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Lessons from One Year of Heavy Lifting

Urban Primalist

How on earth did I miss out on one of life’s greatest pleasures for so long?

I refer, of course, to heavy lifting.

Let me back up a bit.

When I first went primal, I was happy just to run and swing the hammer.  And indeed I blew away my fat loss goals in short order.  Went from being tubby to lean, as in the shovelglove photos.  But it seems I was just enjoying a low-carb honeymoon.

155 pounds and lean

Even though I was stuffing fat into my mouth as fast as possible, my body dumped it all and then some.  I believe it was because my body was so insulin-resistant from a lifetime of carb overloading, and releasing so little insulin from eating essentially zero starch/sugar, that the fat cells simply did not know how to store the excess.  Fasting at least 16 hours most days also helped.

But after a few months, I couldn’t get away with that anymore.  The body, tricky beast that it is, was not going to let all those precious calories go to waste instead of to waist.  It learned to use pathways other than insulin to store fat, just like an Eskimo would.

Despite rigorous hammer workouts, and despite (perhaps because of) running a couple of miles most days, I started to gain unwanted weight.  In April 2011 I ran a 10k with a decent time, but the photo afterwards left me disappointed.  Something about my routine had to change.

Mid 160s and not so lean

Then I saw Richard Nikoley’s articles on training with Martin Berkhan, and the switch flipped.  I wanted to be lean like Berkhan’s clients.  More than that, I wanted to scream like a farging animal while lifting 305 pounds, just like Richard.  That very week I went to the gym, picked up a barbell for the first time ever, and started deadlifting and benching.

One year later, my dreams have come true.  Now I roar like a lion picking up 345 pounds.  It feels so indescribably good that I never want to stop coming back for more.  Being lean again is merely a welcome side effect.

If you haven’t caught the illness yet, I want to infect you.  Herewith the hard sell.

169 pounds, leanest and strongest yet

Five Reasons You Need to Start Lifting Right Now

1.       Lifting creates the most intense rush possible.  Sure, we’re all familiar with the runner’s high.  I certainly was.  It kept me running way more than I should have, drifting into chronic cardio territory.  But that was utterly weak sauce compared to the profound, mind-blowing trip engendered by lifting to the maximum.  Words fail.  And with practice, it just gets better and better.

2.   You can slow the aging process to a crawl, even reverse it.  Studies have shown that grip strength is directly related longevity.  Loss of muscle tissue (sarcopenia) is a major factor in physical decline.  Walking speed is also related to longevity.  Lifting helps with all three.  Look at these guys:  Clarence Bass at 60.  Mark Sisson at 58.  Bob Delmonteque at 80 for crying out loud!  Heavy lifters, all of them. 

3.      You can have a surfer's body without touching a board.  At least, that is how my wife describes my physique.  For somebody who spent most of his life as an unattractive dork, this is satisfying.  And it feels great to make my wife happy after she believed in me for so many years.

4.      When combined with fasting, lifting makes losing fat effortless.  I fast 22 hours every day, six of those after the workout.  It's not even difficult, especially on training days.  Lifting dumps so much fat into the bloodstream that it’s like eating a big meal but without the effort of digestion.  Only sprints might be more effective.  Certainly cardio is overrated.  I count protein grams but I have never counted calories.  Fasting restricts calories for me, and I go to bed with a full stomach every night.

5.    You can be happier with less.  At first I exercised almost constantly, lifting and then running the next day.  But then I stopped running as an experiment and all my lifts went up.  Many reasons why, but the main ones are that the body needs time to recover (you don’t say) and that a day of rest before lifting enables maximum intensity.  Just three hours a week in the gym has been enough to make me stronger than I ever dreamed.  And I get the whole rest of the week to relax.

Strength means freedom.  Strength means energy.  Strength means helping your friends, family, and fellow humans in countless ways.  All like you can't imagine until you've experienced it yourself.

Have I convinced you to give lifting a try?  Please do.  Someday I’ll elucidate my own program but the honest truth is that just about any approach will make you stronger, as long as you stay in a nice low rep range, log your efforts, and constantly challenge yourself to raise the weight.  Of course, diet will make or break you, but you knew that.  For a quick-start guide to lifting, I couldn’t do better than to refer you to Martin Berkhan’s most famous article.  (Warning: entirely appropriate language.)

But wait, there’s more!  Allow me to share with you ten unusual secrets I have discovered over the past year to take your lifting experience one step beyooooond.

1.       Use Fitocracy.  There is no more powerful tool to motivate you to push harder, and the community is a gold mine of advice and inspiration.  Take advantage of it.  And tell them that Gnugnug sent you.


2.       Use a chalkboard to log your sets.  At first I used post-its.  But then I read about how Arnold Schwarzenegger would chalk the gym walls to mark off his sets, and that those hash marks were like “an advancing army crushing all opposition”.  So I got a mini chalkboard.  And damned if I don’t get a testosterone boost from using it.

Will next week bring new PRs?

