Let me paint a picture for you. You’re in a black room. Black walls. Black floor. Black ceiling. There is a spotlight shining on you. You’re standing in front of a deadlift bar. Loaded. There is a man standing next to you. Dressed in black. The man is holding a shotgun to your head. His instructions are simple: get the reps or he pulls the trigger. He doesn’t care how you get the reps. Doesn’t care about your form. Doesn’t care about your speed. Doesn’t care about muscle activation. Doesn’t care if your head is up or down. Doesn’t care if you lift sumo or conventional. Doesn’t care if you use straps. His instructions are simple: get the reps or he pulls the trigger.
What would you do?
This is the little game I play with myself every time I train. Every set. Every exercise. How many times do I die in a workout?
What would I do?
I’d get the fucking reps! That’s what id do. I’d find a way.
Welcome to training.
Training is about doing the work. It’s not about the weight. Not in the middle of a set at least. The weight will always be there. It’s not changing. It’s not going anywhere. It’s always going to feel disgusting. The reps are what you need to focus on. The reps are the work you need to do. The work is the hard part.
So how are you going to do the work?
Get this through your head: from now until the day you stop training, every rep you do is going to feel like shit. Every set you do is going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. Because if you’re training right, training to make progress, then it will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.
You can’t change this. Nothing you do can change this. It will always feel terrible. It never feels good. Ever. It feels incredible when it’s over. In the middle of a set however, when every muscle fiber is being torn in different directions. When the pressure behind your eyes is threatening to burst every blood vessel in your head. When there is blood gushing from your nose. When you feel the strain from the weight bending your body in unnatural positions. When the rep has taken so long you’ve completely lost contact with the outside world. When you’re alone inside your head in absolute paralysing agony and deafening silence. When you’ve either pissed or shat yourself. Nothing good is going through your head. Nothing.
If you are training for an outcome, and that’s what training is, at some point you are going to need to push your body to the limit and then beyond what it can do.
If you train with weights, it’s going to get heavy and as soon as that happens, everything changes.
Leave your positive thinking, bright colours, happy music and fucking motivational quotes at the door. There is absolutely nothing nice about weight training.
Not for one second of any rep is anything pleasurable going to happen. There won’t be a single happy, positive thought going through your head.
Lifting heavy is a lonely, scary place to be. It is you and the weight. It doesn’t matter how big your crew is, how many Instagram followers you have, how awesome your training gear is, what supplements you take, who your sponsors are. When that weight is in your hands, it’s all you. No one can help you.
I don’t say any of this to sound cliché. I know what lifting heavy weight feels like. I know what deadlifting close to 4 x my body weight feels like. I know what having 3 times my body weight on my shoulders crushing me in the hole of a squat feels like. I know what having over 10 times my body weight at the end of my legs on a leg press sled feels like, and I promise you its not nice.
When I say it feels likes shit, I didn’t read about it. I experienced it.
Before anyone feels the need to chirp up and say that my deadlifts aren’t comp legal let me say, I know they aren’t comp legal. I’m not a powerlifter. I do not care about comp legal lifts. I don’t train for comps because I have no interest in competing in powerlifting. I train because I love picking up heavy weight and want to push my body to pick up as much as possible. I don’t intentionally let my form suffer in a lift. I know how to lift. I know how to set up. At 60% of my 1rm my form and technique is spectacular. At 80% of my 1rm it’s still more than acceptable. Unfortunately, as to be expected the closer I get to my max things start to fall apart. I would love to be capable of lifting my max weights with picturesque form and tempo. However if I was able to lift my max, in a situation where my life depended on me moving more weight than I ever though physically possible. If I was able to do that with perfect form, then it’s not really my max. Not the max I’m training for anyway.
The first time I deadlifted 260kg it was hideous! I had failed it 6 straight times in 6 months. That means I made no progress for 6 months. It didn’t matter how sore I got. How beautiful my form was. The tempo I lifted at. In 6 months I didn’t add a kilo to my deadlift, which means I had gone nowhere.
Then one Saturday night I was sitting at home alone and I had this urge to deadlift. I was going to pick up 260kg. Enough was enough. I drove to the gym and did exactly that. It was horrible. Back rounded. Head down. Hitched. Did I hurt myself? No. Why not? Because the bar never left my center of balance. The bar travelled up my leg in the same line. It never drifted away from me. My back was perfectly safe.
