My heart thumps as I approach the squat rack. I stare down the barbell. I’m nervous, my hands are shaking, but I’m focused. 12 weeks of brutal training have led to this moment, and I’m about to make my hard work pay off. I place my belt around my waist, tightening it aggressively. I put on my wrist wraps with a grimace, and take a big breath. I place my hands on the chalk filled barbell, and rock my body underneath it, digging it into my back with intent. I take another deep breath, violently un-rack the bar, and walk back 3 steps. One, two, three.. I screw my feet into the ground, Take an even bigger breath, filling my belly with air. I’m ready. I feel alive.
Two years ago, I was lost. I had just stopped playing Basketball, which at that point, was the thing that I loved the most, and the only thing that I really had a deep passion for. I was obsessed. I adored the sport. However, it had reached a point where I had to hang up my baggy shorts and sweatband for good. I was too small for my position, I was lacking athleticism, and although I was working relentlessly hard in training sessions and in games, my efforts weren’t being translated onto the court. This, naturally, made me incredibly frustrated, and I gradually began to grow tired of the sport. After falling out of love with the thing that meant everything to me, I set out to find something that could potentially fill the void that I was feeling at the time. At this point, I must stress that the void I was feeling didn’t really have anything to do with the lack of Basketball in my life, but more so the fact that I was insecure. I felt a deep sense of inadequacy with myself, both physically, mentally and spiritually. It was at this point, that I found the gym.
With the huge growth in popularity of weight training over the last decade, I wasn’t short of resources that told me how to get bigger, bulkier, and more aesthetic. To a 17 year old lad who’s self-esteem is at rock bottom, these sorts of promises are incredibly appealing. Finally, I had found something that I could dedicate all of my time to! I would attain the body that I desired, and as a result, I would feel better about myself, and other people would start to like me. Girls would notice me. Guys would be jealous of my alpha male’ness! Or so I thought….
This, I believe, is why a lot of young people, particularly young men, get into weight training. It is less the mental and spiritual benefits that it offers, which I’ll discuss shortly, but more the desperate need of validation from others that they crave, which they feel can be found from improving their body physically. Now, there is absolutely wrong with training to improve the way you look, it is a brilliant thing in fact, as long as you’re doing it for your own reasons – perhaps to develop more confidence and a high level of self-worth, a personal challenge etc. As soon as you start doing it for other people, you have a recipe for misery. ‘If I had his body, I would have this girl!’ or ‘If I had his abs, I would have respect off these guys!’ I’m afraid that this is complete bullshit. The myth that’s perpetuated by the fitness industry and mainstream media is that if you have an impressive physique, you are basically unstoppable, which couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m afraid rock hard abs won’t make you a ladies man, because spending so much time obsessing over your physical appearance is probably one of the most unattractive traits to a woman (*This is feedback from every single woman I’ve spoken to about this topic!) and spending so much time staring at yourself in a mirror isn’t going to give you a group of loyal male friends. Unfortunately, at the time, I wholeheartedly believed that if I looked better, my life would be better.
Countless tubs of protein shakes, 3 additional stone in bodyweight, and a mild case of body dysmorphia later, I was no happier, I didn’t have the girls I wanted, and didn’t have the abundance of male envy I craved. Something wasn’t right My parents were worried about me. I was constantly analysing my physique in the mirror, scrutinising muscle groups that I didn’t feel were developed enough, and completely ignoring the fact that I was getting huge. And I mean HUGE. My arms measured 19 inches, my chest 47 inches. I was chasing mass. I wanted to be the biggest guy in any room I walked in to, and I was. But it wasn’t enough.
One day, after a firm but fair talking to from my mother (She was frequently almost brought to tears by all the shit I had put her through in my obsessive eating habits and constant aggression), it dawned on me that not only was I making close family and friends upset with my behaviour, I was making myself upset. I wasn’t enjoying training. I wasn’t enjoying stuffing my face with chicken at 1am every morning. I was miserable.
It was at this time that I stumbled across a training program online called Stronglifts 5×5, which promised that the only way to continually get bigger was to make strength training your primary focus. I hadn’t ever considered strength training up until this point, and just always assumed that the best way to gain size was to target individual body parts, with rep ranges in the 8-12 range. This, however, was something totally new to me. Full body sessions? 5 rep sets? Purely compound exercises? Surely this wasn’t going to give me the results I wanted. I began the program with trepidation…But I was soon hooked.
As I continued to add weight to my lifts week after week (AHHH, those heavenly blessed newbie strength gains!) I began to care less and less about what I looked like, and found a new, much healthier obsession. STRENGTH. Such a simple concept, but something that I’ve been in love with ever since. I had a new goal now, and it was incredibly motivating going into the gym with the sole purpose of adding weight to a barbell. This was a revolutionary concept. The days of trying to subjectively gauge progress through a distorted perception of myself in a mirror were gone, and replaced by a completely objective measure of progress. Did I lift more weight today? Awesome, then I improved.
After developing a real love for training heavy, I found the sport of Powerlifting, and was again, instantly hooked. Watching these incredible men and women squat down with ridiculous weight and successfully stand back up with it, and witnessing people rip 4x their bodyweight off the floor was exhilarating. The men and women who I used to look up to, the ones who stood on a stage in nothing but tiny thongs and bikinis, flexing in front of a panel of judges, seemed embarrassing compared to these people. Powerlifters were real athletes. Another thing I noticed about these men and women – they all looked awesome. Many of them were bigger, and in some cases leaner than the bodybuilders I previously looked up to and aspired to be like. Except these guys and girls not only looked damn good, but the muscle mass they possessed allowed them to actually do impressive shit, instead of just take part in the glorified beauty pageant of bodybuilding/fitness modelling.
I often hear people say that those who train heavy are just ‘ego lifting’ and ‘showing off’, however, from what I can see, the majority of people I have met in person or watched online who train for strength are incredibly humble, yet have so many reasons to be egotistical. They absolutely dominate, performing feats of strength that 90% of the human race will never get close to, yet they are down to earth, grounded, awesome people. In contrast, many of the people I’ve come across who exclusively train for aesthetic purposes, whether they compete in a so called ‘sport’ or not, are narcissistic, self-absorbed, and often desperately trying to prove themselves to others.
Again, I must stress that training purely to improve your physique is a great thing as long as it’s done for the right reasons, but I wonder if being so bound and focused on our self-image can really bring about long term fulfilment. I feel that pursuing strength is not only much more fun, it cultivates a much healthier mind-set. Progress in strength training can be seen tangibly via a barbell, and without a doubt gives you an awesome physique as a by-product.
I’m currently bigger and more muscular than I have ever been, happier, more fulfilled, and incredibly comfortable with the way I look. I focus on staying in a weight class, not breaking below 10% body fat. I focus on how I can improve my deadlift, not how I can improve the size of my arms. I thrive in the journey of gaining strength, and nothing gives me a feeling of complete Zen quite like fighting against gravity with a heavy barbell on my back.
In the pursuit of strength, you will face adversity, you will face failure, and you will be crushed by heavy weight and feel helpless. But the hunger never dies. You will brush yourself off and keep on lifting. For the feeling of slapping more weight on a barbell and successfully lifting it is something that to me, cannot be matched by many other human experiences. So I urge you, if you haven’t already, check out the sport of Powerlifting, start training heavy, and perhaps, just perhaps, you’ll never look back…