Goals drive me. When I visualize a dream and begin to believe I can make it a reality, I get excited (my wife might say “obsessed”) and immediately start making plans for how to realize the ambition.
In the gym — and specifically in the sport of powerlifting — these goals tend to fall into two main categories: (1) personal records (PRs) in the squat, bench, deadlift, and total; and (2) competition goals, such as placing first in the Master’s (40+) category at a major meet or making a national team to compete in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF).
While having my eyes on a specific prize is immensely motivating to me, over the years I have come to realize that finding “joy in the journey” (a phrase attributed to singer Michael Card) is ultimately more important than achieving the very goals that propel me forward.
What do I mean by this? To quote former Philadelphia 76ers guard Tony Wroten, “trust the process” and “just continue to build.” I am a proponent of focusing on what is in my power to change and letting the chips fall where they may. At the same time, I believe in avoiding distractions, including elements that are out of my hands. As shared by a religious leader in 1839 to a community facing adversity, “let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see [our worthy goals come to fruition]” (D&C 123:17).
Wroten’s “trust the process” has become a well-worn phrase in the sport of powerlifting, but what does it mean in practice? To me, it means we recognize that anything worth pursuing requires (1) work and (2) time, and therefore (3) patience and (4) persistence. A favorite persistence quote of mine comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed, but that our power to do has increased.”
I recall as a teenager seeing a fellow gym-goer rep two plates (225 lbs.) on the bench press for sets of ten and wishing, hoping, dreaming that I could one day do the same. Never did I imagine that, with enough study and especially practice, one day I would be repping not two, but three plates (315 lbs.) for sets of ten. Persistence pays off.
Meanwhile, finding joy in the journey means appreciating each training session for its own merits as opposed to measuring its value based solely upon whether it leads to the “destination” goal. As I write this piece in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, I cannot help but reflect upon other times in our collective history where the future was uncertain; in this context, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln emerge as touchstones of resilience. Accurately or not, a quote often attributed to both of them reads:
“Success is going from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
This thought encapsulates the patience and persistence needed to find joy in the journey. Michael Jordan famously highlighted missing more than 9,000 shots in his career: “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.” But how are we to maintain enthusiasm and “trust the process,” day in and day out — especially when things do not go as planned? And what exactly are the merits of each training session?
In reality, each gym-goer has his or her own reasons to train, and these underlying motivations evolve over time. My “why” for dedicating time to the iron game includes the following:
- integrity: building resilience
- confidence and control: developing work ethic and self-image
- inner strength: improving mental health, centering, balance, and perspective
- outer strength: enhancing muscular capability, energy, and fitness
- challenges: setting stretch goals
- community: having experiences with like-minded people
- outlet: releasing pent-up energy
- aesthetics: improving outward appearance
- self-optimization: becoming best self
Each of these reasons provides satisfaction and motivation as I persist on my iron quest week after week and year after year. Finding joy in the resistance training journey has become second nature to me, which is probably why I have not missed training sessions — except when injured or significantly ill — for many years.
Integrity has two primary definitions: one is physical (being whole and undivided) and the other moral (being honest and upright). Resistance training has the potential to increase its practitioner’s integrity in both spheres, thereby bolstering resilience of the seen and the unseen.
The benefits of resistance training in the concrete, corporeal realm should be obvious enough: so long as one learns and executes proper technique (not a given by any stretch!), and provided that programming is smart and measured (as opposed to constant one rep max attempts, for example), the lifter is likely to improve his or her physical strength and overall robustness. (Needless to say, nutrition, rest, and stress management are all critical factors here as well, as is injury prevention.) Not only muscles but also connective tissue and bones can be strengthened over time with the proper nutrition and training protocol. This is why lifters sometimes respond to those who claim they do not have time to train with, “You do not have time not to train.”
Conversely, the moral advantages of the iron game are at once less clear and less guaranteed. They are not as discernible because (1) honesty and moral uprightness are not scientifically measurable, and (2) character improvements are not obviously tied to physical training. In addition, these “ethical gains” are not guaranteed because they hinge upon the commitment of the lifter, and people lift for different reasons. In other words, not all lifters are using the iron game to shape their self-control and moral fortitude. That said, those who elect to see their training as a microcosm of their lives (i.e., an experience where the body wants one thing but the mind prevails) — those who make a conscious effort to enhance will power and self-mastery — will reap the moral benefits offered by this physical ritual that I have called “the refiner’s fire.”
