I’ve been thinking more about the interaction between L-mode and R-mode as discussed in last week’s blog post and it occurred to me that another hobby of mine provides a useful case study in the subject. That hobby is powerlifting, a sport that consists in the three lifts of the squat, the bench press and the deadlift (as opposed to the clean and jerk and snatch of Olympic weightlifting). I stumbled into powerlifting a few years ago after never having so much as set foot in a gym in my adult life. After a period of experimentation and self-learning, a powerlifting coach, seeing my awful technique one day, introduced himself and invited me along for a free evaluation session at the club where he coached. I went along for the session and then joined the club at which point my real powerlifting journey began.
The training strategy used in beginner and intermediate powerlifting is called the linear progression. The coach will establish your starting strength and fix a baseline weight. From that starting point, you begin a program where a fixed weight increment is added to the bar each week. For example, you might start the bench press at 60kg. Week 2 will raise that to 62.5kg, week 3 to 65kg and so on. Although there are all kinds of variation in beginner programs, they all follow this underlying principle. Note that this methodology is straight out of the left brain: linear, analytic, sequential and time-bound. The system works because the body adapts to the stress of lifting by over-compensating. If you get your diet right and load up on carbs and protein, the body will use that surplus to add more muscle, bone mass and ligament mass. With that extra capability, you are ready to lift the heavier weight the following week and the cycle repeats where the body adds even more mass which is then put into action the week after. The rate of adaptation is not equal among the different bodily components. Adding muscle is relatively easy and cost-free for the body and so this happens the quickest. It is more costly to add bone and ligament density and these adaptations take longer. While these changes are taking place, it’s common for the trainee to feel “pain” as the body is essentially re-architecting itself. The lifter must learn to differentiate between pain which denotes a genuine injury and pain that is just a signal of adaptation in progress.
This brings us to the subjective, right-brained part of powerlifting. Weightlifting is probably one of the more purely “objective” sports in the sense that you are dealing entirely with the laws of physics when lifting a bar. There is no opponent to psych-out, no teammates to help out and no referee who will make a stupid decision that costs you the game. There’s just you, the bar and the laws of physics. A lifter’s technique can be evaluated according to these laws. The bar path on the squat and the deadlift must be vertical. Any deviation from this is sub-optimal. You may still make the lift but you will have used more energy than was necessary and this will become a limiting factor over time. A similar but slightly more complicated geometrical equation holds for the bench press. That’s all well and good, but the lifter cannot watch themselves while lifting. They cannot form an objective impression. Thus, there needs to be a “translation” of the objective criteria into subjective heuristics in order to get the lifter to do what is necessary to achieve the optimal position. For example, one of my problems when squatting early on was that I would fall forward out of the bottom of the movement resulting in a bar path that was not vertical. As a beginner, I wasn’t subjectively aware of the problem because my mind was overloaded with stimuli including the nervousness and fear that comes from having a subjectively huge weight strapped to my back. This is where the coach is necessary. The coach’s job is to give you a cue which will address the problem. An example could be “chest up!” to get somebody like me to not fall forward. Other options include “look up” or “eyes forward” or “stand up straight”. One of the jobs of the coach is to find the right phrase which will resonate with the student and get them to do what is necessary. Sometimes the phrases can be very strange. At a powerlifting competition once, I saw a coach cue his student with the phrase “shoulders in your back pocket”. This is objectively nonsense but what he was trying to get the student to do was to pull their shoulders back; an important element in the deadlift. Such metaphorical expressions are R-mode or right-brained focused and, in fact, the act of lifting is all R-mode. Just like with other R-mode activities like drawing or playing music, it is possible to get into “the zone” doing powerlifting when things are going well. I have never heard a coach say “keep the bar path vertical” which is the objective truth of what needs to happen. The reason is because, from an R-mode perspective, the lifter has no idea what vertical is. You can feel it as a result of a well-executed lift but the process of lifting or in “imagining” the lift before you start, such objective, L-mode statements are not useful and are probably counter-productive just like it’s counter-productive in drawing to bring L-mode concepts to the task. This is another small piece of evidence, I think, that lends weight to the L-mode/R-mode distinction.
