Why weightlifting

A few posts ago I wrote about my change in training plans. Originally, my post-physical therapy plan was to return to my first love, CrossFit, and train competitively for it. My new/current plan is to stick with weightlifting as my primary sport, and keep CrossFit as a for-fun, sometimes thing.

Why? Because I want to and I can.

Also, I like it. Also, I want to be competitive in my sport, and I don’t think I can be competitive in CrossFit—not in the way or at the level that I want to be. Also, change is hard for me (universal and evergreen autistic sentiment) and while initially it was hard to stop doing CrossFit when I started weightlifting, the idea of changing shit up AGAIN is so stressful to me.

Here are a few other reasons why I decided to stick with weightlifting:

1. Social and cultural compatibility

Ultimately, weightlifting is a solo sport. CrossFit can be. Weightlifting just…is. And it feels (to me) less loud (figuratively/culturally), more chill. I’m basing that last part entirely on vibes, which means there’s plenty of room for me to be wrong. We’ll see!

2. Neurological, cognitive, mental, emotional, and financial compatibility

It takes a long-ass time for cues to click in my brain, and even longer for my body to learn what to do with them. This taxes me neurologically, cognitively, mentally, and emotionally in a way and to a degree that it doesn’t tax most non-autistic people. And because of the way and the pace at which I learn (tediously and slowly, respectively), especially when it comes to motor planning and output, I need custom programming and 1:1 coaching. This taxes me financially.

In weightlifting, an athlete needs to focus on a handful of foundational barbell exercises: the snatch, the clean, the jerk, and squats (front and back)—plus accessory exercises to help with those foundational exercises (technically, squats are accessory work in weightlifting, but they’re trained so frequently and are so foundational to the competition lifts that I think of them as, well, foundational exercises).

In (competitive) CrossFit, there are a trillion different foundational exercises an athlete needs to be proficient at. At a minimum, they need to be proficient in the exercises I mentioned above—plus their dumbbell, kettlebell, and single-arm variations—and:

  • The rest of the powerlifts (deadlifts and bench press).
  • A shit-ton of gymnastics movements, like bar and ring muscle-ups, pull-ups, handstand push-ups (including deficit and other variations, like strict, or facing the wall), dips, toes-to-bar (strict and kipping), handstand walks, etc.
  • All sorts of cardio exercises, including running, swimming, rowing, ski erg-ing, and biking (regular bike, assault bike, erg bike, echo bike).
  • A variety of strongman exercises, like yoke carries; sled pushes and pulls; atlas stone, sandbag, and d-ball exercises; farmers carries; tire flips; etc.
  • A bunch of other shit, like thrusters, double-unders, wall balls, rope climbs (including legless), peg board, lunges, box jumps, kettlebell swings, etc.

Plus tons of other stuff, and also the accessory work!

Some CrossFit workouts require you to establish a one-rep max (1RM) for a given exercise. Mostly, though, CrossFit workouts require you to quickly string together multiple reps of a given exercise while maintaining good mechanics and proper form. Usually this is simply strategy—in CrossFit, the fastest athlete/team wins the workout. Sometimes, though, the workout dictates that all reps of an exercise be performed unbroken, and penalizes or eliminates you if they’re not.

As much as I love (and I mean LOVE) the intensity of variability of CrossFit workouts, I’ve always struggled with this aspect of them. Stringing together reps, especially quickly and correctly, has always been difficult for me. Like many (though certainly not all) autistic folks, I don’t have an innate sense of rhythm or cadence, and I struggle with balance and coordination, as well as mind/muscle connection, which in turn (negatively) affects muscle recruitment and activation. This makes stringing together reps incredibly challenging for me, which slows me down, which stresses me out, which often causes me to rush and/or become incredibly self-conscious and begin making mistakes and getting no-reps, which pisses me off—and then it all repeats. For eternity.

In weightlifting, it’s one rep at a time. And there are only a few lifts to master. This means the neurological, cognitive, mental, emotional, and financial demands of weightlifting are more compatible with my abilities, limitations, and needs.

3. Consistency in competition

Full disclosure: While I do have first-hand, lived experience with (non-elite) CrossFit competitions, I’ve not yet competed in weightlifting, so I don’t have first-hand, lived experience with weightlifting meets. I have spectated them, though, and I have close friends who have lifted in national-level meets, so I’m not completely clueless about them.

Also: I’m not saying everything always goes according to plan at weightlifting meets, or that they’re no-stress zones. Shit absolutely goes wrong. Shit absolutely changes last minute (order of lifters, deviations from declared weights, etc.). My impression is that overall, there’s more consistency and less chaos in competitive weightlifting than in competitive CrossFit (could be wrong tho!).

