Excuses? No.

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.“

That’s what a broken back and a little crack looks like. The yellow tint is from jaundice related to all the broken tissue.

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.

– Aaron



35 thoughts on “Excuses? No.

  1. I wonder what kind of processes the squat/deadlift set in motion that can fix a broken back sooner than conventional rehab. Release of HGH? Or was the actual bone already healed after those 6 weeks?

  2. Fucking gnarly man. Awesome story.

    WoodenShoes, part of it may be that the cartilage between joints (as in between each vertebrae) is not in and of itself very vascular, so it does not get a lot of nutrients by itself. However when you load a joint, the fluid in between, which is very nutrient rich, gets absorbed into the cartilage. This is why lifting (compound lifts, with proper form) are actually beneficial to your joint health. I suspect that this was just one mechanism.

    Also the psychology no doubt played a significant role. For me personally, there are few natural highs that get me higher than that after a strong session, and many studies have proven that happy people are healthier and bounce back from injury quicker than sad people.

  3. I’m a cynical asshole, but I don’t think many other people would have that kind of drive to get back to normal or better. I think most would have asked where the disability check line formed. I guess that’s another trait that separates special forces folks from every other person in this world.
    That was an awesome story, thanks for sharing.

    • I dont know why this made me mad but it did. Aaron’s first fucking post on the site was about how he ISNT special he failed his special forces selection the first time and took YEARS to prepare to make selection. You guys do this with everyone on this site. “omg AC/Chris/Aaron/AJ are just made for this sorta thing, normal people CANT do this.”

      Youre right people who say that CANT do this. But I do believe normal everyday people when they have a want to find a way to DO. Is this kind of a crazy story you dont always hear. Yes. But I think its a discredit to Aaron and others like him to constantly wax prolific about how they are not normal and THATS why they were able to do it.

      • not their sheer amount of effort which apparently only they can obtain through some divine ability they were given by the workth ethics GODZ.

        It sucks that in this day and age people dont look at this and go “WOA HOLY SHIT YEAAAAHHHHHH IMMA GONNA CRUSH MY DAY TODAY NOW!” they go “Meh thats why he is a PJ.”


        • I’m not sure why it made you that mad either. Is Aaron a normal guy, physically? Technically, yes, but he said that he and his doctors attribute his “few injuries” to his physical stature/abilities. He lifted 425 lbs 102 days after breaking his back so I’m assuming before the accident his PR was way more than that. That’s not normal to people outside of this website. Not all Spec.Ops. folks can do that, so that’s not what makes him abnormal to me. I believe it’s more psychological. Do normal people jump out of planes into potential combat situations? Succeed at something on the 2nd attempt when there is a 90% failure rate? I agree, like Cloud says below, that we need to all strive to be more than normal but implying Aaron is a regular Joe with a hard work ethic is selling him short.

      • I don’t think booter was saying “he only did this because he is SF”. I took it more as a reflection of our current world, where most people look for a handout instead of sucking it up and getting it done. Like that lady who ate all the cookies this morning: she could lock it in and better herself, but she would rather make excuses and eat cookies. I think it brings it back to the main idea of this article, no excuses, get it done.

  4. Aaron:

    Thank you for the inspiration. You are a truly impressive individual. I started strength training 51 weeks ago, fresh off a broken ankle, and I can empathize with the frustration that serious injury brings. I also had rhabdo once in high school, and I still have kidney issues from that incident (4 years ago).

    Thank you for serving.

  5. I’m impressed by the level of discipline Aaron demonstrated in terms of doing everything he needed to do not only under the bar but in addition to it (i.e. all the stretching, mobility work, conditioning, etc.). It’s not enough to get amped up for a workout, you have to have the mindset to improve 24/7 and do the little things that get you prepared.

    • Second that! Frankly, there are a lot of athletic people I know (myself included) with a variety of injuries, chronic pains & yet, very few are willing to put in the mobility, therapy work that it takes to fix themselves. I know when I’ve been injured I was angry to be missing days at the gym when I should have been mobilizing & icing the crap out of my problems at home. So I give a lot of props to anyone who will take an aggressive therapy approach to their pains, cuz it straight up sucks. It takes balls to get under 425 but it takes serious commitment to roll around on a lacrosse ball or sit on an airdyne for 30 mins a day. Thanks for the story.

  6. Aaron, first let me say congratulations for confronting adversity head on! Great job having the right attitude when things turn tough. I can 100% relate to this story probably better than most on this site – on May 6, 2011 I broke my pelvis in 5 places and 2 ribs. I was a road cyclist in college, and was racing at the national championships. I crashed on the first fast descent of the race, veering off-road going about 50 mph. I was in the hospital for one week and then quite immobile, like you, for weeks after. Not the same lack of movement that you were forced to go through, but definitely not normal for weeks to months. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but BE CAREFUL. I say this because I pushed too hard after my injury. My legs were strong and my cardiovascular system was ready to propel me back on the bike. I rode hard fast and long way too early back. I was fine for a while – I had quieted the cynics! I rode 100 miles on the 4th of July, two months after injury, and a few 120 mile fast rides the next few weekends. I was back 100%, right? Ultimately, I pushed too hard and messed up my back, not exactly sure how. All I’m saying is keep doing what you’re doing if its working, but truly be careful and don’t push too far. 440 might have been your version of what I did. I’m glad you’re on a strong road to recovery, keep at it!

  7. This isn’t a cool story, it’s an awesome reality. I have many friends with “oh my shoulder hurts” “oh my hips won’t let me get parallel” and such excuses. Posting this everywhere for all to see. You can overcome pretty much anything in life.

    …except disgust for 1/4-1/2 squats…that I can’t overcome.

  8. Pingback: Thursday 2.7.13 | Crossfit South Bend blog

  9. Fuck all the broken shit, I’d be in awe if you told me you took six weeks off in Hawaii and 77 days later squatted that heavy but after all that shit.. hell.

  10. This is great. A question for Aaron if hes reading these. What sort of mobility work are you doing on your T-spine? I had a few compression fractures there some years ago and have been muddling along with some stuff from mobility wod. Ive had some pretty good results so far, but its still painful, and the soft tissue work i do never really feels ‘as good’ as the stuff that my physio tend to do. Excellent article, thanks.

  11. Awesome story. Justin I have a question/concern I hope you could touch bases on. I’ve been following the site since 2009 and have been applying your principals as far as training and eating for pretty much the whole time. Being in the Marine Corps I had to of course watch my weight and keep my body fat down. That being said, I’ve managed to gain weight slowly and now I’m at 200lbs. My lifts are going up slowly. My concern is this…Now that I’m 200lbs, I’m obsessing about being super strong…more so then when I was 190lbs. My strength gains haven’t increased in the way I thought they were. I’m also trying to incorporate better eating habits. I usually follow some sort of intermittant fasting protocol. However lately, I’ve been so hungry after my fasted window…that I eat ungodly amounts of food….sometimes shit food. When you put on weight did your strength sky rocket? Or did it come in time? I guess anyone could chime in on this….

  12. Pingback: PR Friday, 7 Feb 2013 | 70's Big

  13. Pingback: Derby City CrossFit | Louisville | Workout of the Day – Tuesday 2/12/13

  14. Pingback: 12 Feb 13 “Why We Do What We Do” « Sage-Fitness

  15. Pingback: 70’s Big Attitude | 70's Big

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.