My Lifting Weights Journey
by our Ambassador Daniel Docherty
My eventful journey into lifting weights began around four years ago when I was just shy of 17 years old. The year was 2016 and I had just returned to yet another stress and anxiety eliciting year of school. That summer my mom had signed me and my two younger brothers up for a Saturday fitness class in the local shopping mall. It was run by James Fennelly, Former Ireland’s Strongest man and World’s Strongest Man competitor, who’s gym I would eventually join.
While I had competed in sports all my life in disciplines such as Football, Basketball, Karate, Gaelic Football, Hurling and even a few Tennis camps, I had never partaken in a workout involving weights before.
It was a completely new stimulus on my body and quite painful, but something I enjoyed more than the other sports and something I adjusted to quite quickly.
Prior to engaging in these fitness based classes my parents had become concerned about my weight and my mental health and that became the main driving factor in doing these classes and then joining the gym.
Growing up I was always short and stocky, being quite broad and strong but carrying a bit extra fat too. This was emphasised due to my stature and is no different today. Currently I stand at 5 foot 5 inches or 165 cm and 238lbs, 108kg or 17 stone.
Once I joined the gym I worked under a Personal Trainer named Gary. He introduced me to lifting weights with an initial 10 reps x 3 sets, 3 days a week, bodybuilding-esque split. On my first day I bench pressed 70kg and leg pressed 230kg which wasn’t massively impressive in my opinion.
Being a fairly stocky guy I did however put on size quite easily as I worked hard right from the start. I have always had a massive appetite which helps as well. I would never feel full and still don’t.
I went consistently week in and week out and would always push myself to lift more and work even harder than the last time.
My parents intentions were for me to lose the extra fat and become immensely fit, but the aerobic cardiovascular avenue never appealed to me.
I was never exceptional at endurance or long distance exercises, whereas short bursts of pace and power were my forte.
Contrary to my parent’s well meaning intentions I became obsessed with getting as big and as strong as I possibly could.
An obsession that is still alive and well today. Over the months I started getting stronger and the muscle hypertrophy work started paying off as people started noticing size gains. Those months inevitably became a year. By this stage I had incorporated more exercises into my routine and had become a good bit stronger. I still only went 3 times a week as a busy school schedule occupied most of my time, but I now did 10-12 reps x 4 sets.
The gym became one of my outlets to relieve my stress and Anxiety as it is a form of deep pressure. Pushing and pulling heavy weights not only helps my arthritis by strengthening the muscles around the joints, it also helps me to regulate my emotions and fulfil my sensory needs. At around 2 years of training I bench pressed 100kg for the first time and leg pressed 500kg for 5 reps.
Everything kept progressing at a steady rate and I started to become heavier. At this stage however I didn’t squat or deadlift due to arthritis in my lower back. As time passed I moved from the beginner stage in most lifts to the intermediate stage and my 3rd year of training was approaching.
As the weights started to get heavier, I would spend more time in the gym. Sometimes I would spend 3 or 4, maybe even 5 hours on extreme days. Something I still do. By this stage I had bench pressed 130kg and leg pressed 600kg for 10 reps.
Not too long after I progressed to 700kg for 10 reps and this is when I started deadlifting and squatting. At the start I could only deadlift and squat 140kg but I started gaining strength in these lifts with persistence over the months following.
These exercises tended to cause me a lot of joint and back pain so I kept the reps low and the weight heavy. Around this time I switched gyms due to my mom acquiring membership for the whole family in another facility.
This was quite a change at first due to the fact that the new gym doesn’t have the same level of equipment or amount of weights being primarily aimed at casual gym goers and hotel residents.
Despite the obvious drawbacks, it did force me to have to barbell squat and deadlift with there only being a pin Leg Press with a max capacity of 190kg. As a side note during this time period I managed to finally bench press 140kg and then 150 kg in quick succession which I was quite content with at the time.
This all massively benefitted my overall strength and with time I managed to overcome most of the pain resulting from my arthritis. I kept working at it and focused on making sure I deadlifted and squatted once a week.
Time soon passed and my progress on these two vital compound lifts improved exponentially. By this stage I was well and truly on my way pushing and pulling some big numbers. I managed to do 200kg on the squat and 230kg on the Hexagonal bar deadlift.
Things were really looking up and I was hoping to chase down the lucrative 250kg then the illusive 300kg squat and deadlift respectively but then disaster struck and many of my short term aspirations dissipated before right my very eyes.
The notorious plague that was soon to be known by everyone in almost every part of the world. That plague was Covid-19, a familiar terminology for a disease that has disrupted life in nearly every way and regrettably taken the lives of many across the globe.
The unfortunate, but necessary restrictions resulted in the closure of all gyms and so meant my goals and desires had to be put on hold. For around 5 months I was limited to a 10kg barbell and plates that amassed to around 40kg. All I could do was make the most of what I had and hope I wouldn’t lose the progress in size and strength I had made.
