The Tear

There were two shots. They were close together, and they rang through my arm into my throat, dissonant piano chords announcing change. When you lift, and you have been doing it for a little while, your mind does many things at once. You probably don’t know how much your mind does at once as the bar travels through space–I don’t, really, most of the time–until you are deadlifting 460 pounds and on your second rep your bicep tears. I felt two shots through my arm and, in the space of a single second, as the bar returned to the ground, recognition, cause and effect, timeframes, and consequences exploded through my mind. I know these things all registered within one second because when the plates and bar impacted the floor I stood up from the lift and was frozen by the magnitude of change.
It’s not uncommon to see saccharine pictures of flowers or a sunset emblazoned with sentiment along the lines of “be grateful for what you have because everything can change in an instant” as you scroll through your social media feed of choice. You probably don’t even really read it or see it anymore, it becomes background noise, just like most of the things running through your mind as you perform a squat set. We don’t see what we’re not looking for, and we don’t look for things we don’t know are coming. 

Day Four Ish
Day Seven –yellow is actual skin coloring not shitty photo quality.
 
The bruise started blooming towards the inside of my arm three or four days out from Day One. At first I took the bean-sized spot as encouraging–it had already been a few days, doesn’t the bleeding and pooling start sooner than that? Is this all the blood there would be? Can’t be that bad. Then it grew as Days Five, Six, and Seven moved on. It was ugly. It wasn’t huge, it wasn’t as black or as dense as some photos of pec and hamstring tears I had seen, but it was without doubt bleeding from some sort of tear or tears. The funny thing was, it was on the inside of my arm. If I lifted my arm to show someone the bruising, I was greeted with winces and usually expressions of “oh, shit” or similar. If I didn’t, aside from the fact that I couldn’t really hold my arm normally at my side when standing or walking, aside from the fact that if you looked at one bicep and then the other, it was clear there was something wrong with the shape of my right one, aside from the fact that if I shook my arm vigorously the mass of previously connected muscle shuddered and jostled its way along my humerus like the deadweight it was, aside from the fact that I had to juggle all grocery bags onto one arm and barely open doors with the other, aside from the fact that I winced when people expected me to hold those same doors open for them–aside from all those things, the arm wasn’t very obvious. I went for days in my own gym without people knowing what had happened, and in a gym where discussion of someone’s squat miss a few days ago or who is sleeping with how many other who’s is regular fodder for a training session whether you like it or not, I consider this a feat. People don’t see what they’re not looking for, and they don’t expect change until it happens. I didn’t. 

But now it has. At least for a while. I thought about waiting to write this until I had a clearer idea of what was going to happen. But it was a fairly slow fight to get myself inside of an orthopedic office given the severity of the injury. What will be far slower or perhaps not happen at all is approval from insurance for coverage–not full coverage, of course, but maybe half? I don’t know–of an MRI. I do not know what my lifting future looks like without an MRI. I don’t know if only muscle is torn–maybe–or if tendon is ruptured enough to warrant surgery–very definitely maybe. 

I don’t know of a single other woman in powerlifting who has experienced a bicep tear. I know of a lot of the more high-profile bicep tears in powerlifting and strongman–all men. I’m sure it has happened at some point, but for now, I take a strange pride in the fact that I get to stand alone as a total weirdo–not a status that is totally foreign to me. 

I am already in the gym lifting. I squat three times a week. I do every single lower body exercise I can think of that does not require suspending weights from my hands. I also am now doing some upper body movements–some very strange, like rows with straps attached to my upper arms, or “reverse push-ups” off my elbows that are actual a lat/upper back movement. I do band work. I do anything my body can handle right now. To anyone who takes some sort of triumph in my obstacle, it is a sad person indeed who feels victory only when the opponent is handicapped. To anyone who feels pity: I don’t want it, it is useless to me, you can keep it. Save your pity for people who cannot rise when they are knocked down. Save your pity for people who quit when they are faced with walls instead of scaling them. When I say that I will stop my pursuit of this when a gun is leveled at my head and fired, I mean it. I’m not going to stop. Watch. 