Concretely speaking, laziness, lust, and selfishness (to cite but three examples) are natural tendencies for many if not most humans; the repeated beck and call of the iron has the potential to help the the lifter — and the biker, swimmer, or runner — develop an increased work ethic, temper his or her base desires, and create space for an enhanced willingness to help others.
CONFIDENCE AND CONTROL
The concept of using repeated sessions of physical training to enhance self-mastery is not novel. That said, the way one trains literally dictates progress in this realm. Said differently, many gym-goers tend to lack purpose and focus; indeed, some spend countless hours going through the motions for years without any tangible differences to their health, strength, or physical appearance (and possibly their moral fortitude as well). At the same time, others seem to be continually making gains in multiple realms. Why the difference?
Lifelong autonomous learning and focused, smart practice are two keys to continued progress. In terms of knowledge enhancement, it is surprising how many lifters have never read a single book on the subjects of strength training or nutrition. Granted, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of information quality in this realm, but not making the effort to grow intellectually when one is spending hundreds or even thousands of cumulative hours “working out” has never seemed rational to me.
Regarding focus during training, it is also astonishing how many lift with no goals aside from “maintaining strength” or “getting in shape.” To be clear, my intent is not to be derisive; after all, I am genuinely happy to see others elect to exercise regardless of the effectiveness of their training. However, as all of us have limited time on this earth, it behooves us to decide what drives us and then to pursue it — and, preferably, to do so efficiently and effectively.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where…”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Like Alice in this quote, if we are not mindful and committed, our gym time can end up aimless and fruitless. On the flip side, if we dedicate ourselves to continuous learning and are clear about our personal objectives, our resistance training hours can refine work ethic and self- image alike. This is accomplished by presenting repeated challenges or hardships to overcome (think about a squat session that requires you to “dig deep,” for example); as we, the lifters, succeed time after time in stepping up to the plate, so to speak, our minds and souls are sent a powerful message that we are not quitters, that we are the types who stand tall when faced with adversity, and that we can do hard things. Over time, our work ethic and self-image undergo a significant transformation due to this constructive routine.
Many see strength sports as a physical game, and for some, that may be a fair assessment. But for me, the mind and spirit aspects of hard, focused training far outweigh the more visible and palpable facets. Long before I began bodybuilding and later powerlifting, distance running was my sport of choice for channeling energy and improving my perspective. At age 14 I ran my first marathon without (foolishly, I know) ever training at a distance beyond 10 miles. While difficult, achieving that 26.2-mile milestone taught me much about the extent to which I could subordinate my natural, physical “messaging” to my will, which — as I now understood — was a force to be reckoned with. This forging of my self-mastery, this harnessing of my drive has served me well in many realms over the almost three decades that have elapsed since the 1992 St. George Marathon (Utah).
Done right, resistance training can have a profound effect on mental health. Endorphin release is a significant part of this, but another key factor is the repeated internal communication that occurs when we decide to show up time after time and refuse to back down. This “virtuous cycle” of succeeding (training hard despite not always feeling like it) again and again infuses our minds with enhanced confidence and a more positive outlook on our abilities to positively influence the future. Henry Rollins stated the following about intense training:
“It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.”
This quote may seem baffling to some, but then again, not everyone knows the exhilarating feeling of conquering a truly challenging training session. To the serious lifter, Rollins’ words ring true not only to the mind but also to the soul: I, for one, have had many life experiences that have been overcome in part because the “agony of the iron” and my proven ability to prevail is etched deeply enough into my consciousness that any negative thoughts that may arise (“you cannot handle this,” “there is no way,” etc.) are quickly silenced once they come in contact with my psychological “body of work” in the iron realm.
As stated above, the gym’s impact on inner strength is foremost in my book; that said, its concrete, physical benefits are both significant and not detached from the psychological, emotional, and even spiritual spheres. For example, there is no denying that I had a visceral reaction upon discovering a famous side chest photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger in middle school; like me, many young people (and plenty of older folks as well) are motivated and inspired by images of impressively muscular physiques — hence the massive sales of muscle magazines over the decades.
