10 Joys Of Weight Machines: Sex, Anger, Bacon And More

[Note: The scene above of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in the documentary 'Pumping Iron' is hilarious but also a bit salty, not kid-appropriate. Also, it is included for its entertainment value but is by no means intended to portray him as a role model. This post discusses moderate, healthful weight training, not extreme body-building.]

The other day, I was in an awkward spot at the gym: The shoulder press positioned me face to face with a woman who was using an arm pull-back machine just a few inches away. As we sat oddly nose to nose, she made a friendly effort at pleasant conversation:

“I hate the weight machines, don’t you?”

Of course the correct answer for social easing was, “Like poison.” But I found I just couldn’t say that.

After an entire lifetime of despising and avoiding strength training, I’ve become a convert over the last year, to the point that I actively long for it when I skip more than two days. Unimaginable, right? The reasons are many, from now-effortless grocery-bag lifts to the sense that in one small way at least, I can fight aging and win.

My motivations are not only emotional, they are data-driven: “The research shows that strength training is really almost like the elixir for aging,” said Prof. Miriam Nelson of Tufts, author of “Strong Women Stay Young.” “Whether you’re 30 or 85, it helps you be as strong, healthy and vital as possible.”

(U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons)

The ideal routine includes both aerobic exercise and strength training, she noted, but “We know strength training is critical for maintaining and strengthening bones and muscles; it helps with glucose control; it helps with your cholesterol.” Also, sleeping better and mental health. “So it’s the physical as well as the functional and emotional.”

But let’s face it: Long-term effects and abstract data are just not enough to get most of us past our abhorrence of the leg press. And it’s almost New Year’s resolution time, so well in advance, here’s an evangelizing attempt to reframe the experience of strength training in terms of all sorts of actual pleasures and gratifications and even, yes, joys.

1. Sex – Arnold Schwarzenegger says it inimitably in the clip above:

The greatest feeling you can get in the gym, or the most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym is ‘the pump.’ Say you train your biceps. Blood is rushing into your muscles, and that’s what we call the pump. Your muscles get a really tight feeling, like your skin is going to explode any minute. It’s really tight, it’s like somebody blowing air into your muscle. It just blows up — and it feels different. It feels fantastic. It’s as satisfying to me as [...] you know, having sex with a woman… So can you believe how much I am in heaven?

For some mysterious reason, I couldn’t find a fitness expert who wanted to go on the record likening the engorgement involved in strength training to the engorgement involved in sex. But I can tell you that the comparison helps me in two ways:

Glow: I’ve redefined the negative “feel the burn” as “feel the glow” or “feel the pump.”

Foreplay: Strength training experts advise us to aim to reach a point of muscle “failure,” at which you just can’t lift the weight again. I think of all the reps before that point as foreplay, building up to the climactic moment of failure.

2. Use me!

A commenter on a recent NPR story about Type 2 diabetes put into words very articulately an inchoate feeling I’d been having that my muscles are happy when I work them. The commenter wrote:

Diabetes in this country has increased for a very simple reason. Unfortunately, being humans, we must always look for reasons which let us off the hook. That’s tough. Look at your body. Look at the large quadricep muscles. Look at the even larger gluteal muscles. Feel down deep below the blubber, to the biceps, the triceps, the pectorals, and the calf muscles. Evolution, or God, if that is your belief system gave us these muscles for a reason. It wasn’t to sit and watch television. It wasn’t to sit at a desk all day, entering data or calling customers, nor was it to have better control over a video game joystick. We have these muscles in order to move, which is something many have forgotten how to do. The bum was not designed as a cushion, which is it’s primary purpose today.

3. Anger

Let us say, just very hypothetically, that you live in a town very much like the Boston suburb of Brookline, and let us imagine that you’ve just built a gorgeous trellis in your yard and have all kinds of plans for climbing roses and wisteria. Now let’s imagine that it’s Saturday morning and you’ve just opened a letter from the town telling you that your trellis violates a zoning bylaw and you either have to take it down, go through an expensive appeals process, or pay a $300-a-day fine.

You go to the gym. Which is going to help you more, dancing around to chipmunk aerobic music, or doing controlled violence to heavy weight stacks to the furious lyrics of Rage Against The Machine? And what better medicine than the lemons-to-lemonade joy of turning frustration with the (hypothetical) bureaucracy into bulging muscles?

Studies suggest that strength training, like aerobic exercise, helps with mood in general, including anger and stress, but nothing beats what positive psychologist Todd Kashdan told Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project: “My equanimity hinges on my ability to be a warrior in the gym.”

