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Dread and the deadlift

Facing the Dreadlift

When training gets difficult, dealing with lifting anxiety can be one of the biggest challenges for a newer lifter. Sully lays out a more constructive approach to dealing with this inevitable hurdle.

FACING THE DREADLIFT

By: Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC

Jonathon Sullivan is a retired emergency physician and research scientist, a professional barbell coach, the owner and program director of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington, Michigan, and the coauthor, with Andy Baker, of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty. His blog is at greysteel.org, and his YouTube channel is at youtube.com/greysteel.

At some point in your training—probably fairly early on if you’re normal, and perhaps later if you’re twisted—you’ll encounter an emotion familiar to anybody who’s trained seriously for any length of time: Dread.

\ ˈdred \

transitive verb

1a: to fear greatly

1b: archaic: to regard with awe

2: to feel extreme reluctance to meet or face the future

intransitive verb

to be apprehensive or fearful

adjective

1: causing fear or anxiety

2: inspiring awe

noun

1a: great fear, especially in the face of impending evil

1b: extreme uneasiness in the face of a disagreeable prospect

1c: awe

2: one causing fear or awe

3: dreadlocks, dreads.

So, for example, yesterday was my heavy deadlift day. The day before was heavy press/light bench day and some conditioning, and when I woke up yesterday, I was sore and fatigued—still beat up from the day before. Upon awakening, almost my very first thought was, “Crap. It’s deadlift day.”

This will happen to you. Although, if you’re like me, you usually won’t wait until the day. Your heavy sets will start to bear on your mind days before the event. It might be a particular exercise or a particular set, or the whole damn kit-and-kaboodle, but it will be there: dread.

You can’t do anything about this. Nobody decides to dread something. It’s a primitive subroutine built into your paleocortex, and it’s been there since well before the first big fish ate the first little fish.

Which brings up an important point: dread is there for a reason. That subroutine is a very successful replicator; it confers some sort of evolutionary advantage. It’s not so much fun, but it is advantageous, and it does help you survive. Dread and deadlifts are very similar in this way: quite useful, but with a not-insignificant component of suckiness, which is perhaps why an impending set of heavy deads often precipitates an impending sense of heavy dread.

Maybe we should call them dreadlifts.

But I digress. I’m trying to pretend I have a point here. The point that I’m pretending to have is this: since dread is unavoidable, and since it has conferred survival benefit since before your ancestors were chordates, maybe it deserves a second look with a view to how best exploit that advantage.

Dread is the affective experience that accompanies the preparation of the organism to Get Down and Get Real. That is not a bad thing. Recognizing it as a Not Bad Thing is the first step. “I’m dreading my heavy squats this week. But I’m supposed to dread them a little. It’s my first step in mental, cognitive, and even physical preparation. I’m already getting myself ready.” This puts a different and somewhat positive spin on the dread experience.

Next, let’s reflect on the different meanings of dread. It can be fear, but are you really afraid of that set or that workout? Maybe a little—that’s healthy. But you don’t really fear for your life or your safety. If you do, you are in the wrong training program, the wrong training environment, or both. What you’re really afraid of is (a) the voluntary hardship that goes with a heavy set or workout and (b) the possibility of failure. Neither of these are an existential threat. So yes, dread is fear—but in the case of training, it’s not a mortal fear. So cool your jets.

Another meaning of dread is reluctance to face something difficult. If you’re reading this, you’ve already shown that you’re in command of that. Training (once you’re past the honeymoon phase) undergoes an inversion of the fun/work ratio, from greater than 1 to much less than 1. If you’re a late novice or intermediate, the dread of having to work hard has already been conquered. Pat yourself on the back. You’re dreading volume day, but you know you’re going to show up. Dread thus becomes an opportunity for self-congratulation and self-affirmation. That’s good. Most of us need more of that (there are exceptions).

Another more neutral and, for our purposes, useful sense of dread is anticipation. That’s really the gist of it, isn’t it? A psychological and physical anticipation of a forthcoming challenge or singular event. Think about it: isn’t the sense of dread you have about your heavy set quite similar to the anticipation of a ceremony in which you’ll be honored, a wedding in which you’ll give away a daughter, a game in which your team will play for the title, the impending birth of a child or grandchild?

Yes, of course it’s like that, which is why I posed the rhetorical question. I’m not entirely daft.

This anticipation, as it arises, is an excellent opportunity to enhance our readiness for the event. In dread of a set of heavy squats, we go to ready affirmations:

“I put up 247.5 lb. last week—250 lb. is going to go up for sure.”

“I’ve trained for 250. I’m ready.”

“I don’t have to squat 250 on Friday. I get to squat 250 on Friday.”

Dread as anticipation is also our cue to go to visualization: you see yourself squatting that load, perfectly. Tight. Knees-out. Solid back. Hip drive. Racking it. The crowd goes wild. Visualization of successful athletic performance is a go-to technique for champions. Dread is the reminder to use it.

This anticipation we call dread is also a call to arms, a call to active preparation. When we embrace our dread and the reality it represents, we damn well get ready. We attend to our diet. Our sleep. Our active rest. “The readiness is all,” as Shakespeare said.

Then there’s an odd and archaic but highly useful definition of dread: awe.

As in awesome. Filled with awe. Inspiring awe. As in My Most Dread Sovereign. Dreadnought. Judge Dread. And so on.

And that’s you, isn’t it? I hope so. “I am a 68-year-old woman, and I am going to pull 235 lb. on Friday!” That is an appropriately awe-inspiring thing, and in this sense, dread is completely positive. After all, you are awesome, aren’t you, for even contemplating such a thing? For subjecting yourself to that level of training? For even showing up? Why, yes, you are. You are awesome. Let that thought sink in when you feel that anxious anticipation. You do not turn away from the hard things. You are trained. You are ready. Your dread triggers you to think the right things, do the right things, eat the right things, and show up. You are awesome, Most Dread Athlete.

Of course, there’s one final meaning of the word, but it should go without saying. If you aren’t wearing your hair in dreadlocks for that heavy set, then all of my writing and all of your training has been a colossal waste of time. The dreadlock effect on athletic performance is well-recognized. Get your don gorgon on.

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