When one of the athletes I’m training insists on using poor form to complete a movement, I ask him or her, “What are you practicing?”
The excuses are plentiful:
- “I’m not getting a hard enough workout if I practice double unders, so I switched to single unders.”
- “I’m not good at fully extending my hips in the Olympic lifts, so I don’t.”
- “But if I round just a little I can deadlift an extra ten pounds!”
Strength is not a democracy. You don’t get to bargain your way into health. In the pursuit of strength, you only have two options:
- Strength as a skill.
- Pain as a skill.
If you practice badly, pain will find you. Not in pain yet? Keep doing what you’re doing badly. It’s not if, but when pain will happen. If you do things right, and patiently, you will get stronger. You will feel better and move well. And you won’t be in pain.
There are no other options. I did it all wrong for just over three decades. But StrongFirst set me straight with one of their central tenets: strength is a skill.
My Previous Reality: Training Always Hurts
In eighth grade, I was nearing six feet tall and 190lbs, on my way to six and a half feet and 260 by the time I topped out in high school. But my mind did not fit my frame. I was quiet and shy, not at all aggressive. I like to read and take things apart. I wrote poetry, rode my bike, and generally kept to myself. But due to my size, I received a lot of pressure to play sports. Football, basketball, and track mainly. I had some fun with the people I met in these activities, but I was never exceptional. I was barely average.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be strong. I did. Everyone does, in some vague way. We want it, but we don’t plan for it — much less work for it. Despite my size, I did not pursue strength. Because the most enduring thing I got from all that training I’d done was one simple reality: it hurt. All of it.
For thirty years, I can’t recall enjoying a single rep of resistance training. After high school sports, I tried many things. Nautilus machines in isolation. Every variation of elliptical. Heavy-and-hard free weights. Jogging.
Painful Training and the Precipice of Burnout
As a former fat kid, I was never going to stop exercising entirely. But my usual pattern was to fall in love with some form of training that hurt less than usual, then do it until that training started to hurt too much, too. I biked like crazy until my back stayed sore all the time. I ran until my knees, feet, and hips were creaky, inflamed, and giving out on me.
Then I fell in love with CrossFit, thinking I’d found the magic bullet in such varied training. And yet, despite my focus on doing things well and right, I always had this terrifying feeling I was right on the edge of a precipice.
“No pain, no gain,” the “inspirational” memes and t-shirts say. And when I told people I hurt, the response was always something akin to, “You think it’s bad now — just wait until you’re forty!”
I did not want to be the kind of person who gave up and started thinking like that. That determination drove me to leave my former career and become a trainer at age thirty. It was the best career move I’ve ever made. Yet four years in, I was on the verge of burning out. I haven’t told anybody this before, but the StrongFirst Level I was supposed to be my last certification.
I was filled with self-doubt. Tired. Sick of pain and discomfort and all the little nagging aches that come with training regularly for years. I was debating going back to a day job. But I’d already paid for this StrongFirst thing in Atlanta. Might as well go.
A Life-Changing Eye-Opener from StrongFirst
I am not exceptional when it comes to CrossFit. But, for a CrossFitter, I like to think I am exceptional when it comes to attention to detail and form. So I may have been over-confident going into the SFG Level I. Get-ups in particular are one of my favorite movements. So when we started discussing those, I’m pretty sure I smirked. Until we started.
I did a get-up and got back to the bottom to discover four or five faces looking down at me. Disapprovingly. Several of the nearby coaches had come over during the course of my first get-up to discuss how badly I’d performed the movement. My poor ego lay in tatters at their feet by the time they were done with me.
That wasn’t the only blow to my ego that weekend. When they described the Beast Tamer Challenge with a line of candidates nearby, I looked at Jody Beasley and my thinking went something like, “He looks fit enough, but he’s also kind of a slim guy. I wonder if he’ll actually be able to… oh, wait, he’s done already.” He made it look easy. And just because I am bigger and have more hair didn’t mean a thing. That guy’s stronger than me.
There is competitiveness with a StrongFirst mindset, but it’s within the shared boundaries of quality. This is what I’d been searching for: the challenge of precision. Not mere physicality. Strength as a skill.
Suddenly, I was there. I was back. All the way back to when I first fell in love with lifting and also later, when I fell in love with coaching. I was falling in love with StrongFirst. By the time my Team Leader, Delaine Ross, started to tell everyone how finding StrongFirst was exactly like her discovering her field full of bee people (ask her sometime), I’d come to understand, too. This was my tribe. These were my people.
All this time I’d been hurting from strength training wasn’t because I wasn’t physically capable. But I’d been treating strength all wrong. I’d treated it like a commodity, a product you purchased with pain. StrongFirst made me see it with new eyes. Strength as a skill. Something you practice deliberately and for your whole life, like art.
StrongFirst Empowers on Many Levels
Something else stuck with me that weekend, too. I had never in my life been among people who so strongly advocated for those in attendance to start their own businesses. One of my new friends from that weekend, Jason Borden, asked a question about pursuing his own thing and was all but shook by the shoulders with enthusiasm to go off and start his own business. And you know what? He did. PJ Olsen, another attendee that weekend, started pushing her business, Music City Kettlebell. It was all so cool to see.
On the drive home at the end of the weekend, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I had to do my own thing. I’d been on the verge of departing the industry, and suddenly as a newly minted SFG, here I was thinking of taking a bigger dive into fitness than I ever had. And the reason why would become my own personal motto: strength is liberating. That also became the slogan of my new business, Structure Strength and Conditioning.
The Real Strength of StrongFirst
In the months since my initial StrongFirst experience, I have completely overhauled my training. I’m enjoying not just every workout, but every rep. My swings and snatches have tightened up. Pull-ups, a movement I used to make excuses over all the time (“I weigh about 235 — not really built for pull-ups”), have become a pleasure and have improved into a controlled, deliberate, and strong movement.
Best of all, no more pain. I love it all.
Unless you are practicing strength as a skill, then you’re actually practicing pain as a skill. It’s possible to get fit and be in pain, but gaining strength at the expense of quality and stability is exchanging one prison for another. Instead, your pursuit should be total perfection of movement.
That SFG Level I Certification weekend made me strong. It taught me to move slowly, deliberately, and with purpose. Now, one of the first things I tell each new client is that strength is a skill. So treat it like any other skill: with patience and practice. Reaching your goals doesn’t have to hurt.
Oh, and one more thing: a considerable portion of my training has now been focused on attaining the Beast Tamer. I’m comin’ for you, Jody.