Mahaboob - that was the name on his license - hauled auto to get me home from Kanteerava Stadium. My first couple of weeks in Bangalore I found careening through traffic exhilarating the way people do when they forget that they’re not watching TV and that what they’re doing is actually dangerous. Now the moment driver’s start weaving and wedging their autos between vehicles at intersections as if they’re playing a game of rickshaw Tetris, I post wide in the backseat like Spiderman climbing an air duct. I’m always prepared in case I have to roll inverted like a carnival ride or run like a gerbil in a ball. I’ll choose my strategy at random depending on physics and my relative ankle dexterity which has deteriorated thanks to the Nandani milk truck incident. Today I appreciated efficiency and speed though I’m not sure everyone the driver sideswiped did. I gave him an extra few rupees even though he already flicked a tip with a rigged meter that started spinning like a slot machine shortly after the rate started to register.
I had just shuffled out of lifting practice with a wave to the other lifters. I felt like saying, “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya – hey, smell you later!” since everything I say sounds like ‘beepity, beep beep beep’ anyway. My accent and often my speed of delivery far exceeds their understanding of the English language and makes most of what I say pure gibberish but they’ll almost never ask me to repeat anything. After weeks of communicating with exaggerated facial expressions, monosyllabic noises and elaborate hand gestures I think they’ve elected to enter me in the ‘Three Stooges Division’ at the so-called lifting competition that will occur on ‘Don’t worry’ of next month. You see, every time I ask when the competition is that I’m supposed to be training for, I get the answer, “Don’t worry” which, as far as I’m concerned should only be used to answer the question, “Should I worry?” but not to answer questions of date, time or location since - and I’m being a stickler here – it’s not an actual answer.
I lamented as I bid Boob adieu, that I couldn’t find sweet relief in the hands of a good masseuse since I’m still recovering from my first shocking attempts at relaxation. I first went for a facial at the Spa on the rooftop terrace next door. A shy, gentle creature wafted over to me and, as I lay their nearly sedated by the jasmine in her hair, she attempted to recarve the nose on my face with a clay tool. As New Englanders say, it was a lot like having your liver removed with a warm spoon. Not content with the results of her rhinoplasty, she ran vigorous circles on my cheeks with her fingertips as if getting a running start so that she could jump her hands off my nose and clap them together directly over my face. It was so unsettling I recommend the technique only be used on shock victims to keep them from passing out. I now have a Pavlovian response to the smell of jasmine and I cower whenever some fragile little auntie shuffles by me on the street.
Since I’ve been known to race passed a red flag in any relationship as if it marked pole position, I went back for a full body massage after a particularly harrowing workout where I missed so many snatch attempts that dodging the crashing bar in front and behind me began to make me feel like I was caught in an air raid. I could drop the bar but I have a harder time dropping the pursuit and I left feeling frustrated and in need of some pampering. But the hopes of relaxation vanished immediately when she whipped the sheet off my naked body with all the subtlety of a table cloth swiped from beneath a full table setting to leave the china undisturbed. I wish I knew the Kanadda equivalent of ‘Ta Da!”
Understanding how well I generally handle myself in these situations, I engrossed myself in the mantra ‘must not laugh’ so that the only discernable acknowledgement that my full-frontal nudity was an unexpected plot twist was that my ‘zoinks!’ reflex loosed the cottonballs from my eyelids when my eyes snapped open sending them tumbling down my cheeks. And having your chest rubbed by a sweet-faced Indian woman may increase the number of hits on the YouTube video undoubtedly recorded on a cell phone from the next building; it did nothing to relax me and only reminded me of the Breast Self Exam illustrations in doctor’s offices. Maybe that’s why it’s a ‘self’ exam and not a ‘buddy system’ sort of thing.
Obviously then, recovery was going to depend on good old fashioned food and sleep - both of which I needed desperately. The work is only part of the equation and it’s like buying a plot of land on which to build a house. Securing the site is a logical first step but without raw materials or the time to complete the work, you’ve gotten nowhere. Raw materials for muscle mass of course consist of protein which can be rough to find in this outpost.
