[A short snippet from my book The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg, describing the beautiful moment of lifting a heavy thing.]
You should see my Olympic weightlifter friend in action. First, she steps onto the mat and approaches the barbell—for a few moments she’s merely the friendly, cheerful person I know, walking casually along, a familiar smile on her face. Coming to a stop standing with her toes below the steel bar (which is elevated by the weight-plates at either end) she squats down and takes hold with a wide grip—hands pronated, elbows locked, spine straight, chin raised. Already a transformation is taking place. I’m not simply seeing a friend of mine anymore: I’m now seeing a physiological machine poised to explode into intense action—a kinetic sculpture; an artistic exploration of human capability. Somatic and mental evolution expressing themselves in a playful manipulation of force and matter. Chemical, cellular, musculoskeletal, nervous—every level of physical and psychological organization coming into a finely-tuned, automatically consolidated functional balance.
From this meticulously disciplined starting position (because the lift has already succeeded or failed in its preparation) she takes a deep breath, holds it (making her core a more solid base for what’s to follow by the increase of intra-abdominal pressure) and launches into motion. The muscles of the lower body supply the initial drive; legs extending, hips moving upwards and forwards; simultaneously, her tightened trunk draws backward, pulling her body towards a natural standing posture, very nearly “the anatomical position.” Agonist and antagonist muscles are precisely contracting isometrically and isotonically, locked in a seamless, reciprocal integration of movement—like members of an orchestra upholding their individual parts of a rigidly structured kinetic melody. The bar, rising in her grip as her body rises, slides first up her shins, past her knees as they lock, then to her waist; without the slightest break in the continuity of the movement, she makes a small hop off the ground—a fast-twitch muscle flourish, a subtle, easily-missed token of complete technical mastery of the physics at play—before dropping into a deep squatting position; knees fully flexed and tracking over the line of her toes, weight on heels, crease of hip below parallel to the floor; lumbar region of her back strong and active. Meanwhile, while she made her hop, her upper body was far from passive; shoulders shrugging upwards powerfully, she launched the barbell at the ends of her locked arms; bringing it up from her waist, she takes control of its rise and stops its motion as it comes directly overhead.
By this point, you have already witnessed a dazzling display of neurological communication and control—to say nothing of the counterbalanced muscular strength and diarthrotic joint flexibility involved. But you feel as though you haven’t only seen the movement performed once: rather, you’ve seen the culmination of a thousand (or more) repetitions. Over the course of long practice and entrainment, the complexities inherent have been internalized; their execution is, to a degree, automatic and unconscious, in the sense that they could not be properly performed in all their simultaneous aspects by the conscious mind alone. The brain as a whole, the central and peripheral nervous systems in their entirety, must be recruited. The lifter, for a fleeting instant of powerful motion, is displaying a human brain and body operating at functional capacity; motor cortex output traveling along efferent neurons, winding smoothly into an opposite stream of sensory input, as millions of afferent neurons carry the somatosensory signatures of every muscle’s position in space to a central executive will, a unifying cognition.
Ludwig Wittgenstein said that our first and foremost certainty is of our body. Immersed in a universe of mysterious and metagnostic dubiety, we are grounded throughout our lives by the continuity of our somatic experience. The body is the base of all our experiences—we are viscerally certain of it even when we are certain of nothing else. And so it is only natural that in moments where the body and the mind lock into the operational oneness they were born to enjoy, when every cell is working to a common goal—when the spontaneous and intermeshed expression of the body dominates the entire mind and has the whole attention rapt—it is only natural that everything should make sense. Everything is certain, because this moment is certain, and this moment is everything. In the subjective experience of complete functional integration, nothing falls outside the perfection of the execution.
We don’t ask anyone why they want to be happy; happiness justifies itself. In the same way, immersed in the optimality of integrated movement, the movement justifies itself; the experience, the moment, the body, all justify themselves through the expression of their perfection.
I doubt these are the thoughts going through the lifter’s mind, in the instant she’s coiled at the bottom of the squat, back tight, head raised, the barbell held above by perfectly straight arms. The experience of optimality is too complete, too focused, to allow for such meandering thoughts; it’s alive, and it only lives in motion; doesn’t stop to put itself in words. It can only be put in words after it’s already over; and even then, the words are always inadequate.
