Barbell Back Squat • Julie Lohre
My inaugural attempt at a back squat, armed with nothing but an empty barbell, was a spectacular failure. Engulfed by the clamor of crashing weights and exertion grunts in an introductory CrossFit class, I was already on edge.
Taking my turn, I planted my feet, drew a sharp breath, and initiated the knee bend. However, as I descended into the squat, a sense of leaning too far forward gripped me. The bar shifted toward the back of my neck, triggering panic. I instinctively shifted my weight to my toes, releasing my grip on the bar. In an instant, I found myself on my knees, the barbell rolling away slowly, with heat flushing my cheeks.
Is this the norm for everyone’s first class, I wondered, or am I simply not cut out for this fitness journey? Just as the thought of abandoning weightlifting crossed my mind, the instructor highlighted something crucial: While I hadn’t executed the lift, I had succeeded in failing correctly. Instead of jeopardizing my form to salvage the lift—which, with a heavier bar, could have strained my back—I safely let it go. Embracing failure midway enabled me to sidestep injury and contemplate the necessary adjustments for a successful lift in the future.
In the grand scheme, strength training isn’t about success; it’s an exploration of how to accept, anticipate, and ultimately embrace failure. The resilience cultivated through these missteps, coupled with the understanding that failure doesn’t brand you a failure, permeates various facets of life. It influences how you take risks and rebound not only in fitness but also at work, in academics, and in social spheres.
Before delving into weightlifting, I was a long-distance runner, where avoiding failure in workouts was relatively straightforward. A lengthy run typically guaranteed completion, even if slower than planned. Weightlifting introduced a different dynamic. Strengthening often involved loading a barbell with weight manageable for only two or three repetitions of significant lifts like overhead press, squat, or deadlift. Some days, I lifted “to failure,” reaching the point where my muscles, exhausted, couldn’t complete the set. I regularly pushed against the absolute limits of my physical strength, encountering moments when, no matter my will, the weight refused to budge. This compelled me to embrace uncertainty and view failures not as disasters but as challenges.
“Failure is an integral part of the lifting journey,” asserts Priscilla Del Moral, a personal trainer and co-owner of JDI Barbell in New York City. “It was a turning point when I recognized that this is just part of the routine.”
For many, the association of failure with identity dates back to childhood, notes psychologist, author, and mental health activist Jenny Wang. “When parents immediately intervene to rectify a child’s stumble, it implies something is wrong with struggling.” Growing up, we internalize the fear of failure, considering it ominous and to be avoided.
The fear of failure carries tangible repercussions, contributing to heightened anxiety and depression for some. However, one’s response to failure serves as a reliable indicator of resilience, the ability to adapt to setbacks. Resilience, with its far-reaching implications, affects perceptions, psychological responses to stress in professional settings, and an improved quality of life as one ages. How does one fortify resilience? By embracing failure.
Despite its name, I discovered that strongwomen dominate the sport. (Lucy Underdown holds the women’s world record for the deadlift at an astounding 700 pounds.) There’s even a novice division in most competitions.
Since my initiation into Strongman, the circus dumbbell (about three times the size of a regular dumbbell) has been my formidable adversary. Attempting to press it overhead, I faced repeated failures. Strongman competitions comprise five events, and for a considerable period, I avoided those featuring the circus dumbbell. The fear of failing in front of an audience deterred me. Eventually, realizing I was eliminating most competitions I aspired to enter, I decided to confront the challenge.
I honed the supporting muscles necessary for dumbbell pressing and analyzed videos of my failed attempts. Almost a decade after my initial failure, now at 40, I stood before the judges at a competition, eyeing the 55-pound dumbbell at my feet. In my first attempt, nerves got the better of me, reverting to old habits and leaning away from the dumbbell. The rep eluded me. (Successfully failing in this context primarily meant avoiding it falling on my head, a feat I managed.) For the second attempt, shaking off the frustration, adjusting my foot positioning, I hoisted the dumbbell to my shoulder and, finally, nailed it.
Occasionally, in the gym, I still falter in that lift. Yet, I’ve come to realize that each failure imparts a bit more self-awareness, revealing my tenacity to push limits and the adjustments needed for success. This insight extends beyond the gym, from reshaping rejected article pitches to deciphering the magic phrase that persuades my 3-year-old to embrace green vegetables.
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