Weight lifting offers participants a chance to pursue clear and measurable goals with outcomes that can be traced directly back to oneself. In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” the philosopher Matthew Crawford writes that “despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,” so many activities in the modern world suffer from “a lack of objective standards.” In the workplace, for example, a job well done is almost always contingent on external factors like office politics, the opinions of your supervisors or the mood of your clients. In many sports, outcomes are affected by things like weather, equipment, officiating or the performance of teammates.
In the weight room, however, it’s just you and the bar. You either make the lift or you don’t. If you make it, great. If not, you train more, and try again. Some days it goes well, other days it doesn’t. But over time, it becomes clear that what you get out of yourself is proportionate to the effort you put in. It’s as simple and as hard as that. A kind of straightforwardness and self-reliance that gives rise to an immense satisfaction, a satiating feeling that makes it easier to fall asleep at night because you know you did something real, something concrete, in the world.
This doesn’t mean that progress happens fast or is always linear. Consistency and patience are key. If you try to rush the process or force heroic efforts, you invariably wind up getting hurt. Weight lifting, like so much in life, demands showing up day in and day out, taking small and incremental steps that, compounded over time, lead to big gains.
Whether you like it or not, there will be plateaus, which in my experience tend to occur right before a breakthrough. Weight lifting teaches you to embrace them, or at the very least accept them. This is an important outcome, with consequences extending far beyond the gym. “In the land of the quick fix it may seem radical,” writes George Leonard, a pioneer of the human potential movement in the 1960s, “but to learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau, to keep practicing even when it seems you are getting nowhere.”
For most, the plateau is a form of purgatory. But to advance beyond the low-hanging fruit in any meaningful discipline — from weight lifting, to writing, to meditation, to marriage — you must get comfortable spending time there. Weight lifting shoves this reality in your face since progress, or in this case, lack thereof, is so objective. Yes, you can make tweaks, some of which will prove beneficial. But none of that matters if you don’t keep showing up and pounding the stone.