But the lift hasn’t ended yet. Extending her legs once again—as if attempting to press the floor beneath her away—she rises into a standing posture, the barbell high aloft, the very picture of triumph. Completion. The end of the kinetic score. The orchestra falls silent and only the reverberations remain to tell what has just occurred. Dumping it forward, she drops the dead weight of the barbell from its height to the floor. A quick bounce, a slight roll across the mat, and it is still: disengaged from the hands of the lifter, it has lost its living motion. It, which seemed such an active character in the preceding performance, is revealed to be lifeless without its connection to the honed proprioception of the athlete.
Turning away, she walks from the mat, a wide smile crossing her face. The barbell has returned, essentially, to the spot where it started. Nothing has been changed. But everything has changed. The lifter’s smile shows that she understands this; she, immersed in the motion, conducting the band, felt its relevance, its absolute self-justification. She has acted out the lyrics “Do not die without knowing what your limits were.”
Last night, a friend of mine asked me why I lift weights and build my body. She wasn’t being flip—she was actually intrigued by it, and wanted to understand what motivates me in the kind of training I do. I replied—and here’s what I said.
“HEY! So, why the training? Sorry in advance for writing a really long thing, but I’m getting pretty fascinated by trying to answer the question, because it forces me to step back and take a fresh look at why I do what I do, getting it clear enough to communicate it to someone else.
Really, the WHY varies from person to person, and there are as many different drives finding an outlet in bodybuilding as there are bodybuilders (and many, many different drives finding an outlet EVEN IN ONE bodybuilder, haha). But I can only get into my own stuff, and what I’ve talked about with my coach. (Did you read The Man Who Pulled HIs Own Leg? I don’t want to just rehash stuff from the book to answer your question, but a lot of the basic personal reasons I transitioned from yoga to bodybuilding are in there.)
One of the big things that keeps me with the training is that I JUST LOVE IT. Like, I love the actual moment of lifting a heavy thing. Since I take a lot of joy in the training itself, even if I made little or no ‘gains’ I would still be lifting. I do it because I find it amazing that my body is capable of it, and that keeps me intrigued by progressively discovering just how MUCH MORE my body is capable of. That, and feeling good physically as a result of it—so on a bodily level, basically the same exact two things that kept me with yoga for the past decade, and with martial arts for even longer than that.
I authentically enjoy the physical activity of hard, manual labor, even if that’s something as simple as having to move a pile of boulders from one place to another for some practical reason. Weightlifting is a way to enjoy that kind of thing systematically, for it’s own sake, while developing the ability to do more and more of the work as time goes on.
As for bodybuilding, WHY build bigger muscles and aspire to certain physical aesthetics, for their own sake, distinct from any actual application in physical or athletic work—that’s harder to answer because it has a lot of different motivations simultaneously. I’m not kidding when I say, for me, it is basically sarcastic. I do it with a wink. But at the same time, even though I’m doing it sarcastically, it’s very, very much NOT a joke (I don’t know if that contradiction makes much sense, but the fact that my coach instantly understood what I meant by it is one of the big reasons we get along so well, haha.) What I mean is, I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t derive my sense of self from, say, my biceps, but at the same time, it’s the outlet of a very serious artistic impulse. It’s not any different from the impulse to paint something or sculpt something. Except instead of working with canvass or marble, I’m working with my own genetics and physiology.
My left brain is intrigued because it’s a way to delve into how the body works and explore it on a practical level—practical, because it’s aimed at actually making observable changes—and my right brain is satisfied because the work-in-progress is something deeply artistic, aiming for the creation of a pretty damn powerful symbol. It’s the archetypes that are represented by a jacked body-as-a-symbol that make it compelling to work towards. Just ask ancient Greek sculptors. That’s why bodybuilding poses exist. They’re tools to express an ideal, and since they’re all about being seen, they’re about communicating something with other people.