“If nutrients needed for protein synthesis (to maintain or repair damaged tissue) are not sufficiently available from dietary sources, the body will take them from its own stores. In essence, the body will rob Peter to pay Paul in order to maintain function. By ensuring adequate dietary protein intake, a trainee will be certain to provide the body with the building blocks necessary for protein synthesis, “said Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore in ‘Practical Programming for Strength Training.’ [Pg 49] As it was, I’d been cashing in on my own lean mass since the day I touched down.
I started relying more heavily on protein powders. Not that I hadn’t been enjoying my role of American auntie to young Babu at ‘State of Punjab,’ putting the dear boy through college one tikka order at a time, it’s just that I was beginning to wonder whether gastronomic monotony would permanently damage my palate if not my sanity. I knew I was going to need to change things up after submerging my chicken into the same mysterious “chutney” in the accompanying condiment cup and wondering whether or not anybody would say anything if, for the sake of variety, I instead darted across the food court to dredge my kabob through the faux butterscotch gelato displayed in a freezer case with an enticing ripple pattern. At least it was distracting contemplating whether the malnourished and slack-jawed gelato vendors could actually catch me. Anything but the same meal again, please.
The ‘cleanest’ protein powder I could get was a local brand that didn’t appear to genetically modify, hydrolyze, hydrogenate, ‘supplement’ or cut with soy. I couldn’t however determine how much sugar was in the mix since nutritional labels never indicate an actual serving size choosing instead to break down information based on an irrelevant measure of 100 grams and, even then, most of the data is incomplete. As far as I could tell, I could be drinking Black Market Ovaltine. The other common problem, even in the states, is that serving sizes don’t always match the scoop provided though wouldn’t the world be simpler if only that were so.
Most people blanched when I told them I bought locally because, even when the quality of the ingredients is good, the quality of the manufacturing and the cleanliness of the facility are always questionable. I had no illusions. I handed Ganesh a chunk of Peanut Chikki one day that I dug from the emergency supplies in the endless front pocket of my duffle bag. I couldn’t afford to let the big man swoon as he’d be an impossible mass to drag.
He paused mid-chew and said, “There’s dirt or something in this.”
“Yeah, it’s dirt,” I said dismissively. I find dirt, pet rocks, and petrified pests in most foods here so I wasn’t concerned. I like to call it the ‘toy surprise’ happily reminiscent of Cracker Jacks. Frankly I was pleased to know that this country might awaken the appendix. I’m personally taking part in evolution simply by coaxing an organ out of retirement.
“Why didn’t you tell me there was dirt?” he said and stopped examining the Chikki to glare at me as if he’d find it unsettling given the things I’ve seen him eat. It’s true however that insect larva won’t break a tooth and usually goes down without much of a fight. Dirt is harder on dental work.
“Oh, I thought you knew. Peanut Chikki is like that sometimes.” In true Indian style, my response should have been a head wobble followed by, ‘It’s like that only.” The ‘only’ at the end of the sentence is a pointless modifier and could probably be replaced with the word “shazam!’ without straying too far from the meaning.
But I had to do something about the protein problem just like I had to do something about my programming. After weeks of training at the stadium where I believe reps and sets were configured with the help of a numerologist choosing auspicious loads, I elected to go rogue. I’m not saying the coaches didn’t know what they were doing, I’m saying they never said and though I had tried to be quiet and not be a ‘backseat driver,’ I was wondering if that meant quietly watching as we swerved into a ditch.
“We’re doing another heavy day today?! But we lifted heavy yesterday” I’d say in surprise.
“Don’t worry. You do. Light.” The coach would say with a reassuring smile.
“But you said heavy,” I’d say, puzzled and then ask, “Front Squat?”
"Back Squat,” another quick and confident reply.
“We did back squat yesterday,” I’d say.
“Front Squat,” again another quickly delivered response.
I liked to call it goldfish programming – when the parameters change every few minutes and we all pretend we have no memory of it. I’d glance over my shoulder at Ganesh and he’d give me an “I heard. Keep quiet” look with wide eyes and a thrust of his chin for punctuation.
‘Light days’ always turned into heavy days when one of the coaches would stand across the room and flick his hands at me in the universal symbol for ‘add 10 kilos’ at least as far as I knew. It could also mean ‘pick up the tempo in the horn section’ but that seems less likely.
