Author Archives: Thom Van Vleck

Decline of Western (lifting) Civilization: Part I

by Thom Van Vleck

Can you guess what this does?

The title of the article is play off of some documentaries that pondered the decline of the western civilization through the various music movements such as punk rock, heavy metal and so on.  They were as much tongue in cheek as they were a serious case that these musical movements would collapse our society and that’s how this article is intended.  You may notice it has a “part I”…..I plan on doing a series of these.

Recently I was in a gym and they had a new piece of equipment.  It took me awhile to figure it out but once I did I had to admit I felt myself becoming the type of self righteous complainer that I usually hate.  But I just have to make a comment on this one.  It was an assisted chin up/dip bar machine.  If you can’t do a single dip or chin up this machine will lift your fat butt up so you can dip and chin with the best of them!  Now, before someone goes all postal on me let me tell you the real reason I see this as the decline of Western “lifting” Civilization.  I get it that there are many people who can’t do a chin or dip and need help and this machine could offer the chance for them to get to that point where they don’t need help.

What I’m mad about is what has happened to the “gym”.   They seem to be getting worse and worse about equipment that caters for those that never had a childhood that involved hard work or exercise and instead was video games and maybe passive labor that was horribly overpaid.  It seems to me that it lowers the bar and in essence it lowers the lofty standards of fitness and strength that made America great.  But hey, that’s just me.

On another note, I did 100 chin ups today….and 1000 dips.  Pretty amazing, huh!?

Meaningful Lifting

by Thom Van Vleck

On May 28th of this year I will have been lifting for 35 years.   There have been times when life has kept me from training like I wanted.  There was a year when I worked on  my Master’s degree that I was taking a full load of classes, working a full time job as a counselor, and I had to do an 800 hour internship.   As an undergrad I worked full time but there was a point where I was needing the money so I took a night job (I could study while at this job) but for a 6 month period I averaged around 80 yours a week and went to school full time.  I know….I know….excuses, excuses!

So recently I pulled a 700lb trap bar deadlift at age 48.  This is more than I’ve ever done in my life.  I have a buddy who lifts and I was bragging about it to him.  He was a top powerlifter in his day totalling 2105 at 220lbs bodyweight back before all the super gear of today.  He has known me since high school.  He looked at me and said, “You know what that means….if you’d gotten your head out of your a$$ you’d pulled 800 years ago”.

He’s right.  There is no good reason why I’m stronger in most ways now than at any point in my life.  Sure, I now I have more time to train.  But the honest truth is I’ve always been a head case.  I would over think things. I would over train, then under train.  I would spend too much time thinking about my workouts and not enough time actually doing my workouts.  I have spend countless hours writing down workouts which would be okay but I’ve rarely (maybe never) completed them.

So, the past few years I’ve tried to change that.  I think it’s working!   Here are some key points that I have come up with that have led to my “late in life” success.  By success, I mean “good for me”.  I don’t claim to be a champ!  I just feel like I’ve gotten more out of my body than maybe I should have and had MUCH more fun doing it.

First, I try to may my workouts rewarding.  I try to establish a clear link between work and reward.  Too often the benefits of lifting are too distant in the future to really appreciate.  So I try and do things I enjoy in my workouts.  For me I use many ways to do this.  I can constantly set personal bests in the gym even if it’s doing more reps with the same weight or doing a new exercise.  It’s also reward myself after the workout with a meal I enjoy or a movie.  My wife and I have a “date night” once a week.  I try and workout that morning with the idea that our date is my reward.  I have also bought myself a tool or some new training implement after reaching a short term goal and in my mind I make the attachment.  I recently bought a new music CD and made myself wait to listen to it when I worked out (that made me move a workout day up!).  I have set a can of Mt. Dew in a bowl of ice and refused to let myself drink it until that last set.

Second, I create variety.  I have to tell you, me personally I find a 16 week program impossible.  Heck….8 weeks seems like a prison sentence to me.  I switch things up all the time.  I try and do 3 week cycles and then switch.  For me that’s about my attention span for a workout routine.  It eliminates my number one enemy that stymies my progress…BOREDOM.  I look at a workout routine as a battle plan in the Marine Corps.  Sure, you want to stick with the plan.  You have a plan for a reason….but there’s no reason that when you see a short cut or another easy target you could hit along the way that you can’t do it!  I have finished a planned workout and if I was jacked up….I do the next workout right after.  I have thrown in a new exercise if I feel like I’m just not enjoying the one I’m doing.  I try to experiment all the time as well.  Recently, I tried doing a push press from a dead stop off of my jerk boxes.  They were awkward at first, but now I love them!

