balancing aggression with caution
in the weight room
"Perseverance" vs. "Stupidity"
Alec Enkiri | 1/24/20
Perseverance or stupidity?
As many of you have probably seen by now I had a bit of an incident earlier this week during one of my training sessions. I was going for a big PR on the trap bar carry - attempting to finally break past the 600lbs barrier, which has been a standing goal of mine for about 2 years now. So I converted my old trap bar into a makeshift frame by building a little platform for it. As a side note, several people have asked me why I did this and the reason is simple: to elevate the bar off the ground to make the pick up easier so that you can focus on actually carrying the implement, which in this case is the goal we are shooting for. If I want to deadlift I'll deadlift, but when it's time to carry I want to focus on carrying. So I converted the trap bar into a frame and a few weeks ago I got to it.
The most I had ever attempted on a trap bar carry was 555lbs around April of 2018. I did it with straps and I took it for about 15yds. To kick off 2020, in my first session with the frame I did 525lbs for 20yds, no straps. Then in the sessions that followed I did 535lbs and 545lbs, again with no straps, both for 15yds. These sets were solid and I could tell from these carries alone that I'm stronger now than I was when I did the 555 in 2018. So the following week I decided I was going to add the straps in and go for something big. The frame itself weighs 85lbs so I figured the simplest attempt to go for was 605lbs - that's five 45lbs plates per side, along with a single 35 pounder on each end, plus the weight of the frame itself (45 x 10 + (35x2) + 85 = 605lbs).
My attempts during this session were as follows:
175lbs x 20yds
265lbs x 20yds
355lbs x 20yds
405lbs x 20yds
455lbs x 20yds
505lbs x 15yds
555lbs x 15yds (add straps)
605lbs (1st attempt, bad fail)
605lbs x 15yds (BIG PR, +50lbs)
535lbs x 15yds (Back off set 1)
495lbs x 15yds (Back off set 2)
And here is the failed attempt followed immediately by the successful attempt:
Skip to 1:20 if the only reason you came here is to see me fall flat on my face.
The events that led to this error were multi-fold. The failure itself was simply the culmination of a series of mistakes on my part, mistakes that I was able to identify, correct, and overcome within the session itself. I failed a big PR attempt in a pretty dramatic fashion, but I was able to gather myself, analyze what went wrong, and come back just 5 minutes later to crush the same weight that had nearly just crushed me. The main culprits at play here were stubbornness/ego, carelessness, and a lack of proper preparation.
Stubbornness because I refused to let go of a weight that, during the set, I could very clearly feel was slipping out of my hands. Carelessness because I tried using a different style of strap here, known as figure 8 straps, which loop around the bar and through your wrist twice, essentially locking you into the barbell. However, being as how I had never used this style of strap before I couldn't figure out how to get it to lock in place properly before picking up the bar. This left the straps loose around my wrists which left my grip relatively insecure while I was carrying the implement. However, when the implement slipped out of my hands the straps managed to lock in place how they are supposed to lock, which left me handcuffed to the bar and forced me to go wherever it went.
Now, if I had chosen to put the implement down when I still had control over it then this entire thing would have very well been avoided, but I chose to try to hold on even though the odds of that happening successfully were very minimal. It was stubborn to try to hold onto something I had no chance of holding on to. It was careless to switch to a new type of equipment that I have zero experience with when going for such a big PR.
The lack of proper preparation involved the actual execution of the carry and came into play with the forward tilting of the trap bar, which is ultimately what caused the frame to tip over on me. I have a decent amount of experience at this point with carrying farmer's walk implements. With these implements it's beneficial to grip the handles slightly asymmetrically, gripping just a little more towards the back of the handle (a tip I actually learned from a professional strongman). This causes the handles to pull forward when you pick them up which provides some momentum for you to move into the carry with. I tried to use this same technique with the trap bar, but, due to the orientation of the weight, the trap bar doesn't work this way. If the trap bar tilts forward it cannot tilt back, thus as soon as this occurs you begin to lose your grip on it, it becomes unbalanced, and you begin to lose control of it. And that is exactly what happened to me.
Figure 8 straps. The intersecting portion of the strap goes underneath the barbell and the two loops both go through your wrist, literally tethering you to the bar.
Now, combine these 3 factors together and you get the dramatic failure that occurred here. I learned from my mistakes though, and I rectified them immediately:
I switched to a pair of standard straps that I know how to use properly and that don't handcuff you to the barbell.
I picked the bar up in a symmetrical fashion so that I could maintain a full grip on it and keep it in a perfectly balanced position.
I had no intention of attempting to hold onto a weight that was slipping from my grasp. I vowed that if that were to occur again I would simply set the frame down in a controlled fashion, reset my grip, and try again.
I also did a quick test pick up prior to the successful set where I simply picked the weight up, stabilized it, and held it there for a few seconds to make sure that I could maintain that balance and control, and made sure that all these variables were adjusted for properly beforehand.
