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February 2024 Issue [Miscellany]

Getting the Pump

On the resurrection of the body
Illustration by Laura Peretti

Illustration by Laura Peretti

[Miscellany]

Getting the Pump

On the resurrection of the body
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The black, rubbery mat bubbles unpredictably beneath my back as I hold one sixty-pound dumbbell in each hand, palms facing each other above my chest—knees bent, feet firm—and move my arms out, then lower them, slow and controlled. I feel my chest stretch. I fight gravity. I raise the dumbbells up toward each other again, consciously contracting my chest throughout the movement, and squeezing as hard as I can at the top; I imagine my muscle fibers microscopically tearing; I imagine cells shooting through my body toward my chest like electrical currents, or little guppies rushing in a river; I feel engorged—I think of blood; I crease my eyes and grunt; I shrink myself down and enter into the muscle.

Focus, I think, feeling myself drift a bit. Ggggghh. I shrink myself down even smaller. I shrink myself down into nothing. I confront the nothingness there with a new kind of attention. I savor the nothingness. I live in the dark night of nothingness until my whole being becomes blood rushing into my muscles and suddenly I am surrounded by light. My head enters my chest and starts pulsing, like a heart; my consciousness becomes another molecule, a cell among cells; consciousness is not a machine, or a mistake, but an ever-present awareness of the obstacle; I only exist in relation to the obstacle—I am not a static being, but becoming, overcoming—and by the time the weight is lifted to the top position my head is even deeper inside of my chest, all burning and firing and pumped up alive.

I have what lifters call a “pump.” When you lift, the muscles tear and blood rushes into them; the plasma gets trapped in the spaces between the cells of the muscles, and the muscles become full. A beginner will experience this strange sensation as pain (it is painful—your muscles are ripping), but after a while it feels like a kind of revelation. What was once painful now breeds growth. Pain becomes glitteringly purposeful, like a kaleidoscope—and is transformed. It is transfigured. The pump feels good.

“I am, like, getting the feeling of coming in the gym,” Arnold Schwarzenegger says, smiling and describing the pump in the now classic documentary Pumping Iron. “I’m getting the feeling of coming at home; I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage; when I pump up, when I pose out in front of five thousand people, I get the same feeling, so I am coming day and night. I mean, it’s terrific, right? So you know, I am in heaven.”

When I stand, I flex my pecs and look at myself in the mirror. I take my eyes off the mirror and pace back and forth. My body throbs. My pecs remain flexed until it feels like fiery pins are needling their way up from my muscles and out through my skin; I grimace and let out an ah, then reel myself in; I unflex my pecs and let the muscles—now thick with blood—soften and sink, like dense Jell-O cupped in sacks of stretched flesh. My face is tense, twisted into knots—I let it fall.

Now comes the best part: The reason I came to the gym in the first place. I experience a sensation I think of as “opening up.” I receive new eyes. When blood flows into your muscles it changes your eyes—like wearing glasses. It starts in your blood and stretches out over the world, where everything remains the same, but different. It’s as if each color contains a deeper, richer layer of itself, invisible during the rote machinery of life—working on my laptop, making food, driving my car—which only gets revealed when blood makes muscle thick and full. Before, I saw colors, but now I can actually see; before, I could breathe, but now I can actually breathe. Anxiety disappears; stress disappears; the stories that I tell myself in language disappear. I experience something like pure phenomenological Life. And just as Life can only be understood in and through Life—revealing itself in the living ongoingly—the pump can only be understood through the pump. One cannot theorize or think their way into a pump; my pecs quiver; the neon red sign that reads the montanari bros. new haven the super gym becomes redder; the black floor and black weights become blacker—everything becomes both sharper and softer; clearer and warm; the taste of iron fills my mouth; I shake my arms and check the clock so I know when to begin my next set. When a minute passes, I lay back down and disappear.

This, in so many words, is the activity that increasing numbers of us engage in on a regular basis—that has changed the lives of millions of Americans in recent years. Roughly half of Americans say they exercise at least a few times a week. Since 2010, the number of people with a gym membership has increased by 32 percent, to 66.5 million people, a growth that is expected to continue. And weight lifting is now the second most popular form of exercise in gyms in the United States. More people are exercising, and the way they are exercising has changed.

