What Coed Kickball and $900 in medical bills taught me about Training

I first wrote this post sometime in the late summer of 2018, after blowing out my shoulder and *before* surgery. I have a follow-up article in the works.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” -Lewis Carroll

Starting in the fall of 2017, I had one goal: 

Stop being weak.

Earlier that spring I had set a very different goal: look lean and sexy AF with my shirt off. For four months I focused on nothing but this goal. So I showed up to the gym without fail; trained really hard; dieted down at home; and by the end of the four months I looked good. Damn good. 

Visual approximation

I had a lean waist, hard butt, semi-visible six pack, chiseled arms and chest. I wasn’t afraid to take my shirt off at the pool or lake and show off all my hard work. But while I looked great, I felt weak. My lifts in the gym were relatively light, slow, kinda painful, and losing steam quickly. I knew this would happen – in order to lean out you have to eat less, which means less energy for throwing weights around in the gym. As the summer wore on I was worried that while I looked like an athlete, I couldn’t perform like one.

To reach any goal, though, requires sacrifice. In this case, I sacrificed performance for looks. You might be thinking “why can’t I have both?” and I would tell you that to achieve both requires a significant amount of time and effort that most of us can’t afford. To really go hard and achieve one goal means sacrificing most (if not all) other goals. To achieve two goals simultaneously, the mountain is that much steeper.

When fall came around – and, fewer shirtless opportunities presented – I set a goal to become stronger than I’ve ever been, and for the next eight months I trained four times every week with a singular goal of building my strongest bench, strongest deadlift, and strongest squat of all time. It was not easy – there were days when everything hurt, or when I was pressed for time, or when I would’ve rather taken a steel-toe boot to the shin. But I showed up and I worked anyway.

My workouts had intention; they had purpose. They were driven by desire and fueled by an incredible appetite (literally and figuratively). I had an insatiable hunger for all the carbs, fats, and proteins I could stomach. The cross-section of the hard training and huge caloric surplus not only drove my strength numbers sky high, but also helped me surpass a bodyweight of 190 lbs for the first time ever.

In those eight months I put 50 lbs on my bench press; 40 lbs on my deadlift; and a whopping 70 lbs on my squat. Impressive numbers, but remember, I was weak when I started and had ground to make up.

Then shit hit the fan. Hard.

In the spring of 2018, I started on a coed kickball team, and things started to go south. 

On the first warm day of May we held a team practice to brush up on skills. I was playing first base when my pitcher threw a damn cannonball my way. I wasn’t quite ready and caught the ball with my left ring finger not quite ready.

The impact of the ball on my bent finger caused an avulsion fracture – a separation of the tendon from the bone that helps extend my fingers. My other fingers could straighten out towards the sky, but my ring finger was pointing somewhere near third base. A trip to the clinic, a few x-rays, a splint, and I was released back onto the field.  

For the next few weeks things went reasonably well – I continued training hard and used a “hook grip” on my left wrist, allowing me to continue training close to normal. 

Shit, meet Fan. But I believe you two have met before.

A few weeks later, during a game an opposing player kicked the ball into the outfield, where I was standing. Actually, “kicked” doesn’t quite describe it. Booted. Bombed. Fucking drilled it. Put a postage stamp on it and sent it.

Running like hell and trying to get a hand on the ball as it screamed past me, I tipped it with my (broken) finger and watched it crater the ground and bounce away. This is what we call a “runaway” inning: Everything is fine. Everything is good. Then, disaster.

I chased the ball down and with everything I had, hurled it back into the infield to stop a home run by a single base.

As an outfielder you have one job: hawk balls and don’t let anything get past you, and I let one slip by. I was so mad I never noticed the pain in my shoulder until later that evening, when sleep was met with excruciating pain.

Over the next few weeks my shoulder continued to ache. It felt weak, unstable, and I was unable to do just about anything. In fact, where I had just set an all time bench press PR of 275 lbs weeks earlier, I couldn’t do a single push-up, not even from an elevated surface like a counter top.

I was broken, and I could do nothing as I watched as all my hard work burn to the ground.

Something about ashes.

A couple years ago I was a training elitist – I would have suggested that time spent in the gym should have purpose. There is no point to being here unless we’re training for a specific reason or goal, I thought. One must train. Anything else – exercise “for fun” – is time wasted.

For purposes of this blog, let’s define Exercise as a broad, general term, that includes the sub-category Training. Think of Exercise as all the things we do to try to build up a sweat, put on muscle, or improve our cardiovascular fitness. It’s fairly non-specific and not necessarily goal-oriented. Training, however, has a single goal in mind with an exercise program tailored specifically to get you from point A to point B as quickly as humanly possible.

Or think of it this way: Exercise is an encompassing circle, whereas training is a vector, with magnitude and direction.

What is your goal? What do you want? What are we doing here?

