The Barwis School of Pukitude

by | Apr 17, 2020 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Since we can’t watch sports, UM Press decided to give weekly excerpts from The Best of Bacon. This week, to coincide with my latest crazy idea — running a 26.2-mile marathon of my own Saturday morning, the first (and probably last!) Baco-Thon — we’re running my story of working out with the Michigan football team for six agonizing weeks.

This was also not a good idea, as you’ll see. Hope you enjoy reading this more than I enjoyed surviving it.

If you care to order the book, you can do so here:

The Best of Bacon: Select Cuts
John U. Bacon University of Michigan Press, 2018


By John U. Bacon

         Just fifteen minutes into my first work out with Michigan’s infamous strength coach Mark Barwis – in which I had to do over 600 reps of every lift I could name, plus a dozen I couldn’t — I was sweating like a pig and panting like a dog. You could have taken my pulse by touching my hair – or my shoes.    

         A few minutes later, I already had the look of a man in deep trouble — slack jaw, head back, eyes half closed — when I realized I had to find a trash can, and fast. Barwis pointed to a big one in the corner, then calmly returned to spotting a lineman doing his squats.  

         I made it just in time and let loose, repeatedly and loudly.  

         A great cheer went up.  “Yeahhhh!”

         “Go, Bacon, Go!”  

         “Get rid of the poison!” 

         “We have a winner!”   

         It was the smartest thing I did all day.

         Let me explain.

         When Rich Rodriguez became Michigan’s head football coach in 2008, he did so on one condition: Barwis and his staff were part of the package, and would be given an unlimited budget to overhaul the weight room – right down to the floors. A million dollars later, the Wolverines’ weight program is world class.  

         So it’s fair to ask: What did Michigan get for its money?  The only way to find out – I mean reallyfind out – was to enroll in Professor Barwis’s School of Puke-itude, and dive in to the curriculum. 

         Was I scared?  Nah.  I figured, how much harder could it be than what we weekend warriors put ourselves through just to avoid buying bigger pants?

         Having survived six weeks of pure hell, I can tell you this right now: You have absolutely no idea.  


         I arrived Monday morning, March 16, for the first of 18 scheduled two-hour work outs – “if you last that long,” Barwis said.  

         At ten sharp, Barwis announced the pairings in his ridiculously raspy voice. “Bacon, you’re working with Foote!”

         That would be Larry Foote, the former Michigan All-American linebacker and two-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steeler — one of a dozen professional players who come back every year to work with Barwis, who refuses payment. “Barwis is crazy, but I love him,” Foote told me.  “He will get you doing things you never dreamed of.”

         Thirty minutes later, when I was clutching the sides of the Rubbermaid Heavy Duty trash can, I was ready to concede Foote’s point.   

         But while the guys cheered me heaving up my healthy breakfast, I gained some wisdom: There isa 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 the minute I walked through the door.  But I never took a single shot for any of that. So long as I was sweating, the players would high-five, yell and urge me on.  

         I now had the same status as every other guy who’d puked in that trashcan – which is to say, everyone.  


         When I left Schembechler Hall that day, I started going through something called “hypertrophy,” which occurs when you push your body so far past its limits the muscles absorb much more water than normal, expanding them rapidly.  That’s the good news. The bad news is, “it’s basically a catastrophic event to your body,” Barwis said.  “Like a car accident.”  

         Walking to the parking lot, my legs felt like prosthetics, as if I needed some kind of remote control to operate them.  When I tried to wipe some sweat off my brow, I discovered I could no longer raise my right arm high enough, so I grabbed the sleeve with my other hand and whacked my face with the powerless limb.  Eureka.  

         When I got home and collapsed on the couch, I made a list of all the things that suddenly hurt like hell, and had no trouble filling over two pages, from dressing myself to flossing – I skipped for a week, because it hurt my pecs too much – to taking a shower.  I could not raise my hands high enough to shampoo my hair.  

         I then made a second list of all the things that didn’t hurt: blinking.  That was it.  If you think I’m exaggerating, ask anyone who’s gone through hypertrophy. They’ll tell you.   

         As I lay comatose on my couch, it occurred to me Michigan’s players go through hypertrophy twice a year, and have to go to classes after each session.  How they do this is a mystery to me.  I wasn’t going anywhere. 


         When I bent down to grab the bar to start my second workout, I noticed that I had two dime-sized blisters between both thumbs and index fingers, and they were threatening to rip open.  I showed Jim Plocki, a strength coach who grew up working in the steel mills with his dad. “Is this a problem?” I asked.  

         He looked carefully.  “[Expletive deleted],” he replied thoughtfully.  

         I kept lifting until my hands were bleeding.  I looked over my shoulder at Plocki, who said, “There was already plenty of blood on those bars before you, Bacon.”  And added, with empathy, “[Expletive deleted].”  

         Later that day, when I was in line at my bank, I noticed I had bled on the check. 

         “Is this a problem?” I asked.  

         “Not if it’s dry,” the teller said. 

         I waited for her expletive, but it never came.


         After three weeks I was beginning to think I might just make it.  I was on my way to tripling my bench press max to 145 pounds, and quadrupling my squat, ultimately hitting 180.  I would only lose ten pounds, but reduce my body fat from 26-percent to 16-percent.  

         I found myself looking for fights, and friends who need to move couches – because suddenly, I could. 

         All this growing confidence was dashed the day Barwis announced I’d be joining the rest of the guys after each work out for an additional half-hour of laps, 100-yard dashes, sprints and suicides.

         “If you’re going to go around claiming you did this,” Barwis said, poking me in the chest, “you have to do allof it.”

         We ran in two groups, the “fat boys” and the “speedsters.”  I was lumped with the fat boys, of course, but I couldn’t even catch the long snap center recovering from a broken toe.  If we were a pack of predators in the Serengeti, I’d go hungry – or get eaten myself.  At this level, even the fat boys are fast. 

         I longed for the squat rack.   

         At the end of one of our dashes, I looked up to see a friend of mine, former Michigan All-American center George Lilja, standing in the endzone.  Though I could barely speak, I nodded and waved.  

         He couldn’t resist.  “What the hell have they gotyoudoing?” 

         I sputtered, “Don’t ask!”  

         After our work out, Foote got in my face.  “You’re pushing yourself in there,”he said, pointing to the weight room, “but you ain’t pushing yourself out here. You’re smiling and laughing and high-fiving all your damn friends. You gonna work with us, you gotta work!”

         I didn’t have to ask if he meant it.  

         Near the end of our next work out, Barwis told us we had to run the width of the field and back, three times.  “Y’all got to finish in 50 seconds,” he said.  “Bacon in 60.  But Bacon, if you don’t make it, everyone else has to do the whole damn thing again.”        

         Thanks, Coach.  

         I took off like I was being chased by a man with a knife.  But after five of the six widths, I had only kept pace at 50 seconds, and I was running out of gas.  Cutting back for my last width, I pulled and lurched and thrashed every limb of my body, throwing everything I had and then some, toward that finish line.

         “Fifty-five!”  Barwis bellowed. “Fifty six!  Fifty sevent! Fifty eight – done!”

         I had made it.  

         The guys high-fived each other, but I ran past them straight for the trash can, puked again, wiped my mouth, and got back on the line for our final sprints.  

         After the work out we collapsed on the field and gasped for air.  Barwis walked up to me, kneeled down, and said a few words I will never forget:  “Bacon, that’s the first time I saw you run that I didn’t want to punch you in the jaw.”

         It doesn’t get any better than that. 

* * * * *

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