Think of this column as a public access Atomic Dog, a place for the T-mag staff and anyone else to get something off their chests, encourage, inspire, or just go off on a bug-eyed, frothing-at-the-mouth rant.
In this installment, Westside Barbell guru Dave Tate digs deep to answer the question, "Why do we put ourselves through this?"
When you're attempting a 600-pound bench press, things can go wrong fast. I'd just missed 600 for the second time and something was definitely going wrong. "Screw it!" I thought. "Keep the bar loaded!" It was that third miss that really did my shoulder in. Now I had to find out if I was hurt, injured, or fucked up.
This is how I define the three stages of injury. When you're hurt it's really no big deal. For the powerlifter or any athlete who pushes the envelope with maximal weights, you're almost always hurt somewhere. This will usually just go away. When you're injured, it doesn't go away and may require some time off and rehabilitation work. When things get really bad you become fucked up. This is when things just don't get better or injuries from long ago keep creeping back in. Now I had to find out what stage I was in.
The next bench workout, I couldn't lower the bar without pain. It was like someone was sticking a knife in my neck. So I trained around it for a few weeks and it didn't get any better. I knew I was on the line between injured and fucked up. After five months I decided to see a doctor. Five months without benching over 315 was no good, so I knew something had to be wrong. I was told I had four bone spurs that needed to come out and a torn terres major that needed to be fixed. Surgery was scheduled and I was going under the knife (again) in pursuit of a bigger bench. I wondered how long it would take to come back from this one. After a previous surgery for a pec tear, it took over a year to break my PR.
During check-in at the hospital, the nurse asked how I injured myself. I told her it was from years of abuse. Then she saw the other surgery on my record and asked if that was also from the weights. Yes, I told her, and why do you ask? In that cold room with nothing on but a damn open-backed gown, she asked the question I couldn't get out of my head.
"Why do you keep doing it?"
I just laughed it off and was wheeled to the pre-op room.
Going in for surgery makes you feel like a convict on death row. Pre-op is the last stop before you reach the chair. The anesthesiologist told me he was going to stick a long needle into my neck. It was the biggest damn needle I'd ever seen and he was going to drill it through my trap. Doctors sometimes make small talk while they do painful things to you, so he asked me how I'd injured myself and I told him. He finished, turned to me and asked, "Why do you keep doing this when you're as beat up as you are?"
The same question two times in the last half-hour. I laughed it off again, but this time the question stuck with me. As they rolled me into the operating room, I saw my doctor standing there. I was in la-la land by this time, but still had the presence of mind to tell the doctor to take care of me. He had my life in his hands, after all. He reassured me he'd done this thousands of times and hadn't lost a patient yet. Hadn't lost anyone? Hell, I wasn't literally talking about my life, I was talking about my ability to bench! Couldn't he see how important this was to me?
I was instructed to count backward from ten. Ten nine and as I drifted off eight that question came back into my mind seven Why do I do this? six and I was gone .
.back into the gym, with that same question ringing in my head. As I walked in I noticed a certain smell to the place. A special blend of sweat, chalk, silicone spray, and liniment. This is the same smell you find in any hardcore gym. The smell of hard work, pain, and discipline. The smell of courage. To a true lifter this is the smell of home, the place you want to be. I thought to myself, "Could this be it? Could this smell be what it's all about?"
While waiting for our regular start time of 8:30AM, I began the process of applying the liniment. During this time my training partners are also arriving. They're joking, talking trash, making bets, catching up. During the warm-up I wonder if this is what it's all about, if this is why I do it. Is this kinship with my training partners the real answer?
At 8:30 the attitude of the gym changes. It goes from comedy and friendship to aggression and war. The first movement of the session is the most important. This is the real deal, the lift we try to break records on, the one that you will kill or it will kill you. The music is turned from the radio to something more hardcore. DMX, AC/DC, it really doesn't matter as long as it's loud. I feel my heart rate begin to speed up and the aggression building. I see that look of aggression in everyone's eyes. If you were to walk into the gym at this point in time not knowing what was going on, it'd be best to turn the hell around and come back later. As I looked at my surroundings I thought, "Could this be it? Could the music and aggression be the reason why I do what I do?"
