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. 


Today is Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day depending on where you live in the world. I’m sure you’ll see events on television or experience moments of silence. I’ll ask two things of the American readers:

1. Remember the the cost of creating our country. While this is a stereotypical sentiment, consider the individual sacrifices it took to have a country of our own. Freedom from tyranny was worth dying for and it was worth the struggle to create a republic with individual rights and opportunity.

2. Consider the individual sacrifice it took all those years ago in a rebellious fight for freedom. Now look at the image above and think about every single battle that has been fought since to preserve that freedom, that way of life. Wars and battles occur for a multitude of reasons, but the men and women who lead this country chose war and violence in order to protect and preserve our freedom (even if that reason only made up a small part of that decision). The sacrifice doesn’t lie with the country, but the individual and his family. You can read the book 1776 by David McCullough to read about the sacrifices of George Washington and his band of starving farmers. You can read Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose to read the story of how Dick Winters and Easy Company fought and survived through World War II. Nowadays you can go to any base or post throughout the country and see the personnel who continue the, for lack of a better term, tradition of upholding our freedom. These are Americans who have chosen to not only risk their lives, but ironically give up their own freedom to a country that aims to preserve liberty. The real hero in America is the mother who holds steady with two children while her husband deploys halfway around the world. The real hero is the husband who kisses his daughters one last time as he he leaves for his year long PCS in Korea. The Americans serving in the military and their families bear the individual sacrifice of preserving freedom so that you don’t have to think about it. And that’s what makes them heroes.

Today think of the past and think of the present. Place your politics aside and be thankful that these people exist, and they always will.

Military Guys

Edit: I didn’t preview the post and the formatting was all jacked up. Woops. I’ll put the blame on what is apparently the flu that I came down with yesterday.

I get a lot of e-mails from guys that are in the service, and they usually have some unique circumstances. Some times guys want to get stronger while keeping their bodyweight in check because of annoying regulations. Some times they need to get ideas on programs that don’t have access to a typical training facility. Other times they just want to get bigger and stronger and have the room to grow. In any case, it’s always a pleasure to help them (I enjoy helping people in general).

I got an awesome e-mail recently from a Captain in Afghanistan. It was deadlift day for the group of lifters that includes some “runners that have been converted over to lifting”. You have to admire their intensity — they don’t fuck around.

How awesome is this?

These are the guys you want to go fight for you. Luckily they got to finish up with a meal of fried chicken, ribs, and mac and cheese. God bless America.

I wonder if they got to have any beer with that. I’d like to drink beer with this bunch.

Here’s 1LT McGraw out in Iraq training hard on a linear progression.

I’ve coached and worked with lots of military personnel and they are always a joy to be around (one of my best friends is an AF guy). All you deployed guys take care out there.

Military Strength

“Excuse me, I’d like to speak with your manager, bleh-bleh-bleh-bleh-bleh.”


I’m over here in Iraq and a big Starting Strength fan. I’ve really made leaps and bounds in my strength and overall GPP by following Starting Strength and slowly reintegrating metcon workouts from my past as an underweight Crossfitter. I’ll be pushing my platoon to focus on strength and threatening them with disciplinary action if I catch them doing any workouts from Muscle and Fitness, and instead I’ll put up some posters of Magnus Samuelsson and Doug Young.

It’s been great discovering your 70’s Big site. It’s been good for a laugh and for some solid information. Hopefully I can find a way to choke down some more of the chow hall food here to help with my muscle mass gains…unlikely.

“LT”, 82nd ABN, Iraq

We have continued to see more and more military personnel realize that improving strength is going to have the biggest impact on improving performance in the field. This sentiment is echoed throughout the different branches, elite or otherwise. Think about it — we 140 pound guys are expected to haul 80 pounds of gear in 110+ weather on a routine basis. Is running or conditioning going to help him do that?


Here is a picture of Yosh (not to be confused with Yoshi) pulling 480 at a body weight of 165 at the 2009 Pride Powerlifting Bench and Deadlift Raw Nationals (he signed up for the deadlift). Don’t worry, he said he is on the way to 200 pounds.

Yosh pulling 480 at 165 lbs

Yosh pulling 480 at 165 lbs


“Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

When I first moved to Wichita Falls, I weighed 195 pounds. I began the linear progression, and ate a lot of food. I ate six eggs every morning, beef quesadillas, a gallon of milk a day, and lots of other stuff. For two or three months I ate those six eggs. It started to get monotonous, so I started trying to put things on them to mask the taste. I tried at least five different kinds of salsa. All were good (I’m in Texas, after all), but each one would turn bland after the second bottle.

It wasn’t long before I started to loathe eggs. It became a struggle to wolf them down every morning. Soon, I hated them. Despised them. I couldn’t have them in my mouth because trying to swallow them nearly produced a gag reflex. That was the damndest thing ever; I had been eating at least three or four eggs every day for the past three years, and now they were suddenly becoming grotesque.

This has happened periodically with food throughout this year. It’s natural to start disliking something because it is repetitive and monotonous. In fact, my friends Chris and AC have both become jaded with eggs too. In my case, I had to start eating something else. For a while I just ate cheeseburger patties for breakfast (with barbecue sauce). I started eating eggs again a few months later, but always with bacon.

Weird set backs are going to happen when you are strength training. You might start hating food that you have always loved. Whatever. Just make a change and keep eating.


Randy and Josh are in Afghanistan doing the linear progression. This is what they do for fun.

Randy consumes raw meat because he is raw.

Randy consumes raw meat because he is raw.

Josh refuses to get off the scale until it goes up. Randy didn’t have the heart to tell him he was already holding the bag.

Josh refuses to get off the scale until it goes up. Randy didn’t have the heart to tell him he was already holding the bag.

Oh, and just so you guys know, my abs are still sore (on Sunday) from front squatting and rack pulls on Friday night. With my belt. Because it makes my abs go to sleep.

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