The Payoff

Your lifting career is like a relationship.

by Eric Dawson
Originally published at the Titan Barbell blog.

Recently I was talking to a couple of friends about how your relationship with lifting changes over time.  The conversation started because I mentioned how I wasn’t super excited to get started training that day.  You might assume that from that comment that I lost my love of training.  Nothing could be further from the truth; it’s just that my relationship with training/lifting has changed similar to how a relationship with a significant other changes over time.  The two people I was talking with each had a different amount of time they’ve spent training; one of them was a relative newbie, the other an intermediate (in terms of years lifting, not strength).  So that prompted me to write this article about my experiences with training/lifting over the years and how it can mirror a relationship. 

It should be noted that not every single point brought up is from my personal experience.  Some things I’ve brought in from talking with others, while others are observations of the people I’ve interacted with over the years.  I’ll go over my three stages of a relationship as it applies to training.  They are The Puppy Love Stage, The Power Struggle Stage, and the Bliss Stage. These are not based on how strong someone is or their techniques.  These categories have everything to do with the number of years trained.  There are plenty of people out there who are extremely strong and well conditioned who I would still classify as a beginner only due to the number of years they’ve been lifting.

The Puppy Love Stage:
Novice Lifters

 0-5 Years of Lifting/Training

  1. During the puppy love stage of the relationship you want to spend every minute together with the other person, just like you want to spend as much time in the gym lifting.  During this stage you might be thinking to yourself, how could anyone not just absolutely love being in the gym all of the time? 

  2. During this time you find out so much more about the other person and ultimately yourself, what they like, what you like, the things you have in common.  In the gym you figure out all of the things training can do for you (build muscle, self confidence, body composition changes, discipline, learning a craft). 

  3. You’ll also find yourself wanting to share your relationship with everyone; tell everyone about the new person you are with just like you want to tell everyone about how much fun you are having training and all of the results you are getting.

  4. Initially, you are pretty open minded about a lot of topics, or pretend you are so you don’t expose yourself too much.  In the beginning of training you haven’t formed a strong opinion about styles, methods, etc. yet because you really haven’t done any of them yet. 

  5. Another big thing a lot of beginners do is focus more on pushing constantly through pain or better judgment and always feeling that more is better, and it can be to a point.  But you will eventually learn that sometimes more is better and sometimes less is more.  You often do this at the expense of proper form and sound training principles.  Much like in a relationship you are so excited to be with that person that you overlook certain red flags because you have rose-colored glasses on. 

The Puppy Love phase contains many stumbling blocks, which is why a lot of people give up.  Making mistakes in the beginning helps us to become better lifters/people down the road.  Thomas Edison once said about the process of inventing the light bulb “I have not failed 10,000 times, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.  While I am certainly not advocating trying every stupid thing in the gym you can think of, don’t be afraid to try new things and see if they work for you no matter what anyone tells you. 

Coach Forti: a profound influence of positivity on Eric Dawson.

Coach Forti: a profound influence of positivity on Eric Dawson.

My journey started in June 1995 when I met Don Forti, a man who outside of my father and grandfathers would have the most profound impact on my life.  I was 14 years old when I met Coach Forti, I was going to start high school in a few months and wanted to play football.  As most people know, football training usually starts the summer before school with strength and conditioning workouts.  I had never lifted weights before this point so I was a little unsure what I was getting myself into.  Coach Forti stood about 5’4” and 170ish# of solid muscle with thick glasses and a tracksuit.  He was a competitive powerlifter in college and had maintained his strength well into his late forties. 

When I first met Coach Forti, I could instantly see his passion for lifting and how he genuinely wanted to pass on that love to everyone who was willing to learn.  We walked up to the weight room, which was approximately 800 square feet with equipment filling every inch.  Over the course of the next few weeks he taught me how to squat, bench press, deadlift, and power clean.  My first ever max for bench and squat were the same, 85#.  I still remember watching seniors bench press with one 45# plate on each side thinking one day I would love to be able to do that!  After the first day I was hooked, I knew I wanted to lift for the rest of my life.  Coach Forti always called it “getting bit by the iron bug”-- the insatiable desire to be stronger and to want to lift every waking moment. 