I will stick to “lifting” to describe what is in reality several types of exercise, each with its own distinct methods and goals, but with enough in common to be comfortably grouped together. Each involves moving one’s body against some kind of resistance (weights, exercise bands, bars, the floor), with the intention of changing one’s body (usually to become stronger, leaner, or both). There is Olympic weight lifting, which focuses on two barbell lifts (the snatch and the clean and jerk); bodybuilding, which focuses on aesthetics (size, conditioning, and symmetry); powerlifting, which focuses on trying to lift as much weight as possible with the squat, bench press, and dead lift; “powerbuilding,” a mix of powerlifting and bodybuilding; calisthenics, which primarily utilizes body weight exercises like push-up and pull-up variations; high-intensity resistance training; and more.

Until recently, lifting was associated almost exclusively with a specific kind of meathead: crude, tattooed, ragey, offensive. Gyms were viewed as “sweaty dungeons,” and lifters seen as “unintelligent,” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela writes in her book Fit Nation. When my dad lifted in the early Eighties, as he tells it, men at the gym would openly shoot steroids while sitting on old equipment. But now, all kinds of people lift. Daniel Kunitz, author of the book Lift, has written about authors and their exercise routines: Kant, Thoreau, Hemingway, Nietzsche, Roth. Most enjoyed cardio, such as walking—or they engaged in some oddly specific movement, like Jack Kerouac, who said he would “stand on [his] head in the bathroom, on a slipper, and touch the floor nine times with [his] toe tips, while balanced.” It’s only recently that more people have begun to lift weights, and that the older mode of hypermasculine aggression has been replaced with—or at least accompanied by—something cleaner and more health-conscious.

Most coverage of the newfound popularity of lifting attributes it to research demonstrating various health benefits: better blood flow and bone density, increased physical strength, longevity, and so forth. Many also attribute the rise to the so-called functional aspects of lifting—people sit down and stand up (like a squat); pick things up (like a dead lift); or push things away from themselves (like the bench press)—and, the theory goes, people lift out of this utilitarian concern. But before I started lifting, I’d never read any studies, and even now, after having read some, I can’t say that I actually care. I don’t know anyone who would commit to going to the gym every day, week after week, amid their already busy lives, because a study suggested that it would “help their blood flow,” or help them become more proficient in pushing something away from themselves, on the one in one thousand chance they’d ever have to. We live in an age when brute strength has never been less necessary, and, despite my total disdain for those who make of lifting a purely utilitarian endeavor—whether in praise (“I read a study!”) or suspicion (“When are you ever going to use those big muscles?”)—there are still practical benefits to lifting.

Lifting is a form of what we now call “training,” but unless one is an athlete, it raises the obvious question—training for what? Kunitz suggests that people are training for life: lifters “temporarily withdraw from the rush of existence,” he writes:

in order to rehearse its most fundamental aspects—movement, the interplay of neuron and muscle, the presentness and oblivion of concentration—and, bettered by this training, slip back into the stream of life.

Lifting also helps with cognitive function, reduces anxiety, and prevents the brain from degenerating. The clanging of heavy weight in motion is like the clinking of a priest’s censer, releasing a cloud of incense, which enters the nooks and crannies of one’s life and infuses them with a certain power.

All of this taken together likely explains the rise of lifting, but it doesn’t explain its rise among those who’d never before set foot in a gym due to what amounted to essentially cultural associations—and it doesn’t address what I consider to be its most profound benefits. Many writer types, I think it can fairly be said, feel an unconscious resentment toward the fitter and well-adjusted, and have an intuitive sense that they are above these sorts of base activities. When I didn’t lift, it was in part because I still lived in the shadow of my predecessors, who articulated a strict dichotomy between the life of the mind and that of the body, and who adhered to a certain aesthetic vision of what it meant to be a writer—depressed, misanthropic, even sickly, crushed by the weight of seeing things as they really are. The physical body was merely the vessel for Brilliant Thoughts; and the only actually important thing was language.

Many operate on the presumption that life is itself absurd, when in reality it is only their lives in particular that are absurd. Specific behaviors breed byzantine worldviews that emerge out of self-justification. When I was younger, I suffered from an astonishing case of this condition. My imagination ran wild—there was nothing to ground it; I was six feet tall, around one hundred and thirty pounds. In my head I soared to the highest heights, but the moment I encountered an obstacle—really anything or anyone outside of myself—I plummeted, oscillating bleakly between delusions of grandeur and flailing despair.

