Reflections Part 1
The Iron Evolution series was wrapped. I thought.
And to be perfectly honest, I felt nine installments about me was enough.
But in the days that followed, I couldn't shake this feeling that there was still more to say, something I'd left out. I just couldn't figure out what it was.
I went back to my office, to where "the pile" was still waiting for me.
When I first started preparing to do this series for T Nation, I'd dug up every old training journal and article I could find and laid them on a table.
I felt a bit like Tony Montana at the end of Scarface, standing in my dimly lit office, looking down at the pile in front of me. Except I wasn't thinking, "The world is yours," but rather, "This is my world."
I started training in 1982. It's now 2012, so 30 years of my life.
Using an average of training four days per week (a low average, as I've never trained less than four days a week) at two hours per session, this adds up to over 12,000 hours spent in the gym.
Add in the eight years I worked as a trainer (at 50+ plus hour per week) and that's another 20,000 hours.
Now factor in the volunteer coaching hours – helping my high school, assisting at meets, speaking at seminars – and add another 10,000 hours.
So that's over 40,000 hours, and I still haven't factored in all the college course work, reading, research, phone calls, private conversations, and seminars I've attended.
Long story short, I've spent more time in the gym than I've spent working, maybe even sleeping. It would be close.
When you clock this many hours at anything, I'm pretty sure you qualify as "serious." However, I disagree with the popular statement made by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to be an expert.(1)
The reason I disagree is the more I've learned about training, the more I realize I don't know shit. There's so much to learn and understand, and nobody has it all figured out, regardless of what they say.
When I hear someone say they have all the answers or the secret code, what I really hear them saying is that they've given up on getting better.
So there I was, alone in my office, confronted by hundreds of booklets and notes and articles, each a small reminder of the hours I spent immersed in the 30-year study and practice of strength.
And I wondered, how many other legitimate "serious" lifters are out there?
Not many. Fact is, I'd say that the average life cycle of a committed, serious strength trainer is about 3-7 years.
Over the years I've had many training partners, likely hundreds between all the teams and groups I trained with. When I think of how many of them are still hitting it hard today, the numbers drop very fast.
Most that I've known never lasted more than 5 years, and even fewer made it to 10 years. I'd say only 10% are still doing any training at all.
And these were guys (and girls) who were very serious, and made big sacrifices to be the best they could be.
Shit to Great
Once a lifter has been training seriously for 3-5 years, they enter the most challenging period of their career. Progress slows, injuries mount, and career and family demands all take their toll.
Missed lifts become plateaus, plateaus become slumps, and slumps, once doubt starts to creep in, become ruts.
What makes it worse is that you remember, like it was yesterday, how when you started training you grew like a weed.
It falls back to my 4 stages of anything:
It doesn't take much to go from Shit to Suck – those are your newbie gains. Moving from Suck to Good is a bit harder and takes some discipline and consistency.
Most lifters can expect to move from Shit to Good within 3-5 years. Granted, genetics plays a factor in how fast one can progress, but even those with lousy genetics can succeed.
Where it gets hard is going from Good to Great. Those that can do it are among the top 10% of what they do – often because it involves doing a few things most people aren't willing to do.
I call this period the Dead Zone.
The Dead Zone
The Dead Zone changes everything because what used to work no longer works, what used to be easy is now hard, and frustration can boil over. You have to have faith that your consistency will pay off, and most often it doesn't.
However, if you make it through the Dead Zone, like the character in the movie, you come out on the other side with a type of wisdom, one that you wouldn't develop if everything came easy to you. And it's this wisdom that makes a serious lifter deserving of the "serious" title.
The first thing the Dead Zone teaches you is that strength development is not linear.
It would be awesome if we could just add 5 pounds a week to our bench, but we can't – which is why we don't have gyms full of ten-year trainees benching 1,000 pounds.
But emerging from the Dead Zone means that you understand that while your poundages weren't improving, as a lifter, you were still improving.
So that "miracle program" you discovered that finally put 50 pounds on your bench in 8 weeks? You understand that it wasn't a miracle program at all – what you were doing for two years before that program had just as much to do with it, as it was laying the foundation for those gains to occur.
There's no guarantee, unfortunately, that just by putting in your time you'll get through the Dead Zone. Most long-term lifters don't – which is why there are thousands of 20-year lifters who look like they joined a gym a year ago.
Settling is a Choice
Most long-term lifters have learned to "settle" and accept where they are. There's nothing wrong with this, and I totally understand why many do, though I'd like to note that it's still a choice.
So if you've settled and just want to work out, more power to you. If you're stuck in the Dead Zone but trying everything in an effort to move forward, that's worthy too.
But if you're not moving forward and offer up a bunch of excuses to anyone that will listen, that's where I take issue.
Just shut up. Nobody cares – not me, not the other lifters, and definitely not the Dead Zone.
It sounds harsh, but no one said the Dead Zone is fair.
The second thing the Dead Zone teaches you is that if you make it through, you have an obligation to give back.
Look at me – considering the amount of stupid shit I've done, I shouldn't be training today. I doubt I should even have a career in the strength and training industry. And I sure as hell shouldn't be in a position where I'm a potential role model for someone.
