Lifting Outside

by Jim Steel | October 26, 2022

barbell on the ground outside

A little over a month ago, I was sitting at the bar at PT’s Package store, a biker bar set out in the country in South Jersey, with my long time friend, Johnny B. Johnny and I worked together at the University of Pennsylvania for years and he is also the godfather to my youngest son. I had just finished putting some Waylon Jennings on the jukebox box, and ordering a Miller High Life. Not my favorite beer, but I always drink at least one in honor of Bill Starr. Miller was his preferred beer, and I never showed up at his apartment without a 12 pack of it. Johnny stuck with his Bulleit Bourbon, neat.

He and I get together every once in a while to talk old times, and sometimes about weight training. He was telling me about his lack of enthusiasm lately for doing a typical training program that involved a bunch of different exercises. “So much bullshit with all of that, Jimmy,” he said in his South Philly accent, “I just want to do a few exercises that hit everything and get out. I’m 56 years old and I don't care about the gym scene, or doing a bunch of bodybuilding at all. I just need something to keep me strong for life. I need it short and sweet and effective.”

“Didn’t I give you a barbell and some plates a few years back? I asked. “And you have a dip stand, right?” He nodded his head yes.

“Just do deadlift and dips,” I said to him. “You can do both those exercises without pain, right? So a few times a week, do 5x5 on the deadlift, working up in poundage slowly, and do some dips in between sets. In 15-20 minutes, you are done and you will work your whole damn body.”

He liked that idea. “It’s perfect,” Johnny said, raising his glass. “Deadlift and dips, that’s all. I love it.”

After bidding farewell to my friend later in the evening, and driving home through the dark country roads back to my house, the conversation with Johnny got me thinking about my own training. I have always loved the deadlift, and dips were okay also. I had been struggling with upper back and neck tightness for a few months, and I was getting limited in the exercises that I could perform in the weight room. My neck especially, was all bound up and in spasms.

I hadn’t been deadlifting at all, maybe once in the last 6 months, just a bunch of cables and machines and dumbbells. I thought that maybe deadlifting will help with the neck issue, but I doubted it. I think that I just missed performing the deadlift and I was going to do it whether it made me feel worse or not. And just like Johnny, I was bored with traditional training, and I needed a change.

Plus, I’d been feeling soft lately. I had been watching those videos on YouTube of Russian dudes training in the snow or training on some rickety playground in Siberia. I like looking at my Instagram feed and after checking out the latest pictures from my favorite CrossFit girls, I go to a guy named Clay who’s profile is called, Discoverydeadlift. Clay takes a bar and a mess of plates way out into nature and does his deadlifts. That guy makes me envious and he gets me fired up to train.

A gym is fun, and my gym, Atilis, of Bellmawr, New Jersey is the best around. I enjoy my friends there, just to be around some people every few days who are training hard and heavy – and hell, to be honest, they think like I do. Bunch of old Marines and a Vietnam sniper and an owner who gives a shit. But the bright lights and the selectorized machines and the 20 something girls taking selfies in their unbelievably tight see through leggings are nice and all, but sometimes it doesn't seem real, or rather, doesn't feel natural at times.

Every once in awhile, I just get in a mood, lets call it a feral mood, or a minimalist mood. Where I don't want to do anything that smacks of modernity, where going to a gym or even in my basement to lift weights seems sort of soft and out of touch with what we were really meant to do as humans. I have these talks with myself: “Oh, you need to drive 30 minutes to a place so that you can lift weights and ride an exercise bike? What a pussy. Get your ass outside and train, get back to nature like your forefathers did.”

And to further my feelings of inadequacy as a man, I was reading about the diet of the Mountain Men, the beaver trappers from the early 1800’s. How they feasted on meat from various animals, and if they got hungry enough and times were bad, they would even eat the moccasins that they were wearing, and how Kit Carson said, “Once a year, I would have a meal consisting of bread, meat, sugar and coffee. I would consider it a luxury.” They dined on Beaver tail, marrow and intestines. They would drink the blood of buffalo and antelope, with one mountain man described the taste of antelope blood as “tasting like fresh milk”. These were ridiculously hard men, who lived off the land and learned how to survive among the harshest conditions. And I haven’t been hungry in a while. Soft.

