Each week, we shine the spotlight on one of our online coaching clients. The simple idea of making ourselves stronger through training brings together people of all different backgrounds and for all different purposes. In sharing our clients’ experiences we hope to share part of what makes our online community of lifters unique.

Jenny Howe

Lifting is about so much more than the hours we spend in the gym. The fruits of our efforts under the bar start to intertwine with so many other areas of our lives, like our confidence in ourselves, our perception of difficult situations and how we impact other people. Jenny really is an amazing example of this. Read on.
Also, I think we should have an international holiday during which every single person can only smile like she does.

What do your parents or spouse call you when you are in trouble?

Trouble? Me?

What is your occupation?

Radio Broadcaster

Who is your BLOC Coach?

Rebekah Cygan

What is something your coach has had to tell you a million and one times?

Keep your back tight!

What is your favorite lift?

Bench Press

Where do you live?

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Do you lift in a home gym or a public gym?

Home gym

How long have you been training?

Since August 2018

Why did you start lifting?

The main reason I started lifting is because I have MS. And whenever I have a relapse, I feel so weak. I hate that feeling more than anything else. I figured the only way to fix that feeling is to get stronger.

What do you love about training?

I love that I’m getting stronger every week and lifting weight I NEVER would have thought possible! I also like that it’s making me a much better partner and stepmother. Training keeps me sane when dealing with 2 teenagers. I figure, if I can grind out near impossible (to me) reps VOLUNTARILY, I can probably handle most other things!

What lifting achievement are you most proud of?

When I hit 135 on squat, I was ecstatic. Being able to use ‘big girl plates’ wasn’t ever anything I thought I could do when I first started. Getting to 225 on deadlift was also pretty cool.

Did you ever think at any point in your life that someday you’d be as strong as you are now?

No

Describe a time after you started training when someone noticed your gains. What was it like?

It was about 3 months after I started training when my co-workers started to notice. I had an entire week where they were independently coming up to me and telling me how strong I look. And it was the BEST feeling to get complimented on strength and not ‘looking slimmer’, which is what I had previously aspired to.

What or who gets you to train when your motivation is really low?

My amazing husband, who is also an BLOC client is probably my biggest cheerleader. And not JUST because he likes what squats have done to my bum. But also because of that.

Also, my dear friend Erin Perry who introduced me to BLOC can always get me going! We live 3 hours apart, but our text messages are constantly flying back and forth. Whenever I tell her I’m having a tough time, she tells me about how she’s been there and then promptly tells me to go kick some ass!

What are some of your go-to lifting songs?

Black Dog by Led Zeppelin, Jump Around by House of Pain, Stand Up by Ludcaris, Dog Days Are Over by Florence + The Machine, Intergalactic by The Beastie Boys

What is the most embarrassing song you like?

Anything by Simon and Garfunkel or Bob Dylan. I can’t help it – it’s my inner ‘folkie’ coming out!

What are some of your lifting-related goals for this year?  

To hit 135 on bench, 100 on press, 225 on squat.

Do you plan on competing in a meet this year? If so, what are your goals?

Yep! October 5th will be my first meet. Too far out to know what I might lift, but if I can PR in all 3 lifts, I’ll be thrilled!

What have you learned about yourself from barbell training?

Barbell training has taught me that I’m so much stronger than I ever knew I could be. Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. It’s poured over into every area in my life and turned me into a much more confident person.

Who is someone you’d love to try barbell training and why?

I’d love for my parents to try barbell training! They’re both in their 70s now and I can see them losing muscle mass. I want them to be as strong as I know they can be. Plus, it would be SO awesome to see my tiny mom grind out a deadlift!

Dead or alive, who would you love to lift with?

Honestly? My coach! Bekah and I live more than 2,000 miles apart, so I can’t really just ‘pop in’ for a session every now and again!

If BLOC made a yearbook, which do you think you’d most likely win?

Most likely to spend all their money on gym gear

Do you love to eat?

Yes

What’s your favorite meal? Please use as much detail as possible.

Homemade fresh pasta with spicy marinara sauce and meatballs. Mmmmm. And we can’t forget the homemade garlic bread and Caesar salad!

What are a couple of your favorite books?

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Anything else you would like to share with your BLOC brethren and sistren?  

Just that this is the most incredible journey I’ve started. I’ve finally found something that I’m truly passionate about and works really well for my 6’2, 225lb self! Well, except for squat. Long femurs really mess that up.

