Michael Wailes is a Garage Gym Life original. The man I call “Powerlifting’s Lionheart” is a survivor of three heart attacks who competes in powerlifting! This guy’s got a growing social media following and once you read his story you’ll see why he inspires so many.
The Legend In A Nutshell
Michael, I appreciate your consistent loyalty to my brand but most of all how you bought into my crazy idea to build an Instagram community of at home exercise hermits and cellar dwelling loners. I know a little bit about you from reading your posts but for the benefit of our readers, what is your story?
I’m a 40-something father of an 8-year-old princess. Along with her mother, we live on the Front Range of Colorado. My gym is located on my back porch with an unobstructed view of the Rocky Mountain Front Range. On a clear day I can see from Pikes Peak to well past the Wyoming border. I don’t have a lot of protection from the elements (except in the winter when I wrap it all up with some heavy tarps) so that is where the name Gym Of The Winds comes from. I work as a digital marketing consultant and web developer. I try to stay active; I’m a high-school high jump coach and an amateur powerlifter. Despite my active lifestyle, I have a pretty serious heart condition.
About a year ago I had my third heart attack. The previous two were serious, but nothing compared to the third. I had what is commonly referred to as a “widow maker”. Fortunately for me, I knew the symptoms and was very near the hospital when it happened. I’ve made up a funny little saying, “I was lucky to be where I was or I wouldn’t be where I am!”
I was actually working out at the gym when the symptoms came on. Thankfully, the gym I was training at was about two blocks from the hospital. I was able to drive myself (not recommended) to the emergency room. I don’t have any memory of leaving the gym, but they tell me I walked into the ER, told the triage nurse I was having a heart attack, and then collapsed on the floor. My heart had stopped beating and it took the doctors almost 30 minutes to get it to beat with a sustainable rhythm.
That’s quite the entrance! Walked into the hospital like “Hi I might be dying! How’s your day?” Maybe I should call you Wolverine since you came through apparently unscathed!
Call me lucky and blessed! A testament to the power of prayer. I think a lot of the doctors and nurses had seen patients in a similar condition that didn’t pull through, but my family, friends, and church family were vigilant in their prayers. And like Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”
But back to the story. You collapsed in the hospital and then—
Because of the amount of time that had expired without a heartbeat, I was treated for cardiogenic shock. I was put under heavy sedation — not quite a medically induced coma — and my body temperature was lowered to just above 90 degrees Fahrenheit for about 48 hours.
That all happened on a Monday, I woke up on Thursday. I was beat up pretty good – lots of chest compressions left my thorax really bruised, had some burns from the defibrillator, and wires and tubes sticking out of me in all kinds of places.
Miraculously, I didn’t suffer any lasting brain damage, and my heart shows no sign of damage either. They tell me it was amazing that I survived, but that it was a miracle that I came through it basically unscathed. Although the lifting was most likely the catalyst for the heart attack, my cardiologist credits my lifting with my heart being so strong and able to fend off any damage.
It’s great that your heart attack didn’t leave any permanent damage because you lift but since lifting may have caused it in the first place, how do your doctors feel about you not only continuing to lift weights but compete in powerlifting?
There is an interesting debate about that. For the first two months, lifting was off the table. Then for another four months, my cardiologist wanted me to keep it low weight and high rep. I asked him about the Valsalva maneuver and if I would be putting myself at risk by building that kind of thoracic pressure. His answer was quite amusing and I love to tell it: Without lifting his head from his paperwork, he asked me, “Do you poop?” and continued, “then you are doing the Valsalva.”
When I was in rehab, one of the exercise physiologists basically told me that I was stupid for powerlifting – that that type of exercise really isn’t a benefit to anyone, let alone a man my age. I explained to her that lifting gave me so much more than physical benefits; it relieved my stress, it put drive and purpose back into my mundane lifestyle, and it pushed me to become a better version of myself. I further explained to her that I have a “team” of people supporting me and that she was welcome to be a part of it and help me learn how to do this while protecting my heart.
