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TRUE Strength: How To Develop Strength That Transcends The Gym

Zach Even-Esh Trap Bar Deadlift
Just shy of five years ago, the news was reporting that a storm would hit the tri-state area.

I had been through snow storms and blizzards many times. Schools shut down, people stay home, and then you go out and shovel. Eventually the snow melts and we move on, no big deal. A hurricane, on the other hand, is something I had never experienced.

On the news, I’d seen reports about the aftermath of hurricanes, but there’s a world of difference between seeing something on TV and experiencing it first hand.

My kids were young at the time, ages six and four. Just babies. As the days drew closer and Hurricane Sandy was making its way towards the "Jersey Shore" you could feel the tension in the air. There was an eerie calmness that I couldn’t explain or describe.

Contractors drove around and people flagged them down to nail plywood over the windows on their houses. The supermarkets quickly ran out of food. People drove near and far to buy generators to prepare for power outages. Gas stations ran out of gas as families stocked up.

I recall the night we set up our beds and blankets in the basement in case the winds broke the windows. I remember the sounds of the wind and how the building shuddered as the wind picked up speed and hit our home. It sounded like a train was literally charging through the house.

I stayed slightly optimistic and felt that "this too shall pass." I would wake up and things would be OK and everyone would just move on, like all the snow storms I experienced since childhood. We woke up that morning and it was sunny yet strangely quiet.

There was no power. For much of New Jersey—especially in and near beach towns—it was the same. After scrolling through Twitter, I saw how my small town was hit extremely hard, especially the mile closest to the beach.

That area was blocked off for two weeks after the storm so it didn’t immediately hit me as hard as when I finally saw the aftermath firsthand. I filled the generator’s gas tank about 3/4 full and carried it outside to power up a section of the house.

I remember how heavy and awkward that generator felt. As a strength athlete, was glad I lift heavy odd objects all the time.

In fact, for the previous Summer, I had always left a barbell loaded up with anything ranging from 225-325lb on the garage floor. A few times a day I would walk by the bar and hit a few reps of the deadlift with no warm up.

I did the same with pull ups throughout the day. This is called "grease the groove", or in simpler terms, "training to be dangerous". You want to train your body to be ready in less than optimal conditions.

I wanted to train myself to be strong without the perfect warm up, or any warm up for that matter. As I carried the heavy generator, I also wondered who out here was struggling to carry a generator? Someone in their 40s or someone in their 70s? Nowadays, it’s hard to say who might be fit for life’s unexpected turns. In this day and age, many young adults are weaker than men in their 60s who regularly experienced manual labor.

After the storm, the social media news feeds weren’t sharing much positive news, unfortunately. For whatever reason, I began to feel the stress—the stress of being an entrepreneur, the stress of seeing homes destroyed—and I internalized a lot of it. I often ask athletes, "What’s tougher, that set of twenty squats, or the last argument you had with someone?"

It’s amazing how emotional stress feels tougher on your body than the stress of a physical workout.

I certainly felt the stress and let it get to me.

The news feeds showed the entire area within a mile the beach in my hometown was heavily flooded. Most people were forced to evacuate their homes.

The news also showed special fire rescue teams saving people, sharks swimming on the flooded streets, people traveling the flooded streets on jet skis and more. Other news detailed crimes like looters kayaking in to rob evacuated beachfront homes, and people stealing generators from backyards.

For the first few nights, I kept the generator running until about midnight, then I would wake up to shut off the generator and carry it into the garage. Around 5AM, I’d wake up to carry the generator outside, and turn it back on. This helped the kids stay warm and reduced the chances of anyone trying to steal the generator from my backyard.

Every time I lifted and carried that generator, I felt the pride of being strong. Waking up late at night or early in the morning while my family slept, I felt pride in being mentally strong, doing whatever I had to do as opposed to saying, "I’m too tired, that’s too heavy, etc."

I shut down my gym for two weeks minus one day. Parents from other towns unaffected by the storm e-mailed me everyday asking me to open the gym. Others emailed to ask me to hold an online fundraiser to help people affected by Hurricane Sandy.

But, the whole time I was thinking, man, I just wanna get my kids a hot meal. I don’t have any power in my house and my business is essentially shut down. People didn’t understand that I was also affected by the storm. Ironically, my gym located in Edison, NJ was on the one street that had power. Every town in New Jersey was affected differently. I live in a small beach town called Manasquan and it was impacted big time.

But, seeing what’s happening on "the news" is one thing, seeing and experiencing it yourself is a different story.

