The Most Important Lesson From Lifting

What the Gym Teaches You About Life

Strong muscles are awesome, but weight training can teach you lessons that go far beyond the gym. Here they are.

The Question

What’s the most important life lesson you can learn in the gym or from lifting weights?

Charles Staley – Strength Coach

Training teaches us that there’s a direct, unmistakable causal relationship between hard work and reward.

You work hard and good things happen. You don’t work hard, and good things fail to happen. Much of life is “fuzzy” – sometimes you get lucky and experience rewards that you haven’t really earned. But this will never happen in the gym because the weight doesn’t give a flip about anything other than whether or not you actually lift it. And when you lift a weight that you’ve never lifted before, it’s unmistakable proof that you’re now better than you ever were before.

These experiences teach us to value work ethic and give us the confidence to apply it outside the gym as well: in our careers, our relationships, and in our various interests in life. The gym is a laboratory for life.

Dani Shugart – T Nation Editor

Building muscle makes you better at life. It works that way for me at least.

Your entire body becomes more proficient. It’s phenomenal. Heavy things feel lighter, hard tasks feel easier, big meals get used instead of stored. Moving your own body around becomes a natural, simple thing. You don’t even realize your own physical capability if you’ve had muscle for a long time and have been taking it for granted. But when you go from not lifting to lifting, your body turns into this unrecognizable machine.

My very first taste of this was in high school when weight training made me go from the slowest girl on the cross country team to the fastest in a couple years. I didn’t know the science behind it, but when everyone on a hill was slowing down, I could shift gears and pick up speed. It was a dramatic athletic transformation. And when it happened, I knew that building muscle was the key to living in the body I’d want.

You become more authoritative. Not in a domineering way, but in a way that simply keeps you from being a doormat. The more you struggle under the iron and master it, the more you realize your own potential. And this can embolden people differently. You might gradually become more self-reliant in the gym, more forthright in daily interactions, or just more of a “go-getter” all around… as hokey as that sounds. You start thinking that bigger things are within your reach.

One of the most stressful times of my life was when I was hired for a news job right after college. I felt stretched yet undervalued, and my paycheck would’ve been bigger flipping burgers. I had stopped lifting for a year or so when I took the position. But getting back under the iron gave me the impetus to look for better opportunities instead of living with this feeling of being stuck. It was scary to quit, but it was exhilarating to get back in the captain’s chair and decide what to do with my life.

It makes you socially competent. Building muscle makes you more self-assured. It’s just easier to talk to strangers when you’re somewhat jacked. Maybe that’s because you become comfortable with yourself and you project that feeling outward. But the more comfortable you are around others, the more enjoyable the gym (and everything else) is.

And if someone snubs you when you say hi, no biggie. You’re still somewhat jacked. What are they gonna do? Sigh loudly? Roll their eyes? Snobby people are usually just insecure people.

Bonus: When you focus on building strength and muscle, you attract people who are into the same stuff, and having like-minded friends is powerful. These connections can open doors, keep you motivated, and improve your health all around.

Craig Weller – Strength & Conditioning Coach, Former Naval Special Warfare

When someone is in exceptional physical condition, it tells you something about what’s inside their head that enabled them to become that way.

It illustrates that, for years, they’ve been getting out of bed early to put themselves through challenging workouts while nobody else was watching or making them show up. It indicates a high probability that the candidate is self-disciplined, conscientious, and accustomed to making daily short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits.

The people who run the selections courses for tier-one special operations units like to point out that the physical characteristics that they’re assessing are ways of learning about the mental makeup of their candidates. Those characteristics are much more valuable in an operator than a great four-mile run time.

The mind ultimately drives the body, and the physical tests used in these selection courses – to at least the same degree that they’re evaluating actual physical ability – are a way of assessing what’s inside someone’s mind. That’s an important concept to remember during special operations prep training. Physical adaptations last a few weeks at best from workout to workout, but the mental patterns that those sessions are building can become a part of someone’s mindset for life.

Many aspects of selection are evaluating physical and mental grit: the ability to just keep going under any number of conditions, from enduring hypothermia to running up and down sand berms until an instructor gets bored enough to say “stop.”

This grit is a skill, which means that it starts with knowledge (a mental model) and is then cemented through practice. It’s learned by experience. Few things are better for gaining that practical experience than physical training, and few things have more potential to go wrong.

Training must be designed so that these mental skills are developed in a way that makes sense in terms of the physical capacities desired, and without risking injury.

