2003: Testing Times

I stood before the gates under the night sky, the howling wind and bitter rain lashing my face as thunder clapped from above. My heart pounded within my chest as I gazed at the imposing structure of the school behind the gates where the evil within lurked.
I grabbed the rusted handles of the gates and pushed with all my might, they were much heavier than I had anticipated. I had just set one foot into the school grounds when a flash of thunder suddenly roared overhead, momentarily lighting my surroundings in a flash of white and causing me to jump with fright.

And then I hear it, the sounds laughter emanating from the school. It was a sound like no other, mocking, evil…….my heart was beating faster now and sweat began to pour down my face despite the cold, windy storm around me.

It has awaken, the ultimate test.

The HSC.

No turning back now. It knows I’ve arrived. Clenching my fists and resisting the urge to turn around and run, I slowly trudged towards the school. It was time to prove my worth……..


Alright, enough of that crap. Sorry for the cheesy introduction but what can I say? I might as well have been the protagonist of a video game, set to embark on an arduous mission culminating in a showdown with the big boss. Twelfth grade was finally upon me and waiting at the end of the school year was the dreaded Higher School Certificate exams, aka: The HSC. For us students this was what sealed our post-high school fate, particularly for those that had high hopes in gaining entry into a good university with their preferred degrees.
Consequently, most students saw this exam period as the end all and be all of their futures and they stressed themselves silly all year and yes, I was one of them.
Guilty as charged.
I shake my head now every time I recall how I had allowed myself to fall into that line of bullshit thinking. Not that you could really blame me or the others for it since the teachers frequently drilled that malarkey into our minds on a frequent basis throughout the year, supposedly as a means to ‘motivate’ us to study harder.

 Motivation my ass.

As the final year of my schooling there was ZERO feeling-out process on the first day back – in fact, the battle had begun during the summer break as it was to be devoted to revising our text books and study notes. Prior to the end of the previous school year our teachers reminded us that we were headed for an extended study break, not a school break, and that we were to go over our study notes while school was out. They also warned us that anyone who was having a little too much fun during those six weeks should expect to struggle this year as we were to hit the ground running from day one.


Ok, I’m going off-track here. This is supposed to be a fitness blog. Let’s get back on course.
Anyway, so I was in my final year of high school with the mother of all tests breathing down my neck. So does that mean that I slacked off on my fitness?

The answer is a resounding NO.

I knew better this time around. No amount of school work, assignments and stressing was worth letting my fitness go to waste over. If anything, working out proved to be a positive outlet for any stress and anxiety that I was feeling about the school year and believe me, there were plenty. I can honestly say now that the year 2003 was THE worst school year of my life and it wasn’t only because of the HSC. You see, I was a bullied kid for most of my school life  but in twelfth grade, the abuse and teasing that I got from some of my peers escalated to ridiculous levels and even some students that I had once been friendly with turned on me. I don’t think I even had anyone left to call a ‘close friend’ anymore by the time the HSC rolled around. I was still on friendly terms with some of my other classmates but nothing more than that so you better believe that working out was a good way of coping with the crap I had to put up with on a near-daily basis.

You could say that fate had saved the worst school year of my life for last. A photo of me taken during my graduation showed the toll that the school year took on me. Check out that frown, the hunched shoulders and overall “I’m over this shit” look.

Not a happy camper

Anyway, I kept up the same routine that I did the previous year. It was push-ups, squats and various arm and leg exercises with the backpack for the most part, although I still relied on the bullworker for back exercises. Nothing too complicated yet got me working up a sweat and pumping blood into those muscles.

But something else was around the corner, something that would once again change the way I trained and in some odd way, my life. The first Rocky film was broadcasted as a TV movie on the Saturday evening a week before the HSC commenced and having never seen any of the films (yeah, I was late to the party) and recalling the story that my father told me about the obstacles that Stallone had to overcome in order to get that film made, I had to see it.

I was blown away.

Sure, the boxing scenes were thrilling, the love story between Rocky and Adrian was touching and Burt Young almost stole the show as the cantankerous Paulie, but what really made an impact on me was the training montage, accompanied by that incredible ‘Gonna Fly Now’ score by Bill Conti. Man, I had goosebumps watching that sequence, so much so that I had to fight the urge to get off my seat and try one-armed push-ups similar to the way Rocky Balboa was performing them onscreen before me.

