Saturday, October 17, 2009

Day 4: July 12-Restoration

Today, we said goodbye to Christian Burger. Woke up early and gave him a ride to the train station for a 3+ hour train ride to Helsinki. Christian, I really wish you could have stayed at least one more day. For good conversation over some beers, to hear more about your travels or to talk shop. And because of today's "restoration" workout.  If you do The Gathering 2010, stick around for it.

I was pretty sore and not too eager at first: legs and entire backside was shot.  But Kris said this would be good for me.  We set up the Buffalo Bar and a burst-proof ball (I asked Kris about that and he promised, but he promised the candies were tasty so, you know. . . . ) and basically squatted to the ball for reps with light weight.  This actually hit the spot: I had a more gradual stop at the bottom and a bit of bounce out of the bottom to help me up,  I had a good pump out of it, legs actually felt better.  Even after we started adding chains to it, and a bit more weight.  The Buffalo Bar is everything Louie Simmons says it is: not tlike the Safety Squat Bar, but it was definitely easier on the upper body.

We then started to do bench presses with weight releasers, which I have never done before.  For the uninitiated, look at the pictures: it is a rod that attaches to the bar, with weight attached at the bottom.  It essentially increases the eccentric portion of the lift and when the bottom part of the releaser touches the ground, it pops off, but your body still thinks that the extra weight is on so you explode AND THEN SOME.  Kris, Mans, and I did a few sets with just the weight releasers just to get a feel for it: I have got to get a pair of these.  And then we went gonzo with it, to the point where you wonder where the restorative part was.  We added monster minibands and chains to the setup: the article that describes this better than I ever could was written by Dave Tate for T-Nation and can be found at  Dave Tate's Tool Box #6. Essentially, you would be lifting with almost 140% of your max at the top, the weight at your chest before weight releaser drop-off will be around 80-85% of your raw max. After drop-off this will drop to around 55-60%. The reloaded weight at the end of the press will finish up around 70% of your best raw max (the reason for the chains).  The bands slow down the explosion from the bottom.

One of the pictures is the final setup that we worked up to.  Kris would have to tell me what the weight was on there because it was in Kilos.  I will tell you that, if memory serves me right, Mans might have been the only one to finish it and it didn't come easy.  I wish I had videotaped when I attempted it.  I needed a liftoff and when the bands engaged (HOLY CRAP!!!), I controlled it like a champ on the way down and that was it.  The funny part came when Kris and Mans where yelling at me to lift it and I squeaked out, "I CAN'T!!!"  The bar would not budge, and they had to take it off of me.

Note (posted today 24OCT2009): I grabbed this from the comments section, Kris just left it and it describes this setup (thanks Kris): The weight on the bench? Well, 70kg/154lbs straight weight, 10kg/22lbs on the weight releasers... each... for a total of about 25kg/55lbs, two pairs of these chains aside add about 6.5 kg/14 lbs according to my calculations... we had three pairs at each end so that's a total of 10kg/22lbs at lockout (and a few kilos at the bottom)... finally, the minis should add about 40kg/90lbs extra at the top (and about half that at the chest). So roughly 145kg/320lbs when unracking, about 93kg/205lbs at the chest after the releasers popped off and then 120kg/265lbs at lockout. Good isometrics right there.

The last thing we did was band rows from the top of the rack using the monster mni bands.  These felt great, too, not the asskicker that was the bench.

One of the other things notable about the day was a trip we took to Kris' old dojo.  If you ever sneaked around in the woods as a kid looking for treasure or playing Manhunt, this was like that with some SPEC OPS flavor thrown in.  As Kris and Mans explained, the remains of the dojo was a boat trip away at an old friend's house.  The family that owned the house was away and some people who were renovating the house was watching it.  They hadn't done too good of a job because it looked like it was in a state of disrepair but we had to make sure that they were not outside to see us.  So we made one pass to recon the area and after we found the coast to be clear, we went back.  As we approached the are, Kris put the engines on low and we gently coasted to a nice landing spot.  We carefully parked the boat, then snuck through the woods silently until we had reached the spot.  Wish I had my camera for the place: it was a makeshift tent made of tarp and lumber.  Time had taken it's toll on it, with so much  growth on the roof that I was afraid to step inside.  Kris went in and showed that a lot of the dojo stuff like posters still remained.  After that, we snuck out and carefully made our way back to the cottage for some dinner and for Kris to do some more coding work. 

