Figure 1: Satan Warming-Up in Watercolor, by William Blake
This has been said before, but I’ll say it again. For the people in the back and the ones panhandling out front: If we had half the paper for training articles we’d have twice the elite lifters. Hypocritical to the max, right, seeing as I’m writing one right now. But Martin Luther woulda done jack shit if he stopped at the thought, “We’ve had too many amendments to church doctrine.”
To get straight at it, there are three possible approaches to becoming a better lifter: Internal, external, and metaphysical.
The all-internal guy is the Bill Kazmaier, the guy that misses a lift then stomps to the back of the gym with his eyes closed, bounces on his toes for a quarter hour kicking his own ass about what he just did, then runs back screaming and hits the missed weight for a triple.
You go to the all-external guy’s house and he’s got subscriptions to every muscle-mag printed west of Taipei, a kitchen cabinet that would make GNC look like a low-budget kiosk, and thirty different internet gurus writing him new programs on any given week.
You don’t go to the metaphysical guy’s house because the last time you went, you couldn’t see for the clouds of incense, while he brushed his teeth three times. Once for every plate he hoped to squat the next day, then took three moderately-sized sips of water, measured three foot-long steps to his bedroom, then pronounced three loud Hail-Mary’s before greeting you with three whole body crossing gestures before saying, “Sup, man?” like nothing strange had just gone down.
The problem is that most of us lean toward the second option, and that makes total sense. Marketing has risen to an almost magical level, and the external approach is what keeps the fitness industry going. But really, how many times have you seen the strongest guy you know wearing Inzer’s full Fall Fashion Collection?
Figure 2: 250lb Squat Starter Pack
Now, let’s be careful about the implications of the preceding paragraph. Plenty of good research supports the benefits of certain supplements (creatine and nitric oxide particularly), knee sleeves can help stave off injuries and add some weight to your squat, and a good program-writer can do wonders for someone stuck in a rut. The problem is not with any of those things. The problem is mental direction.
The same way having a shitload of social media accounts won’t make you an expert communicator, turning first to things outside yourself won’t make you any good at those things. Period. At best, it’ll get you a couple steps further until you hit an even bigger plateau than your current one. And crucially, it will beat your self-esteem over the head with a falling Swiss bar. You’ll buy a bunch of shit and read a bunch of shit and watch your lifts jump for a couple of weeks. You will be convinced the shit’s working for you. But then when you hit your new plateau, you’ll think, “Shit, the shit I bought was clearly effective because it worked for a while. I must be shitty because I couldn’t keep it going.” Repeat cycle, because that’s how capitalism dupes your ass.
To quickly dispense with the metaphysical approach, I’ll quote the one and only Jesus. “Faith without works is dead.” Again, this doesn’t mean some good old-fashioned religion can’t be a great thing, if you’re trying to get off crack or swindle a bunch of middle-aged women. But even Sampson trained by killing a lion with his bare hands before he pulled down a church. And he damn sure didn’t give a fifth of a shit about sage smudging.
Contrarily, we know from all the true stories and common legends of terrified non-lifters flipping cars off their kids, that you can lift loads, otherwise unimaginable, if only you coax your brain into pumping out the right juice. All I’m really saying is that we lifters need to catch up.
Heard once that his moustache back lifted an entire Prussian cavalry regiment and all its whores back in the 1850s while the rest of his body was off gobbling up syphilis in an opium den off-base.
I’m not gonna render any commentary on the enormous spiritual-not-religious movement, on mindfulness trends, on the explosive rise of Buddhist psychological systems in the west, or on Anton LaVey’s rise from half-unknown supervillain to casual party talk. All that stuff might be great, or it might be stupid as all hell, but we can learn some good shit from the approaches. Get your brain right, and it can work wonders. However, abstraction kills, so here are a few solid, applicable, right-now suggestions:
- Don’t watch lifting videos. Don’t follow rankings. Stay off forums. In general, forget all standards, and they’ll forget you. My dad likes to tell this story about a guy he went to high school with in Mississippi. He was a farm boy that had been lifting hay bales into trucks since he was in elementary school, but never saw a bona-fide weight set. First day of high school football, the guy squatted 400 pounds. Why? He was only limited by what his body could do. Nobody’d ever told him 400 pounds was heavy. The number was totally irrelevant. He just picked up what he could, and it was a shitload. I had a similar experience in high school. I’d been trying to dead four plates for months. I failed every time, then misloaded a barbell and accidentally hit 425 for a triple. Don’t underestimate the power of willful ignorance.
