Life Lessons Learned from Lifting
In my life, I have learned much from people and from paths. My life is not my own. It belongs to God, and to those that have molded me. My life is fleeting and temporal—as are all of our lives. All men die, but many do not live as they were meant to. I can only thank those that taught me well, that my life will not have been a complete waste.
From my father, I learned of decency, a mild temperament, kindness to others, and the value for a man to attain a scholarly mind.
From my mother: piety, morality, and the ways in which a woman should behave.
From my uncle Kirk: that austerity, toughness, and raw strength in a man can be balanced with tenderness and love—that a man can be a man and still cry as much as he needs.
From my friends Chad, Josh, and Puddin’: that it is okay—even necessary—to tell another man how much you love him.
From my children, Matthew and Garrett: how to love another as unconditionally as a human is possible of doing so.
From Tara: how to accept love unconditionally.
From Buddhism: the importance of mindfulness as I go about my daily life; that the twin pillars of compassion and wisdom must always co-exist in an eternal embrace.
From Stoic philosophy (especially that of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius): the importance of equanimity in all situations; that man should only concern himself with what is under his control; what God decides to give to me or take away from me is His business and not mine; my business is to live my life to the best of my ability with what has been given to me.
From Orthodox Christianity: the value and necessity of asceticism and repentance, and that love of God and selflessness cannot occur without them; that Truth is a Person, known and loved by the human heart.
And from lifting I have learned what follows:
The iron is impersonal and unchanging, and this is one of its greatest strengths.
My friend Puddin’ and I lifted for many years together. Half-jokingly, he would sometimes say right before lifting, “time to worship at the altar of the bench press.” Puddin’ is not religious, nor does he plan to be. His philosophy is one of an existential optimism, and I always knew what he meant when he said this, even though he never made an attempt to explain himself.
Many things will happen to you in your daily life. Friends and loved ones leave you or die. On a smaller scale, you have good days and bad days, you make good decisions and bad decisions, you have injuries or you get sick.
The weights do not care.
A 45-pound plate is always the same weight. A 400-pound squat is always a 400-pound squat. A 300-pound bench press is always a 300-pound bench press.
There always was, and always will be, something comforting about this. Many things change, and that is okay, for we must learn to change too. But the iron does not. Cold and impersonal, it is only what it is, nothing more and nothing less.
How you feel is a lie.
This is the mantra of Olympic lifting coach John Broz. It is one of the truest statements ever uttered when it comes to training. And life.
I cannot count the number of times that I didn’t want to train, didn’t feel good, or lacked energy, and yet had one of the best workouts ever when I trained anyway. I have shattered PRs while sick or depressed. And I have had awful workouts despite being full of energy, excited about working out, and/or plenty rested and “recovered” before the workout.
When you come to realize that how you feel is a lie, an important thing happens: you learn to just show up and do the workout, come what may. As you do this, you will begin to realize that you have more good workouts than bad workouts, and these have nothing to do with how you feel.
This understanding carries over into life.
Too many people in our society are concerned with feeling, and this hinders them from doing what is necessary, whether it’s lifting weights, doing a hard day’s work, or anything else that they either want or need to do.
I will give another example. For many years, I have tried my best to meditate for a half hour in the morning and another half hour in the evening. A lot of times, I wake in the morning, and I want to do anything except meditate: sleep in for another thirty minutes, go ahead and leave for work, read a book—you name it. And sometimes, yes, I really want to meditate upon waking. But here’s the thing: how I feel about it has little to do with the “results” I get. Sometimes my meditation is “good”—I enter deep states of tranquility. Sometimes it just plain sucks. But whether “good” or “bad,” how I feel upon doing it is a lie.
So it goes with life.
Life is a skill that must be developed as with any skill—in fact, it is developed along with developing other skills—whether that skill is lifting weights, meditation, prayer, relationships, loving, making love, cooking, parenting; the list could go on. But the fact remains: all of these skills are developed despite how you feel.
Nothing is worth having that doesn’t require hard work.
In today’s world, people want the easy route. They want the latest pill, the latest fad diet, or the latest fad workout to build muscle or burn body fat. But fads never have worked and never will work. And even if they did work, they would not be worth the paper they are printed on (so to speak), for nothing is worth having in life that doesn’t require hard work.
If you want results in the gym, you must learn to train hard. No matter the lifter, none of them ever had success with anything less than hard work. You hear it said sometimes in bodybuilding circles that “less is better,” but I’m here to tell you that most of the time this simply isn’t true.
If you want to bring up the numbers on your squat (and this is just one example), you do this by training harder, and probably by adding extra workouts. Nothing easy about that. And that is exactly as it should be.
Stress is not something that should be avoided.
These days, we are told everywhere that stress is bad. We are told that we need to be stress-free in order to live “happy” lives full of well-being. And if we do get stressed—by work, family life, relationships, our “wounded” psyches—then we are told we need to “de-stress.” Don’t worry, be happy, as the saying goes. I agree that worrying over something does little good—in fact, I think worrying should be avoided, for the most part—but we need a better slogan: Don’t worry, adapt!
In order to grow bigger and stronger, you willingly submit your body to stress. Without stress imposed upon your body, there is no adaptation, and there is no growth.
It may come as a surprise to many of you, but in life it is little different. If you want to grow—in love, in virtue, in compassion for others, in dignity, in self-control—then you must not avoid stress. In fact (and this is going to be the shocking part for some of you), at least part of the time you should go out of your way to seek stress.
I was once asked that why—as an Orthodox—do I fast? Fasting—abstaining from all meat, all dairy, and eating very little food for an extended period of time—seems like an odd form of spiritual practice to a great many people. (And it probably seems especially odd in America, a gluttonous country, to be sure.) My reply: Its purpose is to attain freedom. If you are a slave to your many desires, then you are just that: a slave.
Fasting is stressful. But you adapt, attain freedom, and grow stronger.
Do not be afraid of stress. Embrace it, and learn to obtain a strength and a tranquility that many others will have rarely obtained.
Training is the important thing, not thinking, talking, or reading about training.
I’m afraid that most people who take up lifting like the idea of being a bodybuilder or a powerlifter, of growing bigger and stronger—but very few actually become that which they desire.
Thinking about training will not make you bigger and stronger. Talking about training will not make you bigger and stronger. Reading about training—especially reading “profiles” and other crap about people who are not you—will not make you bigger and stronger. Only training will make you bigger and stronger.
Read enough to acquire the knowledge you need to train (I’m not denying that knowledge is power). Other than that, spend time training and eating correctly. And once you are on a program—you must be on a program, instead of just “working out”—stick with it. Don’t talk about it all the time, and don’t think about it all the time.
Many years ago—in the early to mid ‘90s—I worked as a personal trainer. The clients I had who were the most successful were the ones who didn’t spend time reading magazines or think about training outside of the gym. They simply showed up and did what I told them to do.
The ones who were not successful were the ones—typically young men—who spent their time away from the gym reading too many bodybuilding magazines (this was before the internet) and talking to too many of their buddies about different training programs. And these same guys—when they did train—were the ones that gave less than their all.
So, the question remains (and always will remain): do you want to be a lifter, or do you just like the idea of being a lifter?
This article is not all encompassing. Lifting has taught me more things than just the ones listed here. Perhaps in the future, I will do a second part if there is enough interest.
If you would like additional information about many of the topics addressed here, I recommend the following books:
- “The Way of the Ascetics” by Tito Colliander
- “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius
- “A Guide to the Good Life—The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irvine
- “Letters from a Stoic” by Seneca