The Power of Drudgery
There are people who enjoy training the way huskies enjoy pulling a sled. I would like to be vicariously happy for them.
If I listened to my feelings I would be part of the couch.
Some years ago I decided to get stronger. Turns out the most efficient way to do that is barbells, and the best lifts toward that end are the squat and deadlift. Unlike landscaping, cleaning the house, taxes, car detailing, or meal prep, no amount of money will get someone else’s physical efforts to affect this part of your life—and barbell training is no fun —at least not for me. Go pick up something heavy. Do it again. Rest. Occasionally feel as though you were hit by a car when you wake up the next day. Add five pounds and do it again.
Being smart is good, right? Unless your job is digging potatoes. The potatoes don’t care about metaphysics. The potatoes don’t care about anything. Dig. The iron doesn’t care whether or not you pick it up, and your muscles don’t care about your feelings.
To get something I couldn’t buy — a heavy deadlift in this case — I had to ignore my major strength.
I am an expert in feelings. Telepathy is a prerequisite for being married to my wife. I read the micro expressions of my children, patients, and coworkers. Sitting in a facility parking lot I know what the politics inside a building are. I grew up in a complicated family and then got world-class training that honed what archaic psychiatrists called their “instrument” into the ability to know exactly what’s driving anyone. This patient with Hep C is coming to me because she wants to have a baby. This man is crying in my office because he’s lonely. This mother doesn’t believe anything I say, but her son will be 18 in two weeks, and he gets it. This case is 40 percent Major Depressive Disorder, 30 percent infidelity, 20 percent booze, and 10 percent scared about getting old.
My instrument is a powerful tool. It’s an 8-amp hammer drill, which makes it uselessness in the gym particularly galling to me. My years of resentment about its disutility have turned my training time into a respite from sensing and processing feelings, including my own, but I won’t go so far as to say that I’ve turned my brute force about showing up and loading the bar into a strength. It’s more a weakness that I’m assiduous about, like guarding an arm in a cast or a torn ACL. For example, if I don’t dry brine a chicken on Sunday, I’ll spend too much time making dinner on Monday, and I won’t train. If I eat a big lunch, deadlifting will be uncomfortable; better skip it. Lemme lay out my shirt, shorts, and socks tonight so they’re the first thing I encounter tomorrow morning. I know all the tricks about psychological triggers. I need them.
The physiology of strength training is rudimentary. Programming reps and sets and weight on the bar can get complicated, but that’s easily outsourced. (Some of the best money I spend is for coaching.) Eventually anyone who trains is left with a bit of paper and what’s to go on the bar. Go lift 225 pounds. Happy? Sad? Resentful? Scared? Cold? Hot? Tired? Go lift 225 pounds.
Load the bar. Lift. Feelings don’t matter. In fact, the only feeling I can sorta count on is the one in my head screaming, “RACK IT!” or “PUT IT DOWN!” when I have several more reps left. That’s on a bad day. On a good day I feel able, then relieved.
In the gym I am not a former chief resident, fellowship trained, or operating on a high hourly retainer. I am stronger than I was last year, but someone somewhere is warming up with what I max. I’m a fat middle-aged guy with psoriasis going bald, and I would rather do pretty much anything besides a low-bar back squat. Deadlifts are no picnic, either. And the hardest part of my recent PR deadlift was the back-off sets.
It doesn’t get easier. With investing or pandemics we hear a lot about the power of doubling, of compound interest, of exponential growth. After not even a year, none of that is the case with barbell training. 335 used to be a ridiculously heavy squat for me. Now it’s sorta heavy. That’s as good as it it gets. Maybe I’ll get a 400-pound squat, and maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll have that for a couple years before I get old. Maybe. Keep showing up and see what happens. Is anyone getting fired up for such drudgery? Um, no.
So why bother? Did I ask myself why seven times? Eight times? Do I have my reasons for wanting to be stronger? Of course I do. I am an old dad. I want to be a spry old man. I need some money in the bank that is my body. And it’s fun to hoist a hora chair or sorta scare people, particularly as a former shrimp. I have lots of feelings about my whys. They don’t matter. I never feel like showing up. I thought I would after several years, but nope.
Is there an alternative? I suppose I don’t have to carry my son on my shoulders for hours on end. My wife would love me, at least for a while, if I couldn’t keep up with her. Lots of parents are examples of sloth to their children. I wouldn't be the only retiree to spend his final decades in a chair. But I don’t want any of that, and I don’t want any of that a lot more than I hate getting this body to lift something heavy.
Tomorrow is Monday. Guess I’m squatting. Ugh.