“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”
For as long as I can remember I have liked strength.
Growing up in a working-class suburb of Sydney I always admired the strong men of rugby league. Noel Cleal, Eric Grothe, Paul Sironen, Ray Price. These are the men I wanted to be like on a Sunday afternoon when my family sat around the TV to watch the match of the round. I don’t know why, I just liked these guys. They weren’t the flashiest players, and none of my friends particularly liked them.
Most boys loved the try-scoring hero or the speedy winger and pretended to be them when we scrimmaged in the park. Not me. I was different. I wanted to be the Clydesdale that got work done when times were toughest. I wanted to be the robust, dependable one that did the hard yards time after time after time.
It was to my chagrin that when we moved to West Australia, we were introduced to a game called Aussie Rules. It was one step up from soccer at best. I was initially reticent until I witnessed the feats of Bruce Doull and David Rhys Jones. There were strong men in the VFL too.
God had planted a seed in my heart, and it needed watering.
My Dad must have seen this when he bought me my first set of weights at the age of 15. Until then, I had relied on lengths of pipe driven into lumps of cement, a cast iron anvil, a small sledgehammer, and chopping wood. I enjoyed ball sports, swimming and riding bikes like other kids, but nothing thrilled me quite the way that lifting weights did.
Every time I went to the garage I was filled with the question: “Am I able?”. I wondered if I could lift the big plates. At first, no, but with time, yes. This fuelled me for twenty-five years. The same question continues to fuel me. Do I have it in me?
I went to gritty gyms and shiny health clubs, but the question was always the same. At first, I chose gyms with shiny machines, mirrors, and brightly lit rooms. Over time, I realised that most people did not think this way and that the environment wasn’t conducive to fostering the spirit with which I lifted.
Most people had goals or ambitions about winning a competition, getting in condition for another sport or losing weight for summer. Come to think of it, most of the people I met had purely aesthetic goals and being in the gym was equal parts punishment for poor behaviour and hope that their devotion would one day become discipline.
But not me. And not some people I met.
One day, I noticed that one guy would charge into the gym with fierce joy wrapped in calm patience and simply go about his work. We became fast friends and trained together for a few years at a tiny gym in a remote mining town called Wickham. It was here that I learned that we were Iron Warriors.
Iron Warriors are the ones that train year round – rain, hail or shine – for no apparent reason. Men and women who care not for the latest trend or the smartest workout clobber. No special machines required, just a barbell and enough plates each side to provoke the question, “Do I have it in me?”
A few times we even trained on Christmas Day as our families slept off lunch.
There was an inherent attraction to loading a bar as heavy as possible, as often as our bodies allowed, and lifting. There’s a monk-like discipline in the Iron Warrior. The Iron Warrior understands their limitations while pushing that boundary again and again. They know that there is no faking it, there is no “good effort”, nor is there “almost”.
The Iron Warrior knows no gender. The bar is egalitarian.
Squatting, deadlifting and bench pressing; these are binary. The Iron Warrior lifts it, or they don’t. Simple.
When asked why they lift, an Iron Warrior will more often than not shrug their bigger than average traps and answer in a non-plussed way, “Because”.
I lift because it is where I feel most alive. I know that at that moment it’s just Jesus and me.
There is a kind of comfort in the barbell. It’s reliable, trustworthy. After all, 300kg is always 300kg, any day of the week no matter how I am feeling.
The bar didn’t care if I had a bad day or a good day, whether I was tired or hungry or happy or feeling confident. Under the bar, I learned humility. You see, a heavy squat doesn’t build character, it reveals it. When the pressure is applied, and the only thing that matters is standing up under 350kg, you learn quick smart what is inside.
Sometimes I learned that I was stronger, braver and more resilient than I thought. Other times I discovered pride, conceit or a quitting attitude residing in my heart. Those days were hard to deal with at first, but I developed persistence, endurance, and humility as a result. When the pressure demanded a fierce inner strength, I discovered it was already alive in me.
It was then that I was impacted by Colossians 3:17:
“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”
If I was aware that Jesus, my ever present teacher, was watching every rep of every set, would I do it better? Yep. And I did.
Lifting took on a whole new dimension. It became an act of worship.
I’ve learned lessons under the bar that I couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
Sometimes the answer to “Do I have it in me?” was a firm ‘no”. Every “no”, though, became a “not yet”, and then a “could be”.
I liked that lifting became my discipline of simplicity. From there I was able to achieve remarkable things in the sport of powerlifting. The only way I ever found out if I was strong enough was to step up to that bar.
Training lead to competing. Competing lead to failing. Failing lead to winning. I’ve set many records and won numerous titles, but I’ve learned more about who I am from failing and going again than I have from winning.
Many of my colleagues or competitors are fuelled only by the desire to win, receive medals and nowadays, to get “likes” on social media. This saddens me. They miss out on the riches that life under the bar can produce.
All the while, I have tried to remain faithful to my Iron Warrior tribe. I mostly train alone on my back patio through the hottest summers and coldest winters. I don’t have much, but I thank God for what I do have.
Now and then, I train with the old men toiling away in the corner of an old gym to remind myself about what matters.
“Do I have it in me?”
Over the last few years, though, I’ve done this less and less. Without realising it, I am now one of the old Warriors that young Warriors seek.
When I ask my Heavenly Father “Do I have it me?”, the answer is always the same.