Everything, I thought, was essentially a text, which could be read and interpreted, but no interpretation could be privileged over another, because there was no objective standard. I was relativistic in theory, yet rigidly and arbitrarily absolutist in practice—it was impossible to live this way. My cognitive dissonance only grew, and the gap between my thoughts and actions became a profoundly uncomfortable sort of chasm; my body knotted and atrophied and held all of my unconscious stress. Once, feeling particularly unwell, I got a massage, and the masseur stopped halfway through and told me to sit up. He had a horrified look on his face. I had “the back of a ninety-year-old man”; I needed “serious help” as soon as possible. When I got home, I coughed up black mucus. Having been an athlete in the years before high school—winning second place at the national tae kwon do competition and playing baseball and basketball on teams that competed nationally—I had since come into existential awareness and decided to pursue what I considered to be deeper and more meaningful things. My body, like anything that ran counter to my burgeoning intellectual ideas, was something to be ignored. I fell in love with literature and quit everything physical in pursuit of it. I started writing; then, as my body essentially crumpled and I began living in my head instead of the world, I became oppressed by thought and lopsided by language.

“Why must it be that men always seek out the depths, the abyss?” Yukio Mishima asks in Sun and Steel, his memoir about his relationship to the body:

I could not understand the laws governing the motion of thought—the way it was liable to get stuck in unseen chasms whenever it set out to go deep; or, whenever it aimed at the heights, to soar away into boundless and equally invisible heavens, leaving the corporeal form undeservedly neglected.

René Girard wrote about these “laws governing the motion of thought” in Resurrection from the Underground, his book about Dostoevsky’s oeuvre. He identifies a type, which he associates with the unnamed narrator of Notes from Underground, and which has to do specifically with the nature of pride. “Pride,” Girard writes, “is a blind and contradictory force which sooner or later always creates effects diametrically opposed to what it seeks.” The underground man is a product of faulty, unintegrated psychospiritual processes: in his imagination, he elevates himself to illusory levels of greatness, however

this fantasy, which is simultaneously grandiose and meager, belongs to the moment of egoistic exaltation: the I pretends to extend its conquests over the totality of being. But a single look from the Other is enough to disperse these riches.

This is why Mishima describes “the area of the skin, which guarantees a human being’s existence in space.” It was precisely this area that I had neglected—because it is synonymous with reality, and reality always corrects prideful hallucinations, of which those who are lopsided by language have no shortage. A body in the world has certain limitations, but a thought inside a head has no such guardrails.

Illustration by Laura Peretti

Illustration by Laura Peretti

Thus lifting, which is commonly thought of as the activity of the egotistical and vain, is in reality the opposite—it is a corrective for those things. I first started to understand this in 2019, as I ascended the stairs of Gold’s Gym in Riverdale Park, Maryland, where I began lifting seriously, and where a large black silhouette of a strong male physique loomed over the lobby.

The faceless graphic held a barbell, which bent dramatically due to the amount of weight on either end. Sometimes, when I entered the gym, I’d somewhat psychotically contemplate the shape of his muscles: the fullness of the capped, boulder-esque deltoids; the massive lats, like slabs, creating an inverted triangle-shaped back; the dips between the shoulder and biceps; the girthy, bulbous, heart-shaped calves; quadriceps like chicken breasts ballooning out from beneath the small, supple waist—everything working harmoniously to reveal the latent human form within, which could only be revealed through focused and consistent effort. (“There are some truths in this world,” Mishima wrote, “that one cannot see unless one unbends one’s posture.”)

One day, entering Gold’s, I noticed the shape of the silhouette’s head. It was relatively unremarkable, not particularly large or small. One might imagine, I considered while scaling the flight of stairs, that the artist would have given the man a giant, veiny, near-bursting head; in real life, when one lifted bar-bending weight, his head invariably looked like it was going to explode. Alternatively, I considered, it wouldn’t have been surprising if the artist had given him a comically small head, to emphasize the largeness of the muscles—but no, he had a right-sized head, and because of this fact, the true nature of the lifter was revealed to me.

“Right-sized,” I thought as I ascended the stairs; “right-sized,” I thought as I entered the locker room; “right-sized” I thought as I entered the squat rack, imagining the faceless head I’d seen almost every day, semi-invisibly, and had now seen anew.

