Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Iron Makes Us Strong

by Kelli Nielson | May 04, 2017

training the squat and more

Growing up in a media rich world can have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem and confidence of developing individuals. Young women in particular easily fall victim to the idea that their worth is only skin deep. Photoshopped fashion models and airbrushed celebrity skin are the norm. Every female-targeted magazine on supermarket shelves promises “flat abs in 30 minutes” or some other nonsense that any fitness industry coach with half a brain knows to be a complete lie.

Once roped into the idea that they are “not good enough,” many women (myself included in my younger years) choose to shy away from obstacles instead of making the choice to overcome them. Anything from a challenging class to having to work harder to improve at a sport or hobby becomes seemingly impossible. What begins as something purely physical morphs into a mental and emotional roadblock that prevents people from realizing their full potential.

Breaking that barrier is incredibly difficult, but when it does finally happen the reward is immeasurable. Throughout my relatively short tenure as a Starting Strength Coach I have seen countless individuals – mostly women – realize exactly what they are capable of as weight gets added to the bar.

I didn’t discover barbells (beyond watching the Olympics) until a month before I was due with my second daughter, when my husband stumbled across the Crossfit games as it was streamed live online. He thought it looked like fun and it was something we could do together. It took a lot of goading on his part, but five months almost to the day after the birth of my second daughter, I walked into Gardiner Athletics and picked up a barbell for the first time under the watchful eye of Peter Nathan – a Starting Strength Coach and Seminar Staff member. I was weak and chubby. My weight was always something I had been concerned with, and throughout high school and college I flip-flopped between starving myself for a day or two and then throwing my hands up in defeat because I did not lose the five pounds I had expected to. Like most of my female counterparts, I felt that I was too big if I was not a size zero. Looking back, it was a time of complete stupidity as I was never truly fat and had no right to think that I was.

Eating a ton of fast food during my tenure as an EMT and dispatcher combined with sitting on my ass for eight to sixteen hours at a time did finally catch up to me though. My freshman year of college I had 115lbs on my 5’6” frame. By April of 2009 I weighed in at a very weak 150lbs. Two pregnancies later I was pretty stable at 163lbs – still weak, and now bemoaning the changes that carrying and birthing two babies had brought. My weight, along with my lack of self-respect, were not things I was proud of.

My first few gym sessions left me feeling pretty defeated. I could barely wedge myself under the bar, never mind squatting anything that I felt counted as weight. I made up my mind pretty quickly that I wasn’t any good at weight lifting – it was too hard and therefore I had no business doing it. I remember being in tears as I stared at myself in the mirror and said to my husband “I can’t do this.” His only reply was “Well, if you quit now, what is that going to prove?”

As you can probably figure out, I kept going. I left my ego at the door and added weight to the bar every session. Even when I felt the few pounds more than I did last time was not enough, I stayed the course. I could not at this point see the bigger picture – the training I was doing as opposed to the exercise I felt I should be doing. A few months in I noticed the number on the scale begin to creep up. After a little panic attack, I threw it in the closet and did not step on it for more than a year. I took pictures and measurements and gauged my successes based on the weight I was able to put on the bar. Over the course of that first year of lifting, I saw a shift in my focus. What began as a journey to look better became one of seeing what I was physically capable of.

I very distinctly remember the day I squatted 200 lbs for a 1RM. That was thirty pounds over what I was squatting for reps at the time, and it was one of the first times I made the conscious decision to try something that might fail. It would be some time before I understood how profound the success of that one lift was and was true self-validation really meant.

A few months later I was offered a coaching position. I had begun to seriously watch other lifters in the gym and offer suggestions (when asked) that improved form. This had not gone unnoticed or apparently unappreciated. I was finally becoming comfortable with my surroundings, and Gardiner Athletics had become a second home. To be back in the work force was thrilling after a four year hiatus and to have the opportunity to make money doing something I truly loved was a dream come true.

In early 2014 I was asked by Peter to attend a Starting Strength Seminar. He felt that it was invaluable to my coaching education. I immediately agreed to go for the experience. The gears in my head began to turn and a few weeks later I had made up my mind that I was not only going to attend, I was going to take the test to become an SSC. My boss (and mentor) never tried to dissuade me, but he was clear that I might be biting off more than I could chew. There was no doubt that it would be incredibly difficult. I studied, shadowed and coached as much as I possibly could over the months that followed.

By Saturday afternoon of the seminar that August I was convinced that I had failed. I was a mess of nerves it was hard to focus. A little voice in my head kept saying “you’re screwing up.” I didn’t slink off into a corner to lick my wounds though. I stuck it out and spent the remainder of the weekend not worrying and just doing what I love – coaching, coaxing and encouraging.

Tuesday night the e-mail that told me I had passed hit my inbox. Over the next ten days I spent over sixty hours writing the longest paper I had ever written in my life. I had never taken on a task so in depth and not thrown my hands in the air in frustration and given up. That paper still has a place of honor on my shelf as a reminder of what I can accomplish when I put my mind to it. I worked my ass off and it showed.

I love the physicality of lifting and training, but I love the mental aspect more. Understanding that what gets done in the gym is not for that day, but is part of a bigger plan is a concept that many people do not grasp – at least not right away. The world today teaches impatience and thrives on immediacy. Barbell training on the other hand demands patience. It also demands a respect of oneself, one’s abilities and one’s accomplishments. To be able to look back at the journey and know that it was challenging but that you did not give up makes for a more confident and driven individual.

Gardiner Athletics has an average member age in the mid forties. We do not see a large number of younger individuals, and even less so young females. Over the past couple of years there have been a total of four young ladies under the age of twenty two that have joined, learned the lifts, followed the program and have come out the other end not only stronger athletes but stronger individuals.

