I played a game with my friends this weekend, where we pick answers to different questions and send each other a little test to see how well we know each other. None of us take the tests very seriously, and we rarely score more than 3 out of 10 correct answers. Yet when I asked my friends which superpower they thought I’d pick, most of them didn’t pick the obvious answer. “He’d never pick super strength”, they said, because “he’s already strong”. I was surprised by that reasoning. I go to the gym to get stronger – and I don’t think I’ll ever feel “strong enough”. If I had the option, I’d pick super strength every time – knowing full well that powers like telekinesis are infinitely more useful.
As we speak, COVID-19 is tearing through resources and nerves and leaving in its wake a mix of confusion, terror, and indifference. Thousands have died in major industrialized nations like China and Italy, and many others warn that we’re only witnessing the beginning stages of something that will undeniably unfold at an exponential rate until we finally develop a tested and proven immunization. As those of us in non-essential work positions have been asked to stay at home and avoid coming into contact with others as much as possible – regardless whether it’d be a crowd of five or a hundred – many among us who see the gym as a second home are now facing the possibility of no longer training in one for anywhere from a month to half a year.
I recognize and accept my privilege. Intellectually, I understand that I have the luxury of a flexible, remote, completely non-essential profession. Yet emotionally, I came mightily close to a breakdown this morning. The simplest little argument weighed on my shoulders like none before, and I battled a crushing internal monologue of self-doubt and ridicule before finally feeling a little better. Why? Because I can’t lift.
It sounds ridiculous, I know. But I want to take this opportunity to tell you what the gym means to me, and why this journey has probably saved my life, and why the strength I’ve gathered is so important – especially now.
I Hate Work
I’m not a consistent person, and I would never call myself disciplined. I completely recognize my inner self as conceited, lazy, and complacent. As a child, I sought every way possible to trick others with the illusion of work, rather than do any work. I sought shortcuts and easy paths in every single endeavor. I had real raw talent in more than one field, yet I absolutely loathed hard work. I fucking hated it. I couldn’t bring myself to divert any real effort into anything, and my talents suffered for it. I didn’t train, I didn’t practice, I didn’t study. I sought to get as far as I could while doing as little as possible. I probably wasn’t alone in this.
That was until, without any input from others, I decided to devote myself to something that required actual hard work. Strength. Raw physical power. And it was doubly important to me as a personal goal because it was something I had no business seeking.
It never sought me out. There was never a moment where it was clear I was gifted to be strong. I had always been gaunt, lanky, lacking any appetite whatsoever. I skipped breakfasts and packed salads and one-ingredient sandwiches and ate only when the hunger became unreasonable. Eating was a chore. At home, every meal was prolonged torture for my parents, who sat by for an hour or two watching me sentence each mouthful to an excruciating death march into my stomach while their plates had been emptied long ago. I was 110 pounds of skin and bones in early high school. I wasn’t one of those kids that pulled 400 pounds the first time they joined a gym and totaled a half-ton in junior high.
I wasn’t unfamiliar with working out. But I never liked it. My mother decided, one morning, that now was a better time than ever to get me to show some interest in exercise for the sake of health. She took me jogging for a few days or a few weeks, and while I tried to continue the habit after she had given up, I eventually stopped. We tried yoga, which I loathed. I decided to continue sleeping in and exercising only through play, like other kids. Yet none of the sports I enjoyed seemed to instill me with the will to devote anything other than the barest minimum amount of effort into them. I was a talented swimmer, yet if a win couldn’t come to me easily, I didn’t bother pursuing it. I was a decent martial artist, yet only practiced once a week, when it was mandatory. Other sports where it was clear I didn’t have any talent, like basketball and volleyball, quickly lost my interest. On more than one occasion, my father frustratingly asked me why I could never seem to muster any ambition, in anything. I never had an answer.
One summer, my father took me to a gym. It was my first time in a gym ever, and probably my first time consciously meeting a bodybuilder. He was Korean, the owner of the gym, and very friendly. In broken English, he greeted us, grabbed my shoulders, and said I had “potential”.
Looking back on it, I’m sure it was his way of instilling a young timid man with an ounce of confidence, but I remember being taken aback by his comment. To understand why, picture a young boy weighing just over a hundred pounds with very little muscle on a wiry frame no taller than 5’6”. Nothing about me screamed “potential”. That day, he showed me how to do a proper pushup, and cheered me through a valiant effort that produced eight solid reps. They were pathetic, and I don’t think a single one was full range of motion – but he clapped and told me I’d do twenty tomorrow.