3.       Enter your sets in a spreadsheet so you can track your progress.  Spreadsheets are useful because they help you perform data analysis, like graphing your lifts or bodyweight over time.  They also give you a painless way to calculate things like bodyweight targets, speaking of which…

4.       Get a whole bunch of bodyweight targets as your milestones and strive to meet them.  My targets are drawn from Fitocracy, Eat. Move. Improve., Leangains, and Richard Nikoley’s posted records after six months with Martin.  Can you find more?  Nothing feels better than scratching those off, let me tell you.  Here’s a bonus set of milestones for you: my own records after one year of lifting (links go to video evidence).

Deadlift: 345x1
Bench press: 180x1
Squat: 205x1 (I started late on these, huge mistake)
Overhead press: 130x1
Dip: 55x5
Pendlay Row: 165x7
Arnold Dumbbell Press: 50x6 (single DB)
Standing Barbell Calf Raise: 295x32

Bodyweight approximately 169.  Now get under some weight and beat me at my own game!  But I’m not going to take it lying down!


Top of my training log (click for actual size). Inspirational quote courtesy of gnolls.org

5.       Utter inspirational quotes at the top of your deadlifts.  This just makes you feel like a badass warrior-scholar.  Again, free testosterone boost.  Vary the languages.  Latin and German seem especially effective.

6.       Pray to your ancestors.  Your ancestors – our ancestors – were stronger and smarter than we’ll ever be.  Pay homage to them.  Recognize their superhuman sacrifices that resulted in you walking the earth, reading these words, and embarking on your epic adventure to be strong.  Here, I will share with you the prayer that I recite after my warmup.

Ancestors, hear my prayer.
I speak to you in this time, in this place, in this moment,
as your descendant.
Your avatar in this world.
I ask that you make me strong, and keep me strong,
so that I may keep our lineage strong:
Now and for countless generations to come.

Last week, you helped me [do what I did last week].
This week, I ask that you help me [do what I’m trying to do this week].
I will bring all of my courage and cunning, if you will but lend me your spirit
as you have done so faithfully so many times before.
Ancestors, I humbly ask your blessing.

Then it’s PR time.  Craft your own prayer that comes from your heart.  Because I swear on my Homo Erectus antecessors that this works.

7.       Don’t be a slave to the program.  You might use Starting Strength, or Stronglifts, or reverse pyramid, or 5/3/1, or Texas Method, or Smolov, etc. etc.  But personally I enjoy improvising my own program using the best of all approaches.  The truth is that all the lifts have slightly different personalities.  My opinion? Deadlifts should be done low-rep.  Calf raises, high-rep.  Pendlay rows, somewhere in between.  And for a beginner at least, just about any approach involving progressive overload will bring gains.  Experiment and be creative, that’s what that big brain of yours is for!  This also helps you to…

8.     Enjoy the process.  Sure you want the results, but the fact is you will crap out if you’re not having fun.  If the program is boring or you’re not feeling like the universe is giving you a precious opportunity when you step into the gym, you need to make changes.  Only by enjoying the process will you excel and reap the rewards.

I sympathize with those poor souls who drag themselves to the treadmills day after day, feeling miserable and going nowhere, literally and figuratively. I do my best to help these people when they give me the chance, because I used to be one of them.  I'm training six people right now, all of whom are enjoying themselves much more than before, and I'll train or coach you too if you want.

9.     Food quality matters.  A lot of very smart, very strong people will tell you that it doesn’t.  But I’m here to tell you that’s utter BS.  Grain protein, agave syrup, and trans fat is the nutritional opposite of ruminant meat, broccoli, and fish fat, even though the macronutrient count may be identical.  Furthermore, we need to be humble and recognize that we don’t know everything about nutrition.  There are thousands of bioactive compounds in food; you can’t just boil it down to macros, micros and calories.  And we know even less about anti-nutrients, which are abundantly present in modern food.  Despite our modern conceits, nutritional science is about where astrophysics was in the 17th centuryYour body is the legacy of millions of years of adaptation to certain foods.  Don't wait for the studies, just eat that way!

My personal diet?  How kind of you to ask:

Training days: Lean bison; broccoli; random green vegetable; protein shake with casein, whey, cinnamon, fruit, mass berries; plenty of safe starches (I like tapioca/rice pancakes with maple syrup the best).


Rest days: Eggs; salmon, broccoli; random green vegetable; protein shake with casein, whey, modest berries


Saturday: PORKFEST

10.   A little back rounding on a 1RM deadlift is just fine, damn it.  Come at me, form nazis!  Now I am not TELLING you to do this.  This is merely my personal opinion.  You take your own risks and I’m not responsible for any injuries.  And I’m not saying a lot of back rounding, just a little.  But my back has never been stronger and has never complained once.  Not once!  And I used to have back problems before I started lifting.  They wanted to cut me, the bastards!  Work sets should always be done with a flat back, but there’s something very special about a 1RM deadlift on the ragged edge of possibility and I for one will bend the rules to make that happen.

So go lift heavy already.  Right now I have to go eat obscene quantities of bison.

All text copyright © 2010-2013 Timothy Williams