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Powerlifting and Philosophy: What phenomenology can teach us about meet preparation

Being a student at an extremely populated university gym, I’ve learned—repeatedly—of the sensorial impositions a congested area can have on one’s training. To call the shifty mass of bro that is our gym’s populous a “high-traffic area” would be an understatement. During my time here, I’ve had fellow gym patrons walk over my bar, under my bar, and even into my bar—these poor kids, born tragically without any sense of spatial awareness, have subsequently had to endure a permanent etching on my shit-list. I have even, on two separate occasions, had a university-employed personal trainer back into my face as I prepared to unrack a squat.

But this article isn’t about the everlasting patience necessary to train at a university gym. It is, rather, about what phenomenology—and, more pressingly, the concept of the sensorium—can teach us about meet preparation. I’m a stickler for details, and if you’re like me, you leave no stone unturned—or, for the purpose of this article, unsensed—in preparation for your powerlifting meets.

Phenomenology is the philosophy of mind-body and body-external world relationships; in this article, I’m concerned with the latter, as powerlifting is not simply a physical engagement with the world, but a sensory experience as well. The barbell sports of powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting are unique in that these sports are performed with another object as a constant extension of one’s being. For a bit of context, this is true also of sports such as race-car driving and surfing; the sporting body in these sports is therefore not understood in a strictly corporeal sense.

In powerlifting, the lifter achieves a physiopsychological extension into the world through the barbell. In other words, the “body” that you sense is no longer your own—the barbell becomes an extension of your own being. If this reads to you like philosophical bullshit, consider this example: whenever you drive a car, you achieve a similar extension into the world. When you navigate a crowded street or parallel-park, you can sense the contours of your car; if it’s a car you’ve been driving for a long time, this sensation becomes an engraved part of your experience as a driver. The body that you sense is no longer your own, but your car’s.

Well, the same is true in powerlifting. When a new lifter tries a compound movement with a barbell, the ensuing lack of coordination and technical incompetence is known by many names: unrefined motor patterns or a lack of “body awareness,” kinesthetic sense, or proprioception. But what these terms elide over is the fact that new lifters also suffer from a lack of body-barbell synchronization; like a new driver, they’ve yet to achieve what phenomenologists would term an extended Being-in-the-world, or the ability to sense the contours of an adopted object as an extension of the body.

But body-barbell synchronization doesn’t happen in isolation. It occurs within the world, or what I’ll refer to in this article as the sensorium: the sensorium is the sum total of external sensations that we are made privy to by being participants in a particular space. And this sensorium can, like a barbell, be familiarized or defamiliarized. Repetition allows us easier navigation of a space, which is why you, at some point in your life, have probably caught yourself driving in the opposite direction—perhaps this was to work on your day off—simply because you allowed your mind to go on auto-pilot. This is also why late-night trips to the bathroom are usually easily navigated.

(Unless, of course, you’re not sleeping in your own bed.)

But, I digress. A training space can also be made familiar to us, as can all of the other external stimuli that accompany it. Chances are, your gym has a codified spatial arrangement: benches go here, and squat racks go there, and that spatial arrangement doesn’t change (at least not often) over time. You’re likely always squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting in the same spaces, with the same surroundings. The soundscape you’re subjected to—in my gym’s case, it’s usually blasé Top-40 cranked down to a barely-audible decibel level—usually doesn’t change. And I’m not simply talking about what is played, but also how loud it’s played, and where the speakers are located.

Let me pose to you the following scenario: say, hypothetically, that we shrank your gym to the size of a Hong-Kong apartment. Let’s say that, additionally, we turned off every light, barring one single spotlight—shining down on you. And that music you so regularly play is played at twice the volume.

DOES YOUR TRAINING SUFFER?

I will be the first to admit that early on in my training at my university gym, I made egregious technical mistakes on many a squat simply because someone was spotting on a bench two-feet from my face, or someone else had decided to stand no more than a foot from the end of my barbell, talking casually to his bro-friends. Over time, I have learned how important developing sensorial familiarization and defamiliarization could be for my meet training.

At my first powerlifting meet, I had the anxiety-inducing experience of squatting on a platform. As a squatter born from the power rack, the fact that I had nothing around me was sensorially perplexing. And while I had traditionally squatted with a mirror or a wall in front of my face, what I had in front of me now was, well, nothing—I faced instead a sea of anonymous faces, a head judge, and the sensation of inhabiting open space.