Answer those questions – define your goal – and I create a training program to get you there. 

Look great in a swimsuit; Fit into that tux or wedding dress; Lift a brick shit-house; Fight Goku.

Whatever your goal, there’s a workout and nutrition program I can design to get you there. But I need to know what you want, first.

I used to harp on the difference between training – for a specific goal – and exercise – everything else. I thought that there was no time for exercise – no time for anything but the things that got you to your goal. We have a mission; a road map. A place to be with limited time. And like many of my ideas over the years, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Because of my injuries, I’ve been forced to modify my approach in the gym. Unable to grip things, bench press, or do a whole lot of other exercises, I’m finding new ways to get the job done – playing with new and different tools; changing my grip; modifying my body position; learning workarounds for my injuries; and starting over on some things.

I have no goal but to keep going. I have no plan and no intention. Just exercise for fun and for the hell of it. And you know what? I’m loving it. 

Don’t get me wrong – training for a goal, especially one that takes 8 months or more to achieve is fun, but honestly, after a while it started feeling like a job. Given that my job is already personal training, it felt like I was working a double shift every day. I was just putting in my time, punching the clock, and making progress, but that job had lost some of its original fun.

With these injuries, however, and without a specific goal in mind or really any desire for one, I’m finding exercise fun again for the first time in a long time. 

I’m shocked: in the past I would’ve scoffed at the idea of doing “a little of this, a little of that” with no real goal or intention in mind as a total waste. After all, how can you get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going?

Park Bench. Bus Bench.

The legendary strength coach Dan John has this concept of “bus bench” and “park bench.” As he describes, sometimes your training efforts have a specific destination and timeline in mind, so you hop aboard the training bus and hit your stops on the way to your goal. In other words, you expect results and you expect to achieve them in a timely manner.

And then there’s “park bench,” or when your training or exercise is for fun, with no real destination or time frame to get you there. You take in some air and enjoy the sights from your park bench; you find joy in the process again.

I was wrong in the past to think that exercise was a total waste of time. I’ve come to find that long-term training instead requires a bit of “time off” from training for a goal every once in a while. It gives us a reminder of why we love to exercise in the first place – it’s fun.

If you’re not having fun, you’re going to find it difficult to stay with it for the long term. 

Putting this into practice

Don’t go getting yourself hurt. Pain and medical bills are annoying. Plus your spouse shouldn’t have to deal with your attitude and your disgustingly disfigured finger and busted shoulder. 

Instead, try this:

You’re ready to get in shape. Maybe you’ve finally decided to take exercise and training seriously for the first time, or maybe you’ve got a wedding coming up, or maybe you’re wanting a head start on slim-and-sexy for summer.

So you get a gym membership, hire a coach, and get to work. Your coach designs a workout program for you, coaches you through your nutrition, harps on your sleep and weekend habits, and measures your progress each week. 

You have a specific goal and you’re putting in the work to get there. This is training – your roadmap. With your *NSYNC and short shorts you get to work.

Fast forward a few weeks and your motivation is waning. Your workouts are great and you’re making progress, but you’re not having fun. This may easily be addressed by communicating with your coach – after all, we don’t know what you’re feeling unless you tell us.

This is when a week-long detour might come in handy: you take the week “off” and instead do other fun things, like that spin class you’ve been wanting to try or that hot yoga place that just opened up the street.

Give yourself a few days off from training and just exercise, for fun, like you used to. When your week is over, it’s back to work again – back to regularly scheduled workouts, tracking your diet, measuring your progress, sleeping, drinking water, and reminding yourself why you got started in the first place.

Or maybe you’ve been training for eight months and decide you want to switch things up; try some new stuff; or you need to recover from a broken finger and lacerated shoulder. Time to switch things up and take a break from your regularly scheduled programming.

Who gives a damn anyway?

I wonder sometimes if I came off as an elitist snob a few years back because of my attitude towards exercise (as opposed to training). I hope not. I only wanted people to use their time more effectively in pursuit of their goals. After all, we seem to have precious little of it these days and I didn’t like seeing it wasted.

What was wrong was my viewpoint. Who the hell cares if someone wants to exercise because they just like it, or have fun doing it? Who the hell cares if someone wants to train hard for a specific purpose and reach an important goal by a particular date? No one cares, really, except maybe your coach or your friends or accountabilibuddy. 

Either way, it’s your goal, your time, and your efforts. Spend them however the hell you please.

As for me, I’m exercising for the hell of it. I’m having fun with no real training plan. Just doing whatever I feel like doing in the moment. 

That is until I get back from vacation next week, when I hope this shoulder allows me to start training again. After all, I didn’t spend eight months chasing a bigger bench for nothing, and I’d like to revisit it sometime soon. 

In the meantime, I’m happy to have fun and explore my physical abilities. I hope you choose to do the same, too. We only get one body – I encourage you to see what it’s capable of.

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