And on the subject of being seen, the attention that comes with creating an imposing or impressive physique is also satisfying on some vain level, haha. I admitted to Dev a while ago that the bodybuilding progress-shots I was uploading to Facebook all the time while she was far away weren’t coincidence—they were almost entirely for her benefit. 😉
Lastly, for me, bodybuilding is kind of a mental deprogramming from a lot of stuff I’ve worked through in the past, where I glorified feeling shut-down and inadequate by justifying it with deconstructive philosophies—destroy the ego, abandon identification with the body, surrender all attachments, remain emotionally aloof from worldly things, etc, etc. I’m not knocking Eastern religions, I’m just saying I related to those ideas in a way that was basically negative.
And bodybuilding is a way of continuing to turn around from that, because what’s more body-positive, constructive and creative than directly working to get physically bigger? Hahaha.”
“Fitness” is a highly coveted state. If you want to know what that state entails, never fear: there are plenty of weekend Crossfit warriors and people who have taken two or three Bikram yoga classes in their lifetime who will be happy to tell you in intimate detail that they have arrived at the one true definition of “fitness,” and then proceed to magnanimously climb down from their high horse and explain to you exactly what you need to do to become, like them, “fit.”
But if, like me, you have a sneaking suspicion that “fitness” is meaningless jargon engineered to sell magazines and keep self-dissatisfied people scrambling after an illusory goal, then I have something you might be interested in reading. Here’s a small excerpt from my book, “The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg,” about my experiences, observations and reflections over the past nine years in yoga, and also in bodybuilding.
“This is a good moment to mention something important: ‘Fitness,’ as most people use and understand the term, is a mythic state. Next time someone says something along the lines of ‘I’m really fit,’ treat them like they just said, ‘I’m actually a unicorn.’ It is a state of being that exists only in their imagination, fueled by desperation to be a happy, beautiful immortal. It’s the plasticized, Photoshopped state of a man on the cover of a magazine, whose shaved abs and percent body-fat demand a constant, obsessive maintenance that his cool, suave expression belie. It’s a non-specific athletic mastery of everything, including things we haven’t tried yet. It’s a symbiotic unity of perfect health, dazzling functionality and sculpted physical aesthetics, carried to an expression of perfection where they’ve all hit critical-mass and perpetually sustain themselves, needing only air and good cheer for fuel—leaving the Fit Superhuman with nothing to do but engage effortlessly in rigorous recreational activities, bask in their own classical beauty and have terrific sex, on and on forever.
The reality is, fitness is always specific. It’s always fitness to do something. It makes no difference if that thing is running or pole-vaulting or lifting weights or doing yoga. By doing that thing, you increase your fitness for it—your body continually adapts to that specific thing, to the detriment of your fitness for other things. A champion Strongman athlete looks and performs nothing like a champion Marathoner—they are both ‘fit’ to the highest degree in their particular sport, but the adaptations that brought their bodies to that high level of fitness were drastically different. This doesn’t mean you can’t be in generally good shape—defining ‘good shape’ as having the strength, stamina and natural mobility to engage in a wide array of activities, enjoy a great quality of life and maintain a high level of activeness for years to come. That is immanently feasible—that’s primal human heritage. That’s how the body evolved to work. But something people don’t acknowledge when they think about fitness, is that such a general state as being ‘in good shape’ necessarily doesn’t veer to any extremes. If you want to engage in specific activities—say, yoga—to a point where your abilities are truly exceptional, you’re inevitably going to take away from your ability to do other things exceptionally. Your body will adapt to yoga so heavily that there’s no room left for adaption to other activities—if you want to shift your adaptation in another direction, you can, but it’s going to come at the cost of your previous extreme adaptation.
Being ‘in good shape’ doesn’t require anything more than a novice-to-intermediate level of ability in any particular thing. For instance, you can progress from being completely sedentary to being pretty good at yoga and see a massive corresponding increase in your general quality of life. But that’s as far as the principle extends, before the returns for your effort start diminishing. After that point, the shifts from intermediate-to-advanced-to-elite will have absolutely no corresponding increase in your general quality of life, because at that point the training you’re doing is specialized. It’s yoga-specific (or anything-else-specific) adaptation that has no practical overlap with the outside world.
Nothing in excess, everything in balance. You know what that is? It’s the fucking slogan of ‘Core’ dog-food company. Who cares where wisdom comes from. Learn it by heart.”