Third, I need autonomy.  This may be most important of all.  I will workout with others but I believe that if you want to workout for life then you need to have autonomy.  I have often talked to guys that had loads of talent but when someone stopped running their workouts they quit.  Autonomy is responsibility.  I am responsible for my own workouts.  I accept the failure but more importantly, I take the credit for success.  The key element is I need to want this for myself.  Not a trophy, not for a pat on the back from others, not for any other reason that for myself.  That other stuff is great, it’s icing on the cake but it’s NOT the cake.  When I stopped thinking about winning my next contest, stopped thinking about what others thought of me and my workouts, and focused on what I wanted and needed I began enjoy my workouts more.  They gained intrinsic value.

I have been around guys who can discipline themselves for the long haul.  I admire those guys…..but that’s not me.  I needed to find my own way.  So if anyone has read this to this point I want to make clear that this is not an exact guide.  It’s just intended to put a couple more tools in your mental tool box for your lifting.  I think this is what I enjoy about this process.  Lifting has not only made me physically stronger, but emotionally and intellectually stronger.  And it never ends unless you let it.  As I age my body won’t keep up, but I know I will continue to grow through my training.  Getting better and better!

The 10,000 hour rule

by Thom Van Vleck

I just got done reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell.  He has had several best sellers, this one is “Outliers”.   The 10,000 hour rule is just one of many great chapters in the book and I could not agree more with his conclusion.

First, it takes 10,000 hours to master anything….even for the so-called “natural”.  He cites numerous examples, but one of my own examples is the actor Eddie Cantor.  He said, “It takes 20 years to make an overnight success”.  Too often we look at successes and we don’t realize how much work went into that effort.  Sure, some have more aptitude than others but you aren’t them.  If you want to be the best at whatever it is you want to be good at you MUST put in the hours to be successful.

Second, and this plays right out of the first, is there is no such thing as “natural talent”.  In studies done on the the greats in any given field, lifting, throwing, music, etc…..there is a DIRECT STATISTICAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN HOURS OF PRACTICE AND ACHIEVEMENT.   There is no short cut!

Third, the elites tend to love what they do so they want to spend the time doing it.  That is the secret to getting in the hours.  Finding the intrinsic value in what you do when you do it.  If you are looking at what you are doing (lifting for example) as a chore and only at the eventual outcome then you are not likely to achieve your highest level of success.  Find the value in each and every workout or practice session.  I often think of the Marines when we would do our group exercises.  We would chant over and over, “We love it!  Good for me!  Good for you!”.  Find that joy in what you are doing or eventually you subconscious will begin to sabotage your efforts and you will not master your talents.

I have spent too much of my life admiring the “natural talents” of others when that energy could be better spent on my own “10,000” hours.  So, embrace the work, learn to love it, and know that hard work equals success more than any other equation!

Simple Liars, Damned Liars, and Experts

by Thom Van Vleck

I like talking about training.  Even if half the time it evolves in an argument.  The one person I have learned the most about weight training is from my Uncle Phil Jackson.  He would often say to me, “I’ve forgotten more about training than you’ll ever know”.  I still often think he is right.  Another guy I’ll mention is Al Myers.  I have learned more about throwing for the Highland Games from Al than any other person.  A lot of the USAWA crowd may know Al competed in the Highland Games but are not aware he was world class at it.  The reason I listened to Al and Phil was not because they were considered by the majority of the lifting or throwing world as experts but because both had something in common with me.  None of us were what I would call natural or “gifted”.  We all had to work for every bit we have.

First I’ll say this.  There’s a fallacy out there that great athletes make bad coaches and mediocre athletes make great coaches.  The “logic” given is that great players never really learn how to play and rely on their natural abilities while mediocre players have to learn every trick to get better.  The evidence given is that there are many coaches that were mediocre players.  Well, that’s just Bull!  The reality is that there are MANY more mediocre players and it would make sense that they would end up a majority in the coaching world over the handful of great athletes.  What really defines a great coach is knowledge and the ability to impart that knowledge in a way another will take it and use it.  They have what’s been called “Practical IQ”.

Now, I don’t know for sure about Al, but I do know that my Uncle Phil would say I’ve barely listened to him at all over the years.  He’s partly right, I have been stubborn at times.  But I would argue he’s mostly wrong.  If you look at how I train there’s more of him in there than any other person on earth.  As for Al, I know I’ve frustrated him from time to time with a million questions and when he’s been nice enough to answer me I’ve often ripped apart his answers.  Al’s such a nice guy this may be hard to believe….but I’ve made him mad more than once!  Yet, if you look at how I throw…NOBODY has had more influence on my throwing and how I train for throwing!  I have just learned over the years that there are….Simple Liars, Damned Liars, and Experts.

The title for this article refers to a saying among lawyers and judges.  It refers to the “expert” witness.  It is often used to make the point that you can get an credentialed expert witness to support about anything.  Kind of like the saying “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” that make the point that you can find stats to support just about any point of view….whether that point of view is right or not!  This is the attitude I bring into how I approach all experts.

