What I Talk About When I Talk About Lifting

I find lifting weights in the gym to be a cathartic, meditative experience. For a few years now, the main draw of this activity has been based more on the profound satisfaction that it generates than a rational intention to improve health, fitness or physique

I’m always conscious that I sound rather zealous when I start talking about lifting. If I’m trying to subtly nudge a friend towards taking up what is arguably the most scientifically effective form of training, I have to exert a lot of effort to avoid sounding like a cultist. When it comes to persuasion, I often fall back on the numerous studies and physiological facts that explain why lifting weights works. However, this completely neglects the real reason that I kept on training after I started and the reason I have continued to develop myself to the stage where I can reasonably be considered to be strong, happy and healthy.

In his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami expresses the deep pleasure he gains from his participation in running. I’ve never liked running. I’m very bad at it. Yet the contemplative, almost poetic accounts of Murakami’s experiences manage to convey how meaningful such an activity can be without veering into something spiritual. I think that lifting deserves the same treatment. I don’t want to make it sound like a “lifestyle” but I do think that there is something really interesting and meaningful on a human level. I can relate to the release of running through my time on the bike, I also do yoga and meditation but nothing comes close to the satisfaction of lifting.

The way I think and feel follows a profound progression every time I hit the gym. Sometimes the task at hand is easy, sometimes its not. On some occasions I’m bouncing off the walls with excitement at the mere idea of getting under the bar. On others there is genuine fear and a spike of adrenaline. The one constant is every strength session pulls my focus entirely on using my body to lift a weight, one repetition at a time.

Enter the Gym

Getting to the gym is often the hardest part of the workout. Even the slightest disruption to my routine makes it a real challenge just to get there. If the day at work has been tough, or I’m a bit too wired on caffeine, the journey to the gym (normally straight from work) is an internal monologue, primarily resenting what I’m about to do. Force of habit means that this voice doesn’t have an impact on my behaviour and my feet drag me to the gym irrespective of what I want to do. I’m not a disciplined person, but several years of pavlovian like conditioning mean decision making is no longer required.

Approach the bar

Every workout starts with a warm up. Getting a squat rack and an empty bar feels like a chore if the gym is busy, but once completed, the rest of the world starts to shift out of focus. Whether I’m training alone or with someone else, when I find somewhere in the gym to get started I begin to become aware of what my body is telling me. What’s going on around me slowly looses it ability to impact on my consciousness.

Every warm up feels different and almost always involves squats. This is arguably the best weight lifting exercise, placing a bar on your back and crouching down before powerfully raising both body and weight back to a standing position.

The first couple of sets with just the 20 kilos of an empty olympic barbell normally feels awkward. As my shoulders loosen up I can get the bar into a better position. As I play with the position of my feet, shuffling around between each rep, my knees start sliding up and down in the correct alignment with my toes. This is the sweet spot. My mind and body are now fully focussed on each extension of the legs. Even if there’s nervousness about what’s coming next, my legs always provide a reassuring stability during these latter parts of the warmup.

Take the weight

I’ve been strength training for a few years now. Every workout is carefully calculated to stress my body just enough to make progress, but not do serious damage. Normally I pick a weight that’s not too tough, then add on a little weight or an extra rep every week for a few weeks. It’s essential to ease off for a week before I start doing more harm than good.

Strength training is defined by lifting heavy weight to increase the heaviest weight you can lift. So I’m normally lifting a weight I could only lift between 5 and 8 times at the very most. This is an incredibly different sensation to doing a million setups or going for a jog. The aim of this kind of training is essentially to damage my muscles, causing minute tears, which causes my body to repair and then create additional muscle fibres.

Diving down…

The entire body must be drawn on in order to safely carry out a full squat. Before even lifting the bar off the rack I spend a few moments levering my shoulders into the right position, ensuring that I’m dead centre. Being off by a couple of inches can cause the bar to tip alarmingly as close to my body weight is loaded onto each end. Taking a small step back from the rack often feels like taking a step into the unknown.

The next part of the ritual is to take a big breath in. This helps fully extend my torso upwards after which I clamp down with my abs and shoulders to keep my upper body as rigid as possible. Lowering myself down to the “parallel” position, where the upper leg becomes completely flat now feels smooth and natural. For many months after I started this felt strange despite being the most natural way for these joints and muscles to move.