These young women began their training as a means to become stronger athletes for high school and college sports. As time went on, their trust in us as coaches grew. We became more than just someone telling them what they should be doing. They understood that we would teach them loaded human movement in a manner that was safe, efficient and effective for strength gain. We would cheer them on, but also push them outside of their comfort zone in order to get the results they desired. Sometimes this was a gentle nudge and sometimes it was a shove. I’m sure there were days they left the gym not liking us too much, but no matter how hard we pushed, they responded and succeeded.

Over time I saw the same mental change in them that I had seen in myself. “I can’t” became “Let me try.” Sometimes the weight went up and sometimes it did not. Over many training sessions and through countless conversations we learned that a missed lift is not a failure but an important part of understanding where you are now and where you are going.

Lifting takes you right up to (and sometimes beyond) your capabilities. The point where you are able to move the weight versus not move the weight isn’t the point where you pack it in and call it a day. It is the point when you really begin to fine-tune movement and manipulate variables to see what changes. In this respect, training has taught me a lot about life. There is no straight road to travel and many times things that are worth doing are difficult. Sometimes you need to backtrack or turn in another direction to get to your goal. This is a sentiment shared by the young women I have had the privilege of coaching.

In essence, the lesson is: don’t give up.

One of these ladies in particular stands out in my mind for her drive and determination. Between her senior year of high school and freshman year of college she made the decision to join crew team. She was a high school swimmer who had used the Starting Strength method to improve her swim times and overall athletic capabilities. The summer training program she received from the crew coach was centered around large amounts of rowing with poorly planned high-rep weight lifting thrown in. Under our advisement she continued the SS program that she was already following and we tailored it a bit to meet her sport specific needs. She went off to school that August and made first boat varsity crew her first semester of freshman year. Sticking to the program and building her strength carried her though to that achievement.

In more recent conversations all of these young women have shared their personal feelings on how training has improved their lives outside of the gym. Making the transition from the comfort of home and high school to moving away for college is sudden and terrifying. The world is a huge place with high expectations and no sympathy.

With the confidence earned in the gym, they are able to face any challenge that arises. A hard class becomes manageable, navigating life on their own is not so scary and they have the strength to speak up for themselves. This does not mean that any of these tasks are necessarily easier. However, the mountain before them is not as daunting and they know that with some effort they can overcome anything. Shyness and uncertainty is gone and in its place stands both willingness and capability. The knowledge that it is okay to try and fail at something many times before achieving success is empowering.

Through a conversation with a gym member and friend, I ended up in contact with the coach of the high school girl’s indoor track team. She had recently attended a coaching seminar and returned home with a program supposedly designed to create a strong sprinter. It was aimed at the novice crowd but included variations of the Olympic lifts and vertical jump training. There was nothing for general strength. I gave my two cents on the program, pointed her toward Starting Strength and offered my coaching to get them started. I honestly never expected it to go any further than that. Much to my delight, she spoke to the athletic director who agreed to allow me to come for a couple of sessions. Thankfully, the school was equipped with two decent power racks, a smattering of old forty-five pound bars and a collection of various plates and dumbbells.

On a Wednesday afternoon eleven and a half years after I left New Paltz High School, I walked into a room of twenty-two girls armed with a small speech on the importance of strength training and how it relates to them as athletes. It was met with a lot of blank stares. I swallowed the rising panic – I have an extremely hard time speaking in front of people – broke them up into manageable groups and proceeded to teach them all how to squat and deadlift over the course of the next hour. We made the best of the time constraints and less-than-ideal equipment.

Many of them verbalized their fear of the barbell. Those that did not were wide-eyed and visibly nervous. Only one out of twenty two had any experience moving weight. No one wanted to be the first in her group to lift. The entire session was awkward and it was hard to tell who was getting it and who was merely pretending to. They were shy and unwilling to speak up and ask questions. But by the end of our time together they all were able to perform the movements reasonably well. I left feeling a mixture of defeat and concern. There was no indication that they had any interest whatsoever, and it seemed they were just there because they were told to be.

That evening I e-mailed their coach everything I possibly could to help her work with them in my absence. By state law I cannot spend more than a certain number of hours with them without jumping through a bunch of legal hoops so this was the next best thing. I sent her videos, the teaching progression, a list of the most common faults and how to fix them along with warm up and working weight rep schemes.

A week later I went back to teach them the overhead press and bench press as promised. In that short time the entire atmosphere had changed. I was greeted with smiles and waves. They were excited and ready to learn more. Once split up into in groups, there were friendly arguments about who was going to go first. They paid close attention to the teaching progression, asked pertinent questions and high-fived each other at the close of a set. When not working directly with me, they were squatting and deadlifting with their fellow team members acting as coaches. They had all been given copies of my e-mail and were confidently correcting gross errors. If something was unclear, they made a beeline to where I was instructing. Working closely together as opposed to just side-by-side had brought them closer as a team. They welcomed form corrections as a route to improvement instead of feeling like they were failing.

I regularly checked in with their coach throughout the season to see how they were faring. They continued to lift and she said they had all noted feeling stronger. Last week I was greeted by a message letting me know that they had won the New York Section IX Championship. This was the first year of existence for the indoor track team and they won.

My hope is that they continue to lift. Not just for strength and sports performance, but for their personal well-being. I can say without a doubt that I wish I had started lifting when I was younger. It very well may have changed the course of my life if I had the confidence then that I do now. On the other hand, I think all things happen for a reason. My path and my place is exactly where I am meant to be. I love coaching and all the opportunities that come with it to bring what I know about barbells to others. Whether the weight is your sport or just a means to improvement in other areas, under the bar is the place to be.

Regardless of age, sex, shape or ability level the barbell is a viable tool for both physical and mental strength. In every way, shape and form, the iron makes us strong. 

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