Humility, as the shape of the head seemed to suggest, is the first thing one learns in the gym, where one either humbles himself or gets humbled. It is not enough for one simply to imagine that he is strong, or delude himself into believing he is fit. Knowledge comes up against experience, and one has to adjust to make progress. One either learns how to lift properly—using light weights initially and asking others for help—or gets injured. In both cases, humility is the mechanism by which the lifter grows. This is why lifters level epithets like “ego lifter” at one another: humility, not pride, is the arch-virtue of the lifter.

It’s no wonder that people today are seeking a more embodied experience—and trying to learn the language of the body. When not kept in check, thought and language tend toward idiosyncratic, self-centered dreams. There is more to life than language; there is life beyond the text. People consume more words now per day than at any other time in history: text messages, online articles, social-media posts. The world is increasingly fractured and disembodied, traversable in its entirety from a living room, where one disjointedly imbibes disparate bits of information on a screen, in a way our ancestors wouldn’t have been able to conceptualize. Thoughts, discourse, and even self-conception are let loose in the realm of abstraction; “reality” is an imposition on our “freedom” to mentally meander—and so we do our best to blot it out. But one cannot blot it out. The tyranny of the abstract leads to acute and frenzied suffering.

The artist Martine Syms says that when she started lifting, she realized that her body “was another kind of knowledge and place that [she’d] been working on”; there was an “entirely new physical vernacular that [she] didn’t know.” Montaigne thought that each body part had a mind of its own. Each individual muscle, I greedily extrapolated, is essentially a brain. On a strong person, what at first appear to be bulging pectorals are in reality two bulging brains. Biceps are brains; triceps are brains; even abs, which initially appear to be vaguely rectangular muscles, are in fact vaguely rectangular brains. This is why getting a pump makes you feel so euphoric: one’s mood is not determined by the thinking part of the brain in our heads but by the active part of the brains in our muscles. Our head-brain is the only brain that is not a real brain—but an adversary.

Around a century and a half into what Kierkegaard called the “present age” of “reflection,” we prioritize thought. Thoughts do not always cause actions; there are times when we do things that are contrary to our conscious desires, and thought rationalizes what was in reality merely an impulse. One can become aware of his acting at odds with himself yet be unable to change. There is something that exists in the space between thought and action. This is what lifting corrects for.

There is a concept in lifting which is especially useful in this regard: mind-muscle connection. Mind-muscle connection refers to the ability to consciously contract specific muscles during a lift. When performing a biceps curl, for example, in order to properly target the biceps, one must “isolate” the muscle by mentally contracting the biceps. Most people accidentally recruit other muscles for lifts meant to emphasize only one: they unconsciously thrust their hips to generate momentum, or move their shoulders and use their lower back to hoist the weight up—and all of this decreases the efficacy of the lift. This is how lifting aids a disordered constitution: it engages both thought and action dynamically, and it fills the space between with living blood. In their worst moments, thoughts are augmented instincts, rationalizing away things we deceive ourselves into thinking we intended; but in their best moments, thoughts are blood. Lifting reminds those lopsided with language that a person is not a mere word: he is liquid, muscle, bone, always in motion in the world. Lifting is a reminder that Life is in the blood. It is blood that atones for one’s life.

When most people lift something, their goal is to get from point A to point B. A box is on the floor and you want it on the table and so you move it from the floor to the table. Simple. Most new lifters bring this conception to the gym. They move around crudely, without paying serious attention to the act. They press the barbell up above their chest or up over their head or curl it up then lower it—all the while only aware of the beginning and the end. But the beginning and the end are the least important parts. It’s the movement of the movement—the middle—that matters.

Lifters who practice mind-muscle connection resist the crass dichotomy of here and there, the gross binary of resting and flexing. They enter into the entire process. They feel their muscles stretch and strain. They feel them tear. They involve themselves directly in the middle. The middle is the hardest place to be. The middle is the part nobody thinks about. When young people imagine their lives, they think of themselves as young, then old. It’s impossible for a young person to imagine himself at forty-three. It is the same with novice lifters. One can understand the beginning and the end, but the middle remains fundamentally mysterious. The new lifter is unfamiliar with his body. He doesn’t know how to communicate with it. He doesn’t know how to hear his body talk. He doesn’t know how to respond. Most people aren’t aware of their bodies unless they are experiencing pain or pleasure. Most people think lifting the weights is the hard part. It’s not.