Practical programming addresses this in regards to the intermediate lifter. It reads, “What were once easy 10-pound jumps for sets of 5 reps become difficult 5-pound jumps for 5 reps. With standard 2 1/2 pound plates, sets of four is the inevitable result. The object is to use sets of five, for the metabolic effect produced by five reps, and training is designed around a certain number of reps for this specific reason. So it is necessary to be able to make incremental increases while holding the reps constant, and this requires that the increments to be small enough that an adaptation can occur during the time allotted. A trainee who has correctly followed the program will eventually not be able to adapt to 5-pound jumps between workouts.” [Pg 158]
It’s fair, yet also frightening, to say that some of the coaching decisions were based on what equipment we actually have and apparently someone had long ago stuffed the smaller plates in their shorts and walked out perhaps pocketing any remnants of a game plan while they were at it. At least somebody did a Pooja on the squat rack, I’d think as I’d eye the last residual smudges of vermillion.
At some point I’d say, “But this is my one rep max.” Perhaps when he said ‘light day’ he was referring to our moods which is a word that described his mood much more than mine.
“You do,” The coach would reply and I don’t know whether it was a command or the standard ‘think positive’ approach that sometimes spackles over the holes where actual skill or knowledge is missing.
“The goal of any model of weekly periodized training is to produce a disruption in homeostasis through the cumulative effects of heavy training days, and then allow supercompensation to occur with the inclusion of light days and the rest it provides,” said Rippetoe and Kilgore again in ‘Practical Programming for Strength Training’ (page 193-198) which I began reading obsessively at night and pumping my fists in the air with a ‘booYAH!’ every time I found evidence that I could but never would present to the coaches at the stadium simply because they’d already made it clear that they aren’t interested, “The light day is an absolutely essential component of the program; it is a recovery day. A light training load should not be enough to induce an overload and disrupt homeostasis, and it is not really a part of the overload event. It should be light enough to allow for recovery while at the same time providing enough work through the movement pattern to prevent any loss of fitness. Failure to include the important and frequently overlooked light training day will lead to overtraining and reduce the program’s success.“
Since all my light days had turned into a game called ‘Let’s see who can make the white girl cry,’ it was time for an intervention. I had been making decent progress on the clean but it couldn’t be matched by the jerk since practice was slowed by the ankle sprain and the swelling on the bottom of my heel as a result of the auto accident. The snatch looked more like a strong man throwing event. Instead of a ‘catch’ it was more of a duck and cover because of a faulty shoulder position and a slight niggling feeling that squatting under a falling barbell might be kind of stupid.
Still the impatience and optimism by the coaches at Kanteerava was easy to understand. There were meets to train for and they were all gifted lifters who would never have come in contact with a middle-aged woman with limited skills who was willing to invest the time in training and who would actually show up on game day. Especially – and this needs further emphasis - one whose skills were limited. This would be rare in India as most Indians have better things to do and more sense. In what was beginning to look like my life’s theme, I was an oddball and folks weren’t quite sure what to do with me.
One of the female lifters had beautiful form and precision and an enviable 50K physique. She told me one day that she wasn’t a powerlifter because her 160K squat wasn’t very good – a weight I can only imagine having on my back long enough for it to drill me into the floor. When she was there, I could always count on some insightful information about what I needed to fix, but in cases of inflexibility or just plain stupidity on my part, she had few ideas of how to fix it other than the standard, “you do.”
Though Dipti*, another female lifter, never developed a squat that could even break parallel, at 19 she could essentially power snatch 80K. She’d put her gold necklace in her mouth and bite down to keep it from flying up and chipping a tooth and then make a ‘cha,cha,cha,cha’ noise reminiscent of a snake rattle that was fierce and unnerving. Clearly whenever a coach says ‘you do’, she did which somehow bought her a pardon when it came to the squat.
At one point they were all clearly coached but now what I see is a dirty facility with decaying equipment and programming with no changes in rep scheme or planned load variations and no training logs to chart progress. Again, I can’t say for sure that they don’t have more extensive feedback from say ‘Charlie’ over intercom or ‘the Great and Powerful Oz,’ because they ‘find he is a Wiz of a Wiz if ever a Wiz there was,’ it’s just not evident. But a lack of solid training would be more consistent with the experience of athletes in India whose secondary pastime outside their sport, it seems, is ‘making do.’ The 50K lifter gets coaching from her husband who has been kind enough to work with me before and I’ve found his guidance very helpful but according to Dipti, the actual coach hasn’t stepped foot in the gym for a couple of years though she thinks she might have seen him at one of the meets.