By the spring of my freshman year I had made it into the 1,000# club (bench, squat, deadlift, and power clean total) and yes, I am aware today that sounds extremely low.  But, I was the third youngest kid to have ever done that (the two other kids lifted while in middle school) at my school.  There were upperclassmen that hadn’t made it into the 1,000# club so it gave me a boost of confidence early on in my lifting career.  By the time sophomore year rolled around I was as strong as anyone in the school.  I loved lifting.  I didn’t miss a single workout (and wouldn’t in my entire high school lifting career) because I genuinely loved doing it. 

Eric's alma mater.

Eric's alma mater.

For the next two years my strength levels began to rise.  I set a few school records and going into the spring of my senior year I was going to max out and attempt to set the record in all four of the above-mentioned lifts.  I got into a bad car accident and had to be taken on flight for life.  The fallout from the accident was not being able to lift heavy for a while, a left knee injury, and most likely set off the longest, most frustrating injury in my back, which I am still dealing with from time to time now.  The first doctor I saw for my back put me in a molded hard plastic brace from just below my chest to just above my hips, because he thought the vertebrae hadn’t fully fused together.  That was a complete pain in the ass and didn’t help one bit.

I was recruited to play football at North Dakota State University.  When I came on campus in the fall of 1999 to see the team orthopedist he told me the brace wasn’t going to do anything and that my spine was fine.  They had me run through a battery of physical therapy style exercises for months to help strengthen up my abs and lower back.  This seemed to help and I was happy to be out of the brace but it still bothered me and I was frustrated I couldn’t lift/train with my teammates.  After about 9 months or so I was cleared to get back to lifting with a barbell, but lighter weight.  I didn’t care I just wanted to get back under a bar and lift.  I wanted that same feeling I had when I first started lifting four years earlier.  Let me tell you, you sure do appreciate your strength when you lose it and have to try and regain it.  I was back to lifting and even though it felt like I was starting over from square one I was still happy to be doing it.  I wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment I once had when I stepped into the weight room. 

The Power Struggle Stage:
Intermediate Lifters

6-15 years into lifting

This stage is honestly a huge make it or break it stage for a lot of people.  During this time you are figuring out if you want to stay together as a couple. Things about your partner that you overlooked before start to bother you. You had your first fight, doubt creeps in that this relationship won’t work just like the last one.  In the gym maybe you’ve considered why it is you are even doing this, you wonder why you put your body through all of this pain.  The aches and pains start to add up and you consider doing something else that won’t take a toll on your body the way training heavy does.   Maybe you try yoga, group classes, swimming, running, and you forget about lifting. 

Your progress starts to slow down and you’ve fallen into a bit of a rut and at times you aren’t sure how you will ever get out of it.  Maybe you’ve had to deal with an injury, possibly even a major one, and you consider whether you want to put the work in to get back to that point.  In the relationship maybe you’ve been hurt and you don’t know whether you want to try and stay to work it out or just walk away.  You no longer have that puppy love like you once did whether it’s for the other person or your eagerness to go to the gym to train.  Things become very monotonous and your routine you once loved is now something you dread.  You become more set in your ways of what people should be doing in the gym and what they shouldn’t be wasting their time on. 

It’s not all negative though; some times people just kind of lose their way.  Once you reach a certain point in your lifting career and you don’t have specific goals, you can become indifferent to it. 

Eric's first competition rebooted his love of lifting with a sense of purpose.

Eric's first competition rebooted his love of lifting with a sense of purpose.

That’s where signing up for something to compete in can really get a reboot to your training.  Having a specific purpose to your training can be the difference between stopping all together and reigniting the flame that you once had when you started.  I always suggest that my clients pick something to compete in; it doesn’t matter what it is (strongman, marathon, powerlifting, wanting to climb a mountain, etc.).   This will help you take your training more seriously.  Plus a bonus to competing in something is the confidence boost that can translate to other aspects of your life (that has definitely been the case for me).   

