Article By: Nathaniel Hancock
It had never been done before. El Capitan — the famous 3,000-foot granite face in Yosemite — once seemed impossible to climb at all, let alone solo and without ropes. But on June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold posed for a National Geographic photo — climbing shoes in hands, wide grin on face — atop the mammoth monolith after 3 hours and 56 minutes of flawless execution that crisp morning. His many years of meticulously detailed practice and planning had culminated in the realization of a dream that, three years after the fact, remains unthinkable to the lion’s share of humanity.
Why did he do it? How did he do it? Journalists around the world covered the incredible, death-defying feat, and the Free Solo documentary has netted almost $30M as of this writing. Nathaniel Rich of The Atlantic claimed that what we envy in Honnold is not so much his climbing ability, but rather “his ability to forget about death.”
It may seem over-the-top to compare the exploits of competitive lifters to Honnold’s awe-inspiring solo climbs; after all, what percentage of iron game participants transition to Valhalla after a one-rep max attempt? But make no mistake about it: loading more weight than your body has ever handled onto a squat bar and entering that special gauntlet — solo — requires serious commitment and extensive preparation, the lack of which has resulted in countless injuries (or worse).
While cliffs, crags, and escarpments lie squarely within the climber’s world, there is a very real precipice that lifters face as part of their iron journey. The fact that this dizzying overhang is more psychological than physical in no way diminishes its power.
EliteFTS founder Dave Tate calls this precipice The Void, or what occurs deep inside the lifter during “the moment between the chalk box and the bar.” Others may think of it as “Go Time!”, or the “This is what we came for!” juncture. When you get there, there is no looking back. No matter what you call it — this quasi-sacred moment for lifters — the requirement remains the same: the time for preparation has passed; the time to perform is NOW. No one else is going to lift the weight for you.
This concept of the precipice — of accepting what it is you have to do and doing it, no matter how hard — was on display for the world as Kabuki Strength founder Chris Duffin squatted 1001 lbs. for three reps on March 21, 2020. Powerlifting veterans and curious amateurs looked on as Chris worked methodically through his warm-ups. Finally, the moment arrived. At just shy of his 43rd birthday, and after years of world champion-level lifting, Chris culminated his astounding body of strength feats with a smooth and composed squat triple of 1 ½ cumulative tons. More impressive, he overcame homelessness, depression, and injury to do it.
While we cannot all be Dave Tate or Chris Duffin, seasoned lifters progressively add to their respective toolboxes over years and even decades. They have faced these “Go Time” moments innumerable times; because of this, their process and confidence normally rival those of their more junior counterparts.
Here are the lessons that have been learned — and earned — by literal blood, sweat, and tears:
- Prepare Wisely and Be Patient
- Develop Repeatable Processes
- Be Smart with Attempt Selection and Take Safety Precautions
- Cultivate Unshakable Trust and Belief
Prepare Wisely and Be Patient
Mahatma Gandhi was obviously not a powerlifter, but I believe he was spot on regarding the following point:
“To lose patience is to lose the battle.”
Gaining strength takes time — lots of time. Testing strength takes very little time, yet has the potential to produce a gratifying reward. Because of this dichotomy, many (often younger) lifters become tempted to test their strength time after time instead of keeping their eyes on the prize and waiting until the appropriate moment to cash in their strength chips. This is a mistake for numerous reasons.
First of all, when you are testing, you are not training — you are testing. Hitting a one-rep max does not build strength like putting in the proper body of work (including the appropriate mix of volume and intensity) builds strength. Proceeding to Rate of Perceived Exertion 10 when you should be living in the 7-8 range robs you of the ability to accomplish the volume of work necessary to continue increasing your strength levels.
Second, your Central Nervous System (CNS) is heavily taxed when you elect to do an all-out max attempt in such a way that future training sessions can be negatively affected for days and even weeks if sufficient rest is not achieved.
Third, form and technique breakdowns are most likely to occur on max effort lifts. All of us should spend the vast majority of our gym time “greasing the perfect form wheel,” and building efficient and effective motor patterns as we strive to imitate flawless form every rep of every set, as opposed to seeing what our strength threshold is too frequently.
Finally, demanding instant gratification in the gym proves counter-productive to developing a love for — and a dedication to — finding joy in the journey. The mind is our greatest tool, and if we enable ourselves to become lazy in our commitment to the long-term vision, then we will end up sidetracked, injured, or worse.
In sum, prepare for few-and-far-between max attempts wisely. Build your work capacity for many months in the off season to earn the honor of approaching the cliff, which — while exhilarating — is to be experienced sparingly if it is to prove a valuable and meaningful experience.
Develop Repeatable Processes
The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson summarized the value of repeated processes as follows:
“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.”
