My Favorite Book About Training
I first heard about Josh Hanagarne through Megan Newman, the editor we share at Penguin. Megan told me I’d like Josh because we’re annoyed by the same things. I’m sure she’s right (editors are paid to be right, and Megan is a great editor), but it’s hard to focus on that when you look at the many ways we’re different.
Josh is a librarian in Salt Lake City who was raised in a deeply religious LDS family. He’s 6 feet, 7 inches tall. And he has Tourette’s, but not the funny kind, like Bart Simpson pretended to have that one time.
Josh’s Tourette’s was so debilitating, with tics so violent and unpredictable, that it compromised every part of his life. Imagine trying to focus in school when your body could disrupt the classroom at any moment. Imagine going on a Mormon mission and trying to talk someone into giving your religion a shot when any noise might come out of your mouth. Imagine asking a girl out on a date.
Eventually, as Josh writes in his memoir, The World’s Strongest Librarian, he came to see the disability as “a separate being; a parasite that I was in a relationship with. I named her Misty, short for ‘Miss T.’ ”
His path toward a normal life began with strength training. He lifted hard and often. Along the way he met strength icons like Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline, and, most important, Adam T. Glass. The chapters with Glass, in the final part of the book, are some of the most interesting and insightful you’ll ever read about not just fitness, but self-discovery.
And that’s all I’m going to say about that, because I want everyone reading this to read Josh’s book, which comes out May 2. You’ll be happy you did. Until then, I hope you enjoy this quick interview.
First things first: You say that the Salt Lake City public library has more than a million items. How many of them are books written by me?
Currently you’ve got the author credit on six books at this library. However, I know you were the inspiration for Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance, so let’s include that in your oeuvre as well.
Fair enough. So how strong is the world’s strongest librarian?
Well, you’re in no danger of seeing me on World’s Strongest Man any time soon, but I’m strong for a librarian.
My best lifts are a 590-pound deadlift, 400 squat, and 350 bench. These were all done at a height of 6’7” and a body weight of 255-260. As my condition has worsened, I’ve had to let some things go, so I’m not anywhere near those numbers right now.
Wait. Your tics have gotten worse? Wasn’t the book about how you learned to control them?
It was! I actually thought I had cured myself, and I told people that. And then, during the writing of the book, it went bad again. This was probably a more satisfying end, editorially, but personally, it was maddening.
Now it’s worse than ever, but because of some of the things I’ve learned, my life is better than ever.
How many years did you train before you realized that you’re stronger than the average human? Was there a moment when you realized the training had an effect beyond controlling your tics?
It didn’t take long. Maybe a year of consistent, enthusiastic training. I was making a lot more progress than most of the other gym regulars I saw. Once I realized I was stronger than most of the people who were there as much as I was, it was obvious that I’d be stronger than most people who didn’t train.
In WSL you write this: “I didn’t work out. I trained. I wasn’t a bodybuilder. I was building an obelisk that would commemorate the end of Misty’s dominion. I didn’t want muscles – at least, that wasn’t the priority. I wanted exertion.” But it’s still cool to have muscles, isn’t it?
Of course! But that period described in the book was desperate. I was just trying to stay alive, so muscles were the last thing on my mind.
That said, I’m still at least half Dude-bro. I want to look good, and so far, simply by trying to get stronger, I’ve been happy with how I look.
What’s your training philosophy these days? What are your goals, how many days a week do you train, and how do you assess your results?
My training philosophy is pretty simple:
- Be consistent
- Keep it fun
- Forget what everyone else is doing
Chasing that kind of fatigue is counterproductive for me these days. At the time, I was proud of how brutal I could make a workout. But I did it so that I could voluntarily choose a pain that made the pain of my symptoms pale in comparison. Kind of dumb, but it worked and I got stronger.
At this point I’ve been experimenting long enough to know that if I even get out of breath, my tics get worse immediately. If I really grind through a set, the rest of my day might be a disaster as far as the symptoms. It’s not worth it to me, but I’m not doing any competitions that require that kind of effort, so it doesn’t really matter.
Short term, I’m currently focusing on the Highland Games, which has been a great way to mix things up. I’m concentrating on the lifts that seem to have the most carryover to my throws, and I throw a lot as well. I want to throw farther every competition, that’s the goal. I’ve been working with Dan John on this, which has been great fun.
I have two long term projects. I have a 290-pound stone that I can shoulder easily now, but I want to be able to press it overhead. Also, I want to age well, which is a huge part of why I lift. Because of some of the odd things my body has been going through for 35 years, I’ve got a lot of mileage. I’m not sure how the disorder will be treating me when I’m 50, but I want to stay ahead of it and make sure I’m as healthy as possible so I can deal with it.
I measure my overall progress by how livable my life outside the gym is. If my lifting is going well, I tend to be happy and productive. If another area of my life is suffering, I can usually tweak it by changing what I’m doing in my training. I think most people who are lifetime lifters will be able to identify with that statement.
Of all the fitness pros you’ve met or corresponded with, which one do you think would make the best movie character?
Adam T. Glass. No question. Adam is like a mix of Temple Grandin, Jack Bauer, and a running chainsaw. Go spend a couple of days with him and tell me I’m wrong.
Unlike me, you actually have a full-time job. So how do you balance work, family, training, reading, and writing?
Family comes first. When I go home, I play with my son for a couple of hours. Happily, he likes to exercise, although he doesn’t know that’s what he’s doing. I spend the rest of the night with my wife. Then she goes to sleep, and that’s when I read. Because of the tics, I rarely get more than 3-4 hours a night.
I write on my breaks at work. I rarely need more than 15 minutes in a day to keep moving. For all you aspiring writers who think that you have to have hours of uninterrupted free time to write … sorry. If you even write a paragraph a day, if enough days go by, you have at least a book-length mess to work with.
I never thought about it that way! But you bring up the most important aspect of writing: No matter when or how long or how often you write, that first draft will be a mess. Any advice on how to turn that amorphous opus into a diamond-cut narrative?
The most useful advice for came via Stephen King’s book, On Writing. He said during the first draft tell yourself the story. In other words, learn what the story is. During the second draft, take out everything that isn’t the story.
That worked for me, as well as having a brilliant editor.
Amen to that!
Josh’s book, The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family, is currently available for pre-order. The publication date is May 2. It’s entertaining, horrific, and uplifting, sometimes all on the same page. I give it my highest recommendation, and hope you’ll pick up a copy.