- As Jamie says, Luciferianism. Regardless of religious ideas, I recommend anybody and everybody read LaVey’s Satanic Bible. As LaVey himself will tell you ad nauseum, it is not a theistic text. The point is to take the potential inside of your own mind and body, and free it to conquer the world by repurposing religious psychology. You don’t have to pray to Satan, if you don’t want to. But according to John Milton, he traveled from Hell to Earth purely on the strength of his will, and that’s a kind of dauntlessness we could all use. Replacing time spent reading fitness shit with time spent on the aforementioned Bible and some Nietzsche is probably enough on its own to spike your squat a hundred or so pounds. Seriously. Fuckin’ Nietzsche.
- Switch up your supplements. Worst case scenario, your body has time to reset its receptor sites. Another likely outcome, though, is that you free yourself from your addict mindset. Do you know how many times I’ve heard someone say their game’s off because they ran out of pre-workout? About as many times as I’ve heard someone say they feel off because they ran out of cigarettes. This is an exercise in self-esteem. Once you start hitting PRs without your current supplements, you’ll feel free to experiment and figure out which supplements work for you. And you’ll know that you can wreck shit purely on the rotundity of your own balls. You wont be dependent on your supplements. Instead, your supplements will do what they are supposed to do.
- Think nonverbally. It’s no coincidence that this very blog and best-author-since-1950 and badass marksman-painter William S. Burroughs took the same catch phrase from the first assassin, Hassan I Sabbah. “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” Truth emerges from words. Without words and the standardized structures, we squeeze them into, we’re freed from strict rules and regulations. There’s the skinny. Thanks for nothing, four-year degree in linguistics. In practical application, if you stop thinking cues to yourself—screw feet in, hips back, chin down, squeeze ass…--you’re freed to feel the positions your body finds most efficient. Ever seen a baby with bad squat form? Nope. Think that baby’s thinking about screwing its feet into the floor? Fuck nope. Your body will tell you anything you can ever hope to know if you just listen to its non-voice voice.
- Quit your program for a month. Or two. Or a year. And actively avoid routine. Make doing the same lift twice in a month the subject of crippling guilt. Worst case scenario, you have more fun in the gym and learn, or rediscover, some great exercises. More likely, you realize, counterintuitively, that you feel great and make awesome progress if you do 500 pullups a day. Or if you do Zercher deadlifts after hack squats. Or you balance a barbell vertically on your nose while doing one-arm front levers. Whatever the fuck. In all cases, your body knows what’s best for it to do if you listen to that non-voice voice we talked about earlier. Instead of walking into the gym and pulling out a notebook and a calculator, walk in with an enormous tree-shaped vibrator and a pair of bolt-cutters and figure out what to do with them.
- Imagine the gym door doesn’t exist. Maybe it doesn’t. Most of the people I see in any given gym on any given week spend half or more of their workouts undoing the havoc wreaked on their bodies by sitting in chairs and cars. Or, they never can, so they’re grimacing every time they move their hips. But if you’re conscious that everything you do in your whole life affects everything else you do in your whole life, you don’t have to relegate progress to the gym itself. If you want your squats to improve, focus on how you sit at your desk at work. Use typing emails as a time for experimentation. What angle do your feet naturally gravitate to? How does your pelvis tilt when relaxed? If your bench press is stuck, where do your shoulders sit when you’re standing in line at a grocery store? When your arms hang, do your palms face back? Is your neck craned back while you’re reading this article
Dude tried to go no-sups, but heroin's tougher to kick than Jack3d.
There’s my bit. Honestly, it’s a selfish missive. I’ve loved superhero stories since I was a little kid, and I want to see more of them. Like an art aficionado might want more William Blake, and less Instagram bullshit. Blake and the Hulk have way the fuck more in common with Kazmaier, than with your average powerlifter’s externally-obsessive number games. Skewer me in comments.