Strength Training Culture

by Jim Steel | December 14, 2022

lifter pressing in the gym

The strength training culture is an interesting one. There is a general feeling among older, experienced lifters that they should give back to the activity that has given them so much. They want to help people, especially beginners, and most likely they had someone along the way who got them started, taught them the basics, and mentored them. Those are the good, knowledgeable folks. But there is a group of people out there in strength land who have very little experience in lifting or coaching, but still feel the need to share their lack of knowledge with someone, and it seems like those people choose to constantly share this lack of knowledge with little old me.

For example, even at my very biggest, when I weighed 312 pounds at 5’9, there were always many folks out there bigger than me. Even when I was at my very strongest, squatting over 800, deadlifting over 700, and benching over 500, there were many, many folks out there much stronger than me. How do I know this? Because they told me so.

“Hey, man! You are pretty big,” says a random person to me at a bar or in the parking lot of a grocery store, or at a youth baseball game. “How much do you bench?” “505.” “Oh, that’s pretty good. My cousin benched, I think, 700-something. How much do you weigh?” “312,” I answer. “Oh,” he says, “My cousin was like 350, big like you, definitely not quite as fat and he had more muscle.” They’d usually ask me all of my numbers, and when I would tell them, they would tell me that their gargantuan cousin’s way stronger than I am. “Oh, great!” I say, smiling. That’s what I always did, just smile, nod my head, and walk away.

This happened to me so often that I began to picture a superhuman race of people, all huge and strong as hell, all deadlifting more than Doyle Kenady, all stronger than Ed Coan, all thicker than Dorian Yates. This superhuman race has no bodyfat, and no matter how big and strong I got, there was always one of these people bigger and stronger. When I got my squat over 800, I felt pretty weak, because the number of people that came up to me and told me about their cousin, uncle, or brother squatting over 1000 pounds was incredible. I pictured a state, maybe close to Ohio, where these huge men squat, deadlift, and bench hundreds of pounds more than a little guy like myself.

Or when they come up to me and say, “Ah, I used to be like you until…” then they get the despondent look on their faces. I ask, “Until?” And they say, “Until my knee (or shoulder or back) injury.” I usually ask, “Just how strong were you?” And then they answer by asking how strong/big I am, and they say, “Oh I was much stronger than that! Too bad I got hurt.” “Yeah,” I say, “that’s too bad, because you were really strong.”

And then if the guy found out that I played college football, oh man. Of course, he would have played for Alabama, or even the Cowboys, if only he hadn't had that knee injury. I was giving a guy a tour of Franklin Field at the University of Pennsylvania one time, and he pulled that “I could have been a great football player until ...” bullshit, and I remember thinking, like my junior college coach used to say, “That guy can’t play. Hell, he’s so bad, he couldn’t play dead in a cowboy movie.”

Or, how about “I could be strong like that, but...”

“I didn’t want to hurt my back/shoulder/elbow, etc.” So you decided to stay weak and small?

“I was too busy. I had to work.” We all had to work.

“I didn’t want to be all big.” That’s a good one, considering it takes many years of consistency with eating and lifting heavy weights with a healthy dose of decent genetics thrown in to be “all big.” I usually tell them to not worry about it, they would never get that big. They sorta look at me like, “Is he putting me down?” But I just smile and tell them not to worry about it.

And then folks come up to me and tell me how strong they are right now, without me even asking. “I don’t give a shit” probably wouldn't go over all that well, so I just do the “Oh great!” And smile and walk away. Sometimes they tell me what they can curl, and how they use the Arm Blaster like Arnold.

And then there is the “I coulda been real big like you, but I wanted to be cut, you know, I want to always have abs, a six-pack.” Because, of course, I am fat. And I would ask about their bodyweight. “Uh, I’m not sure. Around 200,” they would say, and no way were they a pound over 165. Reminds of this girl that I wanted to date in college, Penny. Penny didn’t want to date big old me, she liked this little squirrelly-looking dude, Kyle or something, who couldn’t have weighed more than 147, fully clothed with a rock in his pocket. But he had clearly defined abdominal muscles to go along with those massive 12-inch arms.

But I digress. People think that they can just become a strength coach also. When I was a collegiate strength coach, everybody had “thought about getting in that field.” I swear to you, a handyman at my mother-in-law’s house was working up on a ladder cleaning gutters one day, and when he found out that I was a college strength coach his interest in talking to me really piqued. “I’ve thought about getting into that field,” he said, as he threw leaves onto the ground. “I couldn’t do it for less than $125,000, though,” he said. “Well, I’m making $42,000 and I’ve been doing it for 15 years,” I said. “You better stick to what you're doing now.”

Or how about the “unwanted gym coach?” The guy in the gym who insists on giving you helpful advice, and won't leave you alone? I'm sorry to say, but you can have the biggest arms in the gym, and that doesn't mean that you know what you are talking about. I was helping my buddy with his squat one day and this huge-armed guy came up to him and said, “Man, you are doing it all wrong! You need to squat like you are a football player, a real wide stance, and like you are gonna tackle somebody. And stop looking down, keep that head up and look straight at the ceiling!” He actually put his legs extra wide and looked straight up at the ceiling, which made me look away so that he wouldn’t see me laugh. In the old days, I would have gone through the whole explanation on why he was wrong, but I took one look at his spindly legs and I sorta felt sorry for him. So we all just smiled, nodded our heads, and kept doing it the right way. One of the trainers in the gym came up to me and whispered, “ Don’t worry about him. He doesn’t even squat!”

Guys love to tell people what they are doing wrong in the gym – especially, in my experience, women. I had a female basketball player I coached one year who bench pressed close to 200 pounds. She would go home on vacation and come back and complain to me about this “asshole in the gym” who always tried to “help” her with her form. “He would always tell me that I'm doing it all wrong,” she would say, “and he’s weak!” The next time she went home and know-it-all was benching his training weight for the day of 135 pounds, she walked over to him and asked him if he could just leave that weight on the bar for her to warm up. And she said it loud enough for folks in the gym to hear. That shut the guy right up.

I reckon this advice-giving thing is just something about the weight training culture. But why does anyone who ever did a curl in gym class, or even had a membership to a gym, they think they know everything about it? In the old days, it was somebody who had a subscription to Muscle and Fitness who had to tell you that you were all wrong about everything. Now, it’s the deluge of YouTube lifters and coaches who inundate the airwaves with, quite frankly, a mess of bullshit.

I did have one good experience with what I thought was going to be a know-it-all-moment. I was in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on the boardwalk one year with my wife, and this guy came up to me and said, “Hey man! I saw you on the beach today.” And I whispered to my wife, “Here we go...” and my wife whispered to me, “Oh no!” I said to him, “OK, cool,” and he said, “Great forearms, dude!” And then he just walked away. “Thanks,” I said, happy. I didn’t mind that one bit.

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