Back when I had a lot more time I wrote a post at Kuyperian.com trying to summarize the, or perhaps a, theme of Proverbs and the whole Bible’s concept of wisdom. It was entitled “If You Don’t Learn To Obey Orders You Will Never Be Free; Here’s Why.” In it I said a few things like,
This solution here [to sin in body parts in Romans 6] is not intellectualism or a mind-good/body-bad-until-domesticated doctrine. The point is that the intellect or brain does not master the body simply by force of will. You would never get done tying your shoelaces if the brain/body system was supposed to work that way. When you integrate your body into the service of God you are changing both your fingers and your forebrain. As I pointed out here, taking control of yourself is compared in the Bible to taming an animal. If I remember correctly, this has been confirmed by scientific studies measuring the brain activity of amateur and pro golfers. The amateur’s brain activity spikes as he thinks so hard about what he is doing, but the pro’s shows much less activity. He is simply riding the body that is already trained (as well as had a natural and inexplicable talent from the beginning, in many cases).
So now I want to write about barbells and Christian discipleship because I’m shallow like that…
Or maybe I’m not so shallow. I’ll grant you I am discussing, at best, a “first-world problem,” but sometimes such problems are real and need to be dealt with.
Also, segueing from sanctification to strength training may seem violently inappropriate. Paul certainly could be understood that way:
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8; ESV)
Okay, but think of areas where they might overlap. Think, for instance, of how hard it is for someone to get to a job in a timely manner if they haven’t trained their body to get up and shake off sleep.
How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 6:9-11; ESV)
Love not sleep, lest you come to poverty;
open your eyes, and you will have plenty of bread. (Proverbs 20:13; ESV)
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man. (Proverbs 24:33-34; ESV)
Note that the same words are repeated twice in one book. God has confirmed the truth by two witnesses. And this, as those who have had to deal with themselves or others as habitual late-risers, involves improvement in the physical ability to rouse oneself when it is one’s duty to do so. Indeed, there is a record of this being an issue in the garden of Gethsemane in all four gospels.
There’s something else in Proverbs.
She dresses herself with strength
and makes her arms strong…
Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come. (Proverbs 31:17, 25 ESV)
Granted, wisdom itself is a kind of strength, and it is probably that which Solomon means to emphasize. Yet the metaphor only works if the literal meaning had positive value as well. Being strong is better than being weak. And if wisdom includes wise stewardship over resources, then enhancing and preserving one’s strength is one of those stewardship responsibilities.
We are creatures who, barring a birth defect or a tragic accident, have arms and legs. We were meant to use them. Increasing the ability of our limbs to overcome resistance (strength) makes them more useful. We ourselves become more useful.
We’ve reached a level of technology and wealth that may not require many of us to rely on strength to survive and thrive as much as we once did. Firearms, for example, mean the difference in strength between a criminal and his target doesn’t matter as much as it would if both only used clubs or knives. But strength is still useful and muscles still have a purpose. Indeed, we’ve learned the lack of bodily strength can have catastrophic consequences. Muscular atrophy is a form of disease, one that especially affects our elderly. So, getting stronger is likely a way to make us or keep us healthier, as well as more useful.
There is no moral judgement here. Grinding away at an office job is not as difficult as being a field worker. Nevertheless, it is wearisome. After a long day and a lengthy commute home, there is nothing intrinsically lazy about wanting to relax on a couch for the evening. A person can do so without neglecting any responsibilities. There is no reason anyone should be condemned for wanting to rest after their work.
But one can analyze the needs of the human body and realize that this pattern of behavior might have undesirable outcomes. The body tends to adapt to one’s environment. And sitting in an office all day, followed by driving and couch time, does not give the body much to do. Shopping and other errands may not do enough to cause the body to preserve its natural abilities.
Rudyard Kipling described the challenge of decrepitude:
“If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’ “
Except it will help if you start practicing such will power when you still have heart and nerve and sinew left. It will help to start to exercise your will within your current power and gradually increase the load.
The rule seems to be that your body adapts so that the most difficult thing you do eventually feels hard to do. As you age this process accelerates. When you give up an activity because it feels hard another one starts to feel hard to do. As your body loses strength you start to avoid tasks and chores that were once easier. You accumulate weakness. In the words of Seneca, ”Soft living imposes on us the penalty of debility; we cease to be able to do the things we have long been grudging about doing.”
Wisdom (Seneca’s, not necessarily Solomon’s) would dictate, if there is a simple way to reverse or slow this process, you should do so. Wisdom might also point to a method: do hard things, rest and recover and adapt (“soft living” might help with this part), then do slightly harder things. Instead of losing abilities before you have to, you might start gaining abilities.
Increasing strength means more than a change in muscle size. It also means increased self-mastery. Lifting heavier loads involves adapting your nervous system through practice to handle greater resistance. Along the way, it also means learning how the leverages of your muscles and skeleton work to most efficiently deal with resistance.
That’s why, after I suffered an ischemic stroke, I wanted to get back under a barbell as soon as possible.
