Discovering life beyond the barbell / by Dana McMahan

I went to Flint Barbell Club and all I got was a Tshirt. Just kidding – I got a bench PR!

As much as I love our garage gym and as amazing as my trainer is now, I really, really miss being around powerlifters. When I saw my husband’s old classmate from Flint, Michigan, was opening a barbell club, I immediately started following along on facebook. This looked like a cool place – exactly the kind of club where I’d want to work out.

I wrote to one of the partners, Marvin Coleman, who’d graduated with Brian’s sister (after noticing we had several Facebook friends in common – strength sports is a small world) and he was kind enough to ask me some questions about my powerlifting background, injury, and current training. He asked to see a video of my bench, and invited me to train with him when we went up to Michigan. He was the USAPL coach for the men and women open bench team so needless to say I jumped at this opportunity.

I’ve been doing the Wendler 5/3/1 bench program and seeing great progress, and luckily the timing worked out that I would try for a new max while I was there.

I walked into the gym with my husband and my nephew (who’s a very strong 13 year old that would make a great powerlifter) and felt immediately at home. With the back garage door open, sunlight poured into the space full of all the equipment a powerlifter, bodybuilder or MMA fighter (they all co-exist here) would need. I love the smell of a gym in the morning! Seriously, this is a dream gym.

Marvin asked me to warm up like normal and try my max. Despite the bench itself being a Cadillac among benches, I was nervous, and when Brian handed me the 105 pounds, I knew immediately I didn’t have it. We still haven’t worked out his hand-off technique, and I fight him for the bar. That’s no excuse, but it affects me. I was really disappointed. Since coming back from being hurt I’ve wanted to get back to my previous max of 105. With my feet up on the bench it takes a lot more upper body strength than it did before, but it’s been a milestone in my head to tell me I’m back.

“Do you want to try it again my way?” Marvin asked. That’s why I was there, so back to the bench I went, with a new, much wider grip, the bar aligned lower over my chest, and a tshirt rolled under my back to allow a little arch while still supporting my spine.  It felt bizarre. Negative thoughts crept in that there’s no way I could mix things up, go back through another warmup, and have enough left to hit 105.

But we kept at it, adding another shirt to the roll under my back, Marvin guiding the bar out to where he wanted it when my autopilot brought it back up nearly over my head. I got up to 95 pounds and did three. Surely I’d have nothing left. Not for nothing has this guy coached at a high level though.

“If you can hold 155 pounds for 10 seconds you can bench 105, no problem,”  he said. And sure enough, the guys loaded 155 – a weight I’d never have dreamed I’d hold above myself – and I braced myself against the weight.(My abs were incredibly sore the next day!) I made it 10 seconds. A rest, and back under the bar with 105 — which suddenly felt light. So wrapped up in the experiment we’d just done, I didn’t even really think. I just listened for Marvin’s cues, lowered the bar, paused in true competition style at the bottom, being sure not to relax, and started pressing. With some grunting and a lot of pushing, the bar slowly, if slightly crookedly, rose under my own power.

I’d done it! And, as Marvin was quick to remind me, I’d done it after two warm-ups, a failed attempt, and ten seconds under 155 pounds. “You’re strong,” he said. “It was all mental. And technique.”

Then we had the thrill of working out with Marvin and the other lifters. I was at least as excited, if not more, than my nephew, to be training alongside guys who are moving upwards of 500 and 600 pounds on the bench.  I wasn’t originally trained by a powerlifter so this one morning at the gym was like going to school. I wish I’d known the right set-up a year ago!

It was a great feeling to have reached my goal. This was the first goal I set for myself after surgery, and I did it ahead of schedule. It will do wonders for my confidence. But even better was working with Marvin and the guys (and gal) at Flint Barbell. They took me seriously, went to a lot of trouble to help me, and Marvin is going to help both Brian and me with a program and wants to see us back in a few weeks. I walked in a newcomer, with lingering feelings of being broken, and walked out feeling like a lifter again. And with a cool Tshirt, to boot!

Fun with chains. I love this place!


The next best thing to my PR was getting to bench 135. Even with three boards I would have never thought I could move that much weight, but it was SO FUN. My long term goal is to bench that much without boards!

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