This is war
Posted on March 6th, 2013
More draft work for the progress project. A little supplement feature on the culture of maximal effort, and what that pain can feel so damn good.
One of the most fascinating characteristics of strength competitions is how closely they are aligned with combat. Sure, you could say the same thing about other sports. Coaches of all stripes commonly weave wartime elements into bombastic pre-game peep talks. The turf itself is framed as a battlefield, with the coach and players acting out their roles as general and army. I suppose this approach has its effect and charm. However, in my experience the story is distilled and amplified to greater effect in Strongman, Powerlifting, and to a lesser extent, Olympic Weightlifting. Here there’s just one athlete locking horns with a savagely heavy barbell or implement. It’s a two men enter, one man leaves sort of scenario. Intolerable decibels of death metal fuel the fight. Knurled metal scrapes against shins, tears hands and draws blood. Lifters snort and shout. Losers internalize the defeat, while the winners hoist cheap knock-off swords and battle axes as awards.
It’s quite the scene.
There is tremendous value in the daily training grind – in sharpening yourself in preparation for competition. All of the hardcore angles of these sports can be a bit dramatic, sure, but it’s only intended as tribute. It reinforces a relatively positive identity in the athlete. The promise is that, in the gym, you can be more than just a lifter. You can be a warrior! OK, so maybe the former is enough. This kind of talk does make me a little uncomfortable now. Who wouldn’t find themselves embarrassed to make such a claim in front of an actual Veteran?
Yes, it’s silly, but this association is very easy to explain. It has its roots in history. Ancient Spartan soldiers prepared for war by training with heavy stones, very often exceeding the capabilities of modern strongmen by a few hundred pounds. Disks upwards of four times the size of contemporary track and field implants were hurled about routinely. Competitions such as the Olympics were just the next logical step in this progression. In times of peace, why not compete? Why waste all of that hard earned brawn? For those who may be interested, you can find all the detail behind those engrossing accounts of human performance from the anthropological record in Peter McAllister’s excellent book, Manthropology.
This is all amazing, really. Strong social and mortal incentives can result in incredible performance and unparalleled progress, with no fancy programming or expensive equipment required. Of course, I’m of the opinion that you should not utilize the impending threat of severe injury, evisceration or death to fuel your workouts! Rather, it’s not only how you train that matters, but also why? Reaching the highest levels of performance requires equally high expectations. It requires belief.
Yes, that historical link to combat is genuine. And while we are not talking war here, it might be useful to acknowledge just how intense a true maximal effort can be. The risk of serious injury is very real. Your pulse climbs quickly as the load is prepared. The barbell begins to bow as each successive plate is added. After a spin of those safety collars, the platform is all yours. The approach is slow and respectful, as it must be. Chalked hands reach out and take hold of the knurling, squeezing hard to drive those tiny metal spikes into the skin. With the body settled and aligned, the crushing load is slowly drawn from the rack.
Many have experienced a heavy attempt in the gym, but rarely with this kind of weight. It’s heavy enough to wrap that metal right around the back and hands as if it were small diameter plastic pipe. The knees shimmy and buckle. The skin grows bright purple as the blood pressure spikes. The lungs fight for breath. Abdominal muscles brace a core that is on the edge of collapse. This is stressful, fight or flight moment to be sure. Years and years’ worth of these attempts can leave their mark, especially on a dinged elbow joint. Yet, a successful lift always serves to invigorate.
Call it thrill seeking, an attempt to reconnect with a warrior ancestry, or perhaps just deviant masochism. Regardless, it’s easy to see why this sort of thing can be so damn addicting.