Having lifted 260kg means I now move on to 270kg. A few months later I lifted that. In the exact horrible fashion that I lifted 260kg. Was I injured? No. The bar never drifted away from me. A few months later I lifted 280kg in the same rounded back, hitched way I lifted 260kg and 270kg. Only now 260kg is a warm up weight with almost pretty form. It then took me almost 12 months to go from 280kg to 290kg. When I lifted 290kg, yup you guessed it, the form was disgusting but now 260kg was a 5 rep set with beautiful form. This trend continued all the way up to 320kg. Every 10kg I put on my max deadlift has basically equaled another rep on 260kg with the form getting progressively better and better.
That sounds like progress.
I have lifted the same way since I started training. At the limit of what I can do things fall apart. There is a very simple rule to deadlifting that the bar must travel in your center of balance. Break this rule and it doesn’t matter how straight your back is, you are flirting with injury.
What most idiot internet training gurus, who have never lifted anything, seem unable to comprehend is that in order for a person to push their body beyond its limits, the lifting needs to be pretty much perfect. Perfect doesn’t mean pretty. Perfect means following the basic rules of lifting and lifting correctly. If the rules are broken then injuries occur.
Injuries happen on pretty reps too. More injuries occur in the pursuit of a pretty rep than they do from lifting correctly.
Perfect form is strength related. If you were strong enough to do the rep perfectly you would. Why does form suffer at the limit of what you can do? Because it’s the limit. Your strength has run out. The muscle can’t hold the form any more so it begins to break down. Is dropping the weight 50% and working on form going to help you at the limit? No. How do you correct your form at the limit? You push beyond the limit. How do you do that? That’s what training is. You train to get stronger. As you get stronger your form and technique gets better at your limit.
Training your technique doesn’t do anything for your strength, which means you wont make any progress.
Making progress in training requires a mindset. Those who make real progress are generally messed up. Messed up in the head. It takes a really sick and twisted individual to push their body to breaking point and beyond in order to move stupid amounts of weight. You either have that messed up head or you don’t. You can’t fake it. You cant pretend. You’re either the angry, aggressive, single minded, selfish asshole who lifts the weight, or you’re not.
Nobody can be taught heart. You either care or you don’t. Whatever drives a person to do what they do comes from within and if something doesn’t mean enough to you, then you’ll never be able to take it to its extreme limits
I am truly a horrible person when my squat and deadlift are making genuine progress. When I am pushing my body to the absolute limit of what it can do, the experience of deadlifting and squatting is all consuming. It takes over my life. Everything else be damned.
I’m always moody. I treat people badly. I’m rude. The internal focus and aggression is running 24/7 as my entire life is about moving as much weight as possible. It’s about getting that extra kilo on the bar. It’s about beating what I’ve previously done. It’s about not wanting to kill myself if I fail.
I go to bed thinking about the reps I need to do and wake up wired with a plan of execution. Running through my head is:
4-8 weeks of training comes down to 1 rep of 1 lift.
4-8 weeks of beating the shit out of myself is about to be put to the test.
If I make it, I honestly have felt no greater satisfaction in my life. It’s not orgasmic. It goes deeper than that and lasts longer.
If I miss it. Look out. Don’t look t me. Don’t come near me. Don’t talk to me. I’m a failure as a human being. I am the weakest most useless piece of shit on the planet. I have no right to teach anyone how to lift because I’m too fucking pathetic to lift this weight. I’ll be in the corner slitting my wrists. Don’t help me when I pass out from blood loss. I don’t deserve it.
The anxiety builds from the moment I write the program. I look at what I need to do and my heart starts beating faster. Every squat or deadlift session is an absolute head fuck. 3-4 days before the session my demeanor changes. I get dark and angry. I begin to tighten up all over. I begin to tell myself how useless I am and how I’m going to miss the lift. I’m not strong enough and I’m going to get injured. As the day gets closer I begin to negotiate with myself and try and find easier ways of getting around it. “What if I do a 5 rep set with a slightly lighter weight? It calculates to the same as the 1rm. What if I do a 10 rep set? No I cant do that because I did it 3 weeks ago. What if I tried it again and missed it? Then I really would have to kill myself.”
