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

As discussed in Part 1 of this three-part series, Clay Cooper used the forced lockdowns of 2020 to take an unusual approach to coping with his anxiety: hiking his weights into the remote wilderness.

While he initially filmed his outdoor deadlifts just to review his technique, the difficult process of getting there and the majesty of the scenery around him was too incredible not to share. What started as a solo hobby quickly grew into an adventure for the whole family.

Lifting in remote locations helped expand Cooper's appreciation of this king of lifts, which is why he continues to navigate the heavy ruck and rough terrain. Here, he explains how the raw combination of nature and deadlift allows him to shrug off his worries and just—lift.  

— H.E.

There are few feelings as good as hitting a big deadlift.

I started lifting in high school, but it wasn't until after my son was born that I started going to the gym more consistently. I was just doing a basic bodybuilding split—back and bis one day, chest and tris the next.  

The gym I went to had this deadlift platform. I'd seen people deadlift before and it always kind of intimidated me, but I was in there by myself, and I had the equipment, so I watched a video to make sure I didn't kill myself or break my back, and yeah, just started deadlifting.

I don't think I'd ever had a movement that felt as satisfying as the deadlift in and of itself. It's just a metric of overall strength. Just the personal challenge of, "Here's this dead weight, stand up with it." I just started to focus a little bit more on powerlifting in particular, so squatting, bench, and then deadlifting.

Overcoming the Weight

In my efforts to combat my anxiety, the deadlift kind of became this on-the-nose analogy for it. There's this weight, and you have the opportunity to challenge that weight, to own that weight, and to conquer it.  

I've hit big deadlifts in the gym, and they've felt great. But now, I've hit big deadlifts in the middle of nowhere, and they've felt even better.  

What I love so much about what I do now is it's open, nothing's enclosed. I feel like I can breathe. I think also it's just the scope of work to get it there, to do something in a spot where, I'm fairly confident, no one has deadlifted before.

What It Takes to Get There

A lot of my preferences or favorite spots are usually just the spots that we had the best time as a family. It's fun to get out there in the wild and swim in the river, then jump out on the sandbar and pull some deadlifts. There's that stillness in the air, that stillness in my mind where I feel peace. I feel like the only thing right now that I need to be thinking about or worrying about is pulling these deadlifts.  

The ruck is actually a great warm-up. It gets the blood flowing pretty well. I can fit a 55-pound plate in my pack and barbell for one trip, then a 55-pound plate on my back and two 45-pound plates on my arms for the next. It's a grind for sure. My kids will help sometimes. My son usually grabs the 10s—sometimes he gets bold and does the 25s. My daughter, she sometimes helps. She'll carry clips.

My wife, Amanda, does all the visual stuff. It's nice because I can just focus on the workout. I laugh, because we're out in the middle of nowhere where no one can see us, but if somebody happened upon us, they'd see two little kids climbing in a tree, a guy deadlifting, and a woman sprinting back and forth with a camera getting different shots.

Clay Cooper loading his weights outdoors

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I do my best to try to find some flat terrain, but you make the most of what you have so you have to be able to adapt. I approach the bar feeling that space, being able to clear my head. The only sounds I really hear are maybe my kids laughing or our puppy barking or the wind blowing.  

I set up, get my feet right, get my hands right, and I let things go still. I push the earth beneath me, and my problems drop away. I'm carrying the weight because I'm strong enough to. It's almost unspoken, but it feels like a release from all that worry. It feels like someone saying, "Hey, you can do this."  

Maybe deadlifting is something that's kind of instinctive—just getting in touch with what you can do. It's empowering. It makes you feel great.

Mastering the Mechanics

Over the years, you learn from people who are better than you, who are stronger than you. For me, a lot of that learning was actually done virtually—squeeze your lats, get your chin up, keep it close to your shins—just basic stuff like that. The cues all kind of come together to get to a place where it's like an art form. You feel like you're refining and getting better at it.

A lot of people were able to live vicariously through these deadlift destinations. I think that connection with nature, being outdoors, is something many of us sought in 2020. So many people get solace from lifting every day, a space for them to kind of just work on themselves and clear their minds. If the gym means something to you in terms of just working on yourself or clearing your mind, go there.

Beyond the Lift

Needing to get out in nature, filming these destinations—in a way I think it helped me address my anxiety even more head-on. I talked about my mental health more, and that was really the genesis of discovery deadlift.

I started this hobby and it's really turned into something empowering and helpful. I get my best ideas when I'm lifting. I think of different ways that can be a better husband or a father. I hope more folks are able to make that connection.  

Learn more about how Cooper's movement is growing in The Movement: How Discovery Deadlift Gained Momentum.

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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