One Man’s Journey In Strength

In the beginning, it was a small weight set in the basement just like so many other young men.  I can distinctly remember watching a 3 OT college hockey game between Michigan and Maine in the Frozen Four while likely doing some bicep curls.  The record books show that game was played in 1995, making me an 8th grader and newly 14 years old.  Although I hardly knew what I was doing I quickly graduated myself to the basement of our best family friends where they had a much nicer Olympic weight set, my only guide being an Arnold Schwarzenegger book and my best friend Nate who knew only as much as me.  Due to the generosity of the Kucinski family throughout high school we were able to spend many hours in the basement pumping iron and from what I recall, attempting to do pull-ups.  When my first girlfriend wrote me a hand written letter after we broke up, as only high school girls can, she mentioned that I might enjoy spending time with Nate and the weights more than her.  My how the times haven’t changed.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college, when I met one of my current best friends Pat, that he showed me how to actually train and eat like a man.  Come to find out two small meals a day doesn’t cut it.  Although he may have been heavily influenced by Muscle and Fitness, the workouts he showed me were certainly more intense and effective than what I had been doing in the past.  On top of that, my sophomore year our school got a new gym and a strength and conditioning coach, Don West.  Don has been a friend ever since.  Through his guidance I was not only able to get much stronger using heavy compound exercises with less emphasis on bodybuilding, and in turn much more explosive on the ice, but I was able to crush all the strength and fitness testing that the hockey team had to go through each preseason.  If only I could have had a better pair of hands rather two left feet attached to my arms.  Regardless, without Coach West I would not be the athlete or coach I am today.

After graduating from school and moving to San Diego in ’03 I still spent a lot of time in the gym and always had a competitive fire.  I didn’t know where to direct all the training I enjoyed doing so I imagined that someday I would have to enter a bodybuilding show.  Go ahead, picture that tan and a man thong, I’ll wait.  I respect the discipline that bodybuilders possess and I studied their methods quite a bit.  It was this same time that I got a personal training certification.  It was less than impressive but a step in the right direction.  I quickly realized that I enjoyed working with people and also wanted to work with athletes.  I started to study right away with some help from Coach West and within a few months received a more prestigious Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist title from the NSCA.

Fast-forward just a couple of years.  I wanted to take my skills a step further in working with athletes and I knew that a USA Weightlifting certification was highly recommended.  That is when I had the privilege of crossing paths with Coach Mike Burgener.  I had no idea what to expect when I went to RBV High that weekend.  I came away with much more than just a certification.  Coach B has been a huge influence on me ever since Dec. ’05.  I still love Olympic lifting and the personal challenge that it offers on a daily basis but I also enjoy the community and team atmosphere that comes along with such a niche sport.  None of that would have been possible without the generosity of Coach B, his family and the great lifters and people that he surrounds himself with.

Coach Burgener’s home gym (Mike’s Gym)

The next great step in the journey came in the early part of 2007.  I can distinctly remember a conversation that I had with one Max Shank.  I think we were both looking for a little more in our training and after tossing some ideas around we came away with the conclusion that we were going to start following the Crossfit homepage workouts.  Although I am not as big a fan of Crossfit now as I was then, I can certainly credit their system with teaching me about work capacity and reintroducing me to some heavy low rep training and even exposing me to the kettlebell.

Although I never trained my clients within any specific Crossfit style system I stuck with it for around 6 months.  Life again changed when I attended the Athletes’ Performance Mentorship for a week.  To this day, that week has been highly influential in both my and my clients training.  It was then that I became much more focused on program design, movement quality and adopted a push/pull type of strategy within training.  Shortly thereafter, at the start of 2008 I decided that no one I worked with was going to do any more direct flexion and extension exercises such as sit-ups, crunches, supermans, etc.  That rule is still in effect and I’m happy to say it’s going quite well.

February ’08 is when I first met Pavel Tsatsouline.  Much like my encounter with Coach Burgener, I was hooked on what the RKC had to offer.   Their thought process was similar to mine but at the same time introduced me to some much more within the strength game, including different lifts and some fantastic coaches.  I quickly signed up for another workshop.  The RKC system has been highly influential ever since, as I have continued to learn and even competed in the Tactical Strength Challenge on three different occasions.

The fall of ’08 was the first time since I met Coach Burgener that I really had time to commit to the legendary Saturday morning workouts held in his garage.  For about a year and a half I was able to regularly train with some great athletes and coaches at his home.  Turns out I didn’t know a damn thing about the details of the Snatch and Clean and Jerk.  The time I spent in the garage both training and learning was an invaluable experience but just as important was the time I spent there with friends just hanging out, hopping into the pool on a cold January afternoon, or sitting in the Jacuzzi.  I’ve often said Mike’s Gym is one of the greatest places on Earth.

Mike’s Gym on a Saturday morning, January ‘08

This brings us to today.  For anyone that knows me I still love both the Olympic lifts and the versatility of kettlebells.  And although I have long been a simple man in terms of my eating and entertainment habits, the same minimalist approach has begun to show itself in the way I train and coach. Things don’t need to be too complicated and typically, less is more.  As time goes on I realize that both training and coaching are much more about quality than quantity.  This is not an easy concept for a lot of people to grasp but I welcome the challenge and I thoroughly enjoy my role as both a teacher and coach.  I competed in the Scottish Highland Games in June and look forward to many other interesting strength challenges in the years to come.

Whether you want to quote Don Quixote, one of my favorite coaches Dan John or whoever, one of the more important lessons I have come away with is “It’s the road, not the inn.”  Life, training, coaching, learning will always be an ongoing process and I have met many great characters along the way.  That process and the people involved are what matters, not what I think is my final destination.  I can only wonder what and whom the future may hold.

– Mike Baltren


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  • ah so you're the one to thank for Nate's sexy lean bod!! THANKS!! :) PS – I read you're blog all the time. Love it!!

  • MikeBaltren

    Thanks for reading Emily… Can't wait to see you guys in few weeks. We will need to talk some training.