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No, Really, You Should Do Strength Training
It's not hard to rescue your body from the horrid non-rigors of post-industrial living
I sometimes wonder whether my work has any ultimate use beyond my own self-interest. At times, people find it amusing. But there are lots of amusing writers out there. I’d like to think that I have some special pep that you can’t find in any of the 60 million other blogs. But, the truth is that if I never wrote another word, I would probably suffer more than others.
In light of this, occasionally I get the urge to write something useful. This is one of those days.
“Noob gains”—the fact that novice lifters gain strength with incredible speed—is a phenomenon that’s advertised widely, but still under-advertised, as evidenced by the fact that there are people out there who could take advantage of it, but haven’t. I will consider noob gains to be a correctly-rated phenomenon when literally every adult who possibly can has enjoyed them.
If you haven’t lifted weights or done significant resistance training, you might understand, in theoretical terms, that you can double your strength in a matter of a couple of months with little difficulty. But if you haven’t done it, it’s probable that you haven’t fully absorbed just what that means, or how easy it is. I’m writing this in the hopes that reading one more person extolling the benefits of strength training will finally get you to go out and grip a barbell.
Given that gaining strength is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind, if even one of my readers goes and does Stronglifts after this post, I will be extravagantly happy.
Let’s start with a conceptual reframing. You might think of lifting as the art of becoming unnaturally strong. But that’s not the way to think about it.
Your body isn’t designed for its current state if you live in a post-industrial society—you’re abusing yourself by default. Your body wants to be more muscular. It craves adaptation under stress. Thus, it is generous. In your early days of lifting, you won’t be pushing it to do crazy, outlandish things. Instead, you will simply be allowing it to be as strong as it should be.
This is why, in the early days of lifting, the gains are so quick, and come without bodily protestation if your form is solid. It’s also why something just feels materially correct about becoming stronger, like you were crooked this whole time but finally you’ve been straightened.
That sense of rightness is not just physical. Gaining muscle gave me emotional equanimity as well as physical equanimity, and this is reported generally. I could try and track down some stupid survey to “prove” this to you, but you will experience it yourself. Maybe the mechanism of action is ‘physiological,’ in the sense that your muscles release hormones or something, or maybe it’s ‘psychological,’ in the sense that you’ll have more confidence, and you will radiate it into the world, and the world will radiate back something different.
I don’t care. It works.
You might think that you’re strong enough to do everything that your life requires. And, well, that’s probably true. But what you haven’t experienced is the feeling that your life is abundantly physically easy.
This was a revelation to me. Until I’d gained some muscle, I didn’t know that getting out of bed shouldn’t actually feel like much, physically, or that walking up a bunch of stairs shouldn’t tire you out, or that carrying groceries around shouldn’t be onerous. I felt cursed by the necessity of occupying space while shuffling around this mortal coil. And now I do not. Moreover, I no longer feel that I need some special justification for existing, because simply residing in the material is now a privilege.
I used to have mysterious transient back pain. I thought this was normal because I heard that some back pain is normal. Then I did some deadlifts, and my pain evaporated. It turns out that my back was just weak.
There’s this nice side effect, too: when things in your life are less physically onerous, they are then less psychologically onerous. It’s easier to live life when the prospect of basic physical activities isn’t exhausting. You will want more to move in the world.
I’m not condemning you to a lifetime at the gym. Here’s the fun part—once you have some muscle, you can either keep building strength or just maintain it with light-to-moderate exercise, if you feel like it.
I’m not a huge, musclebound guy. (Not yet, anyway.) I definitely look like I’ve done some exercise, because I have, but what I did is build up a reasonable level of strength—I stopped at a 2x bodyweight deadlift—and then didn’t lose it. Mostly I’ve been kind of half-assed about my workout regime in the last couple of years, and that hasn’t mattered a bit. The aesthetic and physical benefits have persisted.
So you can just do this for three months and then quit exercise except for what makes you feel good. That’s perfectly satisfactory.
Speaking of aesthetic benefits, if you’re a woman reading this, let me be the millionth person to say that you won’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger if you do a couple of squats. Being a visibly musclebound woman requires a lot of work. With basic strength, you’ll just look and feel better, and it’ll be pretty easy.
And, by easy, what I mean is that you’ll need to modify your diet to some degree—probably eat more—and spend an hour or so at the gym three times a week.
This is all presuming that you’re using a barbell to achieve noob gains, which I'd recommend. In the long-term, lots of kinds of exercise are fantastic, and some are actually better in certain dimensions—for example, strength-focused low-rep training won’t get you as jacked as some other varieties of training, if looking big is what you’re looking for. But in the short term, a barbell is just plain convenient; a few lifts will hit all the muscle groups, and you can increase resistance quickly, in a linear fashion. Whereas increasing difficulty with bodyweight exercises requires some ingenuity, with barbell lifts, you just put more metal on the thing.
You’ll also need to get an experienced lifter, preferably some sort of personal trainer, to examine your form early on; it is possible to hurt yourself. Lifting is a skill, and you’ll have to learn it to a novice level. But this will take a short period of time. It’s about as hard as learning to capably fry an egg—you’ll get it in a few tries if you can follow instructions and are willing to pay attention to the little tweaks you’ll have to make.
Becoming stronger is to become more self-possessed, more capable, more durable, less passive, less fragile. And, often, it creates courage, optimism, and lessens petulance, fear, and confusion. You don’t have to squash watermelons with your hands or anything. You just have to cast off the state of utter weakness that your disembodied civilization has imposed on you.