Jade Teta – Integrative Physician, Naturopath, Coach

The major insight about life is that nothing is easy.

Easy is earned. And weight lifting is the perfect metaphor for life. In fitness we have a principle called SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demand). In other words, your body adapts to the way you train it. Well, so does your psyche.

Just like with weight training, in life you must continually challenge yourself with progressing difficulty to get better and grow. Your muscles respond only to new challenge. Same with your mindset. With each new challenge there’s growth, and this incremental growth begins to snowball like compound interest.

Most people simply won’t do it. They’ve never trained to have a resilient mindset. We are all inherently fearful, lazy, and ignorant. Some might see that as depressing. I find it inspiring. To me it’s the secret to success.

All I have to do is be a little less lazy, a little less fearful, and a little more willing to question my assumptions and biases. Then I can achieve amazing things. And the weight room is my testing ground. A new PR in the gym helps me prepare for new fear PRs in life.

Your brain is always watching you and judging the type of person you are. When it sees you attacking the gym consistently day after day, month after month, it’s more likely to believe you and support you when you attack something new in life.

Chris Shugart – T Nation CCO

It’s all on you.

Back in my fat boy days, I had a dozen excuses for being overweight. Most of them were directed outward: I was fat, I’d tell myself, because of things that were outside of my control. These were self-directed lies, of course, just flimsy rationalizations to make myself feel better.

In short, I wasn’t taking personal responsibility. I wasn’t being self-reliant. I snapped out of it, thank God. I even wrote a little mantra that I repeated to myself every day:

“The condition I’m in now is completely my fault. I caused this. I chose to slack off. I chose crappy foods. I’m the only one to blame and I’m the only one who can fix it.”

It worked. I dropped around 65 pounds of fat and eventually added over 30 pounds of muscle. There were missteps, mistakes, and long periods of stagnation along the way. But there were also life lessons – tough, heartless lessons that transcended the gym.

Today, the pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ideal has faded. Today, people are seeking out and adopting victim labels. And any victim label will do. Anything to shift blame outward.

And once someone finds his flavor of victimhood, he not only adopts the label, he begins to define himself by it. He begins to wallow in that perceived victimhood. Why? Because it releases him from personal responsibility and self-reliance.

Even our leaders have begun to preach this sermon of weakness, often to acquire political power. It’s a simple plan: Convince people they’re helpless and that you’re the only one who can solve their problems. If the people buy it, you control them, gain power, and profit.

But it’s hard for me to imagine that a dedicated lifter would fall for it. He or she has learned too many things from the barbell.

The barbell teaches you different lessons. The barbell holds the opportunities for getting stronger, changing your body, and building resolve. But (and this is the important bit) the barbell also doesn’t give a shit about you.

You pick it up and you get positive, life-changing results… or you don’t and you get nothing. The bar doesn’t care one way or another. It looks you right in the face and says, “This is going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot of work but the payoff is awesome. Take it or leave it.”

In today’s society of entitled wankers and delicate snowflakes, it’s a lesson many need to learn. Life is a barbell. The opportunities are right there. You just have to pick them up and start grinding. It’s all on you.

Dr. Lonnie Lowery – Exercise Physiologist and Nutritionist

Lifting is analogous to life in general.

Like life, bodybuilding is a series of tests that we confront. Self-imposed or more unexpected, they become training for “bigger” things. Each time we can either rise to the challenge or give in to our weakness. The more we succeed in effort, humility, discipline, or competition, the more habitual success becomes. We become comfortable in our own skin. More confident, more at ease under fire.

My buddy Rob “Fortress” Fortney calls it the Cycle of Dominance: You prove to yourself – repeatedly – that you have the courage and ability to overcome obstacles. The obstacles then become smaller, leading you do be even more successful. Caution is called for, though. Just like training results, gains in one’s character or employment status or personal relationships require ongoing practice. “Use it or lose it.”

The fortunate few make the connection that bodybuilding is a microcosm of life, a teacher in itself.

TC Luoma – T Nation Editor

You can learn what real manhood is, and what it isn’t.

When I was a boy, I was in love with what I mistakenly identified as masculinity. I was overly sensitive and insecure and hated myself for it, so I gravitated towards men who didn’t have feelings, or at least if they did, didn’t talk about them. Likewise, I idolized those that appeared to be supremely confident, ignored pain, were never visibly weak, and believed in winning at all costs.

