OutsideSubmission-3 columnist

To fight demons, imagined, real, visible, and invisible. The monsters of the mind. That's how it started. That’s why I sought out the iron. Now, the purpose has evolved; it’s to conquer them.

There is a dichotomy between the fight and the victory. Interpretation of the aforementioned depends on your philosophical bend with some seeing victory within the choice to do battle, while others see it only contained in the dominance of a thing itself.

Regarding our innermost demons, there is certainly honor in the very battle against them; yet if we don't seek out dominance, the actualization of victory over these specters, these vestiges of people and times that marred us, then we are doomed to be ships that pass by our families and friends in the night.

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We will remain consumed, unavailable to those dearest to us. Time will leave us behind as we dwell on that which we must do battle with day in and day out. Rather than be lost in time with our demons, we must move forward in a victorious march to stand beside our loved ones and shed the shrouds of the past.

The impetus for this piece is simple: Without the barbell, I don't know where I’d be in the war for my sanity. Bearing that in mind, I wanted to see if the bar meant just as much to others around me.

When the goal, in my more naïve days, was to fight, to grip that bar and rip it against everything and everyone that ever stood in my way, I left the gym no better or worse — just even. I would leave, only to slowly regress mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, until the need to get to back to even could no longer be ignored.


I had no battle plan. No compass. No forethought. The time ticking away until I was suddenly at the mercy of them yet again — the thoughts, the memories, the fears of tomorrow and yesterday. Fear, delusion, paranoia, unbridled anger, hubris… Monsters of my mind.

The barbell is the personification of all my darkness.

To conquer is far more of an undertaking; you are now endeavoring to actually overcome a thing, a person, or both. It is premeditated. And the battle is to be won, it must be, so that it may remain a vestige of who you once were in the fading images of the past that became but a haze of a time during which we once felt, thrived, cried, bellowed, fell, and rose. The battle is to be left in the past.

Conquer the weight, the set, the rep, and leave it all behind like a snake shedding its skin, slithering out into a new form of potency and formidability due to soundness of spirit and mind.

I have people I’m responsible for, so to simply use weights to fight, to only temporarily fend off the darkness, is unacceptable. If we are to be something for someone, we need to leave that weight room victorious. Make that bar the living, breathing entity you once encountered, that which made you falter, stumble, perhaps take a knee, and now smash the life out of it until you get the weight you want, the reps you want. Smash that, and you smash your past. You squash the loss, erase it, and put a big W next to it.

A Division I softball team I had the luxury of coaching would later confide that they thought I was insane when I directed them to attack the stairs they were running as if those stairs were an actual living organism that they could either lose to or win against. Those stairs, as with the bar, were and still are the physical manifestation of all that has dared to oppose you.

It sounds crazy at first until you realize that many people who touch the bar see, with their mind’s eye, that seven feet of steel morph into every encumbrance, tangible and intangible, that they have ever faced. That bar transforms into all the people and difficulties that have attempted to hinder our progress.

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This article is not about me or you — it’s about us, a culture defined by strife, self-inflicted strife with something as elemental as iron, born out of dark circumstances we either fomented of our own volition or that which was thrust upon us in our vulnerability when we were incapable of electing to bear the yoke of such hardship, but bearing it nonetheless.

The plights we’ve endured eventuate from poor choices or a poor draw of the cards. Irrespective of the origin of our crucibles and whether you perceive such as preordained or reasonless happenstance, we still rip that barbell until the palms of our hands tear, bleed, and callus. We are the patients; the barbell, our therapy. We are the masochists; the barbell, our implement. We are the misfits; the barbell, our password for entry into this cult.

That bar is my OCD, anxiety, depression, pure-O, PTSD, my father, criminals I once engaged with, bullies, doubters, and any visible or invisible obstruction that dares to attempt to cause a chink in my armor.


Below you will find the answer to why accomplished coaches and athletes I’ve been fortunate enough to know gravitate toward the iron and have made it a core element of their life.

Marisa Gaynor

NCAA Division I Strength and Conditioning Coach, former Division I Water Polo Player, three-time MAAC champion, and NCAA qualifier

“Why I choose to lift and lift heavy. Lifting was first introduced to me when I was 15 in the form of high school weight lifting. The events were bench press and clean and jerk.

The first time I stepped into my high school weight room for weightlifting practice and realized I got to do what “the boys were doing” was epic.

