An essay originally posted on my personal site.
I am what you might refer to as a gym rat.
I enjoy weight lifting the same way Bob Ross loved painting. He had his happy trees. I have my happy dumbbells.
Aside from illness or perhaps vacation, I’ve been on the same workout routine since I was 16, and in a few years half my life will have involved a relatively consistent lifting program.
It is interesting whenever I discuss lifting or workouts with people either in the gym or outside of it. Some are regulars. Others buy the annual membership every December in the hopes of finally meeting that seemingly elusive New Year’s goals and shedding the extra fifteen pounds they accumulated somewhere between the peppermint schnapps and spinach dip.
What I find intriguing is the common distaste for lifting among both sets of people. To them, it’s boring and monotonous. Lifting is like taking out the garbage or doing the laundry. You do it not because you actually enjoy it for its own sake, but because if you don’t your life is worse off for it.
I’ve never held that sentiment. For me, the gym is akin to a sanctuary, a place of refuge and comfort. If I’m on vacation or traveling, I’m on the lookout for one at my hotel. If there isn’t one, I do a minimalist workout. If and when I ever get around to owning a home, the garage will include a bench press and squat rack. Barring a severe disability, I fully expect lifting to remain an important aspect of my life.
The difference in attitude over weight lifting or working out stems from what motivates us to do it on a semi-regular basis. Visiting the local gym or fitness center isn’t a huge inconvenience compared to other activities, but there are only so many hours in a day. A regular 40-hour work week eats up most of it. Then you have your commute (double it, if you live in the Puget Sound region), meals, other hobbies, necessary chores or errands, and even that doesn’t account for children or a spouse.
In other words, the average adult doesn’t hit the gym because they’re bored and have too much time on their hands. Some look to shed weight they’ve inadvertently gained or keep the pounds they see on their friends’ waistline off theirs.
I get why people lift to stay thin and healthy, and that’s partly what compels me to wake up in the early morning’s dawn, but unless your metabolism rate is irregularly low, it’s easy to keep the same clothing sizes without lifting. If most people simply ate a respectable diet centered on meats, fruits, and vegetables, and stayed away from booze, soda, and snacks, they’d probably do alright. During the times when I’m not able to lift, I’m more conscious about what I eat and do just fine.
However, none of that has anything to do with why I love lifting.
A lot of lifters do it to get big. I certainly appreciate the extra muscle, but looks can be deceiving. I know plenty of men who are muscularly bigger than I am, but they can’t lift as much. I also know a lot of men who are smaller or leaner, but somehow they manage to lift in the same weight range.
I’m a borderline addict to working out because I like being strong. As it turns out, this desire is much more instinctive than we might believe.
A few years back, a fellow Pacific Northwest writer named Jack Donovan wrote a book titled The Way of Men that looked at what defines masculinity. His argument was that masculinity is based on four tactical virtues. The first one was strength; the other three were courage, mastery, and honor.
Physical strength is a distinctly masculine trait in the sense that we respect men who have the ability to lift a lot of weight. We admire the physically strong. Chances are, most people would regard an impoverished gym rat that can squat the weight of a small car more of a man than billionaires such as Mark Zukerberg, who has probably never done a squat in his life.
Some might argue wealthy men have strength as well, but not only is it indirect and confined, it is not strength the way we traditionally understand it. A physically strong man’s power is internal and a part of himself, while a rich man’s strength is of external origins. What a rich man has is power, which is similar but ultimately different from strength.
Our post-modern Western society has less of a need, at least economically, for physically strong men than it ever has. However, rapid technological changes cannot override something that has been an indispensable part of manhood for thousands of years. In a world increasingly secure, hazard-free, and deliberately devoid of physical risks that were part and parcel of the world until the late Twentieth Century, lifting is one of the few affordable and non-dangerous ways for men to bear some semblance to their ancestors for whom physical strength was necessary merely to survive.
Bear in mind that tactical virtues such as strength are amoral; strength does not make a man good or evil. Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were no doubt physically strong men, but their millions of victims could certainly attest to their severe moral failings.
Strength is not directly intertwined with fighting, but it is easy to connect the dots. A man who can bench press three hundred and sixty pounds can probably inflict a great deal of harm to someone should a brawl ensue. It isn’t the proclivity to inflict violence, but the potential. Schoolyard bullies tend to be the bigger kids, not the smaller ones, and their victims are typically the weak or scrawny, not the star athlete.
One of the things I love about weight lifting is its laissez faire environment. What I mean by that is achievement is mostly placed in the hands of the person themselves. Unless you work out with a group or have a personal trainer, you’re left alone. You aren’t required to have someone lift with you, nor can someone force you to lift with them (though voluntary spotters are always appreciated). You are free to do whatever you want.
Additionally, there is relatively little regulation or red tape compared to other hobbies. Properly formatting my books for Kindle and setting up the necessary accounts were not effortless or straightforward endeavors. Numerous times I had to fix a problem or error that consumed much of my evening.
However, as soon as I reach the gym I can begin my effort toward reaching whatever goal I have for that workout. Most of the equipment is there, and if not they are relatively inexpensive items such as a lifting belt or chain belt.
There is no micromanagement or restriction on how I choose to lift. I do not need anyone’s permission to change up my regimen on the spur of the moment. My success or failure is entirely on my shoulders, literally and metaphorically.
I am constrained only by the lack of will; I will to be stronger, so I become stronger.
As someone who yearns for simplicity, the appeal in that is readily evident.
Perhaps the absence of complications has helped me thrive over the years, which brings me to another source of joy that lifting offers. Despite several setbacks and physical injuries, I’ve managed to find success in weight lifting that other areas have yet to offer. My college years saw me at my physical peak, but years later I’ve overtaken most of those personal records. And the best thing is, I could easily be stronger in five years than I am now. I’m no professional body builder, but I can certainly hold my own, more so as someone who does not use protein powder, Creatine, or any other supplement.
In comparison, other undertakings of mine since then have left me thoroughly frustrated despite investing appropriately enough.
People are drawn to things where they discover success and avoid that which has produced nothing but failure. I understand the value of not quitting easily or in the face of setbacks, but I also think there is a certain point where a man must accept his apparent limitations; if that is the reason some men avoid weights, I am sympathetic.
In that same way, a man should also focus on developing skills and abilities where his effort has borne fruit. It comes down to return of investment. I don’t know if that one book on my shelf will be worth my time. Nor do I know if a new movie will be enjoyable. But I know the hour or two I spend in the gym will yield the results I want.
Going back to the Bob Ross comparison; if you watch him paint, you’ll notice how at ease he appears. He’s relaxed. Painting, it seems, brought him solace. I experience the same thing lifting. Some days I walk out of the weight room on what you might call an emotional high. Even when I’m exhausted, it is a joyful fatigue; I gave the workout my all and was rewarded in return.