4. Bacon

No, sorry, there’s no link between strength training and permission to eat more bacon. Rather, I’m referring to an old Jewish saying that I first heard as “If you’re going to eat bacon, let the grease run down your chin.” (I see on YiddishWit.com it’s given as “If you’re going to eat pork, eat it till your mouth drips.”) Translation, as Schlitz puts it: “Go for the gusto.”

‘I haven’t lost any weight but I’ve lost my pants.’

It’s not perfectly apt, because the Yiddish saying refers to openly enjoying an unkosher and illicit activity, while strength training is just what the doctor ordered. But still, it’s a reminder that this is a rare opportunity to grunt, grimace and groan cathartically in public, in daytime, without shame — in fact, with pride.

5. Faith

If you have any close involvement with children, you know that they change dramatically with time, but too slowly to perceive moment to moment. You just keep feeding them day in and day out (a friend’s classic Facebook post: “You mean I have to make dinner tonight again?“) and then one day you turn around and notice, to your delighted amazement, that they’ve grown six inches.

Strength training is similar: You’re feeding your muscles day in and day out, not even hoping to notice an improvement each time. About six months in, I thought, “If this is body ‘sculpting,’ it’s a lot more like Bonsai sculpting than clay.” But you keep investing in the process, and the results — unless you’re doing something very wrong — inevitably come, bringing the same glorious surprises as a child’s growth chart or an exquisitely curving little branch. They don’t come every day, but oh, the thrill when they do…

6. Speed

And it’s all relative, isn’t it? Changing your body without using a scalpel takes time, and in fact, the changes wrought by strength training can be strikingly rapid. Dr. Eddie Phillips, director of the Institue of Lifestyle Medicine:

Let’s say you’re trying to convince a buddy to start exercising, and you know they’re going to do it for two or three weeks — that’s how long they’ll trust you or that’s how long the free membership at the gym is. Long before you see cardiovascular changes, you’ll already start getting stronger; it’s a more immediate effect. So if I were running a gym and trying to get people to train, I would start with weight-lifting. And the first adaptation you have is that way before your muscles get bigger, your nervous system actually sort of coordinates the movements better. So the 20-pound-weight you couldn’t lift on Day 1, you can on Day 14, and by Day 21 you’re saying it’s easy. Your brain and nervous system are coordinating the activity so all the muscles fire at once and you become more efficient.

Interesting, no? There’s actually a sort of a skill involved in the maximally simple and controlled movements that weight machines require. For me, it translates into a pleasing sense of confident physical focus, that my muscles know how to do the push of the lift, know where to funnel the force.

7. Beauty

Dr. Phillips says there’s a line he repeatedly hears from patients who’ve started strength training: “They say, ‘I haven’t lost any weight but I’ve lost my pants. I’ve lost the muffin top hanging over my belt.’”

He cautions that people who are only interested in losing weight may be disappointed when they look at the scale after strength-training a while. But the point is that you change your body composition, building muscle.

I’ve found exactly that in this year of strength-training. I haven’t lost any weight, and that’s sometimes a source of frustration. But my clothes fit differently, better. I’ll never think my biceps are big enough to be called “guns,” but they’re hard little ovals on my arms now, and a kick to see in the mirror. I believe I have one of the most stubborn weight set-points in existence, but if I have to be stuck there, I can at least make sure more of that weight is curvy muscle.

8. Empowerment

Prof. Nelson on strength training: “I do think that it’s about being empowered. And I personally think that you get a huge sort of rush from when you strength-train and your muscles are truly fatigued.”

(CherryPoint/Flickr Creative Commons)

I begin every weight session by telling myself, “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.” Many of us spend our fitness lives recovering from the humiliations and pains of school gym class, and I remind myself that I can stop any time the pleasurable sense of effort seems to be flipping into pain. I am in total control. I am the only boss of me with weights.

But I also don’t want to waste my precious time. If it’s not hard, at least somewhat hard, what’s the point? So it goes: Uh oh, weights. Gotta push. Oof, hard. But good. I feel strong.

9. Fear

Happiness researchers tell us that we should focus on feeling grateful, but I find that gratitude only makes me anxious. The more I focus on all I have and enjoy, the more aware I feel of all there is to lose. So with all that impending disaster waiting around the corner, I find comfort in the feeling that as I work the weights, I’m building what Dr. Phillips calls a “buffer” against potential health calamities to come.  Better to be stronger when that badness hits, and better able to fight back against the depletion it may bring. It’s perhaps the physical equivalent of the psychological: “I cannot prevent all possible life disasters, but I can tell myself that I’ll handle them somehow if they come.”