For the following five weeks they played one film from the Rocky series on TV each weekend and I recorded them all (it was the year 2003. Video tapes and VCR’s were still around). And I have to say, their appearance on TV was a blessing. Watching those films once four weeks of HSC hell was underway was the motivation I needed to keep me going whenever I felt stressed. I would watch the training scenes on repeat in between exams and study sessions and especially before leaving the house and let me tell you, there was no better way to fire up and I faced even the toughest of my test papers without fear.

Alright, you useless piece of paper. Bring it on!!!!

With ‘Gonna Fly Now’ still ringing in my ears I attacked those test papers as ferociously as Rocky Balboa did to his opponents and that slab of raw meat at Paulie’s abattoir, my pen violently slashing the pages as I answered questions as fast as I could (or, rather, before my brain could forget any of the precious notes that it had retained), ignoring the increasing pain in my right hand and wrist the whole time.
I didn’t care if some of my answers may have come across as complete bollocks. I was in the zone and as long as it sounded correct in my head, I wrote it down. Better to give it a try than wonder about what could have been.
Dare I say it, but every exam seemed to be a breeze. It might have been due to my newfound confidence or perhaps because I made a great effort to study hard but suddenly this exam period that I had been fretting over for the last couple of years was no longer scary. Turns out I got worked up over nothing!

And once I had completed my very last exam paper after four weeks of exams I walked triumphantly out of the school grounds, head held high and grinning from ear to ear, towards my car in the parking lot and drove out of there under the bright blue afternoon sky, leaving my school, the HSC and my life as a school student behind me.


Mission Complete!


Now, you’d probably think that as soon as I got home I quickly removed my school uniform, threw it in the trash, turned up the music on full blast and danced around the house in my underwear like Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Hey, it would have been totally justified but I didn’t. Instead, I played one of the Rocky films and started working out as I watched, still riding high from conquering my personal Everest.
The most that I did as a final ‘up yours’ to high school was to throw my exam notes in the trash. No burning of study notes, no desecration of my school uniform, no vandalism of my school, no egging of the teacher’s car or any of that nonsense. While throwing my notes in the trash wasn’t exactly a grand gesture, it still felt so good!

To this day, I remain a huge fan of the Rocky movies and after all these years the training and fight scenes and the soundtrack still motivate me whenever I feel down.
I honestly don’t think I would have completed the HSC the way I did without those films. I would have most likely been running on nerves and probably would have failed several papers. The Rocky films changed that. I entered every exam confident to the point of believing that I could get the type of grades that once seemed out of reach and walk out of high school with a bang.

As it turns out I didn’t quite get the results that I was aiming for in order to get into the university degree that I wanted but I didn’t get any failing results either. In short, I had still accomplished my goal of passing the HSC and I had to be happy about that.

The storm is over

2002: Stepping Up

Me at 17 years old

Tenth grade, the school certificate exam and six weeks of summer holiday, including one week spent in sunny Queensland, came and went. Before I knew it, I was getting ready for my first day of year eleven at another new school.
The old jitters that I felt on the first day of year seven four years prior returned, exacerbated by the knowledge that I had the dreaded HSC exams coming up a year later so I knew that there would be no more easy rides.
On top of that, I also had to start thinking about university and potential career paths since eleventh grade was the second-last year of my schooling. Couldn’t put all eggs in one basket, I had to think of multiple plans in case plan A didn’t pan out.

Time to get serious, Kid. No more goofing around.


Putting up with the extra workload was not too difficult, much to my surprise. Sure, some subjects were a bigger pain in the ass than others and my grades were nothing to cheer about early on, but all things considered I never hit the panic button. I simply adjusted and studied harder and soon, I returned to my usual form of passing most and average in others.
I guess being a battle-tested seventeen year old had allowed me to perfect the ability to adapt based on my workload but that was not to say that I had suddenly grown to appreciate school. I still entered the school grounds every day wanting to leave and I still became nauseous at the thought of assignments, especially now that they were growing in number AND level of difficulty.