I don't deserve it. I was too bull headed, made too many stupid choices, and told too many well-meaning doctors and coaches to go fuck themselves to deserve this chalk-dusted podium.
However, along the way I had many people who pushed me forward, pulled me up, kicked me in the ass, and told me the truth.
There were also assholes who abused me, fucked me over, took advantage, and did everything in their power to beat me down so low that I wouldn't want to get back up. Together all these experiences and others have made me who I am.
And I owe them all.
So the only way this could possibly make sense is that I have a debt to repay, an obligation to help people. To dig through this big, dusty pile of training logs and use my mistakes to help somebody else become stronger than me, bigger than me.
Better than me.
So that's where this series will go now. And to start, I'll address a few questions I received since this project first got under way.
You said training for you has never been about getting stronger or bigger. Can you elaborate?
When I was a kid, the gym was the place I could go to get away from feeling like I was worthless and a failure. I could be in charge and decide whether I succeeded.
It was my place to build and grow, mentally and physically. Much like other young kids who come from similar situations, I built walls around me. My walls were built of cast iron and steel.
It was also something I was good at. And as I grew and got bigger and stronger, the abuse went away very fast. I went from the kid that got "fucked with" to the kid you "don't want to fuck with."
And I still see training that way today. The reason for this – and the strong guys reading will be able to relate – is there's something that happens during those very intense sets.
It doesn't matter if it's a PR set, a Max Effort set, a strip set, or a high-rep set, as long as it's one that you know going in will be a challenge.
You know you need to find a way to up your game, step out of yourself, focus, and see what you're really made of.
Cause once the bar is loaded and your set comes around, you find this place that I really can't explain. From the time you approach the bar to the time the set is over, there's nothing.
The fight you had with your girlfriend that day? Gone.
Your finals? Gone.
Your work issues? Gone.
Your bills? Gone.
The asshole across the gym? Gone.
The bullies? Gone.
The hurt? Gone.
The mental pain is now replaced with physical pain, but this is pain that you crave, because the load you've been carrying all your life in now resting on your back – and you have the power to smash it.
I call this 'nothing' The Void, but it isn't really nothing – it's everything!
When I look back over 30 years of training, my big take away is that training is my therapy. This is why I do what I do, both the positives and even the stupid shit. This is why I'm so passionate about passing on what I know.
The Void is the only time that I am truly free – free from the bullshit that other people and life has thrown at me. It's all gone, just me and the weight. And that's where I find my peace.
The Void has changed my life, and has become my life. Maybe it could change yours?
So to answer the question, I don't give a rat's ass if I get stronger or bigger. Well, I still care, but it's not why I do it.
Training is my therapy.
It's fascinating how your training has evolved. Has your passion for training evolved along with it?
I basically train like a bodybuilder now, not because I want to, but because I have to. I love strength but injuries have forced my hand.
I continue to study strength methods voraciously because of the strength athletes I work with. I must keep expanding my arsenal so I can continue to help others – but also because it's my true passion.
That's just me, though. A lot of guys first pick up a weight to get big like Arnold or look good for the chicks – I just wanted a place where I'd be left alone to get strong and work off some aggression.
But the other thing was, as I mentioned earlier, I was good at strength. And for a kid who wasn't good at anything, that was huge, be cause it rewarded me right away.
So I stuck with it and eventually received really good guidance from some older powerlifters, which fuelled my passion for competitive powerlifting. It's taken me years to understand why they did what they did and I'm forever grateful. They saw something in me that I didn't see in myself.
However, when I went off to college, finding serious guys to train with was difficult. I was taught from an early age that you couldn't learn anything training with someone weaker or who didn't have the same desire to be their very best.
I did discover some guys who were just as passionate as me, so I latched onto them. Except they were bodybuilders.
It wasn't the sport that attracted me as much as it was their size, strength, and discipline. They were serious and gave a shit about their training.
That ran its course; I stumbled back into powerlifting, and eventually wound up at Westside, the most hardcore strength training gym on the planet.
I'd known Louie Simmons since when I'd competed in high school and remembered his willingness to answer my questions and give advice. Years later, I had the chance to train at his gym.
So I moved to Columbus with nothing but a degree, a weight belt, and a bag of squat suits and shirts. Louie, just as those from my past, saw something in me I didn't see in myself.
Finally, after over 20 years on the platform, I decided it was time to move on. The injuries had taken their toll and other things had become a priority.
I no longer wanted it as bad I as used to, and I wasn't good enough to make progress without 100% dedication.
I knew it was over. It was one of the hardest decisions in my life but no regrets.
After that I fumbled around somewhat, and while the passion for training was there it was also frustrating as hell.
I was getting weaker, smaller, and the years of abuse were killing my joints. The days I did feel good were limited. The training sucked, it hurt, and I didn't like the movements – but the pull kept pulling me in. Week after week, month after month, and year after year.
In time I found a way to find relief from most of my injuries, and many of the movements I'd been unable to do slowly found their way back into my program. I was growing again and my strength started to come back.