Day 3: Virtualmeet - July 11

For meet videos, best to see the video on Kris' site using this link:
I did this since other people lifted besides us, and I think videos are better than still shots. So the pictures I post will be of other things.

So, what can I cover differently than that?

We all weighed in before breakfast: I weighed in at 213 pounds, Mans at 196 pounds, Christian at 205 pounds, Kris at 211 pounds. After weigh in, Mans and Kris prepared us a mix of yogurt, muesli, and vanilla/lemon protein powder (w/Casein and Whey) that was as much a healthy dessert as it was a great breakfast. Yummy! And of course there was the usual cheese, bread, butter, coffee, and jams. So much healthier than my last VirtualMeet meal of Burger King, Coke Slurpee, and energy drinks!!!

Being the considerate powerlifter that he is, Kris went around the other cottages in close proximity to tell (warn?) them that we would be having a powerlifting meet and that we would be playing some loud music, and he asked if there would be any issues. Issues? Nah: some of them even showed up to watch!!! That alone would guarantee some extra adrenaline flow. It was nice to have them and Kris' family watching.

As you could see from the photos, the setup was simple but extensive. Mans provided a high definition video camera, and had bought a nice Logitech speaker system w/subwoofer that brought the noise. Kris had a Panasonic digital camera that was mounted on a tripod to film video that would provide an alternate angle for the judges. 3 iPods for music. Lots of energy drinks, plus protein drinks for afterwards (Mans mixed 'em up). A calculator for me, so I could convert pounds to kilograms. Kris also let me use his weightlifting belt: I have a Valeo velcro one that I bought in 1994, and now I could see why a real belt is worth the investment.

Personally: maybe because this was a big meet for me and I wanted to see what I could do at a lighter weight (for VirtualMeet September 2007, I competed at 240 pounds.), I took a few risks that I probably shouldn't have. I usually open at 295 pounds but decided to give it a go at 308 even though my squat workouts had gotten worse in training, and got stapled on the first attempt. My ego bruised, and remembering that you can't lower attempts, I pushed all day on the second attempt and nailed it but we noticed afterward that I forgot to take off my warmup pants, so the lift was not legal. Imagine, spent to fuck and facing a bomb-out on the first lift at the Gathering, so I asked Kris if he could call depth for me. If it looks like I dive bombed it, I was just spent and decided to put my all into coming out of the hole. Success!!!

Based on my last training numbers, I played it safe this time and benched 220 with a good pause on my first attempt (I had not trained with a pause, stupid me). I nailed 231 pounds for a second attempt but was called for insufficient pause (I knew it was a no go). I should have stayed with that weight for a third attempt, because 242 only went halfway up. On the plus side, I based my training max for this 5/3/1 cycle on that 231.

Deadlift was also one of those lifts that gave me fits in training: I put too much time into deficit deadlifts, severely overtrained, and my bests prior to this in training was 335x3 on June 17 (conventional) and 345x1 on June 29 (reverse band conventional). So I decided on an opener of 363 pounds and would decide the other attempts based on how fast it went up. It went up so fast that I went for a 396 second attempt, and I got it. In retrospect, if I had played back the vid and seen how much lower back I used on that lift (a lot), I might have been more conservative on my third attempt (about 405). Instead, I went for broke on 418 pounds and barely nudged it.
I totaled 925.6 pounds. Per pound I was stronger than the last meet, a little bit of consolation for the fact that I lifted 45 pounds less than the last meet. I made so many training mistakes that I deserved what I got . . . . . and now know how to proceed with 5/3/1 this time.

