Aaron is a PJ, or pararescue jumper. He wrote an inspiring article last week introducing himself to us as a new contributor. In it, he taught us “You have to stand up, do the work, and grind out every day of your life. Some say, ‘Half of life is just showing up,’ but the other half is putting out, and getting the work done. 50% is a failing score in real life; just showing up isn’t enough.” Well here’s the proof. Here’s his story about how he broke his fucking back…and squatted 425 pounds 102 days later. Life is full of potential excuses. It’s up to you if you use them, or if you get up and do something. – Jacob
I had already surpassed my own expectations for the competition. I already knew what everyone else squatted, and I had 2nd place locked down no matter what number I put up. After talking with Justin for about a week, going over training prep and weights for the meet, we had settled on a good 3 lift progression. Justin warned me a couple times, “This is pretty ambitious. Those are big jumps for a raw lifter.” He was right; we had planned on going 350, 380, and 405, and those were pretty large jumps. But, as sometimes things like this work, I got amped up and started feeding off the competition. I watched lifter after lifter fail at weights that weren’t anywhere near my totals. I turned to my friend Mike and said, “Hey man, this is crazy, but I am freaking amped. I want to jump to 405 for my second and 440 for my third.”
“Well,” he said, “do you think it’s safe? Do you think you have it in you? Why don’t you go 425 for your third?”
I immediately left him and went to the judges. I drove 405 out of the hole hard. The lift was never in question. So there I stood, ready for my third, staring down 425.
Let me back up. 102 days prior to this competition, I was lying in a hospital bed. I had taken a pretty nasty fall, and the doctors were concerned. A good doctor friend of mine was in charge of my overall care; she was not optimistic.
“Listen- you might never be allowed to fly again, let alone jump. I can’t even tell you if you’re going to be able to run, or walk up stairs without pain. What happened was very serious. We are going to do everything we can, but you have to be prepared for the worst possible scenario. This could be it.“
She was right. The tally read like this- I had broken the transverse processes off of everything south of L1 in my spine. I compressed 3 vertebrae 18% each in my upper back in between my shoulder blades. I had fractures throughout my iliac crest on both sides of my pelvis. I had hit the ground with such force I had offset my pelvis in my sacroiliac joint, and had instability as a result. I broke 5 ribs, separated my left shoulder, and damaged so much tissue that rhabdomyolysis was a serious concern for 5 days after the injury.
I spent a week in the hospital and was released to my home to continue my recovery on the strict guidance I could do nothing – nothing at all – for a period of 6 weeks. Lay down, wear a special brace, no lifting anything-not even my kids- and nothing but slow, careful walking. “If you don’t do this exactly as we prescribe, you may never be the same,” my doctor told me as I was leaving the hospital. I had narrowly avoided surgery.
So I played by the rules. For 6 weeks, I wore that stupid brace and I took it easy. For 6 weeks, I got more and more angry. The first to go was the pain meds. They made me so sick it was not worth the vomit for the 4 hour relief in pain. For 6 weeks, I talked to friends who called just to tell me how lucky I was. For 6 weeks, doctor after doctor saw me, and told me how lucky I had been, and what a long road I had ahead of me. At the end of 6 weeks, I saw my doctor again. She asked, “What do you plan to do for rehab? How many days a week?”
“Seven days a week, Doc. I’ll do it on my own. I want to be back on team in 6 months. It’s April now – I want to take my PT test and start running on team by November 1.”
She was a mix of dumbfounded and extremely angry. “That is unrealistic. You are setting yourself up for failure! What is it you think you’re going to do?!?” I was going to do the same thing I did before the injury, the thing I think saved my life. I was going to get underneath a barbell and lift.
For the next 3 months I learned how to walk again. I had to take very short steps; any time I slipped or found myself off balance, the pain was excruciating. I couldn’t run, I had issues lifting my knees above my hips, and I got so sore from minor things some days I honestly thought it would be better if I just passed out and woke up a day later. I had nearly zero thoracic mobility. I couldn’t sleep well for weeks on account of the broken ribs. Nothing was easy, but I started squatting again. It was the most embarrassing day I have ever had in a gym, squatting just the bar. 45 lbs. That was my work set for the day – 45lbs for 10 reps for 5 sets.
I kept at it, doing 5/3/1. I made gains. I had setbacks. As the pain slowly got less, my lifting got better and better. I had to focus on perfect form; I couldn’t afford to tweak anything or hurt myself worse. I did mobility work before and after my workouts. I stretched all day long. I started to feel like myself again. For a while, I could only do the elliptical machine for cardio, but I graduated to the bike, then to the rower, then to very slow walking on the treadmill.
And that finds us back where I started this article. 102 days after the injury, 77 days after I was allowed to start working out, there was a squat competition on base. I had been having a bad couple of weeks, and I wanted to do something reckless to show all the doubters in my life – of which I had many – just how healthy and strong I was.
Justin and I had set a hard limit of 405, seeing as I hadn’t gone over 365 since I hurt myself. We decided 405 was a victory, and that’s what I needed to shoot for. When I drove that second attempt of 405 through the ceiling of the gym I was ecstatic. Motivated. Angry. I wanted to breath smoke.
So, as I prepared for the lift at 425, I knew I had already won, and things might just be ok after all. As you can see in the video, I look an inch high. I laugh when I see this video; I immediately start taking my belt off and shaking my head. The judges counted the lift, but I didn’t.
Two months after this lift I jumped out of a plane again with my team. I was cleared in mid December to start my normal duties with no restrictions. I went from a doctor telling me I might not walk correctly ever again to full “up” status in a period of 7 months. For the record, I credit the team of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who helped me through this. It was a team effort, and every single person involved deserves credit.
At the present, I have pain every day. I have to do mobility work every day, and I need to focus on form and listen to my body. But what I learned from this event in my life I will never forget. I truly feel the strength I had, as a result of 3 solid years of linear progression barbell programs, saved my life. Many doctors were astonished I was able to take such a hit and somehow come out with the “few” injuries I had. Every time they asked me what I did for exercise, I would simply respond “I lift heavy weights. It makes me much harder to kill.” Some would chuckle; some would just shake their head.
Countless doctors, friends, co workers and others hear this story and ask what I was feeling like, what was running through my head when this all went down. When I was lying in that hospital bed, what was I thinking? My only response, in fact the very first thing I said to my doctor when she asked me what my plan was, was “I am going to come back from this stronger, and you need to lift to be stronger. That’s what I am going to do.”
And that’s what I did.