By: Charity Hambrick
Like any long-term relationship, it is best not to try and absorb the enormity of your undertaking right away. Throughout your training career, the press, squat, bench, and deadlift will be the main tools that help make you strong and they will be the main measures of your progress. There are few better setups for a love/hate relationship. Knowing that, however, means you can prepare yourself now for the ups and downs that come with time under the bar. As you pursue strength and mastery of each of these lifts, know that there will be stages to this process.
Falling In & Out of Love with the Lifts
In November of 2017, just the thought of training made me miserable. I was experiencing hip and lower back pain—bad enough that I almost quit lifting altogether. There were times when I thought, “why am I picking up this heavy stuff.” There were tears and doubt was creeping into my subconscious. It was almost a shock to realize that this thing that I had come to love so much could also cause me so much distress.
It is a remarkable feeling to fall in love or to begin a new hobby. The experience of starting something new is exciting, refreshing, and leaves butterflies in my stomach. Finding Starting Strength and unlocking my own potential for strength was no less thrilling. I have stored each new moment in a mental file for future reflection—laying hands on the hard cold steel of an Olympic bar for the first time, relishing each new PR, realizing what “heavy” actually feels like and knowing with that set I just did one of the most difficult and best things I’ve ever done for myself.
But this relationship is both beautiful and complex. Over time, the newness wears off and the excitement of falling head-over-heels in love with these lifts begins to fade. Like every meaningful relationship, the one you have with the barbell matures, requiring care and nurturing to remain healthy and to help you keep your sanity. In my experience, there is little difference between the long-term commitment to strength training and growing a relationship with your significant other.
Like any long-term relationship, it is best not to try and absorb the enormity of your undertaking right away. If you were to try to imagine the life-long responsibilities and worries that come with having children, you might consider celibacy a viable life-choice. Likewise, if I told you that you will be training three times per week for the rest of your life and that it only gets harder and heavier from here, you might run screaming the other way. For both, the benefits far outweigh the hardships but it helps to be prepared with some idea of what you are getting into, the changes to expect, and the processes that will help you manage.
Throughout your training career, the press, squat, bench, and deadlift will be the main tools that help make you strong and they will be the main measures of your progress. There are few better setups for a love/hate relationship. Knowing that, however, means you can prepare yourself now for the ups and downs that come with time under the bar.
As you pursue strength and mastery of each of these lifts, know that there will be stages to this process. We often talk in terms of training advancement, from being a novice lifter to intermediate to advanced. There are other, relational, stages too. Lifting starts out easy, with strength increases coming as regularly as ocean waves. Then it gets more difficult. The work for the PR becomes more of a slog. But with that difficulty, each victory becomes that much sweeter. Being aware of these stages can help you understand where you are in your own training and what you have to look forward to.
The Relationship Stages of Lifting
In my experience, the stages look something like the following:
Honeymoon: Addiction phase
The Honeymoon phase tends to last between 3-6 months but can be as long as a year. Going to the gym still feels fresh and exciting, and you’re constantly learning, hitting new personal records, and buying your first lifting shoes, knee sleeves, and belt. During this phase, your subconscious and Mean Ol’ Mr. Gravity have their first experiences together.
Power Struggle: Not Giving Into Excuses
My first power struggle was learning that every squat over 225 pounds is just hard work. The sets became less of an inner personal struggle as I became consistent with my training. During this stage, it is common that your infatuation with going to the gym will weaken and Mr. Gravity may no longer hold your BFF card.
Stability Stage: “Smooth as Butter,” All is Moving Well
Stability occurs when you are trying to vary things and make training exciting. Some people rely on routine, but they often lose sight of their training goals in the process, and the focus moves away from building muscle mass to enjoying variety. By this time in my training, I had figured out that I can not change the science behind Mr. Gravity and the master cue “Mid-foot” was my true friend. Staying true to your goals and training through the process helps maintain the Stability Stage for the lifespan of your strength training.
This is when you realize that your relationship with the iron has shortcomings and that’s normal. There will be days when you miss reps, you feel weak, and personal records are harder and farther apart. Training cycles take longer to add even 2.5 pounds to the bar, but you’re ready to be married to the process. Certainly, my own mood shifted when the increased dopamine of the honeymoon phase began to fade and training became more about just wanting to get the work done; but this was soon replaced with the visual stimulation of looking great because I had increased my muscle mass. Overall, I made my everyday life better through strength training.
This is the stage where you feel betrayed by a lift but eventually work through the mental hardships and learn to use your anxiety to lessen your inner doubts, not allowing the negative to provide excuses to ignore your training. In my own training, I have let my subconscious betray me, and I get too hyped up about the work programmed by my coach. This only leads to rushed reps and form creeps. My technique is much more important than the load set by my coach. If the bar stays close to my midline and I aim for my shoulder joints, it will get locked out. The key is when the going gets tough, you get to work using the right technique set forth by your Starting Strength Coach.
Bliss: “Recreation” Setting PRs; the Rekindling of the Relationship
With consistent training and staying true to your goals, you can repeat the stage of “Bliss” throughout your training. It is a new personal record for 3RM, 5RM, or max effort of a heavy single. The feeling of accomplishment that is helpful in guiding you back under the bar for that one chance to feel your endorphins kick in. Having a coach for accountability and putting in the time under the bar, tracking nutrition, and completing the hard work will provide you with the success of becoming a stronger, better self or maybe even the aspiration to become a coach to motivate others to begin the process.
Through these stages, you build mental toughness and gain a better understanding of working through “big feelings.” There is no substitute for hard work. You aren’t just building muscle, but tearing down old limitations with every rep. Having 405 on your back is a rude awakening if you have not worked through a linear progression and gained the strength and mental fortitude needed to complete that set/rep. There will always be setbacks. Life happens and moods change. You will begin to see fluctuations in how you think about certain lifts, and you may begin to doubt the process.
When this happens, treat the easy road—using lower weights or skipping sessions—like the cartoon devil on your shoulder, whispering in your ear. “Easy” creeps into your subconscious as the provocative alternative to hard work. “Excuses” fight to become the new habit of thought. Before the negative thoughts take over, and doubt and anxiety set up residence within your subconscious, it is important to remind yourself why you started the program, what your goals are, and to evaluate how much you have accomplished.
It is important to not let your goals unravel due to the excuses that will start to weave into your relationship with training. Get your training log out and look through the pages of completed sessions. Seeing the sets, reps, and weight listed for each lift will help remind you of the work that has been completed and how they are linked to your overall goals and the process of getting under the bar. Excuses and false reasoning will only cause the training foundation to crumble, leaving your barbells behind to collect dust and your muscles to atrophy.
I was well out of the honeymoon stage. I had to ask myself why I started training and where I wanted to be by the first of the year. Having a supportive husband and an eye-opening conversation with my coach pushed me to look back to the beginning. I reexamined why I chose to train with barbells, to remember my passion from day one, the struggles of increasing the weight, the feeling of pride when I hit PRs, and teaching myself that I shouldn’t give up even if it got hard. I wrote messages to myself on my whiteboard in the gym. The words would radiate off the wall, as a constant reminder that I would not quit, and I could always get one more rep. It is the experience of working through all of the relationship stages that refined this 43-year-old lifter, mother of 2, and wife of 22 years to never lose sight of my goals, and to not be afraid of hard work. Take it one rep at a time. Easy has never been worth a whole lot. “When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too”. – Paulo Coehlo