What I need to do starts running through my head and every action I make for the next few days is influenced by the upcoming lift.
I usually wake up on the day of the session with a splitting headache and a heart rate of a billion beats per second. I have no appetite. I can’t talk to anyone. I can’t look at anyone. The only thing going through my mind is the 1 rep that I need to do.
I get to the gym hours earlier than I normally would simply because everything is running on over drive. On these days I train hours earlier than normal because if I don’t the anxiety builds to a point that it eventually exhausts me and I crash spectacularly.
I need to be alone when I do my big lifts. If anyone else is in the room I can’t focus. The music needs to be so loud that I couldn’t hear you even if you were yelling at me from only a meter away. The music is there to block out my own thoughts. I listen to the beat and the rhythm and start moving and lifting in sync. I have a playlist of songs that runs in order through my warm ups to the work set. I have warm up songs and work set songs. If I ever fail a lift, the song playing gets deleted as it now represents failure.
I warm up relatively quickly. The weights and reps have all been planned. It’s very mechanical and regimented. As the weight goes up with each warm up set, so does my adrenalin until I can no long sit still between sets.
Before the final lift I spend about 5 minutes pacing around the gym, head down, fists clenched telling myself how useless I am, how much I suck, how I need to get this lift and how I’m not going to let this weight beat me. My heartbeat is so loud in my head that it creates a trance like effect over my body. I’m envisioning what I’m going to do. How I’m going lift. Make sure my head is up, chest and back is tight, lung full of air. I’m going to explode off the ground with every bit of speed and strength I have and snap my head to the roof as fast as possible. Look at the roof. Look at the roof. Look at the roof is all that matters.
The amount of weight on the bar at this point is irrelevant. It could be 1 plate or 7 plates. It doesn’t matter. It’s going to feel awful regardless. My head is completely focused on the work I have to do.
Once it’s all over, assuming I got the lift the adrenalin drops pretty quickly and the weight on my shoulders from the anxiety and pressure is lifted. I can breathe again. I can think again. I can talk again. It’s like being reborn.
The satisfaction I can’t fully describe. As I said earlier it’s not orgasmic. I feel as though I’m 10 foot tall and I could walk in to any room and beat the shit out of everyone. I’m that powerful. I’m that good. I feel like stopping strangers on the street just to tell them what I’ve done. Of course I would never do that because outwardly it would seem I’m fairly unimpressed. I’m not an extroverted person. I’m not good at showing outward satisfaction. I actually feel embarrassed to do so because even though what I have lifted is a PB, it’s still not enough. It’s never enough. There are still people who lift much more. I’ve got nothing to be happy about.
What has also happened is my mind has already moved onto the next lift. Sure I did a PB today but why wasn’t it heavier? Why would I be happy with lifting this weight? It’s not heavy enough. I need to be lifting more. I need to go and write a new program and train for that next heavy lift.
I sit and I begin to write.
I enter my numbers and my heart starts beating faster again.
Sounds a bit extreme? That’s because it is extreme.
Welcome to training.
Btw for inevitable people that will start going on about if I continue to lift that way I will hurt my back, yeah well, the bad back thing? Been there. Done that. Lifting how I lift fixed my back. When I was 10 years old I fell through the roof of a school gymnasium and landed 3 floors below on a basketball court. I landed like a pin. Standing straight up. In amongst destroying my knees, ankles and internal organs, I compressed my spine. Crushing L4/L5/S1. I have permanent sacral nerve damage. My teenage years were filled with back problems and pain. When I first started training it was excruciating to train my back. It would lock up on me so I would leave the gym in a limbo position until the muscle cooled down and released. After a year or so of this I decided to train my back harder and harder. I’m not sure what triggered it. I never once thought I might make it worse. It was going to hurt regardless so I might as well bash the hell of it and give it a reason to hurt. You know what happened? The pain went away. Not immediately. It took months but 12 months later I had no back pain. The muscles in my back were now so strong they could support all the damaged parts of my spine and I had no pain. I lifted then in the same way I lift now. My back was broken before I started lifting. Making my back my strongest body part fixed it. Lifting heavy weight fixed my weak broken back.