Joseph Keegin:

Last month, though, after being out of the gym for the better part of 2020, I found a place with a decent-enough weight room and decided to get back to work. At sign-up they talked me into personal training, which I’d never once opted for but seemed like a good idea: not only did eight months out of the game mean I probably need some help with form, but it seemed worth trying to address my mobility issues at a fraction of the cost of a physical therapist. Three sessions in, after some preliminary work on my squat, bench, and deadlift form, my trainer recommended some band exercises to address the tightness in my hips. I groaned through a few sets of silly exercises and felt a lightness in my leg I hadn’t experienced in years. I’ve been repeating these same exercises every other day with similar success, and for the first time in over three years I’ve been able to go about my life without tingling or burning in my leg or foot. It’s been a wonderful, totally unexpected change, and I suspect it also hides a more general principle.

The specialists I saw throughout the process were focused on just one thing: alleviation of symptoms. They attempted (minimal) interventions and suggested practices that would serve the singular goal of freeing me from pain, however momentarily, so I could go about everyday business with some sense of normalcy. All seemed to regard my interest in weightlifting as a “form of exercise,” something that “keeps one in shape,” staves off obesity, and kills time. All were either indifferent to or taken aback by my interest in weightlifting as a way to make oneself better, to reach the limits of and then deliberately extend one’s capacity for action, to make oneself “stronger, faster, and harder to kill.” Their expertise was meant to get people back to work, not to help them flip bigger tires for fun.

My trainer, on the other hand, is focused on my excellence. He wants me to get stronger, not only to get better at doing the things I’m in the gym to do, but to become better more generally. Of course, he’s not a philosopher: his sense of “better” is limited to the physical, to the cultivation of strength and the development of my body’s capacity to manipulate the world. Nonetheless, the mobility exercises he showed me were not merely for the sake of pain-alleviation—rather, the pain-alleviation was for the sake of self-improvement, because you can’t get stronger if the movements cause you pain.

A couple years ago, I started experiencing a strange burning pain in my lower back, accompanied by lightheadedness, usually within about five or ten minutes after finishing a session of walking on the treadmill. My doctor had me go for a scan in order to rule out an aortic aneurysm, and then wrote me a referral to a physical therapist. I diligently performed my prescribed series of core-strengthening exercises for a few months, but they didn’t seem to entirely help me.

I had always worked out at home, partially out of frugality, but largely out of pride. I didn’t need to go to a gym, you see. My willpower reserves were so deep that I could make myself exercise as easily as Average Joe could decide to push the on-button on his remote. But this time, I suspected that I could benefit from the kinesiological expertise of a personal trainer, so I offhandedly mentioned it to the Lady of the House, who, true to her nature, had already thoroughly researched the topic and had a nearby gym in mind. (I’ve known her for over a decade, and I’m still delighted to discover how often she has contingency plans for events I didn’t even know had ever crossed her mind.)

I told my new trainer about my symptoms, and she said, “Well, we’ll just work on strengthening your entire posterior chain.” I had done yoga most of my life, but flexibility wasn’t quite enough. I spent several months with her doing more intricate exercises to build up the stabilizing muscles, before graduating to working with her husband and concentrating on more traditional powerlifting exercises. The back pain/lightheadedness? That was gone within a few weeks; I’m not sure what it was, but apparently it wasn’t anything that having stronger glutes and hamstrings wouldn’t fix. (Speaking of which, I have a fine booty now, if I do say so myself, capable of filling out the seat of my jeans for the first time in my life.) There have been other improvements — when I started, I could only do frontal squats, because my arthritic shoulder would only allow me to hold an empty bar behind my neck. Any added weight would pinch the rotator cuff too much. Within a year, I was able to do normal squats with three hundred pounds, which additionally proved my knees to be more resilient than I would have guessed. Regular adductor exercises got me over my dread of incurring another inguinal hernia. I spend up to ten hours a day in a warehouse, on my feet the entire time, without any of the fatigue and back pain that would have resulted previously. It’s a great feeling to find yourself capable of more than you thought possible, and to be free of the fears that held you back.

It’s easy to make fun of the excesses of gym culture, and the narcissistic vanity that supposedly drives it. But lazy cynicism sometimes passes itself off as maturity or wisdom, in opposition to the supposedly-Romantic desire to prolong youth and vitality, to shake a defiant fist in the face of natural limits. Of course physical decline is an inevitability. I don’t think many, if any, of my fellow gym-goers are under the impression that they’re going to remain immune to the effects of time. Speaking for myself, lifting weights is an expression of both humility and gratitude. Getting rheumatoid arthritis at twenty-eight made me all too aware of my own fragility; being able to deadlift three hundred pounds at forty-eight feels like a gift. It’s my way of refusing to take my health for granted. Each training session is another lesson in humility, as I come up against my limits, while having to trust that soon enough, this too will feel easy. All of it is a reminder that nothing worth having comes easily, but can easily be lost through carelessness and inattention. Sure, I could pray in order to cultivate a similar outlook, but would prayer also give me such a fine booty?