The fountain of youth is not CrossFit, running, or yoga; it is the thoughtful application of weighted resistance to the body.
I never have any trouble remembering what I did on my 16th birthday. In the morning, I went to the local DMV and tested for my driver’s license and that afternoon I went to the only real gym in my little town. It was my first solo trip in a car.
The gym was in former dress shop in a run-down shopping center. The proprietor, a big muscle-covered man named Donny, sat in a barber chair just inside the front door, stroking his giant fu-manchu mustache.
Before that trip, my Dad had been taking me to an executive spa where the weights were chrome plated. It was a place for flabby middle-aged business men, but I did the best I could there, trying to imitate what I had seen in magazines.
I’d read all about Arnold Schwarzenegger in those rags, of course. His image was ubiquitous.
But, there was also Franco Columbu. There was the Black Prince; Robby Robinson. There was The Myth; Sergio Olivia. And then there was the one the girls liked; Frank Zane. Zane was how I wanted to look.
With a driver’s license and a car, I was calling the shots and so I headed for a real gym. I was on the trail of my heroes!
From his barber chair, Donny looked me up and down. I was pudgy and weak, but he took pity on me and let me even though I had no money. His gym was small and the floor was covered in filthy shag carpeting left over from the dress shop days. The equipment was worn and the machinery was home-made. There wasn’t much padding on anything.
Nevertheless, I loved it there. The men were helpful and strong. They were a funny lot and I laughed at their antics. There was Clay, Mike, Chris, Kenny, the incredibly strong Black brothers, Darryl and Steve. What a collection of freaks they were.
These days, I belong to a massive three story fitness palace with more equipment than I can possibly use. I pay pretty for my membership, but the place is spotless and there are trainers, an outdoor pool with a cabana, a huge sauna where men and women sweat it out together, yoga rooms, palates studios, a rock climbing wall, a spin room… Men and women and kids of all varieties are coming and going constantly. The parking lot is usually full.
There are no problems in my world an hour there won’t fix.
I swim laps and take a yoga class now and again, but mostly, I gravitate to the weights. There are plenty of long Olympic bars and tons of weights on racks. There are rows of dumb bells, racked up in pairs. There are the cabled machines with their stacks of metal bars, padded seats and pins for choosing the load.
I love the feel of a 45 pound plate as I slide it on to the bar, first one side and then the other. (They aren’t made of iron anymore so they don’t make the same sound.) I use the brushing on the bar to be sure my hands are an equal distance apart, and then I hoist the weight up and begin.
For me, after all these years, I neither want nor care to develop huge muscles. I’m big enough. This is no longer just muscle building; this is weighted tai-chi. This is a practice. The meaning is in the motion.
This is a meditation.
Over the years, fitness crazes have come and gone and the retail landscape has been changed by each wave. Big box gyms are positioned every few miles. Yoga, once an obscure religious practice, is becoming ever-more main stream. There are hybrid activities, like CrossFit, and people in late middle age commonly do what only the most hardcore did in the past; a triathlon.
I stick with my weights because I believe they offer the highest payout.
Set the comic book movie characters aside and really look at 68-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger. He’s in fantastic condition, in spite of all the wild myths that used to surround lifting weights. The muscle men were all headed for disaster, it was predicted.
So much slander against lifting weights has been proven to be pernicious nonsense. Many of the men and women who pioneered weight training are still around and in great shape. Doubters might care to look at 72-year-old Frank Zane. A lifetime of thoughtful, well-reasoned weight training has produced a body that far younger men would pine for.
The fountain of youth is not CrossFit, or running, or yoga; it is the thoughtful application of weighted resistance to the body.
Why have the weights worked so well? I don’t really know; I learned a lot of what I know from a bunch of freakish know-nothings in a filthy converted dress shop. I have no formal training.
But I have a completely unscientific theory I’d like to share.
I think there is some kind of connection between the brain and the body in which the brain communicates via action what the body is to expect. It is beyond the basics of biology.
If one stays sitting year after year, the body gets the message that it’s over, no need to stay prepared for future action. Go ahead and let the muscles atrophy, the body hears; they are a metabolically expensive luxury. Get sick, whatever, because it’s over.
But the weights send the opposite message to the body. Every system is told to stay ready, to stay prepared, because further action is coming. The quads, the calves, the spinal erectors, the traps, the pectorals, the deltoids, the biceps and triceps; they are all told to maintain order because they will be called on to perform. The game is not over yet.
Other forms of fitness send similar messages, of course. Yoga covers the vast domain of the human capacity very nicely.
But the weights offer so much variety, with the constant contract and release, the pushing of blood to the extremes, the heart pumping full body rally it takes to dead lift some multiple of one’s own body weight.
Frank Zane offers a great perspective on the process. He notes that most men start lifting weights as a sort of character armor; they feel weak and the weights build the muscles to armor the inner deficit.
But as they mature, the lifting becomes character completion; they lift to build their body as they build their mind and spirit.
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