big numbers on the board

You wanna know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton. I never saved anything for the swim back.Vincent, Gattaca

Watch this 10-minute video about Westside Barbell, the controversial powerlifting gym in Columbus, Ohio. Run by iconoclastic strength coach Louie Simmons, this bare-bones facility in the middle of nowhere isn’t really a gym as much as an invitation-only private club. If Simmons thinks you have potential as an elite powerlifter, he’ll offer to train you in his idiosyncratic methods for free. These include arcane Soviet conditioning techniques as well as lots and lots of steroids. Under Simmons’s tutelage, you’ll wreck your body, but you’ll get insanely strong first.

The purity of intention on display at Westside is something to see. These athletes have sacrificed everything, including their physical well-being, in pursuit of being the best. Nobody looks at that gnarled guru and thinks, “I want to look like him one day.” Simmons gave his body to the sport as a sacrificial offering. All he gives his students is the opportunity to do likewise. They’re honored to have it.

There’s no money in powerlifting. Not much respect in mainstream culture, either, thanks to Westside’s unapologetic use of steroids. No real fame awaits beyond the hardcore powerlifting crowd. And, let’s be honest, no one is going to cast these broken and twisted strongmen in the new Game of Thrones prequel. These athletes, many former criminals and addicts, are doing it for the doing of it, and I find that integrity admirable. Even the steroids indicate a kind of integrity, a willingness to do whatever it takes. No limits. These guys aren’t interested in trade-offs or balance. They’re unconcerned by appearances or chronic pain. They don’t want to optimize anything. They just want to get stronger. They do.

“This gym has broke close to 140 all-time records,” Simmons explains, pointing to a chalkboard with records for various lifts written on it. “That board is my life right there,” he says. “That’s all my friends, all my memories, and all the accomplishments that I’ve ever done…and that’s all I care about.” Westside Barbell has nothing to do with leveraging athletic performance to build a lucrative speaking career or launch a protein powder delivery service. There, lifting is simply a purpose, an organizing principle. It’s a reason to get up in the morning.

“If you weren’t doing this,” the interviewer asks one powerlifter, “what would you be doing?”

“If I weren’t lifting weights?” he replies. “I’d be fucking dead. Or in trouble somewhere. I can’t imagine walking away from it.”

Recently, I’ve been placing greater and greater emphasis on word count above all.  Getting more words down on a daily basis has been a more effective solution to writing problems than anything else I’ve tried. Previously, I’ve spent too much time thinking about the writing and not enough actually doing it. The corrective is simple, if painful. More words. Write my way out of problems instead of thinking around them. It’s hard and exhausting and it works. As Seinfeld says, success is a “game of tonnage.” At Westfield, that’s literal, but the lesson may be universal. If something isn’t working as well as you’d like, start by doing a lot more of it.

In honor of Simmons’s record board, I’ve been chalking up my own word counts on a daily basis. (Yes, with The Chalk.) No matter how frustrating the day’s progress, I can still point to that big number on the board. Feels good.

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