Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


by Jim Steel | August 25, 2020

jim steel with his dog

I have always craved solitude. While I worked as a strength coach at the University of Pennsylvania for 20 years, I would go for maybe a month or so of working, and I'd start to feel this yearning to get away, for a reset of everything. I'd feel a tension build up inside of me because of all the damn people around me, and the traffic, and the noise, and I'd say to myself, “Time to get away.” I'd drive down to my buddy Steve’s 52-acre farm in Maryland and fish in his pond or work with my Labrador, or just sit. I’d sit and just let my mind wander and after a few hours, I'd feel energized and all of these ideas and resolutions would come onto my head, and I would be good for another month or so.

But when it was football season, I couldn't get away to the country. I was in charge of training the team, and I traveled with them on the weekends and would work seven days a week from July to Thanksgiving. I couldn't get to Steve's, so I couldn't get the solitude that I was craving. I’d feel the same need to escape, but I had to find a way to get the reset that I was getting from my trips to the country somewhere else.

I found my solitude in the weight room, specifically in the squat rack.

Does that seem far-fetched to you, that squatting can provide you with the same feeling as a trip alone in the country? It worked for me then, and it still does to this day.

Try putting yourself in this scenario: You usually go to the gym, and you like the gym, you really do. You always meet your training partner there and the workouts are great and all, but on this squat day, you want to be alone. Especially after a few weeks of seeing folks take selfies of their 225 pound half squat while wearing wraps and a belt and a shirt that reads Savage! Time to get away from it all. You decide to train in your garage gym.

There is a power rack in your garage, and a bunch of Olympic plates. Those old York ones, from back when they were the best and only game in town. Pure American Iron. And a Texas Power Bar. It's August and it's 95 degrees in the shade, just as you like it. Because you know that only the hardiest folks would be training right now. The air conditioned bunch from Planet Nowhere wouldn't step foot in a place like this, with heat like this, and that makes you feel special. Hell, you should feel special, doing what others won't do. They also would recoil in horror at the spittoon in the corner, the Lab loudly licking his testicles every so often, the weed wacker dripping oil, and the sounds of Waylon Jennings and Molly Hatchet blaring from the 1980’s era boom box in the corner (the music is on cassette, no less). That would send the Planet People into a tizzy.

Today, you will be alone. Just you and the weights, and of course, if you are a real American, a bad-ass dog – one that earns his keep. Not some little yappy thing that's only good for snuggling up to the wife at night, but one who hunts, like a Labrador, or maybe a Malinois that will eat someone if you tell them to.

You look down at your notebook and the squat session calls for you to complete 500 pounds for 3 sets of 5 today, and you know that you will get your reps. You have prepared for it, visualized it, and eaten enough for it. It's a done deal in your head. Your warm-ups are smooth, and strong. You can not remember when weights felt so light on your back. You know how sometimes the setup of a squat is a bitch? Like it's a million pounds on your back, and your breath leaves you some and you feel as though your feet were in quicksand as you stepped back from the rack? Well, not today. All of it is smooth. Damn, you feel great. The heat in the garage keeps your joints feeling lubricated, and you feel the sweat break after the 225-pound warm-up for a set of 5, and you like that feeling: it means that you're really working now. And all of the warm-ups go like that, all the way up to the last warm-up at 455.

Between warm-up sets, your dog comes over and sits between your legs and looks up at you and then nudges your hand to be petted. You look down and there is a pool of sweat on the garage floor where it has dripped off the bill of your Black Rifle Coffee cap. The dog knows – he watches from the corner, and then when Dad is done with his set he can check on him and make sure he's okay, because man, he's working hard.

You repeat the same sequence every time: Perform the set, pet the dog, stand up, tighten up the belt, get under the bar.

Your first set of 5 with 500 flies up like nothing is on your back.

The second set? The first two reps were like butter, but on the third rep, you come a little too far forward, losing your balance some. It happens, and good squatters come out of it, and you do, but you used a bunch of gas to get the bar back over the middle of your foot, and reps 4 and 5 took all you had to complete.

And now facing that last set, you love the fact that it's just you and the dog sitting there. No selfies, nobody gathered round cheering you on. Isn't this how warriors were meant to do things? Isn't this what it's all about? Some danger involved, your heart beating out of your chest, dripping sweat, and a focus so pure and precise that you know this will be a challenge, but one that you will win.

You stop petting the dog's head and stand up and walk over to the rack, adjust your cap and cinch your belt tight against the uprights of the power rack.

At the same time as you were walking over to the bar, the sun came though the garage doors, heating the place up even more. You took that as a sign that this set was going to be something special. And even the dog sensed it; he looked up at you a little differently before this set, like he knew what you were about to attempt was a big deal. Dogs know things, you think.

You take a huge breath and break the bar from the rack. This time, you feel the weight – it feels exactly like 500 pounds on your back. And you know, just from experience, that this will be a rough set.

It seems like it takes forever to get your feet set, like you're walking through a minefield to get everything just right. You can feel the weight pushing down on you. And you say to yourself, “I am getting this fucker, no matter what.” On the first three reps, you push so hard that you feel as though your head will explode coming out of the bottom. Each rep takes a herculean effort to complete. The fourth rep is the best one, surprisingly – you hit the groove just right. Although the lockout was very difficult, you're pleased with your effort.

And then the fifth rep is staring you in the face. When you feel ready, you start to descend and hit the bottom. It feels like the bar has stopped as you push with all you have inside of you. But it hasn't stopped – it is moving, slowly, but it is moving. Somehow, you're moving the bar. A quick flash of panic enters your mind, that maybe this time, you're in real danger. But the funny thing is that when the thought comes into your head, the bar moves faster, like a jolt of adrenaline has surged through you. And you complete the rep.

As you staggered towards the rack and set the weight down, you drape your arms over the bar and hang your head towards the floor. More puddles of sweat. And then the dog comes over and leans his head against your leg. You look up and the sun is still shining brightly through the garage doors, maybe brighter than before. And not one person had to be there – you didn't need a pat on the back, you just needed to be by yourself, the best way to experience an effort so intense that you can’t think about anything else, an effort that leaves no room in your head for anything but its completion. When you're finished, your mind is clear, and you feel like you are on top of the world.

That type of training session has always given me the same type of feeling as time by myself in the country, a feeling that I have reset myself, and that I am ready to take on whatever comes my way next.

Maybe it's because the dog is there, both times.  

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