The workout's over. Chalk up another one.
I'm a little too shaky to walk to my car so I stop at the coffee
shop to sit down and let my nervous system regain its composure.
I've left my wrist straps on because, well, it makes the
uninitiated think I just broke out of my restraints and I kinda'
I've also got this giant Rorschach-test of a sweat stain on my
green shirt that looks like two poodles doing the Heisman Trophy
stance. So the sweaty shirt, combined with my wrist straps, is a
pretty fair indicator that I've been working out (or, like I said,
just broke out of the psychiatric ward).
As I sip my coffee and pore over my training journal, I note
with satisfaction that I just batted a thousand, training wise. In
other words, I hit at least one more rep or used at least one more pound on everything.
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy, oy, oy!
That's when I notice Luigi sitting in the corner looking at me.
The pudgeball has this quizzical look on his face. He puts down the
textbook he's reading and after exchanging the usual bullshit
pleasantries, he asks me if I'm writing down how much weight I
Warily I say, "Sure," without offering any more of an
Then he hits me with the question.
"Why do you care how much weight you
I'm dumbfounded. My mouth's open and I must look like a
pole-axed sheep. Insects fly in to leisurely nibble on a piece of
egg salad lodged between my molars.
Then Luigi comes back at me with another:
"Why don't you just train to stay in
My senses are reeling.
Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!
But I recover. Barely. It wasn't my most articulate moment, but
I think I said something like, "Well, for the same reason you're
presumably reading that book. I want to better myself. I want to improve."
He gives a smug little smile and returns to his book and his
But I've been turning Luigi's question around in my head ever
Now that I've had some time to think about it, I think this is
what I'd say – or what I'd want to say – if asked the
same questions again:
"Luigi, when you were a kid, didn't you dream about going off to
slay dragons? Didn't you dream about being some kind of
"And as you grew up and realized that you probably wouldn't be
slaying any dragons, real or metaphorical, didn't you get tired of
just watching others do physical things? Didn't you get
tired of only being involved in surrogate achievement, you
know, living vicariously through the basketball players, the soccer
players, the Italian bocce ball players, or whoever it is you
"Maybe you actually were involved in some organized
sport, but if you're like most conventional athletes, you only used
weight training as a means to an end. You wanted to be a better
tight end or a better power forward, but once you stopped competing
in your sport, you stopped weight lifting.
"But you gotta' understand, people like me never stop lifting
weights. The part of us that wanted to slay the dragon? It didn't
die. It won't.
"We seek to constantly get better, to get the perfect body or
set a personal record or just be prepared for all the physical
challenges – the what ifs the cosmos dumps on
"But we know deep down that the perfect body or ultimate
personal record can never really be achieved, because our
imagination always sets the goal a step or two or three ahead of
what we've accomplished. And we also know that the universe is
merciless enough to give us a few physical challenges that we won't
be, can't be, prepared for.
"So it's not the goal that's important, it's the journey.
The journey's the thing. The journey's the reward.
"There aren't a lot of us in the demographic, Luigi, but goddam we've got a powerful lobby.
"People like me are painfully aware of living in a world drained
of spiritual values; who feel alienated; who feel impotent. So we
try to be a type of hero. Again, we probably won't slay any
dragons, but we train just in case.
"We not only want to look badass, we want to bebadass so
we can smite evil. And evil has a lot of faces
"So we undertake what's much like the classic journey of the
hero that Joseph Campbell wrote about: separation from society
where we practice denial, endure hardship, experience pain, and
ultimately get – or get a part of – what we were
"The whole training experience is almost like the Vision Quest
that was part of the Lakota Indian's life. When the Lakota needed
guidance, he'd purify himself in a sweat lodge and forgo food or
shelter until he received spiritual guidance – that or a
nasty case of heat rash.
"Well, the gym is our sweat lodge and if you don't think a good
squat or deadlift workout is purifying, then there are no suitable
words to convince you otherwise; you have to experience it
yourself. And I tell you, a good workout – no, a great
workout, one where you have nothing left and you're sweating and
you haven't held back on one rep of one set – is spiritual.
"The Hindu speak of the Kundalini, the Mother Goddess,
the divine power that's asleep at the base of the spine. If you
arouse it, the phenomena associated with its awakening range from
bizarre physical sensations to pain, visions, brilliant light,
ecstasy, bliss, and even transcendence of self.
"This may be hard for you to swallow, but when I do a set of
heavy overhead barbell presses and feel that peculiar tension in
the base of my spine, I think I know what the Hindu are talking
about. At the very least, I've had the pain, the visions, and the
"Sure, this all sounds like I'm comparing weight training to
religion, but what is it if it isn't a religion? My best
thoughts come to me during a workout, and whatever demons I had
plaguing me prior to walking into the gym have been exorcised by my
exercise. And what's the gym but a temple and what's the clanging
of the weights but the peal of the bells?
"I know it's hard for you to understand Luigi, but the people
like me practice denial to the point of sometimes being almost
monastic. We often avoid people, social events, and rich food, all
in the single-minded pursuit of a kind of
"Yeah, it's sometimes painful, but that's how we achieve heroic
status. The more challenging the situation we overcome, the greater
our stature. The demon you swallow gives you its
"We may never get to fight our dragon, but that's okay. As
Joseph Campbell said, the greater life's pain, the greater life's
"And beyond the metaphysical component there's the esthetic
component. Sure, most of us want to not only be better, but also
look better. We're every bit the sculptors of ancient Greece, only
our medium is flesh instead of clay or marble. And if we look
better, we might just be worthy of the love of Aphrodite and the
pursuit of beauty is a fine and worthy thing.
"But hey, it looks like I've come back the metaphysical, because
what's beauty other than the reflection of the divinity of the
"I help maintain this website called T-Nation, Luigi, but don't
bother looking at it because I don't think you'd get it. On the
surface, it looks like just another site that talks about weights,
but it's a lot more than that.
"It's a blend of cerebral pursuits, lusty hedonism, and the pursuit of physical perfection and performance. It's the voice
of a type of man that's a hell of a lot more alive than you, but I
don't expect you to understand that.
"Have you ever heard of the myth of Theseus and Ariadne? Theseus
was a Greek boy who volunteered to kill the half-man, half-bull
creature known as the Minotaur. To do so, he had to descend into a
labyrinth from which escape was nearly impossible. However, the
maiden Ariadne gave him a ball of thread to fasten to the door so
that after descending into the labyrinth and killing the Minotaur,
he could make his way back.
"That's T-Nation's job, to help people like us find their Ariadne thread, to help guide them through this journey
we've all chosen. Oh yeah, it's also T-Nation's job to help you
defeat that dragon, or Minotaur, as the case may be.
"So Luigi, that's why I write down what I lifted and that's why
I want to get better. I want to be my own hero, be the protagonist
in the book of my life and not just some third-rate character whose
life is notable only for his total lack of conviction or
"So have another soy latte, you uncomprehending, weak kneed,
pot-bellied, slack jawed, pseudo intellectual waste of
That's what I should have said to Luigi, but in retrospect, he
isn't really deserving of an answer. Heroes-in-training shouldn't
have to answer questions about their convictions. They just do what
they have to do.