Timidity Under The Bar

I’ve got a confession to make. It’s going to become a theme as the week rolls on, I suspect. No, I haven’t been lying to you or anything. Nothing of the sort. But there are things I did a pretty good job of lying to myself about. Especially when it comes to strength training.

You see, despite weeks doing nothing but barbell training, I’m still a little timid under a bar.

To understand why, I need to take you way back. The year, I believe, was 1989. I was 16-years-old and had just gotten the go-ahead from my folks to start lifting weights at the school’s weight room. It was open to all students, but it was really a football thing. I wasn’t on the team, but we were a small school so I knew everyone.

I was the small, kind of geeky kid in school, so I’m sure there were some thoughts about what the hell I was doing there when I showed up. I kind of recognized that I had stepped into the lion’s mouth, so to speak. Most of the guys who I saw as tormentors were in that room, and they were going to see just how weak I was.

Well, it seems someone thought it would be hilarious to pressure me into trying to bench my bodyweight my first time in the weight room. Now, at the time that was just 135 lbs, but when you’re arms are about as strong as overcooked spaghetti, that’s plenty.

My first attempt went about as well as you would expect. It was lifted off of me and I felt stupid. However, I didn’t want to be beaten, either. That’s probably how I was talked into trying it again.

Now, you need to understand something about that time. I knew nothing of how to bench. This was the years before YouTube or Amazon, so it was difficult finding information. Knowledge was often passed by other people in the weight room and contained about as much BS as your average load of natural fertilizer.

One thing I didn’t know anything about was form, and I had my arms running right next to my body. No arms at anything approaching an angle, and I had my grip about right for a close-grip bench press, but not an actual bench.

All of this contributed to what happened next.

The weight was lifted off the rack and moved over my chest…only to see my arms lose the ability to hold the weight right at the elbow joint. The weight crashed down on my face.

Yes, really.

A friend in the room commented afterward that the bar bounced high enough that if I’d have locked out my arms, it would have counted as a valid rep. Frankly, I believe him.

Well, I tried to deal with the bleeding that ensued–because of course there was bleeding–and when my father came to pick me up, I soon found myself in the emergency room getting stitches.

To my credit, I was back in the weight room the very next day. I’m proud of that. What I’m less proud of is how that moment impacted my lifting for decades to come.

You see, while I hit the barbells after that, I soon found myself drawn more toward dumbbells. I rationalized it by pointing out how a weaker limb had to work on its own and how your strong side couldn’t compensate. I would tell people about the increased range of motion and all kinds of other things.

Oh, those things are all true, but that wasn’t really why I did it.

No, I used dumbbells because there wasn’t much chance of them falling on my face. Plain and simple.

After more than 10 weeks of doing nothing but barbell exercises, I can tell you definitively that there was fear behind that motivation. How can I tell? Because I still fear it.

When I started lifting again and had worked my way up to 135 lbs on my bench, I felt it. I felt fear, anxiety, whatever you want to call it. I tried to psyche myself up for the lift all day. I only put the iron plates on the bar that reminded me of the plates back in high school. I wanted to make it a ritual.

And then failed the lift.

I couldn’t do my three sets of five. I just couldn’t.

To say I was crushed was an understatement. It was time. It was the next lift. What happened?

Well, there were other things that kind of threw me off my game. My earbuds lost their charge right before my first working set was a big one, but there were others I can’t even remember now.

Later that week, I got to give it another shot, and I owned it. I walked around the bench between sets, talking smack to the inanimate bar, telling it how it was now my bitch. I probably looked like a crazy man, but it was important. I had to do it.

When I walked out of that gym that day, I felt like a god. I felt like the strongest mofo in the world, all over a measly 135 lbs bench. For me, though, it was a major step. I’d slain the dragon, in a way. It was my own personal demon, and I beat it.

For then.

In Starting Strength, you occasionally have to do something called a reset. Basically, you just deload all your lifts and work back up again. When I hit that moment, it set me back below that 135 lbs bench. It meant I had to do it all over again.

Which I did.

This time, there was no celebrating. There was no feeling of elation when I finished, but there was a small bit of satisfaction because I’d made the lift. Oh, and there had been a glimmer of anxiety.

It seems that I still feel that fear, that timidity under the bar.

There’s a difference, though. You see, I’ve come to understand something about me. For all my drive and ambition, something that I consider good qualities, I also know that I will take the path of least resistance.

In this case, I’d lift, but I’d lift in a way that held no fear for me.

For a lot of people, they would read this and think, “So what?”

It’s a fair question.

The problem is, that has often led me to make decisions that may or may not have made the most sense for my training. I started making my own dumbbell-heavy programs while in high school, often based around whatever the hot bodybuilder program was in that month’s Flex.

I never made any gains and, eventually, stopped lifting.

Then I got married and cash seemed to always be tight. There was no money for gym memberships and my own home gym setup consisted of standard vinyl weights loaded with concrete and sand and a cheap bench that wasn’t conducive to squatting, though it could do leg curls and leg extensions just fine. Unfortunately, the weight wasn’t all that great.

Even when I did have a gym membership, though, I found myself being timid. I wouldn’t lift heavy. After all, I’ve bounced heavy weight off my face once, thankyouverymuch.

Today, I’m waiting on a shipment of weight plates. They’ll all go on my barbell. An Olympic one where I’ll be able to do some real lifting here at home.

Am I telling you that I’m not afraid? Hardly.

I’m not scared to death or anything, but there’s fear. What’s different this time is that I’m trying to embrace and push through the fear. Like benching that measly 135 lbs, I’m going to make this mine. I’m going to own this.

Oh, I’m going to feel pain because of that barbell, but it’ll be pain on my terms, not its. I’m going to use this pain to remind me of what all I’ve dealt with and pushed through, of what all I’ve accomplished and conquered.

Yes, it will also remind me of my failures. I don’t need the help, but it’ll do it anyway and that’s alright. Failures help shape you far more than your successes, in my opinion.

I’ll probably feel a little timidity every time I get under a bar to bench, but that’s alright. The victory isn’t the moment I feel no fear. The victor is when I feel that fear and do it anyway.

It’s what has to be done. Nothing more, nothing less.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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