Monday, June 15, 2009

What Would Buddha Bench? The Zen Path to Strength Training (the uncut version)

     Last year, I wrote an article for Dragon Door entitled "What Would Buddha Bench: The Zen Path to Strength Training."  What follows below is that same article, but in a slightly altered form.  Originally, I had more "religious" stuff in my article, but removed this material for Dragon Door.  What follows is the "uncut" version, as I had originally intended it to be.

     After you read this one—and if you find it interesting—I would suggest reading my blog entry from last month entitled "Full-Body Split Workouts, the Pump, and Awakened Training."  Reading both of them should help to clarify some questions you could potentially have.  Here goes:

     Yes, yes, I know.  The answer to the title of the article is probably, “not very much.”  The historical Buddha lived a life of asceticism and meditation over 2,500 years ago.  He wasn’t what any of us would exactly call a warrior.  However, over the centuries since the Buddha’s death, the religion he spawned has helped countless warriors develop a mindset that has aided them on the battlefield and in life—and has helped them realize their True Nature, the That which they were, which we have always been, will always be, but are all too often ignorant of that very fact.

     In China, Buddhism developed among the monks of the Shaolin Temple into a religion cum philosophy known as Chan.  When this sect of Buddhism reached Japan, it became known as Zen, and it influenced warriors, martial artists, and—most famously—samurai.

     The same principles for fighting, training, and living that helped the samurai and later martial artists of Japan can also be useful for helping martial artists, powerlifters, and strength athletes in today’s world build extra strength, muscle, and power.  (Along the way, it can also help us to realize our True Nature, as well.)

     A path is really nothing more than a series of steps.  Here are several steps that will aid you in your journey to attain what followers of Zen call “the Great Way.”  Plus, it will help you build a good deal of strength and muscle at the same time.  What you won’t find here are any specific set/rep schemes—no special routines that will allow you to unlock the muscle-building universe (or any other such nonsense).  Here, you throw away all such “keys” to training.  After all, there is really nothing to open, so no such keys exist.

Step #1: Let Go

     The Buddha taught that the cause of our dissatisfaction in life is attachment.  We are attached to our way of doing things, our way of seeing the world.  This includes our way of doing sets and reps, our way of training frequency, our way of nutrition and supplementation.  Yet, if the cause of our problems is attachment, it should be obvious that the remedy is to let go.  (To understand this more fully, I would suggest that anyone who is interested should do an internet search on the “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism.  This will help to clarify any questions that you might have after reading this paragraph.)

     A wisdom proverb from Zen says it like this: “If you cling to nothing, you can handle anything.”  Have you tried “clinging to nothing” when it comes to your workout regimen?  I believe there are two good ways to approach this step, ways that just might aid your training more than you realize.

     It seems as if we are always hearing from bodybuilders how “variety” is the spice of a good training routine.  Conversely—and somewhat paradoxically—powerlifters tend to stick with one training program, often for their entire career.  What gives?  Which one is correct?  Well, neither.  And, well, both.  It is the “clinging” to either form of training that is often the problem.

     We’ll use an example from powerlifting first.  Let’s say that Joe Dick has heard it from all of his powerlifting buddies how Louie Simmons’ Westside approach is the only way to train.  After all, Dave Tate uses it and he’s a monstrous beast.  Not to mention the fact that more champions have been trained at Westside Barbell per number of members than any other powerlifting club in the world.  Joe Dick believes all of this to be true—which it is—so he trains Westside for a few years but never really makes much progress, especially in his deadlift.

     The problem is that Mr. Dick is genetically predisposed to make good gains at Russian-style volume training (lots and lots of sets of the same exercise).  It’s time for Joe to “stop his attachment” to Westside and try something else.  If he doesn’t “wake up”—as the Zen masters are fond of telling us—then he’s going to be stuck in an endless cycle of workouts (a veritable powerlifting samsara) that, for him, don’t work.

     Now, let’s take a look at a typical bodybuilder as an example.  We’ll name said bodybuilder Dick Dickson (Big D for short).  Big D has been told every time that he goes to the gym that the secret to building muscle like Ronnie Coleman is to use the Weider Muscle Confusion Principle.  Muscle confusion, as everyone in Big D’s gym knows, works by constantly changing routines, therefore “shocking” the body into more muscle growth.  Only problem is that Big D hasn’t seen muscle growth in over a year.  What he needs is a steady diet of barbell squats, bench presses, overhead presses, deadlifts, barbell rows, and very little else to start making progress again.  If he doesn’t wake up and smell the Zen, he’s in for some long years of very little progress.

     Take a long, hard look at your training and see if you have anything in common with Mr. Dick or Mr. Dickson.  Chances are, you do.  It’s time to let go.

