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Training in the Dark

By Jordan Feigenbaum

“Just keep putting in the work. You’ll be fine. You’re strong. You’ve got this. Focus, Jordan.”

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This was just some of my internal dialogue on the 25th of September last year (2014). I had just gotten done with some squats, which felt terrible at the time. They were heavy, painful, exhausting, and just about every negative descriptor you can conjure up- I was feeling that. 

Those feelings pretty much describe my training during much of that particular meet prep, but then something even more unusual happened. I remember laying down to do some pin bench presses and I was warming up. For context, I’m usually good for somewhere between 350-400 depending on the rep scheme on this particular exercise. I loaded the bar to 225 for another warm up set and on the first rep as I lowered the bar, I felt a rush of negative emotion come over me. Once the bar touched the pins I threw up, literally disgusted with what I was doing. I remember squirming out from underneath the loaded barbell that lay there on the safety pins and just feeling empty, worthless, and weak.

I remember my eyes welling up wondering what was wrong with me, was I injured? A quick survey revealed no trauma or an obvious bleeding wound so I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to die. As I was going through my assessment to figure out what the heck was going on I stumbled across a clue. I had been kind of “down” for the past few months. I wasn’t sleeping, I had no appetite, I didn’t enjoy training (which I normally love),  I felt tired all the time, and I was having a lot of trouble focusing on the task at hand. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks…..I was depressed. (cue dramatic music)

The DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition) gives the diagnosis of depression when five (or more) of the following symptoms have been present during the same 2- week period and represent a change from previous functioning; with at least one of the symptoms is either 1) depressed mood or 2) loss of interest or pleasure. Other symptoms include 3) Sleep changes (more or less sleep), 4) feelings of guilt, 5) decrease in energy, 6) decreased cognition or ability to concentrate, 7) appetite changes (more or less hunger), 8) psychomotor agitation (anxiety) or retardation, or 9) suicidal ideation. Allow me to use an immature defense mechanism, intellectualization, and say that by criteria I had clinical depression even though I was still a high functioning medical student, an entrepreneur, and I was closing  in on a monster powerlifting total. I just felt like I lost my mojo, like even the most mundane tasks required so much effort, and worst of all- that training was a chore. I remember consistently waking up early in the morning, 4:00 or so- on a day that I wouldn’t have to wake up until 5 or 6 to make it to the hospital on time and immediately I would start dreading my workout in addition to my day. Would I be able to hit the numbers I needed to hit? Would everything continue to hurt? Does it even matter?

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I realize that in writing this, I am admitting weakness. That’s okay- it’s the truth. While I think that putting some catchy mantra like “Keep pushing, excuses are for the weak” on a graphic of a lifter grinding out a heavy squat would likely be more social media friendly, it wouldn’t genuine- not for me at least. I also wonder why no one comes out and talks about this? I’ve met a lot of lifters who have shared similar sentiments.

We all just chalk it up (at least in public) to being burnt out and that we’ll just keep “grinding” because we #cantstopwontstop. The reality is that sometimes life is hard and it’s difficult to cope and even the strongest amongst us get a little down. Is it “stronger” to keep all this inside- to put up the stoic front for Instagram or Facebook or does it take more strength to share publicly and let others who may be going through the same thing know that feeling this way doesn’t make them weak or a failure? I don’t have that answer at present time.

