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The Bottom the Squat.... Revisited

On August 30, 2021 I wrote an article titled The BOTTOM of the SQUAT: Pushing Through the FEAR. It was written as exclusive content for the members of our Discord server The Man-Cave, posted on a channel called "daily-inspiration". If you're an existing client, you've probably already read it. If not, here's an excerpt that conveys the general message:

Today I'm thinking about two things: SUCCESS and FAILURE. I'm also thinking about how one necessarily leads to the other. Notice that in this context, I've listed them backwards. First success, then failure. This is inaccurate, yet that's exactly what guys tend to do when they set out on a mission to achieve a difficult goal. They say, "I'm gonna go out there and SUCCEED, and try not to FAIL." But realistically, we don't aim for success while trying to avoid failure. On the contrary, we embrace failure with the understanding that it eventually offers us success as a by-product of the process. And what's more, it's the process itself -- the proverbial GRIND -- that teaches us the most valuable lessons.... not only about the discipline we're practicing, but about the limitlessness of our own potential. Rather than expecting success while fearing failure, we should instead be seeking failure with the understanding that through our own persistence, success is literally inevitable.

Later in the article I use the back squat as a very accessible model for the experience of trying to succeed, but having to face your own physical and mental weakness at the most difficult point in the process. It's a well-written article, absolutely qualifies as inspirational content, and I refer to it often when onboarding new clients struggling to push through sticking points on their path to self-betterment. But today, something happened that has me rethinking the article.

To tell this story properly, I have to roll back to a session I had last Thursday with a guy we'll call "Nashville Pete". (Fun fact, I have two clients named Pete just outside Nashville... both great guys.) But anyway, Pete is a go-getter to say the least. At some point in his life he made a decision to embrace powerlifting, lost a ton of fat, gained a ton of muscle, and (without putting his whole life's story out there) let's just say Pete developed friendships with some legendary Hollywood actors notorious for their body-building prowess. Even now in his late 40's, dude is a beast. He picks up heavy shit, puts it back down, rinse & repeat.

So we're in session, got to talking about exercise and diet, and somehow it came up that he's barrel-chested. I'm also barrel-chested (meaning I have a rib cage that protrudes), so I said "show me". He did a profile, then for an encore flexed to show me he's got guns. Now I lifted heavy for years, was a total gym rat, packed on some significant muscle, and gained enough strength to put myself on the leaderboard in a gym full of lunks on the competitive powerlifting circuit. So when dude flexed, I felt something competitive in me say "you need to get back to training."

As if this weren't bad enough, Pete -- who works in the field of sports nutrition -- called me out for using resistance bands and calisthenics exclusively, and abandoning good old fashioned strength training. He even went so far as to say, "Come on Dennis, I know what I pay you for a year, and I know how many clients you've got [spoiler: it's a freaking lot]. I know you can afford some gym equipment dude. Come on, maaaan."

Now in Man-UP! Life Coaching, meaning in our closed community, the joke is that our avatar for the modern man tries to thread the needle between no-nonsense pragmatists like Andrew Tate, Jordan Peterson, and David Goggins on the far right, and more esoteric philosopher/spiritualist types on the far left, such as Eckhart Tolle, Russell Brand, and Tom Campbell.... to name a few. As a coach, I always like to imagine that I'm more on the spiritual side than the dude-brah side -- more of a Captain Picard than a Captain Kirk -- but man when Pete called me out for letting strength training get away from me, my inner William Shatner jumped out ready to throw down, phaser rifle in hand, with no Spock around to talk sense into me.

But this is a culture by and for men. If I'm going to hold guys to a standard, I have to be willing to hold myself to the same standard. Does this mean that I think all of my guys should be knuckle-dragging troglodytes? Like, is that the pinnacle of "personal success" in this culture. No way. But one of my role models for no-bullshit masculinity -- the legendary strength training coach Mark Rippetoe, father of The Texas Method -- has made it his mission to educate men of a certain age that strength training can be critical to both vitality and longevity.... and I agree with his thinking.

I learned the value of strength training in my mid-30's, I got strong AF by my mid-40's, and now at 52 I've kinda let it fall to the wayside, even though I know better. Yes, running a business and managing a family is definitely a reasonable excuse for not training, but really.... it's an excuse at the end of the day. Sure, I could pull a Tom Brady and argue that bands are better for your joints, etc. Similarly, I could reference Peter Attia's Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity [great book], and make a case for trying to live longest rather than being the strongest.... or whatever. But man, in my heart of hearts, I'm a dude who admires physically strong men and enjoys being one. That's my truth.

And so this interaction with my client haunted me all Thursday. Friday, same deal. By Friday night I'm out in my garage trying to visualize how I might set up a bench and some stands without asking my partner to permanently park her car out in the desert sun. Actually I floated it by her, and to her credit she said she'd do it if it were really important to me, but noted that it wasn't her preference. She went to bed, and I stayed up all night Googling gyms in my area. It's kinda slim pickings around here, but I found one that could work.

Saturday I drove there and had a chat with Emilie, a very personable young woman from the Bay Area whose infectious Cali-girl vibes kinda closed the deal. And today (Sunday) I had my first real workout in a LONG time. And here's where we roll back to the title of this piece: The Bottom of the Squat.

Today I brought my gym bag into a new gym. Today I warmed up on a treadmill, casually observing the gym's clientele in a effort to get a sense of the culture, and to see how many people are there to really lift rather than use machines. And today I did some squat sets that absolutely humbled me. I won't lie, it broke my heart to see the strength I've lost. And of course, I just happened to be in a squat rack next to two guys in their mid 30's to early 40's -- probably military, both jacked and know it -- and there I was struggling with a weight I used to rep like it was the bar..... and I mean struggling.

They tell you to leave your ego at the door. I know this. We all know it. But dammit man. That sucked. I knew it was going to, but didn't realize how badly. It's like an Olympic runner having to learn how to walk again after a car accident. The feeling of loss was just incredible.

However, true to the premise of my original article, I have to remember that I'm not there to lift a certain amount of weight. I'm there to train, and that means training to the point of failure. It means being of out of my comfort zone. And it means accepting that while I've achieved a respectable level of status as a leader of men and a coach for the ages within certain circles, in my local gym nobody cares. I'm just some 52-year-old dude in the squat rack who's either using good form or he isn't, and who's either hitting the lift or not. And as I said in my previous article, and as I'll reiterate here (only more as a reminder for myself than a holier-than-thou high note of wisdom to ride out on):

Whether or not you hit the lift is really inconsequential. Either way, the fight is where you develop strength. Again: the FIGHT is where you develop strength.

So yeah man. I'm back in the gym. And it sucks..... lol. But also, it's a good idea, and I'm hoping to stick with it and make incremental gains, one day at a time. Let's see how the fight goes.


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