Stay Under the Bar
By Nick Barringer
A mixture of blood and sweat dripped from my soft callus free hands onto the hot gym floor. The aggressive knurling of the bar had torn my soft skin apart just as the weight on the bar crushed my back and broke my mind. My lungs burned, my legs burned, everything burned. It was the summer before my freshman year in high school and up to this point I had never experienced something so difficult in my young pubescent life. I wanted to quit. I wanted to rack the weight. But just as these primal survival instincts kicked-in, a booming voice behind me yelled “Stay under the bar”. My fear of the man standing behind me kept me going and I finished the set and quickly racked the weight to run out and vomit in the hot Georgia sun. It was July and you could see a humid haze in the open air conditioning-less gym. As I wiped the vomit from my mouth and walked back into the weight room I was greeted by a nod and an approving smirk from my high school strength coach. He had been standing behind me, he had watched me start to break both physically and mentally, and he brought me back from the brink of defeat with four simple words…Stay…Under…The…Bar.
In that high school weight room in Rome, Georgia my coach taught me a lesson during a set of squats that has stuck with me my whole life. The world is going to rough you up. You will sweat and sometimes bleed. The load might get so heavy it knocks you into the ground. But if you simply stay under the bar and refuse to quit, you will get through it, and you will come out the other end a better version of what you were before.
Most people just focus on the physiological adaptations associated with training and miss the possibly more important psychological adaptations. Getting bigger, stronger, and faster is all well and good but most of us are not professional athletes. A sub 5 second 40 yard dash might get you bragging rights at the office but that is about it. However load up a bar with your bodyweight or greater, put it on your back, and squat for 10 reps or more and you will go through the 5 stages of grief before the set is even over. Your resolve will be tested. But we all need that gut check from time to time. The gym gives us a relatively safe environment to get, not just physically, but mentally stronger and a 7ft steel bar is the perfect educational tool for learning this valuable lesson.
The bar serves as our adversary. A cold and menacing opponent waiting to be loaded with plates and team-up with its’ friend gravity to kick your ass. It will not tire, it will not ask you to “take it easy this round”. It is just there. Ready to fight you in perpetuity. Many times the battles take place with no spectators, no one to say it did or did not happen. You can simply walk away and not subject yourself to such ritualistic self-castigation. But there lies the first part of the exercise, having the wherewithal to not succumb to the temptation of quitting or not even starting because no one will know but you.
The anonymity of quitting and avoiding pain are seductive sirens that will pull you away from the bar just as the sirens in the Odyssey tried to pull Odysseus from his ship. But just as Odysseus had himself tied to the mast, you must lash yourself to the bar. For in resisting the urge for self-preservation, for pushing hard, for embracing the suck, you have established a mental habit that will set you apart from the rest of society. When faced with adversity you do not cower but fight, no matter who is or is not watching. Today the adversary might just be a cold metal bar and rusty steel plates. Tomorrow the adversary might be much more formidable or it might not. Either way you are going to face it and give it everything you have. You will “stay under the bar” until the set is complete.
Sure there will be days that you lose, maybe the bar was too heavy or the task was too much. Yea it sucks. But even if you didn’t learn anything else, you learned your limits for that day. Which might initially not sound like much but consider most people don’t get out of their comfort zone and never discover where their limits begin let alone end. The best part is odds are that limit you just hit, got pushed out a little further. It won’t beat you next time because you will be stronger.
So I implore you, dear reader, to stay under the bar. Whatever daunting task is in your head and causing self-doubt, go attack it. Throw it on your back and take it for a ride. If you haven’t exercised in a while go out and do something. If you have but are not satisfied with your current progress push yourself harder. If you train hard regularly and are looking for an excuse for more self-hazing look no further. As a wise man once said, “Every time you train, train with the motivation and purpose that you will be the hardest person someone ever tries to kill”.
Sweat drips down on the hot gym floor. There is no blood because once soft skin has been replaced with calluses from 20 years of gripping knurling on steel bars. There still is no AC and the August Texas heat easily equals and rivals the Georgia heat. I stand holding onto the bar looking down at the floor knowing this is not going to be a “fun” exercise. I look at the two safety bars firmly attached to the Sorinex rack. Each safety bar is riddled with scars from failed attempts. It has been a long day, I’m tired, and I can skip this set are the thoughts that start creeping into my head as the sirens of comfort and contentment start singing their enticing song. But cutting through all the noise in my head is the voice of my high school coach 20 years ago. I bend down, step forward, and get under the bar.