I wrote an article for Barbell Logic, reprinted here.
The science of lifting is not that hard. Lift heavy things, put them down, rest, lift more heavy things, and get stronger. For healthy people, it works every time it is tried.
If this is the case, why aren’t we all swole and strong? The goal of strength is good, and the means are well-known. There are no mysteries. Everyone should be able to do it. Why don’t they?
The catch is in the second part of my statement “it works every time it is tried.” One needs to try, to take steps beyond the theoretical, beyond buy-in, past motivation to action. Effort is not a solitary action, either. Physical change is less like a metamorphosis—a process that, once started, runs its course naturally—and more like the shaping of iron with hammer and anvil. Change happens steadily but only with repeated, consistent, and sufficiently disruptive wallops to your current physical self. Therein lies the problem.
The actual lifting requires effort, with which many people have great difficulty. Effort is often interpreted as pain. Efforting is hard. Trying is hard. If only people would do it! But coaches and lifters know that most people won’t.
“What can I do to get my spouse/friend/parent to lift?” is a question coaches hear all the time. The answer is usually, “Not much.” Voluntary hardship is still hard, and therefore usually not voluntary. The activity, if chosen, will be very good, but it’s difficult, and so not often chosen.
Most people won’t voluntarily do hard things. As we say at Online Great Books, “the noble things are difficult,” which is an ancient Greek motto. Most won’t do difficult things. But there is a clue in the word “noble.” The Greek word for “noble” also means “beautiful.”
Lifting heavy things is beautiful. It’s glorious!
As I write this, I am in my garage getting ready to squat. It’s not going to be a PR, and I’m not going to post it on social media. Nevertheless, it is going to be noble/beautiful/glorious. I’m a 50-year-old man, and rather than give in to the cruel entropy of age, I’m going to get under the barbell, stand it up, walk out, bend my knees and hips, and stand up again. Whatever else I do today, this will be a great deed.
Many lifters are “medicinal” lifters. They know that they ought to lift for health benefits, but they love it about as much as they love colonoscopies, which are necessary but awful. The problem with the medicinal approach is that it requires willpower to do it. Every workout is a chore, and you have to drag yourself out to do it. Should other things get in the way, you’ll skip.
On the other hand, if you are motivated by the greatness of the deed, by its nobility, its beauty, by the glory that lies hidden in the barbell, you can infuse your workouts with joy. It can be fun!
Voluntary hardship can be less hard.
Brett Mckay gave us an interesting talk at our BLOC conference this year. He argued that joy is more important than discipline. Olympic swimmers who get up early to log miles in the pool are not exercising willpower. They love swimming and are having fun because of that love. Can you learn to like weight training?
I suggest you try it.
The ancient Greeks used the word arete to refer to the excellence of a man or a horse, or indeed anything that could be wonderful. It’s often translated as “virtue,” but the English word limps. Odysseus shows his arete when he fights, but also when he schemes. Every time you lift, you are showing forth your excellence, even if you are not improving it.
I am an old lifter and am not setting PRs very often. Why, then, do I still lift? If I did it only as medicine, I think I would be very sad. I do it because every rep is an exercise of arete. It is also a noble and beautiful deed. This focus helps me to stay motivated even though the days of easy gains are long gone.
Proof of what I’m saying can be found in the instinct of many people to memorialize their lifts on social media. We know that we’ve done a great deed, and the instinct is to show other people. If it’s not on Instagram, did you even lift?
But even if others never see your lifts, you still see it. Take a moment to wonder at the great things your body is capable of. If it helps, think of what others can do. Would anyone else that you see today be able to handle the weights that you did? Probably not! Even if you are a rank beginner, you showed up at the gym. Most people don’t. I don’t mean for you to be arrogant or look down on others. I want you to look up to yourself.
Did you ever see a little grin on the face of an athlete after doing something remarkable? Jordan used to smile like a child. This should be you after every squat set.
One caution: we lifters like to talk about how horrible volume day is, about how we squatted 5×5, and it nearly killed us. This is fun, part of a game of “Top this,” but it’s not helpful to your friends and family who should also lift. Don’t talk about lifting as if it is painful. It’s not, really. There are occasional pains, but it’s not bone cancer. Stop talking about it as if it is. Instead, talk about how much fun you’re having. Tell your friends and family how neat it was to hit a PR. If you are past the days of PRs, say that it felt really good to put in your work today. It will help you, and it will help them.
Stop thinking of lifting as medicine. Start thinking of it as glorious fun.