“Aren’t you strong enough?”
“Isn’t that a selfish/vain pursuit?”
Believe it or not, these are actual questions. I know, I know, it’s hard to contemplate and every time I do, my brain makes this little popping sound and wisps of smoke escape from my ears. I really think I need to get a handle on this before some serious damage is done.
For more people than I would like to admit these are actually serious questions and, in relation to their own life experiences, legitimate. After all, in this post millennial era what need is there for physical strength, beyond the obvious answers of ego gratification and vanity?
These days even the most labor intensive jobs have been engineered to such an extent that physical strength is not an absolute pre-requisite. Forklifts, motorized pallet jacks, automatic lifts on the back of trucks, back hoes, bobcats and countless other machines do most of the heavy work for us. When I ran my home remodeling business we would marvel over the houses we worked on that were built in the 20’s and 30’s.
In those days the circular saw was a new invention. They were made entirely of metal and easily weighed 25 or 30 pounds. Additionally most framers didn’t have power on site and so, while the saw might be available, power wasn’t always. Most of these houses were built with hand saws and hammers.
By contrast I worked with ultra modern cordless tools, few weighing in at more than ten or fifteen pounds, and with pneumatic nail guns, that drive a nail with the pull of a trigger. The difference in labor output between modern carpenters and their grandfathers is significant. We can now do a lot more a lot faster, but we do it with less substantial materials and much lighter, more efficient tools. The actual work done is much less.
There’s an interesting chicken and egg question at work here.
Did we make work easier as we got weaker? Or as we made work easier did we just become that way?
When my grandfather was in the Army during World War II, he had a detail loading fifty-five gallon drums of fuel into trucks. Most days it was him and one other guy. But one day, the other guy called in sick. That left my grandfather to do the job by himself, which he did.
A gallon of water weighs 8.8 pounds. I imagine a gallon of fuel weighs that or more. That means my grandfather loaded drums of fuel weighing 450 or more pounds each! Sure, he had hand trucks and was loading from a dock, so he wasn’t actually picking up each barrel, but still. This was hard, heavy work and a far cry from the “tooling around in a forklift” job it is today.
Not only did my grandfather work the entire day by himself, but he did it to such a degree that the officer in change considered reassigning the other guy and just letting my grandfather do it alone full time.
Okay, that’s not the best example of why it’s good to be strong. Certainly the strong run the risk of being taken advantage of, just like everyone else. But it is a good example of how much stronger we as a people once were. Work was much more physical and it paid to be more than strong enough for the task at hand.
When I was in my early twenties my dad and I, on a visit to the farm, were asked to help my grandfather catch a goat he was buying from another farmer. Both of these men were in their seventies at this point and my father not much older than I am now.
The goat was penned in an old milking barn, a long narrow structure that should have worked to our advantage. It took my dad and I a good fifteen or twenty minutes to catch him and the whole time we got to listen to two old coots carry on about how lame we were.
“Whatsa matter with you, boy?”
“Grab him! Catch that goat!”
And then they’d cackle and laugh. The sad truth was that my father and I weren’t half the men they were were at our ages.
In the fitness industry we often bandy about terms and concepts we haven’t fully investigated ourselves. We use terms like strength and fitness boldly and with an air of assumed obviousness.
My colleague, mentor, and friend, Chip Conrad, as he speaks around the country, often asks for a definition of fitness. The blank stares and confusion he gets in response can be entertaining. The general response is best summed as, “Well, isn’t it obvious? It’s fitness.”
Begging you pardon, but Mrs. Fancher, my third grade teacher insisted that you can’t define a word by using that word. And I’m pretty sure she’s right about that.
Chip goes on to say that really any attribute of the gym could be included here and so it is that I often include strength into this query.
What is strength?
Perhaps if we define it we can better understand why we might or might not need it. While it’s true my grandfather’s generation was in general more physically adept than my father’s or my own, it’s also clear that he was required to do tasks hardly any of us will ever have to face. When is the next time you plan on catching livestock?
For me, strength is synonymous with ability. My grandfather had the strength to be able to continue working even on a day when he was a man short. That ability followed him as he raised two sons, ran his grocery store and managed his farm. It follows and sustains him to this day as he just recently celebrated his 94th birthday.
Certainly we can see there are other benefits that come from being strong that are not directly related to being able to move heavy objects. Technically, strength is the ability to overcome resistance. It’s here I think that the true value of strength and strength training can be found, but more in a metaphysical sense than just the physical.
In the gym we pursue physical strength, but as often happens in this overlapping world of mingled qualities we get carryover into areas we might not have considered. The quest for physical strength involves more than just the working of our bodies. It challenges us emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
In this day when our need for physical strength is at it’s lowest, the need for these other qualities is in much greater demand. The road to flexing these other more metaphysical muscles is not as clear and while their need can seem obvious, how to build them is not so much.
The pursuit of physical strength then can be a bridge. Much as with the advent of firearms the study of martial arts has become moot, yet we still find value in the other qualities this practice cultivates, becoming physically strong becomes a vehicle for building strength on what is, for now, more relevant planes.
Confidence, resilience, stability, tenacity, steadfastness, perseverance. These are qualities we all admire. They’re qualities that lead to a whole host of other attributes like candor, honesty, integrity, resolve and compassion. They’re also qualities which come much more easily from a position of strength.
It’s important to acknowledge that this relationship between strength training and the development of the more admirable human qualities is not a direct one. Three sets of ten in the squat rack does not equate with a proportionate increase in one’s compassion or integrity.
The development of physical strength does, however, require consistency. To increase your squat, you have to keep coming back to it. You have to get in the rack and squat, over and over again. That requires a commitment and the discipline to fulfill that commitment. It requires the tenacity to overcome obstacles which might try and interfere with your practice. It requires the perseverance to keep training even when the training becomes hard.
As you train your squat you simultaneously train all of these other qualities. As one improves, so does the rest and, over time, something as simple as squatting becomes a practice in self improvement. Once your experience has matured, you’re now in a position to help others, and now you’re building altruism and compassion.
All from something as seemingly selfish and vain as strength development.