Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Training Partners

by Jim Steel | March 03, 2020

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You know what I miss? I miss the days of training sessions in the weight room with a few partners who were all striving for the same goals. I train by myself now, and there are some advantages to doing that, like making my own schedule and doing the exercises that fit me best. I'm not competing in powerlifting now, just doing some bodybuilding shows once in a while, so it's not as necessary to have partners there to wrap knees and help with the weights. 

But the best part of having training partners is the camaraderie. I grew up playing team sports and having a bunch of guys who are all shooting for the same goals, like winning a football game, is pretty special to me. In the case of powerlifting, everyone is pushing towards getting as strong as they possibly can get. 

I began competing in powerlifting when I was coaching high school football in 1995 in Florida. I started out training by myself at a Golds Gym down there, and I was squatting one day when a big dude came up to me and introduced himself. His name was Bill and he was a part-time pro wrestler, former competitive powerlifter, and full-time insurance adjuster. He had a mullet haircut and a handlebar mustache, and was around 5' 8” at 235 pounds. We hit it off and began training together. We didn't last long at the Gold's Gym, too many foo-foo non-chalk using folks there, and we both got the idea that maybe we weren't especially wanted in that gym with the yelling and all the weights clanking. 

We migrated to a gym about fifteen minutes down the road, the Power Pit. Now, this was a place to train. Good Olympic bars, rusty old dumbbells, and plenty of squat racks. No air conditioning. No juice bar or cardio equipment. There wasn't even a stationary bike in the place. It was as hardcore as they come, and nobody cared if chalk was everywhere or if your training partner gave you a good slap before a big set. I don't even know who the owners were, or even who ran the place. I remember a guy sitting behind some semblance of a front desk, but he would just say hello and we would get to training. 

I was the defensive coordinator and strength coach for the high school team, and there were two players on the football team at the time that were into training and getting stronger, and competing in powerlifting. There was Jason, a senior, and Derek, a junior. Jason and Derek were both killers on the football field and loved lifting weights. They would train at the high school during the week but would join Bill and I at the Power Pit on Saturdays at 9am for the best day of the week – squat day. I’d see Jason and Derek at the school between classes and along with football, all they could talk about was the Saturday squat session coming up. 

I’d get up early on those Saturday mornings, and drink a cup of coffee or five, and add to that some ephedrine tabs that I purchased at the local truck stop. Those things would get you ready to climb a damn mountain, and my heart would be beating fast like I was getting ready to get into a  fight, and I’d begin to sweat before I even left the house – that's when I knew that I was ready to squat. I’d pick up the boys and then pick up Bill and we would bust each other’s chops on the ride, but we'd also talk about the weights we were all going to lift that day. As we got closer to the gym you could feel the excitement and the tension in the car rising, especially when we turned onto the road that led to the gym. You’d get out of the car and feel that Florida humidity, and the adrenaline would be starting to rise and you'd feel warm already in the heat, and you'd be ready to go as soon as you opened the door to the gym. 

We had some great sessions in the Power Pit. We would cordon off an area with some flat benches so nobody would walk through while we were training. Both kids were squatting between 550-600 pounds at the time and Bill was around the 650-pound mark and I was squatting over 700. And remember, these were high school kids. 

I think the best part of having those kids train with Bill and me was their naivete. I could have said, “Okay guys, today we are all squatting 1000 pounds.” They would have been like, “You got it, Coach!” No questions asked. I loved that attitude, just to be so young and willing to do anything to get better, and having no fear of any weight whatsoever. Jason and Derek would be working so hard that it would inspire me! They'd both push until their legs would quiver and they would barely get the last rep, and then Bill would do his set and then it would be my turn. And then when I would get done, and without hesitation, we would change the weights and those kids would get under the bar and get rolling. Seeing those two hit 405 for reps made me up my game for sure. No way were Bill and I going to fail in front of Jason and Derek. 

I hit 750 pounds for the first time at the Power Pit, and the toughest squat session that I ever had, squatting 610 for 5 sets of 6 happened there. I sweated so much that the bottom of my squat suit ripped out and I threw up after nearly every set. I remember puking and Jason standing over me, smiling as my guts emptied. Those kids thought that was the greatest stuff they had ever seen, and they were exactly what Bill and I needed at the time as partners. 

One day when I was squatting a set of three with 700 pounds, my second rep was really brutal – I mean, anyone with any sense would have stopped at two reps. Jason was behind me spotting. I came out of the bottom with that third rep, and halfway up the weight started to stall. Jason was in my ear, yelling at the top of his lungs, “DON’T QUIT, DON’T QUIT!” – and I finished that rep. I'll never forget that set, and I'll never forget how even though it wasn't Jason’s set, having me finish my set was just as important to him as it was to me. That’s a good training partner. 

I left coaching high school after a year and a half. I'd have parents come out to practice, cussing me out for not playing their Little Johnny in a game, even though Little Johnny “couldn't play dead in a cowboy movie,” as one of my college coaches used to say. So I left and went to coach football and be a strength coach at Charleston Southern University in South Carolina. I lost touch with Big Bill, but Jason came with me to play football there when he graduated high school, and Derek came there a year later. Both of them loved football, and they also loved the training that we did together. Joining me meant I had my training partners back again, and that the great squat sessions would continue. Training partners are important.

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