That, and it was hella fun to do the meet here in Finland. Kris looked technically better in his lifts than I had seen in his last meet, especially his squats and deadlifts where he had a much better back arch (he hadn't trained much due to injury and work). Christian showed me how the IPF do: I would have killed for that 463 deadlift and I think if I hadn't mistakenly misloaded the right side of the bar on his second bench attempt (sorry, Christian), he would have tied Mans for best bench. Mans gave Christian a run for the money: for a guy who is more bodybuilder than powerlifter by his own admission, his lifts looked clean and effortless. Lastly, it rained as predicted but even the gods smiled, since it chose to rain after we had packed all the equipment away.

And, unlike past meets, we had a sauna to fix us up afterwards. I decided to follow Kris' advice and do a contrast: sauna followed by a dip in the "lake", 2 or 3 times. The lake part knocked the breath out of me, it was so damn cold!!! As Mans explained to me, since it was fed by the Baltic Sea, it was a sea and not a lake so the water was colder. After that (and running a bit of a fever that night), I pretty much stayed away from the sea/lake for the duration of my time in Finland.

The other 3 guys were almost non-chalant about the water.

Dinner was great, a barbecue and lots of beer. I had told Kris before I came to Finland that one of the things that I wanted to do was to break bread with his family, and this dinner exceeded my expectations. Kris' parents were way cool, and I also walked away thinking that as a whole Europeans travel a whole lot more than Americans do. Between all of us we have been to Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, Tibet, China, America, Europe, and more . . . . lots of stories to go around.

After dinner, we went to work converting the video for upload, and Kris was probably the last to go to sleep that night since he was already at work coding for VirtualMeet.

Day 2: July 10

I slept solid, awakened by the sounds of Kris' adorable kids, Rufus and Renee playing. This is where I also met Saana, who had breakfast ready and was helping the kids get used to the stranger in the house . . . . . me. Turns out Saana also helps the kids with their computer skills, because they navigate the computer pretty good for their age. She is definitely the Ying to Kris' Yang, with lively eyes but an earthy demeanor. I should note that this was also my introduction to Finnish breakfasts: very simple stuff like eggs, bread and cheese, cut veggies, cloudberry and lingonberry jams, coffee. If you ever had the pulp from a passion fruit, then cloudberries are close to that, but less musky. The lingonberries are like cranberries but sweeter.

Today, we would meet up with Måns Rinne and pick up Christian Burger, flying in from Austria. If you look at Måns, you can tell who is the bodybuilder among us. Christian looked a little bigger than his 205 pounds, and he actually competes in the IPF. Both are very affable guys with Christian being warm but measured, and Måns being animated with mischievous eyes. Christian works for Siemens, which is one really huge company, and is very well traveled. We were able to hit it off right away since he has traveled to the States quite a bit.

After a stop at Chicos to get burgers, Måns and I went in one car and Kris and Christian went in another. From there it was on to the supermarket to stock up on stuff. Remember what I said about the Finns and their little hidden surprises? How about a supermarket that sells lifting chalk, ammonia, and kettlebells? Sweeet. Not so sweet was Måns introducing us to Salmiakki, or salted licorice. Christian was the first to try it and I wish I had videotaped it because the look on his face was classic: the look of disgust slowly evolved on his face with every suck, cracked me up. Not wanting to be left out of the suffering, I gave it a shot. Then I looked at the label to see what the cause of that ammonia tail in its taste was and sure enough it was ammonium chloride!?! What the hell?!? EVIL CANDIES!!! Everything else we bought was normal, energy drinks and grub.
Måns and I talked quite a bit. For one, his accent is so faint that you could almost confuse his accent for American (He has been there). Like Kris, he did compulsory military service (Military Police, Kris was a Field Engineer). He is also a personal trainer. And when I asked him if it was true about an ad I saw at a train station in Helsinki that said about Finns finding love at dances like waltzes and tangos, he mentioned that Kris and Saana met that way. Couple with the fact that he met his Emma through his only try at online dating and you wonder if anyone needs to ever be a pickup artist.
We made a stop in Rauma, to check out the Old Town, and what remained of a very old church that burned down to the ground. We also stopped by a really old bridge where Kris and Måns got us to try the Turkish Peber, which was like Salmiakki but it had hot chili pepper powder in the center. Ack!!! Candy is supposed to be SWEET!!!
Once we got to the pier in Vaasa, we loaded up the boat and took a nice boat ride to the cottage. There we met Kris' parents, and we took a tour of Toffee's Gym which was every bit as nice as we've seen on the Web. Måns and Kris then started taking off the oils that was protecting the bars and uncovering the racks. Kris then showed us all the equipment: Buffalo Bar, Safety Squat Bar, chains, bands, weight releasers, a Rolling Thunder lurking about plus other grip stuff, and a pit with additional weights that could be used for belt squats. Kris joked that it was supposed to be a dungeon for me before he had a change of heart;)
We were assigned cottages to sleep in and after a very good dinner, we went to sleep. Psyched up for the next day.