Obviously they would recommend that I discontinue powerlifting and move to a higher rep/lower weight program. But “we” (them and me) are moving forward cautiously. I don’t do a lot of bracing or Valsalva right now in my training. I also don’t currently train with a belt for that reason. I actually try to breathe through my movements to avoid building too much thoracic pressure. The downside is I don’t hit maximal weight, the upside is, I don’t blow a hose!
Growing up, I always wanted to be a bodybuilder. I remember picking up Muscle & Fitness magazines in the ’80s and cutting out pictures of Tom Platz and Lee Haney and hanging them up on my wall. I used to dream about having quads like Tom Platz.
There was always a column or two in the back of those magazines dedicated to powerlifting – I remember reading some of the workouts and thinking, “Who would want to do that?” Fred Hatfield was a big name back them and I guess I was impressed by his 1,000 lb squat, but that type of lifting just didn’t appeal to me.
My lifting coach in high school would just chuckle when I told him I wanted to be a physique athlete; he would just shake his head and tell me that I didn’t have the genetics for it.
Even when I actually started strength training, I wasn’t thinking in terms of powerlifting. But when my gym totals started closing in at 1,000 lbs., my training partner suggested that maybe I should go to a meet and see how I could do.
He found a meet that was nearby and about 2-weeks out. I signed up and had a blast – hooked on my first squat.
What are your best numbers in the gym and competition?
My best lifts in competition are:
My best lifts in the gym are:
How long have you been training? Where did you get your start?
My older brother always had weights and weight sets around, and so I’ve kind of grown up with weight training. The year he graduated high school (and I was going into the seventh grade) we bought an Olympic weight set and made some squat stands out old pieces of iron we found on the farm. I learned a lot from him that summer — proper form and some basic programming.
I lifted all through high school and got pretty serious after I graduated, but with college, beers, and girls, I let a lot of that slip.
I didn’t get serious again until after my second heart attack, and it happened in a roundabout way. I was trying to get my diet under control and started reading Steve Kamb’s Nerd Fitness blog. Steve is a huge proponent of the Paleo diet, and when I was reading a profile on a Paleo practitioner, the guy mentioned that in addition to the diet, he had also started working out with the Stronglifts 5X5. I was intrigued and began looking into that program. It appeared simple enough and so I jumped into with both feet.
I had never used a linear progression like Stronglifts, and I was amazed not only at how strong I was getting but also how quickly it was happening. And that was it; I was hooked on lifting heavy weights.
Garage Gym Set Up
I interviewed Bud Jeffries and he is a big believer in outdoor training as being healthier than training indoors. My brother has a backyard gym and he wouldn’t trade it for an indoor gym for the world. Says he just loves the fresh air even in the middle of winter. Is that why you put the Gym of The Winds outside?
Space really came down to it. We live in a tiny little farm house – I like to joke that we have 5,000 sqft of stuff in a 1,000 sqft house. I could have moved the gym into one of the outbuildings on the farm, but I was concerned about it being, “a drive” or “a walk/run” to get there. I wanted to remove all the excuses that keep me from working out.
We would like to build a new house on the farm and when I try to imagine how the Gym of The Winds might evolve, I just can’t picture it inside.
What’s your favorite piece of training equipment?
Right now my favorite piece of equipment is my axle bar. It has exposed my serious lack of grip strength! While I should be doing my deadlifts with it, I really like doing front squats with it; it is much easier on my wrists than the standard barbell. It’s also a great bar to do curls with, but you have to be careful not to overdo it because it can quickly put some strain on the tendons in the lower arm.
What one piece (or pieces) of equipment lands on your absolute never sell list?
Definitely my axle bar. There are a lot of axle bars out there, but mine is a true 45 lb bar — most of the bars out there are considerably lighter than that. Most everything else that I currently have would be fairly easy to replace if needed.