Throughout this, I knew that I had to just keep doing the sessions, keep making it to the gym, and keep looking for answers and solutions. I knew quitting wasn't an option because what else would I do?
So while my training has certainly evolved, my passion really hasn't. I have always trained hard – incredibly hard – and I surround myself with people better than me so I can better myself.
I think that's the key, and I'll expand on this later. If you have to be the Big Man you will never, ever reach your full potential. I guarantee it.
You'll be The Man in your shitty big box gym with your 315-pound bench, getting high-five's from a bunch of skinny kids in wife beaters that get stapled under 225.
But there's a catch: if you want to learn from the bigger guys, you better get humble.
For six months I never said a word to the big guys in my first powerlifting club – I wanted to show them I was serious, not tell them I was.
At Hard Bodies, I turned my life upside down to train with the top guys, and at Westside – once I finally bought into Louie's ideas – I became his biggest fan. I gave everything I had each set and made damn sure my teammates got better.
As I wrote, it wasn't always easy. There were many times I wanted to walk, where it would've been easy to walk, and where I'm sure they wanted me to walk.
But I dealt with it, because nothing could compare to the feeling I had every time I got under a heavy fucking bar!
So has my passion evolved? I don't think so. I just now fully understand and accept everything that training does for me, all the voids it fills – so if anything, the fire is burning brighter than ever.
How important is progressive overload for bodybuilding?
This is a tough one. I have a good perspective on this as I'm a strength guy first but have spent my recent years basically bodybuilding.
Powerlifting is all about your total, or what you push on meet day. Progressive overload is obviously huge.
Bodybuilding requires a lot more reps and volume and other qualities, such as the pump and hitting the muscle from multiple angles. A 600-pound bench press does not guarantee pecs like Arnold.
If anything, powerlifting can build a decidedly unbalanced physique, since the focus is so squarely focused on load and finding the absolute best leverages to move it.
So the question becomes, how strong is enough?
A college lineman needs a strong squat to play his position. But if he can already squat 600 pounds, would he better at his sport if he can squat 700? Or would his time be better spent working on other demands of his position, like footwork or blocking?
The same applies to bodybuilding. If you can dumbbell press 120-pound dumbbells for 8-12 clean reps, getting a good stretch at the bottom and contraction at the top, would you build bigger pecs by straining through a few reps with the 140's?
That's where progressive overload has its limits, 'cause like football, the goal of bodybuilding isn't to see how strong you are. In bodybuilding, progressive overload is just one of many tools.
So for best results, a mix of progressive overload and other techniques is best, especially as you get more advanced and simple progressive overload quits working.
Beginners, however, should make progressive overload number one. They should be slaves to their training logs just like a powerlifter because it's still the most direct route to increasing muscle size.
They'll still need some isolation work, though not to "shape the muscle," but to learn how to contract a particular muscle they're targeting.
This applies to aspiring powerlifters as well. They also need to be able to flex a muscle in isolation, not to make specific muscles bigger but to improve their core lifts.
If their bench press stalls and they need more triceps involvement, they need to be able to flex their triceps mid-rep. It's a lot easier to make this connection if you learned this skill from day one.
It's like learning a language. A kid can pick up languages like a sponge, whereas an adult is lucky if he can learn how to ask where the bathroom is in Spanish.
Learn the fundamentals when you're a blank slate. Get strong, load the bar, and include some calculated isolation work for when the time comes to migrate away from progressive overload.
How important is explosiveness, and how can a bodybuilder build it?
It's important for a powerlifter to have both strength and explosiveness in their programming. Louie Simmons theorized that all athletes fall somewhere on a scale between extreme explosiveness and extreme strength. I wasn't very strong but was very explosive; others in the gym were very strong but slow as hell.
Thanks to Louie's Westside system, I was able to maintain and build my strongest asset (explosiveness) with his Dynamic Method while at the same time bringing up my weakness (strength) with the Max Effort method.
Now explosiveness has made its way into mainstream training, as everyday gym rats are suddenly worrying about adding an explosive element to their workouts.
For the most part I agree with this, as explosiveness can also add a whole other dimension to hypertrophy-based training, but you have to be careful. You can't just fire in a bunch of explosive work, even innocent looking stuff like med ball work. You'll quickly get overtrained or injured as deceleration can be very hard on the joints.
However, using chains and bands can safely add explosiveness to your barbell training. They both provide more loading at the end ranges of the movement, which greatly reduces the wear on the joints.
I long suspected that chains and bands could play a part in hypertrophy-based training, but the missing link has always been where and how often it should be used.
After working with John Meadows for over two years – a serious bodybuilder who understands the science of hypertrophy training – it's all finally coming together.
We're tossing ideas around and experimenting like crazy – he the volume-driven bodybuilder, me the hardcore strength guy – and what we've come up with will push his programming to a whole other level. And we're going to share this with T Nation readers.
Here's a hint: what most bodybuilders are doing to add dynamic work to their workouts is way off base. It's doing little more than tearing up their joints.
There's a better way, one that will help you put on muscle at an alarming rate. Stay tuned.
1. Anders Ericsson, K. "Making of an Expert." The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance