The art of picking up heavy objects
[ Quit the mind-wanking and pick up the barbell ]
Picking up and manipulating heavy objects (strength training) is a core aspect of any sane physical training regimen. It literally changes the body for the better. More muscle mass, stronger bones and so forth. We need to realise the importance. After all a stronger and more energetic structure makes it all the more easy to accomplish other things in our lives. But how do we make the most of it?
A very brief history of domestication
We as human beings in the 21st century still have bodies that function like bodies did in the stone age. Society has changed. The roles we have to fulfill within society have changed. Our bodies have not. Long gone are the days where there majority of the populace were engaged in hard physical labour on a daily basis. The use-patterns of today no longer reflect our animal origins. Physical capacity reached a peak in the stone age. There likely was a slight decrease as farming was adopted. More recent changes have heralded an accelerated rate of decline.
We may have won “liberation” from a certain type of toil but is has come at a price (“Labour saving”) . The predictable pay-off was we become soft, weak and comfortably numb. By virtue of our sedentism we now have bones that have half the strength (density) of what our species used to have. Particularly the lower body has declined. (1)
It is hard to come by concrete evidence of the exact strength and physical capacity of our ancestors. Bones with their density and the indentations from the attachment points of muscles on them tells a story – but only very indirectly. Much more direct suggestions is to be found on the rocks and boulders unearthed in Greece with inscriptions about the feats done with them. A 460 kg volcanic rock boulder reads “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.” (2) A stone 143 kg stone dated to 600 BC reads “Bybon, son of Phola, has lifted me over his head with one hand.” (3) We cannot know exactly what lifts these inscriptions refer to, a deadlift and a bent press maybe. The skeptics will remain skeptical yet it does raise the question how strong our ancestors truly were.
The central tenet of today’s culture is the idea of progress. The idea is that we are collectively on track onwards and upwards. Everything is improving, or so they say. We may have smartphones and technology but the fact is that physiologically we have never been more overweight and structurally unsound than today. Metabolic syndrome and diabetes is skyrocketing. Yet somehow we are supposed to have transcended about basic human conundrum. Health authorities will tell us that 30 minutes of exercise is all we need to keep the body in good working order. It may well be enough to keep the body from breaking down altogether. But it falls well short – we should not resign ourselves merely to upkeep. We want to forge the body into a strong harmonious whole.
The human body can and should function at a completely different level.
Consider the wolf and everything that it is and represents: Wild, strong, capable and independent. In essence it is agile. It is resourceful – it has many options. Then consider the domesticated wolf: The Pug. Never would a wolf restrict itself to 30 minutes of light daily exercise, a pug on the other hand . . .
As we domesticated the dog; so did we also domesticate ourselves. Man was once like the wolf, these days we have taken on the pug-ness instead.
No PH.D. Required
Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The people of the past were undoubtedly stronger than we. It was quite simply the way of life. No gym membership was required. Strength training equipment, pre-peri-post-workout nutrition and supplements was not part of the equation. Most certainly they did not know the first thing about exercise physiology. Earlier ideas about “health drinks” included large quantities of sugar and alcohol. (see footnote for the “Saxon Health Drink”)
We on the other hand have perfected the ‘knowledge’ about exercise physiology and performance. We have training equipment that is many magnitudes more sophisticated than what our ancestors had.
The irony is that there is a curious number of people who “know everything” about training. They will give every possible detail about conjugate methods, shock training, soviet vs western periodization, strength ratios, signs of overtraining and so forth. They will even give detailed advice on these matters on internet forums. They will comment tediously in threads. They will argue and debate. Yet they will not be able to back squat 120kg for a few reps with decent form. That is fucked up. It does not require a Ph.D. in exercise physiology to better yourself physically (in fact that PH.d. will likely make matters worse)
So let us be clear.
Lifting heavy objects in the pursuit of strength and physical transformation is not rocket science. Therein lies the problem. Those 40 pages of spreadsheets with carefully laid out set and rep schemes are only going to confuse us. The perfect program does not exist. It never has. Even if it did, it would stop working soon enough. The Law of Accommodation takes care of that. So what we need is a rare thing indeed – a sensible approach. A way to train without overly intellectualizing everything.
