In defense of iron : Life lessons from the gym

The body-builder world can be extremely judgemental of outsiders. Suffice to watch some show figure videos and read guru trainer articles to understand it looks at the rest of the world with some contempt. This is a form of snob in so as one takes a single aspect in a given person and uses it to form a global judgement of that person. Basically, if you're above 12% body fat, in the mind of a trained individual, you're an aimless creature with a willpower near nil. Body condition often gets associated with moral values. A common quote in the body-building world is : "obsessed is a world the lazy use to describe the dedicated".

Of course, the world pays it back to the 'fit' community quite well :) Body-builders are seen as obsessive mindless freaks with a brain size affected by muscle size. "When you spend so much time in the gym, when do you read ?" Shallowness is a prime characteristic. A guy with veins popping out from his calves probably won't even consider a girl who doesn't squat. People even wonder if these guys speak ! They never speak when they're lifting in the gym... They just groan. They must be so boring. Oh and of course: They eat all the protein on Earth and are responsible for the extra cows we need to feed and the gas emission and, in extension, global warming. Obviously.


And please, there's no 'truth be told' here. And I'm not even trying to sketch a truth between parties. Both sides will find specimens in the other camp to corroborate their arguments. Except the global warming bit maybe. All this aside however, body-building per se is an intriguing activity. For instance, is it a sport ? It's solitary and doesn't involve team work but you do get better at it with time and practice. You lift more and more weight for example.


Now, some might ask for example if you master anything with time ? And contrary to common misconceptions, you do. Heavy squats (mimicking a person sitting down with a loaded bar on your shoulders) and dead-lifts (pulling a bar with your back straight basically) are not a given. These take practice and mastery can be reached. Below are Mr. Olympia Phil Heath and worldwide crossfit champion Rich Froning. I'm curious whose able to do more pull-ups ...

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At first, improving physique is the goal for a new gym-goer. But as you struggle against the weights and try to get better at it, mastery (proper form, higher weights, more explosive movements) becomes the primary goal and physique fades in to the background. It becomes a nice by-product of your favourite sport. This mental perspective took a year and a half to set into my mind. More interestingly however are the universal lessons the gym can deliver. And I do mean life lessons :

  • Commitment and discipline. Let me get the obvious ones out of the way. The gym has saved more than a life : Teaching some prisoners dedication and giving them a sense of purpose, giving confidence to bullied skinny kids, teaching discipline to people who lack it ... Some stories on the forum can be quite touching. Increasing your weights from a week to another, or failing to do so then succeeding in a heavy lift, understanding the randomness of performance and the importance of grit and focus ... Body-building might not be perceived as a sport but it's hard to argue it's not a craft. You are the sculptor of your physique and by doing so, you notice how important repetition and, by extension, determination is. Going to the gym regularly translates into results and you understand the importance of "showing up". But the next stage is discipline : That is when you've tested long enough to understand that though repetition is fundamental, planning workouts and segmenting muscle groups can shift results upwards.
  • Progress and Optimization. This echoes and parallels the difference between determination and discipline. Progress is binary. If I show up, I will grow in size. Optimization is not: If I show up x times a week, I will grow faster. No 0/1 here. Discipline kicks in and attention is paid to details. You see, progress is about whether you're gaining size or not. optimization is about how much size you're gaining based on how much you're eating and training. It's the difference between 0/1 and an actual 0,4cm extra in shoulder width.
  • Resilience. You might have heard that "Pain is temporary, glory is eternal" or "No pain, no gain" from the lips of a gym goer. The latter has been questioned a lot in the body-building world. The duration, intensity and focus of the pain has been put to trial. But rather than the scientific side of it, "no pain, no gain" reminds us of Nicholas Taleb's anti-fragile which applies nicely tothe biological world. A muscle put under extreme stress better grow if it wants to survive the next load. Just like Taleb's hydra, a muscle grows through hardships. That same gym routine then becomes a blueprint for any skill that one wants to develop. The frequency,  repetition, effort can be replicated in the world of the mind (which in some sense is also a muscle) to learn new skills.
  • Push and pull.  Least obvious maybe. When it comes to gym work, you either push a bar or pull a bar basically. Wildly creative I know. But still, the is the couple of interactions that structure our world at the atom level for example. Now, interestingly, when pulling you can cut the effort or stop without danger of getting hurt. You're lifting a bar from the ground, realize you were stupid to load so much and just let it go. You can back out when pulling without too much collateral. However when pushing, you need to be consistent as the weight can hurt you if you stop pushing mid-way. You're lifting a bar from your chest, the weight is slightly above your max, you can't follow though. Still, you will. Because if you let go, it's going to crush your chest. Simple: you have no alternative. Same in relationships come and think of it. When pulling someone towards you, it's you taking the initiative, and there's no real consequence if you stop mid-way. No-one gets hurt. And it's probably better to stop there and then if you're not sure you can pull through. When pushing some one out of your system however (some one you previously puled in), you need to be consistent. Hesitate, bullshit, fake and your push is not genuine or credible any more. If you fail, it'll come back crashing on your chest.

Body-building is often perceived as the hobby of the vain but looking back at its core, and maybe pre-steroid time (Arnold Schwarzenegger was actually one of the first to break that boundary to gain size faster), there was pride and manliness in overcoming iron. It takes years to build up a worthy physique and natural (steroid-free) body-builders are laudable for their line of conduct. There's no overnight miracle. As for every other skill worthwhile, 10,000 hours is probably what one needs to put in to reach a certain strength goal. But contrary to other fields, it's probably not enough. With time, one realizes it's a lifelong practice. It becomes clear how humbling this sport is and, just as every obsession you eventually overcome, how little physical appearance means in the big picture, where passion gets involved.