Day One - July 9th

If it wasn't because I knew I needed to get as much sleep as I could, I wouldn't have been able to get any. I was both excited and nervous in equal measure. Sometimes, I gather to meet someone else from the blogosphere is like meeting someone you see on the TV, almost surreal. And, in what would become one of our little jokes during the trip, the thought kept creeping in my head of Turistas, Hostel, Taken, and Craiglist.

But once I stepped off the plane and got my luggage, it was as if we knew each other all along. I recognized the face before the shirt!

From all the emails we had exchanged, Kris had remembered that I liked Sushi so he had made a reservation at Kabuki, in Helsinki. Until that reservation, he showed me a bit around Helsinki to most of the important places: railway station, bus stop to catch the airplane shuttle, some landmarks, movie theatre, the church that had Punttis Gym underneath it (the band was playing New Orleans-style jazz - - - cool!!!). Sometime during our walk, it started to drizzle but we made it to Kabuki, a Japanese restaurant with some Finnish Hockey Team gear on the walls. With the church jazz band and now this, Finland was already winning points for little surprises at every turn. And the food? Well, it tasted as good as the photo. Even the scallop nigiri, which I had never eaten before, was a revelation, as was the green tea ice cream. Aside from talking about the meet to come and the road trip, Kris started filling me in what he was doing for the second version of VirtualMeet. And later that night, once we got to his apartment (an Ikea furnished pad with one of those hidden refrigerators), he showed me the extent of all the coding work: by the time it goes live, it looks like it will have over 10K lines of code. He demonstrated the work needed to post page design, making the PM (private messaging) work, etc. It never ceases to amaze me how much work a programmer has to do, the attention to detail required, just to make a website easy to navigate and powerful to use for the rest of us. All this, while also doing coding work for IRC Galleria, the largest social network in Finland, rivaling even Facebook. Busy guy.
A side note: aside from showing me his collection of books, he showed me the kettlebells in his closet. I asked him if he was afraid that his kids might find them, and he said they've already lifted one of them. Even little Renee. Funny, it must be in the Finnish genetic code to lift heavy shit . . . . . .
"Must. Lift. Must. Lift."


