Real Strength: What you really gain from lifting weights

Strength is many things, and it’s shown outwardly in a number of ways. Yes, it is throwing barbells, dumbbells, sandbags and other classic strength tools around. But it is the underlying personal strength that comes in the time during your raw strength development that is really life-changing. This conversation will discuss what I find to be the real benefit of lifting weights, or classic strength training.

I’ll never forget the excitement I felt in 2010 at the Ohio Sectionals when I had my first workout with a barbell in competition. It was 5 Rounds: 7 Deadlifts (225lbs), 11 burpees with a vest on. To that point, the most I’d ever deadlifted was 185lbs in training, slowly, for form. The prospect of doing 35 DL at 225 was quite daunting. I was new to the sport and excited to try new things, but this was maybe more than I’d bargained for. This competition was at the Arnold, there were hundreds of athletes, spectators, affiliate owners and early adopters there, and I was quite fearful of not being able to lift the bar. It ended up being my best finish of the day.

The feeling when I finished my last round was so empowering, it is almost impossible to describe to those who do not, or have not ever faced a daunting weight or barbell and conquered it. I moved on from there, passing the 300lb, 400lb, 500lb and 550lb mark on deadlifts, but I never felt quite like I did that day. I learned in 2010, that with every new PR comes a new attitude. At first in lifting, you start with fear, doubt and uncertainty. Conquering that is often not expected from newer athletes, but highly encouraged and anticipated by coaches. This is the phase I call: Coach’s Belief. Here, athletes are more reliant on listening to what a coach tells them to put on the bar, and the coach holds a lot of power over the confidence and choices of the athlete. This will likely be the phase where the person grows the most both physically and mentally. It is our “honeymoon” stage with lifting, CrossFit, or whatever endeavor we take on, and it is amazing. You hold your chest higher with each lift, you want to tell everyone about how amazing you feel, why you’re so confident and then spread that feeling to everyone you know! It is an inner power, or your real strength projecting out into the world. This infectious aura of confidence and strength that surrounds you, will come to define many of your life’s successes if you let it. But it is immature in this moment and needs to be harnessed properly to eventually turn into REAL strength.

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This particular phase is a common understanding if you have read about true mastery of any subject. The chart above labels it as a “burst of progress” — the length of time is often the largest on your first burst. Our mastery is the total area underneath the chart, so initially we have almost no space there and no mastery. After our initial burst of progress, we’re bordering on over-confident, excited, often slightly obsessed. An athlete who on day-1 only a few months before was filled with negative self-talk, self-doubt and uncertainty….has moved to the other end of the spectrum.

We become addicted to progress and maybe stop listening to our coach who guided us so well just a month before. As a coach, at this point I try to re-emphasize the focus on the attention to detail of the fundamentals that the athlete used to have. Athletes typically will instead sneak PRs onto the bar on a training day (not a testing day), skimp on warm-ups, and often develop bad habits. They’re not handling the “slight dip” very well, and if they cannot handle that…what comes next is often even harder.

Dips are followed by lengthy plateaus. You will not even be able to hit 95% on many lifts, you might get slower on a workout, and things aren’t as exciting as they were during the honeymoon phase. This is the time where an increased focus on nutrition, warm-ups, recovery and coaching is key. Sticking to the program diligently, and not letting yourself fade to 2 or 3 days each week because you’re not PR’ing is paramount. Asking a coach for advice or help should happen daily, and then be followed up on. Before we were successful due to taking on something new for the first time…but that success is temporary. Now we must develop a process to improve, and cannot rely on simple nervous system adaptation.

This is a valuable life lesson, and one of the greatest gifts that strength training gives us. Falling in love with the process, not the outcome, and obsessing over the little things will always net the best long term results. Coming in with the focus on maximum integrity with each piece of the day will net you unbelievable long term consistency. Whether its trading stocks, marketing, the military, or walking dogs – this holds true. This process development stage is so important. You cannot quit, you cannot develop bad habits, and you need your coach more than ever. I never had a coach during this phase, and the bad habits I developed haunted me, my knees, my back and my health, enjoyment and progress for the better half of a decade. Much like most things in life, I only learned from my failures…with time and wisdom (this is the hard way, trust me).

