Note: this blog post discusses domestic abuse and calorie control.
I was actually warned with a threat from my ex-partner against writing this story. So I thought very carefully about publishing this at all. I feel physically safer now, but I shouldn’t take that for granted. I got advice from several friends who said that I should go ahead.
I’m not writing about him, but about my lessons from the sport that I’ve followed. I hope that me writing this will not only help me, but maybe readers too.
When you break up with a person, they no longer get to have any say over what you do. It doesn’t work like that. But I want you to know the context in which I’m putting this out.
I was never sporty by choice as a kid, but as a young adult I began to learn how a sport could help me to do other non-sport things.
I wanted to learn how to cultivate and use aggression. Naturally I’m pretty chill, but in my working life I was part of defensive campaigns to try and protect services and jobs. They were a form of combat.
The first sports that I chose were martial arts (karate for a short time, and silat) and boxing. Pop culture and proximity both played a part in my choice, as there was a fighting gym across the street.
My boxing training made me extremely fit. This had never been my plan, but was a positive outcome, that ultimately led me into becoming a personal trainer. It also pushed me to stop smoking. Two great health benefits.
The emotional lessons were what I was really after though, and there were lots.
- How to handle and push through fear. This was a regular one.
- Experiencing failure and embarrassment, and bouncing back from it. Try showing up to the gym again when you cried involuntarily in the previous session. Shame will tell you, ‘never go back’.
- Having a try even when the odds are against you. Go up against someone much bigger and better than you, and see what you can do.
When my little sister suffered a coma and serious brain injury (not sport-related), boxing stopped being ‘the thing’ for me. I couldn’t risk head trauma of my own, but I also felt that something significant had changed inside me. I no longer felt any urge to be aggressive, to attack or even counter attack. I felt instead that with a new found role as a carer thrust upon me, I needed to be supportive, and enduring. There wasn’t room for me to exist in both modes.
I loved martial arts though, so I tried out Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ) for a few months, as a brain-friendly alternative. BJJ is an amazing and absorbing sport, that for many people becomes more like their life partner. I was learning to drive and trying to arrange a care placement for my sister at the same time. Although I trained at least 3 times a week, I found that each session I was struggling to recall what I’d done the time before. I admitted defeat and accepted that it was too much to take in, given the other demands on me at that point. BJJ can be a journey of transformation and self-discovery that I would truly love to know. If I rewound my life back to youth to have a second go, I’d be a multilingual breakdancing BJJ player. But that’s just a fantasy, and I’ll have to find a different path.
If boxing is simple with 6 punches, then powerlifting is 50% simpler. Only 3 lifts. What could something so basic possibly have to teach me?
As I studied for my Level 3 Personal Trainer diploma, I was training more regularly than ever before with a barbell, and really enjoying it. As many readers will know, the early days of lifting bring quick gains. Things were going pretty well! For most of us, this is quite a rare thing to be able to say about many other aspects of our life. Lifting progressively more weight several times a week is one healthy way to get that dopamine hit of… success.
Aaaaaand, who knew, there is a sport where the training is the actual sport. Powerlifting. Perfect for me, the boxer who only really excelled at the burpees.
With so many things going on in my life – caring, at times working two jobs, studying, activism, relationships – a simple sport was just what the doctor ordered.
As I became more acquainted with the barbell, an unexpected new problem entered the landscape. One day at the gym, one of the PTs commented to me as I deadlifted that I needed some chalk. My strength was there but my grip was letting me down. Of course! I ordered myself a bag of rockclimbing chalk off eBay.
When it arrived, I was stunned to find that my partner was furious. He said that if I needed chalk, the weights I was lifting were too heavy. I actually thought he was joking at first. This was the person who first encouraged me to become a group fitness instructor. But he wasn’t. His objections seemed weird and unreasonable. I put it down to a feeling of his own that he was struggling with, like low self-esteem, and thought, well that’s something that we can discuss further.
I never considered actually competing until it was suggested by Pat Reeves, West Mids secretary for the small powerlifting federation the BDFPA. I had invited Pat (as well as Cat Smith from the biggest federation the GBPF) along as a guest to the 2018 UNISON Regional Games.
I enjoy a challenge, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and having something to work towards. So I joined up and started making a basic plan of how to train, eat and rest to maximise my performance on a comp day.
A powerlifting competition or meet consists of carrying out 3 attempts, each progressively heavier, of a squat, bench press and deadlift, in front of judges and an audience, wearing a giant adult babygro.