In powerlifting, there is also a strong propensity for L-mode to unduly influence R-mode. This manifests in a variety of ways that all tie back to the L-mode linear program that the weightlifter is undertaking. For a beginning lifter, each week is a personal best weight as they add a fixed weight to the bar which is a weight they have never lifted before. Assuming they have a coach to ensure their technique is not developing in an incorrect way and they are eating appropriately, the first few months of lifting are fairly effortless although there can be some growing pains during this period as the body undergoes significant change. It’s as you move from this beginner’s period into the intermediate level that L-mode starts playing tricks primarily because you now have just enough experience to start to generate expectations based on L-mode thought patterns. As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. One example from my intermediate period was when I accidentally put 20kg more on the bar than I was supposed to be lifting that day after getting distracted while loading the bar. I squatted the weight and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until I finished the sets and went to unload the bar that I realised I had 20kg more than I should have according to my program. This was quite a surprise. You would think that you would notice such a large difference in weight but I hadn’t. What had happened was that I was living in L-mode and L-mode said that the weight I was lifting was well within my capacity (which is true at the start of a cycle where you start with low weights and build up to heavier ones). Thus, I lifted it as if it was that lower weight. The subjective experience of the lifting, the R-mode, followed along with what L-mode told it. This is the same dynamic I mentioned last week in relation to the audio engineering where I “heard” what the L-Mode told me to hear. L-Mode sets up expectations based on a “logical” extrapolation. The expectation was “this weight is well within your capability” and that was what I was primed to experience.
A similar thing happens with weightlifting in relation to your subjective feeling going into a training session. For example, you might be feeling drained after a hard day at work or you might be feeling energised at something that happened right before the training session. As a beginner-intermediate lifter, your L-Mode extrapolates these subjective states into an expectation. If you are tired going into a session, you expect that you won’t lift very well. The opposite if you are energetic. One of the things you learn in weightlifting is that these expectations are irrelevant. I have gone into sessions feeling great only to lift poorly. I have gone into sessions feeling like I was coming down with a flu only to have a great session (and then feel in full health afterwards). After more experience, what you learn is that the start of a session is the time you have to dial in your technique. It is your technique that determines how well you are lifting and nothing else. Once you have enough experience, you can subjectively tell when your technique is slipping and get it back on track early in the session. That will determine how well the session goes. Emotional states are unimportant. Or, rather, you have to make them unimportant. You must learn to control your emotions and not let them distract you. You show up and do the work irrespective of how you are feeling. Note this does not include situations where you really are sick but the mind can play tricks on you there too. As you start to get into really heavy weights, it’s amazing how you can start to feel “sick” all of a sudden but that’s just your animal instincts trying to remove you from an unpleasant situation. It’s a variation on the flight response. Another thing you must learn to work through as a lifter.
From this I think we can extrapolate a model of learning. L-mode sets an expectation of a result and, unless R-mode’s subjective experience of the result diverges significantly from that expectation, no information of difference is recorded by the mind. In other words, you don’t even realise what happened just as I didn’t realise I had an extra 20kg on the bar when I was squatting that day. For the beginner and early intermediate practitioner, the mind is also full of other stimuli which raise the noise floor and make difference harder to perceive. You must learn to exclude such irrelevant stimuli. It’s also the case that R-mode gradually gains a firmer grasp of what we might call “the ideal” as you gain experience. This ideal is not an L-mode derived logical expectation but a subjective experience. In weightlifting, you can “feel” how well you are lifting and understand what is wrong from experience without L-mode analysis needing to happen. In German, this is called fingerspitzengefühl; a tacit understanding that is holistic and subjective. Thus, the master has achieved an appreciation which is entirely R-mode.