The fascination with aesthetics (how big, ripped, balanced, and vascular a body can become) and/or performance (how much one can lift in this or that feat of strength) can serve as an entry point to the iron game. Once we begin to train, and especially once we begin to train intelligently, the concrete changes we perceive in our appearance, health, and strength serve to instill in us a desire to continue our newfound pursuit. For some of us, this develops into a lifelong lifestyle that uplifts and enlivens.
Over time, personal strength barriers can be broken that we never thought possible. This has been my experience with resistance training many times over: the poundages I once assumed were “out of my league” have become old hat. This repeated process of reimagining and revising our supposed limitations impacts not only the body, but also the mind and spirit. As rock star Brandon Flowers of The Killers sings, “our dreams will break the boundaries of our fears.” While this message may appear platitudinous to some, it has been my lived experience in the gym, which has then transferred to other aspects of my life as I have embraced a new vision of my capabilities and possibilities.
At age 11, I hiked to the top of Mount Timpanogos (11,752 feet) in Provo, Utah. At 13, I walked 50 miles overnight from Salt Lake City to Provo; the next year, I did it again. At 14, I ran my first marathon. Around that same time, I completed a 104-mile bike trip around Utah Lake. Pushing myself physically was more than a hobby — it was a necessity.
In college, after playing soccer my freshman year at Utah State University, I was cut from the team at my new school (Brigham Young University). I recognized I needed a new challenge, and I found it in bodybuilding. I threw myself into the sport, ended up winning the lightweight National Physique Committee (NPC) Utah title in 2000, and became a sponsored athlete and fitness model that same year. The following year, as a lifetime drug-free competitor I placed tenth in the lightweight division at the NPC USA championships in Las Vegas. My hard work and momentary sacrifices had paid off.
Fast-forward twenty years: I am married now with four children. I have a 9-5 desk job as well as volunteer leadership responsibilities in my local faith community. Much of my time is spent in a shirt and tie behind a computer. What has not changed, however, is my need to pinpoint and pursue new physical challenges. In my case, the sport of powerlifting has been a godsend: it is exceptionally physically demanding, yet from my perspective the focus on strength (and not body composition) dovetails nicely with a balanced family life. Furthermore, the intensity of training sessions often requires days of recovery, so even though I would like to train more frequently, I experience increased progress when I limit my total time under the bar.
Whether I hit that next stretch PR or not, whether I win that next competition or not, I thrive by living the training lifestyle day in and day out. Rigorous gym sessions serve to break up the monotony of the daily grind, push the gym-goer, improve health and well-being, and teach valuable life lessons. In short, taking the less-traveled road (to paraphrase Robert Frost) makes all the difference.
The new era of social distancing and family Zoom sessions ushered in by the current pandemic has highlighted the unique value-added of the community training facility. Even as home gym equipment is flying off the shelves and some social media commentators are proclaiming the impending demise of the commercial gym, others — myself included — recognize that the local health club offers something different than the home gym. I, for one, have had a home gym for years, yet I have continued to train at a local powerlifting facility more often than at home. Why is this?
We are, by our very nature, social beings. It is true that some are more socially needy than others, and, conversely, that some are more isolationist by disposition. But people in general tend to flourish in an atmosphere where they can interact with and learn from other practitioners of their sport or hobby of choice. This is as true in powerlifting as it is in speedcubing, for example (solving Rubik’s cubes as quickly as possible happens to be my eldest son’s passion).
The ideal atmosphere of a gym will vary from lifter to lifter; the criteria that I look for include a spacious feel, quality powerlifting equipment, good lighting (natural light preferred), reasonable music selections, and serious, dedicated lifters — regardless of skill level. (A general culture of kindness and respect is obviously paramount.) When these elements come together, the result is an environment that can uplift and inspire in ways that are hard to replicate in a home gym.
Arnold Schwarzenegger described one benefit of training as follows:
“Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body.”
Not everyone’s heart beats with the need to push themselves physically, but for those of us with this internal requirement to exert ourselves more than intellectually, heeding the call of the iron (or the pool, or the track) can be essential for our well-being.
