I've been lifting weights for a long time and have been fortunate enough to put up some respectable numbers. While I credit much of my success to being disciplined, hard working, and goal focused, I've also benefited from some awesome training partners.
An interesting thing about very strong lifters: not only are they usually among the nicest, most generous people you'll ever meet (provided you don't ask them for directions to the cardio theater during a heavy set), they often have, to put it delicately, a bit of the crazy in them.
And some of the most insane "this guy really should be locked up for his own good" craziness comes out during training sessions.
I could fill a book with the mind-blowing things I've witnessed while training. Along with ridiculous weights being tossed around, there have been countless bent barbells, shattered benches, broken dumbbells, and of course, a seemingly endless series of torn muscles, snapped tendons, even fractured bones.
Yet amidst all this blood and carnage are often powerful lessons about true strength – the strength of human character.
Spine Crusher Ken
The first story takes place six or seven years ago in my old two-car garage gym. I was training with two friends who were fairly accomplished powerlifters, along with a former Olympic female cyclist who was making the transition to powerlifting. She was a very experienced athlete and an incredibly strong woman, but was in no way prepared for what occurred that day.
My training partner Ken was a 198-pound Master's lifter who had been competing at a high level in powerlifting since the 1980s. Even though he was in his mid forties, he was still getting stronger and moving the biggest weights of his life.
We were squatting that day and Ken had worked up to around 700 pounds – which for a 198-pound Master's lifter was impressive. He wanted to go for a 715-pound PR, but I knew he had more in him. I got in his head and pushed him to take 735, which of course he did.
Ken's 735-pound attempt started out fine, but as he started his descent he felt a crushing sensation in his spine just below where the barbell rested on his back. He let out an excruciating groan, but somehow managed to lean forward enough to get the barbell back into the racks before crumpling to the gym floor in a sweaty heap.
We were speechless. Ken lay motionless under the rack for what seemed like an eternity before his upper back suddenly went into a violent spasm. "I crushed my spine!" he screamed, "You need to call 911!"
I snapped back to attention. I asked Ken to move his arms and legs to ensure he wasn't paralyzed. He was able to do so. A wave of relief washed over me and although Ken was still in crippling pain, I was able to relax.
Now here's a point you have to consider: because none of us are right in the head by any standard, we view injuries, even severe ones, as part of the game and as a source of amusement.
This mentality is almost a prerequisite to being a successful powerlifter or strong man. The things that freak out most sane individuals we find hilarious. It's borderline crazy, but you have to be a bit crazy to willingly subject your body to the type of abuse that the sport requires on a daily basis to achieve a high level of success.
So Ken's lying on the floor moaning and unable to move, and my other training partner Chad and I burst out laughing. I hand the Olympic cyclist my cell phone and tell her to call 911. Her eyes are wide and she has this look of utter disbelief on her face. She then slowly backs into the corner of the gym and dials the phone.
Now that Ken has figured out that he's not paralyzed, his main concern switches to getting his new squat suit off before the paramedics arrive so they won't cut it off and ruin the suit.
In between stifled giggles and all out laughter, Chad and I drag Ken over to the bench and bend him over it face down while we attempt to extricate him from the suit without causing him too much agony in the process.
What made this surreal scene a memorable one was that it happened on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer. We had the garage door wide open and my driveway faced my neighbors' houses.
I can only imagine what the neighbors thought as two bigger guys (Chad is 6'2" and weighs over 300 pounds) seemingly pinned a smaller, moaning guy face down and stripped him of his clothes.
By the time the paramedics arrived we'd successfully removed Ken's squat suit and briefs. As they put a neck brace on him and strapped him to a backboard, I grabbed my video camera and started filming the scene with Chad and I laughing in the background.
At one point one of the paramedics looked at me with a confused expression and asked, "You're not filming this are you?"
"Of course not, I'd never do that," I responded, but continued to film everything without missing a beat.
