“Chris? Oh, you mean the big fat guy?”

Looking back, I wasn’t insulted. That guy had no idea. I wasn’t fat. I…was…huge. Six foot tall, 370 lbs. “Could a fat guy squat nearly a grand?” I thought. “Do 75 push-ups without cracking a sweat?” As it turns out, yeah.

The truth is, I was a fat guy. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t like I was Orca whale fat. No, no. I was somewhere on the continuum between bodybuilder and Dom Deluise—a whole lot of muscle under a thick mantle of insulation. In a given light after a beer or two or three, seen in my customary and strategically selected baggy shirt, you would definitely say to yourself, “Hey, this is a big dude.” A “remember that big Samoan guy from Necessary Roughness?” kinda big.

It begs the question, why get so big in the first place? Well, in all honestly, it was intentional. You could even call it a kind of experiment.

I had always lifted weights and played sports. I even managed to win a letter on a Division 1 college football team. It’s just that I never reached my full potential. I was always a bit too slow, too short, too whatever. Maybe that still burned a little. In powerlifting, none of that stuff seemed to matter. Best as I could tell, all you had to do was lay your body on the altar. In this sport, I would go all in.

Starting out, my plan of attack was to maximize those factors within my control. I read every article and book I could find on training. I spent weeks traveling, training, and learning from the best coaches. At home in the gym, I made sure to bust my ass day in and day out, allowing time under the bar to temper my body. But mostly, I ate…a lot.

Things started sensibly at first—an extra chicken breast at each meal, a dessert here and there. My training program, which always included some kind of conditioning, now focused only on strength. The scale started to talk back to me, climbing first to 275, then 290, then 315 lbs. Add in 2–3 trips per week to the local pizza buffet joint and it was saying 325 and then 340 lbs. That nightly habit of eating half a baking sized chocolate bar complete with a third of a jar of peanut butter—355 lbs. Beastly olive oil and heavy cream protein shakes coupled with complete succession from anything even remotely resembling cardio—370, pound by pound.

Super heavy Chris, strong and fat

So far this experiment was a success. I mean I was getting really strong, and maybe, you know…fat. With every pound I gained, my leverages improved. I now understood why lifters like the great Serge Redding and Vasiliy Alekseyev were so damn big. My gut may have made it impossible to tuck in a shirt, but boy did it come in handy in the weight room. Kind of like a counterweight on a crane only this thing was carefully crafted to help lift barbells, and apparently, to keep me from reaching my shoe laces.

Truthfully, I think the only thing matching the growth of my waistline was my ego. I mean, in most gyms, you just don’t see guys putting eight plates on each side of the bar. I was the alpha male, right? Stronger than 99 percent of the population. True. I may have been really strong, but I still had one big, big lesson to learn.

The scene was Columbus, Ohio. For most powerlifters and strength athletes, this was essentially the center of the universe. I had made trips to Westside Barbell before, but today would be different. I wasn’t here to observe or take notes. I wanted to train. After all, if I still had to prove myself, what better place? That remaining one percent of the population? These guys were more like the top 0.1 percent.

Following some slight hesitation, Louie was all too eager to let me train with his guys. “Huh. Well...let’s see what you got then.” For a coach with his level of experience, he had probably seen this situation play out a hundred times. He might as well have taken a seat with a big bag of popcorn. It was time for the comedy hour.

This was heavy squat day. It was just myself and five or six other lifters, all of them world class. The bar started out light but not for long. First, just one plate was on the bar. Add a heavy band…two plates…a second band…three plates. This was getting serious quickly. The weight was now over 400 lbs plus two heavy blue bands and a green one on each side of the barbell. The total weight was somewhere near 1,000 lbs. Show time.