On YouTube, where I learned basically everything I know about lifting, people would mention “squeezing at the top” of a motion, “controlling the weight the whole time,” and “making sure you really feel it,” and I assumed that, because I was moving the weights, I was doing all this. My YouTube algorithm had started promoting only fitness videos, which I’d taken to watching indiscriminately while bored: I’d spend evenings watching videos about people who were suspected of lying about taking steroids; lifting montages; “What I Eat in a Day” videos; and instructional videos—such as the one that illuminated the sad fact of my lack of mind-muscle connection—like “Can’t Get Big Biceps? Just Do THIS!!”

“Can’t Get Big Biceps? Just Do THIS!!” began with directions: put your arm at your side, then bend it to a ninety-degree angle and flex your biceps as hard as you can. Jeff Cavaliere, the guy in the video, asked if I felt any discomfort. I did not. He then said to lift my arm a little more, supinate my wrist, and squeeze. “If you don’t feel it here,” he said, “you’ve got problems.” I had problems. Then when Jeff, who I’d begun to resent a little, told me to lift my arm out to the side, so that my arms were perpendicular to the floor and my elbow was in line with my shoulder, then curl my arm and flex, I felt hopeful. Surely I would be able to experience discomfort here.

But I didn’t feel any discomfort there either. I was screwed.

One way to develop mind-muscle connection, he explained, was to move light weights into each position I’d just gone through, moving the arms slightly until the blood began to pump into the biceps. “Start to feel some discomfort in there,” he said. “This is the feeling you want every time.”

Easy enough, I thought. And I resolved to get in the habit of practicing mind-muscle connection, starting the very next day.

But I didn’t start doing it regularly, and I didn’t even do it the very next day. For months, I remained only distantly aware of the fact that I was not consciously “feeling” my biceps contract during curls, and, though I could occasionally feel my right biceps contract—barely, and only when my arm was at certain angles—I almost never felt my left. Still, I didn’t incorporate any of the video’s suggestions into my routine. I’d watched the video, felt convinced by the video, and even resolved to do what the video suggested—I simply didn’t do it.

This was the kind of superior knowledge that lifting provided. One could know about mind-muscle connection; and he could make flailing, haphazard attempts at practicing mind-muscle connection, feeling vaguely pained by his new knowledge, meekly curling his arms, once or twice, at random times; but in the end, he was confronted with his own scattered lack of discipline, a kind of anti-learning inside of him which did not want to grow. In short, “Can’t Get Big Biceps? Just Do THIS!!” reinforced in me the conflicted nature of the will. I could not simply flush my new thoughts in my toilet head and expect my muscles to grow. With lifting, knowledge had to be applied—it had to work.

In most endeavors, there is a point at which the idea comes into contact with reality, and if the idea isn’t harmonious with reality, one is forced to reevaluate. But in the life of pure language, there is no such measure and, therefore, nothing to prevent nonsense from spiraling uninterrupted forever. Language, for Mishima, had a “corrosive function—just as etching depends on the corrosive power of nitric acid.” He likens the action of language to that of an excess of stomach fluid, which, without enough food to digest, “gradually eat away the stomach itself.” Words meant to describe reality end up devouring it, such that those who are lopsided by language end up drifting into unfettered abstraction, where it’s easy to get lost and fall victim to delusion, or worse. Muscles, like prose style, Mishima wrote, were meant to constrain “wayward imagination.” An over-indulgent imagination had a “morbid influence” on men, but prose style—and muscles—could productively constrain it.

There was, I thought, another way that literature and lifting were related: literature, like lifting, could integrate information into action. Our word for this is “narrative.” Literature could serve a similar function as “mind-muscle connection.” While so many flimsy philosophies and theories are doomed to die by their own dogmas, endlessly ascending stacks of even more dogma, endlessly abstracted, climbing up and up, only to realize, too late, as they are falling into the abyss, that the dogmas that the current dogmas are stacked on were unstable and rickety, literature could potentially stand outside of this mess and actually shed light on it, through narrative. Narrative is one antidote to scattered, unruly ideas. Integrated knowledge, manifested as action, is another.