Following high school, I was fortunate enough to have collegiate strength coaches who helped further evolve my weight training into passion. Since those first few moments, I knew the weights, weight rooms, and lifting were only meant for a special crowd, and I'm pumped to be a part of that, pun fully intended.

Below are a few reasons why I choose to lift the heavy things up and put the heavy things down:

  1. You can't underestimate weight. Underestimation has happened in most aspects of my life. Those comments and thoughts have only driven me to become better and want to work to overcome the mere projections of what others don't think is possible. So, to me, lifting allows for a measure that is the same in everyone’s book — male and female. No ifs, ands, buts, or sos; the weight weighs the same amount day in and day out. And heavy never lies.
  2. Builds my mental strength and confidence. Yes, obviously lifting will increase your physical strength and “improve your aesthetic,” but leaving the gym after a [heavy] lift and feeling how expended your body is, you build the capacity to tell yourself that you can recover and you will do it all again the next day, and the next day, and so on. Pushing my limits and working through a tough training session, almost always leaves me in a better headspace — regardless of where my mind was at when I started. Knowing I can recover from physical and/or mental draining, assures that I can continue to build on the foundation I have already set.
  3. Created opportunities. Lifting has given me opportunities for a career, to show off, to be shown up, to challenge myself, to challenge others, 900 other things I can't list right now, and the ultimate opportunity to be a part of a pretty rad community. It's given me the chance to be better than I thought I was, it's given me the chance to me humbly humbled, and it's given me the chance to feel comfortable in any gym that I step into. All of these opportunities have converged to teach me lessons I wouldn't have otherwise learned.

All in all, lifting has given me a level playing field and is one of those things that not everyone understands, but then again, it's not something everyone is meant to.

Keep lifting the heavy things up and putting them down. Peace, blessings, and iron.”

James Wise

Former two-sport NCAA Division I Athlete and mental health advocate

“Nine years. It’s been nine years since I started suffering from depression. These past nine years have been the hardest years I’ve ever been through. Nine years of a constant roller coaster of emotions from rock bottom to the top of a mountain.

Looking back from the start of this journey, there has been one constant thing that has helped me no matter where my emotions were at: the gym. The gym is an escape from the world and it’s a battle with yourself.

Although at first I solely used the gym to better myself as an athlete and to improve my game, the gym has molded me into the person I am today and has become more than just a gym. The gym has become therapy, a reality check, and more importantly, a getaway.

The gym has taught me to hold myself accountable, and the weights don’t change. 100 pounds will always be 100 pounds; one mile will always be one mile. The gym has made me become disciplined and has both knocked me down and lifted me up.

When I first started working out, the gym was solely for the purpose of becoming a better athlete. As time went on and my depression became worse, I started to work out more, which I realized was beneficial for both my mental and physical health. The next step in my journey was moving on toward a strength training phase that consisted of resistance training, speed work and getting as strong as possible.

With this new workout regime, I started to see results really fast because it was a new type of training I wasn’t used to. For a year and a half, my two coaches molded me into the athlete I am today and they helped me build a strong foundation.

Unfortunately, the chapter of my life closed when my two coaches closed down their facility and moved onto a new page in their book. I felt lost. I trusted whatever they said to do and knew they had my best interest at heart so working out on my own now was a challenge.

For about two years, I plateaued. These two years brought out my depression to a place I hated. I saw no progress for two years, didn’t get stronger, my body didn’t change, and my mental health just became worse.

Just when I thought things would never get better, I walked into school for my sophomore year of college entering my second year as a Division I athlete. As a team, we walked into the weight room not knowing what to expect because we had a new strength coach.

The first day was the team lift; I knew it was going to change my life. Coach Max Barnhart set the tone from the second we walked in. No music, no sitting, no leaning, all business. This is the environment I missed, and I knew would make me a better person. I bought into everything Coach had to say, and so did my team. As time went on, instead of going to lift with my coach, it turned into going to lift with my best friend. My attitude changed. I saw progress again and started to get confidence back again.

Going into junior year of college, I knew what to expect going into the year and so did my team. From Day 1 of junior year, the tone was set. We were built on discipline, accountability, and that everything was earned NOT given. I started out in the fall with an arm injury and thought I would lose all my progress that I made in the gym. I lost 25 pounds, and my depression gradually became worse because I couldn’t even go to the gym to clear my head. Finally, I was able to work out again.

