Barbell Training is for Everyone! Mylan’s Story

Over the past several years I have heard many misconceptions about barbell training. The ones I hear most frequently are 1) the bulky and slow myth, 2) the fallacy that barbells are for younger athletes or “I’m not trying to be a weightlifter anyway,” and 3) “I’m not strong enough” or “I can’t”.   Much has been written about each of these notions, so I’ll just touch on them briefly. Then I’ll share the experience of one of my clients, Mylan Dawson, a man in his early 50s with a primarily sedentary job, concerned about his loss of muscle and strength but not sure what to do about it; a man who had some common misconceptions about Barbell training and who now “could not be happier that I overcame my reluctance and committed to trying barbell training as it has made a significance difference in my life in a relatively short time.”

The Misconceptions
1) The Bulky and Slow Myth
First off, “bulky” is a subjective term about which plenty has been written, especially as it pertains to perceptions of female athletes. Suffice it to say “bulk” has more to do with nutrition, supplementation, and exercise volume (total number of reps) than it does to touching a heavy weight. People you might perceive as “bulky” worked intentionally and very hard for many years to build muscle; it will not happen to you accidentally.  (In fact even with intentional eating and dedicated training, some people struggle to build muscle mass). For the average person, a heavy barbell poses less of a “bulking” threat than dessert and alcohol do.  

Once we get past the false idea that weight training will leave you “bulky” and “musclebound,” it becomes more clear that increased strength actually improves almost all markers of athleticism, including speed.  More strength means a greater ability to produce force against resistance – translated this means a stronger you can run faster or can run at your previous speed more easily.

2) Barbells Are for Younger Athletes or “I’m Not Trying To Be a Weightlifter Anyway!”
Yes, college athletes, powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, etc train with barbells. That doesn’t mean that everyone training under a bar has the same competitive goals, just as everyone driving a car does not intend to be a NASCAR driver.  I use barbells and barbell lifts because they are time-tested, effective ways to build strength and to maintain muscle and bone mass – not because I’m trying to turn everyone into a competitive powerlifter.  My regular training buddies include women and men spanning all decades, including well into their 70s, and just a few of my training partners are interested in competing.  Regardless of whether the goal is a competition or active and healthy aging, building strength increases one’s durability, independence, and quality of life.

3) “I’m Not Strong Enough” or “I Can’t”
Strength is a continuum and chances are you’re not as devoid of strength as you might imagine.  Additionally, the road to strength has many different on-ramps. Regardless of your exercise or injury history, there is always something you could be doing to get stronger. Every main lift has modifications for those who are recovering from surgery or injury, and most ROM limitations are less restrictive than people are generally lead to believe. A properly equipped facility will have specialty and training bar options. I started my kids out with a 10# training bar, and we built from there. Weight can be added to a barbell in much smaller increments than is possible with other training modalities, as little as 1/2 pound at a time.  In the world of strength one learns straight away that the focus is always on what one can do; not on reasons why one can’t.

Mylan’s Story

“At 52, it became painfully obvious to me that I was experiencing significant muscle loss. My clothes were alternatively baggy and tight – and in all the wrong places.  I was noticeably slow to stand up when getting out of bed and the times I need to lift our senior dog into and out of the car or up and down stairs was beginning to be more and more difficult.  I knew it was time to get stronger but, as I did not have any real experience with weight training, I did not know how. Fortunately, six months ago I was referred to Rebecca.

“I was initially somewhat reluctant to barbell training as I was concerned about the time commitment and as well as my inability to perform the lifts due to my lack of strength. Rebecca introduced me to the Starting Strength method of training which focuses on lifting weights using a barbell and doing so in the most efficient and safest manner possible to gain overall strength. This has had the benefit of keeping my time in the gym down to a manageable level. Rebecca also explained that the movements we would be doing were generally reproductions of what we do in everyday life – squatting down to pick something up or lifting something heavy over our heads for example. I could not be happier that I overcame my reluctance and committed to trying barbell training as it has made a significance difference in my life in a relatively short time. For example, lifting and carrying the dog is easier and I feel more stable, my knees are nowhere near as balky in the mornings as previously and I carry my luggage and place it in the overhead far easier than before making my frequent business travel significantly less strenuous.