Heck, I AM AN EXPERT!  I have been called into court numerous times to provide expert testimony as a licensed professional counselor.  I have frustrated many judges and lawyers in this role because when I KNOW I’m being looked to as an expert then all the speculation, logic, “makes sense to me” is shoved out of my brain and I got with cold, hard, facts.  And the truth is… can’t get much from cold, hard facts!  You need to take that leap and expand out beyond what is known and take your “best guess” sometimes to find success.  When pressed by a lawyer or judge, I would preface my “best guess” by saying this is my “opinion based on what I know”.  That rarely helped….they wanted me to tell them that I “unequivocally” knew the truth and to say it as such.

So, what does all this mean.  I guess (based on what I know…..HAHAHA) that I’m trying to say that we need to seek out experts and understand that one person’s “expert” may not be your “expert”….we all have different needs.  These experts can be anywhere and don’t always need to be the “greatest” or the “most famous”.   We also need to look at being able to mine what an expert can give us even if sometimes they aren’t the best communicators.  We should never throw out the coaching of on person simply because they gave bad advice one time.  That’s like the old saying of throwing the baby out with the bath.  Finally, we need to open ourselves to find people who know more than us and take a leap of faith on what they are telling us…..but always remember there are liars, damned liars, and experts.  It’s all in how you want to look at it.  If you think it’s a lie….or the truth…you’ll probably be right.

Buridan’s Ass

by Thom Van Vleck

The story of Buridan’s Ass is a paradox where an ass (ass as in burro or donkey….not someone’s backside) is that is equally hungry and thirst is placed between a pail of water and a stack of hay.  The ass dies of hunger and thirst because it can’t make a decision about which way to go!  It is actually based on a parable going back to Aristotle.  The more modern version you may be more familiar with is the term “paralysis by analysis”.

Regardless of where it comes from it is the state of over thinking a situation to the point that no decision is made.  There is another parable that I think describes this mental dilemma even better:

There was a fox and a cat arguing over who had the better escape plan.  The fox had hundreds while the cat had only one….run up a tree.  Suddenly a pack of hounds approached and the cat shot up a tree to safety while the fox darted back and forth trying to decide what would be his best option.  In his indecision he missed his opportunity to escape and was caught.

You can get so caught up in seeking the perfect solution that no decision occurs and you end up making mistakes, missing chances, and losing the ability to test out ideas that may have worked for fear there was a better method just around the corner.

How does this related to lifting?  In a way it’s been the story of my lifting career!  I fancy myself a pretty smart guy.  I associate and affiliate myself with the lifters and throwers.  I read all I can about training.  In my early years when I had a spare moment you would find me writing out workouts then erasing parts, adding parts, pondering it….and often never (at best) finishing the workout…or (at worst) never even starting it because I was in search of the “next big thing”.

I think every athlete has been in search of that “holy grail” workout that will bring you big lifts and massive muscles…..and hot babes hanging off your biceps!  The reality is that there is no perfect routine and the most successful athletes learn to move on quickly and decisively from one routine to the next.

So, I’m saying, don’t be an ass…..but how you might ask?

1.  Avoid being a perfectionist….which means allowing yourself to fail.  Failing happens when we take risks and if you aren’t failing then you aren’t taking risks to stretch your boundaries.  In positive psychology they NEVER call it “failure”….it’s always a learning experience.

2. Value speed!  Rewire your brain to “go for it”.  Imagine every decision as a crossroads and you have no brakes on your car.  Make a decision and power through.  What’s the worst that could happen?  You back up and take the other road?  You will still save time over indecision AND you have the learning experience of what was the other way.

3. Focus on starting.  Too often we start to look too far down that road and trying to see where it goes.  If you have an idea, take 30 minutes, or a set time, and go for it all out.  Then assess where you are at rather than sitting down and trying to figure it out.  Set aside time for analysis…like one hour, a day, or 90 days.  Make the amount of time you are in action greater than the analysis time.

4.  Break down goals, look for quick wins, and appreciate every step that moves you forward.  We too often focus only on failure and in the process we forget to look at what worked.  Remove the fear of failure and replace it with an attitude that you embrace change and find opportunity in it rather than potential failure.

5.  Develop habits and routines that avoid the paralysis.  I am reminded of the Nike slogan, “Just Do It”.  For me it’s the Bible Verse James 1:12 which tells us to “Persevere under trial” and those who do will be given the ultimate reward.  Have things that help you get focused and develop them.

Finally, don’t do to this article what I’m encouraging you NOT to do.  Analysis is good!  As a matter of fact there is a common fallacy that our first answer is more often the right answer.  Have you ever been told to “go with your gut” when you don’t know the answer on a test?  Well, I hate to break this to you but it’s NOT TRUE!  It has been proven in study after study.  More often we will change a wrong answer to a right one…almost 2 to 1!  So why is there this perception that we change right answers to wrong?  Because we tend to focus on failure!  So, it is important to keep a positive focus to avoid creating your own fallacies or misconceptions.

As my Uncle Phil told me….train smarter not harder.

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