By: CJ Gotcher, SSC

From day one with a new lifter, I tell them to look at a spot on the ground 5-ish feet in front of them, and once we’ve found the correct gaze that gets the head neutral in the bottom of the squat, “eyes” and “spot” become the cue for the lifter to refocus and look at that point. This eye direction is part of the Starting Strength teaching progression, and it’s one element many people struggle to understand.

If we’re trying to go up, why would we look down?

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First, in our teaching progression, we start by teaching people the movement without a barbell. Unfortunately, without a weight, there are a wide range of possible positions that will keep the lifter in balance, at depth, with their back in the right place, and we want to teach them the back angle they will best lift heavy weights with. The eye gaze is an elegant solution. By setting the lifter to a point where the imaginary bar is approximately over the midfoot and adjusting the head until it’s neutral at the bottom (5 feet is just a ballpark figure), we have given the lifter visual feedback they can use to find that correct back angle.

More importantly, though, we want to keep the hips and shoulders moving up together out of the hole.

When most new lifters look up, they lift the chest early and the body compensates by bringing the knees forward slightly to keep the weight over the middle of the foot. This is a natural reaction because the cervical spine (the neck) is connected to the thoracic spine (the upper back). However, when the knees go forward, even a little bit, the quads (which are already working their asses off) have to produce more force. Bar speed tanks. The lift feels like death.

No bueno.

It seems simple, then. If looking up brings the chest up too early, just don’t look up. This begs the question: why do some strong squatters look up, usually to horizon but sometimes even higher, when they squat?

Oftentimes, these lifters are front squatting or high bar squatting with limb lengths that favors a more-vertical back angle. In such a case, I would expect the lifter’s eyes to be up at horizon and the exact position will matter less since their head is nearly neutral at horizon anyway. It’s also common to see lifters who are just phenomenally strong, and despite their chest raising slightly, and bar speed visually slowing down, they power through.

Even so, there are some skilled lifters doing low bar squats who can execute excellent hip drive with their eyes up. If someone has an otherwise excellent squat and looks up into the rafters, do we have to fix it? Maybe.

I almost hesitate to mention this because it’s not as big a deal as it sounds, but I think there is a slightly increased risk of injury from looking up, especially in jerking the head up as you drive out of the hole. The spine is meant to extend. We do it all the time without injury, and some have argued that because the barbell is below the neck, the cervical spine isn’t under load and the head position shouldn’t matter. Maybe normally, that would be true, but under a load, things below the spine have an impact upstream.

Specifically, when the weight gets heavy, the traps contract to tighten the supporting frame of the upper back. However, the upper traps connect at the base of the back of the skull. When you reach your neck to look back, there isn’t much pressure on the cervical vertebrae or the muscles surrounding it. If you crunch your neck to do so (think thrusting the chin forward instead of up, which is what we tend to do under the bar), you probably feel discomfort as you reach your end-range-of-motion. Combine that with the downward pull of the contracted traps (especially if you’re ‘whipping’ the neck back in the lift) and you risk going beyond that range and causing injury.

I (sadly) have personal experience giving myself mild neck sprains with pullups and deadlifts during my first 2 years of ‘getting after it,’ and the mechanism was the same: craning the neck with contracted traps.

All that being said, I still hesitate to mention it. First, it’s a minor issue. I’ve never heard of a ruptured cervical disk from squatting. Mostly we’re looking at sprains and strains and, yes, they will definitely put a damper on your dance card for a few days, but you can train through them.

Second, debating this point back and forth, a great question keeps coming up: what does a ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’ head position look like? We know when we’re looking at something that’s just ugly, and most coaches can agree on what neutral looks like (mostly), but when does it become excessive? It’s one of those fuzzy areas- “I know it when I see it”- and that’s just not convincing.

In the end, can I tell you confidently that your neck position will hurt you or that it’ll derail your training? Not confidently. Still, as a coach, I will teach all of my beginner lifters to look down when they squat and emphasize hip drive because among beginners, the reflex is almost universal. If I’m working with an experienced/strong lifter who’s been looking up for years and has excellent hip drive, I’ll work at getting them to lower their gaze, but it’ll be lower on the priority list of issues to correct.

Finally, a disclaimer: if you experience particularly severe neck pain, tingling or numbness in the arms or extremities associated with neck pain, or painful neck stiffness beyond 2 or 3 days after exercise, I recommend you see a doctor.

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