If you’re interested in reading some more excerpts, here’s my book’s Facebook page:
Not many people take a lot of time to warm up before a workout. It seems like, unless they’re in a class (like a martial arts or yoga class) where gentle stretching and warming-up is part of the routine, and there’s an instructor leading them through it, people would just as soon jump straight into lifting or cardio without taking any time for simple mobility exercises. But taking time to properly warm-up mitigates risk of injury, improves circulation to muscles and joints—which improves performance—and gives you a few minutes to shift mental gears from whatever you have been doing out in the world all day, to whatever you’re about to do in the gym. Give yourself a good warmup as part of your next workout. Give yourself that chance to check in with your body and gently test how everything is moving and feeling today, and give yourself a chance to bring your mind into the room, so you’re fully present when you get down to your first deadlift or squat or whatever.
Part of the problem is that, unless they’ve learned it already, again in a context like martial-arts or yoga, most people don’t HAVE a go-to warmup routine to use. They don’t know any good ones, ergo they just don’t do it.
BLAMO—GUESS THE FUCK WHAT. Here’s a general purpose warmup and whole-body stretch I generally use before a workout. Call it routine A, if you want—we’ll take a look at routine B later. I’m putting it up here, free to a good home. Do as many reps of all this stuff as you want, take as long with it all as you want.
· First off, hold a full squat for a while. (Feet a little over shoulder-width apart, ass to the grass or as close as you can get it. A couple minutes at the bottom of a squat is all the stretching for hip flexibility you need. Come up every now and then for a second if you feel like you need to get the blood moving back down in your legs, it’s no problem.
· Walk around shaking out your arms, legs and shoulders to get the blood flowing; throw in some light trunk-twisting, and some swimming motions with the arm/shoulders—breast-stroke and back-stroke. Do that for as long as you want. When I’m leading the warmup for a martial arts class, we stick with swimming-motions for a good 30 seconds to get our shoulders ready.
· Walking, lift your knee way up with each step, grabbing it with both hands and pulling it towards your chest. You’ll especially feel the stretch at the attachment of the hamstrings and glute. (Day after Leg Day, this stretch is hella uncomfortable.) Remember this about all stretching: it isn’t like lifting! Nothing should be done hard. Think 50% intensity, max. You’re not trying to rip your body open, you’re trying to increase natural range of motion gently and steadily. Also, breathing always normal. Normal breathing is breathing you don’t even have to think about. (Mouth closed, inhale/exhale naturally through the nose.)
· Walking, lift your foot up behind you with each step, reaching back to grab it around the instep and pull it in like you’re trying to crack a nut between your calf and hamstring, stretching the quadriceps. Make sure you keep good posture, chest up, shoulders back, little arch in the lower back to increase the stretch.
· Step forward into a lunge, gently sinking down as deep as you can go. Put both arms up over your head and lean to the side away from your bent leg. Keep stepping forward through lunges, leaning side to side in alternate directions each time. You can break perfect lunge form in these to increase your stretch in the hip—that is, bent knee going beyond the line of your toes is fine, it’ll bring your hips down further and give a better stretch. you’re not lifting any weight, so don’t worry that it’s bad form.
Now back to the shoulders. Find a broom handle, straight walking stick, PVC pipe, whatever. (If you need to, you can even use a towel—holding either end and pulling it tight, not hard, just enough to maintain tension.) Grab it with both hands, about as far apart as you would hold the barbell doing an overhead press. Hold your stick up over your head, and move it backwards as far as you can. You’ll feel the stretch in your front, anywhere and everywhere from your anterior deltoids down the front of your body, depending on your level of flexibility. Gently pull your shoulder blades together, arch your back a little. Hold it however the fuck long you feel like.
Holding the stick the same way, bring it in a big arc down to one side—now one arm is behind your head, one arm is out to the side. don’t let your elbows bend. same deal as before, don’t do this hard—your goal isn’t to tear your body apart. Hold the stretch for a while. Do both sides, as many times as you want.
• Finish with another full squat, again holding it for a couple minutes. Seriously, holding a squat like this will up your hip mobility like you wouldn’t believe. Another thing you can try, is reaching up to grab something with your hands so you can “hang” from it while you’re holding the squat. I just set the barbell in my squat rack at the right hight to use for this. That’s a pretty easy way, but you can use whatever you want. You’ll get a great stretch in your back and shoulders that way. Gentle, gentle, gentle, everything gentle. It’s a warmup. It shouldn’t be hard.
