Main | Part 1: The Idea | Part 2: The Lift | Part 3: The Movement | Lifting and Mental Health | The Benefits of Working Out on Mental HealthExercise and Brain Physiology

Clay Cooper is a husband, a father, and what can best be described as an adventurous deadlifter. The creator of "Discovery Deadlift," Cooper discovered a unique way to cope with his escalating anxiety and panic attacks when the COVID-19 lockdowns threatened to grind his passion for lifting to a halt.

Now, his movement, Discovery Deadlift, and his openness in discussing mental health has grown into a legitimate phenomenon as more and more athletes are opening up about their own struggles with anxiety and depression.

Here is Cooper's story of how a bizarre idea created a haven for himself, his family, and his followers. — H.E.

It was a Friday afternoon. I was out in the garage lifting, and I just kind of got cabin fever.  

A panic attack or significant amount of anxiety manifests itself physically. My temperature rises, I lose my ability to focus on anything, my heart beats a little bit faster. It feels like something's going haywire in your system.

I've never had a heart attack, but from what people have said, that's what it feels like.  

Finding Inspiration in Nature

Since I was a kid, I got a lot of peace and solace from being outdoors in nature. I just decided to load up the weights and the barbell and head down some dirt road near my house.  

I ended up by the lake. I got my workout in and I was also able to just kind of sit in that peace and solace and kind of contextualize what my perceived problems were, forget about them, and just enjoy the beauty around me.  

It was liberating.  

Clay Cooper in the mountains

When you're not enclosed within four walls, you feel like the world's a big place. It helps you see the scale of what your perceived fears are. If I feel that close, tight feeling, being in an open space, especially a beautiful space, can help alleviate some of that.

With deadlifting, it's equal parts visceral and peaceful. The deadlift is the king of lifts. You're challenging yourself to see just how much weight you can lift off the ground. You get those endorphins and that physical release and then it's kind of juxtaposed with reminding you of your place in the world. It just helps put things into context.

The Mental Health Toolkit

With mental health, I think it's developing a toolkit that makes sense for you. There seems to be a stigma in this hyper-masculine space of weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding to be really stoic. I think that there's a lot of value in doing hard things, but it doesn't mean you're weak to talk about your problems.  

I was getting comments on my videos like, "men will literally drag their weights into the middle of nowhere as opposed to go and talk to a therapist." I was like, "Hey, I do both."  

Talking candidly with people you love and trust, whether that's your partner, trusted friends, or in some situations a professional, can help you make sense of the world. I would encourage people—men and women alike—to find whatever helps with your own individual anxieties or depression or whatever you want to call it.

Deadlifting in nature is just part of that toolkit for me. It's something that I know I feel good when I'm doing it, I get to spend time with my loved ones, and I feel good afterward. But it's also part of a larger plan.

All the gear you need to take your workouts out of the gym and into the unknown!


Staying Present

With anxiety, you're constantly worried about some eventuality down the road. It might be tomorrow, it might be a year from now, but you're in this headspace that this eventuality may happen. You spend all this time and resources just worrying about it. It affects your relationships and it affects your ability to be present with the people you love.

My family is the most important thing to me, so I want to make sure that I can be there for them. When I'm having a panic attack or when I'm really anxious, it's difficult to be present. I don't want to live a life where 20 years down the road I'll feel like I missed out on some of these golden years with my children because I was so worried about a possible future event.

I'm taking care of my emotional and mental health. I want to be present, be here. Deadlifting—literally, it grounds me.  

How does Cooper manage to pack in hundreds of pounds over uneven terrain and pull the bar up in some remote areas and extreme conditions? Find out in Part 2: The Lift.

Get Out of the Gym
Get Out of the Gym
Follow along with bodybuilder Kris Gethin as he leaves the gym behind to embrace a challenge unlike anything you've ever seen: preparing for a full distance Ironman.

For resources regarding anxiety and depression, visit the website of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America:   

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. Call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website at  

About the Author

Heather Eastman, NSCA-CPT

Clay Cooper as told to Heather Eastman

Heather’s mission is to use her passion for fitness and her knowledge of training and nutrition to educate and motivate others to enjoy a healthy and active lifestyle.

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