Learning from Example

by Scott Acosta, SSC | July 06, 2022

acosta squatting old style

The barbell has been in my life for about as long as I can remember. Some of my best childhood memories are of working out with my dad. This was the original spark that led me to where I am today. What stands out to me is the example set by my father with regards to training, and the continued impact it has had on my own.

In his youth, my father was an amateur bodybuilder. At the time, machines were in their infancy, and physiques were still built via barbells, dumbbells and bodyweight exercises. In his 40s he built a well-equipped home gym in our basement, in a duplex in Jersey City, New Jersey. The entire training space couldn’t have been more than 150 square feet, yet it had everything needed for productive training. A squat rack and parallel dip bars constructed of plumbing pipe were bolted to studs. There was a poorly designed flat bench where the uprights were maybe 14” apart. This made load changes precarious. The incline bench was of the same design. At some point my father sawed off the uprights and used it strictly for dumbbell work. There was a lat pulldown that could also function as a seated row. I remember that being a lot of fun except for when the rail needed to be greased.

Conduit pipe was bolted to joists and used for pullups. Every time I did one, I was scared my head would strike a nail. I did them anyway because dad did them. There was a homemade upright pressing chair, partially built from my crib. The plates were York, probably manufactured in the 60s or 70s. The bar was a York split-sleeve. Dumbbells ranged from 25-85 lb. A lot of this equipment was purchased from a gym that went out of business. A treadmill was added after my dad had a heart attack at age 52. This was an impressive complement by most standards, and was how I got my start. I was a lucky kid.

acosta gym

My dad trained 4 days a week, religiously. He would arrive home around 5-5:30pm from his work as an electrician, and after giving my mom a hug and kiss hello, would begin his pre-workout ritual, a bagel and cup of coffee. When he finished, he flipped a light switch located in the center of the kitchen wall, which turned on the lights to the basement. There was no changing into workout attire. The man would train in work boots, jeans, and a flannel shirt – weirdo. Music for the session was provided by a genuine Hi-Fi stereo from the 70s, which is still in excellent condition, and to my knowledge still works.

He didn’t need to be convinced to train. He didn’t complain about being tired and not wanting to train. There wasn’t a moto video, special playlist, or training partner (myself excluded) required to do the necessary task. When it was time, he just flipped the light switch and went to work. Throughout my childhood this was a constant. He trained for himself. Because it mattered to him. I’m still impressed by his ability to consistently train alone for decades.

Sessions began with the barbell – as they should – and then moved to dumbbells and bodyweight exercises. I don’t recall the loads lifted. I wasn’t concerned with that. I just wanted to train with dad. Your kids aren’t concerned with it either. They just want to do what mom and dad are doing so you’ll be proud of them. Remember this.

I received little to no formal instruction from my dad on what to do or how to do it. In fact, he was a horrible teacher in the traditional sense. In 9th grade he was helping me with a science project involving electricity. His “help” nearly brought me to tears. He was however a great teacher through example. I watched and mimicked. If he was benching, so was I. If he was squatting, I was squatting. He would often do seated dumbbell curls in that homemade upright chair. All of the dumbbells were way too heavy for me so I used single plates. At the time, my entire hand could fit inside the 2” hole. When he finished a set, I did mine. I counted how many reps he would do, and I would do the same. Sets of 10 reps were pretty standard as I recall. I watched the way he moved and did my best to reproduce it. I could tell when he had 1 rep left because he would pause for a little longer, take a breath, and put in a little extra effort to do the last one well.

When I wasn’t yet tall enough to unrack the bar from the squat rack I was forced to adjust. I would use the curl bar, which I think weighed 15 lb. After loading it I would pick it up from the concrete floor, press it high enough to clear my head, and place it on the spot where there would one day be traps. When the bar was too heavy to be pressed, I would ask dad for assistance.

I was free to come and go as I pleased. There was never any pressure to join him, no expectation to do a certain exercise. Rip has long stated that children should see weight lifting as playing. That’s exactly what I was doing. I was playing, and it was fun.