(…) “Moreover – according to the king – spoken teachings, once written down, easily find their way into the hands of those who will misunderstand them. Thus, the witten letters bring not wisdom but only “the conceit of wisdom,” making men seem to know much when in fact they know little. “ – David Abram, Spell of The Sensuous
Knowing something and understanding it are two different things.
You may well know something from mental comprehension but you understand it in a different way once you have actually done the thing.
High minded simplicity rules supreme in the world of physical practice. Some essential aspect of us dies if we try to reduce life to a set of formula and calculus. It takes the art out of it. Heuristics (rules of thumb) are good as is hefty dose of common sense. After all strength is a natural human attribute and can be acquired without undue complexity.
Strength is Natural
“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify. “ – Henry David Thoreau
Lifting and carrying heavy objects is one of the physical activities that come natural to humans. Just like walking, running, jumping, throwing objects, climbing, wrestling, swimming and all the other natural movements that make up the human repertoire.
The legend of physical culture the great Arthur Saxon did not mince words about how essential and natural this pursuit is. He went so far as to title one of his book chapters: “Why Weight-lifting should be regarded as the first of all Sports and also as the best form of Physical Exercise. “ Later he argues: “Now, besides all this, every man in every walk of life is certain, sooner or later, to be confronted with a heavy object, bulky or otherwise, which he strongly desires to lift.” Indeed we do.
Little has changed since Saxon’s time as far as the human body is concerned. The need for strength work is still there. A few exercises like the bent press has fallen out of favour but the basics remains the same. Well known natural movements patterns squatting, hinging, pushing and pulling. Excellence in strength is found in mastery of these basics. In terms of efficient strength acquisition the barbell rules supreme. One man needs nothing more than access to a rusty barbell and some plates to get unreasonably strong.
We need this full body strength. One of the best long term remedies for lower back pain, and the malaise of modern life in general, is deadlifting. In time the whole body (and the back) will grow stronger and more resilient for this seemingly noxious stimulus. The poison is always in the dose.
One way to explain this phenomenon is that within reasonable limits the human organism is the opposite of fragile. Not only does it not break down from stress. Given half a chance it grows from it. Into something stronger and more capable. It is antifragile (. With more training the limits of beneficial stress can be pushed further.
The same cannot be said for the machines in the gym. Some of them do have some utility, but only in correct context and as an addendum. The lat pulldown machine is not a replacement for learning how to do a pull up.
Aptitude for bodyweight movement then is a very good idea; if you cannot do a bodyweight squat proficiently there is no point in loading it. If a pushup is a tall order then pressing a weight overhead, or doing dips not going to be a great ideas. Sensible trainers have long argued that sets of 15-20 reps in the dip with bodyweight should be a minimum requirement before taking on benching. Basic coordination and strength with bodyweight needs to be in place before graduating to more advanced work. We can argue about the exact numbers all day but the principle is sound.
On the other hand bodyweight movement does not mean doing any exotic gymnastics exercises whatsoever. It is a trend these days to equate basic bodyweight competence with training like a competitive gymnast. It is not true or helpful. The same can be said for other trends: crawling like an animal may be a fun challenge, but it is not strength training per se (or flexibility training for that matter.) In a certain sense these ‘natural’ movements are a lot less natural than a deadlift. These activities may seem more natural than lifting weights, mostly it is just clever marketing.
Manipulating heavy objects is a sacred human activity.
There will always be appeal in novelty. But the ancient has a staying power for a reason, time is the most potent filtering mechanism. Only the useful remains after centuries and millennia. To effectively use this insight, we need to understand and appreciate how a strong, well coordinated push up has infinitely more value than a funky looking 5 minute animal flow. Everyone knows the push up; yet it is exceedingly rare to see a beautiful one. We dismiss them at our peril. Just because our grandfathers generation did them does not mean that they are past their expiration date.
Practice makes almost perfect
Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without – Confucious
We may have been doing ourselves a disservice by ever having the idea of “perfect form”. Some of the strongest men to walk this earth used what is commonly considered ‘improper’ form. Bob Peoples deadlifted an indecent amount of weight with a rounded back.