As we start the max effort movement we begin with light weights and work up to the "courage weight," the actual max weight. As I grip the bar I feel the cold metal in my hands. The sharp knurling brings a little pain to my callused hands, the hands that have spent a lifetime with the iron. The feeling of the bar brings on the excitement of striving to get to the big weights, the weights only some will ever achieve, the place where only those who know how to dream big will ever get. Could this be it? Could the feel of steel be the reason why I do what I do? Could the training under maximal strain be the reason why I do it? Is it the shouts of encouragement as I attempt a new PR? Or do I do it for the rage and the release that only heavy lifting can provide?
After everyone does their lifts, it's my turn again. I tell them that I'm done for the day, but the words come back to me like a knife in the back. What the hell do you mean you're done? Put on a quarter and get the hell under the bar! This time I have to dig deep inside and pull out another person to deal with this shit. Dave is not made for this, but my alter ego is. We call him Zippy, and Zippy gets the job done when Dave checks out.
So I dig down inside and find that other person and he approaches the bar. The focus on the task cancels out everything else that's going on. While getting under the weight I feel my heart pounding in my chest and the aggression and rage is at an all time high. As the weight is unracked there's no doubt in my mind that I'll crush this weight. Could this be it? Could lifting a weight I first thought would kill me be the reason why I put myself through all this? Could the blood, sweat and tears of training be the reason why I do what I do?
Now I'm at the IPA Nationals walking through the warm-up room. You can feel the excitement growing. Gym bags are scattered throughout and there are lifters everywhere. Teens, masters, amateurs, and pros all mix together. The sport of powerlifting has a place for everyone. All of them are looking forward to their time of judgment, their moment of truth. As I look around and see friends I've made over the years and new friends I'll be making on this day, I wonder again, Could this be it? Could being among all those who love the iron as much as I do be the reason why I do this?
Now I'm at a meet, in the hole and waiting. This is the day you train for, the moment in time that once over, nobody can ever take from you and can never be relived. To a lifter this is his shining moment, the moment that'll determine if the work was done in the gym or not. If you did your work and it was the right work, this moment will be one of the greatest of the year. If you didn't do your work, then this will serve as a constant reminder of where you went wrong, a learning experience that can make you better.
I'm on deck now, one lifter out, getting wrapped and suited up for a big squat. Am I ready for the task at hand? Is my mind in the right place? I'm surrounded by a potent mixture of encouragement and high-octane aggression. My name is called and it's time to turn it on. This is where I want to be. This is what I train for. Here it's all up to you; no one can lift the weight for you. Fear is not an option. This is the day you spit in the face of fear and drive on. It's time to release to rage.
The weight is laughing at me as I step under the bar, but it feels light. The game is already over. I know already who the winner is going to be on this day. Two seconds later, with a nose full of blood and stars in my eyes, I rack the weight and three white lights ignite as bright as the Vegas strip. A new PR. A weight I only dreamed of lifting ten years ago. Could this be it? Is this why
and someone is saying my name again and again. The doctor. I'm in the recovery room and doped out of my mind. Later, on the way home, the answer to the question hits me like a ton of bricks. I do what I do because this is what I do. It's not the smell of the gym. I've been in many gyms and loved them all. They all didn't have the same smell. It's not my training partners. Training partners come and go. It's not the cold steel or feel of the bar. Some bars are fatter than others, some are thin, some have less knurling while others are sharp as hell. I love the feel of them all.
It's not the strain and it's not the music in the gym. Music changes with time but my passion stays the same. It's not the old and new friends that are met and made at competitions. Friends come and go; lifters retire and quit. It's not the personal records that are set in the meets. If this was the case I would've quit a long time ago. In twenty years of competing I think there may have been only three meets were I broke a PR in every lift.
So what is it? Why do I do what I do? It's not one thing or one moment. It's the process I have the passion for. It's all of it. I love it all and this is why I do what I do. Twenty years ago, a thirteen year old kid picked up a Powerlifting USA magazine and dreamed of being in the top ten. On this day the passion began and the quest started. Twenty years later this kid still hadn't let go of his childhood dreams and posted a top ten total.
When someone asks you why you do what you do, just grin. We do what we do because this is what we do. Our passion has built our character, and our character defines us. Never lose your passion.
One of Dave's particularly vivid anesthesia-induced hallucinations.
For more information on Dave Tate, visit www.elitefts.com. You'll find close to one hundred articles, 5000 Q and A's and an online store with the best products offered in the strength training industry.