Competing at the SDFPF Powerlifting Championship 2021

Last weekend, I competed at the Swiss Drug Free Powerlifting Championship 2021, held in Basel on 25 September. This was my first national powerlifting competition since competing in the last SDFPF Championship in February 2019. The 2020 Championship was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic I managed to lose around 10 kg bodyweight and competed this year in the 82.5 – 90 kg category at a body weight of 87.3 kg, almost 10 kg lighter than my weight of 96.5 kg in 2019. Despite my efforts to improve my squat and ensure that I squatted below parallel, I discovered by filming my squats in the week leading up to competition that I was only getting clearly below parallel around 50% of the time.

I opened my squat attempts conservatively at 90 kg, and succeeded in getting a below-parallel valid lift. However, I was disappointed to fail the next two attempts at 100 kg with inadequate depth.

For the other two lifts, I exceeded my anticipated results with a 100 kg bench press and 190 kg deadlift. These were both new Swiss records for the under 90 kg Master M6 age category (65-69 years), as was my powerlifting total of 380 kg. Below are short videos of the deadlift and bench press.

The powerlifting rules allow a fourth attempt to improve a record set at the third attempt, and I attempted a fourth deadlift at 197.5 kg. This did not get more than a few inches off the ground. But overall a 15 kg improvement on my 2019 deadlift, when I was 2 years younger and 9 kg heavier.

Powerlifting results can be compared across different bodyweight classes using Wilks or Schwartz/Malone weights and age can also be adjusted using McCulloch weights. I used Wilks and McCulloch to calculate the weights that would represent equivalent lifts to mine for a man in the age range 23-40 years with bodyweight 90 kg.  These are  144 kg for the squat, 160 kg benchpress and 304 kg deadlift, for a powerlifting total of 608 kg. This represents elite level for benchpress and deadlift, but far from it for the squat. The following graph shows trends over time for my powerlifting competition results, adjusted using Wilks/McCulloch weights to age 23-40 and bodyweight 90 kg. The bench press and deadlift show substantial improvement over time, the squat shows some modest improvement. If I continue to train for competition, squat depth will be a priority.

Afghanistan, the war on terror and the war on drugs

Watching scenes from Kabul airport recently felt like déjà vu for me. The Vietnam War ended in eerily similar scenes. I’ve been astonished to read more than one article that has described the events in Afghanistan as an unprecedented military defeat for the USA, or as a sign that the era of neoliberal intervention in foreign countries was over. If the USA did not learn anything from Vietnam, why would we assume it will this time when facts and evidence are even less valued than in the past. Several commentators have noted the intersection of the US war on terror and the war on drugs in Afghanistan. I have been engaged for nearly 20 years now in work to update global estimates of conflict deaths and global estimates of deaths attributable to drug use. I was curious to look a little more closely at relevant statistics.

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Conquest of the Wall of Death

Not far down the corridor from my office in WHO was a floor-to-ceiling bronze relief sculpture showing the struggle of Man against Death. It was a gift to WHO from the Vatican in 1966, and was located very appropriately, given that a major focus of my unit was to monitor trends and improvements in death rates and their causes.

The floor to ceiling sculpture occupies the wall of a corridor joining the two main office corridors on the 3rd floor of the WHO Headquarters in Geneva.It is approximately 5 metres wide and 3.5 metres tall.
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The trap bar deadlift

The conventional deadlift is done using a standard 20 kg barbell in powerlifting. Trap bars have a hexagonal shape which you stand in (which is why they’re sometimes called “hex bars”) with sleeves on the end that let you load weight, and they have handles on either side that allow you to grip the bar with a neutral grip.

During my 8-week wave cycling program for the squat, I had also been using the trap bar to do some deadlifting once a week during the last half of the program. Prior to that, I was doing Romanian deadlifts at about 60% of my conventional deadlift 1 rep max to work on improving hamstring strength. After I tested my squat 1-rep max, I also decided to see whether I could lift more than my current 1 rep max of 210 kg. The video below shows me setting a new personal best at 220 kg, and I felt I still had a little more in the tank.

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Definitions of God and the Motte-and-Bailey fallacy

Recently, I got involved in an online discussion about whether spirituality was compatible with atheism (see previous post Atheism and Spirituality) and foolishly did not clarify what the term “god” referred to. But it was clear from the general context that those arguing atheism was incompatible with spirituality were assuming spirituality required belief in God and were using a concept of God (singular) largely consistent with the standard Christian God who is conceived of as an eternal being who created the universe and life, and who is both transcendent (wholly independent of the material universe) and involved in the world.

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Improving my squat using wave cycling

After a week skiing in February 2015, my knees became inflamed and painful and I had trouble walking up and down stairs. I found that deadlifts improved my knee function and started powerlifting training for deadlifts and bench press. For the first months, I avoided the squat completely, and only gradually started to squat with relatively light weights around 50-60 kg. In the last couple of years, I’ve discovered that my knees are fine with squatting with good technique to parallel or below. I still have trouble getting below parallel with heavy weight on the back but am working on improving mobility. In my last pre-pandemic competition in December 2019, I squatted 107.5 kg with depth that was only just below parallel and one of the judges told me afterwards he thought they had been lenient in judging depth. This was substantially behind my deadlift at 190 kg. Most powerlifters have squat somewhat less than they can powerlift, but the difference is on average only around 20% and is narrower at 15% at the elite level (see here for averages based on over 7 million lifts).