“I have found a good, qualified coach to be essential. Learning the lifts has been one challenge but interruptions from work and everyday life has presented other obstacles to reaching my goals. In overcoming these challenges, I have benefited immeasurably from having a professional give her perspective and guidance on all aspects of my training. Rebecca realizes we are all individuals and tailors my program to fit my needs and limitations to help me reach my personal goals. She has also been very helpful in providing guidance on nutrition. While I had little knowledge of the process of lifting weights, I had even less understanding of the nutritional needs of my body when doing so and how to eat in a way to best position my body to respond favorably to weight training. Rebecca has helped me make realistic and achievable long term changes to my diet that have helped me feel better as well as gain strength.

“I would recommend anyone of any age to seriously explore barbell training with Rebecca. The confidence gained from getting stronger cannot be understated, and Rebecca is the ideal person to help you begin your journey.”

Postscript:

Mylan overcame his misconception that he was “not strong enough” for barbells and began training mid 2018. During his first week, he squatted 95#, overhead pressed 55#, benched 65#, and deadlifted 115#.  He trained fairly regularly 3x/week. We worked around his job, travel schedule, family obligations, and we made appropriate adjustments when necessary. Now he’s squatting 220#, benching 175#, overhead pressing 110#, and deadlifting 255#.

A Tale of Two Meets: Gratitude Changes Everything

USSF Fall Classic and USSF Nationals meets were a study in contrasts for me. Outwardly the challenge was the same: three attempts at each of three lifts: squat, overhead press, deadlift.  The internal reality I created for myself around each of these situations, however, was radically different. And just as the opening lines of Dickens famous novel point out, the determination that “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times …” depends largely on context.

Leading up to the Fall Classic, I was on a roll with my favorite lift, the deadlift, hitting PRs (Personal Record) every week in training. As the weight on the bar continued to increase, my coaches and I started speculating about how much I might pull at the meet.  In weightlifting, as with most endeavors, there are milestones, and a 300# Deadlift, a lift of more than 2.5 times my bodyweight, started to seem like an entirely reasonable goal for me for Fall Classic. As the weight on the bar continued to increase in training, that goal started to become “a thing” in my head. I spent a lot of time thinking about it, getting nervous and jittery before deadlift training sessions.  Those pre-training nerves rapidly turned into a frequent and overbearing companion, something obsessive really.  At a certain point, my body rebelled; it stopped deadlifting. One week I pulled 3×280# with back off sets, and the next week I couldn’t get 270# off the ground.  That tripped my mental shenanigans into full-blown mind fuckery.  Any thoughts of deadlifting, which were nearly constant, caused my heart rate to rise and my stomach to feel queasy.  Predictably this affected the quality of my sleep and my ability to eat like a normal person, which translated into lighter and lighter deadlifts.  I’m pretty sure I must have been unbearable to my friends; I certainly was unbearable to myself. My training mutated from something fun and challenging into something unhealthy and bitter. I had given up family time to train, and I felt like I had to do well to justify that time.  I felt like my dedication entitled me to a 300# deadlift and I was annoyed that my body and mind were “betraying” me.  It was messed up, and I knew it.

I started asking friends how they managed meet jitters and anxiety.  In my experience, I’ve learned there’s a sizeable mental component to a successful lift, but up to that point, I hadn’t actively done anything to train that aspect of the work.  I got some great tips and reading recommendations, including Lanny Bassham’s “With Winning in Mind”. In the last few days before the Fall Classic, I completely reworked my thought process around the meet. I redefined success for me in the meet from an outcome to the process: from a 300# deadlift to finding fun in the moment, staying calm and self-assured, and focusing on using the best form I could for each of the lifts. I developed a mantra to accompany my set-up, so I could keep my thoughts in check as I approached the bar and executed my lifts. Since the meet was just days away and I was supposed to be resting, I practiced my set-up with the mantra mentally, rather than physically. And slowly, I felt my body and mind shift. My heart stopped racing and my stomach stopped lurching when I thought about the meet. My jitters dissipated. I became more bearable … to myself anyway.