Poonam Kaushish wrote about this not long ago in an article for sarkaritel.com called ‘One Gold, Two Bronzes doesn’t total Sporting Nation,’ referring to India’s 2008 Olympic showing in which a nation of over a billion people could secure only three metals. “Much of the problem with developing Olympic champions here seems to be rooted in the very same things that make India a perpetual also-ran to China in economic development: poor infrastructure, entrenched political corruption and infighting, and chaos and disorganization. Money earmarked for Olympic training is often mysteriously sidelined, facilities for training are in poor shape and equipment goes missing. Any wonder that India has only won 25 medals in Olympic Games since 1928,” Kaushish said.
Take the case of swimmer Nisha Millet as reported by P.S. Phadnis in ‘Swimming star cries out for competition’ who went on to swim for India in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and came in 37th out of 39 in the 200m freestyle, “The Karnataka government had promised Rs. 50,000 for every record broken and Rs. 30,000 for every gold won by its sportspersons. Nisha broke nine national records and won nine golds, but the government decided that it needed to pay her only Rs. 150,000 on the ground that each medal and record could not be taken into consideration separately. However, even the scaled-down payment is yet to be made.”
After Arriving in Sydney, Nisha was asked about her foreign competition in an article for India-Today.com written by Mathang and Apurvo Parthasarthy. She said “There is a marginal difference in talent, but a vast gap in other aspects. Indian swimmers are physically weaker than the foreign contenders. The foreign swimmers are literally bodybuilders, who train themselves on heavy weights from the very beginning, which we don't. I'll have to be more cautious with heavy weights as I have a bit of a shoulder problem. Abroad training is gradual, whereas in India it is forced. That apart, they are gifted with excellent infrastructure and facilities like scholarships and grants more or less equally for all sports, unlike in India, where corporates as well as the government concentrate mainly on cricket... and just cricket. We swimmers have to literally hunt for sponsors to finance our training!”
Interestingly enough, cricket which is much beloved in India, is not the national sport, Field Hockey is but India’s national Field Hockey team couldn’t even qualify for the recent Olympics in Beijing. Cricket however lends itself quite nicely to advertisers with ODI, One Day International, games that score hundreds of runs to keep the population riveted in spite of frequent commercials. Even the shirts of referees urge ‘Fly Emirates’ and apparently it’s their call.
Finally, by the end of her career, Millet said in an article for IBNlive written by Shwetal Kamalapurkar to mark her retirement, "I'm really tired. In 15 years all I got was one scholarship in 2004, which came through eight months after I applied. I did apply for a scholarship last year too, but didn't get a response from SAI [Sports Authority of India]. Over a period of time I've realised that I cannot achieve anything at international meets by training in India," she said.
The money never seems to trickle down from the Sports Authority of India which was created specifically to cultivate athletes but the attitude towards and the disregard of athletes does trickle all the way down to the regional level which I get to see at Kanteerava. The gifted few whose genes defy malnutrition and a lack of training structure are herded off to Sports Hostels where they live on sparse room and board and a stipend of 4,000 to 6,000 rupees monthly. That translates into the cost of one pair of imported name-brand track pants and one pound of protein powder per month. It’s not enough to inspire a great deal of effort on the part of the athlete or for that matter the coaches that train them. And even if the athletes I train with have stalled, though I’m not sure that’s true, it’s fairly safe to say they’d medal just by showing up at a meet deplete of expertise. I too, am a medal hopeful under these conditions.
“It is very true that many novices start out on terrible programs, training with no reason or logic, or adopting programs that are designed for more advanced trainees which prevent them from progressing as quickly as they could. But the magical adaptability of the novice is often strong enough to overcome even the poorest of decisions. Beginners can seemingly make progress even under the worst circumstances. But for the intermediate trainee, progress is harder to come by, and the body is much more particular about what it responds to when it comes to improving an already-honed performance, “ wrote Rippetoe and Kilgore. [Pg 176]
“An already-honed performance” might not describe where I started when I walked into Kanteerava but the fact that I walked in with lifting shoes that weren’t personally designed with the help of the local cobbler and a pair of rugged leather retro sneakers hinted at an expertise I didn’t actually have. I also walked in the door able to push press as much weight as I’d need to split jerk and front squat as much as I’d need to clean to win at a meet. Connecting the dots seemed pretty simple when you’re overly optimistic about what you don’t know you don’t know.