I agree. My axle is pretty light which makes it easy to use by multiple family members but I think it might be better to have two one light and one that’s a full 45lbs to cut down on the number of plates I use.
Garage gyms often start out barebones. I know mine did. I started with a set of 70lb dumbbells and a wooden box to use for bench and Bulgarians. What did you start out with?
I was pretty much in the same position: I had a box and my Bowflex dumbbells, and a couple of kettlebells. However, I was working out at a commercial gym too.
I had a set of those Bowflex dumbells. I wish I’d never bought them and I go into great detail why in this post. How did you like yours?
When I decided to start working out at home, I set aside approximately $1,000 to purchase equipment. That bought me a flat-bench, a half-rack/squat stands, a curl bar, a hammer/triceps bar, a landmine, a weight tree, a five-foot olympic bar, a seven-foot Olympic bar, 350 lbs of bumper plates, and 300 lbs of iron plates.
Garage gym set up is never done. What makes your teeth sweat when you browse online equipment stores?
I would LOVE a Rogue Monolift attachment for my rack! But right now I actually have my eye and budget on a safety squat bar.
Do you ever get stuff fabricated? How about DIY equipment?
I’ve got plenty of ideas of things I would like to get built but haven’t pulled the trigger on getting anything fabricated. I’ve made a core blaster/kettlebell with some black pipe, and I also made my plyo box. I have two railroad lines that run through my property and have collected some pretty heavy iron that end up getting utilized in my gym.
How do you stay motivated to train at home?
When I first considered building a home gym I worried (as I’m sure my wife did too) that I would be hyped for a week or two and then “life” would get in the way. I have definitely failed in the past at working out at home more times than I would want to count.
Having a dedicated space is huge. In the past, I’ve tried to incorporate “fitness” with other areas of the home: P90x in the living room, yoga in the bedroom, pull-ups in the laundry room. Sooner-than-later though, “life” gets in the way.
For me, consistency has been the real key to building and maintaining my motivation. Seeing gains and physical development has given me a tremendous amount of motivation. Knowing that it is consistency that is ultimately responsible for the changes makes it pretty easy to just go grind out one more day. Eventually, it becomes this beautiful cycle where the consistency and motivation feed off of each other.
So you tried the home gym lifestyle before but it didn’t take. What’s different about this time? What’s given you the consistency that you and I agree is so important?
I really think having that space that is dedicated to the work and knowing that it is always there.
What’s your favorite part about training in your home?
Curls in the squat rack BABY!!!
Seriously, though, it would have to be freedom. I work from home. It is great to not have to “schedule” my gym time. That was the primary catalyst for me to leave the commercial gym — finding the time in the day and then sticking to it. When I worked in an office, it wasn’t too bad — I just went to the gym over my lunch hour.
I still try to keep a “schedule” but there are some days when I just can’t focus on my work, so I go outside and bang out a couple of sets.
I also read a lot from the great minds of weight training, and it is nice to just “step outside” and try a new grip, or stance, or …whatever!
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking about starting a gym in their home?
The first thing I would recommend is setting aside dedicated space — as best as you can. For equipment, I would say don’t get too anxious to purchase something just because of a sale, limited stock, or just to check it off your shopping list. I initially purchased a half-rack/squat stand of lesser quality that I ended up replacing a few months later with a full rack that only cost about $125 more. I would have rather used that money to put towards another bar or even some more floor mats.
I wish I would have spent a little more time looking at benches. I love my bench, but I wish it had an adjustable incline.
Sounds like you’re going to be in the market for an adjustable bench soon, do you trade in your equipment when you buy a new piece or sell it on craigslist or eBay?
What do you do for conditioning?
I have a set of CrossRopes that I actually do enjoy working out with. I will often do a circuit with the weighted jump ropes, some pushups, kettlebells, dips, and pull-ups. I also recently purchased a heavy bag and a double-end bag that I’ve been having quite a bit of fun with.
How can people get in touch with you to follow your training?
My keto recipe feed: @manheartfood