As far as how depression effects training, we’re always told that regular exercise reduces stress, anxiety and depression (see here) with some data suggesting that the harder the workout, the greater improvement in psychological quality of life (see here). That being said, most of the high quality data on exercise and depression suggests a non statistically significant improvement in symptoms- perhaps due to the complex nature of depression (see here and here). My take on it is that it probably matters just how bad someone’s depression is, i.e. the worse it is, the less likely exercise is going to help. For me, I know that training was no longer my sanctuary. I did it because it was my job, because “it was who I am”, and I had a meet coming up too. Still, I do think there’s a benefit of exercise for folks who are previously sedentary, but in highly trained individuals- meh, probably not. Interestingly, there’s some data that creatine monohydrate in conjunction with Lexapro (escitalopram), a SSRI commonly used to treat depression, is better than Lexapro alone for treating depression in an 8 week clinical trial (see here) . Additionally, whey protein supplementation has been shown to improve cognitive performance in stress-vulnerable subjects because it increases brain tryptophan and serotonin activity, not unlike a selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor such as Lexapro or Zoloft (see here).  So maybe all we really need to do is do our squats, take our creatine and protein, and we’ll be just fine, right?
Practically speaking, if you or someone you know is depressed we’re likely dealing with a few different things that compromise training including, but not limited to, the following:
1) Decreased sleep (compromised recovery)
2) Decreased or altered appetite (compromised recovery)
3) Decreased motivation to train (compromised stimulus)
4) Decreased motor function (compromised stimulus)
5) A lot of other stuff that can compromise recovery or training stimulus
To cut to the chase, there is, unfortunately, not a lot of scientific or anecdotal data on what to do from a training perspective during periods of depression. I don’t pretend to have all the answers on this issue, but given my experience I would have done a bunch of things differently such as:
1) Get outside my home gym. I built a really awesome home gym. Seriously, it has the best of everything except for a bunch of members, however. While sometimes having a bunch of people hogging the squat rack is a pain, it is probably beneficial to leave the house, train with people, and interact with other humans. Hey, you can even get a good lift off or spot too (hopefully).
2) Talk to someone. It should go without saying that if you or someone you know is feeling this way, seeing a professional should definitely be on the “to-do” list. Whether it be a psychiatrist, psychologist, or counselor….getting professional help will (drumroll please) help. Do it. Yesterday.
3) Decrease training stress. It should also go without saying that given the compromised recovery and ability to generate a training stress that now is not the time to push things. Fortunately,  I was able to get a bit better before meet day (about a month after the story used in the beginning) and I put up a PR total of 1795lbs (640 squat, 430 bench, 725 deadlift). What I did for about two weeks was to decrease my volume and training frequency. I had been splitting up 12 exercises over 6 days (2 per day) when it was originally scheduled for 4 days of training per week with 3 exercises per training day. By getting back to the 4 days/wk schedule, I got some full days off and this was invaluable. Yes Virginia, increasing recovery where possible is important. Interestingly, there’s some data that when volume is the same- concentrating that volume to preserve a day or two off is better than spreading everything evenly over the week. The particular data I’m referencing is from the endurance world where they had people train 2x/day or train everyday with total volume being the same. The 2x/day folks who had actual true-to-life rest days did better at the end of the study. So take your rest days, folks.
4) Focus on sleep/stress management. In line with the rest day musings above, to whatever degree you can improve sleep quality the better. The biggest bang for the buck is going to be improving sleep hygiene, i.e. no reading, watching tv, texting, sexting, or anything but having actual sex or sleeping in bed. The light from electronic devices messes with your circadian rhythm and being awake in bed conditions you to…you guessed it…be awake in bed. Do those other things on the couch well before bed time. Wind down by reading a book or doing other things for stress management such as yoga, meditation, reading a book, journaling, etc. This might even count as active recovery, which could be helpful 🙂
As far as the purpose of this article, it’s a bit cathartic for me as well as a way to share some potential tips for people who may be going through the same thing. So if this article applies to you or someone you know, great! Hopefully you or they will find something that helps so they’ll no longer be Training in the Dark.
-Jordan

Jordan Feigenbaum, a competitive powerlifter, holds his Bachelors of Science in Biology, a Master’s of Science in Anatomy and Physiology, is currently pursuing his doctorate in medicine, and owns Barbell Medicine.  Jordan also holds accreditations from many professional training organizations and is a staff member for select Starting Strength Seminars. As a competitive powerlifter, Jordan has competition best lifts of a 640 squat, 430 bench press, and 775 deadlift as a 198lb raw lifter. If he’s not in the gym or the clinic, you can find him riding dirt bikes, admiring or purchasing Lululemon, traveling, or reading. He can be reached at info@barbellmedicine.com

Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Brian Broke Legs says:

    Thank you Jordan.

