Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Matt Gets Strong

by Jim Steel | September 27, 2022

matt squatting in competition

I have always loved the magic surrounding getting strong, especially with a relatively new lifter. Seeing them successfully lift a weight that just a few weeks before seemed impossible to them is life-changing. Once the lifter is “hooked” on this feeling, it becomes a lifelong obsession to keep challenging themselves to add more weight to the bar.

In the spring of 2019, I was working at a baseball training facility in South Jersey, training kids to get stronger. I coached two groups, the younger kids from ages 8-12, and the older kids, from ages 12-17. This particular morning, an older kid joined the younger group. The head baseball instructor pulled me aside, and said, “That's Matt Crisci, he's a sophomore baseball player at Southern New Hampshire University. He needs to jump into the younger group today.”

The first thing that I noticed was that he was fast, as evidenced by his speed in warm ups. He liked weight training also, and showed great enthusiasm for it. Although not strong for a “lifter,” he was strong compared to many of the college baseball players that I had coached. There are still many myths that plague baseball training, and there is a school of thought that says there's no reason for a player to bench, squat, or deadlift. But Matt had taken it upon himself to get stronger at those lifts. His squat at the time we began was 455 pounds, bench was 275 pounds and had a 515 deadlift, standing 6’0 and weighing 180 pounds.

We hit it off and he expressed his love for training. We began talking about me helping him with getting stronger, and I invited him to join a morning lifting group that I held for a pair of brothers and their wives who were serious about lifting. Matt showed up for this 6am group with great enthusiasm and began to get stronger. He had a good idea about how to perform the lifts correctly, he just needed a few adjustments. We got his depth to be more consistent in the squat, worked on taking the slack out of the bar at the start of the deadlift, and worked on driving the bar fast off of his chest in the bench press. We shored some things up with his stance on the squat and deadlift and the set up of both, and we lowered the bar some on his squats. He was behind on the bench press because of the lack of the flat bench press in traditional baseball strength programs. He simply hadn’t performed it enough to get strong at the lift.

I had reservations about Matt and his quest for super strength after one particularly early morning squat session. “You have to get 405 for 5 in the squat today,'' I said as we talked before the training began, “and you can do it.” He had squatted the weight for 3 before, and it was hard but doable. I have to admit that I am always pessimistic when it comes to lifters finishing and pushing through seemingly impossible sets. On the set that called for 405x5, Matt got to the third rep and it was hard, but I knew that he had it in him to finish out the set. But when he came down with the 4th rep and attempted to come out of the bottom he went back down, failing. “That's OK, you'll get it next time,” I said, but inside I was thinking, “Oh, just another kid who will never be strong. He can't push through the hard reps.”

I have seen plenty of instances where a lifter gets a little fearful of the unknown when squatting and they act like they are trying hard, but really are scared to go to a place physically and mentally where they haven’t been before. In over 30 years of coaching and lifting weights, I have rarely, if ever, seen a lifter fail like Matt did that morning and then turn themselves into someone who pushes all the way through, despite their fear. Those folks who can’t or won’t push through these reps, in my experience, can only get to a certain level of strength. They can get to a respectable level, but usually not to a competition-winning level.

But then the strangest thing happened. Matt transformed his mind into that of a training Warrior. He was “born again hard” – he began to dominate his sets and he stopped missing reps. He began to listen to Jocko Willink and David Goggins, and even had their motivational speeches on his earphones when training. I happened to glance at his phone one day, expecting to see some rap crap or rave music on there, but it was all speeches on getting fired up. Hmm, I thought, maybe we have something here.

A few weeks later, Matt completed the set of 405x5 and totally dominated it. The same day, I was driving down the road with my then 13-year-old son, talking to him about how Matt had changed. I said to him, “How about Matt pushing through that set? He’s really changed. Never seen that before.” And my son, in an adult-like moment, said to me, “Dad, nobody ever told him that he could push through”. And I thought, maybe he’s right. He just needed to know that he could do it with a little confidence from me and a whole bunch of Matt asking himself, “Do I want to be really strong or not?”

We were fortunate or unfortunate depending on your perspective, that Covid came around in early 2020 because Matt’s school closed down and now we could really train without interruption.

We set up the training very simply, three days a week: Day One was cleans, squat, and sometimes light bench, Day 2 was Press and Bench with minimal assistance work, and Day 3 was deadlift with barbell rows and some type of curl. On the squat, bench, and deadlifts, we did lots of sets (sometimes up to 10 sets a session) and the reps stayed between 2-5 per set. I wanted to “grease the proper groove” on Matt’s lifts because we changed his form, and I wanted to develop the skill of the new movement patterns. And it was as simple as that – 60-minute training sessions 3 days a week. Matt disliked assistance work, so he liked the simple but effective training schedule. Get in, bust your ass, and then go recover.

As time went on, and restrictions were lifted, Matt had to go back to college, but we kept in touch with his training, and he trained as heavily as he could with the baseball season going on. He’d send me videos of his lifts and I’d critique them and then he’d keep going. Because of the busy season, we stayed relatively light on his lifts most of the time, but when he had a few days off from baseball, I’d bump the weights up some, then back off again when he had multiple games in just a few days. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but Matt worked through it without losing much strength.

He graduated early from Southern New Hampshire in the fall of 2021 and started graduate school close to home with still one more year of baseball eligibility left at his new school, which meant that I could now train him for his first meet. His baseball season didn’t start until February, so we had a few months to get ready. He settled on a meet in December of 2021 and we did a pretty good job of peaking him. He ended up squatting 545 pounds, benching 320 pounds and deadlifted 628 pounds at a bodyweight of 198 pounds. This is while he was still practicing baseball and preparing for the spring season. The squat was done with knee sleeves and a belt, the bench in a t-shirt, and the deadlift with a belt. The 628 deadlift broke the junior state record.

Matt was now training at Atilis Gym in Bellmawr, New Jersey, one of the best powerlifting gyms in the country, and with a great atmosphere to get one fired up to train. When his baseball season ended, he was now able to train full speed for another meet, and this one was held at Atilis’ Gym on September 18, 2022. Wearing the same equipment as his previous meet and weighing in at 198 pounds, Matt squatted 574, benched 325 and broke his own junior state record in the deadlift with 645 pounds.

Without question, Matt has been hooked by the “Iron Bug,” a condition characterized by an obsession for great strength. I’m figuring that in 6 months or so and with a little bump in bodyweight, he will be squatting 600 pounds, benching 350 pounds, and deadlifting 700 pounds. When Matt went back to school after the lockdown, his power at the plate had increased, with his furthest home run being 430 feet. He also saw an increase in arm strength, going from throwing 87 mph and touching 90 mph, to easily throwing 90 mph and touching close to 94 mph. He also saw a “crazy” increase in his sprinting speed even though he was 20 pounds heavier.

Matt’s recipe for success? Push through the seemingly impossible reps, eat like hell, and keep the training short and intense with an emphasis on the basic, compound lifts. It’s simple and brutally effective.

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