This stage can also be a time where you find a newer deeper love of training or your significant other.  Just like in a relationship you might realize how much you love someone.  You find yourself breaking into territories you never thought possible when you first starting training.  Because you have some experience you start to know for sure the things that work for you and the things that don’t.  Maybe you don’t get that same type of endorphin rush like you did in the beginning but you find more satisfaction in your accomplishments because you know all of the work that went into that five-pound personal best lift.  You start to bond with other lifters in that same group as you, you share your experiences and help to learn from and encourage each other during the good and the bad times.  Much like meeting another couple that has been together for a similar amount of time, you are also more open to truly listen to someone who might be critical about technique or methodology and use it as an opportunity to learn.   

During my own experiences during the Power Struggle Phase I found myself at a crossroads.  During my junior year I decided I didn’t want to play football anymore for various reasons.  Once there wasn’t a need for me to be strong for football anymore I decided to stop training for a few months, but was still eating as if I was a college athlete.  I had gained about 60# and had gotten grossly out of shape; like “bend over to tie your shoes and come up gasping for air” type of out of shape.  It was at that moment I made a decision that even though football was over for me I didn’t want to feel like that ever again.  So I went back to the basics, I lifted weights, I ran and did some conditioning and dropped about 50# and was feeling strong and in good shape again.  I self taught ropes and kettlebells because running was just a pain in the ass over 300# and I just didn’t enjoy it. 

And just like I tell my clients, I wanted my training to have a purpose, to work toward a specific goal rather than just feeling like a hamster on a wheel.  I was talking to a coworker of mine at the time about wanting to do something competitive again, and I mentioned how I always loved watching strongman as a kid but didn’t ever knew how and where to start.  He told me of a place called Total Performance Sports (TPS) in Everett, MA that had all of the equipment and could teach me how to do it.  I found out there was a contest coming up in August so my wife and I went to go watch to see if this is really something I wanted to do.  So the following spring (not sure why I waited so long), I started training for my first contest. 

I instantly fell in love with strongman and the passion I had for lifting was rejuvenated.  There was a whole new set of obstacles I needed to overcome, and I loved not being the strongest guy in the gym.  I just loved getting stronger, and needing to be stronger and in better shape to perform in the contest.  At the time I honestly didn’t know how far off I was from being ready to compete but my coach at the time encouraged me to sign up after about three months of strongman specific training.  At my first competition, I did well in some events, and poorly in others.  I ended up scratching the deadlift because during warm ups I tweaked my back and knew I was going to be in pain for the rest of the contest but if I scratched the deadlift I would at least be able to do the others albeit not at 100%.  I ended up finishing the contest and took fifth in a pretty stacked class.  I remember feeling positive about the experience because even with all of my flaws I was able to compete and not embarrass myself (aside from the fact I competed in the entire contest wearing Vibram Five Finger shoes, yes those silly looking toe shoes. 

A popular fad but an impractically bad idea.  

A popular fad but an impractically bad idea.  

I realized quickly afterward why that’s not a good idea as my feet had blistered and beat up).  

I took an entire year to build my strength up, and to continue to work on my back issues.  I knew if I wanted to compete and win a contest like that I was going to have to become a lot stronger and a lot more familiar with the events.  One thing some people fail to realize about Strongman is the level of technique that’s involved with each one of the events.  Yes being brutally strong is always going to be important but if your technique is dialed in and you are strong that’s a better combo. 

Winning was the result of what Eric learned, not the result of what Eric wanted.

Winning was the result of what Eric learned, not the result of what Eric wanted.

I competed in the same contest the following year and won it.  I honestly wasn’t sure how I would do.  There was another competitor there who was extremely strong and had more experience than me in the sport.  I didn’t let it get into my head too much though, I have always been able to perform at another level than I train/practice at.  I ended up winning four of the five events that day and winning the contest.  It was at that time I felt like I climbed another stair in the strongman world.  I did one or two more contests over the next year and talked with my coach about trying to compete at Nationals.  I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that level of competition or not.  Winning a local show is great but everyone competing in it had won a show or took second.  Competing at Nationals that year I took 20th in a tough field where I learned a lot about my true strengths and weaknesses.