Step #2: Just Train

     Another Buddhist saying goes something like this: “When you walk, just walk.  When you sit, just sit.  Do not wobble!”  Martial artists and Zen masters call it mindfulness.  It means practicing every moment of every day.  And the only moment you have is this moment, right now.

     There are a couple of ways to put this step to practical use, depending on what kind of training program you are using—or maybe what you’re going to be using after reading our first step.

     There’s a real good chance that a whole heapin’ lot of you who are reading this need to be doing a full-body workout.  (I’m not going to get into all the reasons for that here, just go read one of the articles on my website or read some of my past blog entries.)  If that’s the case, then I find that the biggest obstacle trainees have to overcome with full-body workouts is anticipation of all the exercises, sets, and reps they (perceive) they are going to have to do.

     Let’s say your program for the day calls for 5 sets of 5 on squats, 5 sets of 3 on bench presses (followed by a back-off set of 8 reps), and 6 sets of 2 on power cleans, followed by a few sets of curls, dips, and calf raises as accessory work.  Not a bad little workout—the problem is just getting through it.

     The first thing you need to do is just squat.  In fact, tell yourself that the only exercise you have to do is the squat.  When you do the first set, just focus on that.  One set follows another (living entirely in the moment) and you’re done with all of the squats before you know it.

     Focusing on each set of each exercise—being in the now, and only the now—makes the workout not only a lot easier than you thought, but also a heck of a lot more enjoyable.  In fact, performing the workout might just become downright fun.

     Now, my favorite way to apply this step goes something like this: pick one exercise—and just one exercise—to train for the day.  Pick just one number of repetitions to use for each set.  If you’re trying to build strength, then keep your reps really low: 1, 2, or 3 reps works fine.  If you’re trying to pack on the muscle, perform somewhere between 5 and 10 reps per set.

     Don’t even count sets.  Sets don’t matter here.  The only thing that matters: each set every time that you do it.  Followed by another set.  Then another.  Then another.  And so on.  You shouldn’t even know how many sets you actually do.  Just train until you can’t perform the prescribed number of repetitions.  Just train.

Step #3: You Are Everything You Need

     The Buddha, like many great teachers from the Wisdom Traditions, often taught through parables.  Here’s my favorite of all his parables:

     Long ago in ancient India, an important politician—wealthy beyond measure—was riding in his carriage along a stretch of road outside of town when he came upon a beggar lying in the ditch.  Feeling compassion for the poor man, the politician had his driver stop the carriage so that he could speak with the man.  (Maybe he also wanted the beggar’s vote at some point; who knows.)  Anyway, the beggar was so intoxicated that the politician couldn’t speak to him.  However, the official still wanted to help the man, so he reached into his money purse and pulled out a precious gem—worth more money than the beggar had probably ever seen.  “Although this gem is nothing more than a trifle to me,” the politician thought, “it will be enough for this man to bring himself out of poverty and begin a new life.”  Not wanting the beggar to lose the gem, the man tucked it deep inside a pocket in the beggar’s shirt.  After that he left, feeling certain that the beggar would be a new man.

     The years go by.  One day, the official is riding along the same stretch of road when he sees the beggar walking at the edge of the dusty street.  The beggar is dressed in the same filthy rags as years before, only now he looks worse.  The politician yells for his driver to stop the carriage, gets out, and has some words with the beggar.  “What the Sam hell is wrong with you?” he asks (or something like that).  “I gave you a precious jewel all those years ago.  You never had to live like this ever again.”  The beggar, startled and bewildered, says, “What are you saying?  I know of no such gem.”  The politician grabs the beggar and reaches inside his shirt.  He pulls out the gem.  “Here it is.  You have had it all these years.”

     Everything that you need for building strength, you already have.  Everything that you need to transform your body into a work of art is already inside of you.  Everything you need to discover your True Self is right before your eyes.  Many of you simply don’t realize it.  You think that the “keys” for muscle growth (or whatever it is you’re after) can be found in a new workout program, a new supplement, or by reading the latest article in the latest bodybuilding or powerlifting magazine.  Nothing is further from the truth.  Articles such as this one help to point the way, but it is you who have to seize your muscle-building, strength-gaining destiny by your own hands.  As the Chinese proverb says: “Teachers open the door; you enter yourself.”


  1. Aloha C.S. Sloan,

    Just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your integration of Zen principles and the practice of weightlifting. Good work! I encourage you to to deepen and expand this area of teaching and share it with others. Maybe a book for the future.

    with blessings and one bow,

    Dr. Bonnici

  2. Dr. Bonnici,

    Thank you very much for your kind comments.


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