If we develop the appropriate process, we are guaranteed results. I’ve been lucky enough to train with Starfox a lot lately, and at 44 years old, he seems more motivated by the process than ever before. He listens intently to coaching, he coaches his own firehouse and is humble enough to ask questions. Recently, you might have seen his 35lb Back Squat PRs, or the 7-10 other PRs he hit this week during Barbell Club PR week (In FLA when writing this, so when I left it was at 7, with two days to go).  He found momentum in the process, and he stuck to it. Even if he got called at 2am to a car in a river, or 3am to a drug overdose, and only got 2hours of sleep…he was there to train. You reap what you sow.

So what do we actually gain out of all of this? Real strength is developed in all of this. It is the outward projection of our confidence onto others. The girl who comes in and feels “weak” for using the training bar, will soon become the girl tossing around 65lbs and then 100lbs. Strong is not in the numbers though, it is in the way she carries herself. Somewhere along the lines she becomes proud of her progress, and starts being proud of her accomplishments. She stops hedging her comments to coaches; no more “I PRd, but it was only 55lbs” — it turns into a powerful smile followed by “Yeah! I got 55lbs, I worked so hard for that!”  That transformation is felt by the community. We’re so lucky to be powered by amazingly powerful women, hundreds of them, who have made that transition publicly. I believe this is why women are drawn to CrossFit – because of the empowering effects on self-confidence gifted by raw strength development.

While the above is not unique just to women, I feel that men benefit more from the process development phase of Real Strength Development. As men, we’re impatient, and over-confident. Men injure their backs at Friendship doing “stupid stuff” 10:1 compared to women. It is only when men learn to warm-up, eat, recover and lift with form that they can train consistently and injury free. Being humble enough to know that you don’t focus on recovery enough to warrant 5 days per week is a major breakthrough for someone. Being smart enough to know that your coach, chiro, and PT all said you need to do your PT exercises, stretching and mobility at night…and then actually doing it every day (and if you don’t, not training).  It often takes men years to develop this process, and many never make it. It means looking at a coach or workout partner and saying “Hey, I’m tight today, I’m gonna shut it down and just focus on my movement.”  Few have mastered this “LOTG” approach more than Joey Cash. In a world where everyone gives him shit for “sandbagging” – He is focused on his health and well-being, and using CrossFit to supplement his lifestyle. He knows he doesn’t eat, sleep or warm-up enough to throw around 340lb cleans like he used to…and he is fine with that. He still comes, smiles and works hard. To me, THAT is strength. He had RAW strength before, but now he has acquired REAL strength. Strength of character, a silent and calm comfort and confidence.

When paired together, over the years of training, you become something. You become a confident, hard working person. You outwardly project an aura of passion and dedication to a process. You develop a system, and stick to that system, and it nets you results. That is who you become. When we think about people we want to be around, we want to marry or work with, these are the adjectives we’d likely use. That’s why we see REAL strength development come with marriages, promotions and successful business ventures. This is what I strive for in Friendship; a community of strength. Giving the gift of REAL strength one friend at a time.

Some people are not ready for that. Some people are stuck in a rut, and cannot find the desire to develop themselves. These are often the people who will try to bring you down, “Don’t hurt yourself” or “that’s not a real pull-up” or “You’re doing CROSSFIT?!?!” They haven’t achieved real strength. When you have attained real strength, you’re just happy for people in finding something they enjoy and working on developing themselves. Really strong people know the path to strength can take many shapes and sizes and can be achieved in a variety of mediums. CrossFit doesn’t have a lock on that, it is just one way that is proven to work. Think about who around you has achieved true strength – Think about who is ready to start on the path – and think about where you are on your path. This is how I recommend the path going:

  1. Self-Awareness – You must be open to developing yourself and changing habits.
  2. Find someone who has achieved real strength.
  3. Find a coach or mentor to help guide your path.
  4. Create a process that works during a burst of progress.
  5. Obsess over improving that process during your plateau’s and dips.
  6. Project your strength outwardly and proudly
  7. Share your strength with others (find someone on step 1-3).

There are many amazing gifts you can give someone, and maybe I’m bias, but I think the gift of health, wellness, confidence and the tenants of REAL strength are among the best. Have fun with your friends and family this weekend, Happy Holidays!

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