Sorry it took me so long to begin this blog about The Gathering. I was busy living it up on the roadtrip, and I was partying my ass off in Helsinki. I also didn't know whether to do this as just a meet writeup, or a travelogue.
Then, I got back to Djibouti and spent 3 weeks working 4AM-12PM, then I spent as much time as I could with one of my best friends here before she left last week.
I loved Finland!!! Another place joins Australia as the place I would have to revisit more than once in my lifetime.
Mostly, though, I had a hard time figuring out where to begin. That's because this trip was a revelation, a shot in the arm, and just about everything I needed right now.
I will have been in Africa for almost two years when I leave in December 2009. I've been through a lot, and some parts of my old life won't survive it, despite my best intentions. I've looked to the future nervously, trying to figure out what my first steps should be. I might even be developing a job itch.
And I've been there before. When I headed off to college, when I signed papers to join the Navy in 1993, when I left for Africa in 2008 knowing I would be gone from my wife and child for a long time. Each time hoping If I was doing the right thing.
In Africa, I found joy and simplicity. My life was stripped bare, and I learned how to make that work for me. And I met a few people (a Filipina, a Marine, the Puerto Rican National Guard (ie. the 1/65th Infantry Battalion, Bravo Company, etc.) who gave my perspective a makeover.
My trip to Finland changed me the second I realized that it was mostly made up of things that I did not plan. Oh, I planned the weight training stuff that led up to it, and the VirtualMeet, meeting Christian and Måns,and the trip to Finnish Lapland. Maybe even some skirt chasing in Helsinki (Wink! Wink!).
But I never planned to trek through Norway or North Cape, didn't plan too much of the camping stuff much, or some of Helsinki. I didn't plan on seeing so much, as evidence by several hundred (over half a K) pictures. Come to think of it, I never planned on any of this happening when found, I emailed Kris in early 2000-something on his first website, or seeing Toffee's Gym. I never planned on getting married, ever, but I did. I didn't ever think that Africa would put this trip within my reach. In the grand scheme of things, I didn't see of a lot of things happening in my life as they did, and yet not seeing it did not lessen my enjoyment or appreciation of it. The biggest thing I take away from all of this is that I don't have to see, know, predict, or control everything. I just had to be ready to respond to it. And that the best things in life come with some discomfort.
After everything that has come before, long plane ride, sore, being tired after a 4+K hike, legs on fire, tired, face wet and cold after being rained on, that's why I'm smiling in this picture.
And to Kris, Måns, Christian, Sanna, Emma, Kris' mom and pops; my wife and Marissa; Dan: my son Eric; The Navy, for the plane ticket; Kris' brother Andreas for the crazy discount on a hotel suite at the Sokos Hotel; the Turkish guy at the kebab place close to the hotel; to the people I met at Butterfly. . . . . . thank you.
And to Minna, a girl I met on my first night in Helsinki, thank you and I'm sorry in equal measure.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Gathering 2010?

Being that blogging about aerobics and trying to eat right every day is bound to make me lose my mind, but I still have to keep up a blog, I've had to come up with other things to do.  For one, I still would blog about that but nowhere near as often.  I will also study hard to earn my Expeditionary Warfare Qualification while I am here (warfare quals in the Navy are a big  deal), especially because I don't have a heck of  a lot of time to do this: I had started in September but my illness made me lose a month's ground.  I also have another blog that I write under a nom de plume. 

But an email from Kris at reminded me that I have yet to finish my entries about Virtualmeet: The Gathering 2009 so this will be my huge priority starting this weekend.  In that email, Kris is seriously looking at doing another Gathering at Toffee's gym in 2010.  This was also posted on Twitter (


I'm not sure if it would be like this year's Gathering where we also took a long road trip through Finnish Lapland, Sweden, Norway, and Nordkapp (North Cape).  But if he does, it would be the icing on an already sweet cake.  Finland was one of the most beautiful and charming places I have ever been to (and as a sailor, I have been to many).  Helsinki is a happening city if you like food, drink, and clubs.  Finnish Lapland was beautiful and vast, as was Norway (I'm sure Sweden is nice, but we didn't go too far there.).  The Finnish people are cool and if you are a lifter, a place like Punttis or Voimapuoti would be like heaven (P.S. ask the owner at Voimapuoti to spot you on heavy benches, I dare ya!).  It was all beautiful, and Kris and Mans and Christian made it fun.  You would be lifting with people who really appreciate and love to lift heavy shit.  And the hospitality provided by Kris' family on Vaasa and Kris' home was awesome, and very tasty.  Oh, and did I mention delicious Finnish candies?

I looked up a flight using current dates just to get an ideaFrom Seattle, It would cost from $930 to $1351 roundtrip to get there, less if going from the East Coast, and even less if in Europe.  If it weren't for a looming divorce and my brother's wedding, I would strongly consider going myself.  I would probably take a Navy job in Germany and stay a few extra days so I wouldn't have to pay for the flight;)  If you can go, do so.  Maybe some of us Virtualmeeters may want to consider signing up and doing satellite gatherings, if you can't make the trip to Finland.  But I would try to make the trip at least once.

