Hashtag Glory

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.

Black-pilled? Do some work!

I don’t post much on the current crisis. It’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s that saying it is usually not productive. See this podcast if you want to know why. So much preparatory work needs to be done before you can have a good conversation that it’s unlikely ever to happen. “You keep using the word ‘good’. What do you mean by it?”

In The Republic, the participants talk about what an ideal city would be like. Little noticed, however, is the end of the dialogue, when Socrates recounts a story of the afterlife. Souls are lined up to be reborn into new lives, and they choose according to the life they lived before. Agamemnon chooses to be an eagle and Ajax a lion. Thersites wants to come back as an ape. These are appropriate choices, but there is a better choice.

Odysseus, the man of twists and turns, gets his turn:

Now it chanced that Odysseus’ soul drew the last lot of all, and came to make its choice. Remembering its former sufferings, it rejected love of honor, and went around for a long time looking for the life of a private individual who did his own work, and with difficulty it found one lying off somewhere neglected by others. When it saw it, it said it would have done the same even if it had drawn the first-place lot, and chose it gladly.

He doesn’t choose a political life, but a quiet life of work, specifically as a cure for former sufferings. Maybe he’s right? Rather than getting more and more sad by things that I can’t control, I should do some work. I suspect that physical work is better for this purpose than mental or office work. If you have a fence to mend, you will care much less about what is happening in the capital city.

I like to think of the new incarnation of Odysseus. What would he be like? Silent, competent, and content, I think.

Powerlifting! Strengthlifting? Lifting!

Cool logos

I was privileged to serve as head judge for the United States Strengthlifting Federation national competition yesterday, sponsored by Barbell Logic. Fifty lifters from all over the USA came to compete in the squat, press, deadlift, and bench press.

There is not a lot of money in powerlifting. The NFL, NBA, and MLB suck up most of the athletic interest in this country. Nobody really cares about the strength sports. This, however, is good news. It means that the sports maintains its purity as a display of strength. If you ever want to see pure joy, go to a meet and watch someone set a PR (personal record) in front of a crowd. We all cheer for each other.

My job was to make sure that the barbell was loaded correctly and that the lifters actually lifted according to the rules. If somebody beats me at the squat, I will cheer, but I want to be sure that he squatted to depth. Having the same rules for everyone ensures that the accomplishments are real, and that the joy is authentic. Joy is what happens when you attain some good. If the judging is sloppy, you aren’t sure that you’ve actually attained the good. When my friend Hari pressed 300+ lbs over his head, I want him to know that he actually did it.

It’s good for people to engage in athletic competition. It helps give shape to your training, gives you something to look forward to, and lets other people see the glory of which humans are capable. We are embodied creatures, and bodies shouldn’t be neglected. Train yours for a competition! It will be difficult for you to play football or find 17 friends to make baseball teams, but you can certainly lift heavy things and sign up for a meet. The USSF has online and in-person meets, so the bar for entry is low. Think about it. We’d love to have you join us.

do we have enough weight?

Architecture and Belief

Last weekend my family went hiking. I was given the task of picking the location. It took us about 90 minutes to drive there, and my competence was doubted. “Trust me,” I said. After a few minutes on the trail, we saw this:

photo credit: me

My wife and children couldn’t get enough. I was a hero!

The trail abounded in similar vistas. Dramatic changes of elevation, lush vegetation, and waterfalls created a mood, a feeling of transcendence. Any concerns about the daily outrages in the news faded away. Timelessness beckoned.

The attraction of such scenes has to do with what humans are. We are not merely animals, purely material beings who spend our lives gathering food to eat and reproducing. Rather, we are spiritual beings who spend our lives gathering food to eat, reproducing, and delighting in beauty. Maybe you won’t go that far with me; what, after all, is spirit? Just go with me a little further.

Look at this church. What does it say about the people who worship there?

It appeals to the same spirit, I think. Humans are creatures capable of being elevated, and the architecture takes that into account. God makes an appearance as well. The atmosphere is prayerful, as the builders intended. It doesn’t take much effort to recollect oneself in a building like this.

Such places abound if you know where to look. I make a point to seek them out.

We don’t build like this anymore. Why? I think it has to do with belief. A congregation that believes in the greatness of God and the spiritual nature of human beings builds churches like that. What sort of belief does this building evince?

anonymous church

Do they believe the same things as the other church? Judging from the architecture, they have nothing in common.