Since I had a foundation of powerlifting way more weight than I would need to lift to compete here, it would seem that working with an insignificant load in a snatch would be a snap. Rippetoe and Kilgore address this as well only this time in ‘Starting Strength, Basic Barbell Training' [pg 171-2], “What this means is that if heavy weights are lifted at a slow speed, the lifter gets good at lifting them at a slow speed. He does not get good at lifting them at a faster speed. So slow deadlift training will not make the clean move faster. And if a lifter gets good at pulling a weight fast, as in a power clean, he gets good at generating force at that faster rate of speed. The rate of speed that is trained is the rate of speed to which we adapt. But this rule only works well in one direction: strength developed at a high rate of speed can be used at that high speed and at speeds slower than that.”
Of course, there were parts of my lifts that looked promising but there appeared to be a timing problem. When the coaches loaded me with heavier weights and my speed suffered, they’d simply give me the instruction ‘faster’ which I understood in theory, but I couldn’t execute. “There are slow and isometric components in explosive movements that benefit from the strength developed at slow speeds. A clean has a slow phase off the floor that benefits from the strength it takes to maintain the position until the explosive phase, so deadlifts are useful for training the clean. The actual explosion at the top does not benefit from the slow strength developed in the deadlift and squat, but the whole of the lift does, from the pull from the floor, to the ability to hold the back locked, to the catch position and finally the support position at the top,” Rippetoe and Kilgore explain.
I remember training clients in Seattle who worked at Microsoft and one particular manager lamented that the Indian computer programmers were proficient at memorizing code but had limited understanding of it and even less creativity. What I saw here was lifting code and a disinterest in learning what any of it meant. Of course, we could have had the conversation all day about why I was slow and it wouldn’t have helped or we could have kept working with heavy loads and it might at some point help if I didn’t get injured first or finally, we could have backed off and worked on speed.
“Coaches and athletes must understand why successful programs are put together the way they are so they can develop their own program specific to their circumstances. Copying and cannibalizing successful programs without understanding why they were successful is never a good idea. An understanding of the realities and practicalities of progressive training and periodization is.” Again, the words of Rippetoe and Kilgore. [Pg 15]
I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been on a death march program and was about to stagger out of line to be left for dead. Now that could simply be my own attempts to overanalyze my situation because sometimes finding reasons for failure is easier than finding solutions to problems but I don’t think so. Take Dipti for instance.
Dipti is already feeling the pressure to marry by her family and she’s reluctant to tell them that she’s chosen somebody who, by their definition, would not be suitable. She’s concerned about money and knowing that she and her suitor will essentially be on their own if they decide to defy the caste system, she’s looking for ways to support herself. She’s approached me because she wants me to teach her kickboxing since she sees this as a scheme for gainful employment though any attempts to advise her otherwise have made me look like a buzz kill even though I have the actual math to back me up. Eventually I agreed anyway since she’s my lifting partner most days and selfishly, it had become clear that until I taught her something, she was going to grind my training to a halt.
Over the course of a couple of weeks I taught her the components – punches, kicks, some conditioning – but she wanted a ‘routine’ to memorize. I told her that a routine depends on the floor space and the talent in the room and I explained that my class is different every day and that maybe she could take a couple of classes so that she could understand how to fit the pieces together. I was even willing to teach those classes at the stadium after practice. She however wasn’t willing to put in the time, she wasn’t fit enough to complete most of the work and she wasn’t willing to understand the logic. As a result, she sulked.
After that, she went through a bout of mysterious injuries that had her sidelined and on a cell phone through entire sessions. Shortly after, a week went by in which she simply disappeared from the stadium all together. There were personal dramas that explained away absences and more sulking. Meanwhile, I had already written my own programming and moved on. Within two weeks she’ll compete and whether she practices at all between now and then, she’ll win.
