Failure Made Me Stronger

Life isn't easy. If you're young and reading this, I am sorry for ruining the surprise. You're going to struggle. You will have to make difficult decisions. You will fail. What separates the successful individuals from the rest, is learning from those failures. In my career I've always trained people to remove the negativity from mistakes, and instead treat each one as a learning opportunity. Why did it happen? What can you do differently next time? What can be improved?

Strength training, like life, is not easy. There will be periods where you'll struggle or make no progress, or even seemingly go backwards. You will fail sets and reps. You will have injuries. At this point I hope you can see where I'm going with this.

In the winter of 2015 I was so close to my lifetime goal of benching 500 pounds raw I could taste it. While warming up for a training session one evening, with a relatively light 275 pounds on the bar, I felt (and heard) a pop in my right pec, and that finish line with 500 above it quickly vanished. I've had several minor injuries throughout my lifting career, but this was the first major tear I had experienced.

When I was finally able to bench again after several weeks of recovery, just moving an empty bar felt uncomfortable. I can still feel the frustration of slowly adding 5 or 10 pounds each week, when not long prior I was repping 400+ for my working sets. My ego took a beating. I wanted to quit. My girlfriend (and soon to be wife) dreaded going to the gym with me now because it put me in such a bad mood. What was the point? 8 years of training, all that progress made, and it felt like it was for nothing. I wasn't even back to square one, I was benching less than I did when I touched a barbell for the first time. It took some mental grit, and several months of self reflection, but I eventually learned to accept the set back, and this re-kindled a fire inside me that was even stronger than before. "I will come back from this, and I will be even stronger". Failure was no longer an option. I re-evaluated my training and made several changes. I took rehab and prehab more seriously and focused on the weak points which had been neglected. There were additional set backs along the way, but in January 2020, after a 4 more years of hard work, I benched 507 in a meet. The feeling was surreal.

My story does not end here, unfortunately, as along the way I ended up suffering another injury much more severe injury.

I had originally planned on competing in the summer of 2019, the first time in years since the pec tear. My training had been going well, I felt the strongest I had ever been, and if I could stay healthy there were ambitions of getting close to a 2000 pound total. On a Sunday morning in June, about 2 weeks before my meet prep was going to start, I had worked up to some heavy singles with front squat and hit a pr of 505 pounds without wraps. It felt so good I decided to hit one last single before calling it a day. "Why not?" With my wife watching and video rolling I dropped to the hole with 515 pounds across my shoulders and felt a "snap" in my knee just as I reached the bottom. Based on my prior experience, I knew this one was bad.

Unable to bend my leg, my wife helped me hobble to the car and we rushed to the emergency room. We tried to stay optimistic and figured at the worst this was a major quad tear that 'might' require surgery. A couple days later after having an MRI the orthopedic surgeon delivered the news, and boy were we wrong. On the computer screen the doctor showed me the frayed end of my quadriceps tendon which used to be connected to my knee cap. I had suffered a complete rupture of the quadriceps tendon. The only reason the quad muscles hadn't pulled back up my leg is because the massive swelling helped hold them in place, and there was also a "tiny bit" of tissue holding on along one side. The "good news" as the doctor put it, was that this was a clean tear from the bone, which meant my odds at a full recovery looked much better.

I had surgery that same week; holes were drilled through my knee cap and the tendon was sutured back in place. At home later that night, after the multiple doses of morphine wore off, my leg was in the most intense pain I had ever experienced in my life. After upping the oxy dose substantially, I was finally able to pass out for the night. I could not bend my knee for the first few weeks (going to the bathroom was an adventure), and it was several more weeks of physical therapy before I could remove the leg brace. It wasn't until 6 months later that I hit my first new milestone of squatting 135. Yet again, I was back much further from where I had started.

What was my mindset like this time around? I had seen other lifters suffer similar quad tears that ended their careers. The thought of giving up on the sport I had been so dedicated to for the past 10 years never crossed my mind. I had told my wife "Now that I can't squat or deadlift I have all the time in the world to focus on my bench, there's no excuse for me to not hit that elusive 500". And as you already know, I did hit that 500 pound bench just a few short months later.

It's been almost a year now since the quad tear, and I have slowly worked my way back to a 3 plate squat (315 pounds). My deadlift is back to where it was pre-injury. I still don't know if I'll ever squat again in a full power meet; the thought of having 700+ pounds on my back and hearing that "snap" again still scares me a bit. That doesn't mean I will quit competing, however, and I am more optimistic than ever of hitting new bench and deadlift milestones.

I do think that both injuries made me a better lifter, and a better trainer. I take injury prevention much more seriously now. Longer deload or active recovery periods are mandatory, no matter how good I "think" I feel. I don't work up to maximal loads nearly as often, and I listen to my body much more carefully. Could I have prevented my quad tear? I don't know. I had no pain or patellar tendinitis at the time, and the squat right before felt great. Maybe it was just a freak incident. Either way, I have no regrets. Quitting would have been too easy. Failure made me stronger.

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