For the not faint-of-heart, here’s video: https://youtu.be/Thc4yprkQAc

When to Stop Bulking and Other Moral Quandaries

I have gotten the question “so when do you decide you’re going to stop putting on weight during a bulking period?” multiple times. The really key word here is “decide.” You may be thinking to yourself “well duh, obviously, that was the question, that’s the verb in the question, that’s really key lol” but in a fitness industry in which “bulking” can mean multiple things and can play multiple roles in multiple strength sports–and today I’m going to include bodybuilding and its various iterations in the category of strength sports even though my powerlifter heart is all “no no stop please it’s not RIGHT” (no hate, physique people, I just think that because you’re not tested on strength in competition, you aren’t really doing a strength sport BUT you do strength movements and your body responds to them in various ways just like strength athletes experience so you get to be part of the party today too). Now, let’s say you could treat all human beings touching barbells and dumbbells and cable machines and kettlebells and so many other implements as robots. The question of how to run bulking and cutting cycles would become much easier. Get baseline numbers, set up moderate surpluses or deficits, and off you go tracking and measuring away. 

I definitely don’t strict press like a robot. Sigh.

The reason the question regarding how long to run a bulking phase is a more difficult one–particularly, I have noticed, for many women–is primarily because of extremely complicated psychological relationships to food and body image. So let’s use myself as an example. Let’s say that I decide, based on my height and my body’s inclination to put on weight (aka I am not a “hard gainer” although I sort of believe that is a mythical phrase or at least that very few human bodies are hard gainers, rather circumstances make for hard gaining), that competing at 148 is a better weight class for me in the long-term than 132. Keep in mind I compete in federations that allow 24 hour weigh-ins and water cuts are standard practice. If I know for a fact my body can very comfortably drop 6-7 pounds of water (anything above that starting to get more complicated/requiring more sustained “sweat out” methods of water loss) then that means that in theory I can walk around at a lean 155 and easily make 148. Notice that is a “lean” 155. In theory, were I to reach a more optimum body composition for the 148 weight class, I would likely spend some of my offseason time between meets allowing my weight to come up to a softer 160-163 or so. I am more than 20 pounds lighter than 163 pounds right now. Looking at that spread of numbers, I could react in a few different ways: 

1: as a robot. If I am dedicated to the sole goal of being the best 148-class lifter I can be, I can subscribe to trying to lift at an elevated bodyweight–substantially above what I weigh now–for a significant period of time to maximize strength gains and give myself the best shot at remaining healthier as a strength athlete. This would mean carrying a body fat percentage that, for at least a few years, would likely be higher than I have been living with during even my heaviest bodyweights of the last four years.  No cutting phases, bodyweight always elevated, even potentially competing several times as a light 165-er as I work to fill out for the 148 class. The “robot” part of this would come from ignoring what would most likely be psychological discomfort at size and body fat increases. And given my reaction to my body when I competed recently as a light 148, “discomfort” is probably putting it mildly.

2. Do the above but include periodic cutting phases. Some would argue this would result in better body composition in the long run. Based on my knowledge of this topic and my personal experience, I’m not totally convinced. I will tell you with absolute certainty that I have felt my strongest in training when my bodyweight has been in a surplus/upswing mode and my bodyfat levels higher. If I’m a strength athlete, particularly a female one, I am not convinced that ultimately being as lean as possible (which is not going to be stage lean but can actually come fairly close depending on individual circumstances) is the best way to go. While I do not compete in strongman, I do try to keep an eye on the sport and have some sense of what it means to train and live as an athlete within it. Strongman, like powerlifting–and I suspect perhaps even MORE than powerlifting–is a sport that actually rewards women for not being extremely lean in performance returns as well as lower levels of injury occurrence . So training at a steady elevated weight as opposed to going through aforementioned periods of cutting would potentially be more rewarding overall for the female strength athlete. But periodically cutting could aleviate body image discomfort which, if acute enough, could actually have mental impact on performance in training. See how complicated this shit gets? Because we’re not robots. 

So those are two approaches to dealing with trying to move up a weight class, to managing weight in reation to a weight class, and/or deciding if ending a bulk is the right decision. If you work with a coach, I strongly, strongly suggest discussing the issue with him or her. If your coach is worth the money you’re paying for his or her services, and if your coach wants you to succeed, it is in your coach’s best interests to give you the time and careful consideration in discussing both mental and physical factors in this process. 

The face you make when you are judging your belt hole number.