Once Ken had been successfully loaded into the ambulance, Chad and I returned to squatting. Throughout this entire ordeal our Olympic cyclist friend remained in the corner and never uttered another word. She never returned to train with us again.
As for Ken, he did indeed suffer a compression fracture of the thoracic vertebrae (or crushed spine as he eloquently put it). However he would return to training a few months later and went on to squat even bigger weights.
Triceps-Tearing New Guy
A couple years later in the same garage gym, another new addition to our training crew was preparing to try for a raw bench PR. This was a bench training session and that day it was Chad, Mark (another 300-poundish powerlifter), the New Guy, and myself.
New Guy had been training with us for a couple months and had been making good progress. That day he was hoping to hit a raw bench in the low 400s. His warm-ups went well and he seemed to be in good shape to hit a PR. Before going for an all-out single, I had him take a weight that I figured to be about 95% of his absolute max.
The bar was loaded to just under 400 pounds and he unracked the weight in preparation to lower it to his chest. Just as he unlocked his elbows, his left triceps tendon tore and the weight came crashing down.
It got worse. Once New Guy's left triceps tendon ruptured, all the weight transferred to his right arm, causing his right pec to tear simultaneously. It sounded like a pair of blue jeans being ripped in half.
Chad, Mark, and I all froze for a split second before lifting the barbell from New Guy's chest, but it wasn't the torn muscles and tendons that shocked us.
Instead, it was the most girlish, ear-piercing scream that any of us had ever heard that exited from New Guy's lips as the weight landed on his chest. It was so shrill and high-pitched that any tantrum throwing six-year-old girl would've been envious. It honestly didn't seem possible that it could've come from our new friend, but it had.
Once the bar was racked and New Guy was helped up from the bench we attempted to calm him down. He was completely freaked out and understandably so, but the rest of us were quite used to this sort of thing, having been around the sport for a while.
I told New Guy that it was only a torn triceps; no big deal, and that after having surgery he'd be good as new. I even persuaded him to drive himself to the hospital so that the three of us could finish our bench training.
After we watched him fumble into his car and drive out of sight, all three of us just looked at each other in silence before Mark said what we were all thinking: "Did you hear that scream?"
Throughout the rest of the day's bench session we laughed about the incident and New Guy's reaction and discussed how we thought this might affect his lifting future. I was certain that after surgery New Guy would be right back in the gym hitting it hard, but Mark and Chad were convinced that he'd never train with us again.
As it turned out Mark and Chad were right. While New Guy would eventually return to the gym, he never really trained heavy again and never again with us. That incident had affected him psychologically in a way that he'd never overcome.
Now, many of you reading this might think that my training partners and I are some of the most cruel, insensitive people walking the planet. Not so. We truly wanted the best for our friends, but had it been the other way around and we were the ones on our way to the hospital, our reactions wouldn't have been different.
What's important though is the different reactions to a similar situation. One lifter came back quickly after a crushed vertebra and went on to be better than ever, while another never trained heavy again.
Over my lifting career I've witnessed both these scenarios more times than I can count. The difference between them isn't the severity of the injury but the attitude each lifter chose to adopt after suffering the injury.
This dichotomy of reactions can be seen in many types of setbacks. Failures in careers, investments, even in relationships all fit this model.
For every difficult or devastating situation that you can imagine in life, you can find one individual that's been destroyed by it, and another that's been strengthened by it.
The difference between the two lies within the attitude of the individual. The best part about this is it's also a choice. Those that choose to believe in themselves and their ability to overcome adversity are the same people who will rise to the top regardless of the situation.
On the other hand, those that choose to believe otherwise will never overcome any type of adversity in their lives. Instead, they'll complain about "bad luck" or "bad genetics" or "always getting the short end of the stick" yet do nothing to actively change their own fortune.
I suspect that each of you reading this has come across both these types of people in your own life. My question is, which type of person have you chosen to be?