Shawn Coe shares how he and his teenage daughter’s relationship has been going extremely well, since they began extreme weightlifting together.
I stand on a narrow strip of plastic-green Astro-turf at the entrance of the Berber-carpeted basement of an office building in south Concord, NH.
Nondescript is an understatement. It’s not quite East German in its industrial blockiness, but it blends unassumingly with the blue-collar neighborhood—casual passersby would never guess what’s inside.
Written in blue on the big, smudgy dry-erase board as you enter the gym, are the cluttered workouts, accomplishments and goals of some of the strongest men and women in the Granite State.
It’s here on the board, that we find our workout for the day.
The place, Brian’s One-2-One Fitness, is something we share together, sweating and suffering in endorphin-drenched bliss.
It’s something that a sometimes surly and “always right” teenager can do with her dad, out loud, in public—without having to save face or make Instagram excuses.
For 90 minutes two-to-three times a week during our workouts, I can be cool. Legitimately cool.
Our workouts are part of an expanded ritual that often includes a driving lesson and a grande pumpkin spice latte with a caramel shot —I’m not above bribery.
For us, the gym is not trivial. It’s competition and it’s closeness.
Our weekly routine reinforces individuation through shared experience vis-à-vis powerlifting, and to some degree, unrepentant self improvement.
Navigating the maze of lists on the board, muscle IEPs, all written in a kind of hyperactive shorthand, takes some practice. I’m more or less fluent now in decoding my assigned abbreviations and rep schemes, which are arranged in the middle of the board and run vertically starting with day one through the well-worn smear path to day four.
There are dozens for various types of athletes with various goals, my path is just one of them.
We’re a band of powerlifters, each a unique individual. We’re men and women, united by the mindset of a gym, all striving toward the mindset of a warrior. There are no iPods. No ear buds. No Skull Candy and no Beats by Dre.
We’re here for something else and we’re here for ourselves and for each other—queue the letter Anthony Michael Hall penned at the end of The Breakfast Club. And that’s where the middle of our story begins.
Our narrative is propelled on the surface by Westside Barbell’s icon Louie Simmons, a kind of savant in the sport, whose Conjugate Method we follow religiously.
And by “we follow” I’m referring to me and Abbey, or Red, as I nicknamed her way back when her ginger hair first grew in.
Today’s workout starts with a max effort (1 repetition with the heaviest weight you can lift) chained back squat on the low box. It’s scribbled simply as “ME Squat” on the board—the deciphering comes with time.
85 pounds of additional weight in the form of 2 sets of straight length 5/8” chains, according to my schedule, is added to each side of the squat bar to provide adaptive tension.
At the top of the squat all 85 pounds are on my back, but at the bottom, many of the chain links have collected on the floor and lessened the load. At the bottom of the move is where we’re weakest and where the mechanical advantage is the least.
As we stand up with shackeled bars, the weight gets heavier. This promotes speed out of the hole (the bottom) and gets your central nervous system used to a heavier load. Following the squat in scrawled sequence are:
- HASD x 6 (heavy ass sled drag 6 times on the 50’ carpet)
- Back Extensions 4 X 8 (using single farmers handle +130 in weight)
- Reverse Hyper 4 x 15 (a medieval Westside machine that works the posterior chain and that operates sort of like a bent over, straight-legged low back arch and backward leg raise)
- Belt Squat march 3 X 1:00 (a thick belt is attached around your waist to a cable that runs downward through a platform to a weighted pulley. Once attached, you just march. It’s a way to finish off the leg muscles without placing any more load on a tired spine and fried central nervous system)
- Abs (shooter’s choice)
Every week there’s a max effort lowers day (where you focus on the lower body) squats and/or deadlift, as well as a max effort uppers day (for the upper body) that focuses on bench press and/or overhead press. During that same time frame there is also a corresponding speed day for uppers and a speed day for lowers.
The speed days promote recovery so we can continually train at max effort levels without being stuck in a permanent state of muscle destruction.
“You don’t get strong by lifting, you get strong by recovering from lifting.” A wise coach once told me that, but resting is not the easiest thing to accept for a 40-something who hears the echoes of his own athletic past that are amplified by the clanging from his advancing-age alarm clock.
For this reason, this style of workout and recovery suits me just fine, physically and emotionally.
Standing under the 52-pound buffalo squat bar, its middle arched up high like the traps of the big lifters or the tail of an Italian sports car, I remember my cues.
Fill my belly with air. Keep my elbows forward and my head and eyes up. Stay tight. Reach my butt back and settle down and the box, don’t plop on it. Knees out, split the floor. Finish.
My wraps are so tight I wonder if I’ll be able to bend my legs as I take that last big breath before going down.
I stood up a total weight of 367 pounds on the rep and let the safety-supports catch the bar as I let go of the heavy gnarl and re-rack it. The dangling chains clank loud as hell on the rack and each other.
The rattle sounds menacing and for a moment I let it ring, basking in the resonance. It was easier than I thought it would be and I will add more weight for the next attempt, 120 or maybe 20 pounds. I’m still getting used to what I can and can’t do, feeling out my new boundaries and abilities in this new place. I’ve only been at the gym a few months, not long after that—Abbey joined me.
It feels good, the accomplishment.
For a long time, 275 pounds had an intimidating iron clink that I romanticized about. Now 275 is part of my warm-up, a single rep on the way to something bigger and better. I don’t even wrap up for it.
Abbey wanders over her face is red and gasping like a boxer between rounds.
Her athletic, 62” frame isn’t much longer than the chains she was using to drag a heavy sled back and forth across the turf, laden with 180 pounds of forged iron of its own. Nor is Abbey much softer.
Her spirit, honest and unapologetic, is as jacked as her back and shoulders, molded by years of competitive gymnastics.
Abbey is fiery like her red hair, and competitive with deep hazel eyes that shine with a surprising, yet unspoken softness.
Though she looks like a child to me, she can move heavy weight as if she’s an adult. She also moves my heart at will, whether here in the gym or anywhere else—she knows how much I love her and cherish the time we spend together.
I do love it. All of it.
I was always an athlete, at least in my mind and faded personal nostalgia that’s akin to the sweat-stained threadbare gym shirts of my college days.
Since those glory days, I had evolved into a more rounded, inactive version of myself sharing pigskin wisdom on lazy Sunday afternoons that I gleaned from coaching high school kids, but I wasn’t in the game. Now I am. I am in the gym again.
The long and winding road that landed me here is a story for another day. The point is, I’m here. Abbey and I are both here.
Here feeds my body and my soul, two items I know are inextricably linked for me—and everybody else. My soul needs an active body and my body cannot work without a contented soul.
These workouts give me confidence and attitude—a healthy attitude. I hope it does the same for Abbey.
What you are is what you do, I believe, especially here in the gym. Perception and misperception are replaced by simplicity, I think as I remember Captain Jack Sparrow tell Will Turner the only thing that matters is what a man can do and what a man can’t do as the elf hangs from the boom in Pirates of the Caribbean.
With a swagger, I turn to Abbey, a few stars still floating in my eyes from pushing out my belly that I used to have to suck in for vanities sake, but now is puffed with paternal pride.
I can operate confidently in this star-stricken state. I know it’ll pass and I’ll be okay.
Everything will be okay. We can do this. Just keep breathing.
I give her a knowing fist bump, and gasp, “nice job Red,” as I sip from my water bottle pink-stained from electrolytes and branch-chain amino acids. “What’s next,” I ask—but it doesn’t really matter since whatever it is, she and I will do it together.