I’d like to turn now to a concept I alluded to in titling this post: body composition and morality. No, I’m not kidding. I watch enough lifting in social media and read enough content in which people talk about weight, size, body composition, and eating habits both in and out of this industry to feel very confident in saying that bodyfat levels/being in a caloric surplus/gaining size is a strange stage upon which people sometimes act out their deeply entrenched ideas of what is “good” and what is “bad.” It is not particularly hard to find rhetoric coming from a female athlete that expresses justification for her weight gain. The connection between excess weight and “laziness” that permeates larger western culture fuels posts showing female bodies that are softer than in prior months around contest time being accompanied by text such as “offseason: time to GROW” or pictures of both bodies and the high-calorie foods they have ingested carrying popular taglines like “GAINZ, BITCH.” “Lol Janis, you’re reading too much into this stuff,” you say? Duh. That’s what we do in cultural commentary–we look for what’s driving popular modes of expression. 

And while yes, it would be so great if we could all just mind our own business and do our own thing with our bodies and not worry what other people are doing, I am in the business of figuring out how to become the best version of myself as an athlete I can become. Want to know how to shortcut that process if you’re trying to do the same thing? You look at people who are excelling or at least doing well at what you’re trying to do or you feel like you relate to them because you see something similar in them to something in yourself or you want to be them in some way or a combination of any of the above. You wade through social media to find these people because this is one of the ways social media can be a tool for good–a tool useful to you–and not a tool for evil. And I’m not saying you are trying to copy someone else if you’re doing this productively, but rather you are trying to take bits and pieces and put them together into the composite that you are made up of, because this is what social creatures do even if they want to be delusional and insist they don’t give a damn about what anyone else is doing. 

Unfortunately, it is in that process of wading through the instagrams and the snapchats and the Facebook posts to pull what is useful to you as you try to figure out what the hell to do with your body and what you actually want and what’s important to you that you see a lot of junk, you see a lot of falseness, and you see a LOT of shit that is not the full story. Whenever you see rhetoric that suggests some action is “good,” or “bad,” that is your signal to go on alert. Because if you don’t, you’re going to absorb things that are going to make it a lot harder to make the best decisions for yourself. And the first step I want to take towards not being part of the junk  is to stop using rhetoric in future posts that suggests excess body fat is a damning state of being. I am not celebrating it, but I sure as hell am not disparaging it, because doing the latter corrupts how many women approach what can be a very essential part of progressing as a strength athlete. I also will continue to make an effort to be as authentic about what I am doing as a strength athlete as possible, and this includes continuing to tell you when it is difficult for me to mentally be in my own body. 
Here’s to being aware. 

In Honor of Chyna And Selfies

I don’t know film. I don’t know how to describe why the image quality of a TV show looks different than that of a big budget movie looks different than that of a Hallmark channel miniseries–but I know they all have a different visual quality. I mean, I know HD exists, so there’s that. So when I see a clip of WWE’s former female fighter icon Chyna striding across the screen towards the ring, I recognize that clip as depicting a woman with actual muscle on what looks like an actual major television production. The color, the saturation of it, the sharpness, the frame rate. Something makes seeing Chyna’s broad frame captured forever on film a really big deal for me. And it was, years ago, when I saw clips of her in commercials as a child. That was all the exposure I ever remember getting to the WWE–in my household, we didn’t really “do” that. But I saw her, this not-frail, mean-looking, growling warrior of a woman. And something resonated very deep within me and settled in for a long ride up til yesterday, the day I learned Joanie Laurer had died. 

Because the thing is, very rarely are women with appreciable amounts of muscle like Chyna sported in her WWE career on TV or movies–period. In televised sports, maybe, although that is still a rarity because the number of sports where it make sense for a woman to either have an appreciable amount of lean mass or be exposed appreciably while having a lot of lean mass that are actually televised widely are few to none. Having crossed into territory where almost no strength sports classify me as a “lightweight” in the light, middle, or heavyweight scale, the amount I feel my body type or size is represented in media is basically zero. I have realized this before and silenced the realization before I really allowed it to take hold because how dare I suggest that I, a white woman, am underrepresented? Then I remembered–and it would be good for the reader to remember this too–there is a difference between representation and marginalization and discrimination. And I feel like I can make a pretty strong case that women REGARDLESS of ethnicity who have significant amounts of muscle–PARTICULARLY in their upper bodies–are very, very seldom represented much less idealized in media. I mean any media. Indie films? Lol no. Reality TV? No. Soap operas? No. Movies? Also no. 