It took everything I had to just unrack that bar, all along shaking like a newborn calf. In my mind, a reassuring chant, “I got this! I got this”…I didn’t have it. In the blink of an eye, my body was pinned to the earth. This had not gone as planned. “What happened? Am I dead? Is this heaven? No! Hell, right? That would explain the laughing, the crippling pain, the death metal…”

I somehow managed to drag myself out of the way, head spinning from all of the popped blood vessels. From a nearby corner of the gym, I looked up as the legendary Chuck Vogelpohl approached the platform. Calm. Eerily calm. He settled into position, eyes closed, belt loosely buckled. With a quick inhale of his lungs, a snap of the hips, he had the bar securely on his shoulders, as stable as a fucking oak tree. The bar was lowered and then launched into the stratosphere. “Holy crap!” What else could I say? A weight that just completely obliterated me, that had reduced me to scrap metal, was barely a warm up for this man! Right then I realized something. Once you surround yourself with the truly strong, the best, you get calibrated real quick. I had been straight schooled.

To this day, at my gym, there is a safety squat bar that has the word “lessons” written on the yoke. I see that bar every day, an ever present reminder of the work that remains undone.

I would go on to total elite as an amateur in the super heavy weight class. I managed to win some national meets and set some records along the way. I achieved more than I ever thought was possible. That burn I felt after football? Extinguished. The problem is that at some point my body started to turn on me. Routine aches and pains turned more severe. I could barely raise my right arm due to shoulder and forearm pain. I was pressing too heavy too often. My feet were always battered. I could barely stand for Christ sakes!

Then, of course, there was the mental toll. One day you wake up and realize that your wardrobe is comprised entirely of specially ordered XXXL shirts. You don’t own a pair of pants without elastic in the waistband. You haven’t gone for a walk for the pleasure of it in years. That great Eastwood line from Magnum Force comes to mind—“A man’s gotta know his limitations.” Well, my peak had come and gone. Experiment over.

The climb down from Mount Fat was much like the ascent—sensible at first. One or two less chicken breasts a day, a few extra trips with the weighted sled—370, 350, 345 lbs. No more pizza buffet madness, sloppy chocolate binges, or gut busting protein shakes—315 lbs. Learning to love, really love, broccoli and other green stuff, to not shy away from the stairs, to go for that long walk—280 lbs. Down, down, down, pound by pound.

I felt like it was once again OK to train for something other than strength. This was a breath of fresh air. I hadn’t been on a cardio machine (gasp!) for years. “Could I possibly do an hour on the elliptical?” It turns out that yes, yes I could. I hadn’t experienced sprints since the ole’ football days, so I ran 30 of them (crippling hamstring soreness never felt so good!). “Jiu-Jitsu? Why the hell not!” I entered a national meet on a whim, taking second place.

Today, the scale reads 240 lbs. The total amount of weight lost—130 lbs. Only 15 more to go. People tell me all the time, “Man, you must feel great!” Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good these days. All those aches and pains, they are gone. But without a doubt, the thing I’ve noticed the most is my new-found love of the small stuff. Seeking out stairs, not avoiding them. Actually wanting to park far, far away from my destination. Buying clothes from brick and mortar stores, tucking in my shirt. All priceless. Goodbye fatty.

2009 Arnold World Grappling Championships}

It took seven years to build, only one to tear down. After an experience like this, I can’t help but reflect a bit. You know, I gave ten years of my life to the sport of football. In that decade, not a day passed that I didn’t practice in some way to better myself. Lifting. Running. The countless repetition on that damn blocking sled. Sounds like dedication, yeah? The truth was that I hated it. I did it because it was the cool thing to do, to impress girls, to make my parents proud. All the wrong reasons. One day the sport spit me out and moved on. How merciful. After all that practice, the coaches finished with their incessant barking, I had no appreciation for training. The lesson was lost on me.

I owe who I am today, in large part, to powerlifting. This sport showed me beauty and purpose in the struggle. With every torn callus, every sore muscle, every failed lift, I learned to fight for what I want. I am eternally grateful, bound, to this sport. But now, there are new goals to pursue.

In Walden, Thoreauwrote that, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” That resonates with me. My best lifting may be behind me, but my best performances are yet to come. I am now, more so than ever before, ready to learn, prepared to take on new challenges, to grow…stronger.