Training provides a significant change of pace from the rest of our lives — particularly in the case of those with sedentary careers. Even the most stressful circumstances and pessimistic moods can be dramatically altered by a challenging, focused session with the barbell. Indeed, there is something exceptionally potent about leaving aside the comforts of the modern office and submitting oneself to “the great reference point,” as Henry Rollins called it:
“The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all- knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”
Not everyone who trains is focused on attaining a lean, muscular body, but many are (or at least have been in the past). For some (fitness models and those who compete in bodybuilding, physique, bikini, etc.), it can be the very object of their athletic pursuits. For others, it may be viewed as a happy byproduct of efforts to increase strength and lifting ability.
Regardless of the level of interest on the evolution of our physical features, over time, training and eating wisely is likely to positively impact our Body Mass Index (BMI), and yes, the way we look in a swimsuit as well. The degree to which this helps you find joy in your resistance training journey will depend on your priorities, but the fact remains that it is yet another tangible benefit of dedicating time to the iron game.
“Be All You Can Be” served as the slogan of the U.S. Army from 1980 until 2001. More than an effective recruiting phrase for the military, this concept of choosing to become our best selves is one all of us should embrace, regardless of our unique goals in life. Whether it involves learning a foreign language or committing to a new exercise protocol, “maintaining” is a poor alternative to “progressing”; instead, we should definitively and wholeheartedly commit to continual growth and development in the areas that matter to us.
Lifting weights may be but one way to self-optimize, but it is profoundly effective and gratifying in the eyes of its practitioners. As Brad Stulberg pointed out in his recent New York Times editorial (The Zen of Weight Lifting), resistance training fulfills all three basic needs that enable humans to thrive:
- “Autonomy: The ability to exert oneself independently and have control over one’s actions.
- Mastery: A clear and ongoing path of progress that can be traced back to one’s efforts.
- Belonging: Being part of a community, lineage or tradition that is working toward similar goals.”
Notice that Stulberg’s three needs correlate with some of my listed motivations for resistance training: autonomy (confidence and control), mastery (self-optimization), and belonging (community). As I mentioned earlier, gym-goers’ reasons for training differ from person to person, but Stulberg’s three are a common thread regardless of one’s particular culture or personality (although I should add that, concerning the “belonging” need, a small minority of lifters appear to flourish while training solo).
Consistently focusing on what lies in our power this week, this hour, this moment is the key to continued progression and finding joy in our lifting journey. Setting goals and striving with all our might to achieve them helps us refine our commitment and vision, thereby empowering us to overcome sticking points both in and out of the gym. As all seasoned lifters know, it is not a question of “if” but rather “when” sticking points or other setbacks will arrive on the scene; the key is having the will to persist no matter the amount or degree of obstacles that emerge.
On the topic of persistence, Thomas Edison observed the following:
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Edison’s quote can be especially helpful to remember when the chips are down, when we need to remain confident that our next breakthrough is literally just around the corner.
Whether or not the breakthrough comes at the desired time, finding joy in the journey means that we strive for excellence while simultaneously choosing gratitude for the opportunity to strive in the first place. After all, many on this earth cannot afford to dedicate time to athletic pursuits; it is a privilege to be in a position to do so in the first place.
On this topic, Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones (1843-1918) remarked:
“Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to be just like people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, and most jobs are more often dull than otherwise.
“Life is just like an old time rail journey… delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders, and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to [be grateful for] the ride.”
With enough persistence and long-term dedication, we are likely to experience many “beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed” along our iron journey. But even when we are deep in the daily grind and seemingly far from those glimpses of breathtaking landscapes, we can choose to “trust the process” and appreciate the experience for what it is — an incredible opportunity to work on becoming our best selves.
Nathaniel Hancock is a Master (40+) lifter in the USAPL federation. A former soccer player, marathoner, and state champion bodybuilder (NPC Utah 2000), Nathaniel is committed to continue progressing in the iron game. In addition to his powerlifting accomplishments (a 445-lb. raw bench and a 600-lb. raw squat), Nathaniel holds a Master’s in French Translation and is the father of four children. He and his family currently reside in Utah, where they frequently enjoy mountain views and desert hikes.
Photo by Lifting Large Media.
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