In 1950, in his Nobel Prize speech, William Faulkner said that “the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing.” But anyone who has tried to change their body in the gym has not forgotten that the heart is in conflict with itself: one wants a certain outcome, but finds blockages within that he didn’t know were there. It is one thing to say “the human heart is conflicted,” but it is another to read Crime and Punishment and to experience what Raskolnikov experiences, to be Raskolnikov, in some sense; to go through the Raskolnikov process, and become convinced, not that “the will is conflicted,” but that my will is conflicted. Great literature, like lifting, makes a claim on one’s life that one has to contend with. Raskolnikov, put another way, could have benefitted from “Can’t Get Big Biceps? Just Do THIS!!” Perhaps then he would have learned that he was not the Napoleonic figure he imagined himself to be, without resorting to murder.

Literature, like lifting, is the synthesis of action and reflection. Yet most contemporary literature does not act or reflect, but only evades: its action is inaction and its reflection is avoidance. There is no risk, and no reward. Literature has fallen victim to its own linguistic excesses. C. S. Lewis wrote that the modern world had created “men without chests”: when we conceive of ourselves as pure intellect, or pure appetite, we lose what makes us essentially human—our conflicted will and our need for an essentially spiritual corrective.

Sitting in my car outside of Powerhouse Gym, I finish my pre-workout concoction—L-citrulline and beetroot powder in water—and look at my phone: gridded images of shirtless, muscled men and of women in leggings appear as I use my tongue to remove any remaining globs of sediment from between my teeth. I tap a video with a shredded woman in the thumbnail; she marches around an empty gym with a barbell on her shoulders; text appears, excited to start deadlifting more because then ill get that [peach emoji]; the video cuts to her wearing a tight tank top, flexing her huge arms and shoulders as the text changes to just gets bigger traps with a skull emoji; the video cuts to her standing bent over with her arms and head and hair all hanging slumped. I push my finger up on the screen to scroll to the next video: a black man with dreadlocks squatting 405 pounds, while a 21 Savage song keeps repeating the phrase “How much money you got? / A lot.”

I navigate to @dark_iron_gains, my favorite meme page, which boasts over 168,000 followers and is a pioneer of “schizo lifter” memes. I quickly encounter one: its top half is an image of two women smiling and laughing, with the text youre always at the gym what are you even training for?! lol xd!!; the bottom half is a video montage of giant bodybuilders doing various huge lifts with the text 400lbs of equipment up 30 floors and remove 800lb hurricane proof window, yuo [sic] wouldnt get it stacy. I scroll to a video of a giant blond man pulling a semitruck with a rope, with the text god pulling me out of a life of sin.

Often, in order to change, we first flirt with new ideas ironically, because they are so far outside our conception of ourselves that we wouldn’t be able to adopt them without shattering our fragile self-image, and it is only later, after we’ve come to associate these new ideas with a distant, playful pleasure, that we are able to more directly associate them with other kinds of meaning. Strange as it sounds, memes like these helped me a lot as I got into lifting. When I started, I was perversely insecure about my desire to become stronger, and so I would make jokes: I wanted shoulders so big that I couldn’t fit into my car, or a neck so thick I couldn’t turn my head. Even as lifting became integrated into my daily life, the tone of my thoughts was masked in a voice that was not my normal voice—which still habitually quivered and equivocated, having adopted the typical obsequiousness and timidity that has become synonymous with literary types—but one that was jubilant and dense, thick with burgeoning mirth and vitality.

Many lifting subcultures confront the absurdity of life with a willing, playful spirit. They don’t take themselves too seriously. When you become strong, the world becomes less scary, and life is ever so slightly less able to crush you—which frees you up to have more fun. Eric Bugenhagen, my favorite fitness YouTuber and a former WWE wrestler, has recently posted videos like “Freakish Father Bludgeons Tire to Bits in Front of Child’s Eyes,” in which he repeatedly hits a tire with a sledgehammer-type instrument in front of a young girl, or “Wife Admits She Prefers Huge Thick Meaty Striated Horse Arms,” in which he flexes for the camera while his wife films him. In a time of tortured reflection and fear, lifting gives people joy. Strength makes it easier to laugh in the face of a pain that is ultimately absurd.

Predictably, much of the mainstream media has responded to the rising popularity of lifting with ham-fisted ideological earnestness: lifting weights—surprise, surprise—is actually a form of fascism! The Guardian has published articles about the “wellness-to-fascism pipeline,” “fascist fitness,” and one titled do you boast about your fitness? watch out—youll unavoidably become rightwing; Time wrote about “The White Supremacist Origins of Exercise” in the U.S.; MSNBC tweeted an article about “the far right’s obsession with fitness”; and so on. The idea of strength—seen cynically by many as the cousin of toxic masculinity—is considered suspect by many in the credentialed corners of our culture. Muscles, historically associated with the working class, are still seen by many as representative of low-status worldviews. Right-wing people value strength—whereas we value everything equally!

