“In the pain, the agony, and the heroic endeavors of life, we pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross […].” – James E. Faust, April 1979
Training with a purpose is in my DNA. Whether it was my first marathon in 1992, the U.S.A. bodybuilding championships in 2001, or the North American Powerlifting Federation championships in 2019, my eyes were always on the prize as I pushed myself during the preparatory phase.
Truth be told, I have never understood the practice of exercising without a specific goal in mind. If I am going to dedicate hours of my life to an athletic endeavor week after week and year after year, I want to know that I am on the path of progress. You may have a different mentality—and that is fine by me—but I relish the heightened focus experienced when each training session is seen as part of a larger whole.
Speaking of focus, goal-oriented training in general and resistance training in particular are, in many ways, similar to the metallurgical concept of the refiner’s fire. Metallurgy is the science of producing and purifying metals, and the refiner’s fire refers to the intense heat (and often the associated hammering) needed to shape a finished metal product. Another useful metallurgical term in this context is crucible, which is a metal or ceramic bowl capable of withstanding extremely high temperatures; using a crucible, one is able to “focus” a heat source into a small space in order to render a rigid material temporarily malleable.
What do high temperatures and shaping metals have to do with resistance training? From my vantage point, intense training takes us from a world of comfort and throws us squarely into a kind of refiner’s fire. As my training protocol creeps up from the high-volume, low-intensity days to the low-volume, high-intensity sessions, I know I have to carry with me into the gym a focus commensurate with the ferocity, the acuteness, and the harshness of the load I am about to bear. If I fail to do so, I may become malleable in uncomfortable ways (injury) as opposed to positive ways (hypertrophy and strength adaptation).
So much of our lives in the modern world can be characterized by an avoidance of pain and strain as, in many cases, our professions and day-to-day activities require little in the realm of physical exertion. Fewer and fewer people are farmers, washing machines are now ubiquitous, and information technology has revolutionized the workplace. As a result, a willingness to voluntarily embrace the refiner’s fire that is intense resistance training is at once increasingly foreign and desperately needed. After all, those of us imbued with the warrior spirit have an innate need to release pent-up physical energy—sometimes in exceptionally vigorous ways.
Enter the iron game. As we cross the threshold of the modern arena, we (at least temporarily) let go of the stress and struggles that tend to preoccupy so many of us in favor of a singular spotlight on the task at hand. As the crucible is prepared and the temperature begins to rise (think of warm-up sets), “the unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross” if we let it. This rising of our internal temperature mirrors that of the “external temperature,” namely, the load we are bearing and our perception of the atmosphere (more precarious, potentially hostile) in which we find ourselves. It is within this inferno-by-choice that our current character and level of refined resilience is revealed, and the experience can be nothing short of a revelation.
How many discoveries—even epiphanies—might enter our lives as a result of “embracing the suck” of intense resistance training? Let me count the ways. First and foremost, persisting in the iron game engenders the obliteration of the false psychological (and physical) limits we place on ourselves. Case in point: as a distance runner-turned-powerlifter, I was convinced that a four-plate bench press (405 lbs.) simply had to be off the table for a drug-free ectomorph like myself. It was not until years after I began training for strength that my mind began to be freed from the cerebral straitjackets of my past. Once I “mentally accepted the weight,” as a mentor counseled me to do, I broke through barrier after barrier until my four-minute mile moment materialized: I benched the previously unthinkable 405 lbs. (and then 425, and then 445).
Second, this psychological liberation generated by my lived experiences in the gym precipitated analogous emancipatory encounters in my professional and personal life. If the mental blocks holding me back from my strength goals were artificial, I thought, then certainly the “ceilings” in the other aspects of my existence were equally bunk. I found myself pursuing project after project outside of my comfort zone, and in the process I began more intentionally plumbing the depths of my earthly possibilities. The result? I learned time after time that I could register remarkable victories when I chose hope over fear; I also inherited a more concrete picture of my current strengths and weaknesses. In short, I began to see myself as a being with endless potential as opposed to the kid who was cut from the high school baseball team (for example). And yes, the iron is in part to thank for this prodigious gift.
A third revelation generated by years of habitual rituals in the shrine of the iron could be described as “perspective purification.” My father once told me that we humans are emotional—not rational—creatures, and the longer I live, the more this rings true. The temporary pain and agony (to borrow Faust’s words) encountered in the refiner’s fire do indeed serve to “melt away like dross” the ephemeral concerns and, yes, the negativity accumulated during the non-training hours of life. I can state unequivocally that the moment I squatted 600 lbs. served to simultaneously erase the intensity of my preoccupations of that day and to inject deep within me a sense of acute positivity and even invincibility. I attribute this new vision of the world around me—and my possibilities within it—not solely to the release of endorphins, but also to the empirical results I routinely reap as a reward for the strength seeds I sow. Said differently, the crucible of the maximum exertion equation regenerates my mind, body, and spirit as my possibilities are seen more clearly and seen to be clearly superior than previously assumed. Win-win.
Renowned author and businessman Seth Godin stated the following: “If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.” In the case of pushing oneself wisely but intensely in the gym, I could not agree more. My decades of training have taught me to shed my insecurities, free my mind, and believe in myself as I welcome the life lessons delivered by the unflinching iron bar.
The choice is yours: are you willing to accept the costs—and reap the benefits—of the refiner’s fire?
“… we need to break free of our old selves—the provincial, constraining, and complaining selves—and become susceptible to the shaping […]. But the old self goes neither gladly nor quickly. Even so, this subjection […] is really emancipation.” – Neal A. Maxwell, April 1985
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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