After decades of incremental progress in the iron game, I can state unequivocally that Emerson was right. Case in point: during my university years, as a lightweight bodybuilder and former marathoner, the most I was able to bench press was 300 lbs. It wasn’t until my late 20s that I finally managed a 3-plate, 315-lb. bench. Fast forward a decade and a half to July 4, 2020: on this Independence Day, I managed 14 reps at 315 lbs. Had the nature of the task changed? Nay. But my power to do had increased, due in great measure to a methodical approach to training and an emphasis on performing every rep the same (not to mention substantial bodyweight gain).
When we perfect technique and strive to make every rep — light or heavy — look identical, we begin to automate motor patterns and develop what is known as the “mind-muscle connection.” Said differently, what requires thoughtful tweaks early on (think of the beginner learning how to squat properly) soon becomes embedded in our beings (consider the world champion performing each rep), thereby freeing us from thinking about various movement cues as we train.
In addition to developing a repeatable physical set-up and execution process, we should consider devising a mental strategy that we can reproduce on demand. Each lifter is different, so learning the appropriate level of arousal for you to perform your best is critical. While some lifters thrive on yelling, snorting ammonia, or even being slapped on the back, others are most effective when they quietly approach the bar, stare into the knurling, and focus deeply in a way that goes unnoticed by the outside world.
Find your effective energy harnessing space, and go to that place each time the precipice beckons.
Be Smart with Attempt Selection and Take Safety Precautions
On June 11, 2016, I made a series of mistakes in the gym. The resulting injury that Saturday morning set my powerlifting goals back by months at best and years at worst.
Here is what happened: I got greedy. I had recently hit a squat PR, but I was not satisfied. I wanted more, and I wanted more now. Despite the questioning glance of long-time mentor Iain Burgess — the only powerlifter I know who has been competing since the mid-60s — I loaded 511 lbs. on the bar and decided to go for it. I failed to raise the safeties to the proper height, and instead of securing two robust spotters to watch the sides of the bar, I grabbed a dedicated-but-lightweight friend and placed him behind me “just in case.” The result? I failed badly, my spotter couldn’t help me, and I ended up crawling out beneath the low safeties with a painful herniated disc. I had the next three days in bed — immobile — and the subsequent months of ensuing light training sessions to ponder my poor decision-making. “This will not happen again,” I vowed.
The lessons of that fateful day were many. As mentioned above, patience is critical, as is the proper spacing of max attempts. But even when you have waited for the right moment and put in the work to deserve a crack at a new personal best, you must pick your attempts wisely and avoid overshooting what you have reason to believe is doable today. Listen to your body throughout the warm-up phase to ensure you are ready for the plan — the weight you have decided upon — now. Only then should you proceed to the precipice and execute.
Furthermore, an all-out max attempt requires all safety precautions to be in place. This serves two purposes: (1) you are doing all you can to avoid injury or death during the attempt, and (2) you are ensuring you can “relax” (not fret about the risks) and focus instead on your one job — getting the lift!
Cultivate Unshakable Trust and Belief
Once you have prepared properly, chosen the right attempt, and ensured adequate safety protocols are in place, you must trust completely in your ability to execute. This is not the time to think about the many cues you have implemented over the years to improve technique and performance; the preparation phase is over, and the execution phase — the precipice — is now fully in view.
Go to your special mental place, take a large belly breath, brace, BELIEVE, and let your body do what you have taught it to do automatically over thousands upon thousands of training reps. Do not rush the set-up or the start; take your time. Consider smiling with confidence — after all, you have earned this special opportunity. At this point, there is no need to think — thinking is not your friend at this juncture. Your friend is attaining the appropriate level of arousal (which is different for everyone) and ensuring that your focus is total.
When you learn to cultivate unshakable confidence in your ability to execute, you can “jump over the precipice” with the utmost assurance that you will land — not only alive, but triumphantly, with a new personal record under your 13mm belt.
William Hazlitt, the English essayist and philosopher, stated the following:
“As is our confidence, so is our capacity.”
Spend time studying the best sports psychology books to enhance your ability to execute when it matters most. Mental fortitude is a characteristic of athletic champions across disciplines. Make sure you develop it; your execution stands to improve substantially.
Your athletic exploits and sporting world fame might never rival those of Alex Honnold, who literally defied death and achieved a next-to-impossible feat of perfect climbing. But you are nonetheless part of a rare breed — those willing to approach the precipice again and again, in training and competition, in order to continue breaking through barriers in and out of the gym.
Preparation and patience. Repeatable processes. Wise decision-making. Unwavering confidence
These are the keys that will propel you to victory. Embrace them and thrive; ignore them at your peril.
“The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it, because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.” – Hunter S. Thompson