My Road to Weightlifting
I promised some posts on this topic, and today I will begin to deliver. Today I want to talk about my journey to weightlifting. It took me a while, but I look forward to sharing the lessons I learned along this long and winding road.
I started going to the gym at sixteen. With 150 pounds on my 6’ frame, I did not have much to work with. Monday through Friday, though, for about an hour every day, I built up a solid base of strength. I did not achieve anything spectacular, and I lost a lot of ground when I started spending all my time writing a book, but the routine got me in good enough shape to score 224 on my first Army Physical Fitness Test in 2014. I took that test a few weeks after I joined the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps, in my freshman year of college.
The Army may have taken a step in the right direction with its new fitness test, but it still values one aspect above all else: conditioning. Although it might deny that, the metrics by which it judges a soldier’s physical fitness — how fast they can run two miles, how many repetitions of a simple exercise they can do in two minutes, their pace wearing a 35+ pound backpack on a twelve mile march — tell a different story. The Army values raw strength when soldiers have to carry their body armor-clad friends out of harm’s way, yet goes out of its way to incentivize the opposite. I plan to talk more about this another time, so for now, I will leave it at that. After all but abandoning weightlifting so I could write my book, I embraced this new philosophy in the fall of 2014.
Over the next six months, I ran mile after mile every week, and repeated set upon set of bodyweight exercises to exhaustion. In other words, I did everything the Army’s physical training program thinks a good soldier should. When it came time to take the Army Physical Fitness Test — or APFT — at the end of my freshman year, I ran two miles in 11:36 and did over 90 push-ups and sit-ups in two minutes. I scored 357 out of a max of 300 points. I had mastered the APFT.
Over the next four years, I shifted my focus from the APFT to the one other physical task the Army measured at the time: ruck marches. In this event, soldiers load a large backpack with anywhere from 35 to 75 pounds, then add water, then walk or run up to marathon-level distances in boots and a full combat uniform. A typical march consists of a 35 pound rucksack carried over twelve miles in three hours or less. By the end of my junior year, I spent three days a week running five miles with a 55 pound rucksack in forty minutes or less. That summer, at the end of a month-long field training exercise, I finished a twelve mile ruck march in 1:42:00. Sleep deprived and malnourished after two weeks in the field, I averaged an 8:30 pace. I will not say that I mastered this event, but I did excel in it.
When I came home a month later, I felt tired and out of shape. Back to 175 pounds, I weighed as much at twenty-two as I did when I graduated high school. The last two months had sapped almost all my strength and ruined my conditioning. I did not feel inspired to re-conquer the APFT or ruck marching, though, so I set my sights on the one activity I had yet to master: weightlifting. I started lifting twice a day after PT, for over an hour each time, at least five days a week. I remember struggling through those first few weeks, lowering my feet to the floor and struggling to push myself up and out of bed each morning. My body got used to the abuse, though, and I got hooked.
Over the next eleven months, I made some good progress: I worked my way up to a 435 deadlift, 305 squat, and 275 bench press. I took a three week break to travel the East Coast in the spring of 2018, then in July I weighed in at 186 and scored 336 out of 300 on the APFT. Once again, I had mastered the APFT — but I had come nowhere near that level in the weight room, and so I decided to change my approach. This test marked my first steps into the world of powerlifting. Seven months later, in February of 2019, I weighed in at 220 pounds, deadlifted 585, squatted 425, and benched around 3001; on arm day, I warmed up with 115 pound hammer curls — in each hand. I had become a monster in the gym.
All the weight that I now carried on my body and lifted in the gym, though, came at a price: high impact activities like running or rucking gave me such bad shin splints that some days I had trouble walking. In any other line of work I would have switched to swimming or cycling, but the Army does not believe in less damaging forms of cardiovascular exercise. So I ran anyway and dealt with the consequences as most soldiers do: with Ibuprofen, with ice, and without complaint. Then, at the beginning of March after I ran two miles in 15:36, I decided to try one last experiment on myself. I had an APFT in three weeks: could I cut enough weight, and rebuild enough of my cardiovascular conditioning, to once again crush the max score of 300? I had proven that someone could go from extreme conditioning to extreme strength, but what about the other way?
I spent the next three weeks proving that I could. Ten days before the official APFT, I gave myself the test to gauge my progress. I finished the run in 13:30. I had cut two minutes off my run time, with a week to spare. Then, at the end of March in 2019, I weighed in at 200 pounds and scored 336 on the final APFT. I had managed to reach each extreme on the physical fitness spectrum, and then make the trip back and forth between them.
I wanted to talk about this journey to give you some insight into my background. I do not take advice from many, and never from those who have not established their credibility with me first. I also wanted to write this so that I could highlight a few themes you will see almost every time I talk about physical fitness. I plan to spend a lot of time on these topics in the future, but in brief:
- Anyone can become good at anything. In high school, my BMI bordered on underweight; there, though, I excelled at running and bodyweight exercises. Nine months after graduating college, my BMI of 29 bordered on obese; there, though, I excelled in the gym. I trained and dieted a certain way to reach both of those extremes, a process anyone can mimic to achieve similar results. A simple choice meant the difference between those two types of people, between a conditioned me and a strong me — it had nothing to do with body type, innate ability, or any of the other excuses many use to explain their lack of aptitude in the area they choose to neglect.
- It takes much more work to build strength than it does to become conditioned. It took me six months to become a great runner, but eleven to reach my first weightlifting plateau — and then another seven to top out before I let off the gas. When I decided to get good at running again, it took me three short weeks. I put work into conditioning, but I put a great deal more time, effort, and energy into becoming strong. I have seen this play out enough times to believe this rule applies to everyone.
- Effort, and nothing else, decides success. More than diet, macronutrients, workout gear, or even your training routine, the most impactful thing you can do is workout every single day, as hard as possible, for as long as possible. Before worrying about anything else, worry about doing that; that is the single most effective way to reach your goals.
Many will disagree with me. Genetics matter. Conditioning takes just as much work as strength training. Focus on your diet to maximize your workouts. Take rest days. While the people who believe things like that have a point, they always leave one important detail out: factors like genetics and macronutrients, and the type of training that best suits your body type, become important at such a high level that the average person will never need to worry about them. If the average person spent their time putting in hard work instead of worrying about all those other things, they would surpass every one of their goals. I learned these and many other lessons after years of long, hard, gruelling, and back-breaking effort; I look forward to sharing those lessons with you here.
↩ I have a lot of trouble bench pressing a straight bar. I can rep out sets of five with a 150 pound dumbbell in each hand, but when it comes to the bar, some form of tendinitis makes me struggle around 315 pounds for even one rep.