High reps and high sets were the order and a maintenance period began. I trained as hard as I could and as consistent as possible and the results paid off. On return to the gym after around 5 months I luckily hadn’t lost any strength and my muscle mass appeared to be somewhat the same. I thankfully didn’t suffer the fate of regression, but the lost time meant I had to start working even harder.
I’m now back at the gym around 3 months and I managed to do 5 sets of 5 reps with 190kg and 200kg for 3 reps on squats.
In terms of barbell deadlifts I recently did a relatively easy rep of 220kg and have done 200kg for 5 sets of 5 reps. I’m now 4 years (if we include the lockdown) lifting weights and it’s been a relentlessly arduous journey, but a very rewarding one.
Realistically I am only still at the start of my journey being just 20 years old, but it is a challenge I relish in and hope to continue doing for the entirety of my existence on earth.
My goals for the next two years are to squat 300kg, deadlift 300kg, bench 200kg and hopefully join a powerlifting club. I now go 6 days a week to the gym.
I’m setting aside this last paragraph to offer my advice and some tips about getting into lifting weights for those who are maybe a bit apprehensive about joining a gym. I must preface that in no way am I a professional or expert in this field.
This is merely my opinions and advice based on my experiences and research.
Whether you are Autistic or Neurodiverse like myself or whether you are a Neurotypical, the gym can absolutely be a place for you and can really change your life for the better.
When joining I would recommend doing so with a family member or a close friend in order to not feel alone or isolated.
Getting a personal trainer (if you can afford it) or someone to show you how to use all the equipment and execute the lifts with correct form is ideal.
Another tip is if you are anxious about the more stereotypical gym environment then it might be a good idea to start off in a hotel gym or leisure centre. These are more suited for beginners and people who weight train casually. At the very start it may be helpful to gage your approximate 1 rep maxes on some of the major lifts such as the bench press, squat, deadlift and overhead press.
The attempts should only be done under the supervision of a qualified staff member or personal trainer to ensure safety and technique. The reason for this is to estimate your working weight at the start and to help design a programme based on these numbers. In the first few weeks you should start off relatively light in order to focus on getting used to weight training and perfecting the proper techniques and intricacies of the lifts.
Once you have achieved an appropriate level of competence with each of the lifts, only then should you start to gradually increase the weight. The most popular form of this is progressive overload. This is where you try to increase each lift every week or every few weeks by a small increment, e.g. 2.5kg or 2 extra reps or an extra set, in order to shock the muscles and neuromuscular system forcing them to constantly keep adapting to the new stimulus.
Furthermore, another common mistake is to keep trying 1 rep maxes all the time. This will only lead to over fatigue of the central nervous system and ultimately regression. The most optimal method is to test 1 rep maxes at the end of your training cycle. This depends on your programme. Some programmes are in the 4-6 weeks range while others are in the 8-12 weeks range.
For a beginner 1-2 hours, 3 days a week is sufficient as the body is getting used to the new stimulus and during this period you will progress at a faster rate on average making “Newbie Gains”.
Make sure you train hard and recover harder. This means eating as healthy as you can, keeping your mind occupied and as healthy as possible and most importantly making sure you get enough sleep.
Sleep is vital for your body to recover from the microtears and fatigue you will endure from the gym in order to grow and become stronger.
Don’t compare yourself to others. The reason I say this is because it’s a negative realm to get stuck in and when you see people lifting more than you or looking aesthetically better than you do it is easy to think you are not good enough or that there’s something wrong with you.
The truth is that strength and aesthetics are very multifactorial and a lot of those factors are beyond your control.
Some of the factors include, height, body fat distribution, muscle body length, muscle insertions, limb and body length, bone density, myostatin levels, testosterone levels, diet and nutrition, training method, years of training, muscle fibres, intensity of training, ability to recover and of course performance enhancing drugs (P.E.Ds).
You don’t know what people take and a lot of the fitness industry lies about usage which creates unattainable expectations for people who look up to these athletes hoping to emulate their idols physique or strength.
The message is to only compare yourself to yourself and focus on the betterment of your body and strength in order to be the best version of you.
On the topic of P.E.Ds it is also pivotal to note that as a natural lifter like myself you have to work harder because your body is not getting the constant protein synthesis that an enhanced person is getting. Your recovery will also take longer than an enhanced individual for this same reason.
For people looking to get serious about lifting weights, whether it be powerlifting, strongman, bodybuilding etc, it is important to remember that it is as much of a mindset as it is physical. You have to train extremely hard to see the results you want. This means taking sets to failure and in some cases beyond. This means lifting heavy and squeezing out reps even when you feel you haven’t got any more.
This means getting up out of bed on a freezing cold, bleak Monday morning in the middle of winter while rain is beating down on you and getting yourself to the gym to give it all you have. This means essentially subjecting yourself to mental torture and living in constant muscle pain. And most importantly this means never giving up no matter how hard it gets, no matter what life throws at you and no matter what it costs!