Sunday, September 7, 2014

How I Increased A Man's Bench by 55 Pounds in 7 Days--and why that matters

"This has got to go," I said, trading Katy Perry for Metallica at the stereo before loading on some plates. The music might be as important as the weight for this man, whom I had only spent an hour with prior, and way last week, so who knew? Motivation is not the same for everyone. But he had mentioned offhand his wish to bench 300 by a milestone birthday, which would occur on Sunday. This was Friday. I was planning to make it happen.

And I did. And I'm proud. But I'm a little embarrassed at how much so.

Some people I bragged to were impressed to the point of disbelief. 55 pounds? Yes, he hadn't ever lifted more than 245. He'd done it five times, but that doesn't necessarily equate to a higher 1RM. It'd be me who'd train those additional motor units to fire. Me who'd know which music to play and what to say.

And I did it. And some people don't care.

I noticed this morning that the pastor, like most, worked backward from his text, making meaning in reverse of Exodus's specific instructions on how to eat goat and what will happen to the firstborn. Here, I've got a similar but easier task: why was what happened worthwhile? How can I convince the uncaring to consider this feat important in the grand scheme of life?

The factors involved were these: a tall man whose muscle has come more from his job than the gym approached me for training. We met, and after hearing his routine and his wishes, I knew he needed to work on brute strength for a time. When 300 came up, I figured, Why not? I'd eventually work bench with him anyway. The mornings I woke up wondering why I was trying to do in a week what takes most trainers months, I told myself that this plan couldn't hurt.

(Insurance for the "couldn't hurt" portion of this plan included backup spotters. Anything over 255 I called in some troops and gave very specific instructions for them to STAY OUT OF MY WAY and DON'T MAKE YOURSELF KNOWN but help me and come near the bar ONLY IF I SAY SO.)

Because I wanted headspace for us both. Him, to prepare for a feat of strength, me, to prepare to help him achieve it. Though most videos of big men lifting include lots of preparatory yelling and chest beating, that doesn't work for everyone. And lots of people assume their role as spotter is to grab that bar at any sign of hesitation. But sensitivity and intuition will sometimes tell you otherwise.

I relied on both throughout this process, from hour 1, when I got him up to 255 with some well-placed advice, which was just as important as what I didn't say. You can't overload people with everything you're thinking, even if it's all reliably helpful. I'm getting old enough now to mostly know when to shut up. I made a suggestion, watched him incorporate it, saw him thrill at its success, saved my next tip for a later date.

We planned to meet again in a week. I prescribed a specific Tuesday workout and lots of rest and food. Eat, I said, then said it again.

The following Friday, he was ready but not well-rested, despite his best efforts. Life gets in the way of our plans, and I was willing to give up this one, but he wanted to try.

"If you think I can do it, I can do it," he said.

I've come to understand that when people trust me too much, they don't listen to what their bodies are trying to say. I'm viewed with the respect usually reserved for a doctor handing down a diagnosis, when really, I'm offering up an idea hoping they'll try it, give me feedback, and we can ditch it or pursue it together as necessary.

I thanked him for his confidence and reiterated what I say all the time to clients, which is this: Listen to your body. Don't be a hero. We began warming up at the bench.

255x3. 275x2. He was already benching 30 pounds above his heaviest weight, and a decision had to be made: go for 300 and possibly miss it, or risk hitting a lower set first that might steal the juice needed for the big one.

Motor units in mind, I decided on this: 285 for one. See how that went, then we can decide. In my thinking, it was just heavy enough to teach him what 300 will require, but wouldn't wear him out.

285x1. Easy. Get some water, massage the muscles. Have that other guy pull out his earbuds again and stand by. Let's do this.

300. He let out a low grunt when the weight settled in at the top. Midway, the bar started heading toward his neck. I guided it back without letting any weight settle, and up it went. 300.

"Happy Birthday," I said.

The steps that led to that moment, if I track them, would never line up with what you'd find in a book. I broke a lot of rules, but something told me it would all work out. Years of study and experience settled in and I knew what to say and do before, after, and in the moment, as well as what to have him work on without me. You'd think I was the one who benched 300, with all the credit I'm taking here. But in many ways, it was a team effort, and one that begged for closer inspection.

Strength is important in the upkeep of the human body, from youth on up. Beyond the physical necessity of maintaining muscle and fighting the natural atrophy process that comes with age, note the fascinating research (in my June posts) on the emotional protection and health a strong body provides.

Plus, it's just really cool that this guy can go around saying he benches 300. (315 is better, because it's a clean, impressive six-plate load, but there's always next week for that.)

The pastor concluded his sermon today by saying that the scripture was "not only meant to let Israel know who Yahweh is, but also to let the whole world know."

Do I need an apologetic of the bench? Not really. But this story teaches me to place a value not only on strength, but also on the intersection of education, experience and intuition. It's a powerful lesson.

He is not here

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