And while in training I looked with my eyes straight forward, I quickly realized that the judge, seated a few feet in front of me, would require my attention for his commands. And the very fact that I had to look down at a spot threw me off, albeit only slightly.

While these insights might seem inconsequential to some, I’d content that the sensorial conditions of a powerlifting meet come into play because near-max or max weights are being attempted. Any small thing can throw your balance off, as I’ve learned the hard way.

SO, HOW MIGHT SENSORIAL FAMILIARIZATION BE USED IN MEET PREPARATION?

First, try, if only on occasion, to create in training the sensorial conditions of a meet.

• That means that if you’re someone who enjoys the comfort of a power rack, try doing some squatting out in open space. If you’ve never experienced the sensation of having a bunch of spotters draped over your barbell, waiting for you to fail, get some bodies at your gym to side-spot for some easy sets. Tell them to “stay close” while you practice ignoring their presence.
• Don’t make the beginner mistake of “over-walking” on your squat walk-outs. Beginning squatters, often afraid of hitting the j-hooks, will overcompensate by walking their squats out several feet. At a meet, not only will your spotters meet your long walk-outs with a lack of enthusiasm, but you’ll be wasting energy. Try closing the distance between yourself and the j-hooks so that you minimize the amount of energy used in your walk-out while still supplying adequate space.
• The same goes for the bench press—know your bar path well enough so that you can bench without letting the sensorial fear of hitting the j-hooks compromise your technique. Again, close distance while still supplying adequate space.
• If you deadlift in a cramped space, travel to a private facility every once in a while and pull on an open platform; or, if you’re a daring sort of ass-hole, make a clearing in your gym for your very special deadlift session.
• And in training, always look where you’ll need to look at the meet. Get used to having your eyes fixed where the head judge will be issuing commands for the squat and deadlift.

Sensorial defamiliarization can also be a useful training tool. Meets always throw new external stimuli at you—many lifters, for example, remark that they “never know where to look” when performing lifts in front of a crowd at their first powerlifting meet. Sometimes it’s the lighting that’s different; other times, it’s the soundscape. I’ve done meets in which the footing for the bench platform is slicker than what I’m accustomed to at my home gym, and the very fear of losing footing has caused me to under-utilize my leg drive. And then there’s the old joke that so-and-so missed a third squat because the lights were shining in his or her eyes.

So, anticipate the possibility of new external stimuli by forcing yourself into unfamiliar sensorial situations.

• If you have a favorite place to squat, bench press, or deadlift, bar yourself from those familiar confines for a few weeks at a time. Force yourself to perform these lifts elsewhere, so that you’re capable of adapting to a new environment. Learn what it feels like to be displaced from familiar surroundings and still perform well.
• If you train to music all the time, try turning the volume way down, playing something else, or eliminating it entirely. A stimulant works best when it’s a new experience, so take the positive aspects of a powerlifting meet—the crowd, the music, the announcer—and ensure their newness for you by going without sometimes in training.
• The same holds true for training environment. This might be a contested point, but I’d argue that the environment you create in training should, in leading up to a meet, facilitate better meet-day performance. Some would say that a better training atmosphere leads to better training, which in turn produces a better meet performance, and I cannot argue with that position. But let’s say that you train with a highly committed group of people, and you’ve got an upcoming meet, but most are busy and can’t make it. You show up to compete and your familiar support group isn’t there. How do you handle it? Oftentimes, in powerlifting meets, most of the audience doesn’t want to be there—if those conditions are the ones you’ll be faced with at your upcoming meet, make sure you’re prepared for them.

Ultimately though, what I want to suggest here in this article is that you take into consideration the sensorial conditions of your upcoming meet as you prepare in training. In a sport in which repetition and consistency are such critical attributes, new sensorial conditions can make the difference between a made and a missed third attempt.

Kyle Keough is a competitive powerlifter in the 148-lb. weight class. His top competition lifts include a 524 Lb squat, 319 Lb bench, and a 601 Lb deadlift. He is currently ranked #2 in the 148 Lb weight class with a 1405 Lb total. Berserk Barbell has his permission to post this article.

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