There is a moment before an action is taken– a moment of decision.
I know this moment best right before I step under a heavy barbell for a set of squats. The first few warm-up sets fly by no problem. Then I hit a point where it gets hard– where I know I need to shift up a gear to get through it.
Squats are an inherently miserable exercise, even if you claim you like them. There is a cold steel bar draped across your upper back and neck. All of the largest muscles in your body must work concurrently, to full capacity, while your lungs desperately try to suck air.
I have injured my back numerous times in the past squatting. I have pulled hamstrings and glutes. I have burst blood vessels. I have given myself a black eye from the sheer pressure of the breathing. I even inexplicably bled from my throat during a heavy squat session once. Hopefully it was just a shaving cut that got pressurized mid rep. Lest my head was literally ripping off of my neck from exertion.
And yet I return to the bar. And I stare at it, because I know what it’s going to feel like.
Every time the plates pile on, there is a moment when the gym gets warmer, when the world slows, time oozes by, and scenes of wooziness and future pain play through my mind in slow motion.
And there is a decision to make: put the bar on your back, or strip the weight and call it a session. The leg press looks so much more inviting. On the leg press, I can lie down, and there’s a nice cushy pad. Plus it looks quite impressive to carry a stacked platform up and down those oiled hydraulics.
But rarely on the leg press is there that moment– that moment of hesitation, fear, pride, rage, destiny– that moment of decision that I get while squatting.
When the bar reaches the 400lbs mark, I have to talk myself into getting under it. I say it out loud to myself– “Let’s GO, here we GO, NOW!” I put on my belt and my wraps and I take my grip on the cold metal. And I look myself in the eye in the mirror.
And there is the moment. Everything comes to the surface. The pain from every joint and every tendon in my body erupts, and begs “Don’t do it!” The exhaustion in my muscles comes rushing to the surface and rationalizes, “Your legs are your best body part– you don’t need to go through this torture!” The aching of my back from the heavy bar nags me, “There’s no need to keep punishing yourself like this!”
The moment feels like an eternity.
There have been many times when I have walked away from that moment. There have been times when I have paced the gym for ten minutes trying to talk myself into doing a set that I know might be a little too ambitious. I can’t begin to count the nights I have gone to sleep with anxiety, knowing that tomorrow morning a heavy squat session awaited me, and it was going to hurt and might even make me sick.
But there have been many MORE times when I have decided NOT to walk away from that bar. There have been many MORE times when I have thrown it across my back, gritted my teeth, filled my body with air and fought with every fiber of my being not to get crushed. And I have succeeded.
In those moments, I decide who I am. I decide how I am going to spend this life.
The true effort is not in the pushing, the straining or the grunting. The true test is not to see how much iron you can hoist or how many reps you can crank out before your body fails. The real test is in that moment, when you decide that you’re going to put it on your back, despite the fact that it’s hard, perhaps because it’s hard. The real test is in that moment, when you decide to prove what you’re made of. The real test is in that moment, when you decide to learn whether it’s your desire for success, or your fear of failure, that compels you.
“Look, if you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted, in one moment, would you capture it, or just let it slip?”
This morning, I went in to train legs. Although the spirit was eager, my body wasn’t feeling one hundred percent. After a few warmup sets, I was ready for the real work– 405 x 10. Felt queasy afterwards. Went up– 495 x 8. Now I was lying on the floor in a pool of sweat, choking back my breakfast. My training partner loves me dearly– “I think you need to go up”. Fine. Load 545 on the bar.
And I stood there, and I looked at myself in the mirror. I tried to see what was behind my eyes. I tried to see if there was fire, or brimstone, or magic. I tried to see what would push me past this moment.
All I saw was me.
“Let’s GO, NOW!” I got 545 x 4, new personal record. I racked it, and laid down on the floor, coughing. I was done. I was sick, and unable to finish my leg work.
I was proud– a new record– but I was angry. The flesh was weak this morning. But that’s temporary. I was invited by my coach to come train legs tomorrow. I will be there, completing what I couldn’t complete today. Facing that moment again.
-David A. Johnston