Here’s my essential point: the purpose of lifting weights is to look better for the vast majority of people doing it, and if this is true of you then you should admit that to yourself and structure your program accordingly. I lift for one reason and for one reason only, and that’s vanity. I don’t lift for functional strength because I simply don’t need functional strength in my life very often. If I did, my priorities would change. Right now, in the life I’m actually living, I don’t work for a moving company, play defensive end, or regularly have to fight off sabretooth tigers. Instead, I’m your typical human being who feels pretty good about himself but still sometimes likes external validation and would like to appear attractive to other human beings even though I’m happily in a relationship, for all kinds of evolutionary and enculturated reasons. For looking good lifting weights has vastly better returns for a given amount of work than cardio. (For me!) So I lift. I suspect many other people lift for the same reasons, even if they won’t admit it.
At Friday’s training session, I leaned back against the wall to catch my breath while my trainer adjusted the weight on the bar for the next set of deadlifts. My shirt clung to my torso with sweat. My muscles practically hummed from exertion as I waited for oxygen to replenish my energy. Undeniably tired, I was also at a peak of focus and alertness. Anyone who’s ever enjoyed sports or exercise knows what it’s like: you feel purified, perfectly tuned, purged of all superfluity. Nothing mattered right then beyond getting my lats set, my hips back over my heels, and my breath timed correctly. Every Friday morning, I feel a slight trepidation when anticipating the afternoon session. Squats today? Oh, man, my legs feel tight. I wonder if I’m going to have to do chain squats, or whether we’ll finish with hack squats, Bulgarian squats, or one-legged machine presses. I don’t know if I’m fully up for it… And each time, all that distracting chatter fades away with the first lift. You know it’s something you should do, you know you’ll feel better once you’re through it, but inertia’s counsel speaks up and tries to offer a defense of his client anyway. Isn’t this just life itself in miniature? The good that I would I do not, but the evil which I would not, that I do. Paul sounds like he knew the shame of skipping leg day and eating junk food instead.
In his book Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, Sam Fussell mentioned, in the course of explaining why so many young bodybuilders start using steroids, that it takes around three-to-five years of serious training to develop the deep muscle striations that really make one look impressively shredded. For adolescents or young men, this can seem like an unbearable eternity. For a middle-aged man who identifies with the slow-and-steady philosophy of the tortoise, this is encouraging. Why, I’m halfway there already! But while, all other things being equal, I’d prefer to look fit rather than schlubby, it’s more about taking quiet pride in the effort it took to attain that level of fitness. I don’t go to the beach or walk around shirtless or even have social media accounts where I post flattering selfies. It may not be the most intuitive connection, but this all makes me think of something Michael Oakeshott wrote about the “conservative disposition”:
The general characteristics of this disposition are not difficult to discern, although they have often been mistaken. They centre upon a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be. Reflection may bring to light an appropriate gratefulness for what is available, and consequently the acknowledgment of a gift or an inheritance from the past; but there is no mere idolizing of what is past and gone. What is esteemed is the present; and it is esteemed not on account of its connections with a remote antiquity, nor because it is recognized to be more admirable than any possible alternative, but on account of its familiarity: not, Verweile dock, du hist so schon, but, Stay with me because I am attached to you.
A twenty-year-old kid who works for us on weekends asked once, “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?” He was surprised by the Lady of the House’s response: “Wherever my loved ones are.” If I could have any physique I wanted, which would I choose? The one I grew into, the one I worked for. For me, getting stronger and fitter isn’t a strategy to attract hot babes. It isn’t about competing with other guys to see who has the biggest biceps or the heaviest one-rep personal record on the bench press. When I take that quiet pride in seeing my measurements and numbers progress, I’m not esteeming my resemblance to ancient Greek ideals of beauty, and I’m not pretending that I’m more admirable than any possible alternative. My muscles and I have a shared history together, from arthritic lows to new personal bests in deadlifting. I built that. It’s the affection of familiarity, the memory of time spent working together toward a common purpose, the satisfaction of getting close to your best possible self. If that sounds too precisely narcissistic, imagine books instead of muscles. Would you feel insulted to hear someone dismiss your bookshelves as merely a way for you to impress others with your intellect and erudition? Doesn’t it trivialize the enjoyment of reading to reduce it to a means to an end? So too with a “mere” physical activity like weightlifting. It may not be anything special by objective standards, but it’s mine and that makes all the difference.