I have 5 acres of land with about 2.5 acres of it being a wooded area, with bald eagles and beavers and geese and all kinds of ducks and birds flying around in my backyard, and I love being out there. Sometimes you just want to drag some weights outside, take your black Labrador hunting dog with you, and have some fun. Sometimes you don't want to worry about what is right to do, you just wanna imagine that you are a feral man, a hunter staying strong so he can fend off attacks from the tribe that lives in the valley over the other side of the big mountain. Doing all of this for a purpose, training for life, to provide and protect. No music, just the sounds of the outside. To just eat some steak off the bone, do a shot of whiskey or something, look to the heavens and then pull the weight and train with no science in mind.

And yes, I know that I woke up in a comfortable bed this morning, and drove my son to school in a 2021 Toyota Tundra 4X4 with my iPhone plugged into my truck that plays music and podcasts and books on tape. And I don't have to grow my own tobacco, I just go to Wawa to pick up a can of Copenhagen (at 6 bucks a can!). I hunt for pleasure, and yes, I eat the meat, but most of the time I go to the Acme supermarket a few miles away to buy beef that's sealed in plastic, and I also watch football games on my HD television. I'm as modern as it gets, and once in awhile, all of that stuff makes me feel like a little man, engulfed with technology and too much communication, and it makes me want to hold my head in my hands and think abut how wimpy that I have become.

I brought 4 - 45 pound plates and a 45-pound barbell and a portable dip stand outside in my backyard.

It was just 225 pounds, but I was thinking about Joe Kinney when I set up the bar. Joe Kinney was the first man to close the Number 4 Iron Mind Gripper, and he designed a squat rack between two trees, and made a replica of a safety squat bar and then put some cement plates on it, with the total on the bar 335 pounds. Every time he would go to his machine shop, he had to do a set of squats, "paying the toll" as he called it.

I put the plates and the bar in the backyard. I did a set of 5 deadlifts, and in between sets, I did 20 dips and then played fetch with Rebel. I was having so much fun and losing myself in the whole thing, that I ended up doing 10 sets of 5 repetitions. The next day, I did it again, and again the following day. And I kept it going. Its been 36 days since I have started and and I have deadifted every day. After 5 days of deadlifting 225 for either 10x5 or 5x10, I went to the gym and pulled 335x3. Then I did 5 more days of the 225 for 50 total reps, and went to the gym and pulled 425x3. Then 5 more days of 225x50, then I pulled 505x1. I hadn’t pulled over 315 in forever. And 505, although not anything great, felt easy and smooth. I’m conventional deadlifting and I use a hook grip on all sets, because I tried it before, years ago, and quit on it and it’s always pissed me off that I didn’t stick with it, so I went back to it. As far as the frequency of the dips, I did them every other session. It seems like I recovered faster with the deadlifts than the dips, probably because of the neck tightness and an old pectoral twinge that I get at times.

After all of the days of deadlifting, the lift just feels so natural to me, like the form “fits” me right away when I go down to the bar. I don’t warm up, but rather go right to 225 pounds. I just think about needing to lift that weight in life, like in an emergency. I create all these scenarios in my head: someone in trouble, a tree blocking the road, whatever. No warm up, you coward, just lift it. And Rebel gets plenty of retrieving in, also. I do my set and then throw the retrieving bumper for him. He brings it back to me and waits patiently for me to finish my set and then I throw it again.

And guess what? My neck irritation went away, and my back feels great. I have no idea why this happened, especially with the neck. Is it because I stopped performing the “little stuff” like lateral raises and lat pulls and shrugs? Maybe. Maybe my body was telling me to get back to the basics, and nothing is more basic than picking up shit off of the ground. How many hundreds of thousands of years have humans been doing that very same thing? I feel thicker and more muscular in just a short period of time. I'm sure it’s the sheer amount of volume that is causing me to grow. And I know that unless I increase the load more frequently or I bump up the volume even more, I probably won’t keep growing. But, here is the thing: I don't care, I just like it. It’s like work – good work. Like picking up heavy logs to create a wood pile, or dragging a heavy log out of the woods, that type of feeling.

Yesterday evening, I did my 225 for 10 sets of 5 and worked on chopping a tree down between sets instead of doing the dips. When I was done, I built a fire from what I had chopped down and Rebel and I sat by the fire and I drank a Budweiser as he lay by my feet.

I’m not sure how long I will deadlift everyday, but I’m having a blast doing it right now. I’m feeling good, and I’m enjoying lifting weights again. I feel renewed and refreshed by getting outdoors, sweating, and enjoying the fresh air, just Rebel and me.

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