A couple weeks ago, in attempting a snatch, I threw the bar behind me for the first time. As the bar flew backwards, and with no weight to counterbalance me, I fell forwards onto the wooden weightlifting platform. I landed on the same knee that I destroyed when I got my first adult bike, and was failing to learn how to not get my front wheel caught in railroad tracks in Boston. Those falls had torn more and more away from the front of my knee; the skin has essentially been replaced by a big, blotchy, shiny patch of scar tissue.
I haven’t thought of cycling much recently, other than in a spectating sense, but the fall reminded me of the mental fortitude that’s forced on you when you ride alone enough. The kind of resilience you develop when you end up having to pull yourself out of sometimes awful situations on dead legs, fully aware that help – in any form – isn’t coming. Cycling often requires a good dose of “I’ll figure it out if it happens” and the willingness to get lost, with the faith that you’ll find your way back because you got yourself into this damn mess in the first place. It’s probably why cycling is a sport particularly appealing to lone wolf types; personalities that are open to hectic, solo ventures, who like to go to places you really shouldn’t on two wheels.
But cycling never taught me confidence. It was, instead, insecurity in my ability and speed that fueled training rides and trainer sessions. I wanted, desperately, to be better, faster, stronger, because so many people had said that I was too slow, too heavy, too whatever to be a “decent” cyclist, and I’d believed them. The reality is that you can do a lot with cycling even with the debilitating insecurities that I had. It fuels the dieting, the training rides in winter, the hours spent on a trainer. Because if you’re convinced you’re not good enough, you try harder.
I took that mentality with me into CrossFit, then weightlifting. It worked, for about seven months. Since late December, my snatch 1 rep max stubbornly stayed at a measly 30kg. No amount of strength training seemed to work to pull anything over 30kg over my head. I leaned into my insecurities, trying to stoke the fire that fueled rides, trying to bully myself into raising my 1 rep max. Instead, my doubt creeped into my lifts. I would psyche myself out once 30kg was loaded onto the bar and my form would fall to pieces. I held back tears of frustration in class. I considered quitting a lot.
Something changed around late April; the box offering daily weightlifting classes and an additional coach who seemed to see something that could be salvaged were two big ones. At one class, paired up with a friend, K.H., who is significantly stronger than me, I kept missing that 30kg snatch. We were supposed to do sets of two, but I’d get under the bar maybe once, only to have it crash in front of me the second time. In the end, I never got that two rep set, but for once, it wasn’t not fun trying. Plus, I got something a lot better. After K.H. got a new two rep max, she watched me again fail another attempt.
“What’s impressive,” she said, “is that you’ve lifted 30kg like 50 times.”
I realized then that I’d been looking at weightlifting entirely the wrong way. Missed lifts, until K.H.’s comment, had been failures. All I was seeing were non-reps and reinforcement of my belief that I couldn’t do it. The other side of those missed reps was acclimatization to a weight I’d only been able to pull once or twice. It actually blew my mind.
Her comment was undoubtedly a part of my piling on 5kg to my snatch two rep max in the space of a month. Another part of that was the observation that I was lifting scared.
“You’re still catching the bar in a safe place,” my coach said, “be more aggressive. Get under it like you know you’re going to catch it.”
Unlike riding, the scenery never changes with weightlifting. The adventure is always the same: you, a barbell, and a bunch of heavy plates. There’s no risk of getting lost and having to find your way – physically, anyway – home. There’s no mess to get out of, no situations where a cell phone barely works and you’re hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere.
But weightlifting starts with a brash belief that you can, one more time, launch an uncomfortably heavy barbell high enough to get under it, often while your whole body feels like deadweight. It requires, before you step up to the bar, that you not only believe you can make the lift, but you execute with that confidence. That you dive under a potentially lethal barbell with the conviction that you’ll catch it, or at least, not drop it on your head.
All the training in the world ultimately doesn’t mean shit if you lift scared. So I started to fall, diving aggressively enough to throw the bar back and slam onto my knees. It makes missed lifts look a lot worse than they actually are – usually, you just end up with some impressive bruises – and there’s a weird sense of confidence in knowing that you tried lifting that weight with no fear. That you somehow managed to wipe the slate clean of doubt, insecurity, the knowledge that your muscles are close to dead, and replaced it, for a brief second, with pure faith.
A million thoughts still run through my head as I approach the barbell, about form, triple extension, where my weight should be, my elbows. “What the hell,” I think, as I grab the bar with hands white with chalk. I vaguely imagine completing the lift before all thought drains from my brain and I’m pulling, falling, diving to catch another snatch.