I also noticed that in this school some students were extremely competitive. While they were generally cordial towards each other and hung out like typical teenagers during lunch hours and weekends there was an air of arrogance and superiority when it came to discussing grades and university in the classroom, that ‘I’m better than you’ type of swagger.
This was not to say that they were all like that. Some students took a more laid-back and relaxed approach to school and their lives in general and others were happy to excel without rubbing it in.
I, too, didn’t allow myself to get caught up in any of that nonsense as I had my own shit to worry about so to hell with what everyone else was doing.


Them: “I got 99% on that quiz, and am up to date on my assignments. Suck it, bitches!”

Me: “Good for you. No one cares!”


Yeah, you get the picture.
Away from school, I still worked out with that bullworker but my dedication had waned as I had steered my focus towards the never-ending avalanche of schoolwork that came my way. During the previous year I would work out for thirty to sixty minutes, five days a week without fail whereas this year I found myself missing one or two days at a time. Fitness was no longer a priority and while it didn’t have any significant impact on my physique it still left that sinking feeling in my stomach that I had messed up my progress.
I had to ask myself some serious questions.


Doesn’t a sound mind begin with a sound body?

Did you come all this way just to revert back to Mr. Boy-Titties?

Are you willing to throw away all that hard work over some stupid grades?


I soon pulled myself together and assigned at least half an hour every afternoon again to work out, usually while taking a break from my homework as a means to clear my mind.
But even after I had wised up and made the time to train more consistently I felt that I was growing stale. As effective and convenient as that bullworker was it did not offer much in the way of progressions. It got to a point where I had performed every exercise in the manual several times over and I inevitably grew weary and desperate for a new challenge.
And so I mixed up the bullworker with some extra exercises that I could do with minimal fuss like push-ups, crunches and squats as a means to stave off boredom and further challenge my body. For a while I felt rejuvenated as I mixed up the bullworker with exercises that I once struggled with during P.E. class. As a kid I couldn’t do more than ten push-ups. I gradually built up the fitness to knock off fifteen and then twenty push-ups and a similar number of sit-ups. Believe me, that felt really good.

But I wanted more.

As taxing as bodyweight exercises were for me back then I also yearned for the strength to lift heavy loads off the floor. I would have wrestled a bear to get my hands on some real weights to lift but I couldn’t afford them and I knew that my parents wouldn’t show me the money to buy some.
And so reaching deeper into my creativity and ingenuity, I found the solution in my own school backpack. I filled it up with as many heavy schoolbooks as I could and used it to perform bicep curls and tricep kickbacks to put some real load on my arms.
And I would also wear that backpack and perform squats, not my favourite thing in the world to do as I still hated training my legs, but I knew that my legs needed to catch up with my upper body.

Finally, I was training like a real gym rat. Each session taxed my entire body and I finished sessions sweaty and feeling pumped. With the bullworker, bodyweight exercises and my school backpack in my arsenal I now had a more varied training plan and didn’t have to do anything too drastic to get it. I mixed up the exercises daily and also paid more attention to warm ups, warm downs and stretching. Having grown quite cocky about the changes I saw on my body I eschewed stretching for a while, believing that they were a waste of time and that the workout itself was all that mattered but after a while of not doing so I felt my body growing stiff and that was enough to steer me back towards the right path.

2002 Workout routine using my school backpack

  • Weighted squats 3 x 10

Start with your back straight, looking straight ahead, feet shoulder width apart. Squat down and try to keep your knees in line with your feet. Push up off the floor through your heels in the ‘up’ phase to engage glutes and hamstrings.

  • Bicep curl 3 x 10

I was lucky enough to have a school backpack that had a handle on top and most backpacks are designed this way. Grasp that handle with your palm facing upward. Curl up at your forearm to engage the biceps and then slowly lower it back down. Keep your upper arm still.

  • Tricep kickbacks 3 x 10

Grasp the top handle of your backpack and contract at the elbow so that the bag lifts off the ground. From there, straighten out you forearm while keeping your upper arm absolutely still to engage the triceps. Curl at the elbow to return to the starting position but do not drop the bag until desired reps have been completed.