[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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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?