Strong Like You

Posted by on Sep 3, 2015 in Articles | 211 comments


Many interesting things happen when you begin training with a barbell.  The very first time you push up against the steel to take the bar out of the rack a series of events at the cellular level are kick started and the body is never again the same.  Like a shock wave from a blast, these events cannot be stopped.  The body is forced to adapt, and adapting is what it does best. As the body stands with the loaded bar on the shoulders, force is sent from the feet through the bones of the foot, across the ankle joint, up the lower leg, through the knee joint, up the femurs, into the pelvis, up the structures of the spine and distributed across the shoulders where it meets the bar.  This wave of force causes changes in nearly every system it encounters as it travels through your body.  Like it or not, the body must make changes to accommodate this increased force.  It’s a potent medicine for change, that which modern medicine cannot duplicate.

The skeletal, muscular, nervous, respiratory, cardiovascular, and the endocrine system all begin positive changes to help make us stronger, more resilient, and harder to kill the moment we begin barbell training. And the changes are dramatic. But it is not done there.  While the body is a collection of systems these systems are intertwined and knit us together as a whole system.  Each influencing the others.  The nervous system sends signals to the muscles.  The muscular system pulls the bones about their joints forming a series of moving levers.  The harder they pull the more they must adapt, becoming stronger and stronger as they are forced to handle more force as the muscles become stronger.  Tendons at the musculoskeletal junctions become thicker and stronger.  Tissue modeling is happening. Protein synthesis, the actual building of tissue, is happening at nearly every level of the body.    

Many of you reading this understand these physiological adaptations we experience when we make the conscious decision to become strong.  Hell, the overwhelming majority of us step foot in the gym for the first time with a certain adaptation to one of our physiological systems in mind whether we actually think about it or not.  Even those of you who have never thought of these adaptations have probably began exercising at some point with the goal of “getting bigger”, “toning”, “sculpting” or “gaining definition”, all the result of muscular adaptation and actually gaining muscle mass. These physiological adaptations are just one aspect to barbell training, though.  Something else very interesting happens during those first few training sessions as we learn to squat press and pull.

What goes on in the mind is often overlooked, but it is an important aspect of training. We become mentally stronger and are able to break through boundaries we previously thought were impossible. It takes a lot of strength to finish a heavy set of five squats, knowing that our reward is an even heavier set of five the next time. What would make us want to do such a thing? And why would we begin in the first place? 

How We Become Motivated 

It is important to distinguish the different ways in which we are motivated to train. First, there is extrinsic motivation. This comes from something outside of you. It could be your friend who is always giving you a hard time. It could be a prize for losing the most weight. It could also be your doctor telling you to get “physical activity”. While these extrinsic motivators are pretty common in today’s world, they aren’t really all that powerful. When you go to the doctor, who tells you to “exercise and eat healthy”, how long do you feel guilty? Generally just long enough to drive home and eat a sleeve of Oreo’s that evening.

The second and much more powerful type of motivation comes from within. Intrinsic motivators might include actually enjoying training, having the sense of a challenge, or getting satisfaction at knowing you’ve made yourself better. Because it comes from within, it sticks with you and has a much more profound effect on your behavior. The key to training (and part of my job as a coach) is to tap into this side of motivation.

When we learn to use barbells to squat, press, and pull, many of these intrinsic motivators happen automatically. A few Mondays of heavy squats will tap into our competitive side and give us a sense of a challenge. How many times have we seen somebody fail a squat or press, only to be exponentially more motivated to get the lift the next time? And when the poundage on the bar continues to rise, we get a massive sense of improvement. We can actually look in our notebooks and see an increase in our performance from last week. This does not happen with most training modalities because it is hard to quantify improvement. And any improvement doesn’t last long because there is no planned progression over time.

Once we are motivated to train we begin to exude many of the characteristics that are associated with strength training. Improved confidence, reduced stress and anxiety, and improved cognitive function have all been linked to strength training. When these benefits are obtained, they stand out. You feel confident, and this in turn affects how you approach everything else in your life. It begins to get very interesting when we take a look at how this confidence changes the behavior of those around you.

Self Efficacy and Confidence

One of the big theories exercise psychologists use to examine how we pick up new behaviors is the Self Efficacy Theory. For our purposes, we can generally use self-efficacy synonomously with Confidence. We can break this down into a few parts, each of which shows how we might be influenced to begin training.

Past Performance – If a person has any experience with or knowledge of an activity, they will be much more likely to begin. This is why having a wealth of knowledge in a book (like Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training) or spending time with a competent coach makes you much more confident about beginning to train.

Vicarious Experiences – A person can watch someone else grow and succeed, which makes them feel that they can do it too. This is further enhanced if there are similarities between the successful person and the beginner. For instance, women will be more inspired by seeing another woman get strong and fit. An overweight person will be more inspired when they see another overweight person begin to eat healthy.

Verbal Persuasion – Having somebody tell you that they believe in you. This doesn’t have to be much. Just knowing somebody believes in you can be powerful. 

Becoming Who We Look Up To 

So we want to make ourselves physically better, and we believe we can do it. But what makes us choose one type of training over another? We often rely on what we perceive to be an outcome of an activity. Girls, you know this all too well. You think heavy weight training and you think pictures of massive female bodybuilders. I can explain the science of why you won’t get huge all day long, but you won’t truly believe me until you either see it in your own body or you see somebody else who squats heavy and actually looks good (this goes back to vicarious experiences and having a role model).

So you begin training. There is somebody else at the gym who looks great, or is wicked strong, or carries themself with great confidence. You look up to them. They even tell you they believe you can do it to. And on top of all that, you have a knowledgeable coach who makes you feel more confident about the lifts each week. Over a short period of time, you have a series of successes that blast that confidence level through the roof. You are, dare I say, intrinsically motivated.

This is where our ability to affect those around us comes into play. Whether we mean to or not, we function as role models to those around us. We get strong and confident, and people notice. A friend, spouse, child, parent, or random stranger can become motivated by simply seeing us go through the process. They begin to recognize that if we can do it, they can too. They begin to want to better themselves, and their  motivation to train kicks in. In a short period of time, that person that started out is now strong and confident and a role model for somebody else.

And honestly, we need more good role models in the fitness industry. September has been tagged Strength Month.  This is a perfect time to experience the benefits of barbell training.  Find a coach or friend that trains and ask them to help you get started.  For those that already train the challenge is simple.  Get a friend, family member or co-worker under the bar this month.  Its likely they already look up to you and admire what you do.  Help them get started.  Bring them to Westminster Strength and Conditioning motivated and ready to work hard. And remember that there is someone wanting to be like you.  Help them.  


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