Powerlifting was the next phase of my life and my work out regime. Powerlifting was taxing on my body, but it was also very rewarding. Coming back from an injury, my max squat was 415 pounds. My goal was 500 pounds by the end of the school year and I knew nothing was stopping me from reaching that goal. It gave me focus, it gave me a drive, and it gave me something to look forward to and something to work for.

Even though I was still playing Division I baseball at this time, lifting became my main focus. Day in and day out, all I would think about is squatting and the gym. The gym was where I spent most of my time. Even when my workout was over, I would sit there and talk to Coach. We would talk about everything, mental health, working out, school, family, everything you can think of. I picked his brain and looked at him as a role model.

As my junior year went on, Coach and I have become closer and closer and my goal of squatting 500 pounds became more realistic. I saw change, I saw progress, and I saw happiness. Finally, it was time to try a 500-pound squat. I failed and then failed again, but it was OK because I knew failure was part of life. Failure made me stronger, and in my mind, I knew I was still going to hit my goal.

A few weeks passed, and it was time to attempt my squat again. This time, I had my whole team surrounding me and my best friend behind me spotting me. I knew nothing was stopping me this time; I was accepting failure. I did it. I squatted 500 pounds and it was one of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in my life.

My powerlifting journey has now ended as well as my baseball career. Entering my senior year of college, I was scared. I didn’t know what to expect. My depression thankfully was in a good place but I was still scared, which caused anxiety. My best friend was no longer my strength coach, and my 16-year baseball career was over all at the same time.

Being an athlete all my life, I still have that competitive drive and couldn’t stay away from the gym and competing, so I decided to join track and field and throw the javelin. It was something I have never done or even thought of doing, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

Looking back, the depressed 13-year-old I was would have never thought I was good enough to be a Division I athlete, and now I am a two-sport Division I athlete. As well as starting a new sport, I also started a new style of training. I started track and field as well as the bodybuilding type of training both at the same time.

Bodybuilding was a style of training I wasn’t used to, but it was a good change. I found a workout partner: my teammate who also threw the javelin. My workout partner was bigger than me and weighed 40 pounds more than me, so it gave me motivation to lift more weight to catch up to him. I had no goal in mind except to look good and feel good.

Now school ended, I am a college graduate and no longer an athlete for the first time since I was four years old.

Training bodybuilding by myself got old real quick. My depression was still around and now came out a little more. I lost motivation to go to the gym by myself. I was still pushing decent weight while I was there, but I lost the drive I always had. I had no motivation. I lost the desire to go because I felt like I wasn’t working toward anything.

I decided to try something else. I started CrossFit. The environment of CrossFit is what made me start. Music blasting, learning new movements, competing against other people, and being around people that push each other every day made me so happy instantly.

I have new goals set with hopes of eventually competing in CrossFit competitions. In such a short amount of time since starting CrossFit, I’ve learned new movements I never thought I can do, I’m in better shape than I’ve ever been, and I feel free. I feel happy, I feel confident, and I feel relieved. I’m in a better mental state than I think I’ve ever been.

I chose to start working out for sports, but it has turned into a whole different life that I never expected, and I am forever grateful for the gym.

This workout journey has been a journey full of ups and downs, just like life is. This workout journey has helped my depression and I strongly believe that everyone should do some type of working out, no matter what type of working out it is.

For the first time in my life, I now feel proud of myself after looking back at what I’ve been through and where I am today: a college graduate, an emergency medical technician certified in mental health first aid, and a two-sport Division I athlete.

Mental health will always be a part of my life, but constant goals and challenges from the weight room will always be my therapy and my getaway.”

Steven Crocilla

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt

“In my field as a jiu-jitsu instructor lifting heavy was often scoffed at. The maxim was ‘to get better at jiu-jitsu, you need to do more Jiu-Jitsu.’

For all intents and purposes, that worked until I tore my first ACL. Then I began to lift weights inconsistently to counteract the imbalances forming. After tearing the other ACL, lifting became more of a necessity to just hang on to the abilities that I felt slipping away from me with each class.

I lift heavy now for a few key reasons:

  • For my ego: To maintain my place in the pecking order, to stay behind the people who started before me, to catch the ones who have slowed down in their training, and to keep distance between the new up and comers.

  • For my spirit: It feels good to see numbers on my lifting journal creeping up. Just like saving money, the more you do it, the more excited you are to do it.