You are aiming to lift the maximum possible weight that your body can manage. As strength is a quality that develops progressively, this means that your competition attempts may well – hopefully – be more than you’ve ever lifted before in training at the gym. So there is an intimidating element of the unknown. You are about to try something very difficult publicly, that you don’t know for sure you will be able to do. The training process and creating the optimal conditions for the body to adapt and strengthen are your path to success at the competition.
The good thing about powerlifting is that although a select few will be strong enough to place in the top 3, each lifter can measure their own success against their previous performance.
For my first comp my good friend Karen (Deadlifts and Red Lips) came with me. Karen had competed in powerlifting before and had been giving me some pointers in the run up. I was still very new to the sport, having only got myself a proper lifting belt one month before the meet. I did a bit of googling on how to peak (getting your nervous system used to lifting close to your 1 rep max) and pick your attempts. At that time I’d been following a well-known basic strength training template for a couple of months. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I hoped for some PBs (personal bests).
After weigh in, you refuel with food (flapjacks for me) and optional caffeine. A lot of powerlifters, me included, get through a whole bag of jelly sweets. I found that the adrenalin and excitement is a massive stimulant too.
I had a good day. I got a new squat PB of 90kg, which I was really happy with. I went a bit optimistic on bench press and missed my third attempt. I saw lots of other lifters do the same. I also got a new deadlift PB of 110kg. It was a blast. I loved watching other people hit their own big numbers. I felt great and went home that evening buzzing my face off, to feast on pizza and ice cream.
What were my lessons here?
- On a comp day, the adrenalin is an additional factor that powers you, which you don’t feel in the same way at the gym.
- This shit is fun!
- The buzz afterwards is out of this world!
- I’m doing this again.
‘Don’t get bigger!’
As I kept strength training, I felt the benefits throughout my life. I felt calmer, competent, more able to handle multiple difficult work and personal challenges and projects. I felt confidence in myself like I had never known before. But all the while the issues with my partner only got worse. On a semi regular basis he would freak out and shout at me about how he wanted me to stop lifting, saying spiteful things about my appearance. I was very happy with my body and others only had positive things to say too, not that that really matters, but he was the only person raising any objections to me becoming stronger.
You want your partner to be supportive, and at that point I thought this was something on me to address. He kept on saying, ‘I don’t want you getting any bigger’. My aim wasn’t actually getting bigger – hypertrophy. It was strength. So I thought I would prove that to him, by intentionally remaining the exact same size and weight. How could he object if I could show him on the scales that I was staying the same?
So I started a phase of powerlifting training while in a calorie deficit, or at most, calorie maintenance. It’s true that you can increase relative strength (strength relative to your body weight) without mass gain. But to increase absolute strength – the maximum weight that you can move – science says that the bigger your muscles are the better. A calorie surplus is ideal for strength development.
What I was doing here was a kind of nonsense, in the hope of making my partner less angry with me. I was holding back my strength potential, and it didn’t even have the desired effect. I was hungry a fair bit. Yes, I did get a little stronger, and I remained at the exact same size and weight. But still my partner was prone to outbursts of rage directed at me.
It wasn’t always about lifting. Sometimes it was about the other projects that I had going on, that he also objected to. Things that I had always loved and which were important to me. Personal dreams even. Whatever the cause for his anger, the result was the same in my body. A sad gnawing in my chest became a regular feeling. I felt bad that his mental health was clearly so fragile. I wanted to help him to feel better, but not at the expense of things that are good for my own mental health.
My focus was on what I could do to change the way he felt, rather than asserting my own needs and demanding that he treat me with more respect. When he said that me getting tearful when he shouted at me made things worse, I tried to stop myself from crying with self hypnosis, rather than stop him shouting at me… It was almost as if him having poor mental health was a get out clause.
I took part in a second regional powerlifting comp a few months later. This time I took two good friends/clients Eve and Naz as my hype/warm-up crew.
There were a couple of curve balls. By this time I was working as a PT at the local gym. I was loving it. Having a lot of fun, and finding that I was also really good at the work. It was going a lot better than I could have ever hoped or predicted.