There is a not small amount of neuroticism in the very idea of perfect. Everything should be perfect yet reality is messy and does not conform to our ideals. Not everything can be controlled. Most of us have to contend with an asymmetric body (small discrepancies in length of limbs and muscular imbalances). Few come from a background of perfect physical preparation. And we are borne of a culture of indolence and sedentary behaviour.
To put it plainly: not all people can display perfect form at all times. If you are a beginner then you will invariably be less than stellar. That is why you are a beginner. This does not mean that anything is wrong. Part of the becoming more advanced in the iron game is simply becoming more proficient at particular movements. The hallmark of an experienced trainer is that even with near maximal weights the form will be very good. Sometimes they will even fail a lift seemingly without a form break down, a beginner simply cannot do this.
When a heavy weight is lifted from the floor – as it is in a deadlift – the whole body works in unison to achieve this task. Muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones and neurology all work in perfectly orchestrated fashion. This happens automatically because the body understands what to do. We will never be able to consciously control all the individual components of our complex biology. If form is off then we are best served by correcting it using simple cues. “Knees out” , “lift the chest” , “elbows in” and so forth. In time these small suggestions will perfect form and give the best possible execution.
“simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” – Leonardo Da Vinci
As a friend and experienced coach once pointed out in conversation “I know that the spine of this person who I am teaching to squat isn’t perfectly straight. And you know what? I do not care! My job was never was to make it perfectly straight to begin with. My job is merely to make it straighter. Over time it will improve. ” – What he understands is that there is range of acceptable ways of doing things. There is rarely one correct way to do anything. Eventually – with practice – we will get something that is as good as our bodies can muster. It may look different from the next person. That is OK.
The secret sauce? Strength is a skill. Learn the basics. Then become proficient. Then attain mastery. Training as often as possible, while being as fresh as possible. Getting stronger and practicing lifting is the same thing.
Flexibility and Strength are close friends
Flexibility and mobility training has become ‘The New Black’. The myth that adults cannot become flexible is finally being put to rest. That is good news. Gone are the days where it was acceptable state-of-affairs not being able to touch your own toes. The myth that you cannot be highly flexible, enormously strong and with fine tuned motor skills is also being put to rest. The not-so-good news is that the pendulum has swung too far in the mobility direction with unfortunate ramifications.
Strength and flexibility was never unrelated entities to begin with. In many ways these two qualities are interdependent. Strength movements have a requisite level of flexibility. Conversely if we lack flexibility we simply cannot apply our strength. Flexibility often improves with the right type of strength work even if it wasn’t a focus. One way of defining mobility is strength-flexibility. Having strength and control through a full range of motion. Specific stretching work completes the package. There is hardly a better recipe for bodily resilience.
It is not like the idea is new of a balanced approach to strength and flexibility is new. Yoga as it is practiced today is a very recent invention. In a historic context yoga was practiced as a method of balancing the physical body. Warriors of ancient India would use yoga as a way off-setting their practices of combative and strengthening work.
The way we go about building strength is clearly important. Not all approaches yield the same benefits. Squatting through a full range of motion is the most basic strength exercise. It also promotes flexibility through hips, ankles and upper back. Some (bodybuilding) alternatives such as leg presses, leg curls and leg extensions does not come with the same residual benefits.
At this stage we should be zeroing in on way to approach a balanced development of strength and flexibility. However with the invention of certain franchised mobility/flexibility training systems new meaningless terms have been born. Presumably to justify the existence of said systems and to sell weekend certifications. Building flexibility to go with the strength need not involve acronyms and alphabet soup. Concepts have been invented to describe imaginary qualities that needs to be acquired before basic strength movement can be practiced at all. It is a somewhat advanced form of fear mongering. “Movement Capacity” is one such phrase.
The bastard child of this mess is the mobility zealot. Advocates of endless cycles of pre/rehab/mobility/foam rolling but curiously lacking in strength and vitality. They eat acronyms for breakfast, possibly why they have not put on any mass. There was already plenty of weak yogis around beforehand. To be a weak yogi with westernized concepts hardly makes it any better (in fact it is far worse) – however scientific the rationale. Indeed we have to take care what ideas we invite into our strength work. Not everything belongs here.
