Getting Strong

by Jim Steel | September 14, 2022

lifter preparing to squat

The TENS unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation), is losing battery as I drive down the road. I can tell this is happening because of the power of the unit. When I first put the pads on my upper trapezius and neck, the power of the electricity made the left side of my upper body jump because of the jolt. Now, it is barely buzzing. I have this unit on me because I have a herniated disc in my neck and a few times a year, it acts up some. My traps and upper back get tight and go into spasms, sometimes some fingers go numb, and much of the time it feels like someone is punching me in my left arm. When driving, I also hold onto the headrest behind me, which gives me some relief.

My left elbow has been operated on twice and doesn’t lock out very well anymore because of arthritis, and my once-operated-on low back acts surly at times for no apparent reason. My knees sound like Rice Crispies as I begin to squat and I go sideways down the steps, slow and steady. At 54 years of age, I have beaten my body up pretty well. Football and getting punched and lifting weights for over 30 years have taken their toll. Maybe I shouldn’t have done all of that stuff, perhaps I would have been better off just trying to be as healthy as possible and live forever.

Fuck That.

I don’t regret a thing about everything that I have done to myself physically over the years.

Playing football was the best thing that I have ever done, and I still relive practices and games from the 1980s every day.

Getting punched in boxing and Muay Thai and teenage fights let me know that I could take “it,” and that getting punched actually felt pretty good. You get hit, survive it, and think to yourself, “I didn’t die.” I had a pro fighter kick me in the leg once, and although I wanted to go out to the truck and get my 12 gauge, I didn’t. And it wasn’t that bad, after all.

Weight training was something that I fell in love with in the seventh grade, and I don't regret a bit of that, either.

When you are very young, in your teenage years, you have no thought of mortality or even getting injured. It never once entered my mind to not do something because I might get injured. What kind of thinking is that, anyway? You take chances and do stupid stuff, and if you didn’t do that stuff back then, you just know that you would regret it later. Who wants to have a contest to see who can squat 405 the most times? Me!

I love all of these experiences in the weight room and in athletics. To me, that's what it's all about – the experiences. When you train with weights for so many years, you rack up milestones and plenty of memories. There are plenty of weight training milestones, the first “3 plates” bench, the first “4 plates” squat. Those are such fond memories, and that’s really the beauty of training with weights.

I found out right away when I started that weight training – or perhaps more specifically, powerlifting training – gave you feedback right away, and that appealed to me. You either successfully completed the lift or you didn't. Black and white, with no gray area. Maybe I liked it so much because completing the rep or missing the rep was wholly up to me, and my mistake if I wasn't successful – no one to blame but myself. And that's empowering. People ask me, why am I not getting stronger? Does my program suck? It might, but more than likely you aren't doing everything you can to get stronger. The strongest men in the world didn't get that way by eating Cheetos and sleeping 4 hours a night. No, it takes planning, and to get really strong, I mean, over-700-pound squats and deadlifts and over-500-pound benches, there can be no holes in your preparation. Nutrition, sleep, mindset, outside activities, stress level, and programming play a part in your success.

And who is all that up to? Me. I can control all of it, and whether I do that correctly will be the barometer of whether I succeed or fail. Just like getting punched in the face, squatting with a heavy weight on your back teaches you what your body is capable of doing. It's this pure, simple thing, this challenge that makes you choose: are you gonna put the weight back in the rack, or are you gonna try? Are you gonna do the old “come out of the bottom and then collapse with it” and then say it was too heavy, or you felt a twinge in your back/knee/shoulder? Or are you gonna man up, ignore the feeling like you are getting crushed with the weight and unable to get a full breath, and squat down with it and push as hard as you can with confidence and supreme effort?

It's those moments just like that, that make it worthwhile. Take the deadlift for example. That moment when you are pulling with all of your might just to get it off of the ground, and then you keep pulling and you start to feel it move, just a little and then you bring it up your shins and you can feel the skin being scraped off of your shins and then it reaches your knees and you think just a little further and then you strain to push your hips through, all the way through, you lock the knees, and…done. And that's an addictive part of lifting weights to me: those moments when you challenge yourself, when there is an element of danger, but you overcome it, with sheer will.

I can't seem to find anything worthwhile doing that doesn't have a chance of it messing you up in the long run. Maybe sitting on the couch. That’ll kill you in the long run, anyway. And make you into a coward.

I see it in the gym, folks who are lifting weights but not loving it way down in your guts, with that feeling of importance placed on every rep of every set. The week of a big squat workout when I was competing in powerlifting, always had me excited, excited just like the butterflies you get on an opening kickoff of a football game. And you pick up your training partners on the way and all of you are quiet, just the Pantera blaring on the radio.

In the old days, we took little white ephedrine pills that I would get at truck stops in North Carolina. “Trucker speed” we called it, and it made me alert as hell and made my heart beat out of my chest, along with sweating profusely. Coupled with strong cups of black coffee and by the time we got to the gym, we were ready to attack the weights with religious fervor. I had visualized the weights on the bar so much that by the time I got to my top sets getting my reps was a foregone conclusion. I'm looking back at those sessions right now and smiling at the memory. I really don’t think that most of the folks I see lifting weights are placing that much importance on their training session. That's fine, it's just foreign to me. Do it 100% or find something else that you are passionate about, that you can devote supreme energy to.

With years of intense, heavy sessions, you get banged up. I have a guy that I am training right now, and he wants to get strong. We pound the heavy weights and he has gotten much stronger, but not without mishaps. He twinged a quadriceps muscle one day, and a pec the other. Maybe it's his coach, or maybe that by pushing the limits, trying to gain the strength of truly mighty men, the chance of injury rises.

And he doesn't care. He was an active-duty Marine in Afghanistan, so he gets it. I was talking with a State Trooper today in the gym. He said both his shoulders were gone and that he couldn’t use a barbell in pressing movements anymore. He’s 49 and has been through it. But he is still there, pounding away, knowing that being strong is vital in his job and to keep his sanity after a long shift.

I figure that anything worth it – really worth it – has some risk that goes along with it. And when you're young, those injuries go away, and then in later years, you start to feel them all over again. But once, you were STRONG, and not many people can say that. Not just normal bench your bodyweight for some reps strong, but massively strong, where the weights rattle on the bar strong.

Do you want to squat 800? Probably gonna be some bumps in the road to 800 along the way. But when you get there, through the pulled groins, the shoulder that pops on you, and all the other nagging stuff, you really accomplished something. You persevered and did it. You did something that “normal”people find crazy, unfathomable. Tangible results, weight added on the bar. Not a boss’s opinion if you did well, not up to some committee. Did you get stronger or not?

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