Why I Train With Weights

I’ve been strength training with iron implements since I was 15 years old and I’ve met plenty of people in that time with an endless list of excuses for why they don’t do it. Most are such total horseshit that they don’t provoke much reflection on my part.

“I don’t have time.”

Bullshit. In this American day and age, we have time for what’s important to us– end of story. Anyone with a standard job or less has plenty of time to train. Even with more than standard, and sometimes far more, there is time to train if you engage in a little sacrifice. As a KIPP teacher, I spent 60 hours per week working and nearly 7 hours per week commuting, made time to read books, cook all of my food, hang out with friends, and develop/enjoy an awesome relationship. After all of that, I was still training 4 days per week with separate outdoor running. I simply wasn’t spending a lot of time on my phone or the internet and no time at all on TV.

“But I have kids” doesn’t fly, either. I had a newborn baby last year. I certainly had to make plenty of sacrifices, but since I regard training as an integral part of my physical and mental health, I simply let everything else in the former list suffer. I didn’t like it, but it was what I had to do. Sometimes I had to get up before dawn (and the baby) if I wanted that to work– I got used to it.

“I don’t have time” is insulting to me. What someone is implying when they say such a thing is that I have all of this idle time available to my own vanity whereas normal people like them aren’t so lucky. Exercise is unquestionably valuable to everything about the human body. To not engage in it is to devalue oneself. This is also true for those Americans who can legitimately say they are working 80-100 hours per week in some building somewhere, and thus quite literally don’t have time. There isn’t a person alive today in this country who needs to work that many hours just to survive. To take on that many hours is a CHOICE. I understand this can be done in service of a larger goal and I respect that– but people need to own that it is at least a short term self-destructive choice they are making, and the longer they persist in it, the more destructive it is.

Where things get interesting, however, is when I get someone who questions the value of strength training with weights as a choice for exercise. I had a guy do that pretty well over a decade ago and it stuck with me. “Weights are boring and impersonal… it’s numbers on a bar. What has that got to do with life? I’d rather be working outside or playing a sport.”

Boom. That’s pretty good. I’ve got to respect that.

Ever since that conversation, there are times when I’ve been in some commercial gym, air conditioned, surrounded by people going through the motions, and I think to myself: what the hell are we all DOING here? Are we a bunch of gerbils? Why not build a house? Why not learn a hand trade and acquire a usable skill that could also get us in motion in a more practical way? Isn’t this all very artificial?

It is… but I would argue its artificial nature is good. If we train in the right way for results, we are pushing to our physical limit and beyond. The “iron,” to reference the great personal essay on the subject by none other than Henry Rollins, gives us a way to measurably establish where that limit is and slowly push it higher. If you want the science for why this is good, google “progressive overload” for about 5 billion sources on this provably excellent effect on mind and body. “Real life” and recreational sport rarely offers this opportunity in a safe and consistent way. We don’t need to take advantage of that to get beneficial exercise, but it’s a part of what I like about it.

Then there are personal reasons for me. I like to get better every day, month, and year. I want to learn new skills, become a better dad, know more about the world– and I want to do it in a measurable way. Life can just slip by without any clear idea of how you are compared to how you were, or can present you with so many variables that it’s difficult to know what part you played in your own success or failure. When I learned to smoke meat, I wanted to see people go for seconds. When I taught history, I wanted to see my kids shred the state history test–without once teaching to the test itself! When I get my wife a birthday or Christmas gift, I want to see her face light up! I want the “wins!”

Training with iron weights allows me to go in and get a win every single day. With my long term program and some simple notations in a small pad, I can hit my prescribed targets for number of sets, repetitions, and with what amount of weight and over time, I can see how much stronger I am now than I was a week, month, or year ago. I enjoy that immensely, and with the kind of exercises I choose– the squat, deadlift, power clean, etc. I can be confident in plenty of real-world carry-over for that strength as well. When our extended family needs somebody to move a wheel-barrow full of heavy crap all day, or someone to take the bottom end of a huge hide-a-bed down a flight of stairs, I can confidently raise my hand and take the real-life pleasure of being useful in a way not many others can. To me, that’s worth occasionally feeling like a gerbil!

Ultimately people need to choose the exercise that works best for them, but for my people out there that have ever been under those too-bright lights and looked past the bro pulling his shirt up in front of the mirror— to the rack full of dumbbells— and thought: “Man, what IS the point?!”

Approach, lift, go to failure, and enjoy those endorphins with confidence!

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