Blood on the Barbell – A Decade On - Industrial Athletic

Blood on the Barbell – A Decade On

Blood on the Barbell: A Newbie’s Story


One of my favourite articles, and I almost cant believe its nearly a decade ago.  It is well worth a read, and more than that, its worth taking note of and changing your way if you haven’t already.

When I’m putting a client through a grueling high intensity interval session, nausea inducing circuits, and complexes or heavy low rep training, I sometimes think to myself, “Man, I wish I could have met me when I was starting out in strength training.”

I say that with no ego whatsoever, I’m not the greatest strength coach in the world, but in the seven years I’ve been studying and working in the industry, I’ve learnt a hell of a lot more than many people who try to give themselves the title of expert.

When I remember the first gym I joined and the instructors who worked there, I just shake my head. But hey, it wasn’t really their fault. The only information available to the average gym instructor in the early 90’s trickled down from the muscle mags; some of which I still have and flick through for a laugh from time to time

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Three sets of ten was the order of the day, along with high volume, single muscle split routines, lots of isolation moves, and machines, and if I wanted to get lean for the summer, I went for long runs on the treadmill.

But, as has been mentioned in a couple of the latest Testosterone articles as well as on the forums recently, sometimes it’s not about the workout. It’s about the attitude, the intensity, the sheer blood and guts determination. If you have those qualities and apply them to your training session, then the most poorly designed workout can yield fantastic results. I experienced this myself for the first time when I was 18 years old.

After six months at a commercial gym and making the usual newbie progress, I was forced to join a cheaper gym that was run out of a wrestling club.

Little did I know this was the best thing that could have happened to me. Back then I was still impressed by shiny machines and mirrors, and the first day I slid back the rusty old roller door and stepped into my new gym, my heart sank.

I was met by decrepit rusty barbells, no machines, and a heavy punching bag swinging in the middle of a small, windowless room.

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But there was also a guy with more hair on his back than a mountain gorilla, squatting 240kg ass to the grass for reps while wearing a pair of flip-flops. I’d never seen a human being move this kind of weight in my life and I was in awe. Maybe this gym had something to offer after all.

Over the next few months, I watched and copied everything I saw. Granted, the guys pedaling the stationary bike with 10 meters of Glad wrap around their stomachs didn’t have much to teach me…but they were working hard, so I copied that.

A few wrestlers who trained there would warm up by pummeling each other on the mats for 15 minutes, so I copied that. And of course, I started squatting in flip-flops.

I made more progress over a few months of training in that dungeon then I ever had in the past. But one workout in particular sticks in my mind, and to this day, it was still the hardest training session I’ve ever done. It wasn’t the smartest, but it taught me about intensity and how valuable that quality is.

It was on a day when I didn’t have a planned session, and was just standing idle in the gym, contemplating a few sets of arms or something equally useless.

Suddenly I heard the rumble of a very large motorcycle as it roared up right outside the door. Seconds after the engine shut off, the roller door slammed back and in walked Rowan.

Rowan was about 6′ 5” with a beard down to his waist, recently out of jail for reasons unknown, and built like a brick shit house. He removed his WW I German helmet – you know, the kind with the big spike on top – and barked “Who wants to train legs with me!” Everyone in the gym immediately cast their eyes to the floor and began to shuffle slowly away.

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But I was like a deer caught in the headlights, I couldn’t move from under the gaze of this guy, and before I knew it, I squeaked out “Sure, I’m in.”

“Great!” he said, “Let’s get into it! You go first.’ So we hit the leg press, 20 reps with what was about a 10RM weight. The 11th to the 20th rep required 2-3 oxygen-sucking breaths to complete.

As I crawled off the seat to let Rowan have his turn, he simply said, “You’re not finished,” and led me to the leg extension where I ground out another 20 reps. At the end I couldn’t lift the pad past the halfway point. As I looked up with pleading eyes, Rowan pointed at the squat rack.

I actually crawled the first few steps before gaining my feet. The bar only had a single plate on each side, but right then it looked as unconquerable as the 200kg I saw on my first day.

I wedged my self under the bar and began to squat. It was taking me 5 breaths per rep, but Rowan was relentless. “Keep going!” he shouted and I did until I ground out another 20 reps.

Was I done? Not quite. Quickly, Rowan stripped the plates off and said quietly, “20 with the bar to finish.”

Well that was the heaviest Olympic bar I’ve ever stood under. I’m not ashamed to say that I screamed like a girl on every single rep. But I did it. And when I was done I racked the bar and laid on the ground for about 2 minutes before hobbling up the ramp to the door.

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I stepped out into the cool night air, took a deep breath, and vomited uncontrollably next to Rowan’s Harley Davidson.

Eventually I was able to get myself under control and support Rowan through his workout. I felt ashamed of my effort as I watched him take things to the next level with his focus and drive. Afterwards when he shook my hand and complemented me on a good workout, I still hadn’t regained the ability to speak, so I just nodded.

I never got the chance to work out with Rowan again. In fact I never saw him again, so maybe he went back to jail, but the guy taught me more about work ethic than anyone or anything ever had. It was obviously not the most scientifically designed workout, but that didn’t matter. It was about the intensity and working hard next to someone more advanced than me.

As I write this article and reminisce, I’m thinking about a couple of young guys that I’ve seen training a little half-heartedly at the gym. Maybe it’s time to go ask them if they want to train legs.


Credits to Darren Ellis, Owner and Head Coach at CrossFit New Zealand (among many other things – too many to mention) and T-Nation