In CrossFit, competitions take place both indoors and outdoors, which is to say: competing can happen in various weather conditions. There are always more than one workout per competition (there are usually three or four, minimum), and often more than one day of competition. Your judge follows you around the competition floor/field/whatever, which can, in the heat of the things, feel confusing and chaotic (was that “no rep” for you, or someone next to/near you? Was it your judge or someone else’s who had their hand up? Was the person shouting that rep count your judge or someone else’s?). Sometimes workouts (or elements of them) are announced in advance, sometimes they’re not announced until right before you do them. Sometimes new exercises and implements are introduced during competition, and sometimes these are things you’ve never trained before.

This variability is a foundational tenet of the CrossFit methodology. CrossFit is all about adaptability and all-around athleticism. And competition, especially at the higher/elite levels, is designed to test this. It’s thrilling to watch the big kids of CrossFit perform under that type of pressure.

But me personally??? Lol! Change stresses me out. Surprises stress me out. Lots of moving pieces stress me out. Having to perform in weather stresses me out. Competing in CrossFit requires more motor coordination and mental agility and flexibility than I have most of the time.

In weightlifting, competitions are held indoors. You always lift on a platform in front of judges who are always positioned in the same spots. You always have three (3) attempts at both lifts, and you always attempt the lifts in the same order (snatch, then clean and jerk). There are never any new exercises or implements introduced into competition. This consistency is much better suited for my autistic brain, which requires as much consistency as possible in order to keep me regulated and help keep autistic meltdowns, shutdowns, and/or burnouts at bay.

The drawback, for me, in competitive weightlifting is that it’s just you up there on the platform, by yourself, all eyes on you. I hate Hate HATE having all eyes on me. It stresses me out so damn much!!! In CrossFit, even if you compete as an individual (as opposed to partner or team), it’s incredibly rare that you’re performing a workout alone, by yourself, all eyes on you. The vast majority of the time, you’re competing in a heat with at least a handful of fellow competitors. When the day comes for me to actually lift at a weightlifting meet, I anticipate this being the most challenging aspect of it for me.

4. A bonus reason

Another reason why I decided to stick with weightlifting is because I just cannot get behind corporate CrossFit HQ culture. I hate giving them my money.

Until I started training at my new gym in May, I hadn’t been associated with a CrossFit affiliate in YEARS (CrossFit gyms are franchises, I write about that more in this post, in the fifth and sixth paragraphs). Since May, I’ve been training out of a CrossFit affiliate. This is something that I have a hard time reconciling. The reality is: Weightlifting is a niche sport in the United States, and many weightlifting teams/barbell clubs operate out of CrossFit gyms. Also, I knew going into this that I want to compete, and that in order to get to that level, I need personalized programming and in-person, face-to-face, literally hands-on 1:1 coaching. Not remote coaching. Not small-group training. Those requirements alone limited the options available to me.

Before deciding to train where I do now, I surveyed a number of gyms in my area. The only gym that had the space, the equipment, the expertise, a schedule that works with mine, and the willingness to work with me, an autistic athlete with competitive goals, was the gym I currently train out of. It was the last one I surveyed.

It’s a wonderful facility with incredibly kind and supportive people. I really, really like it there, even as I really, really dislike corporate CrossFit HQ culture. The only way I’m able to rationalize it is knowing that I pay for a weightlifting membership, not a CrossFit membership (yes, they’re two different things), and, technically, my money isn’t going to CFHQ (yes, this is some questionable mental gymnastics).

Admittedly, I don’t (yet) have the same experience in or exposure to the weightlifting world as I do the CrossFit world, so it’s possible that, along the way, I’ll find out things about USA Weightlifting ethics and culture that don’t sit right with me. Who knows! We’ll see! There’s still time for me to learn to hate it!

*

I want to be clear about two things:

One: I don’t think CrossFit is a universally bad choice for autistic athletes. I think that at this point in my athletic career, and given my goals, of the two, weightlifting is the better choice for me. I think that if I’d had a better understanding of the root of my challenges earlier in my athletic career *and* coaches and clinicians who believed me and worked with me to address those challenges in a supportive environment, I could’ve gone further in CrossFit (and weightlifting, tbh). At this point, though, the idea of competitive CrossFit isn’t appealing to me anymore. I rely on the gym to help level-set my mental health and keep my nervous system regulated. In order to keep doing that, I have to enjoy what I’m doing. Not always, but often. Or at least, often enough. And that just wasn’t happening anymore with CrossFit.

Two: I didn’t decide to stick with weightlifting because I thought it would be easy. It’s not easy. At all. It’s tedious and technical and requires a ton of effort and energy and attention. It is, frankly, really fucking hard. I decided to stick with it because I love it, I have more fun doing it, and I think my body and brain are better built for it.

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