  • Luke says:

    Thank you for sharing this Jordan. As for whether it’s stronger to keep pushing on or admit that sometimes we’re feeling overwhelmed, I honestly think it’s both, together with a judicious application of wisdom to know when which one is right.

    I think there’s something to be said for a definition of strength being taking action to improve or fix something you know could be better. If your squat is fucked up, you need to see a coach. Similarly, if your emotions are fucked up, you need to see a therapist.

    Whatever this is you’re going through, I have no doubt that you’ll both get through it and emerge stronger on the other side.

  • Sergio says:

    Yeah, I’ve been there, and still am in and out. I divorced about a year and a half ago and that still mess with my training. I’ve had to do resets, lower volume, etc. Even take a week off once in a while.

  • isaac says:

    You’re not alone, brother.

  • Chuck O says:

    J,

    I’m in a similar head space due to a nagging injury that has prevented me from training (your well aware) I miss it, I’m depressed and down right frustrates. I need to work through the process and let my body heal. Thanks for the words of encouragement. Your program has made me a better person, husband and father. I truly appricate your influence on my life.
    Chuck

  • Adam Skillin says:

    Powerful words, courageous of you to share, and helpful to know that the elite among the elite go through this too.

    I know I, for one, am guilty of looking at people like you, people who seem to have it all figured out, people who seem to succeed in goddamn everything, and assuming that you never get “down,” and that you don’t need encouragement or reassurance. But your writing, speaking, and answering questions, coupled with the example you set has a significant and positive impact on a large group of people (myself definitely included) daily. This article especially so. Thank you.

    • isaac says:

      Hey Adam,
      You’d be amazed at how common depression is among the “overachievers” like doctors, CEOs, entrepreneurs, etc. It hits across all social and economic classes. The fact that we can still perform is a testament to how much better modern medicine and therapy has become at treating this crippling disease. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am without the help of my family doc and psychologist.
      Isaac (vanslix)

  • Bill says:

    Courageous, indeed.

  • Kevin says:

    Thanks for sharing this information. As mentioned already, you’re not alone. Seems to be a common trait shared by many lifters.

  • Molly Merson says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Jordan. As a therapist and weightlifter – and human – who also goes through ranges of emotion that shape my motivation, energy level, and ability, your story resonated with me. I know others with whom it will resonate, too. Keep talking about it and keep going. You.. and We.. got this.

  • K. Patterson says:

    Jordan,

    This is probably one of the most helpful articles I have read since commencing my Starting Strength journey. This really should be added to the Articles on SS.com.

    I’m in the exact situation that you’re describing in this article. Thank you for being “strong enough” to be transparent with all of us.

    Kenny

  • Roy Lorenz says:

    I have lived with several major/clinical depressive episodes since 1982 and am currently undergoing one for the last two – three years. My treated, under control, hypothyroidism can complicate the depression and vice versa I guess, there is also sleep apnea possibly related to the two other issues or exacerbated by them. People fix, going out and being around people in public does occasionally help, public gym workouts are done mostly with no interaction and can be stressful BUT they are so beneficial mentally and emotionally. Some of my best training has been on days I wanted to avoid it but made self go and it was positive experience. I have tried staying off antidepressants for close to a year and it was emotionally devastating, Still I feel that is the way to go and may again do so under medical supervision. We really don’t know much about individual causes of depression except something somewhere in the mind and life experience plays a role, a trigger possibly, that if discovered might lead to improvement/elimination of the depression.

    • Jordan Feigenbaum says:

      Thanks for the comment, Roy. Hope all is well with you and yours. Hang in there, friend.

  • Thanks for sharing good information

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