At some point, my dad built himself a bathroom under the basement staircase so he didn’t have to interrupt his training to walk up 2 flights of stairs to a bathroom that might be occupied. He also installed an intercom system so he could be informed about when dinner was ready. At the end of the session the Hi-Fi was unplugged and we returned to the second-floor apartment. The light switch was turned off and I washed my hands in the bathroom sink. There was a satisfaction from watching the rust and dirt wash off my hands – I felt accomplished.

acosta gym hi fi

I stopped accompanying my dad for a few years, but picked up the barbell again when I was 16. This time I wanted to train with my peers. I stayed after school to join the athletes in the weight room. My first day there I got stapled to the bench by 125 lb. I was rescued by a coach and one of the athletes. This was an embarrassing moment, but I returned the next day. Four days a week I would stay after school to lift. This meant missing the bus and walking several miles back home with a full backpack (I found it impractical to use my locker, so I carried all of my books with me). By my senior year I moved training back to the home gym. I graduated high school a massive 154 lb – a truly spectacular specimen.

Fast forward to March 2003. I’m a mechanized infantryman with 3-7 INF. We’re in the Kuwait desert awaiting orders to cross the boarder and invade Iraq. I deployed with my weightlifting belt, and for a time, had access to a gym tent. We were eventually booted out of the comforts of the tent city and into the open desert. Without a gym, I had to improvise. Some sort of training needed to be accomplished. Luckily, I had sandbags, all the sand I could handle, and a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. I loaded sandbags to varying degrees and fastened them to the end of this aluminum rod that attached to the ends of a cot. This setup was quite unstable, and so I had to abandon my makeshift barbell. Still, I managed to do curls (naturally), front raises, and side raises. It didn’t occur to me to do any overhead pressing. Go figure. I was really good at pushups, and didn’t want to have to perform in excess of 100, so I did clapping pushups to make the stress a bit more efficient. Pullups were done off the back of the Bradley. A bonus was that there wasn’t the threat of a nail stabbing me in the head. Hanging leg raises were done by grasping a handle on the side of the vehicle. Look, I was 20 and did all the silly gym things 20-year-olds do.

To finish, I moved into the front of the Bradley, which has a sloped front end. The angle is designed to effectively increase the thickness of the armor and prevent direct hits from anti-armor weapons. But for me, it was for squatting. I would wedge myself as deep as I could into the front end, and attempt to squat the 27-ton machine. Isometric holds were done for 10 seconds and then I would rest. For the next set I would move a little further out and repeat, trying to cover as much range of motion as I could. I knew this wasn’t going to make me stronger – it was about controlling what I could control, and doing something to slow regression.

In December 2014 my father died of a heart attack. I traveled from Baghdad to New Jersey for funeral arrangements. While speaking with the downstairs neighbor she noted seeing my father training in the basement the week prior. His cousin said he noticed my dad slow down the week before his fatal heart attack. In The Barbell Prescription, Sully speaks about the compression of morbidity. My father’s dying was compressed to one week. One week out of 75 years, and he trained right up till the end.

My training didn’t stop because I was home for a funeral. When it came time, I flipped the light switch in the center of the kitchen wall. I walked down the narrow basement steps, and past the Hi-Fi on my way to the training area. I stood for a second, looking, just kind of admiring and remembering where my journey began. It had been close to 10 years since I trained in this space. The bar was in the rack and loaded to 115 – no doubt the man's final set of squats. I unloaded the bar for him, the same York split-sleeve from my childhood, the first barbell I'd ever laid hands on, and I did my squats.

The single most important lesson I learned was that of dedication and consistency – that the task is mine, and no one else can move the load for me. It was a lesson learned through years of watching this in quiet practice by my father. And because he didn’t force me to do it, it allowed my passion to develop along its natural course. I didn’t consciously recognize this until I was well in my 30s.

My love of barbell training was formed many years ago in a small basement gym in New Jersey. It was formed in part by the actions of my father, and my desire to play with the weights while he trained. The barbell has been in my life for about as long as I can remember. And it will remain in my life until I, too, do my final set of squats.

Oh, and I gave my dad a pass for not unloading the bar.

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