Something to know about me: I’m a crier. Always have been. I cry when I’m sad, angry, happy, you name it. A giant reservoir of tears lurks just below my eyeballs, ready to burst forth at any moment for any reason. This trait has not always served me well, but I’ve accepted it as part of who I am. I’m a history geek, I love the Foo Fighters, I find all things fat-free repulsive, I cry. It’s part of the package.
I hit a new level with my crying after five months training with Matt at Ludus Magnus.
I cried over situps. Genuine, heart-felt tears of joy. Over situps.
Allow me to explain….
A decline situp bench is a standard piece of equipment at most gyms. It’s pretty basic: place your feet under the leg guard, lay back on the bench, and come up while flexing your abdominal muscles. If you want to get crazy, hold a barbell against your chest while you do it. It’s an excellent barometer of abdominal strength and back health because it engages all of those muscle groups, and requires balance and stabilization (as opposed to doing crunches on a machine).
When I first came to Ludus in Summer 2014, I could not do one single decline situp.
I could not do even half of one. When I got on that bench, I could not go halfway down and get myself back up.
It’s no wonder that I suffered from chronic low back pain. In addition to having zero abdominal strength, my hamstrings and glutes were basically non-existent. All of these muscles were “turned off,” to borrow a phrase from Matt.
I was 100 pounds overweight. I worked on my feet lifting heavy boxes at a grocery store all day. With no assistance from my abdominals, glutes, or hamstrings, every bit of that strain went directly to my lower back. It would have been miraculous if I didn’t suffer from chronic pain.
But as you can see from the picture above, today I can do decline situps. Lots of them. While holding a barbell (not as big as Matt’s, but still respectable). Without hurting my back. How did this happen?
I can see some of you raising your hands:
“You went to the gym everyday and used the ab machine, and did hundreds of crunches at home, and just kept working away at those abdominals until they became super strong.”
Nope. That would have been my guess a few years ago, because that’s what our culture tells us is necessary to get stronger. Go to the gym everyday, and do specific exercises that train individual muscles in isolation. Do LOTS of these exercises, over, and over, and over.
If you want to get injured and burn out, that’s terrific advice.
There is a reason Matt is a world record-holding powerlifter and people come from all over the globe to attend his seminars. He knows how to get stronger without getting injured. From the beginning, I have done my best to listen to everything he says, and do exactly what he tells me to do.
I went to Ludus twice a week, one day for a lower body workout and the other for upper body (FYI this is still what I do today). I asked Matt what I should do on the days I wasn’t at the gym, expecting him to give me a laundry list of exercises.
His response: “Go for walks.”
Me: “That’s it?”
Matt understands that brevity is the essence of wit.
He also said this: “It’s not about what you can do in the gym, it’s about what you can recover from.”
Matt taught me that strength comes from recovery. Lifting weights damages the muscle. When we are at rest, the body heals those muscles, making them stronger. If we constantly stress our muscle on a daily basis without resting, we make getting stronger more difficult and risk injury. The opposite of what we are actually trying to do.
He also taught me the importance of “main lifts,” like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. Compound movements like these engage multiple systems of the body at once. A proper deadlift requires more than just leg strength. It requires abdominal strength, back strength, balance and coordination, and neurological pathways that allow all of these systems to communicate simultaneously. All in one movement. Individual exercises are crucial to warm up the appropriate muscles and to strengthen weak areas. But doing hundreds of reps on machines will never replicate the benefits of these lifts.
So how was I finally able to do a decline situp? Sure, Matt had me do crunches sometimes, and work on the ab machine sometimes. He eventually had me do halfway decline situps. But I also did some form of squat and/or deadlift in every lower-body session. As the months passed, I slowly felt my muscles “turn on” and begin to work in unison. In the beginning, I would try to engage my abdominals but couldn’t feel anything happen. By consistently showing up for my two sessions per week, I felt parts of my body that I had never felt before coming to life.
I remember the day. It was December 2014, a week or so before Christmas. I was doing a lower-body workout. I had finished my squats and deadlifts, and had moved on to “accessory work,” the individual exercises where we target weak points revealed by the main lifts. Matt told me to do three sets of decline situps. No specific number, just as many as I could do each set.
He added an additional instruction: “This time, go all the way back.”
Me: “All the way back?”
I was afraid– afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it, and that I would hurt myself trying to do it. But I trusted Matt, and nothing he told me to do had ever caused me injury. Massive soreness, yes. Injury, no. If he thought I was ready….
I got on the decline bench. And I did it. All the way back. Eight reps my first set. A little bit of cheating by pumping my arms towards the end, but I did it.
I cried. I cried tears of joy. Over situps. I gave Matt a big hug.
The tears were about more than situps; it was what the situps represented. I’m usually the last one to notice my own progress. I knew in a vague way before that night that I was making some gains. I showed up twice a week consistently, the workout intensity had gone up a bit, I had dropped a few pounds.
But this was really the first clear-cut, huge leap forward that I could point to and say, “This is something I did not think I could do walking in, and now I’m walking out having done it.” The ripple effects from that experience continue to reverberate today. I did not have to be a prisoner to my past (or perceived) limitations.
If I could do this, what else could I do? If you have been reading my other posts, you have probably noticed by now that there is a theme here…
Everyone has to start somewhere! Call me at 614-517-2520 or email firstname.lastname@example.org and take the first step in discovering what you can do (tears not required)!