I joined my father in training there for a few weeks, using the machines and going through a simple bro split without any real understanding of what I was doing, or why. I wasn’t allowed to touch the barbells yet, and my coordination was so woefully terrible (I couldn’t squat anywhere near parallel without falling over) that I wouldn’t have gotten very far anyway. A month or two into this experience, we had to quit due to time constraints and expenses.
Yet that time there sparked something inside me. I didn’t know what it was yet. But subconsciously, I began to hunger for something I wouldn’t be able to define for a few more years.
It started with a challenge. I’m not entirely sure when or where I first heard about it, or if I conceived it myself. But I started out with 20 pushups. As a reward, I would play a video game – but only after my pushups.
A month or two later, I had completely stopped playing my games and took my “pushups” into the yard, where I turned them into a daily full-body routine with crunches, wall sits, pushup variations, and pullups. One set turned into many, and I found myself taking over an hour each time to finish up my routine. But along the way, the hard work started to become tiresome. Why was I doing this? I was having fun, sure, but I couldn’t come up with a good reason to give myself. I wasn’t growing much. I wasn’t making as much progress as I wanted to. I didn’t understand how to program. I quickly fell to the same trap – once again, I reached a point where continuing would have required real effort (and more knowledge than I admittedly had), and I began to give up.
When we moved out of the city into a quieter part of the region, my mother took me to another gym. Again, I began training. This time, my workouts were more uninspired than ever. Until I caught the eye of someone who was looking for a training partner – someone to teach, and train. I had found some fun training with others, but following instructions was the most I could manage to do. When circumstances led them to leave, I quickly began spinning my wheels once more. With no one to train with, I began losing sight of what it is I was there for.
It always led back to the same problem. At my core, I’m a clever sloth. I’ll do whatever I must to avoid doing anything at all. The training was a little different, but I still couldn’t define why I was bothering to train at all, and as soon as the novelty of a new gym or a new exercise wore off, I inevitably lost the motivation to continue. I remember vividly being a skinny little kid in the weights section, fruitlessly repeating the same program I had done the week before when a large bespectacled Norwegian bodybuilder approached me after another one of his 400-pound squats. “Why don’t you lift big weight?” he asked me. “Try to lift big weight.” I smiled and shook my head. I’m not cut out for that, I thought. Or am I? No, it’s not “functional”. I didn’t want to be a meathead.
I stopped going after a few weeks of training alone.
I can’t trace the moment it happened. At this point in my life, working out every now and again had become a part of my identity. Others I knew and had grown up with knew me as the guy who would work out. I wasn’t strong, big, or impressively-built – I had managed not to get fat, and I could jog a couple of miles before giving out, but my reputation was mostly built on the fact that I, for no other reason than boredom or obligation, had managed to muster the means to get up and go train on more than one occasion for no real reason, even if my workouts ended up being uninspired, and I quickly lost all motivation.
Yet at some point in this chapter of my life, around the age of 17 or 18, I decided to try something fresh and wanted to give the barbell a shot. I picked up Stronglifts 5×5 and found a cheap gym to try and figure out how to lift. My squat had improved over the course of training at the second gym, though I still couldn’t squat to parallel, especially with a bar on my back. I had a terrible butt wink, knee valgus, feet and ankles that would cave in at the bottom of the lift, and a mild case of scoliosis.
I started with 62.5 pounds for the squat and bench press in 2016. It was my first time doing these exercises. Though I had pulled 220 pounds (with absolutely atrocious form) when I was 15 at the other gym, I started with a modest 130 pounds. With no one around to teach me proper technique and with cheap aluminum-sleeved 10-pound barbells without knurling (meaning my grip would constantly slip while pressing and deadlifting), progress was slow and excruciating.
But I kept going. Within about a year, I was squatting 220 pounds with good form, and I had beaten my butt wink and knee issues by consuming a steady diet of Alan Thrall and Omar Isuf videos. My bench press had gone up to 160 pounds and my deadlift was 230 pounds, although the smooth bar meant I was struggling to add weight without my grip sliding all over the place. I was lifting weights barefooted with no straps, no belt, on a linoleum floor, with a thin 20mm diameter barbell and rusted iron plates.
