L-mode and R-mode case study

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.

17 thoughts on “L-mode and R-mode case study”

  1. Wow, too much information! 😉
    In 20 plus years of training with powerlifting as a base, I never quite looked at it in that much detail, but, I get you drift. Second day soreness and all that. 😁
    My best days are behind me but that’s ok
    Today was bench, plus some db flys and a couple of bicep exercises.
    For years I trained with my friend who’s kind of a freak, as I fondly call him.
    https://www.openpowerlifting.org/dist/openipf/u/deanjenkinson
    He still competes, but is also an obsessive runner!
    He did a bodybuilder comp once and won that too.
    He weighs about 65-68kg. Small, but mighty!
    He has recorded every single training session he has ever done in over 30 years and is extremely analytical and focussed about every rep.
    Me, not so much!
    I’d ear bash him about politics and banking and general global corruption, haha.
    I badgered him into doing the city to bay fun run many years ago, which we did quite a few times.
    I was fit back then!
    Twice weekly beep tests too.
    I weighed about 53kg and just managed to bench my bodyweight.
    The politician Tony Zappia was a state champion powerlifter too, many years ago.
    Over the last few years, he would come into the gym in shirt and pants, do a few sets of bench, and off he’d go!
    Time for a walk!

  2. Helen – the thing I like about powerlifting is that it is designed to take you out of your comfort zone and so you can extrapolate that to other areas of life and realise that we are all in the comfort zone all the time. Especially here in Australia. Then, if you’ve done powerlifting, you know the emotional/mental responses you are likely to have when taken out of your comfort zone and you learn how to deal with them. I have a feeling that’s a useful skill in the time ahead of us. Nice work on the bench. Were you entering competitions or just trying for PBs in the gym?

  3. My friend tried to get me to go into a competition, but I never had any desire to do so.
    Initially, my reason for going to the gym was training for strength as I wanted to try out for the Fierys.
    I got right through to the final round of the process, but by that point I realised I actually didn’t want to do it, so when I failed with 2 things left – a huge ladder lift, which fell on my head, good thing for a hard hat! If I’d done that I would have had to do a simulated jaws of life technique, basically picking it up and waving it at a car a few times.
    That would have got me through, so I was actually relieved I didn’t, otherwise I would have had to tell them, sorry I’ve changed my mind!
    I’m glad I did it though, because of that, I still train to this day.

  4. Helen – powerlifting comps are actually very cool, which surprised me cos objectively it’s not a great spectator sport. Even the hardest fought lift might go for five seconds in total. But somehow it works. The crowd is very supportive and it’s usually a great atmosphere. I’d say you get an extra 5kg-10kg bonus from the cheering.

  5. @Simon

    If you’ll excuse an off topic comment: I have COVID. And I can confirm it truly is quite awful. Y’know, the flu kind of awful. I have no idea how civilization survived this long without locking down each winter. Anyway… Back to bed…

  6. Irena – I wish you a speedy recovery. Chicken soup and hot lemon water with lots of honey always worked for me in such circumstances.

  7. @Simon

    Thanks for the good wishes. 🙂

    I’m vegan, so no chicken or honey for me. But, I have found that hot liquid stuff is pretty much the only thing that I feel like consuming. My sense of smell is gone (completely: I can’t even smell chemicals, let alone food), and my sense of taste has been weakened. But the hot-liquidy still somehow appeals to me, at least a bit.

    Anyway, in health terms, it’s rather unfortunate I caught the thing now, because I had the flu (I assume it was the flu) only a month ago, and so my immune system isn’t at its best at the moment. On the other hand, it was high time I caught it: the elections over here in CZ are over, and who knows what happens now COVID-wise. Well, now that I have an official positive PCR test in hand, I have excellent bureaucratic protection against gene therapy for the next six months. And in six months: who knows?! Didn’t I read somewhere they have some fancy new COVID treatments that go for $700 per dose? Don’t know about you, but if I were a Big Pharma executive, that would tempt me to suddenly discover that “vaccines,” sadly, do not work against the variant du jour. So, with any luck, I’ve permanently dodged that particular bullet (fingers crossed).

  8. That’s good news. Recognising the immunity that comes from infection seems to be beyond us here in Australia (and the US and Canada for that matter). It’s a vaccine or nothing. I expect that will change once enough vaccinated people test positive to start questioning the narrative. As you say, just in time for the next “miracle cure” to arrive on the scene.