So I decided to focus over the last 8 weeks on improving my squat, to do only a minimal amount of deadlifting, and no bench press (instead to rehabilitate an AC joint injury). I had been reading Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Beyond Bodybuilding: Muscle and Strength Training Secrets for The Renaissance Man and decided to do the 8 week wave cycling program that he describes on page 80 of the Kindle edition.  Here is how it worked for my squat:

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Atheism and Spirituality

Late last year I volunteered to participate in a research study on psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences.  I completed an online survey and later was interviewed by the principal researcher in a more than hour long semi-structured zoom interview. In the survey, I had answered a question on religious affiliation with “Atheist”. During the interview, the interviewer expressed surprise that I practiced Zen meditation as she equated atheism with a materialist philosophy.  I in turn was surprised at her assuming that a spiritual practice implied a belief in God or gods, particularly as my practice was to a large extent within a Zen Buddhist context, which does not treat the historical Buddha as a god or invoke concepts of gods.

I refined my thoughts on this topic in several online discussions, where I found both religious believers and some other atheists were very hostile to the idea that an atheist could have a spiritual practice. And I noticed that some of the atheists who did say they were spiritual, defined “spiritual” in terms of experiences like the enjoyment of a sunset or a moving piece of music, or the feeling of being part of nature.  

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Zazen, left brain, right brain, self

During the last COVID wave, while activities were restricted and I was largely staying at home, I intensified my zazen (sitting meditation) practice. With more attention to my  practice, I was surprised to find I was easily sitting for 45 minutes and spending less of that time lost in thoughts and more time simply being present here-now aware of the arising and passing on random thoughts, sensations and sensory inputs.

There are four main categories of things that distract my attention from being here-now:

  • Largely verbalised thought sequences. These can be somewhat spontaneous, jumping across subjects and concerns, or more focused on solving a problem, thinking through a situation or piece of work to be done, planning, strategizing, worrying, pondering the past or future.
  • Distracting sensory stimuli with associated thoughts and emotions, eg. An intrusive noise, an insect flying around or crawling on my skin, an itch, or an ache or pain.
  • Images that appear in the minds eye. These can be random or connected.
  • Full-blown dream-like visions or daydreams, sometimes short, sometimes long.

I also occasionally experience auditory or olfactory hallucinations. For example, a voice saying something, or a distinct smell.  But these are rare.

I’ve been paying attention to these distractors, the so-called monkey mind, and getting better at observing them arise and letting them go, rather than being mindlessly caught up in them, and discovering some minutes later that I have been completely lost in a train of thought or a daydream. And I have increasing periods when I am sitting in awareness here-now, without thoughts or other types of mental distractions. My attention may be on the breath (sensation, following, counting), or on a koan key word, or simply on what is arising in consciousness (shikantaza).

In the last week or so, I have become aware from time to time that hidden in my awareness there is a non-verbal though process going on. Because it does not involve conceptual thinking or quasi-verbal expression, it is difficult to notice. But I have realized that there is a part of me still thinking in some sense in a non-verbal way. This tends to be about some sort of witnessing by my observing awareness and a judging process about the extent to which I am present “here-now”. I tentatively concluded that my monkey mind was very very clever, and was trying to get around my practice of letting go of thoughts (those largely verbalized or visual sequences) by finding a much less obvious way to think non-verbally. But then I came across another possibility.

Last night I was reading about the split-brain research of Roger Sperry and others nearly 50 years ago, resulting in Sperry receiving the 1981 Nobel Prize for Medicine. The human brain consists of two hemispheres connected by several neural networks, the main one being the corpus callosum. In patients whose corpus callosum had been surgically cut in half (to prevent epilepsy) the two hemispheres had little communication and function largely independently. In particular, in most people, the left hemisphere is largely responsible for verbal communication, and the right more dominant in reading and displaying emotions, and in spatial and musical processing. For a fascinating and more detailed summary of this research, see Sam Harris’s 2014 book Waking Up (highly recommended). In particular, he explains why this research leads to the conclusion that the two hemispheres of the split brain are independently conscious.

A key experiment involved flashing a word, say “Egg”, to the left half of the visual field, processed by the non-verbal right brain, and the subject (speaking from the language-dominant left brain) will say they saw nothing. When asked to reach behind a partition and select an object with his left hand (controlled by the right brain), he will select the egg. Ask him to name the object he now holds in his left hand without allowing the left brain to get a look at it, and he will be unable to reply. The right brain is “thinking” and it knows that it saw the word egg and can recognize the feel of an egg and select it, but does not have the words to express that.

Is it possible that the time spent training my consciousness to let go of thought trains has enabled me to develop the skill of doing so for left-brain verbal thought trains, but not so much for the right brain’s non-verbal thinking?  Its quite exciting to think I may actually be noticing the much more subtle non-verbal thinking of the right brain, usually well and truly overspoken by my quite strongly developed verbal-cognitive thought processes. These have been quite strongly developed by a career focused on mathematical and statistical modelling, where I’ve learnt to play out quite complex analytic processes in my head before implementing them in a computer program or spreadsheet.  I’m not too much of a mansplainer I hope, but definitely a left-brain-splainer. 

In any case, I am now also paying attention to these more subtle thoughts arising, and seeking to let them go the same way I have been letting go of the more verbal or visual thought trains. But I wonder whether the left-brain chatter and the more subtle right-brain awareness are disengaging while I sit zazen, and perhaps becoming two somewhat more separated selves, or perhaps no self at all.