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How Lifting Is A Bit Like Religion

I’m hardly the first person to draw parallels between lifting and religion — bodybuilding icon Tom Platz used to refer to the squat rack as “the altar” and lifters have long referred to the gym as “church.” Other lifters think of lifting as therapy and the gym as “the laboratory.” In this article, I’ll explore these interesting observations and anecdotes, but first, it strikes me as appropriate to come clean with my own religious orientation, just so that my personal biases are completely clear:

I was raised as an Episcopalian, but currently consider myself an atheist (and just as a bit of clarification, “atheist” does not mean I believe there is no God, it means I lack a belief in God. Thus, “atheist” and “agnostic” are synonymous in my view). Unlike some card-carrying atheists however, I don’t dislike religious people — in fact, I tend to rather like them. I respect the impulses that lead people toward religion, it’s just that I don’t find the evidence for God or a “one true religion” compelling enough to become a believer myself. If you feel otherwise, I don’t look down upon you (because, after all, I’ve been wrong before and might end up being wrong about this too!), I simply don’t share your position.

If I may continue in this vein for a bit longer, I once hard what I think may be the most compelling argument for believing in God — I heard this from either Michael Savage or Dennis Prager (if anyone know the etiology of what I’m about to share, please post it in the comments below), but the argument is basically this:

“If you don’t believe in a higher power, then by default, that means that you think you’re the higher power.”

Now of course, you might disagree, but surely you can respect the underlying sentiment, which is a caution against the tendency for human beings to be arrogant and self-centered.

OK, let’s now shift our focus to training, and while I’m referring to weight training in this discussion, the points I’m about to make certainly apply to almost any form of athletic training. Specifically, I’d like to explore the various ways that training tends to make us better people, on a handful of levels:

Training Tends To Unite People 

The Latin root of the word “religion”, “ligare,” means “to bind” or unite, and it’s often pointed out that organized religion has a fairly spotty record in this regard to say the least. Training however, actually has a rather remarkable ability to bring people together.

In the pursuit of our training goals, we naturally seek out those who are further down the path than we are, and we also feel instinctively inclined to share what we’ve learned with those who are less accomplished. In both instances, we become part of a chain that reaches back for centuries and that will continue through future centuries. Think about that for a moment if you will: over 100 years ago Arthur Saxon toiled away in his gym trying to figure out how to get stronger and more muscular. He almost certainly made mistakes that you and I have made, and also figured out some things that you and I haven’t stumbled upon yet. Saxon didn’t own a smartphone by the way, nor did he have the luxury of the many sophisticated equipment options that we enjoy today.

Similarly, 100 years from now, lifters will be reliving the various trials and tribulations in the gym that you and I are already well-acquainted with. These future lifters will no doubt live in a very different World then we do (think: manned colonies on Mars, the elimination of factory farming via genetically-engineered meats, the eradication of most cancers, and the universality of electric cars), but they will nevertheless share many of your most cherished gym experiences. Sure, they’ll be amused by that fact that no one had yet squatted 2000 pounds, and they’ll scratch their heads over how primitive our current training and nutrition technologies are, but they’ll also recognize our struggles as well as victories.

Certainly there are other pursuits that similarly unite people (including religion by the way), but my intention here is simply to highlight this phenomenon in the training sphere.

Training Tends To Increase Empathy And Compassion For Others

I’ve often been struck by this observation during my work with clients. Recently I was helping a 70-something female client with her deadlift, and despite the fact that her max is more than 400 pounds less than my own 1RM, I was mostly stuck by the fact that she and I are really on the exact same path — we’re both trying to improve a specific skill, and we both find external value in the attempt to do so. How strong or weak either of us are is completely beside the point. If you lift, you occupy a slot on a continuum of lifters of various abilities, and no matter how strong you are, there are those who are stronger (and weaker) than you. Even if it could somehow be proven that you happen to be the strongest lifter of all time (and it can’t), in time, someone will surpass you. So as I work with people who are weaker than me, I’m equally (and honestly, more acutely) aware that I am also weaker than many others. While lots of people are impressed my how strong I am, I’m also impressed by the countless people who are stronger than me (some of whom are 130-pound women by the way).

