If you’ve followed my Strongman adventure at all, you know that things got serious right, quick, and in a hurry. When I first got to Texas, my numbers skyrocketed. This is a phenomenon we call beginner or newbie gains. I’d been working out for over a year before starting Strongman, but when I began legitimate strength training, my body responded exactly like it should have, and everything got better. This makes sense, right? It’s your body’s physiological response to starting any kind of workout regimen. If you’ve ever worked to lose weight or gain strength (or both), you know that when you first start, you look and feel better and see rapid increase in numbers almost immediately. Again, these are beginner gains, and guess what?
Beginner gains are fun for everyone.
They’re fun as an athlete. We live in a society that thrives on instant gratification, so of course it’s exciting when you’re hitting PRs week in and week out.
They’re fun as a coach. Watching an athlete come into their strength and get excited about a sport is a feeling that’s hard to put into words.
They’re fun as a spectator. If strength sports are your thing, what’s cooler than seeing a bunch of new-to-the-sport athletes come to a competition and throw around massive amounts of weight?
But what happens when beginner gains slow down?
By February 2017—6 months into Strongman—my gains slowed down immensely. In my second and third training circuits, I hit Week 12, where we were supposed to be testing our maxes, and was entirely burned out. I missed lift after lift and would leave the gym in tears. I was constantly managing some kind of injury: mid-back pain followed by shoulder pain, and culminating with a low back injury that almost caused me to drop out of a June 2017 competition, and ultimately put me out of commission for the summer.
I felt like I was letting people down. I went from being the golden child in the gym to not receiving my program for weeks on end. I went from being plastered all over the gym’s social media to being the one recording other people’s PRs and posting them as the gym. I went from being coached through Strongman Saturdays to running them for other people and putting my training on the back burner. And while I truly love watching other people succeed, I was a God damn head case about my own lack of progression. What was I doing wrong as an athlete? What had I done to bring this upon myself? If I couldn’t PR every week, why was I even competing anymore? Well, there are a couple answers that it took me a while to figure out.
First, I was doing nothing to shock my system anymore. I was completing the same 12 week cycle with the same rep scheme and accessories that I started with. Does this work for some people? I’m sure, but my body stopped responding.
Second, I forgot why I started. I didn’t go into Strongman thinking I’d compete for a pro-card 10 months in. I got into Strongman because I like to be strong and I like the collegial community that is this sport.
Third, I was gauging my success based on how others reacted to what I was doing. Why does it matter what anyone thinks? Well because that’s the world we live in, but I got so wrapped up in what one or two people were or were not saying/doing that I lost all focus.
So like any bull-headed, Irish-Italian woman does, I grabbed myself by the ears, pulled my head out of my ass, and made some changes.
I realized that feeling like the bottom-of-the-barrel athlete was actually progress. Showing up to small shows and kicking butt is fun, but if you wanna run with the big dogs, you’ve gotta off the porch at some point.
I realized that the better you get, the harder you’re going to need to work for every pound added to every single lift. This was part of what screwed with my head until I realized how much more rewarding a PR is when you really have to work for it.
I fell back in love with Strongman and going to the gym. I took some time off. I traveled. I got away. And I realized what I missed was not only the people at the gym, but the satisfaction of being there and bettering myself.
And lastly, I hired a new coach. Coaches, a lot like teachers, all bring their own set of skills to you as an athlete. I’d lost my mojo with my original coach and decided to move on in order to be pushed in a way I hadn’t been before. Did I enjoy 4 weeks of hypertrophy and conditioning that made me feel like a a sea cucumber trying to be a Strongman? Nah, in fact I said some awful shit in my head repeatedly about my new coach, but I saw progress that I hadn’t seen in months.
So what? Well my new coach told me early on that Strongman is as much about mental strength as it is about physical strength. When you start to plateau physically, it’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole mentally, and self-doubt and questioning starts to take over. The strongest people I know are the ones who have pushed through that and found reasons to keep moving forward. We all start as beginners, but not all beginners become champions. The ones who really succeed are those willing to change their circumstances, change their attitudes, and progress forward at all costs.