Strength matters

In my experience, for most people, there’s only one thing they can absolutely control — their body.

[Semantics aside: you can control your thoughts which affect what you choose to do, but I’m talking from the sense that you can’t 100% control other people’s reactions to your actions, nor can you necessarily predict your income fluctuations. I’ll concede that not all people are in control of their health due to disease and ill-fortune — but for MOST people reading this…]

Initially I started working out and changing my eating habits because I had (still do to a degree) a real chip on my shoulder. I thought I would be more valuable to the world if I was physically attractive. I thought silly ol’ me would get the girl and the coveted job promotion if I only beat out the slightly less-attractive specimen competing for my prize. It didn’t quite work out the way I had planned.

It turns out that when you force yourself do an activity repeatedly, whether you like it or not, and that activity yields positive results that outweigh the cost of getting over your discomfort of engaging in said activity, there’s a good chance you will keep doing it. My attempt at sounding rhetorical — how did I do?

It must be hovering around four to five years that I’ve been on-and-off working at building my body. I’ve read tons of popular articles from magazines and websites (most of them, I must say, actually provide very little understanding of strength training or bodybuilding) and tried out their recommendations on diet and exercise. I sought out friends who looked a lot bit better than I used to look, flagged down really strong people at the gym and asked them what worked for them, and mostly just toughed it out myself consistently. Through trial and error I’ve been able to grow my strength pretty significantly and get to a point where people flag me down at the gym to ask for advice.

Recently I’ve started to customize my workouts — I no longer haphazardly want to get buffer and stronger and better looking. I’ve incorporated strongman workouts into my routine, I specifically lift in a way that will minimize my mass gains but in a way that will (hopefully) maximize my strength and endurance. I’ve ordered my first kettlebell, read books on training in an (at least in America) unorthodox fashion, and have to discipline myself to rest and not overtrain because working out is so addicting.

So why is any of this important? Well, if you can read the headline and you’ve stayed with me so far, you know what I’m going to say: because strength matters.

Strength matters not because of your ability to attract someone of the opposite sex (though this is not an uncommon side effect of getting strong), not because of your ability to physically kick someone else’s ass (another not-uncommon side effect), or because you want to look better (okay, okay, I won’t repeat myself). It matters because it affects the way you feel about yourself.

In The Boron Letters, Gary Halbert wrote to his son:

Let’s talk about that respect a little bit. The first thing I want to say is that a fat, sloppy or skinny and weak body tends to broadcast to the world that the owner of that body is lacking self-respect. The second thing is that tough animals have a tendency to prey on weak or helpless animals.

Yes, it is important (Halbert agrees) that you look physically strong to attract women and earn the respect of men (obviously this is written from a man’s perspective to another man, but it applies to women also). But the main reason you want to get strong is because it says a lot about your level of self-respect.

Halbert wrote those letters from federal prison, where the rule was roughly: if you engage in a fight with any other inmate, no matter who started it, would cost you another six months incarceration. The trick then, is to be the kind of guy people don’t want to fight, without actually fighting. And think also that Halbert wasn’t in the type of situation where everybody was necessarily reasonable or avoidable. He was surrounded by many that fit the description of what he called “tough animals,” — and not all tough animals have a lot of brains.

For me in my Starbucks-drinking, suburbian existence, and for most of you reading this, we will face tough animals of a different kind. Workplace bullies, assholes with authority, strangers who mistakenly think they have nothing to lose, and the worst: frenemies. They will enter our lives through no fault of our own and they will consider invading our space and causing us a headache because they have a need to feel noticed. I argue that the odds will decrease significantly if we get strong, whether we look the part or not.

I’m a pretty short guy. I don’t know how to fight. I’m not a ladies man. I don’t have a lot of money. And I don’t aspire to get buff (though I’ve started to get some comments to this effect, much to my discomfort).

But the weird thing about physically getting strong for no other reason than to get strong, that I’ve noticed — everyone is so nice. Everywhere I go, almost everybody is so nice to me. Even when I leave my house knowing my hair looks like shit because it’s over two weeks overdue to be cut, I tend to meet at least a few extremely nice people before I get home. Not many things I say to strangers get taken as offensive. Not many people make rude comments to me in public settings that indicate they might be willing to take it a step further, though I see it happen to others all the time. Most of the time, everywhere I go, everyone is just so nice.

It wasn’t like that before. How do you think I developed the chip on my shoulder to begin with?

Okay, you got it. Now what about positive reasons to get strong?

If you’ve ever read or watched Fight Club, getting strong can almost be compared to joining a fight club. Yes, the way you carry yourself (in the fight club analogy, the black eyes and bruises all over your body) will broadcast to others that you are not to be messed with. But there’s another reason.

To paraphrase one of Chuck Palahniuk’s philosophies in his book, if you trust yourself to fight any stranger, win or lose, there isn’t much else you can really be afraid of; there isn’t much you wouldn’t trust yourself with being able to handle. It didn’t matter who you specifically were in your regular life, in your job — if you were a member of a fight club or Project Mayhem to begin with, you already had a capacity to deal with an assortment of life situations that would scare the shit out of most anybody else.

It’s the same with us, even though for many of us, our fight club is just a cushy fitness center (it is for me). It’s no longer about about walking into the gym and constantly weighing ourselves and checking ourselves out in the mirror (like I used to do) — it’s about picking up that heavy-ass weight and beating your previous PRs without injuring yourself. And when we leave there, we’ve conquered probably the most incessant “tough animal” we’ll ever face — our own minds.

And if we can conquer the beast within — which is really what being strong is all about — there isn’t much on the outside that we can’t conquer.

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger



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