My long term aim was to be able to run a training centre along with my partner, who was a coach himself. So you’d have thought he’d be really pleased at my progress. Instead it was another source of rage for him. I would often need to get up before 6am, and that would mean a bedtime of 10pm. He hated that. He wanted to stay up late drinking beer and listening to Neil Young. And he felt entitled to my company, even if it was going to impact on my health. What I thought were shared goals, felt like they were slipping further and further away. Often, he would have a massive go at me as I tried to go to bed, upsetting me and leaving me only able to sleep a tiny amount.
As the second comp approached, one night we were out on a date and my partner ended up saying some terrible bigoted things (not actually about me) which triggered a new response from me. For the first time, I myself felt fury within the relationship. I noted it and took no action. The comp was a few days away and things were already disrupted enough. I prioritised my own rest and stability and thought, I’ll channel this emotion into my powerlifting. I can consider my next move after the comp.
The day before the comp, I had not been resting well. I was run down, and an opportunistic infection took hold. To top it off, the night before the meet, I barely slept a wink. No arguments, it was just a busy mind. When the alarm went off in the morning, I felt wrecked.
I loaded up with caffeine, but you won’t be surprised to hear that my performance was disappointing. I started well with a new squat PB of 97.5kg. Again missed my 3rd bench, so still more to learn there about picking attempts. When it came to deadlifts I’d calculated that 115kg would be reasonable to try for. I started with 105kg and although I lifted it, it was harder than I expected.
Attempt 2 was 110kg, my 3rd attempt from last time. It was not budging off the floor.
For attempt 3, I could try again, or go heavier. You can’t drop the weight down. I tried again for 110kg, had a valiant strain, and failed again. I’m no stranger to public humiliation – from way back in my martial arts days. It doesn’t feel good. But it’s bearable. You have to put things into perspective and take the lessons.
What were my lessons here?
- The little things matter. Mental rest/peace, enough sleep, enough food. A caloric deficit for several weeks of my training period was not helpful.
- My body was trying to send me emotional messages about my relationship in the form of physical sensations. This is what’s known as intuition. I felt them, but at this point, I took no action.
- You can only get so far winging it with training templates and googling advice. At a certain point it becomes about maximising small, marginal gains, and a coach might be the best person to help with that refinement.
- In spite of my poor showing at meet 2, I had still increased my total, and qualified for the BDFPA Nationals. I knew I could do a lot better, but some things needed to change.
Life is heavy
I had a look at the BDFPA records for my weight. They were all held by someone called Bobbie Butters. I googled her. She was a strength coach herself, and by this point she’d left the BDFPA and was a GBPF record holder. So you know what my next step was, right? I hired her. I decided it was time to move beyond the arbitrary weight limit of my current category (I was objectively small, whatever my partner said) and move up into the next one. I got to work.
Working with Bobbie (and filming all of my main lifts) was just what I needed to help identify my weaknesses and improve my technique. By this point, strength training with a barbell was well and truly embedded into my life as something that I loved and which helped me to handle all the pressures of working, being a carer, and the turmoil that was my relationship. My lifting was a highlight of my week, every week. It was a very positive ritual. Every session brought new lessons.
Other things needed to change as well. In April 2019 I ended my relationship with my partner, after he finally crossed an absolute red line for me. On reflection, I endured a lot more than I should have, mentally and emotionally. But I was serious about honouring the commitment that I’d made. I wanted to try everything that I could to improve things before calling time. I also knew what a huge disruption it would be… and I had other things going on – two jobs and a caring role – that would be affected by that. So it was not a light decision. One day, he did something that finally tipped the scales to the point of no return.
For some weeks, things felt good. I was starting to sleep like a baby. My health was improving. I had major mixed feelings after 5 years being with this person, who I’d known for a total of 13 years. But mostly I felt like I’d done the right thing.
I was absolutely saved by the love and wisdom of a great group of friends, almost all women, at this time. Talking with my friends about their own experiences, as well as reading books by bell hooks and listening to podcasts, I at least began to see that although my relationship had started very positively, it been abusive for about a year and a half. And I learned just how common it was for women to be abused by a male partner. It was something that a majority of my friends could relate to. It’s likely the same picture among your own women friends.
The time after a breakup with an abusive partner is a dangerous one. True to form, my partner decided that revenge was deserved for my ‘wrongdoing’. One fateful day at the start of June, he threatened to kill me. I took his threats seriously as I knew he was very capable of violence. I got away from my home. That was the 100% right thing to do. He went there, broke in, and trashed up my stuff with two training machetes, with a few sinister and chilling creative twists. He then fled.