When I was in rehab and then out-patient therapy, the physical therapists did help me improve, but they couldn’t do much with tiny dumbbells or elastic bands. I don’t think it was necessarily useless, but I don’t believe those are the best tools to use to recover from a stroke.
The first time I walked any real distance without my cane, I did so to walk to my local gym down the road. I still felt I needed my cane but I didn’t want the gym staff asking me questions. When I got inside, the many full-length mirrors showed me that my gait was somewhat lop-sided.
I went to the squat rack and put a barbell on the back of my shoulders. I squatted down, so that the crease of my hip was just below my knee, and stood back up five times. I rested, and then I did another set of five. Then I did one more set. I entered into my log that I had squatted 45 pounds for three sets of five (it might have been wiser to get to a higher number that day, but I didn’t realize that until later).
I did some other exercises as well, but for now let’s just focus on the squat.
Two days later, giving myself two nights’ sleep and one day of rest, I returned to the gym. I went to the squat rack and this time, before I put it on my shoulders, I put a five-pound weights on each end of the bar. I squatted 55 pounds for three sets of five.
Two days later I did the same thing with 65 pounds. And so on. Pretty quickly I shortened my progress to five-pound jumps, but I kept going.
One day I noticed my cane standing in the corner and couldn’t remember when I had last used it.
I had several challenges with form or getting adequate sleep or food. So, I have had to reduce weight on the bar occasionally and start again trying to make progress by increasing the load. I’m now stronger than I ever was before the stroke. Some of that comes from muscle growth. But I also retrained my nervous system. After all, the stroke didn’t remove muscle. My weakness came from a brain injury. And increasingly heavier lifts (I am confident) challenged my brain to “rewire” itself to better control my muscles. I became a better master of resistance because I became a better master of my body–myself.
MODERN LIFE & THE ANOREXIC MYTH
There was enough wealth and diversity of labor in the New Testament world that there were people who specialized in physical feats. Paul refers to their regimens. So does Seneca. Which brings up a point we need to keep in mind: strength doesn’t often become available to humans “in the wild,” but rather in a prosperous civilization. If you must work every day and food is expensive, you are not going to grow to near your potential.
In the movie Conan the Barbarian (80s version), the child Conan is enslaved and forced to push the millstone around. After growing up doing this, he becomes a muscular bodybuilder played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. In real life, such slaves wasted away and died. In real life. Arnold Schwarzenegger achieved his body through a regimen that included plenty of rest and food (and probably steroids—I am not recommending all of Schwarzenegger’s methods or goals).
The “fitness industry” tends to encourage the belief that we need to be careful to not eat too much and “work out” as much as possible. But to get stronger, we need to eat enough and not train too often. Marvel Comic’s Bruce Banner somehow at least doubles his mass when he changes into The Hulk. In real life, you can’t gain muscle mass unless you eat enough to gain it.
Thus, the availability of food and sleep and rest can be an asset rather than a liability. Our first-world prosperity can be an aid to our growth in strength and health, rather than a threat to them.
BY WISE GUIDANCE WAGE WAR
Conserving and growing one’s strength and health is just as wise as conserving and growing one’s wealth—something Solomon often addresses. Aside from the personal rewards, one is better able to help the weak and sick. Furthermore, by not becoming weak and sick (to the extent that you can avoid it) others don’t have to help you and can extend their resources to other people.
Note: This has little or nothing to do with improving your appearance. We all know that looking good is socially advantageous, and that often means looking lean in our society. That cultural value, in some instances, can lead to an unhealthy outcome. And there are a great many factors that determine the outcome of how you look to others. Only a few are within your control. But everyone can get stronger.
While people have many responsibilities that might require them to neglect getting stronger, the process of building strength is so easy, at least initially, that men and women ought to consider it.
I recommend this program: StartingStrength.com.
When I was a teenager I used to work out. I used dumbbells, the EZ curl bar, cable machines, and the bench press. As a man in his late forties who eventually discovered the Starting Strength program, there is no comparison. The strength increase I have experienced through doing this program far exceeds what I experienced as a teenager.
The basic principles of increasing your strength are:
- Eat enough
- Sleep enough
- Lift heavy weight in a way that challenges your entire body, rest, and then lift heavier weight, and repeat.
The way to most easily challenge your entire body is to squat, deadlift, and press (standing overhead, and bench) with a barbell (the power clean is also useful for some people). As a novice lifter, you can add weight to the bar every time. How long you can do this depends on a lot of factors. Eventually your time of making “novice gains” will run out, and you will have to decide if it is worth the effort to progress in a more complicated way and more slowly (in which you basically move some steps back in order to make more steps forward).
Whether it is worth pursuing strength training farther than novice gains is a question I can’t claim to objectively answer. But, aside from learning the lifts (the squat being the most difficult) the program for novices is simple. Why not improve yourself when it can be done so easily?
For many of us, barbells are intimidating and associated with large, young men. That is a sad myth. I’m asking you to ignore gym culture and think of barbells are a tool to make a stroke victim more functional or an elderly lady experiencing early decrepitude young again.
Nothing lasts forever and a person has other duties beside getting stronger and staying healthy. But given the possible rewards, you should consider strength training with barbells.