Eventually, plateaus, finances, and poor programming led me to frustration. I trained without a gym, given that the alternative – to train in the big city or a luxury gym – was unreasonably expensive, and money was tight. But for the first time, I knew what I wanted to train for. I knew what it was that had been driving me back to the gym all this time. The Norwegian bodybuilder came to mind, and I had to chuckle a little bit. I did want to get stronger, after all. Maybe even bigger. But I certainly wanted to lift big weights. Not for vanity’s sake – but for strength.
I found a better gym with reasonable rates, and I’ve been going for under two years now. Consistent training. A diet plan. Years of accumulated mistakes and programming experience. Injuries that have taught me a lot. A modest gym total. And my sights on my first real powerlifting meet.
Strength is Therapeutic
The older I get, the louder the voices get. The self-doubt, the anger, the disappointment. I’m my own loudest critic, and I shoot down any compliment or suggestion of improvement. My mind is the first thing to tell me to quit and go home, to stop and leave, to retreat to a dark cave and hide from humanity in shame and ridicule. I hate doing anything. And when I’m not distracting myself with podcasts, music, conversation, a film, or YouTube videos, the voices become deafening.
But they shut the fuck up when I’m lifting weight. Because it’s undeniable. Because it requires absolute focus. Because no one can rob me of the kilos I painstakingly add to my total. Because when I’m lifting weight, a switch turns on and I’m in the moment, and I’m hungry, and I’m focused, and I’m excited for the next set, the next lift, the next session. Even out of the gym, when I have nothing else to distract me, I repeat setups and lift weight in my head. I unrack new PRs, rip bars off the floor, do AMRAP presses.
I have never competed, but knowing myself, were I to hit a meet total I had been preparing over a year for, my first thought after getting back home would be what I’d be aiming for in the next meet. I’m not alone in this, because it’s what powerlifting is. More than just aiming to break personal records and set the bar higher and higher for ourselves and those around us, it’s a sport where we each, in our own way, relentlessly pursue the wish to be stronger and engage in what is essentially a Sisyphean task because it is our way of combating the demons and monsters we’ve crafted for ourselves. And it took me a long time to get to the point where I could realize this.
Stronger Than Ever
Again, I’m aware of my immense privilege. Where I live, people are far more susceptible to the long-term effects of this virus, and many have no choice but to continue leading normal lives in the thick of things, risking infection and death because every day spent at home is another day spent “fasting”. But if this quarantine has taught me anything, it’s that I’ve finally discovered something that has made me – a lazy bastard – genuinely work my ass off every day, come rain or shine. And without it, I feel a little lost. But I’m not a total goner. My home workout program has helped me stay sharp, and I still revisit old PRs in my mind’s eye.
And yes, I’m aware that loving to lift weights makes the “grind” a little easier. But when you do something nearly every day, you can’t always love it. There are sessions that are terrible. There are days when I don’t hit my target sets and reps and feel frustrated. There are times when a warmup feels heavy. There are days when sleep’s hard to come by, and it’s so very tempting to just stay home. There are days when the commute is guaranteed to be shit, and the workout probably won’t be much better.
But I have a goal, and the pursuit of that goal is what’s been keeping me sane for a long time now -even when I didn’t realize it. Even when I couldn’t put a finger on it. Even when I was running away from anything that looked or smelled like hard work, some part of me wanted to go out and do the pushups and pullups that evening. I realized that I had been selling myself short, that I can work hard, and that I do work hard.
Some part of me would tell me to get up and go for that run. Some part of me knew that when I failed, got back up, and succeeded, I won the battle. Without it, I’m sure the voices would have overwhelmed me by now – like they did this morning when they came back in full force, and all I could do was stare at the ceiling until I could muster enough strength to fight back and sit down to write this post.
I need to take a moment to mention that I’m not crediting powerlifting and training with all of my sanity. I have a loving partner and parents who support me, even if they think what I do is scary (mom) or boring (dad). And the gym hasn’t made me immune to moments of anxiety or self-doubt. But it has made me stronger and will continue to do so. And that strength helps.
If you’ve picked this sport for similar reasons – because beating old records and lifting heavy weights helps you fight the demons – then know what you’re not alone, and you’re not crazy. You don’t get very far in this sport without a lot of hard work. And if you’re now stuck at home, unable to do what you love the most, remember that you too can still cling onto the pursuit of strength in this very moment – you can close your eyes and lift weights, watch old PR videos, and work on new types of strength that, while not as satisfying, still require immense focus and dedication – like handstands, better flexibility, and the badass one-armed pullup.