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Ever Grateful, Never Satisfied

by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC

I'm just finishing an individualized three-month block periodization cycle. I did my conditioning month (general physical preparation block), then my accumulation month (volume or hypertrophy block), and now I'm in the intensity block, where the volume is lowest and the weights are heaviest. I'm not done chasing intensity yet, but so far I've put up 95% on the squat, press, and bench, and 93% on the deadlift.

So, no PRs in there, but they're all heavier than where the block started, and for that I am very grateful.

It's been a rough couple of years for Poor Old Dr. Sullivan. In addition to the stress of the lockdown and other life doo-doo, I've dealt with (1) a calcific knee tendinopathy that ultimately required surgery and a long rehab and put a real long-term damper on squat progress; (2) a cervical radiculopathy that switched off my triceps and upper body lifts, and (3) a recent back tweak that's held up my deadlift. So I'm damn grateful to be moving loads in the 95% range right now, without pain or reinjury.

Hell, I'm grateful to be lifting at all.

I've learned a lot from the trials and tribulations of the last couple of years, things that have made me a better athlete and a better coach. But the most important lesson has been just what a gift it is to even be able to train.

This is actually a very Stoic perspective--to find your glass half full, to find delight in what is, and what is possible. It's a mistake to take our ability to move and train for granted. There are those few unfortunates who cannot train at all, you know, and many more who cannot do all of the movements. It was never outside the realm of possibility that I might not ever be able to press or bench heavy again because of the radiculopathy, or to squat at all because of the knee. I would have been stubborn and asked the world to prove it to me, but it could have been so.

It was not. I can train, and I can train heavy, and at the moment my prospects of getting stronger than ever are not half-bad. So I am enormously grateful.

But I am not satisfied.

How can an Athlete of Aging ever be satisfied? If you're pressing 100 lbs., don't you want 105? Of course you do. This is human nature. Accomplishment breeds ambition. Sometimes accomplishment fires up unreasonable ambition, and this can be a problem--if you're 70 yo,180 lbs. bodyweight, and pressing 100, your resultant ambition might be to press 300. If so, you're really kidding yourself. But ambition, if not irrational, is not intrinsically unhealthy.

Even if you're an advanced athlete, on the flat part of the performance curve, and your prospects for big gains are sharply limited, you're still not satisfied. A 1 lb. PR on the press is a big deal from your perspective, and 3 or 4 of those 1 lb. jumps would make for a damn good year of training. I'm grateful to be able to press at all...but I want those gains. A 95% press less than a year after a cervical radiculopathy is a cause for gratitude...but also dissatisfaction. I want 105%. I want a PR.

We can take it further. Any athlete who lives long enough will see their prospects for gains decline, and even their potential for holding on to their current strength will eventually wane. After a certain age and with enough training, we get to a point where we're running hard to stand still or even to minimize our losses. For an advanced athlete in the 80s or 90s, losing only 1 or 2 lbs. a year on the press is a rational training goal. An athlete in this situation who loses more than that should be dissatisfied.

But also grateful. Gratitude, to my mind, comes first. No matter where you are in your training, whatever your situation, remind yourself that you are an athlete training under the bar. That is extraordinary and wonderful. Take delight in your identity as an athlete, in your courage and discipline, in your ability to move with grace and strength, and in the raw power, depth, and beauty of the entire undertaking.

And then, filled with gratitude and delight, you must grit your teeth, chalk your hands, and take your dissatisfaction over there to the loaded iron waiting in the rack. You're very grateful to that barbell, but you're not satisfied, and it had damn well better get out of your way.

Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.

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