Lessons From Lifting

Along with opening the site to reader submissions, I’ve asked various friends to contribute. Aaron is a PJ, or pararescue jumper, a Special Operations job in the Air Force where operatives are tasked with recovery and medical treatment of personnel in humanitarian and combat environments. His experience, attitude, and humor are unique and he can squat over 405. –Justin

I’ve been in the military for 11 years. I joined the Air Force after spending some time bouncing around Ohio where I grew up. I was always good enough at sports to make the varsity team – I swam and played water polo – but I wasn’t good enough to pay for school or to make a living out of it. I wasn’t challenged enough by college to care to keep going. For about 8 months in the start of 2001, I talked to recruiters, asked what they could offer me, took some placement tests, and scored well enough to get my pick of jobs. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go in despite coming from a family heavily entrenched in military and civil service. I wasted a lot of time that year. Then September 11, 2001 came and went, and like so many other young men and women I was gone a month later.

I chose the Air Force to try out for Pararescue, or PJ – a special operations job in the Air Force where operatives are tasked with recovery and medical treatment of personnel in humanitarian and combat environments. It’s arguably the hardest Special Operations job in the United States military. I was attracted by the difficulty, the attrition rate (more than 90% fail), and the mission. Saving lives, bringing home fallen Eagles, no matter the cost. “That others may live” is the motto. Small teams are asked to do impossible things only to succeed time and time again. It’s mentally challenging, physically demanding, and packed full of the world’s best training opportunities. It took all of 5 seconds for my recruiter to tell me about the job before I wanted to sign papers.

This is usually the point in the story where I tell you how I completed selection, realize my dreams, but it’s not. I failed the selection course for Pararescue, called “The Indoctrination Course”, or colloquially “INDOC”. I did not have the maturity, physical skills or mental preparedness needed to be a PJ, and I found that out in the harshest way over the course of my first year in the military. I love the saying, “failure is not an option.” I assure you, it most certainly is an option.

I spent 5 years in Washington, D.C. working a very cool but very “desk” job. I excelled, made a couple stripes, and was well set up for a very “easy” career in the Air Force. I loved the people I worked with, I loved the Air Force, and I loved my life. I even got married, had a baby – the whole deal.

At 3 a.m., on the night I graduated from Basic Army Airborne School, my wife looked at me as she held my then-three-week-old daughter, and said the one thing that changed all of our lives.

“It made you want to go back, didn’t it? Did jump school make you want to try INDOC again?”

I responded with some really pansy type, “Uh, babe, you know…”

“Shut up” was the only response from my wife. “Put the packet in. Let’s go back. But I am changing the locks on the doors, and you aren’t coming home to this family unless you pass. You can get your new keys at graduation. You are gambling on our lives here, and I won’t bet on anything but a sure bet. Let’s do this.”

Fast forward to now. 8 years after that conversation, I am a PJ with multiple combat deployments, and international SOF experience. I just returned from a deployment, and I am getting ready for the next one, as usual.

But now the question: why did I spend 300 words telling you this, and what does it have to do with 70’s Big?

Well, it has everything to do with it. Along my journey, a couple resounding truths kept my head right and kept me on the right track.

  1. 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.
  2. The second you lose sight of item 1, someone will call you on it and you will pay a penalty. In my line of work, that could conceivably mean a serious injury or death – or the worst possible scenario, that I would be unable to answer the call when it comes. It seems as if I got those two consequences in the wrong order. Trust me, I didn’t.

These lessons were taught to me at the gym. Not during some “cool guy” combat scenario or during a movie-type scene; I learned these things under a bar. Trying to find a way to push into a max-effort set; showing up an hour early to make sure I get my mobility work in; getting up hours before the sun because I don’t have enough time in my day; or refusing to miss a weight or a progression. These lessons were taught to me in the most unforgiving fashion possible. The weight is constant and the entry in your journal for that day is a pass/fail event. Would you like to skip today’s workout, or mail it in and only do 75% of what you had programmed that day? That’s fine. Just realize you will not be strong and you’ve increased your chance of failing. If you are ok with that, well, I’m not sure we are going to get along.

Throughout my career I’ve loved learning and passing knowledge on. Long ago I saw the value of strength training and have never looked back. Three years ago I found my way to 70’s Big and saw a community of like-minded individuals and have been an avid follower since. When I was presented the opportunity to contribute in any way, I was amped.

So, here we are. Hopefully, I can contribute some quality articles. I want to bring my military and Special Operations experience as well as my experience coaching athletes of all shapes and sizes – males, females, special operators, intel officers, housewives and grandparents. Hopefully my experience can help make 70’s Big readers better.

If not, at least I “showed up”, and that’s at least worth half credit.


Aaron is a Pararescueman (PJ), a special operations job in the Air Force where operatives are tasked with recovery and medical treatment of personnel in humanitarian and combat environments. He spends his free time eating meat and repetitively moving heavy things. 