10. On the other hand…

Unconvinced? Fine. You don’t have to learn to love the weight machines. Some of us never will. But Miriam Nelson points out that there are myriad ways to strength-train without weight machines.

You can also work out at home using only your body weight, doing push-ups and pull-ups and the like. Her personal favorite is climbing at a rock gym: “I go with my husband and it’s a blast because I’m fifty-something and I’m surrounded by teens and twentysomethings, yet it’s a huge workout — I end up exhausted, but it’s really fun. So just remember there are different ways to strength-train, and choose the type you like best.”

Find something you like — and also, don’t start “too hard and too fast,” says Glenn Harris, the head strength and conditioning coach for Boston University Athletics. “People start doing their workouts and they get so sore and they get crushed and they hate it, and it’s because they did it too hard and too fast — they didn’t progress into it and start taking one step at a time as opposed to sprinting the whole 100 yards.”

Ideally, he said, strength training can become “almost like a circle of completion. If you start at the right pace and the right level, you get pleasure from the workout itself, and then after three or four weeks, you start seeing the results, you start looking in the mirror and saying, ‘Hey, this is paying off,” and that reinforces what you’ve been doing and in turn creates a circle pattern. As opposed to a bigger circle around your waist.”

Readers, can you get there? How do you feel about the weight machines? Health club statistics below from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association – the figures represent millions of users — suggest that you may well use them, but have you learned to like them?

Health club statistics

(Courtesy of IHRSA)

Further inspiration: Why To Exercise Today: A Dozen Reasons To Do Weights This Year

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  • G Michael Moore

    Crucial to get trained in proper technique and alignment or you can do serious damage to yourself pushing to failure. I personally love free weights, because they add the important element of balance and control. Machines force your body into rigid alignment that is not necessarily a good thing. Stretch bands are also excellent as they provide steady tension, avoiding momentum, which is not helpful.

  • Michael

    I just turned 70 and am blessed with good health—I’ll keep working out on my Big 5 sporting goods “chin-up station” which mounts in a doorway, no screws needed. I do chin-ups, pull ups, sit ups, push ups and dips. At 5-8 and around 145 lbs. I look good..I’ll never be on a GQ or” Old Men’s Health” cover, but the device was a good buy for $30.

  • Joyce Marble

    Ten years ago I weight trained and could eat anything and not put on an ounce. Now since I have stopped I weigh forty pounds more, am depressed, and haven’t the strength to do anything. I have a full weight machine in my home. This article has gotten me excited again and I am heading up there to start over. I want to look and feel good and I know this is the way.

    • Mister Zurkon

      Go Joyce! Tear it up. I wish you much success, whatever the wishes of an internet nobody are worth. Remember how you felt, as the first few sessions might be rough.

  • sargon_bighorn

    I love working out because I’m vain and want to look good naked.

  • Trena

    Narcissism.

    • Mister Zurkon

      No no no and no.

      Is the acceptable alternative to let your health degrade until you are physically unattractive? On the contrary, resistance training is a connection with how we were made to function, before collective wealth led us to collective leisure and sloth. Cart and horse, Trena.

      Try it. There are myriad benefits, social as well as physical. The camaraderie shared by those who expend much effort thus is real, and the health benefits are well documented. Besides, nobody said you have to be a narcissist about it.

      • Trena

        Narcissism: yes, yes, yes and yes: This article portrays extreme behavior. The “acceptable alternative” is not to “let your health degrade until you are physically unattractive”! It is to eat a healthy, balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, enjoy moderate exercise on a regular basis, get plenty of rest, and have an actual life, in between meals, exercise and rest.

        • Mister Zurkon

          Actually, the article portrays nothing of the kind. The “letting your health degrade” comment was intended to point out the rather extreme reaction exhibited in your initial post (though I do not dismiss the veracity of it all the same). If this is the Trena I think it is, I generally appreciate your thoughtfulness and moderation, but this cry of narcissism betrays a rather limited and, if you’ll pardon the phrasing, self-aggrandizing worldview. People who lift weights are not by default emotionally stunted. They are not of necessity self-absorbed to the point of their own destruction (Narcissus). Making gains via resistance training requires dedication and a whole hell of a lot of effort. Kindly do not sacrifice such admirable qualities on the altar of your preconceptions.

          • Trena

            “Self-aggrandizing”? Really? I don’t see that.