Next summer, everybody is going to be looking for a fast, easy way to get a flat stomach and six-pack abs.
I’m here to tell you: winter is the time to start. Give yourself MONTHS to undertake your new fitness routine and make steady progress. That way you’ll have real, lasting results to show off next summer when you finally pull the big reveal and take your shirt off the first day it’s warm and sunny again.
I’m also here to share the one big secret everyone who’s looking for a way to melt fat, build muscle and transform their body needs to know: you’ll have to train hard, and train consistently. There’s no magic trick. I have nothing to sell you, and anyone who says they have something to sell you “to make getting fit easy” is lying. You don’t need a miracle, you just need to work steadily and have a critical, intelligent attitude towards your physical conditioning. Don’t take everything everyone tells you about fitness and nutrition at face value. Discriminate. There is a ton of bad advice out there—way more bad than good. Time to tackle some of the long-standing misconceptions surrounding “getting a six-pack,” and maybe arrive at some good ideas about intelligent training in the process.
• Forget crunches and sit-ups. They are a lousy exercise for your abs, and they put more strain on your low-back than they’re worth. I realize it might be hard to sever all ties with an exercise that’s been touted for generations, but once you’ve tried a few ab workouts composed of better exercises, you won’t even miss crunches or sit-ups.
• Recognize that your abs don’t function alone when you exercise. You don’t get nice abs without having a nice core. Core muscles include everything from just below the chest, down to your knees—front and back. Working abs safely and effectively is going to involve working that whole area.
• “Plank” is your friend. Plank is a terrific core-muscle workout. You can’t do too much plank. Start off shooting for a 30 second hold, and gradually try to build to a minute. Then two minutes!
• If you’re going to plank, do it right. Hips parallel to the floor. Elbows in line underneath your shoulders.
• Is plank getting easy? Make it harder. As it gets easier, try moving your elbows forward from the line of your shoulders. It’ll be way harder!
• There are a million and one other plank variations. Do your homework. Find the variations that you like, that work for you, and try them out! Have fun. Play plank.
• Try out other core workouts, find what works for you. Have you ever tried knee-raises? L-sits? Why not? Try it. Try new things! Have fun!
• L-sits: Space two chairs next to each other, so you can stand between them with your arms down by your sides, hands on the chair backs (make sure they’re chairs that will stay steadily in place as you go.) Lift your feet off the floor, so now you’re holding yourself up with your hands. With legs straight and toes pointed, try to raise your legs parallel to the floor. That’s an L-sit! Hold it as long as you can, even if that’s only 1 or 2 seconds at first. Work steadily! Keep trying, build it up to 30 seconds. Who cares if it takes a long time to develop?
• Get a workout buddy. It’s easier to train with a friend than alone.
• Try this fun workout with your buddy: Partner A lays down flat on their back, raises feet up vertical to the floor. Partner B stands over Partner A’s head, and Partner A grabs Partner B’s ankles with both hands for stability. Now, Partner B (not too hard at first!) pushes Partner A’s feet away. Just a quick push, directly away—Partner A will get a terrific core workout by trying to keep his or her legs straight up in the air while they’re being pushed away. When you’re tired, switch places and give your buddy a turn!
• Knee-raises: Hang straight down from a pull-up bar. Bring your bent legs up until your knees are parallel to the floor. From there, raise your legs up towards your chest, high as your can, then lower them back to parallel. That’s one rep. Do as many as you can! Build up to 12 over time.
• Leg-raises: Lay flat on your back—if you want, you can put your hands underneath your tailbone for extra support. Raise your legs two inches off the floor. That’s all. Just hold it! You’ll quickly realize what a good core workout it is. Navy SEALs don’t do this in bootcamp for no reason.
• Scissor-kicks: After you’re done with leg-raises, stay in position while you catch your breath. When you’re ready, lift your legs up again two inches off the floor. Now, gently kick your legs up and down, legs staying straight, alternating. One up, one down, one up, one down. Legs never touch the floor as you go, they just keep going up and down a couple inches in the air. Go until your tired, put your lags down and catch your breath, then do another set. What do you have in common with a black-belt? This exercise.