23 thoughts on “Lessons From Lifting

  1. This is awesome. I love stories like this, because I’m currently going through a change of a similar type. I had the same level of excitement going to college and trying to get into my major (architecture), where the fail rate was around 70-80%. I was woefully unprepared, didn’t get in after the intro year, and reconsidered college altogether. Then something just clicked in me and I went into complete overhaul on my entire life, with lifting, nutrition, work ethic, mindset, even fashion. I got into the program the next attempt, and finished the year with top honors. Everything about me changed, and now I’m consistently improving in all of these categories daily, and my hunger keeps getting greater. I love it. And I love inspiring friends and family to do the same.

    So thanks for sharing that, it really hits home with me, and shows that the hard work really is worth it.

  2. Great article. I served 4 deployments with 3rd Ranger Battalion from 2003-2007. Just in case people don’t appreciate it, I think being a PJ is the HARDEST thing to get into in Special Operations. I’m sure people can debate this all they want, but from what I’ve seen of their selection, it’s just insane. Everyone has to do something hard, but usually it’s based around one modality (running, rucking, swimming, etc). PJ’s have to do ALL of this really, really well. I dare say I’ve never met a fitter (i.e. well rounded) group of people.

    My hat goes off to anyone that even has the guts to step forward and try out.

    • Readers can probably find out what INDOC entails online, but you could make a few GENERAL statements about selections: Army stuff is ruck based and SEAL stuff is water based (though they get into carrying gear after the initial phase) with lots of running (6 miles a day just to go to chow).

      There are other types of selections and the requirements vary, but parerescue is interesting because it has the “water haze” element, the running element, and even the ruck element. I definitely am not one to say what is “hard” or “harder”, but it is interesting having to prepare for swimming and under waters in addition to rucking and running.

  3. I saw the training for Parajumpers on an episode of Discovery’s “Making The Cut” and that shit looks intense. And I’m sure there was plenty of stuff that got left out for classified reasons, so I can only imagine how intense this must have been to go through, TWICE.

  4. Damn. Excellent article, just the kind of content that I need to hear and that inspires me to go live a better life. I struggle balancing lifting with school, but just showing up isn’t going to fucking cut it. Time to start sleeping faster and put in the work.

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  6. Well said sir! While not having served in the military, I cannot truly grasping the sacrifices and challenges you faced on a daily basis. I’m just a LEO but definitely understand the constant grind and proverbial drive you have to have to get your shit done and get better. Do I feel like getting my training in on early saturday afternoon after getting off from my shift at 0730? Shit no. But do I want to win the fight when someone tries to take my gun away from me? Absolutely…

  7. I can’t get over how awesome your wife is. Military spouses are a different breed, but wow, yours sounds like she is in a league of her own.

    my only regret after 8.5 years in the army, and 4 years before that at a service academy, is that I didn’t discover the “right” way to lift sooner. I’m glad you seemed to figure it out sooner, and it obvioulsy helped a great deal.

    great job heading back to selection and graduating. a rare feat in any selection course, im sure.

    • I haven’t personally asked him about this, but you might be taking it too literally. Being challenged doesn’t have to mean that something is hard. Being challenged can imply an appropriate stimulating experience that engages you enough to pour heart and soul into it. For a lot of people, sitting at a desk in core classes (usually the first two years of college) does NOT accomplish this. And if Aaron was having to pay for school on his own, then it totally wouldn’t be worth it. College isn’t for everybody, and I think it’s a mature decision to leave if it “isn’t for you”, depending on what you make of yourself after that.

      In this case, it’s valid (in my opinion). Though he could have articulated exactly what he meant, it isn’t the point of the post anyway.

    • 1. There’s “quitting” because you realise (for whatever reason) that you don’t want to do something anymore. No problem there – life is too short.

      2. There’s quitting becuase you really want to do something, but you think it is too hard etc. That is a problem.

    • Ill answer this one- cause I am Aaron.

      When I was working in DC, I had three close friends of mine compete in bodybuilding shows. I didn’t have a desire to compete, but we all became easy training partners. That’s where my love of lifting heavy weight began. It also got me doing the “right” things- keeping a log, cleaning up my diet, programming ahead of time vs winging it at the gym. In 2006 when I submitted my paperwork, I didn’t change much. I stayed on a very basic program focusing on the “big three” lifts, and hard, fast, short metcons. I hate running (violently hate it), but INDOC is very run heavy. So, I really focused on getting better at running. Being more efficient meant less effort. I wanted to be strong first, fast second. I took the last two weeks before reporting to San Antonio eating like a mad man and resting. I purposely wanted to go in with a little extra bodyfat, and I think that helped. I went in at 215 and came home twelve weeks later at 183. So short answer- I focused on strength, supplemented with intense but short duration metcons. I planned on living the “I won’t ever be first on a run, but ill be in the top 5 of everything else” goal I set for myself, and programmed to achieve that goal.

  8. Ever since I’ve been in the Air Force, anytime I read something about a fellow Airmen/service member or see a veteran I get teary eyed and almost cry. I usually do if I’m by myself. I got fired up and lost my shit when I read the wife’s quote. I don’t know why I do that but can’t help it.

    • Forrest Griffin, when he got knocked the heck out by Keith Jardine, famously woke up, cried, and left the ring. No interviews, nothing. A week later he was interviewed about the crying. “Yea, I cried- I trained for 6 months for this fight. You find something in YOUR life that’s important enough to cry over.”

      Maybe that stuff is just important enough to cry over.

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