "I can eat 50 eggs."

If you make the lift, be humble. Take it in stride. Cool Hand Luke knows. He’s been around the block a time or two. The iron will win its share. If you miss, shrug it off and don’t allow your confidence to be shaken. Even the best defensive backs get beat for long touchdowns. This is not to imply that you take lifting lightly. You pulled on the bar ‘till they had to pry your hands away. That "never surrender" approach already confirmed your commitment. Just like Luke on the prison grounds, you took your beating and didn’t back down. Luke won George Kennedy’s respect with his toughness, and you pleased the Iron Gods with yours. Grimek, Cyr, Peoples, and the rest smile down in approval. There will be other days and other battles with the iron.

Next time, you’ll be better prepared. Your relentless drive to train will carry you through this plateau; it’s just a matter of when. That’s what progressive training is all about. You add weight to the bar when you can, building on past milestones. You don’t just walk in a gym and try to deadlift 500 pounds, having never even achieved 400. You build up to it over a long period of time, eventually hitting new records with 470, 480, etc. This way, when you finally get to 500, it’s only 10 or 15 pounds above your previous record. Now, you have past successes to add to your sense of perspective, which should boost your confidence even more. Yes, it may have taken 3 months to inch up that last 10-pound increment, but you made it; you persevered. The next 10 pounds will be conquered in much the same way. Hard work and patience will prevail, but you must understand the big picture to make this possible.

I’ll admit that you can’t go on forever like this. Time is the one battle no man really wins. But, you have many years in which to build. In fact, it is my firm belief that you’ll run out of desire before you run out of time. If you stay the course, you’ll lift weights you couldn’t have rolled across the gym floor when you started! Eventually, you’ll have had enough, and hopefully then you’ll pass on some of your knowledge to a wide-eyed beginner. But you’re not there yet so march your tail over to that squat rack, load up some weight, and start huffing like a steam engine.

Chuck below lifting the 250 pound Atomic Athletic granite stone at WST.

Confidence, perspective, and pace: three very important and interrelated mental tools in your lifting arsenal. Ignore them and you are likely to burn out quickly and suffer a frustrating exit from the Iron Game. Develop them and you are likely to have a long and fulfilling training career. And even on the days when you are feeling worst - when the tank is empty - don’t make excuses. Instead, remember someone you may know who did not stand a chance; someone who had the deck stacked against him, yet still summoned courage and confidence. Emulate that person. Then, maybe you too will have a day where nothin’ really is a cool hand.

Check out chucks website at
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