• Train with free weights. Do your homework on the proper way to work with a barbell. Get a coach. Seriously. Free weights are way more effective than training with gym machines. Squats, deadlifts, bench-press. They will all work your core in a positive way.
• Forget about weighing yourself. Weight is a stupid metric for measuring the success of a health and fitness regimen. Really—muscle weighs more than fat. Also, as you get more fit, other changes in your body composition are going to play into changing your weight. Things like denser bones and stronger joints—they will change your weight. Just going by weight is a really narrow, pointless way to measure your health.
• You can do more to change your body with exercise than you can with diet. Forget fad diets. Forget diet “reboots” and “jumpstarts.” Those are short-term results. You want long-term results. You get those long-term results from exercise—as long as you’re consistent and make an ongoing commitment to your fitness training.
• Have incremental goals. Abandon the mindset that always looks for sudden, miraculous transformations, and gives up when you don’t immediately see the results you want. Instead of having such broad, extravagant goals that they serve to discourage rather than motivate you—because you always see yourself falling beneath them—have incremental goals that carry you in the direction you want to go. There’s always a next step to take, there’s always progress to make. If your goals are incremental instead of all-or-nothing, you’ll always have the next goal within reach. You’ll always see yourself passing milestones, and that will give you the motivation to keep trudging along the road.
• Track your progress. Write everything down. Keep track of your workouts. Track how long your worked in each session, track everything you did. Keep good notes. Give yourself hard data to follow, to see what’s working and to measure your progress.
EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW THIS ONE SIMPLE TRICK FOR BUILDING MUSCLE AND BURNING FAT, GETTING IN SHAPE AND STAYING IN SHAPE: work consistently and intelligently, over the course of months and years.
That’s it. Sorry, I have nothing to sell you.
If that’s disappointing, then get ready to be even more disappointed—because I’m about to tell you all the things this blog isn’t going to do. It’s not going to offer you a succinct 6-week program to get fit and jumpstart your health. It’s not going to help you lose weight. It’s not going to present you with a “science” based diet plan for across-the-board improvement of your eating habits and general well-being. It’s probably not going to answer any questions you may have regarding health, fitness or exercise. At least not directly.
Basically, if you’ve seen it on the cover of a health-and-fitness-related magazine, you won’t see it here. Except maybe in the form of belligerent satire.
What you will see on this blog is level-headed, experience-based analysis of what it means to be healthy and “fit.” The goal here isn’t to answer the familiar questions, because a lot of the questions we have surrounding health and fitness and diet are framed in fundamentally wrong ways (and you can’t get a right answer to a wrong question.) The goal is to deconstruct a lot of prevalent questions, and replace them with better questions. Better, stronger, faster.
For instance: ask me how to lose weight, and I’ll ask you if weight is actually a valuable metric in measuring a human being. Ask me how to get fit, and I’ll ask what you mean by “fit,” because you can be fit in a lot of different ways, and some of them mutually exclude each other. Ask me why the sky is blue, and I’ll tell you flat-out that it fucking isn’t. Literally more than 50% of the time, the sky isn’t blue. Maybe that seems like an irrelevant, off-topic observation, but I’m not just trying to be argumentative—I’m pointing out a flawed mode of thought that we generally bring to bear on matters of health, diet and fitness. We see things as cut-and-dried, black-and-white, good or bad.
Particular foods are either good for you or bad for you. You’re either exercising the right way or the wrong way. There’s no in-between, there’s no variation. There’s a right way to eat and move your body, you just have to find it. The sky is blue. That’s just how it is.
Except, no, it isn’t. The sky isn’t blue. You think you know it is blue, and you’re not wrong—you’re just not right. The sky is blue, and it’s black, and it’s gray, and it’s red and yellow and every color of the literal goddamn rainbow.
Now, apply that thinking elsewhere. In what other contexts are you accepting “the sky is blue” as an answer, glossing over and disregarding hundreds of shades of color?
The purpose of this blog is to look at all those other shades of color. It’s meant to take questions apart and examine their inner workings, and generally won’t settle for an answer that doesn’t multiply into new questions. It will spend a lot more time wondering than defining.