LESSONS LEARNED: The First Years of Weight Training
By Keith Wassung
I began lifting weights during my freshman year in high school. After football practice we would go to the school's weightroom which consisted of an old universal machine, a couple olympic weight sets, a bench and a squat rack, and lift weights for about 30 minutes. I weighed 93lbs at this time, which made me the smallest person in my class. I never really considered myself as being a weakling as I had grown up on a farm and had been doing various forms of farm labor since I was about 4 years old. The first time that we actually got to lift weights, one of the coaches pulled myself and another boy who was also very small aside and suggested that we just stick to chin-ups and push-ups. He did not exactly forbid us to lift, but he certainly discouraged it for fear we would hurt ourselves. I was very disappointed by this as I wanted to see how I would compare with the rest of my class in strength. One of my classes was a large study hall held in the school's cafeteria. On occasion the teacher would give 2-3 of the boys a pass to go use the weight room during the study hall period. I asked several times for permission to go along and was always denied. One afternoon, the teacher ( who was in his late 20's and was very arrogant) asked me if I was still interested in using the weightroom. I eagerly replied yes. He took out a pass and gave it to me saying " Here is your pass, I want you to go and clean the weightroom, it's a mess, and don't forget to mop the floors" He made a point of saying this in a loud voice so that everyone in the study hall would hear and of course everyone laughed. As I was leaving the cafeteria, I also heard him make some comments that a mop was about all that Wassung could handle in the weightroom. Our school was an old air force missile training base and many of the old supply buildings and barracks had been converted into classroom facilities. The school's wrestling and weight room were housed in one of the old enlisted barracks. The weightroom was a mess and I made a point to do as good of a job as possible in cleaning it--including mopping the floors. I also made a point of taking short breaks to lift the barbells as well. I only did two exercises that day--Overhead Presses and Deadlifts, 3-4 sets each. The following week, I volunteered to clean the weightroom again and though the teacher made some sarcastic remarks again, there did not seem to be as much laughter from the rest of the students. I continued cleaning and lifting once a week for the next several months. I began to carry a piece of paper in my pocket and I would record the sets and reps that I did each workout. I also began leaving windows in the back of the building un-locked and during home games would sneak in and perform my exercises. I never got caught, but eventually I was no longer permitted to clean the weightroom. I found things around the farm to lift--logs, buckets of water, metal pipes and rods fitted with cinder blocks on the end. The implements were crude but effective.
I received a set of weights and a bench for Christmas that year and began regular training session in the basement of my home. I focused on doing basic exercises for about 45 minutes to an hour, with no more than 3 workouts per week. I also started my regular training journal and I still believe that using the training journal to set goals and track workouts was one of the best things I ever did. Our school library had two books on weight training, with one of them being a track and field book with some weight training advice in the back. I literally kept those books checked out the entire time I was in high school. I also began to seek knowledge and advice from those who were older and more experienced than me. At least once a month, I would go train at the YMCA or at a commercial gym in Lincoln and would watch what others did. I always found that the vast majority of guys who had obtained a high degree of strength and development were more than willing to help a less experienced person. I can remember going to the Lincoln Health Club and watching world class powerlifters such as Jim Cash, Don Blue, Roger Benjamin and Mike Arthur train. I would do my workout quietly and observe what each of these powerful men did in their training. There is a popular line that is often used today ( especially on the internet) that says something like " Just because a person is strong and well developed, does not mean they know anything about training" That may be true--but its an exception, rather than the rule. There are common principles that virtually all strength athletes use in their training and if you observe enough of their training, its not difficult to discover what constitutes an effective program. I learned to focus my energy on the basic lifts-squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bent over rows, dips and if I wanted to do some isolation type movements to do them after the basic movements were completed.