I had no choice but to leave my flat, as I clearly wasn’t safe there. Again, I was overwhelmed with the solidarity of friends. One mate offered to put me up, and although I was technically homeless, I considered myself very lucky to have a temporary bed on her sofa. All my other stuff went into storage.
I had gone from long-term emotional stress and exhaustion from a punishing work schedule and a damaging abusive relationship, to feeling freer, more peaceful and healthier. Now began a brand new phase of the deepest stress I had ever known, laced with fear. Insomnia was through the roof and now here was also nightmares, muscle tension, jaw clenching, visual disturbances and digestive problems.
At a time like this, changes are essential to get things back on track physically and emotionally. My trade union employer was extremely supportive. I took the time to practise yoga on an almost daily basis. One thing that I was not about to change was my lifting. If anything, now I needed that 2 hours of simple focus 4 times a week more than ever.
Nationals was only about 7 weeks away when my ex-partner threatened to kill me and made me homeless. I was damn well still going to Nationals!
It came time to make my way up to Edinburgh, and I tried to implement all the lessons of my past comp setbacks as best as possible. I’d been doing everything possible to help with better sleep, and that had included getting some prescription sleeping tablets. I’d been consciously sparing with these, to make sure I had a great sleep the night before the comp.
The day itself was very intense. It was hot and overwhelming. And it came for me in the middle of probably the most intense period of my life so far. Things started really well as I got a new squat PB of 102.5kg and felt over the moon with that milestone. From that point, my mental game ran away with me. I was a bit all over the place.
Bench press is probably my best lift. And I let myself down pretty badly, not with my strength but by technically failing on the commands. Attempt 2 was 55kg. It moved like it was a warm up, but I pressed it too soon. Once it touches the chest, you have to wait for the ref to shout ‘press’ before you press back up. It’s not complicated! Kicking myself was an understatement. However, I still had attempt 3 to go. Bobbie and I both agreed that 62.5kg was doable, and it could have been… But I messed that one up by lowering the bar too quickly, without control. There wasn’t enough tension generated for me to get the weight back up. No lift.
My best bench on that day was 47.5kg, and with that I was totally out of the runnings for placing anywhere in the top 3.
While my bench press is better than a lot of lifters my size, my deadlift is less impressive. I’d hoped to possibly hit 117.5kg at Nationals. Deadlifts had been feeling amazing in the gym. By the time it came to deads on the day though, I’d misjudged my food intake and was feeling really bloated and not at all athletic. My first two attempts were a surprising struggle. I was just out of gas. We revised attempt 3 down, and I cranked out an ugly, rounded 115kg. That felt significant as it was the target I’d failed to hit at my second comp.
To say I was kicking myself would be an understatement. I’d hoped to do a lot better, and felt that I’d let both myself and Bobbie down with schoolboy errors. Somehow, I had still increased my total and got 2 new PBs.
What were my lessons here?
- Nobody has the right to disrespect you, no matter their mental health status.
- If somebody venomously hates you doing something that feels so positive and important to you, they might not be the right partner for you. Hard though this might be to consider. Your partner should want you to be your best.
- Your body sends you messages about what feels right and wrong. Don’t ignore red flags early on. It’s easier to cut something off at the early stages. I will share some important resources at the end of this blog post.
- You’ve got to get the basics right. Just focus on the damn commands.
- ‘Nothing burns hotter than the heat of failure.’ – Kayla Harrison. A repeat lesson! Kayla in turn follows the words of Michael Jordan – ‘Find fuel in failure.’
- The strength is built by your previous work in the gym. What really matters on comp day is the mental approach that you bring.
- A bit of tweaking was needed to my comp day eating.
- I did really well in showing up for myself during a period of massive turmoil, by maintaining a disciplined practise that I loved (two if you count yoga). Still having fun in spite of some really difficult circumstances.
I asked Bobbie about her approach to comp psychology, and she recommended a book called the Champion’s Mind by Jim Afremow. Bobbie gets very hyped up before she lifts. I suspected that approach was not quite right for my personality. I needed to develop my own style of preparation that would not let me down.
The Tao of powerlifting
I left Edinburgh with mixed feelings, but mostly unsatisfied (and a little bit ashamed). I knew that I could do better and I felt a need to redeem myself. So I had a look at the remaining BDFPA comps coming up in 2019, and signed up for one more. I knew that my lifting at Nationals was far from my best. I wanted to have another go at implementing all of the lessons learned so far.
