The year was 1997 and I was in the prime of my weight-lifting career – stronger than any other guy in the gym and weighing in at 240 pounds. I had just benched 405 for the first time in my life and that was second only to the 300-pounder that looked like he just stepped off the boat from Samoa. That guy was ridiculous in appearance and strength.
I’d move those weights like few other guys could, set them down – and walk away like a barnyard rooster that had just tagged every hen in the yard. I didn’t hear any applause but in my heart, I could feel their envy as my slow-motion trot to the water fountain must have resembled one of those guys in a movie who just blew up some large building behind him while walking uninterested toward the camera.
It was later in this same year that I set my personal squat record of 595 pounds. For the last decade , I had set a goal of squatting over 600 pounds and on this day, I realized I was going to make it on my next leg day – except that day never came. I blew out my ACL on the following day of having lifted 595 while playing a game of pick-up basketball. I was pissed at myself – for playing a silly game of basketball and for not just throwing an extra ten pounds on the squat rack the day before (I was already up 20 pounds more than ever before). After a few days of self-pity, I made the decision that this was simply going to be a short-term road block to my goals. I was going to embrace rehab and make my triumphant return to the gym and be better than ever – except that didn’t happen.
I was 30 years old when my knee decided it was done. I had no idea that the road back would take so long. I would read NFL stories of guys coming back from a torn ACL in six months and I was just sure I would do the same but my recovery wasn’t even close. It was two years later and I was still having stability problems. I had finally returned to squatting and a mere 225-pound lift would cause me to wince. I’d set that weight down and I felt the over-whelming urge to let everyone within an eye-shot of me know “I had knee surgery. I’m only this weak because I’m coming back from surgery.” I remember feeling embarrassed at the amount of weight I was struggling with.
Time marched on and life happened. I got married and nine months later, I was a first-time father. A funny thing happened that the younger version of me swore would never happen – I lost my desire to be the biggest, strongest guy in the gym. I’d have two or three week periods where I’d push it as hard as possible and then I’d just feel like relaxing for a full week – eating a big plate of chicken wings with some beer and taking my kids to the park instead of hitting the gym. I just couldn’t consistently get that old mindset back. I couldn’t even blame my knee anymore. Many years had passed and I was finally feeling no pain from that old injury. I just didn’t care. What happened?
When I took an honest look at the situation, I realized that being a husband and father simply meant far more to me than any personal accolades in the gym. My family was how I derived my joy now and the returns were far greater. My futile gym attempts to return to a younger version of myself were failing because I was slowly realizing the insignificance of what I was trying to accomplish. What did I possibly have to gain or prove in trying to get overly big and strong again?
Creating a New Gym Mindset
After my first child was born, I got fat. I was weighing in at 210 – far less than the former strong version of myself yet my mid-section was larger than ever. I went from a size 32-inch waist to size 36. Going to the gym wasn’t even all that fun anymore. I just didn’t enjoy it like I used to but I soon came to realize why this was the case. I was a guy that used to get off on being the biggest and strongest in the gym and now, I was average at best. I was lifting less than half of what I used to but I simply didn’t care about putting in the work to get big and strong again. I looked and felt like the average old-guy in the gym and didn’t have a good solution.
There’s usually a defining moment when people realize that something just has to be done about getting back in shape. My moment happened after returning from vacation with my wife in Bora Bora, Tahiti. I was going through our photos and it was the first time I was ever disgusted at looking at myself. Those candid shots revealed me to look a lot different than the guy who sucked in his gut while standing at an angle in front of the mirror – fooling himself into believing that this was how others seen him. I was just plain ol’ fat and there was no disputing it.
I sat there staring at those pictures and wondered how a guy so once obsessed with fitness had let himself get so out of shape? It was time to make a change.
As I sat and pondered on a new plan, I realized that for all the gym adventures I had been through, I had never tried to simply get as lean as I could and focus on just getting rid of the body fat. I used to make fun of those guys but now, I wondered if that might be just what I needed?
I started hitting the gym with a new goal in mind and for the first time in the last decade, working out became fun again. I started measuring body fat and that became my motivation and measure of success. I had a new goal and I was seeing results. Training was no longer a boring endeavor because I had a purpose.
After a year of this new training, I had my body fat down around 14% for the first time since my “strong man” days. I couldn’t hoist nearly what I used to but I no longer cared. My joints didn’t hurt anymore, my face looked much thinner and I could finally take my shirt off while cutting the grass without feeling like a circus act when other cars drove by.
After another year passed, I became a NSCA-CPT Certified fitness trainer and replaced my Accounting job with a new job at the gym. I also managed to take my body fat down to under 10% – sporting a lean stomach that I hadn’t seen since about 16 years old. I had never realized that my jawbone could look so defined or that my knee pain would disappear by simply dropping so much weight! I even hit the stage and competed a couple times. For the last couple years, I’ve maintained a weight of 170 pounds and I’m more proud of my six-pack than any personal record I beat back in the day.
My personal account is simply intended to make others take pause and think about their goals in the gym and life in general. When I look back at the strong version of me, I kind of laugh about the whole phase I went through. I took so much pride in my accomplishments but what did they amount to? Not a damn thing, if I’m to be honest.
Trying to be the strongest guy around was exhausting! It meant eating as much as I could all day, every day. I know that aspect of it all sounds like a dream to many people but excessive food is nothing more than a burden that I am glad to be relieved of. I was eating right at 8,000 calories a day for a couple years there!
In contrast, when I go to the gym now, I’m focused on a healthier, happier version of me – and one that will be around for years to come so he can watch his kids grow up. I’ve found balance. I’ve learned that maintaining a healthy balance in everything in life is what help keeps a person happy. You can take anything too far and you can also stop short of giving anything the attention it deserves. If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.
I still see those young guys pushing it to the limit and spending all their time in the gym. I see guys doing Cross Fit going overboard too. I still encourage these individuals because I understand the joy it brings – but I also let them know about the joys of being lean and fat-free – and not putting too much focus on living in the gym because the best parts of life happen outside the gym doors. I’m sure most guys don’t care what I think because I had a few guys preach those same lessons to me as a young guy and I chose to ignore them.
It’s funny though – if I see someone pushing 365 on the bench press, I can appreciate it but it doesn’t buy respect. I’ve learned the guy that I respect most is the one who goes about his business in a quiet manner, doesn’t throw his weights on the ground or howl when he’s lifting a heavy set, puts his weights up when he’s done and maybe even wipes off the seat for the next guy.
I don’t have any regrets about the path I took because it led me to the place I am – and that’s a good place. If there’s one positive I can take away from always pushing my strength to the max, it’s how I learned to understand that I can do anything I set my mind to. There are no limitations except those we place on ourselves. That said, I didn’t necessarily need to keep pushing my body so hard for so long to learn this wisdom.
Nobody cares how much I could lift or how much you can lift. People care about people who are sincere and authentic and that’s what I try to focus on when I’m interacting with others in the gym these days. Fitness isn’t about being the strongest or the best. It’s about maintaining good health and staying in good shape. These days, I could care less if I’m maxing a leg day out with a couple 45 pound plates and every guy in the gym is looking.
It took a couple decades but I finally learned how to stop focusing on being the strongest guy in the gym.