Every birthday, my friend, Darren, deadlifts 315 pounds for his age in reps.
I think he’s 37 or 38 now, so not exactly a walk in the park. He’s a gifted lifter though, and can usually bang it out in one extended set, with maybe a break or two to reset the bar.
I just had another birthday, but there was no deadlift-fest for me — 315 for 41 reps would lead this bodybuilder to a very unhappy place the next day, one marked by a bottle of Aleve and hours of couch surfing.
No, my day featured some good old-fashioned hypertrophy work followed by beef brisket and a few adult beverages. Manly enough for me.
Still, I love the spirit of the deadlift-your-age tradition. Every year, the bar raised higher, calendar be damned. Progression above all else. No excuses. That’s character in the face of what will eventually be insurmountable adversity. That’s strength.
While I vowed to get back to blogging about the nuts and bolts of building a bigger, stronger, leaner body, I’d be remiss if I didn’t post a quick note about strength. What it is and how you can develop it.
Most think of strength as what we try to develop in the gym. And following a good program with a suitable progression model will get you strong, barring injury, boredom, or indoctrination into Crossfit.
When I started out lifting my goal was to do “2, 3, and 4” – 2 plates on the bench press, 3 plates on squat, and 4 plates on deadlift – or 225, 315, and 405 pounds respectively.
I reached that “milestone” relatively quickly but realized that I was still the furthest thing from strong. So the goal was revised to 3, 4, and 5 — 315, 405, and 495 pounds on bench, squat, and deadlift respectively.
It took me much longer to reach those numbers, but when I finally did I still didn’t feel that strong. In fact, considering my training age (how long I’d been lifting), genetic potential, the amount of muscle I carry and the fact I know as much about lifting as I do, I was kinda, well, ordinary.
It dawned on me – I’ll never be strong enough. Cause you can never be too strong.
Strength improves every athletic quality you can measure.
If you’re stronger, you’re faster, more explosive, more durable, even more nimble, and certainly more useful all around.
Too much raw mass can slow you down and drain your gas tank, something I’ve experienced first hand sparring with fighters 30 pounds lighter than me. But strength? There’s no downside.
It’s like that outside of the gym. There’s no area where being stronger doesn’t help. Work ethic, character, values – the stronger they are, the more successful we are. The better we are.
Unless, however, it’s strength developed at the expense of something else.
In the gym, strong deltoids and pecs paired with weak upper back muscles creates an imbalance, and imbalances can lead to problems.
It’s the same deal in life. If your strong work ethic results in you never seeing your family, you’re out of balance. But it’s not your work ethic’s fault – it’s your failure to pay attention to the big picture.
So you have to be mindful of where strength is developing as it could be at the expense of something not as “flashy” yet equally important.
With that, here are three areas of your life that require a lot of hidden strength.
They’re often ignored or taken for granted, and they all start with the letter H.
So take heed – you may be weaker than you think.
Happiness requires strength. Especially as you get older.
With apologies to Dr. Phil and Tony Robbins, you don’t “deserve” to be happy. Happiness isn’t your factory default setting when you’re unceremoniously wrenched from the womb.
Happiness is a goal — it takes effort, especially as real-world stressors pile on. At times in life, the very thought of being happy may seem ridiculous.
I’ve been there. It passes, if you make it pass.
Imagine someone saying that they “deserve” to be muscular without putting in the work at the gym. You’d either laugh at them or pity them – either way you wouldn’t want to train them.
Happiness is also muscle. We’re capable of developing it but it takes work. If we slack off or take it for granted, it slowly atrophies.
However, if you “train” yourself to be happy and see the world positively on a consistent basis, like any muscle it will become stronger and more responsive. It will become your factory default.
Honesty also takes a lot of strength.
I have but one simple rule to live by: Only do what you want to do. In other words, do you.
For example, I’m a bro. I will never be in the elite levels of strength or be super agile or sport a rocking 40 yard time. But I will be muscular — dare I say jacked – until they pry the protein powder from my cold, callused hands. Cause that’s who I am. And I only do me.
I don’t mean that you should ditch your responsibilities — just don’t forget that your first responsibility is to you. The real you. So dress how you want to dress, say what you want to say, and do what you want to do.
But that takes strength. Society, your co-workers, even your family will pressure you in not-so-subtle ways to turn your back on the real you. “Time to grow up,” they might say. Trade in your hobbies and passions for a mini-van and khakis.
It doesn’t have to be that way. As long as you maintain the big picture balance, you have every right to “do you.” Hell, it’s your responsibility.
What if you’re a gifted artist or musician or poet or songwriter, or even a coach or athlete? Your gifts makes the world a better place. You owe the world your best “you.” You owe me! Find the strength to do it, the strength to do you.
Humility is lowering oneself in relation to others; or having a clear perspective, and therefore respect, for one’s place in context. And it’s built upon a foundation of strength.
The first half of that definition, lowering yourself relative to others, is scarce today. Everybody wants to be known as the best at whatever they’re doing, whether it’s coaching or writing or taking endless pictures of their fabulous behinds on Instagram.
Part of it is branding of course, and trying to “rise above the noise.” And I’m no saint; I do it as well — see my douchebag abs selfie above.
But much of it is because there’s never been a moment in human history where we have so many young, healthy, smart people capable of so much excellence that pursue things of no value to society.
Fans of Chuck Palahniuk’s book Fight Club would say it’s because our generation has had had no great depression and no great war. There’s been nothing to ground us in the real world, so instead we focus our attention on the media and entertainment, and the mirror.
But there are “wars” being fought all around us – we just don’t see them, at least not until they affect us directly. Which leads to the second part of humility — having a clear perspective for one’s place in context.
I’ve known all my life that kids can get cancer. I’ve given donations and even ran for the cure. But I didn’t fully understand cancer until my own wife was fighting it, in a cancer hospital where the children’s ward was the next wing over.
Seeing young, beautiful bald children playing in a crowded treatment room is hard. The first time it affected me for the rest of the day. I considered taking a different entrance, a less “disturbing” route. After all, I was going through my own hell – why take on more water?
But I didn’t change routes. Every visit I made a point of stopping by the children’s ward for a minute to check out whatever drawings the kids had put up on the visitor’s bulletin board or even just watch them tear about the play area, raising hell and being children.
My little drive-by certainly didn’t help anyone. What it did give me was a much needed dose of humility — no matter what my family was going through, someone else has it much, much worse. And that I should acknowledge it, get my head out of my own ass, and get some fucking humility.
It’s not easy though. Cause complaining about trivia, like failing to hit your macros, is easy. So is expressing “so much hate” towards the curls in the squat rack crowd or that last bit of stubborn body fat.
Admitting that your problems are bullshit and that many would do anything to be in your shoes? That takes humility.
That takes strength.
So how can you get stronger?
Squat, bench, and deadlift. Press overhead, if you can do it safely. Throw in rows, chin-ups, dips, and curls. Get strong in them all. I can help you if you wish. So can many others.
Next, laugh. Smile. Be happy. Be truthful. Be authentic. Be humble. Be helpful. Be grateful.
Now you’re well rounded. Now you’re strong.
Next blog is about sets and reps. I promise. But next year, around this time, expect a post like this one. Maybe even 42 deadlifts.