  • For my body: Lastly, for longevity in sport. I want to continue to train for the rest of my life, so lifting heavy is the armor to prevent the slings and arrows from slowing me down.”

Anthony Godino

Strength and conditioning coach, former NCAA Division I All-American, Baseball

“From a personal perspective, I need to exercise. It has become a staple in my life; no matter how busy I am throughout the day, I always make time to exercise. I was an athlete growing up; I played football, basketball, and baseball, and I ran track, winning accolades in each sport. I excelled in all sports, with baseball being the one I excelled in the most. I played Division I baseball at Wagner College, where I became an All-American.

One of my favorite parts of being an athlete was the training. I loved the competition and the fight that took place while lifting weights. It taught me how far I could push myself and how much pain could I withstand in order to get the results that I wanted.

This translated into my everyday life. It taught me how to be resilient and withstand life’s challenges. I would adapt and conquer all types of adversity.

In my opinion, I believe people lift weights to see what they can do when they are faced with a challenge and to discover what they could become or transform into.”

Matthew Delfino

Former NCAA Division I Track and Field Athlete and valedictorian

“There are many things in life that are uncontrollable. These uncontrollable things cause many points of frustration for us throughout our days and years. No matter how much effort you put in and how much you may feel you are worthy of attaining a specific goal, your inputs don't always match your outputs. There are so many A-students that are incredible geniuses. In spite of that, they don't always end up with the best jobs or the jobs they want.

Lifting to me has always been one of the most controllable things that I believe your inputs can match your outputs. Everyone’s strength levels start somewhere, which can be based on a multitude of factors (size, composition, genetics, lifestyle, etc.). However, when you dedicate the right level of effort to lifting, you generally get to control your outputs. You start with your baseline, set a goal, and develop a program to attain that lifting goal. Depending on where you're at, you can see improvements in a matter of days, weeks, or months.

In my professional career, I've yet to find another aspect of life where something replicates this. Lifting is exhilarating. Lifting heavy is commendable and draws attraction from our peers and happiness within. I believe at the root of what brings us this happiness is how measurable this activity is and how controllable our goals can be.”

Alex Ecklin

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt

“Adding supplementary strength and conditioning training is crucial to me. As a full-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu athlete, I like to add on two to four additional cardio and weight lifting sessions each week.

For me, there are several reasons. Firstly, I feel like with additional strength that I acquire from lifting weights, the rate of injuries decreases as my body is primed.

Secondly, I have added confidence in my martial arts training since on a mental level, I know I have been putting in additional work. And of course, the increased cardio and strength attained are not bad, too.”

Christian Alcala, mixed martial artist:

“I mean, my main motivating factor to lifting is to get better and stronger for MMA. A lot of people underestimate the power of the bar, and I feel like it’s taken my athleticism up many notches. There is a huge advantage to just being the more physical, stronger person.”

Ben Seiczkowski

Current NCAA Division I Fullback

“One, it keeps me productive because I can wake up, workout, and feel like I accomplished the first task of the day. Two, I lift heavy because I like being fucking big. And last but not least, it keeps my head clear of negative energy.”

According to the preceding, reasons for lifting are varied; however, if we analyze the responses further, it is clear to see a ubiquitous catalyst for grabbing hold of a barbell — to augment mental and physical strength.

While this may not surprise most, it is reassuring, even validating, to hear that the aforementioned people, all accomplished and driven in their avenues of interests as well as in their pursuit to be upstanding human beings, gravitate toward iron for the same intents that many of do.

One point explicated above that illuminated much personally is that lifting is a source of control in what appears to be an increasingly chaotic world. If you are fortunate to be surrounded by driven individuals, ask them their reasons for deciding to lift. Anyone is capable of enlightening you on a subject you believe you know enough about.

A final note of interest: irrespective of the reasons one began, the iron never left their lives after entering it.

If you or a loved one is at risk for suicide or needs help, reach out to these resources.  All hotlines listed below are available 24/7 and are confidential unless otherwise noted. In case of an emergency, call your local authorities.

Max Barnhart, MA, CSCS, has been involved in collegiate strength and conditioning at the NCAA Division I level for eight years. In addition to coaching, Max has been fortunate enough to publish two articles in NSCA publications and to conduct his master’s thesis on the reduction of the bilateral deficit and concomitant effects on extroversion and personality type. Max’s true passion is the optimization of student-athletes’ athletic and personal potential through strength training and through raising mental health awareness among such populations.

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