When I got to college, I had my first real taste of free weight training, big eating and big sleeping. As it turned out, our college gym was nothing more than an oversized closet, consisting of little more than 3 benches, 1 power rack, 2 leg press machines and a universal station. There were DB’s up to around 90lbs, but good luck finding an actual pairing. The place was a dump, but all that worked to my advantage because you couldn’t help but perform big, compound movements and pour in the effort. You would have thought that a group of guys in their late teens/early 20’s would have been the pinnacle of strength. But you would be wrong…
Because things there were so spartan (and the hours so restricted), several of us went looking for better options. And we found it – at a place called East Coast Gym. This place was a real gym, and not just because it was a fully equipped, free weight paradise. It was the clientele that made the place. It was here where I met one of the most influential men I’d ever come across – his name was Paul. Paul was no spring chicken – I’d say he was in his late 40’s, possibly 50’s. One day, he struck up a conversation with me about training. I was thirsty for this, and realized he had answers to many of my questions. Turned out he was so knowledgeable, I didn’t have to ask many.
Paul was a man of few words – he was a man of action. But he had a way of getting his point across, in a way that hit you between the eyes such that you couldn’t miss it. One day he asked how much time I had. I said all day. Then he dispensed this advice, “Just for one day, be the hardest training guy in this gym..”. This was no small feat, as this place was hardcore and there were plenty of guys who pushed themselves harder than I did. So I asked OK, how do I do that? He said, “Stay here awhile, the biggest and strongest guys will be here soon. Find the one you think trains the hardest, then pick the following day to meet me here and strive to double or triple it”.
I did precisely that, and had one of the most intense training sessions of my life – duplicating that man’s leg workout, then adding heavy back work. I threw up in the process, at which point Paul said “that’s good kid, just make sure not to throw up next time”. He had made his point. “You can’t always be the biggest or strongest guy in the gym, but you can work the hardest”. So while I couldn’t do that every day, I knew I could train harder. So I did, and it worked. I smashed the plateau I had been at for months, just learning that simple lesson.
Paul let that sink in for a few months, before dispensing his next piece of advice. “Training hard is good, but hard work just for the sake of hard work doesn’t cut it either. Guys who work construction work incredibly hard, but they don’t win powerlifting meets. Powerlifters do”. Paul knew a thing or two about that too, since he worked construction. Unlike so many of his co-workers though, he also regularly won powerlifting meets.
“So just for a day, I want you to train smarter than anyone else ”. It wasn’t hard to find the benchmark for this, Paul had things down to a mathematical science. I had seen his training log (which he brought everywhere), and he never went into the gym without knowing exactly what he had to accomplish. Paul looked at my plan and could tell right away – I put a lot of thought into this. How much thought? There wasn’t a single weight I used that was left to chance. It was very specific, at least insofar as being a % of my 1RM. The rep ranges and sets were the same. I didn’t do a single rep more than I had listed, and I never did less. I could account for every minute of that workout, the total tonnage lifted and the relative intensity, since I calculated the time it took from beginning to end. That taught me a couple of things, but the big one was this… Never train without putting some serious thought into that workout BEFORE you set foot in the gym. It’s been that way every day since…
I lost contact with Paul when I showed up to the gym one day, and the windows were soaped over. The place had closed, and from what little I could see they somehow took most of the weights with them. It had to be done in the middle of the night too, because I had trained there just the day before. That’s how a lot of gyms back then operated – cash only business, none of this 1 year contract signing etc.. So I never saw him again, except where his name appeared in Powerlifting USA periodically. It didn’t matter really, he had taught me the most important lesson.
You need to train hard AND smart, to actually realize your potential. As such, I hope some of you are inspired by this story, because there’s nothing stopping you from doing the same. The world is different today, there aren’t many Paul’s out there anymore. Someone who cared enough to teach someone who wanted to learn.
Thanks boss, wherever you are. I’ll never forget what you taught me.