On my way up to Edison, I saw a line at a gas station that looked more than a mile long. Since I had heard stories of people fighting in the gas lines, I decided to find a gas station off the beaten path so I could fill up before heading home that night after going to my gym in Edison.

The drive up to Edison from my Manasquan home was eerie. I passed two marinas that looked scenes from a bad monster movie. The boats were practically piled on top of one another, as if a monster swept through and pushed them all out of his way.

After I shut down the gym, I drove through Edison and few surrounding towns searching for a gas station. The majority were closed because they had no power. The few that had power were shut down as they were out of gas by early afternoon. I finally found a gas station, filled up, and got back home.

The next day things were the same. The streets of my town were still flooded. Parents at my gym who owned boats or "shore houses" lost their boats and homes. I got a flood of emails from parents who had end their kids’ memberships at The Underground Strength Gym.

Since we were closed for two weeks, I refunded half of everyone’s membership, even though I lost about half my members that same week. The governor of New Jersey cancelled Halloween, and I remember hearing people complaining about it.

It was a good reality check to see that everyone has different priorities. People complain about what is important to them. What’s important to you won’t be the same for the next guy.

I remember saying to myself, If those people could experience some tough squats then they wouldn’t be complaining about Halloween!

I saw some people enjoying the period of power outages, drinking beer while walking down the street while enjoying this "vacation" of sorts. But, the strangest things were negatively affecting me, and I was stressed out about anything and everything. Looking back, I would have reacted differently. Feeling overwhelmed by a storm was so foreign to me that it took me for a turn.

A week or two after the storm, when the water finally no longer flooded the streets in my town, I took a bike ride past the barricades. What I saw hit me BIG time.

My family and a close friend were with me. My buddy was from New Orleans and had experienced loss on a level that I could not relate to—years ago he lost his home, car and everything else he owned in a storm.

He said that he became unattached to everything after he lost it all in a hurricane. I rode my bike through town and saw mattresses piled up on sidewalks, a blender, various household items, furniture, a stuffed teddy bear and baby cribs.

I remember being so grateful that my kids hadn’t experienced this type of loss—or the feeling of complete loss. I wanted to help but had NO clue how. For some reason, seeing the teddy bear and baby crib affected me the most.

After about two weeks, the power was restored in our area, and schools were back open. Some areas seemed normal, but the homes on the beachfront to about a mile inland told a different story.

A few weeks later, while randomly searching for warehouse space near my home, I actually found a spot right in Manasquan. It sounded too good to be true. I’d been contemplating opening a second location of The Underground Strength Gym, and closer to home. This warehouse space was only a bike ride away.

But, opening a second location would be no easy task if I decided to move forward. The economy in New Jersey took a hit from the storm and I still had to finish The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength and Conditioning. The warehouse space was right over the railroad tracks—and exactly where the water had traveled inland from the beach a mile away. The majority of the homes near the warehouse and even further inland were ruined by water damage or completely destroyed.

I decided that calling the realtor won’t hurt. We took a walk through the old warehouse building hidden behind the railroad tracks and two other buildings. At first look the place looked like a bomb went off inside. It was old, there was saw dust and grease on the floor, the walls, the beams and anywhere else. I hoped it could work, but hope could not help me. It was gonna take serious work.

I checked the walls for any signs of calcification of water from the storm and it was clear. I closed my eyes for a few seconds to imagine what this space COULD be instead of what it currently was.

After seeing the town of Manasquan crushed from Hurricane Sandy I felt that this gym would be much more than just a place to train athletes. My idea was to help others develop strength in AND out of the gym. I decided this gym had to be a place that changed lives through STRENGTH.

My thoughts were that I could train anyone who needed help after the storm, help them build confidence. I wanted to train anyone who wanted to work hard.

I told the realtor I wanted to make it happen, and signed the lease late that week. Everything began to come together, or, fall apart…
Manasquan Underground Strength 2017
With one gym struggling after Hurricane Sandy, a book deadline that had to be extended, and now an old warehouse that had to be renovated, the stress started to get to me. I began to get sick and felt like I had an ongoing flu.

I stressed out and had recurring dreams about the houses I saw the day I rode my bike past the barricades—when I saw the stuffed teddy bear on the sidewalk, the mattress, the blender and more. That beat up teddy bear I saw on the sidewalk piled among the ruined furniture stressed me out in a way words can not describe.

The stress got me sick while I had zero energy, something I don’t recall ever experiencing before. After about a week, I felt a little better, then got sick again and the cycle repeated for at least a month. I lost 15-20 lbs just from the stress. My house hadn’t even been directly affected but seeing the damage to my town along with the stress of the Hurricane seemed to crush me.