  9. Update: I’m worse. Actually, my cough is almost gone (may it stay that way), but my fever is back with a vengeance: 39C. And interestingly, the only kind of stuff that’s appealing to eat is fruit. Not all of it. Mandarins and pineapple. I can’t imagine consuming an apple or pear right now…

    Also, fascinating that a year and a half into this pandemic, they still don’t give early treatment. I mean, they keep harping on about overwhelmed hospitals, but heaven forbid they should give you something that might reduce the probability of you landing there! Or rather, their entire plan is gene therapy, and as we know, people like you and me have been declared deplorables to be punished. Well. Hopefully my immune system will prevail in the end. Funny to think I’d be better off in India or Mexico. You know, horse paste and all that.

  10. Irena – have you actually seen a doctor or did you just get tested at some facility?

  11. *See* a doctor? How quaint (heh). No, I just got tested at one of those large test centers, and I got results by e-mail. And then I got a phone call from a lady from some epidemiological something or other, and she asked me about my symptoms, offered no particular advice, and just said that I should contact my doctor if I need a sick note (which I don’t right now, because I have a few vacation days left), and that I’m allowed to go out only if I need to go to a hospital and/or to receive a delivery. So, there’s that. I finally ended up calling my doctor (well, I don’t actually have one doctor; I go to this clinic, and I’m always seen by a different doctor). So, I called them, and they said they didn’t have anyone available (hehe), but they’ll call me tomorrow. Ultimately, I just want to ask them if I should take fever reducers and whether I should force myself to eat despite being nauseous. So… Will have to wait until tomorrow for an answer.

  12. Great. So, the one person who might be of help to you isn’t available but there’s resources for some bureaucrat to keep the database up-to-date. When are you allowed to leave the house? Do you have to return a negative test first?

  13. Simon: “So, the one person who might be of help to you isn’t available but there’s resources for some bureaucrat to keep the database up-to-date.”

    Pretty much. Anyway, the receptionist said a doctor would call me today, but it appears that this isn’t happening. Their Saturday hours are 8am-2pm, and she said a doctor would call between patients. Well, it’s 2:30, and no-one’s called. So, I guess no doctor.

    And see, I go to this fancy private clinic, with multiple buildings scattered around Prague, and I don’t know how many general practitioners. (I initially signed up with them – which you have to pay for, it’s not fully covered by insurance – because I couldn’t speak Czech and they could speak English. Well, I can speak Czech by now, but I just stuck with them because changing doctors is a hassle, and it’s not all *that* expensive.) And apparently, not a single one of those doctors is available for me. Also, they supposedly have a doctor available online 24/7, and I signed up for the service (took them more than 24 hours to send me a PIN, but never mind that now), and what do I get? “Danger: The Doctor Online service is now not available for you”(??). Right. I don’t know if it’s a technical issue or something else. But anyway, no doctor for me. Our secretary is going to be really happy if I can’t work even online next week (and it’s increasingly looking that way), and I can’t produce a sick note because my doctor is missing in action…

    As for when I can go out: November 2, provided I’m completely symptom-free for three days prior to that. If that happens, I don’t need a PCR test (so said the epidemiologist lady). Right now, I’m way too sick to go anywhere anyway. But the good news is that my temperature has dropped below 38C, plus I managed to have breakfast (unlike yesterday).

  14. Who gets to decide that you’re symptom-free? You? I’ve heard that the situation with doctors is the same in Britain too. I thought they had all switched to online consultation anyway which, you would assume, would not affect availability. Of course, there’s a lot of things that are not available anymore.

  15. Yeah, I get to decide if I’m symptom-free. Which, as of right now, I’m most definitely not. 38.5C, as of a little while ago.

    I saw on the Czech Radio that there are some therapies available in hospitals (meant to reduce your chances of hospitalization). Except that you have to be sent there by your GP. And my GP (actually, the whole flock of them) is missing in action. I literally cannot get a 5 min phone consultation.

  16. Are you able to go to a standard doctor’s office or is that not one of the reasons to leave the house?

  17. Simon: “Are you able to go to a standard doctor’s office or is that not one of the reasons to leave the house?”

    Nope. I can only talk to my doctor on the phone or online. Can’t see them in person. I can only go to a hospital.

    It’s funny: the other day, the head of a major university hospital was lamenting the fact that the “unvaccinated” weren’t coming in for treatment after testing positive. Because apparently, these are precisely the people who simply don’t trust medicine, and so they call no-one until they can’t breathe. Right. Nothing to do with the fact that they didn’t bother to advertise these therapies (trying to increase “vaccination” rates, after all), and nothing to do with the fact that you can only get that therapy if your general practitioner sends you there, and that’s working oh-so-great, as we’ve seen.

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