All of which is to say, training is a uniquely humbling experience, and humility is a trait we could all use a bit more of, because it reminds us that we are not God. When my older female client brings her max from 80 to 85 pounds, I know exactly how she feels, because I’ve been there myself and I’ll be there again. I know the work it entails, and I also understand the satisfaction it brings. I share in her elation as if it was my own.

If you happen to be a competitive lifter, you can’t help but be struck by how “non competitive” your fellow competitors tend to be, especially if you’re newbie. Sure, everyone is trying to do their best possible lifting that day, but by and large, these people are competing against their own previous best efforts, not against others. New competitive powerlifters and weightlifters are always struck by the generosity and compassion of their fellow lifters, which is a big reason why so many people get hooked on competitive lifting.

Training Tends To Foster Positive Values, Ethics, And Traits

I mentioned earlier that I’ve often heard lifters refer to the gym as “the laboratory,” and this is why:

The gym is a place where you continuously test yourself. These challenges have no ultimate conclusion — they are perpetual. The moment you lift a given weight, your next challenge is starkly obvious: add 5 pounds.

Whereas many victories in life are a bit fuzzy (maybe it was just luck for example), success in the gym is clear-cut: when you finally manage to military press 135 pounds, it’s indisputable evidence that you did something right. This makes for far more likely to rely on similar tactics in the future. The gym is uniquely and unforgivably egalitarian — it always rewards good decisions, and always punishes bad ones. Productive personality traits are similarly rewarded — the ability to delay immediate gratification is a particularly good example of this — strength, muscularity, and leanness — like all worthwhile human attributes — require patience to acquire. You can’t “cram” in the gym (despite the comical marketing claims for waist trainers and superfoods).

Certainly you can learn these valuable lessons outside of the gym, but training-induced education is especially visceral: I remember when I tried, for the very first time, a 6-week Soviet peaking cycle, which purported to improve ones squat by 7-10%. Week one wasn’t too bad, but by week two, things were already getting serious. Weeks 3-6 were progressively more nightmarish, but for whatever reason, I persevered through considerable fatigue, soreness, and concerns about my personal safety. At the end of week six however, sure enough, I squatted 315 for the first time ever (my previous best was 285, so I did indeed improve my squat by 10% in 6 weeks). Interestingly, at the time, I credited the program for my success. Looking back however, I now credit my improvement to my consistent hard work on that program. The program was the teacher, I was the student, and the 315 squat was the lesson. To this day, more than 20 years later, I still vividly remember locking out that 315 squat and immediately thinking “holy crap — it worked!” Experiences like this instill confidence in proven processes, and deepen our suspicions about doubtful tactics and strategies. And needless to say, as lifters, we carry these lessons out of the gym and apply them with confidence to the non-fitness components of our lives.

Lifters, Like Religious People, Are Flawed

Despite my non-religiosity, I never understood the constant criticism leveled at religious people for being hypocrites. After all, failing to reach your high standards doesn’t mean those standards aren’t worth striving for. And, if you never failed to reach those standards, it means they weren’t high enough to challenge you. ALL people who strive for greatness fail, and usually they fail often.

With that as a backdrop, it should be noted that not everything about the lifting community is positive. People have flaws — even people who actively attempt to better themselves. We all have egos, we all at least occasionally succumb to vanity, and we’re all constantly on the lookout for shortcuts. But these unfortunate shortcomings are human flaws, and seeking higher personal standards is the best corrective strategy I’m aware of.

In my over 30 years in the lifting game, I’m more convinced than ever that I’m a better person, and a more effective person, than I would have been otherwise. True — I might have derived these attributes through different pursuits, but I’m grateful to and appreciative for the path that I somehow ended up taking.

Do you have a personal experience or anecdote that you’d like to add? Please post your comment below!

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