The morning of the meet, I felt surprisingly calm. A friend texted to send good wishes and my honest reply was that I had already won because I’d beaten my anxiety.  And truthfully, the whole day, I was calm and positive and had fun. My squat form was better than it had been previously in training; my press was solid, and my good deadlift form reappeared.  In my coach’s words, my deadlift was not bad considering I had “essentially stopped deadlifting for the last month”.

Warming up at USSF Nationals

After the meet, rather than hide in the comfort of the squat rack at Fivex3, I wanted to take an immersion therapy approach to my anxiety; to give myself more opportunities to face and manage what freaked me out until it no longer scared me.  My friend Craig had signed up for the USSF Nationals meet in California, and encouraged me to do so also.  I had a million reasons why that wouldn’t work: too expensive, too far away, a whole weekend away from my family, too selfish, can’t sleep in strange places.  I listed all these reasons to my husband, and then finished with a quiet “but I still really want to do it.”  Incredibly, his response was “I know.  Let’s figure out how we can make it happen.”  Those two sentences changed everything.  Instead of feeling like I was stealing family time for a selfish endeavor, instead of feeling like I needed to “have something to show for myself” after taking time from them, I realized my family was giving me a gift: the opportunity and the support to chase after something meaningful to me.  The only proper response in that situation is gratitude, and grounding oneself in gratitude alters everything.  My training became joyful and positive again.  I continued with what was working for me: focusing on the process and what I could control and letting the outcome take care of itself, including an affirmative mantra in my set-up, talking about the positives in my training and not wasting words or energy on the rest, encouraging other people, and keeping a balanced perspective.

We cobbled together frequent flyer miles and points and favors to plan a family trip to Lake Tahoe, where my husband and kids could ski with my cousins while I competed in the meet.  Nothing about the circumstances allowed me to forget how fortunate, how blessed, I was to have that opportunity.  Gratitude wholly and completely overwhelmed my emotional landscape in the days leading up to the meet; there was no room for anxiety or nerves.  On the day of the meet, I had a blast.  I met some incredible people; I mastered my anxiety; I had tons of fun, and I lifetime PRd on all three lifts.  I even came home with two medals.  And the icing on the cake, although it didn’t meet competition standards (my grip slipped on the reset), was that my third attempt deadlift was 137 kilograms (302#)!

3rd Attempt DL

Stone to Shoulder

“It’s really not that hard, you know,” Craig said with a half smile.  “Any three year old can figure out how to get a basketball from their lap onto their shoulder.  You’re overthinking this.”

I stared at him and sighed; I knew he was right.  No one was asking me to do anything outside of the realm of possible for me.  I’d been working consistently for over a year at getting stronger.  Diego, Amie, and Craig had all coached me on technique, and Amie had already demonstrated several consecutive stone to shoulder lifts.  I had practiced the lift with a sandbag and a lighter stone.  My technique was adequate, although much in need of refining.  The issue was not physical strength; the issue was the garbage in my head.

I know I have a tendency to overthink things, and that often I psyche myself out in the process.  And I know that I probably wear thin the patience of a few people around me; Diego, with his straightforward approach and “add more weight” solution for most things, didn’t argue one bit when Craig and Amie took over the job of teaching me the lift.  I know that sometimes I am my own worst enemy and that there is truth in the statement, “whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”  And I knew that what Craig had just done was offered me a new way to envision something that frankly kinda scared the crap out of me.

Photo courtesy of Craig Campbell. This photo is of his son playing with atlas stones – and genuinely having fun doing so.

So I grimaced, half rolled my eyes, and said “Uggg!  Fine!  I’ll do it.”  As I stepped up to straddle the atlas stone, I tried to implement the tools Craig had given me to change the imagery in my head.  I tried to see the 95# rough concrete stone beneath me as a smooth, light basketball.  I tried to imagine that I was a kid and that this was fun.  It probably wasn’t pretty, but I shouldered it, returned it to the ground, and Diego called out “again” and then a second time “again”.

Later, lavish as ever in his praise, Diego said, “That wasn’t too bad.  You went from being afraid to shouldering that stone for a triple.”  And really, that was the biggest gain that happened for me that morning; I chipped away at a little bit of my own self-doubt, a weight I shoulder quite often without even noticing.  This is the importance of having a tribe who can help you see a little more clearly what’s worth shouldering and what’s not.