        • careyg

          Dear Trena — Just to clarify, I couldn’t resist the Schwarzenegger clip but in fact I was not promoting his extreme behavior, rather the moderate level of weight-maching training that I do and that experts recommend, roughly three times a week. The health benefits really are significant, especially the older we get, but I was trying to persuade people that the process itself can be pleasurable, even though it does, as Mister Zurkon writes, require real effort.

          • Trena

            Dear Careyg, I appreciate your clarification here in your comment. In my initial comment, I was reacting to the photo, more than to the content of the article. The photo biased me as I read the article, persuading me that the goal of the exercise was to aspire to look like the photo. Extreme. So, it wasn’t a ‘preconception” on my part, as one commenter thought. I’ve known people who were addicted to physical exercise, compulsive about it, obcessive, to the point where their minds were enslaved with perpetual thoughts about it, when exercising and between bouts of exercising. That is, in my view, narcissistic. Self-destructive, ultimately.

  • Batesian_Mimic

    “But still, it’s a reminder that this is a rare opportunity to grunt,
    grimace and groan cathartically in public, in daytime, without shame —
    in fact, with pride.”

    Please don’t grunt. You sound ridiculous, and the rest of us are making fun of you. You may have read or heard that it helps you lift more, but the same effect can be had through simply breathing.

    • Will Herrick

      You are clueless. Yea, some people are morons and grunt so loudly you can hear them across the gym — fine, you can mock that all you want. But if you’ve never uttered a sound while lifting weights than you’ve never really gotten a good workout or pushed yourself.

      Also, your comment about ‘breathing’ reveals that you know nothing about weightlifting. The fact is that on almost every barbell lift you’re supposed to hold a very deep breath and push air into your stomach to build internal pressure for lower back support. The end result of this, on a very difficult lift, is that you’ll usually expel air out near the end of the lift and make a sound. If you never make a sound *you’re doing it wrong*

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=12332741 Aaron Cranford

        I’m sorry sir, but the Mayo Clinic, Military.com Fitness Center, and everyone I’ve ever talked to about lifting wights (been doing it for 12 years) all disagree, and I am inclined to disagree as well.

        The only exception I have ever heard of would apply to overhead lifts such as military press, overhead tricep extensions, etc… And I would say that in this exception it is more a personal choice not what you’re “supposed to do”

        I mean just do a simple google search on “proper weight lifting breathing technique”. I’m sure you won’t find any reputable source saying that you should hold your breath.

        http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/weighttraining/SM00028/METHOD=print

        http://www.military.com/military-fitness/workouts/breathing-during-exercise

      • Batesian_Mimic

        Where did I say that you have to remain quiet? There is a difference between “making a sound” and overtly grunting loudly. Making some amount of noise, through proper breath control, is expected.

  • David C. Holzman

    >>>“If you’re going to eat bacon, let the grease run down your chin.”

    Here I’ve been Jewish since the Eisenhower administration and this is the first I’ve heard about this! I REALLY could have used this information a long time ago.

    • careyg

      :-) All those wasted napkins!

  • alexafleckensteinmd

    A great article – but we should not even call them “weight” machines, as the weight loss is not that great.

    But exercising is a great motivator to also clean up your food intake and eat your veggies. And before you know it you are cleaning up other aspects of you life, too – like anger, greed, unkindness.

    Exercise is empowering!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • whysocurious

      They’re called weight machines because they are used for weight training AKA utilizing gravity as a counterbalance to the force generated by muscle.

      The term has nothing to do with weight loss. They’d be called “weight loss” machines, wouldn’t they?

  • danalyst

    For extraordinary efficiency and amazing results, try the once-a-week “SuperSlow” protocol: Very slow cadence on five or six machines, 2.5 to 3 minutes each (to failure), out the door in 20 minutes, no need for gym clothes. You probably need a trainer to help with proper form and timing. Read about it in Doug McGuff’s recent “Body by Science.”

    • careyg

      OK, will try it! Please stay tuned…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jakcheng Jack Cheng

    But what effect does it have on math skills? Was that #6?

    • Carey Goldberg

      Argh! Thanks so much for pointing that out! Now fixed. I put the blame on a brain aging so inexorably that not even strength training can fully stem the decrepitude…

    • careyg

      Argh! Thanks so much for pointing that out! Now fixed. I put the blame on a brain aging so inexorably that not even weight training can stem the decrepitude…

  • Tom

    I will never enter the burn phase of weight lifting again in the same frame of mind! :).

    • careyg

      Reframing mission accomplished!! :-)

  • Reasonable?

    Nice article will share with the women I know.
    Agreed with most except the bacon…..Rellgion aside. It is possible to go Paleo, get strong and eat copious bacon guilt free.

    Regards