Two years after I'd signed that first gym contract, I'd mastered all sorts of freak-show Cirque du Soleil balance-ball exercises. I could knock off a dozen squats while standing on a giant inflatable Swiss ball and holding 20-pound dumbbells, and the guy I saw in the mirror was a certified badass. But in reality I wasn't much more than the perfect health-club customer: a middle-aged man with a fast-fading ability to paddle a surfboard into big winter waves at San Francisco's Ocean Beach. I was getting weaker with every passing year.
My conversion moment came in a garage-like industrial space next to an ATV rental yard in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I was lying on a concrete floor, near puking, having just humiliated myself on the king of all strength exercises, the old-school back squat. "The best thing I can do for an athlete," coach Rob Shaul said to me as I struggled to get up, "is to make him strong. Strength is king, and you're fucking little-girl weak."
Shaul makes a living by designing strength-and-conditioning programs for Special Forces units heading to Afghanistan. He also owns Mountain Athlete, a private gym in Jackson, Wyoming, where he trains pro ski racers, sponsored ice climbers, full-time international mountain guides, and Jackson locals who keep fit so they can play hard in the Tetons.
I'd come here because I'd gotten a call from an old climbing buddy, Christian Santelices. Santelices had left the Bay Area and moved to the Tetons, where he'd worked his way up to the top mountain-guiding job in the United States, co-chief guide for Jackson's Exum Mountain Guides. I admitted to him that three-hour climbing-gym sessions and four-hour surfs were a thing of my past, but said I was making serious inroads on using the gym. I was inventing killer stability-ball exercises, I told him, stuff he wouldn't believe. "Funny thing," Santelices told me on the phone. "I'm in a gym a lot too. Working with this guy who specializes in training people for mountain sports. Maybe you ought to come check it out."
I jumped on a plane, slept in a motel, gulped a crappy coffee, drove down a lonely highway, and presented myself. Beneath the Mountain Athlete banners, I saw nothing but dumbbells, barbells, iron weight plates, braided climbing ropes hanging off the ceiling, pull-up bars, and dip bars. No mirrors, no TVs, no music, no elliptical trainers, no weight machines, and, to my annoyance, absolutely no rubber bands or stability balls.
That worried me. How do you get sport-specific without rubber bands and stability balls, or at least Bosu platforms? And, shoot, I'd really been hoping to show Santelices and Shaul my stability-ball dumbbell squats. They take serious core stability.
No decor either, I noticed: just a few thank-you letters from military units, a wall-mounted baby pacifier with a sign saying "Emergency Use Only," and a piece of paper with Shaul's strength standards for men (BW = your own body weight):
Front Squat – 1.5x BW
Dead Lift – 2.0x BW
Bench Press – 1.5x BW
Running the numbers in my head – I weigh 205 – I was about to raise my hand. Ahem, Coach? Yeah, I'm just wondering about your strength standards, see, because, uh, yeah. You can't be serious.
Then Shaul started the session, calling me and a dozen others onto the floor. Shaul grew up in Wyoming, served in the Coast Guard, and spent years as a self-described gym rat, devouring every training book he could find before he opened Mountain Athlete. Shaul's gift for this work comes from his unique background as a fitness fanatic who happened to grow up in Wyoming, surrounded by elite-level mountain athletes. He has close-cropped hair, a face that always looks as if he's just been sucker-punched out of a slight drunkenness, and a military demeanor. He ordered us over to the barbell racks, telling us to work our way up to the heaviest squat we could do once. I realized that I had never done this particular test in my life. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more certain I became that I'd never even done plain old squats. Wasn't it far better to squat on a stability ball and get all that additional balance and core work?
Fifteen minutes later, I had my answer: I possessed the weakest legs in the room, bar none. As a sport-specific stability-ball superstar proudly squatting a grandma-level 40 pounds, I had developed a pair of wobbly, hide-your-head-in-shame chicken sticks, even in comparison to a couple of short middle-aged women Shaul was training for climbing and trail running. The rest of the session – more barbell moves, along with push-ups, pull-ups, and dips – revealed more of the same. I was, in a word, weak. Not even middle-aged-lady weak – little-girl weak.
But Shaul gave me a great gift that day, cluing me in to a little secret: True sport-specific training, for literally everybody except elite athletes, isn't sport-specific at all. It's about getting strong, durable, and relentless in simple, old-school ways that a man can train, test, and measure. Nobody does crunches training this way, nobody watches television from the stationary bike, and 60-year-old women dead-lift 200 pounds and more.
Shaul was the smartest man I'd met in terms of getting truly fit, but I wasn't about to move to Jackson. And I didn't want a coach, anyway; I wanted to become my own coach. And now I knew this wasn't about a gym or about gym equipment; it was about an ethos, an understanding that nothing on Earth beats the fundamentals, a commitment to regular, measurable improvement in everything that a gym trainer won't teach, for fear you'll walk away bored: push-ups, pull-ups, bench presses, squats, dead lifts, and even such military-seeming tests as just how fast you can run a single mile.