… and diving up again

I don’t pause at the bottom for the squat. There is not even a transition between moving down and moving up, it’s simply a single parabolic motion. I don’t try and push away with my legs, as this drives my hips up without moving the bar further aware from the floor. This way of thinking doesn’t seem to hold my upper body in place. Instead I think about trying to drive my heels into the floor. It’s as if my shoulders are pressing against the ceiling and cannot move upwards, I push as if my heels will leave footprints in the floor. I think I pull the bar downwards onto my back but it’s hard to be aware of the specifics during this upwards drive. My consciousness is trying to fill every fibre of my body and therefore can’t focus on any one muscle. I’m dimly aware that sometimes there’s a little lateral wobbling as the concertina of lower limbs and upper body straightens out like the unfolding of an elasticated tent pole.

It’s common to squeeze air out of pursed lips as my abdominals and diaphragm contract further, leaving no space for air. After getting about halfway up, the resistance starts to ease off. Muscle filaments overlap creating greater traction, the bar has momentum and the natural levers of the legs minutely reduce the effort required.

Like a short sighted sea creature, suited to the dark depths of the ocean but suddenly breaching the surface I force my way back up to reality. The vignettes invading the edges of my vision retreat. The completion of the rep is finalised by my hips popping forwards. This fully recruits my glutes, the largest and strongest muscle of the body. Bringing the hips back into vertical alignment with the rest of my body cause my head to tilt forwards, a polite nod of acknowledgement that the squat has been successfully carried out. I once again become able to move my eyes, remembering that I am in fact in a gym, having squeezed myself out of the black hole that sucked at me from the bottom of the squat. Not that there is time to think back over what just happened. The bar is a heavy burden and simply staying upright saps strength.

Another breath in

After the first rep I have a better idea of how well the set will go. There is a huge amount of completely qualitative feedback from my body which I’m still getting better at translating. Fatigue and freshness are not mutually exclusive as different muscle groups and energy systems cope with each workout in a different way. Sometimes the first rep is the hardest, sometimes it’s the easiest. I’m trying to get better at going straight from one rep into the next but at the very least I repeat the big breath in at the top. Filling my lungs, raising the bar a little and then clamping down my upper body locks everything into place. As soon as this process is initiated all that matters is the smooth extension and contraction of my lower body as I carry our another rep.

The lift is all the matters

Sets get completed one rep at a time. Then there’s a fantastic release as I re-rack the bar. Whether it’s been a smooth, satisfying set, or a struggle to squeeze out every rep everything is ok after putting the weight down. Here it’s ok to take a few deep, controlled breaths as the drop in pressure throughout my body equalises. Pacing back and forth around the squat rack works well to loosen up the muscles. Often lifting my knees helps stretch out my quads. If I do a few few slow body weight squats it seems to help freshen up my legs a bit. What makes strength training so unique is the effect it has on my central nervous system and hormones. Often I feel a little shaky after a set, this isn’t surprising as my brain has been trying to fire enough signals down synapses to fully switch on almost every muscle in my body. The only thing that does this more than squats is to do an even heavier deadlift.

Once I’ve completed my squats I generally turn to less demanding exercises. Less complex and less intense movements such as the leg press or pull ups. By this stage I’m already buzzing with endorphins. My entire body feels fired up. I’m ok with anything that happens in the gym after a good squat session. Being down a couple of reps on the leg press would be fine if I’ve gone all out in the squat rack. I’ve done what I came here to do, anything else is a bonus.

The feeling lasts

It’s great not to be focussing on anything other than what I’m doing with my body. I normally have headphones but its tricky to really get into music. Sometimes a track will give a momentary burst of enthusiasm. From punk to pop, from dirty dubstep to cinematic sound tracks, the music that clicks with how I feel rarely makes sense. Between sets I’m pretty oblivious to what I’m hearing. The main purpose of the headphones is to block out the background noise. The feedback from muscles is much louder than anything I can hear.

What still surprises me is the accomplishment of having exerted completely control over something incredibly physical. Each week, or month, I add a little weight. Some workouts are harder than others, but over time the weight goes up. Now I can lift a hundred kilograms comfortably. It’s a weight that still feels heavy, substantial and significant which makes being able to move it without discomfort even more satisfying. There’s a kind of quiet self confidence that comes from this. Maybe it’s some kind of metaphor, taking pleasure from being able to exert my will on the world.

I’m fine with not being the strongest person in the gym, but incredibly happy that I keep getting a little bit better. What once seemed an unconquerable level of athletic performance is now my warm up. When I take a step back from the rack and look at my progress, I instantly want to approach the bar once more. I like getting stronger. I want to do more squats.

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