But this ignores some basic facts, like that in the United States, more than two in five adults and about one in five children are obese. And the science couldn’t be clearer: obesity contributes to a host of serious problems, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes, and liver problems; heart disease is the number one leading cause of death in America, and everything listed here is associated with the top ten causes of death. Obesity is also associated with mental health problems like anxiety and depression. Some degree of fitness is necessary for people to live baseline healthy lives, and lifting weights is a great way to stay fit.

The simple truth is that I started lifting because it felt good, and I continued lifting because it continued to feel good. For my entire life, people had extolled the virtues of exercise, but I found them annoying. I didn’t want them to be right. My problems felt special, complex, philosophical. What would it mean if moving heavy weights like an ogre played a substantial role in solving so many of my problems that felt so complex, so personal?

American culture is fundamentally paradoxical: we seek to free ourselves from bonds or obligations that aren’t consciously chosen, and prefer to believe that people should do what makes them happy, and yet we suffer from astronomical rates of depression and anxiety. We are told from a young age that we’re unique and special, at the expense of all the ways in which we’re the same. And one place we can discover our sameness is in the gym. But it isn’t, as Mishima thought, the principle of death that we access through lifting. It is the acceptance, even embrace, of the unavoidable fact of suffering. Pain is a human universal. The experience of willingly confronting physical suffering and overcoming it is nothing short of spiritual. And this embrace of physical suffering as evidence of courage, Mishima notes, is “the theme of primitive initiation rites in the distant past,” which were also “ceremonies of death and resurrection.” In our hyperrational culture, many have forgotten these age-old themes. But through lifting, one is able to access this component of the human story: little deaths and resurrections every day.

Since lifting has become a regular part of my life, my relationships with others have gone from being characterized by a near-constant, tortured neuroticism, to being much more forthright and harmonious. I gained around thirty pounds of muscle, and got my squat up to 410 pounds, my deadlift to 430 pounds, and my bench to 265 pounds. As I got stronger and more confident, my fear of other people, which had manifested as avoidance and seething resentment—and was likely the initial cause of my retreating into books—disappeared. Instead of being a physically utilitarian activity, or purely aesthetic, lifting has for me been something like a dynamic, vital interaction with life as such.

But the steel is not a savior. It is not and cannot be an ultimate end. One can’t truly love the steel, nor make oneself in its image. Eventually, we all succumb to the effects of time: our limbs grow frail, our bodies degenerate. We cannot create ourselves anew. We cannot create ourselves at all. We can only work within a set of limitations. When, even after transforming one’s body and developing more discipline, focus, and strength; when, even after learning “mind-muscle connection” and decreasing the gap between action and thought, one still finds that, in the end, his life is not ultimately under the control of his own will, he will have to transcend even this stage and find something akin to religion.

When I lived in New Haven, I would occasionally use my wife’s student ID to go to Yale’s Payne Whitney Gymnasium, which is one of the largest athletic facilities in the world, and from the outside looks like a cathedral. For much of Western history, Christian influence promoted asceticism and a denial of the body. But in Rousseau’s Émile, he connects physical health to morality.

Give his body constant exercise, make it strong and healthy, in order to make him good and wise. . . . The lessons the scholars learn from one another in the playground are worth a hundredfold more than what they learn in the class-room.

The Apostle Paul also deploys athletic metaphors for the development of spiritual life. And Christianity does not worship an abstraction, but a Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us,” and whose resurrection prefigures the afterlife. That even God Himself took on human flesh and worked as a carpenter (and not to belabor the point, but if we’re to interpret certain artistic depictions literally, acquired muscles), surely means we need not necessarily be above such things: there is something sanctified and holy about our bodies, which are mysteriously linked to our souls. Unlike the popular conception of an afterlife in which one’s disembodied spirit endures for eternity, Christianity looks “forward to the resurrection of the dead,” when believers will be given “heavenly bodies.” Scripture tells us that these heavenly bodies are “sown in weakness,” but “raised in power”—the same power that created Life out of nothing in the first place. Life, not death, is the ultimate reality. The power of the spirit can reconfigure even flesh, such that it will be raised again—the same, but different.

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February 2024

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