Intensity | Jim Steel


by Jim Steel | January 10, 2024

 My 11 year old son, Max, just finished his lifting session for the day.

“Are you ready to train, Dad?” he asked me earlier. He had to do some pressing movements and I was going to do some deadlifts and push ups. “Are you ready?” I asked. “What are your weights for today? Let me see your training diary.”

I knew he didn’t have it with him, I had seen it in the truck earlier. He had left it there 2 days ago when we went to the gym.

He knows it makes me crazy that he doesn’t have his training diary with him and he knows it makes me nuts that he doesn’t know what weights he is supposed to lift for the day.

“You were too busy on that damn phone, playing some stupid game that’s not getting you better in any way,” I said. He just looked at me – he knew that a lecture was coming.

“Don’t tell me that you want to be strong, just don’t say it,” I said,“You can’t get really strong without taking this whole thing more seriously, and it starts with paying attention to your diary. What you should have done, right after your last training session, was to sit down and look at what you have to do for the next session.”

Max doesn’t like when I give him lectures. He just listens. I know he wants to tell me that he is sorry, but I would just tell him that sorry doesn’t matter, actions matter. He knows all of my talks, so he just goes on mute.

He had to bench press first. He had to do 105 pounds for 3 sets of 5, a light bench day. He did these very well. My lecture was still fresh in his mind, so he had total focus.

We went to the incline bench next. He needed to go up 5 pounds from when he last inclined, to 110 for his work set of 5. I have coached him extensively on his form, but on his next to last set, with 105 pounds, his form got all nuts. He didn’t place the bar correctly, he pushed towards his feet first on a few reps, and he barely finished the set. Of course, I became irritated.

“Like I always tell you, buddy, you have to listen,” I said. “Every word that I say to you about lifting, I want you to really really listen. We have gone over that form a million times.”

“You have one more set,” I said, “And we’re still going to put 110 on the bar even though that last set was awful. This time, I want you to sit down on that bench over there. I want you to see the whole thing – picture the set-up, lying on the bench, your hands going onto the bar, how all of that feels, me handing you the bar, the descent, touching your chest, driving it up fast and crushing the rep with a strong finish. See it, feel it. Nothing else matters right now.”

He sat on the bench like I told him to, and he crushed the set like there was smoke coming off of the bar. I told him how proud I was of his comeback, “And see?” I said, “That’s what happens when you listen and take things seriously.”

I had to tell him to write all of the weights in his diary, and then he bolted upstairs to get away from me. I had to yell at him to come back down and clean up the 10 pound plates that he left on the floor. Then he bolted back upstairs.

That may seem a lot for an 11-year-old – too serious, too intense. Hell, he’ll be 12 in a week. And I always think of how my Uncle Bob lied about his age so he could go to WWII at 15, and how Loretta Lynn got freaking married when she was 14. I smoked my first cigarette and had my first beer in the 3rd grade. He can handle it.

A little while later, I was on a FaceTime call with my former assistant at Penn, Cristi Bartlett, who is now the Head Strength Coach at NC State. I told her about Max and his lift and how it went. And then I asked her about what it is about taking stuff seriously, and why she and I and very few others we know take lifting weights so seriously. And she said, “Most people have no idea about the intensity and dedication it takes to get really strong.” I witnessed her deadlift 515 pounds for a single, so she gets it. She made the point that people can get up to a decent level of strength without making it a huge priority, but to get really strong, it has to be super important to you and you have to crank the intensity way up.

“It’s the whole thing,” she said. “The seriousness of it, and the intensity. It’s how you get to the next level of strength, the big numbers.” Then she added, “I think you have to have a little of it in you already,” she said. “Sort of like a small fire that can get turned into a big fire with the right wind.”

She said that she would rather people just say that they are going through the motions, that they really aren’t “hurt,” they are just making an excuse because it’s hard to try to get strong. “Just admit it,” she said, “instead of being all fake about it. If I have to make you train hard, you’re never going to be really strong.”

I laughed and said that it’s like me riding a horse. I said that I wouldn’t ride a horse, I don’t want to ride a horse because I don’t care about riding a horse, and no matter what you said to me, like calling me a pussy or whatever, it wouldn’t have any affect on me. I just don’t want to ride a horse. “And that’s just like lifting,” she said. “Just don’t even get on the damn horse if you aren’t going to give it your all.”

We talked about how it’s not just the lifting, it’s everything: it’s the eating, the resting, the visualization, the training diary, and being coachable.

“But intensity is most important,” she said, “And you have to be serious about it to be intense.”

I just went back and looked at Max’s training diary, where he had written out all of his weights from the session today. He had also written, “Thanks, Dad,” in his chicken scratch handwriting. I wrote back, “Talk is cheap, get serious!”

Just kidding, I let that one slide.

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