  • I learned that a large outdoor contest like that in cold weather can effect you, like warming up for the log press and then almost a hour later actually getting to compete in that event. 
  • I learned I was able to hang with some of the top guys in the moving and loading events, but I needed to build my strength up on the static events. 
  • Again I learned what I needed to do to make it to the next level.

A chance to compete at the Arnold was one Eric couldn't pass up, even though he wasn't quite fully prepared.

I got an opportunity to compete at the Arnold Amateur World Championships about five months after Nationals and even though I didn’t feel like I was fully ready for another high level contest like that again without building up more of my strength.  However, I knew it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on.  I did the best I could and took 19th or 20th that year in a field of approximately 45 of the best heavy weight amateurs in the world.  That contest again confirmed all of my strengths and weaknesses and I was excited to work on bringing my weaknesses up so they didn’t cost me precious points in an big contest like that. 

Eric's continued focus on the next great challenge propels him forward.

Next I competed in the same local contest at TPS in the fall of 2012 and ended up winning every single event pretty easily, it felt like it was a fraction of how hard one of my training sessions at the time.  I knew at that moment I was stronger and ready to take another step in my strongman career.  I honestly didn’t know where I would end up at Nationals that year.  I had a goal of finishing in the top ten and felt like if I didn’t screw anything up it was possible.  At the end of day 1 I was in second place to Chad Wesley Smith, and we were relatively close in overall points.  We started day 2 with the car deadlift (one of my Achilles).  I was able to pull a few reps, but with Chad’s strength training background he repped the car out like it was nothing.  So there was a big gap between us points wise with two events to go.  I was able to make up ground in both of those events but not enough to win the contest.  He beat me by so many reps in the car deadlift that was the ultimate factor in me losing that contest. 

I didn’t come away from that contest with a negative mindset having lost, but rather a positive one because I knew I could contend with the best amateur strongman in the country.  I decided at that point I was only going to compete in contests where I could win my pro card.  Which up to that point wasn’t something I thought or even cared too much about. 

Balancing new fatherhood with a newborn and a toddler in the house made training a challenge – but not impossible.

Balancing new fatherhood with a newborn and a toddler in the house made training a challenge – but not impossible.

I spent the entire winter and spring training focusing on improving my weaknesses, while still training my strong events.  I had a new sense of focus for my training, winning my pro card.  It wasn’t easy though, that spring my wife gave birth to our second daughter so having a two year old and a newborn at home made it challenging. 

My sleep and eating schedules were way off, but I knew if I wanted to make a real push to win a big contest I had to stay focused.  I actually found training less at this point was the best thing for me.  Not only because of the time commitments but it allowed me to recover better from strenuous training sessions.  At a Platinum Plus event in May of 2013 in my first contest after nationals I turned pro. 

 Nothing really changed other than now I was only allowed to do professional level contests.  It was both a unique and familiar feeling all at once.  It was unique because I had never really thought about turning professional, much less what would happen if I did.  It was oddly familiar though because just like in football once you make it to the next level you are generally at the bottom of the new ladder.  It was an oddly comforting feeling, again knowing I wasn’t the strongest/best in my new categorization.  It gave me a new goal to work towards, and I knew at that moment I was going to have to be smarter about every aspect of my training, recovery, etc.  With all of that I knew I might still end up in the middle or bottom of the pack.   That’s what makes this Power Struggle Stage so frustrating and rewarding at the same time. 

The Bliss Stage:

16+ years of lifting

During this time you form a more deep intimate relationship with training and with your significant other.  The roots are that much deeper and therefore if for some reason the things were to end it would hurt a lot more.  You find this with some professional athletes who one day are done playing and they lose their sense of self, purpose, and drive because what defined them for so long is no longer there.  