And spare me the “well this one time Jessica Biel got a lot of press for having some muscle” because I remember this because I’m old and I went off on a Google search for this and searching through the “Jessica Biel arms” image bank I pulled really didn’t impress me. Like, if this is what I’m supposed to consider significant amounts of upper body muscle–and I chose this image because it appears to be a more candid/I’m a fan taking a candid picture of this chick while she’s autographing stuff and it’s not photoshopped–then I say we all pack it in with this argument now. 

  
Now, I feel like I shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer–I’M NOT DISPARAGING HOW BIEL LOOKS. Dude, she looks great, yay! Ok! Let’s move on. I’m saying that if this is the best we can do in terms of representing a female body that has SERIOUSLY developed muscle, then it is no wonder women are turning to the phenomenon of the selfie to create their own damned ideals. 

That’s right, I said it. I think selfies aren’t always just a sign that the people taking them are vain bored shitheads. My theory on The Selfie, and I think there are actual scholarly theories that champion roughly this same argument, is that a lot of us are just trying to depict ourselves in a way that creates the ideal we don’t see, well, anywhere. Sure, I see it in other selfies. I see women that sort of look like me in supplement advertisements, but not really, because haha I don’t have implants and I am not that lean right now and my shoulders are REALLY wide and my hips are REALLY narrow and I just don’t really ever see anyone who’s posed as an “ideal” who is proportioned like that. Well, I mean, I guess guys are. So I, a female human who definitely identifies as a woman on the gender as well as biological sex side of things, get a lot of feedback that the way my body is shaped aligns me closest to, uh, a guy. And I’m not a guy. I’m a woman and I have enormous shoulders and huge stupid biceps and it’s like I have to make a case for fitting into a female ideal that I don’t fit into by, I guess, shrinking? Or changing my bone lengths? Because I can put a dress on this shit and those things aren’t going to change and it’s just going to look like a woman who has more things going that fit into a male ideal than a popularized female ideal. So…I guess I’m going to take selfies so I can have a tiny little collection of images on my Instagram that show a world where someone other than Gal Gadot gets cast as Wonder Woman.  

I have always, always felt like a freak. When I was younger, I had a condition that basically resulted in my bones growing much slower than the rest of my body developed, which meant that for a few years during elementary and middle school I was extremely short. Short to the point where my parents took me to the doctor to see what was wrong with me. People would toss me around for fun on the playground–I remember being unceremoniously dropped on the pavement during more than one of these “Janis is a rag doll, let’s play with her” episodes. In high school, I developed severe anorexia and walked around looking like Golem AKA the freak from Lord of the Rings. I started lifting later in college and transitioned into this brand of freak. I have never not been a freak, I have never seen myself echoed in some ideal in a movie or a show or an album cover or an advertisement–ANYWHERE. Well, actually, there was the time with the one boyfriend where he told deeply anorexic Janis that I had this “eating disorder physique” a lot of girls would kill [themselves] for.” That was a pretty concrete message that I refer back to periodically today. 

So sometimes I take selfies and marvel at how I’m the only person who can take a photograph of me that I don’t hate. I used to think this was some sort of sorcery, like I was picking the parts of reality I liked best and pastiching them together into a fragile delusional world where just one ugly image in some party candid would have me facing the actual reality of my looks–and I was at least somewhat right about that. But I now think that selfies might be one of few ways I have of taking how I look and forcing my own ideal into being with it. I own the content. I place the content where I choose. I understand that once an image is online it is there for people to repost, reuse, pick apart, link to, save, jack off to, whatever. But I put it there first. And I PUT IT THERE. That image of broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, breastless, monster-backed Janis is adding yet another dimension to the overwhelming fray of visual culture. And if I knew that doing so would have the same kind of impact as seeing Chyna, way back at something like eight years old on a television screen and then seeing her again yesterday would have on someone else who feels lack of representation as it had on me, being accused of vanity and narcissism and whatever else would be worth it. RIP Chyna, and here is my fucking huge bicep.