Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Iron Mind, Iron Body Part I

Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Iron Mind, Iron Body Part I

Finding flaws keeps the transformational fire burning 50 years down the empirical highway


Featured Weightlifting Equipment: dumbbell, flat bench press, barbell, power racks

"The mind of the beginner is needed throughout Zen practice. It is the open mind, the attitude that includes both doubt and possibility, the ability to see things always as fresh and new. Beginner's mind is needed in all aspects of life. Beginner's mind is the practice of Zen Mind."Shunryu Suzuki

I am still working on bringing beginner's mind into all the other aspects of my life. However, when it comes to transformative fitness in general and resistance training specifically, I most definitely still retain my beginner's mind. In my larger life, I try and fill my day with activities that allow me to immerse myself to such a degree that I become absorbed, fully and completely, to the point of losing my sense of 'self.'

Cooking, music, running in the woods, hardcore resistance training, video games, writing, concentrated reading…each of these activities enables me to become so engrossed in what I am doing that my conscious mind falls silent of its own accord, without suppression and without using willpower. The mental chatter fall silent having recognized that internal commentary is not just superfluous but an actual performance detriment. You cannot be engrossed and preoccupied simultaneously and you cannot be preoccupied and perform optimally.

When it comes to physical self-exploration I still have the fire. I still have an eager beginner's mind. I continually ponder the conundrum of how best to ignite tangible improvement in me, Marty Gallagher, right now, right here. Physically and psychologically, what can I do to improve? What strategies can I draw upon to generate measurable progress in two realms: improvement in physique and/or improvement in performance.

I continually pose myself this eternal question: what can I do to improve on my exact condition at this exact instant? After fifty years of total transformative immersion, I have a vast repertoire of techniques and tactics in my arrow quiver. This Sisyphus-like quest to continually improve exemplifies Camus' contention that "Man is the only animal that refuses to be what he is." We aspire. We seek to improve our bodies (and minds,) we seek to transform ourselves from a grotesque earthbound caterpillar into a gorgeous celestial butterfly.

The Rubik's Cube that is transformational fitness has beguiled, enthralled and mesmerized me for 55 years. I still seek to improve upon what I am. So the eternal question always is - what is my next move?

I had a beginner's mind moment a few months back when I discovered how weak I was in one section of my body. It was shocking. It blew my mind. After the initial shock of discovering an undetected weakness, I had a satori moment, a beginner's mind insight: with concentrated effort I should be able to realize rapid and dramatic improvement. I knew this from my work with the untrained, the more out of shape, the faster the gains. The weaker the quicker - and I had found a weakness.

As I pondered my newfound zone of weakness, I realized I was being presented with a "Physician, heal thy self!" situation. Gains could be acquired at a blitzkrieg-like pace as long as I counterintuitively moved methodically, safely and with great care and precision. Above all else I had to shed my poundage ego. This is a real problem for alpha males always intent on proving their mettle to themselves and others.

What I discovered, quite by chance, was that when it came to overhead pressing, my left arm was significantly weaker than my right arm. The weakness was on full display in the most basic of all shoulder exercises: the standing overhead dumbbell press, pushing both dumbbells upward simultaneously. My left arm was a full 35% weaker than my stronger right arm.

One wonderful aspect of progressive resistance training is its mathematical certainty: I know I was 35% weaker because I measured it. My world is all about numbers (sets, reps, poundage, duration, frequency) and therefore I can ascertain a strength level with absolute accuracy. My astounding imbalance was all the more strange considering there was no injury and no pain of any kind.

A 5% imbalance between limbs is average while a 35% difference is indicative of something being seriously wrong. Yet I had no left shoulder pain and I had no unevenness or imbalances when lowering or pushing up my flat bench presses. I had stopped doing all overhead presses with any regularity many years ago, thinking that since I bench pressed a lot, overhead pressing was redundant and I could save a lot of gym time by dropping them.

My flat benching, I reasoned, would ensure I retained a goodly percentage of my overhead press strength. After all, both the flat bench press and the overhead barbell press were nearly identical technically. Ergo flat bench pressing would have "carry-over" - or so it seemed.

By chance and on a whim I tried some overhead pressing a few months back. Firstly I was shocked by how freaking weak I was overall. I expected a lot more, a much higher ratio between my current flat bench and overhead press. Secondly, I was super shocked by how super weak I was pressing small dumbbells overhead with my left arm. It was pathetic. Tiny weights my fit and strong 110-pound daughter could press were causing my left arm to gyrate like a palm tree in a hurricane.

Yet there was no pain - zero - it was just plain weakness - apparently from neglect - 'use it or lose it' is apparently more than just a cliché. I had done zero overhead pressing in recent years yet I expected my overhead pressing to magically stay strong with very little degradation. I had lost it and been unaware that I'd lost it. In my normal life I don't have too many occasions to have to hoist things overhead; so my loss of overhead press power went totally undetected. A remedial specialization routine was constructed that bought left arm pressing power up 50% in eight shoulder training sessions.

The overhead press template was created around two press exercises: the two hand standing press off the power racks, and the standing overhead dumbbell press pushing the dumbbells simultaneously. After each set of overhead presses, I performed a set of seated lat pulldowns. I sought to work the shoulder mechanism equally pushing (presses) and pulling (pulldowns,) seeking, as much as possible, to achieve mirror-image technique. Next week we relate the precise training template in detail.

About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.