As I post during the week, I may even make some entries to post extra photos.  For now, here's a few:

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Thursday, I arrived in Djibouti.  As soon as I stepped off the plane, I was hit by a hot humid blast of air.  I don't want to say it was good to be home, but I almost did.  Here's why: I was going stir crazy in Germany.  That and while the flight from Frankfurt left at 11:15PM, the bus leaving Landstuhl barracks to the airport leaves just once at 6:00AM.  That's a long ass wait for a plane.  And in Ethiopia, it was a nine hour layover.  But it was better than the alternative: had I flown Space A, they don't fly to Djibouti often (not much does) so I would have made many stops and would have taken longer.  And I did spend a few hours in Frankfurt at the USO: Ethiopian airlines put us up at the Riviera Hotel there for a few hours so I got to charge up my laptop and iPod Touch and catch a nap and get a lunch, on their dime.  I was just glad to stop the travel and beging working for my last month and a half here.

My last flight will be the one that takes me home!

I used this weekend to catch up on sleep.  But tomorrow I begin the very boring task of getting back into training mode.  I weighed myself this afternoon at 205 pounds.  Not bad.  My goal is to maybe even drop into the 190s.  That's really it.  Since I'm not lifting or running, I cannot eat the same or else I would just blow up.  So every morning will start with a long walk, then a 30 minute session on the elliptical and some mobility work.  My diet will be cleaner with some carb cycling thrown in but gone will be the few beer sessions a week and the associated late night trips for a soup and sandwich at the galley.  No Gatorades, and less sugar in my coffee.  Maybe every once in a while, I might substitute a meal with a protein shake.  That's it.

While I was in Germany, I emailed questions on what to do to Elite FTS' Q&A, and I received answers from C.J. Murphy, strongman from Total Performance Sports.  What luck: he had been through the same thing! I figured I would just enclose it, as is.  Considering how much time I have here until I leave coupled with two weeks leave in New Jersey, I won't be touching a weight until January 2010 (it almost kills me to think about that).  But on the good side, it will be in my  garage gym and a ten minute ride from Submarine Base Bangor's gym, so I will be set.  

9/30/2009 5:35:54 PM - Alberto Caraballo
I recently had surgery to remove my gallbladder, with a 4-inch incision made in my abdomen (could not safely be removed via laparascopy), right side. The staples come out in a week, followed by 6 weeks of light&limited duty (Navy orders) where they don't want me to lift anything over 30 pounds or do anything too strenuous. After that, how do I best rehab and ease myself back into powerlifting? Before that I was following 5/3/1 protocol, WSFSB III for assistance work. Last Maxes were 315 squat, 415 deadlift, 232 bench, 5 bwt pullups.

Thank you for the assist, as always.

I had my gall bladder out a few months ago so I'm in a good position to help here.
One thing to remember is that they were rooting around in your gut ripping your gizzard out. Your abs were shifted around, so they will be a little weird for a few months after. You need to take it slow and let them get strong again.
Take the Doc's advice and do not lift anything over 30 pounds. I made the mistake of picking up my son (about 45 pounds at the time) three or four days post surgery and almost dropped. It felt like everything tore inside.
Once you are cleasred to go back in the gym try out the following:
I modified 5/3/1 and did all the work as the program called for, except that I based it all off of 5 reps maxes instead of 1 rep maxes.
My squat was around 225, so it was very light. It did the trick though. If I didn't commit to following the percentages, I would have been back to heavy singles and injuries.
I did three 1 month cycles of this and then established 1 rep maxes and went with a 5/3/1 Strongman template.
I think this was the best thing that I could have done, as I have a tendency to be an idiot in the gym.
This kept me disciplined and allowed me to get stronger without injuring anything the Doctors fixed.


10/7/2009 7:43:36 PM - Alberto Caraballo

I wanted to thank you for your answer, it was perfect. I just have two last questions. When you started training again, what kind of ab work did you do to start out with that got you back up to speed? I'm thinking along the lines of planks, side bridges, and pallof presses . . . . nothing like situps or leg raises, more like stability work. And during my six weeks of light & limited duty, is there any kind of bodyweight work that I can safely do?

I statrted with crunches and pulldown abs. I addedin rotation a fbout a week after I came back. I use things like TGU's, windmills, russian twists. I'm not a fan of planks if you can hold one for more than a minute, which I can even then. Thay are just not that hard. Add situps in when the pain goes away in your gut.

During the limited mobility time, go as tolerated. YOur body will tell you if it's too much. Remeber, this is rehab, not max effort so go slow and low the first few weeks.