Weight lifting in the gym is one of the purest pleasures I’ve ever experienced. There’s something both simple yet very powerful about forcing a weight off the ground using only your strength. I’m not talking about the end result, which is inevitably that you put the weight back where it started. I’m talking about the psychological and physiological impact of consciously working your entire body in a carefully controlled way.
In almost all cases, I believe lifting heavy things properly in the gym will improve your life. Whether you are male or female, young or old, an endurance athlete, body builder or sloth, this is why you should life heavy things too.
I got the same level of satisfaction from picking up heavy things and putting them down again, as I did from getting to grips with mind blowing philosophical discourse.
This awareness first struck me when I was half way through my philosophy degree. Previously having no athletic prowess, I decided to start hitting the gym. Obviously I wasn’t lifting anything especially weighty, but “heavy” is relative. In general fitness terms, a “heavy” weight might be one you can lift up to 5 or 6 times before collapsing in a heap, probably above 85% of the weight you can only lift once, using a barbell.
This sort of lifting is a million miles away from doing a few bicep curls or getting a sweat on from a pacy jog. You might feel better after a run or a bit of yoga. However, weight lifting places very different demands of your body, and the consequential release of all the neurotransmitters that make you feel happy is a fantastic natural high.
Lifting an olympic barbell may seem rather silly. It certainly feels silly to begin with. But with a little practice, it’s actually really ergonomic. Squats, deadlifts and benchpresses all recruit large groups of muscles at the same time. More importantly, they force these muscles to work together properly. Take your legs; you have quads on the front, and hamstrings on the back. Why would you focus on training these muscles individually when a proper leg extension movement requires them to work together? By using and training these muscles at the same time you will inevitably be able to lift more weight than if you trained the muscles individually. You are training your body as a whole.
Unsurprisingly, forcing the majority of your muscles to activate, to the right amount, at the the right time, close to their maximum, takes a little focus. If you do exercise to hit the mental reset button after a day in the office, or to generally destress, lifting heavy is perfect. You are forced to focus your attention inwards, becoming aware of the positions and sensations of every part of your body, and then will them in to action against substantial opposition. When I finally got round to practicing proper Mindfulness it felt the same as the liberating concentration of lifting. You don’t have the headspace to worry about work emails when you have twice your bodyweight on your back and you are trying not to snap in half.
Not only does the focus and effort that goes into lifting heavy things make it immensely and immediately satisfying, it’s also rather easy to get better at. Lifting close, but not actually up to, the heaviest weight you can lift will inevitably make you better at lifting heavy things. In fact, for all kinds of sports that require an increase in strength it’s really the place to start. Doing a million setups wont make your abs stronger. Squatting a high weight will. Slowly, the weight will creep up. Maybe a kilo or two a month, maybe 10. For me, it doesn’t matter what competitive lifters can get off the ground, the fact that I can do more than I could last year makes me all smug with pride. Spending an evening watching an awesome movie, completing a video game, or even writing something interesting struggles to surpass hitting a new PB in the gym. There’s something primal, yet not necessarily aggressive, about exerting one’s influence over something that offers a lot of resistance.
As you might expect, working at the effort level that causes noticeable improvements in strength can be tough. But your progress will come far easier than if you spent that time sweating over exercise machines, or doing a few burpees. The impact that heavy lifting has is completely different to any kind of cardio training, or even lifting a lighter weight for more reps. Your entire metabolism gets a proper kick up the arse. For example, testosterone levels go up, meaning there is more of the hormone the promotes muscle growth. You’ll also use up glycogen from the intensity of the exercise, so food you eat after the workout will be, in a sense, used to recharge your batteries. You feel great, and more importantly, you are stimulating the processes that directly cause increase in strength. The technical term for this is hypertrophy.
The best thing is, these benefits are for everyone. Barring serious injury, a little training will get you on the right path to lifting heavy pretty quickly. Admittedly the weights rack can be intimidating but in any half decent gym, the people using the barbells will be surprisingly friendly. In fact, the bigger and stronger they are, the more likely they are to appreciate the effort that lifting takes. Don’t be surprised if you ask someone to share a bar and they are happy to do so, and discuss the ins and outs of different programs while you do so.
Ultimately, lifting heavy things works. No matter what your athletic or physique goals, it’s gonna help. While there are endless conflicting theories, practices and dogmatic beliefs when it comes to lifting, the basic principles aren’t too tricky: be careful, but try and lift more than last time.
So what can you do? Find a nearby gym that has a proper barbell and some plates, maybe book a session or two with a personal trainer, and then read as much as you can. A good place to begin is “Starting Strength” by Mark Ripptoe. After that, all you have to do is turn up and lift.