I could only imagine what people who actually lost their homes were experiencing. My days and weeks were a blend of cleaning the new warehouse, traveling about one hour each way to coach at The Underground Strength Gym in Edison, writing The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength and repeating the cycle.

As I was writing the book and missed the first deadline, I corresponded with John Du Cane and requested another deadline extension because I began to write more about LIFE than training in the book.

I thought of the books that changed my life and inspired me—they were ALL a blend of training AND life stories. They shared the challenges the authors overcame through STRENGTH.

My writing began to unfold in a much more powerful way once I began to go beyond the my thoughts and philosophies regarding training. Did the world need a book on how to squat with a sandbag? Or, would this book inspire anyone, let alone change their life?

Setting a bigger, deeper goal inspired me to get off my ass and stop focusing on the past. Moving forward was my only option, I told myself.

My health began to improve, and of course my mindset also improved. I felt stronger, in the gym AND in life. I started training almost every day and got back to some simple rituals that always helped me move forward:
  • Read at least two pages every night from a book that inspires me.
  • Eat strong, no junk food.
  • Train at least five days a week.
  • Focus on helping others, while taking the focus off myself.
These simple steps gave me a feeling of Relentless Optimism. It was a reminder that being "STRONG" meant much more than how much weight I could put on a bar. TRUE strength must transcend the gym walls. I had to be stronger for my family, stronger for the athletes I train and stronger for my own town and community.

My wife and kids came to the gym and helped me paint the walls, the floors, renovate the bathroom, create an office for the gym, lay down the turf, the rubber flooring and more. A one man army can only do so much and go so far, without a team. With even a small team, you will always achieve more than if you work alone.

I was super busy but I trained any time and anywhere I had the opportunity. Some sessions were in my garage gym, with nothing but a barbell and a few kettlebells. I did farmer walks up and down the street, power cleans and deadlifts, then calisthenics at a playground using monkey bars, picnic tables and more.
Edison Wrestling Manasquan
On other days I would write for 45 minutes and then do push ups, lunges and squat jumps for 5 minutes. I did this for a few rounds throughout the day. It felt great!

To take the focus off myself, I began organizing local events at the new gym as well as organizing seminars. I called the local high school and offered free training to any athlete who lost their home because of Hurricane Sandy. I heard nothing back from the school but the goal was to keep trying. If I was trying to help, then I was still moving forward. That’s all I could control—my OWN efforts.

I found that the more I moved forward instead of staying in place, the more everything else—from training, to life to business—improved. I viewed everything as training.

Waking up earlier than normal was "training" for me. Staying up an hour later than normal to write my book was also "training". I took the focus off of myself and focused on contributing.

I realized that far too often I would hone in on circumstances and hold on to them. I used to fixate on what happened instead of how could I help someone else. But, the first way I can help others is to take care of myself by being strong, healthy and resilient.

If you want to be better at serving others, step one is helping yourself first! Build yourself into a Stronger Person, both physically and emotionally.

How did I get more resilient? By finding the beauty in the struggle instead of allowing the struggle to keep holding me down. I heard a great quote from Dan Sullivan that inspired me, "All those things that seem to oppose our goals are actually the raw material for achieving them."

I had to constantly remind myself of that quote (I still do to this day) so I could start viewing everything as an opportunity and not an obstacle. The more I focused on building the second location for The Underground Strength Gym, and finally finishing The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength, the faster I moved on both.

I took the focus off of myself and focused on how many people I could help. My health improved along with this stronger attitude and my energy dramatically increased as well.

Tough times can be viewed in many ways. Some view them as a punishment, others see them as a gift. When I came back to reality and stopped making things more difficult than they truly were, I began attracting success faster.

Simple things became the gift. Food on the table? Yes. Roof over my head? Yes. Compare this to my Grandparents, who escaped the holocaust and lost their entire family to the holocaust. My Grandfather fought in the Polish Army, the Russian Army and then the Israeli Army.

I thought about how my Grandfather would laugh at "my problems" if he saw me. So take a step back and look at what you once thought were your "problems". It’s very likely that these things are the raw materials you need to build and attract more success.

A strong mind and a strong body go hand in hand. Your training should train your body AND your mind. Squatting more than anyone else in the gym, while still unable to handle life’s ups and downs is not true strength. Train so your strength transcends the gym walls.

Zach Trap Bar Deadlift thumbnailZach Even-Esh is the Founder of The Underground Strength Gym, the Author of The Encyclopedia of Underground Strength and Conditioning, and the Strength and Performance Coach for Rutgers University Wrestling Team. Zach also serves as a consultant for coaches and sports teams around the world.