“ If all you have is a hammer, everything will start to look like a nail. “ (proverb)
Misapplication of attention. We need to be present while lifting. At the same time it is imperative not to confuse this with thinking about our pet theories about how the body operates. Keeping certain mental constructs in mind during a strength practice does not make the training “integrated”, “balanced” or “harmonious”. An example: In certain subsets of physical training working with lines of tension is of paramount importance. For the the internal martial artist there will be lines of support: lines of fascia and tendons being used to do work. Muscles are coaxed to relax so that the standing forms can happen with as little overt muscular effort as possible. In stretching similar concepts are sometimes used.
The whole trouble begins when you try to use the tools of internal martial arts as a method of lifting. Working from ideas about tension patterns and fascial lines does not belong here. Strength training was never meant to be internalized to this extent. Trying to somehow lift the weight with different “structures” or “lines” is not going to produce good results. There is also a certain level of hubris in it, thinking we know better. We do not appreciate everything that goes on during a lift. The body is much too complex for that. If we manage to get these lines of force to contract, they will not be able to produce the same output as a normal setup does. The setup and cues for a lift are used because they are the safest and gives the best possible mechanical leverage for the lift.
Put these ideas aside, leave them for the perfectly good practice in which they belong. Instead we need to apply ourselves.
Intensity and Effort
It almost goes without saying in the effort to become stronger. We have to break a sweat.
If we put the same amount of energy into training as filling out tax-forms then nothing meaningful will ever be accomplished. No transmutation will occur. We will be doing the same “workouts” year in and year out. You can be doing all the right movements, with the best form, but if it lacks intensity nothing is gained. Why is it by and large we go about our lives as if it doesn’t really matter? Modernity has a “funny” way of making us comfortably numb. We need to put up a fight. Damn it. Let the lifting of weights be one of the things in our lives with an enduring intensity, a passion for life. Lift like it matters. Do not just put the body into it. Put the soul into it.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas.
Physical discomfort has become increasingly rare in our time. No wonder we attempt to block it out with distractions when it rear its ugly head. But it is of supreme importance that we come to grips with this aspect of being incarnate. Just because we “feel something” does not mean that it means anything injurious is occuring. Our bodies deal in sensations. They come in all kinds of different shapes and sizes. In fact as you we start getting to higher levels of intensity all sorts of new sensations will begin popping up. While it may be an ‘acquired taste’ it does have a certain sweetness.
One of the better known sensations is called DOMS (the delayed soreness that comes about after intense muscular work). DOMS is such a beautiful and precious thing. We need to learn to appreciate and cherish it. If you have strong sensations coming back from your body it is harder to escape into a floating disembodied head of thought and mental abstraction.
Mental constructs, ideas and perceptions are filters. They colour everything we experience. If we have strong limiting ideas; like just how difficult training is. Then that becomes our reality. If we think that something is going to be too heavy to lift. Then unfailingly it is going to be too heavy. The trouble is … it is isn’t really real. It is merely our idea about it.
In the beginning stages of training there is a point during an exercise at which the trainee is liable to stop if training alone. Not because he cannot keep going but because it becomes hard and is then compelled to stop. However if the coach injects energy at this critical time-juncture the trainee will keep going. In endurance sports this is known as second wind. Pushing into hitherto unknown territory. The person taps into resources that were inaccessible up until that point. In a small way the ideas about limitations will have been proven false. But we can only go there once we are beginning to become present.
Attention to the task at hand
We are embodied creatures. Our emotional and mental faculties has a physical side to them. The singular best way to get out of the head and in to the body is to do physical training. By doing physical work we will change our mental and emotional states as well.
First step is to put down the distractions; phone, music and chit-chatting. Attend to the task at hand – give the training the energy and attention that it requires. Then when we lift something. Just lift it.
Do not do the grocery shopping list. Do not calculate your bank balance. Do not think about what errands to run later. Just be present with it. There is a very real risk that if you do not pay attention to the weight you are about to lift you could get hurt. Especially with a non-sissy weight.
Here is a simple recipe: Feel the weight and your body as one. Feel your breath. Feel yourself in the room. Then just lift the damn thing. Rinse and repeat.
Afterwards; Sit down. Compose yourself. Bring the breathing back. Get ready for the next set. Simple stuff.
