I was never good at sports: always picked last for the team, left warming the bench, and getting ribbons for “participation” instead of placing in the top 3. For years I just assumed that I’m no good at any kind of sport and the only thing I can do is go for walks and do the occasional bit of yoga to ensure I don’t become a total couch potato.
Fast forward to now: barring travel to far-flung places, I’m religiously in the gym three times a week, doing barbell squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, rows, and bench presses. My personal records so far are a 70kg squat, 75kg deadlift, 50kg bench press, 32.5kg overhead press, and 38kg row.
There is something special about getting under the barbell and lifting something heavy (especially if it’s almost as heavy or heavier than you are). The challenge quickly becomes as mental as it is physical, as you wonder if you are truly capable of doing it. There is a tendency to become hungry to break personal records and constantly progress at any cost (just ask any steroid user), but your body stops you from going too far too fast. It is an exercise in patience and humility to do these apparently simple movements with absolutely correct form. It is also an exercise in believing in yourself and achieving things you never thought were possible. There is nothing like a difficult squat to force you to conjure up all your willpower and mental focus; there is nothing like a failed bench press to remind you that you are going to be a perpetual student of this craft of how to move mountains without injuring yourself.
Over the years I have joined many gyms, and am usually given the following advice: lots of cardio, a few isolation exercises on the weight machines, and hundreds of crunches. Needless to say I found this incredibly boring, but put on the best music I had and plowed through, thinking that what I was doing was good for me and that I should suffer nobly through it like one would a fat-free sugar-free flavour-free piece of “cake”.
Naturally my interest always waned and my gym memberships would lapse — I’m bad at sports after all, right? Eventually I became interested in what the guys on the other side of the gym were doing — basically lifting heavy things off the floor and over their heads. The barbell siren was calling, I just needed someone to show me how to do it, so I asked, and started with the empty bar and small weights. I found it very satisfying, but got stuck at squatting around 40 kgs. It felt comfortable (read: easy), I did my sets, did a bunch of other exercises which were mostly a waste of time, but then went home feeling good because of the primacy of the barbell work. Then I stumbled upon Stronglifts.com, a programme devised by Mehdi Hadim. What he proposed was very simple: only 5 lifts, 3 times a week, no special gear, just you and the barbell, and adding a little more weight each time. His personal story is inspiring, and his attitude is refreshing (no “broscience”, a proponent of working the mind with meditation as much as working the body, etc). I was hooked, and joined his Inner Circle online community as soon as I could (a smart move).
I am going to take this as far as I can, no looking back. There is no desire to skip or slack, there is not even a need to listen to music while working out anymore. I am hooked and totally focused. The bottom line is that inherent in every physical challenge there is a mental one, and if you have not yet found your physical challenge, it is out there, and it is worth doing.
Photo: Polish weightlifter Ewa Mizdal at the London Olympics — a very inspiring image.
Video: Me squatting 70kgs.