During the actual set I also took great care to walk in a slow (a good bit slower than I usually do with these heavy carries) and controlled fashion during the carry to make absolutely certain that I would not be thrown off balance again. Maybe I wouldn't be able to walk as far with the weight since I was moving so slow, but I figured that was an acceptable trade off at this point. The result of these adjustments was a successful and convincing carry with 605lbs for a total distance of 15yds and a really big PR for me.
The failed attempt. Notice how tilted the bar is already even though I had literally only just picked it up. This is not a good position to be in with the trap bar.
The successful attempt. After making my adjustments the bar is still perfectly straight with just a few yards left to go. This is a much better position to be in with the trap bar.
So I made some logical adjustments and I came back and crushed it. Was that perseverance or stupidity? Was I overly aggressive or did I balance that with an appropriate amount of caution? Or did I completely throw the caution to the wind!? I think the answer to a lot of these questions is in the eye of the beholder. For me, I came in too strong. I was overly aggressive and overly confident and that led to ego and stubbornness taking a strong root, which led to carelessness, which led to a pretty bad mistake that I was very lucky to get away from pretty much unscathed.
Balancing Aggression With Caution
I've thrown caution to the wind many times in my life, honestly, more times than I am proud to admit. To escape without harm, have I been lucky? Have I been good? Who the hell knows, but eventually it's not going to matter how lucky you are or how good you are. If you keep rolling the dice on unnecessary risks eventually you are going to get bitten in the ass. It's simply a rule of probabilities. As I mentioned in my video on the incident, there are obviously inherent risks involved with lifting heavy weights and trying to get as strong as humanly possible. It's just a part of the game we have chosen to play and we are simply acknowledging and accepting those risks every time we step under the bar. For me, this incident serves not only as an important reminder of the existence of those risks (it might sound crazy, but when you've been doing something inherently dangerous for such a long time, sometimes you can forget how dangerous it actually is and how easy it is for that danger to suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, rear its head), but it also screams at me to stop being an idiot.
The problem is not that these risks exist - that just is what it is. The problem is when you unnecessarily compound the dangers of these risks by mixing in stupid things like stubbornness, ego, and carelessness. On the other hand, if you prepare yourself adequately to efficiently execute what you are trying to execute; if you don't make last second changes to important pieces of equipment; and if you give yourself hard rules to live by when you're attempting these sorts of feats, where if you're on the verge of breaking one of these rules then you stop, then and there, no questions asked, and you live to fight another day - if you do these things then the risks involved will be minimized to the level of risk that is inherent to the activity without being compounded by your human error, and, to me, that is acceptable.
In the long run stubbornness and ego will do absolutely nothing but serve to get you hurt and fuck up your gains and your health. Be aggressive in your training, that's fine, in fact, it's necessary if you want to become the best that you can be. But keep that aggression in check with at least a little bit of caution, especially when attempting things you've never before attempted. It's better to safely miss the first time you're trying for a PR and then get it a week or two weeks or four weeks later, then it is to completely throw caution to the wind and snap your fucking legs in half because you had to have it right fucking now. Just an important lesson that I think can be taken away from this little incident. If we can learn from it then at least it wasn't without value.
Perseverance vs. Stupidity
This brings me to the final point I wanted to touch on, which is the immediate aftermath of the incident. I came back strong and I persevered, right? ...or was it nothing but pure fucking stupidity that led me to try that shit again? Here, I think the devil is entirely in the details. If I had come back a second time and just tried the exact same thing that I had literally just tried then, no, that's not perseverance. That is just plain stupidity and it would be foolish to expect the end result to be any different then it was the first time.
But that's not what I did. Instead, I took stock of exactly what had gone wrong, made a few minor but strategic adjustments to my execution, did a quick test run to make sure my theories were accurate, and gave myself hard limits to abide by on the next attempt. Then I checked to make sure my nuts were still there and I went for it again. That is not foolish or stupid. That is calculated. That is perseverance. That is tenacity. That is grit. I removed the ego, and the stubbornness, and the carelessness from the equation. I analyzed things logically and I used my aggression and my determination to persevere when things got painful and tough and most other people would have quit themselves or would have even implored for YOU to quit at that point if they had been watching.
Overcoming in that situation builds character. Even failing in that situation builds character. The important part is that you analyzed what went wrong, made some adjustments based on the best information that was available to you, and stood back up for another round. And I think this lesson is important because this mindset bleeds over into everything that you do in life. If you are willing to concede at the first sign of difficulty just because you got a little bit dinged up or psychologically rattled then you're never going to become a master of your craft; you're never going to build a level of character that's worthy of admiration and emulation. But if you can adapt when things get rough, if you can overcome the odds and persevere, or even simply fail while giving it your best damn shot in the face of great danger then you will always be moving out of your comfort zone - growing, evolving, building resilience, building strength of character, and building strength of mind. And that is something worth emulating. That is perseverance, not stupidity, and that is a lesson worth learning.