By the time I completed my freshman year in high school, I had gone from a starting weight of 93lbs to a weight of about 135lbs. I believe that my bodyweight would have been even higher had it not been for all sports I participated in. The summer after my freshman year, I really focused on training and eating-lots of eating. Growing up on a farm has it's advantages as I had all the fresh eggs, milk, meat and vegetables that I could eat. I ate 6-7 times a day, though I never forced the food down, but rather just ate when I was hungry. I returned to school that fall weighing just over 170bs and on the first day of football camp, broke all of the school lifting records, which were not very impressive to begin with. I went from being the runt of the class to one of the bigger guys in the class and even the entire school. At that point in time, I made a major mistake in that lifting went from being the most important thing in my life, to the ONLY thing in my life. I copped a very negative attitude towards anything that was not related to lifting. I began holding back in football practice so that I could save my energy for my lifting. My grades, relationships with friends and family and church activities all suffered as a result. I would sit in the class and ignore the teacher and instead fill my notebook with future training plans. Wrestling was my favorite sport and I decided to not even particpate in my sophmore year figuring that the training time would be better spent lifting. About two weeks into wrestling season, I was in the school weightroom ( which was across from the wrestling room) and I took a break and walked to the doorway of the wrestling room and watched the guys drilling wrestling moves. It suddenly struck me that I would have the rest of my life to lift weights, but I only had 3 more years to engage in high school sports and that if I would always regret it if I passed up being part of the team. I waited for the next wrestling break and immediately went to the two coaches and asked to speak to them in their office. I apologized to both of them and asked if I could still be part of the team. Both of them were excellent coaches as well as teachers and both agreed to let me come out of the team. I changed my attitudes towards a lot of other things as well and since that day. I have always sought to keep lifting in perspective. Lifting is a fantastic endeavour, but it should never be the only thing in your life.
During the spring of my sophmore year, I decided it was time to compete in a lifting contest. I found out about a teenage meet and made the decision to enter it. At that time, I was easily the strongest guy in my high school and I figured the meet would be a piece of cake. I competed in the meet, set personal records for each of the three lifts and still ended up eighth in my weight class. That was a very humbling experience for me and it made me realize that I was not as strong as I thought I was. I trained even harder after that and about seven months later, won my first contest. I have always made it a point to do three things at every contest that I have entered (1) after the meet, write the meet director a personal note thanking them for putting on the contest ( 2) after the contest, personally thank and acknowledge those who volunteered at the meet-the judges, spotters, expeditors, even the people who run the concession stand and (3) after I was done lifting, to offer to help out at the meet, whether it be as a spotter/loader, expeditor or just in helping clean up after the contest is completed. There is a tremendous amount of work that has to be done to put on a sucessful lifting meet and every little bit helps.I would also reccomend that to anyone who is considering competing in a weighlifting meet to buy a copy of the book "Defying Gravity" by Bill Starr. This is an excellent text that will teach you how to prepare for a competition.
I continued training during my junior and senior year in high school using the same basic exercises over and over. I have often compared my training program to a menu at McDonalds in that most of it is always the same. Every now and then McDonalds runs specials and promotion, but that rarely last more 4-6 weeks and they still continue with their basic menu at the same time. My program has been largely the same for over twenty years. If I hit a sticking point or felt that I needed some variety, then I just mix up the repetition scheme or the order of the lifts. I also discovered that it was best to not get locked into a set number of training sessions per week, but rather to do the workouts in a sequential manner. Some weeks I would train 3x, others 2x and occasionaly only 1x or not at all. This always allowed me to approach each training session both mentally and physically refreshed.
One final story. About four years after graduating high school, I was serving in the U.S. Navy and had just won the All-Navy powerlifting championships. I was home on military leave and some friends called me and wanted me to go out on a fishing trip with them. I declined with the explanation that I had to train that evening. One of my friends told me about a new gym in town that was open 24 hours a day. I agreed to go fishing and train later that evening. I got to the gym around 11pm that night. It was a 24 hour Nautilus facility with a small, but adequately equipped free weight room in the back. I did my workout and was finishing up with some stretching when another man walked into the weight room and immediately began performing bench presses. We were the only two people in the room at the time. He had about 190lbs on the bar and after performing about 6 reps, he failed on the 7th. He called out to me for some assistance--actually he sort of demanded that I help him. I walked over the bench and lo and behold it was the same teacher from high school who had ridiculed me in the study hall. I said to him " I would like to help you, but I have to go mop a floor" and I walked out. Sometimes life can be extremely fair.