Strength work is an alchemical activity. The quintessence of alchemy is by conscious labours to bring about the perfection of substance – a transmutation from coarse material to exalted state. Salt, sulphur and mercury. The quintessential goal of physical work is by conscious labour to bring about the perfection of a body. Breath, movement and structure. The laboratory of the alchemist is filled with heating mantles, beakers and so forth. The laboratory of the body is the gym.
The Laboratory of Strength
The gym is a sacred space.
It is one of the few place where we come to only better to ourselves. Through blood, sweat and intentional effort. If we apply ourselves diligently we will change for the better. From an atrophied neophyte into something more substantial.
Most gyms today are a far cry from what the gym could be. An unfulfilled potentiality. A deformed foetus of a higher form. To realise this sad state of affairs you only need to pay a visit any local commercial gym There we will find a sensory overload of nothingness. Flashing lights. Mirrors. Television sets. Loud but hollow music. Anything to distract us from the real task at hand. To keep us from hearing the sound of our own belaboured breathing. To keep us from the feeling of our body as it toils. Instead we are fed vapid machines that serve little purpose apart from taking up floor space. All so lacking in vitality and essence that we take one more step towards becoming fully automatic meat robots. Overpriced sugar drinks to wash it all down with. The lowest common denominator is curiously low.
In other parts of the world the gym was perfected some 3,000 years before the Globo Gym. The Persians developed the Zurkhaneh which literally translates to the ‘house of strength’. The training in the zurkhaneh is a ritualistic combination of gymnastics, martial arts, strength training and music. The training session always ends with wrestling. It is no coincidence that Persia always has developed world class wrestlers. Practice in the zurkhaneh is not only meant to develop strength in the trainee: “Participants are expected to be pure, truthful, good-tempered and only then strong in body.” (1) Of course this gymnasium is highly specific to the culture out of which it has been born. Any attempt to transplant it wholesale into Western culture would end in abject failure. Nonetheless we will struggle to find a clearer example of what a gym can be.
A place for the perfection of the human being.
To elevate us to something higher. The physical practice being an integral and essential part of that process.
What we have to do then is create our own houses of strength individually and collectively. Appropriate to our individual circumstances and culture. In this sense the garage gym is our chance to create the zurkhaneh anew. It may not look like much. It may not be the biggest space. It certainly isn’t the prettiest. The floor may be stained with oil from where the car used to stand. Now the car lives outside and the weights have taken up residence instead. The equipment may be old and rusty too. A seemingly incomplete collection of used equipment . Yet it is in this relative scarcity that we find the creativity to get the job done. After all it was never lack of equipment that was the problem to begin with. No one ever became weak from lack of equipment.
Most importantly it is a space where we are free to express ourselves however we see fit. To create something that does not have to conform to what is acceptable. No one sizes fits all approach here.
No dictates about what is appropriate to wear.
The garage gym is always open.
Waiting for us to lift the damn thing.
The physical state of modern man is wretched. Overweight, weak and frail. History and archeology suggests that human beings physically isn’t on track onwards and upwards. Of course we need only to go for a walk to realize the sad state of affairs. The sensible thing for us as individuals is to do something about it.
The curious thing is that everything we need to know about the art of physical training already exists. In fact it has been around for ages. The clues we get from ancient Indian, Persian and Greek culture suggests as much. Our great-grandfathers generation of physical culturalists were definitely in the know. It is not like more studies and further evidence is needed. We do however need to put in the effort.
As the training progresses a question arises. How come some people are massively muscular and strong but at a deeper level nothing more than merely little boys in big bodies? Quite simply physical development by itself does not necessarily provoke a desirable transformation. The Greeks would argue that strength needs to be developed in synchrony with arete, moral virtue. The pahlevani of the zurkhaneh clearly have similar ideas with their training. Higher order results from physical work occur only if the training is done with the right intention. The way things are done is of critical importance.
Then and only then do we get a strong balanced harmonious physical development. For the whole of man.
On The Saxon Health drink
When not consuming copious amounts of beer, the trio were partial to their own style of ‘health tonic’ which consisted of dark lager beer (or Dublin stout) mixed with Holland gin, the yolk of an egg and plenty of sugar. Although this tonic was in great demands amongst the brothers, it was not for everyone, as evidenced by their claim that “It is a very good but strong drink…but, if you are not used to it you will get dizzy very quickly.” (4)