Column: Rite of Passage in UM’s Weight Room

Reflections on puke-inducing, status-earning workout regime
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

While I was writing “Three and Out,” the Michigan football players challenged me to join their workouts in the weight room. They were surprised when I was actually game – one of the dumbest decisions of my life.

I’d heard so much about these modern gladiators and their weight room heroics that I wanted to find out for myself just how much harder it really is compared to what the average weekend warrior puts himself through just to avoid buying “relaxed fit” jeans.

The plan was simple: I would work out with these guys three times a week, for six weeks – “if you last that long,” said Mike Barwis, Michigan’s former strength coach, in his famously raspy voice. But before I even started, there were four signs that I shouldn’t be doing this.

When I asked Barwis if I should prepare by lifting weights, he said, “No, it’s too late for that!” Well, that’s one sign.

“Okay,” I asked, “what’s it NOT too late for?”


“Why running? We’re not going to run.”

“Because your heart is going to give out before your muscles do.”

That was the second sign. I got the third sign when I finally showed up for my first workout and they gave me a clipboard with a half-dozen legal waivers on it, each one describing in great detail a new way I might die in the weight room. If you drop the bar on your neck, sign here. If you’re just standing there and your heart explodes, sign here.

The fourth sign came a moment later, when Barwis paired us up with our workout partners. “Bacon! You’re working with Foote!” That would be Larry Foote, the former Michigan All-American linebacker-turned-two-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steeler. He is paid millions to snap quarterbacks in half.

Hi Larry! I’m John!

I started my first set of squats. I’d done this hundreds of times before – but never like they did it. They’re fascists about form, so each set feels twice as hard as it would doing it your way. After a few reps, I was dying for Barwis to yell, “Rack it!”

Finally, he said it – and I thought, great. Time for a break while I watch Larry Foote do his squats. Nope. It was time for me to take my pair of ten-pound weights off the bar, and put on Larry’s rack of reds and blues and yellows – a veritable Lifesavers’ roll of a few hundred pounds. Doing this was actually harder than what I had just finished.

Okay, but now I got to take a break, right? Nope. Next, they made me do plyometrics like lunge jumps, abdominal crunches and inclined push-ups. It was actually worse than the squats. After a few of those, I was dying to get back in the rack. And after a while, I was just dying.

Barwis was right: Just 15 minutes into my first workout, I was sweating like a pig and panting like a dog. You could have taken my pulse by touching my hair.

After 30 minutes, I was in deep trouble – mouth breathing, head back, eyes half closed – when it occurred to me you might actually be made to throw up just from lifting weights.

I realized I had to find a trash can, and fast. Barwis had seen the look before, so he just pointed, “Trash can’s over there!” then calmly went back to loading Foote’s weight bar. I started walking – then running. I made it just in time to lose my breakfast, repeatedly and loudly. With my head in the dark trash can, I was hoping that, just maybe, no one saw me.

Fat chance. I lifted my head out of the trash can very slowly – and a great cheer went up. The Michigan football team was giving me a standing ovation – for puking in a trash can.


“Go, Bacon, Go!”

“Get rid of the poison!”

“We have a winner!”

Yes, there is a snobbism in the Michigan weight room, but it’s not based on your stats or your weights, just how hard you’re working. I was the oldest, weakest and fattest guy there by a long shot, and I was fully prepared to take a lot of crap for all of it. But I never took a single shot for any of that. So long as I was sweating like they were, the players would yell and urge me on, and high five me after each lift.

In their eyes, I now had the same status as every other guy who’d puked in that trash can – which is to say, everyone. After that, the interviews for the book were easy.

Puking in that trash can proved to be the greatest career move of my life.

About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” He also co-authored “A Legacy of Champions,” and provided commentary for “Black and Blue: The Story of Gerald Ford, Willis Ward, and the 1934 Michigan-Georgia Tech Football Game,” which has been airing on various stations in Michigan and nationally.

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