One of the most glaring issues for me as I started putting together my training plan is that the organization of the work made no sense. Squatting usually happened first, each incremental increase was performed for two sets of between 1-4 reps, and the progression was by ten kilos. By the time we got to practice the lifts I would be competing in, I was tired and my timing was off.
“Fatigue decreases the precision with which motor unit recruitment patterns can be managed and has a direct bearing on the skill with which a movement can be executed and practiced. Movements that depend highly on skill of execution – those for which technical components are more limiting than strength level for determining the 1RM – should be done first in the workout, before fatigue has blunted the unimpeded contribution of efficient force production of the movement.,” Rippetoe and Kilgore wrote [pg 130] and it produced a rousing booYAH! from my bed one night, “A snatch is limited by the ability of the lifter to execute the movement in a technically correct manner more than by the absolute strength of the athlete. But if the athlete’s strength is compromised by fatigue, the ability to apply that strength in the correct way will interfere with the technical execution of the lift, since correct technique depends on the ability to deliver maximum power to the bar at the right time in the right position, all of which are affected by the ability to produce maximum force, the very thing that fatigue affects.”
As I mentioned, speed was already an issue. One of the suggestions in Practical Programming was to replace heavy squats on Friday with Speed Squats. This acted like a heavy day in the sense that it created a need for greater muscle fiber recruitment but was easier to recover from than another heavy day. And it made all the sense in the world to train speed in order to increase speed.
I was off to a grim start however when I tweaked my back during a warm up set. The work continued and lest we blame the speed squats, the back issue that flared up was actually inflammation as a result of the changes in my diet. I suspect the mystery protein triggered it but at the moment I was too tired and too poor to replace it. I can always tell when back pain is triggered by a food allergy because the onset seems fairly random and I’m stiff when I get up in the morning. To slow the nerve response and keep it from spasming, I began icing my back post workout while I watched the first three of seven ODI cricket matches against England. By the time the fourth game was played in Bangalore, I was hooked and I may have developed both frostbite and a crush on ‘The Turbanator’ Harbhajan Singh.
In spite of the back issues, I seemed to be making some progress. In two weeks following new programming and increasing protein intake, my jerk was up to par, my clean was more reliable and my snatch hadn’t killed me yet. I had changed the order of the exercises and began to strictly monitor my rest times. I successfully lifted light on my light days and I incorporated some pulling work at Gold’s which helped to shorten my workouts by limiting my time at the stadium to less than an hour and a half. My stopwatch kept me from attempting PR’s before I had recovered enough while also holding me to task when my mind drifted towards deciphering words in Tamil pop songs Shiva played for me on the way to the Stadium. He’d snap his fingers and say, “You like, Madame?!” and I’d always have to shake a limb or he’d be disappointed.
“Rest time between sets should be adequate for recovery but not enough to allow “cooling off,” or a decrease in preparedness for the next set. Too much time between sets represents wasted training time and, in institutional contexts, an inefficient use of the training facilities. Too little time between sets costs reps and completed work sets and defeats the purpose of training. Make sure that enough time is allotted that the whole workout can actually be done in one session. Any workout that takes longer than two hours probably involves too many exercises, too many sets or too much talking,” from, need I say, Practical Programming. [Pg 173]
The trainers at Gold’s were even mentioning that my back was getting broader, my waist narrower and my arms bigger. These are the comments folks in India will make to you at around the same time they ask about your salary, why you’re not married and how much you actually weigh which generally follow the question, “have you had your breakfast?” which nobody in the states ever thinks to ask.
One secondary bit of preparation almost like men lubing their nipples in preparation for a long run, I finally caved to Ganesh’s urgings that I dye my hair black because I really felt like I’d be more comfortable if I blended with the other competitors a bit since, hard to believe, I’ve always been shy in public. And where else would I go but the spa on the rooftop terrace next door. As you’d expect, there was some slight miscommunication so that the ‘darker’ hair color became a shade I’ve come to describe as Blackety Black, a shade so inky you’d swear it stains the furniture. I look like the Desi undead and I’d describe it as Goth if anyone here had any idea what that meant.
And just as I started feeling optimistic about the whole thing thanks in part to the black hair and it's unintended but much appreciated reduction in Auto fare quotes, I found out that the ‘don’t worry’ date is actually less than two weeks away.
*her names has been changed to protect her privacy