My training period between July and December was still brutally hard. I had court proceedings to navigate, loads more insomnia, the work of sustaining my business, an arsehole former landlord to battle with. And in the last few days before the meet, after 6 months of homelessness, finally moving into a new flat – and a new training studio – mostly single handedly! To say I worked like a dog would be an understatement. So it was not the most restful of times. Caloric surplus was a challenge. I listened to my body, and eventually, reluctantly, I had to cut back on my voluntary political activism commitments while I sorted out all of these changes.
In the past I’d been a regular meditator, and loved the habit, but I’d fallen out of it. Someone recommended the Headspace app two week free trial as an easy way to get back into a daily pattern. Headspace has a lot of content, including sport specific stuff by NBA athletes. I rinsed it to be fair.
Lifting sessions were very variable. Sometimes I made brilliant progress, other times (often exhausted) I was forced to scale plans for that day right back, or even cut a session short. The important thing was that I was listening closely to my body and doing the right thing for that moment. And I stayed positive, appreciating what a difficult time it was, grateful for the strength and skill that I would never take for granted.
Eventually meet day arrived. I was satisfied that I’d done my best to get ready, and that I was completely committed to not repeating past mistakes. This time I had to journey to Suffolk for the comp, and I would be going alone. It felt kind of symbolic.
My goals were: to redeem myself on my beloved bench press, and to improve my mental focus.
I meditated the night before, and slept well. I arrived at Brandon Leisure Centre and met up with some of the welcoming and supportive Iron Ladies UK community.
Right from the off I started to treat every single warm up rep as if it was my final attempt. I actually even treated my warm up movements without the bar with the same degree of concentration. And every rep was the same as a rep in the gym. I knew what to do. Nothing was out of the ordinary. I just had to repeat One. Step. After. Another. And do it well.
Just do the next right thing. I got that one from Kortney Olson.
What’s the next thing to do?
Right, what’s next?
Place the butt. Arch the spine. Place the shoulders. Pinch the bench. Ground the left foot. Ground the right foot. Squeeze the bar. Brace. WAIT……
I was super focused on the commands. And my Headspace binge noticeably helped with my focus! Each attempt, as I waited for the instruction ‘bar is loaded’, all I was thinking about was what was right in front of me. That was my breath. In. Out. In. Out.
Squat went well – I played it safe and repeated my top lift from Nationals, 102.5kg. This put me into a confident frame of mind for the rest of the day.
Bench I performed perfectly, each attempt like a textbook gym lift. 62.5kg was a PB, and it flew up like nothing. That felt fantastic. I knew it was a good lift for my weight, but I didn’t get wrapped up in where it placed me.
During the break before deadlifts, I listened to more sports meditation, and grazed carefully on falafel.
And when it was time to pull, I didn’t let any stories about past meets, or even past gym sessions pop into my mind. I just enacted each step of the set up, one after the other, calmly, and did my best. I wound up with a fresh feeling PB of 120kg. I was very happy indeed as I went to sit down. 9 for 9 (no red lights), a bigger total, two PBs, super focused – truly I thought that I could not have done better. I was really proud.
What were my lessons here?
- Treat every step of your training and preparation with as much attention as if it was an Olympic final. It all counts, so don’t skip through anything mindlessly. It’s a chance to rehearse how you want to perform. If you perform at your best (for that given day) all the time, it becomes just a case of repeating your normal.
- Meditation helped me massively with focus. I’m not a hype person. I need to be calm. I can be good at that. Hyping myself up is fake for me.
- Just eat small things gradually on comp day haha.
I had a surprise when it came to the medal ceremony, as it turned out I was the best female lifter of the day. So my best, was the best. Yeah, I got a massive trophy.
I had no thoughts whatsoever of winning or even placing at this meet. Even when I had finished I didn’t check the scores. In the Jim Afremow book it says, ‘don’t chase the win, let the win find you.’ That’s exactly what happened at this comp. I was over the moon with this outcome, after such a challenging year. I look forward to competing again in 2020. I’ve learned so much, and now that I’m settled into a new home, I can become stronger than ever before.
I hope some of the lessons that I’ve learned might help you too.
Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft (must-read book about the widespread behaviour patterns of abusive men)
Scene on Radio ‘MEN’ series http://www.sceneonradio.org/men/
The Freedom Programme (for domestic abuse survivors) https://www.freedomprogramme.co.uk/