For example, if you see someone who’s been competing in strongman or powerlifting for over fifteen years they are doing it because they absolutely love it; they may not always like every aspect of it but are in love with it.  I think if they didn’t, they wouldn’t put themselves through what it takes to be a great lifter.  When lifting in this stage you appreciate the feeling of hitting a heavy squat to good depth or you really start to appreciate every personal best you hit because you know they are harder and harder to come by. 

You’ve learned over time there’s more than one way to do things and you’ve learned to adapt your training to fit your needs/limitations/circumstances/etc., at that time.   There are going to be days you just simply don’t have a strong desire to train, but finding it in yourself to still do it when you don’t want to shows somewhere deep down you still love training. 

During this stage people will seek out your advice, and you can handle this in two different ways.  You can be the curmudgeonly old lifter at the gym who complains about people doing things wrong or you can provide some guidance to them, pass along the information you’ve learned over the years to help them avoid some of the mistakes you made.  During this stage you find yourself going back to the basics of how you got stronger.  It’s very similar to a healthy long-term relationship that’s built on the basics of love, trust, communication, etc.  You also never stop learning during this stage, you seek out the advice of other lifters your training age and realize no matter what your goals are there are a lot of similarities between your journeys (the things that work, the things that didn’t, the things you thought you knew, etc.). 

The Olympia StrongMan was it's own high point for Eric

The Olympia StrongMan was it's own high point for Eric

During the summer of 2013 I started to prepare for America’s Strongest Man at the Olympia in Las Vegas, NV.  I knew competing as a pro meant everything was going to be more challenging, the weights were going to be heavier, the competition was going to be a lot stronger and more experienced.  I still prepared for it with everything I had, and more than any other contest in the past that took a big chunk of something out of me.  I remember talking to my acupuncturist saying get your duck tape out because we are going to need everything to keep me together for this contest.  I think a big misconception out there is that the stronger you get the easier it becomes.  That’s not always the case, as you venture into uncharted territory sometimes the map you used to get where you are won’t get you where you want to go.  You need to be willing to try new things and be open to new ideas because while the foundation might not need to be torn down and rebuilt you might need to make some tweaks to make it stronger. 

I ended up placing eighth out of approximately fifteen competitors, and placed top three in three out of the seven events.  However, just like in the past my weaknesses had a big spotlight on them and caused me to lose big points.  Again I didn’t walk away from that experience discouraged, but rather with a new goal to focus on.  I had gotten a chance to compete against a fair number of the best strongmen in the country at the time.  I believe there were seven competitors there that competed at World’s Strongest Man at some point in their career including two-time winner Brian Shaw.   

Staying in a league of advanced lifters has helped Eric maintain motivation and progress.

Staying in a league of advanced lifters has helped Eric maintain motivation and progress.

 The following spring I traveled back to Las Vegas to compete in another contest.  This contest was another reminder of just how close things can be in a contest with a lot of strong and experienced competitors.  I ended up taking fifth on the farmers walk, normally one of my stronger events, by less than one second.  If that doesn’t drive home the importance of details in training and preparation I am not sure what will.   About a month later I had gotten a chance to compete in Uzbekistan in my first international competition.  I ended up placing second and had an unbelievable experience overall. 

Over the past year and a half I’ve had a few things temporarily derail me from competing (injuries, contests being cancelled, starting a business) but I’ve been focused again with a new sense of purpose to my training.  I found myself really missing competing, seeing where I stacked up against the competition, what I needed to work on, and honestly most of all having fun and having a purpose behind my training.  At the time of writing this I am preparing for my first contest in almost a year and a half and couldn’t be more excited to compete.  I think that’s why this stage is called the Bliss stage, because through all of the things it takes to prepare for a contest I still find joy in doing all of it.  I hope whoever reads this finds that same joy in whatever endeavor they choose to partake in.  Remember your story isn’t over until you are dead; you can always start the next chapter of your life any time you choose. 

Professional StrongMan Eric Dawson has become an incredible Resource for many Next Level athletes and alumni.  His remarkable little facility, Titan Barbell, emphasizes community spirit as the key ingredient to advancing hard work.  Positivity over pride is his mainstay, and this is how he has made progress to become one of the "officially" strongest human beings on the planet!