And I foolishly equated muscle with all of those traits. Maybe I saw muscle as a fleshy suit of armor that would shield me from my sensitivities and insecurities, so it was no mystery that I turned into a gym rat.

Sure enough, I found myself around men who displayed all of those supposedly masculine traits I admired. But thankfully, oh so thankfully, I started to learn by experience and not by imitation.

I started to see many of these men for what they were, vainglorious bastards who had the illusion of superiority because they were strong and they had muscle. Most were thin-skinned. Most thought little of women. They thought that they had a special place in the universe just because they could lift a lot of weight.

They worried incessantly about their appearance and how the people they supposedly thought themselves the better of perceived them. Even their gym clothes were part of well-orchestrated, tough-guy choreography. To the casual eye, their outfits might have looked random and haphazard, but much care, love, and pain had been taken to make sure they were just the right amount of snug, the right amount of faded, the right amount of tatter on the torn-off sleeves.

These men had made the colossal mistake of confusing masculinity with manhood; they misdirected all their energy into being “real” men instead of good men. They represented themselves as warriors on the outside, but were pussies on the inside.

So I discarded them as potential role models. I kept going to the gym, though. I kept my head down while continuing to work out and read about exercise and nutrition, studied other lifters (even the pussies), experimented with various ideas and techniques, and something great started to happen.

I started to develop competency, which led to a certain level of mastery of weight lifting and nutrition. In doing so, I started to develop the self-esteem I’d been lacking. The muscle I gained was a pleasant side effect. I also came to grips with my “overly” sensitive nature. It had nothing to do with being manly or not being manly and it wasn’t a handicap at all; it allowed me to see and understand what was good about humans and what wasn’t.

It also allowed me to see and recognize the occasional lifter who hadn’t confused being a real man with being a good man; the lifter who was helpful to others, didn’t denigrate women, and wasn’t contemptuous of people who were weaker than he was. And if his clothes exposed his muscularity, it wasn’t for approval, but because it was freaking hot outside.

Given our times, and the newly resurrected idolatry of warped masculinity, it was an especially good lesson to learn.

Chad Waterbury – Strength and Conditioning Coach

You must be adaptable.

It’s Wednesday night and you have the perfect plans for a killer workout the next evening. You have 60 minutes set aside in your schedule, and you’re amped to do a circuit of 10 x 3 for the chin-up, dip, and deadlift.

But you wake up Thursday morning after a shitty night of sleep and your throat is sore. After powering through the workday you realize that the workout drink container is empty. On the way to the gym you get stuck in traffic, and by the time you arrive there’s only 30 minutes before it closes. To make matters even worse, you forgot your iPod and the gym owner’s niece is in town: she has the sound system permanently fixed on a terrible pop channel.

This is a scenario that happened to me. And I know you’ve experienced a similar version. The key here is to embrace the challenge of cramming as many sets, reps, and exercises as you can into the 30 minutes. There’s a game afoot, and the clock is ticking. No time to second guess yourself. No time to calculate what lifting tempo best corresponds with a specific time under tension for the lateral raise. No time to wonder which angle of the bench is most ideal to train the inner head of the biceps.

Nope, it’s time to grip and rip as much iron as possible. It’s been said that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person to do it. And if you want to know the measure of a man, don’t judge his behavior when things are going well; judge him when life throws a 98 mph fastball at his head.

I get a kick out of people trying to plan the perfect workout because it never happens. There’s always something that screws it up. And you know, that’s life. Embrace the chaos and make the most out of what you have available at that given time, whether you’re in the gym or lying in a hospital bed. That’s how you build mettle and integrity.

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

The overarching life lesson learned in the gym is perseverance.

Without it I might be sitting on a sofa with a beer gut talking about the glory days, yet I’m still walking amongst the chalk and iron scheming of new ways to stimulate muscle growth.

I began training with sand-filled plastic weights at the age of 13 and my love for lifting hasn’t diminished over the past 28 years. Sure, my fire for training raged and dwindled to a flicker at times due to varying circumstances, but the flame never completely went out.

Perseverance comes into play and is essential to all life stages of lifting weights. In my teens I found that nursing hangovers disrupted my progress, so I made the decision to choose the iron instead of the alcohol. In my twenties I often trained to the point of getting sick, but I persevered with high intensity workouts until the nausea passed. In my thirties I suffered several muscle tears which forced me to either quit training or reevaluate my methods.

I reevaluated my definition of serious lifting to accommodate new training techniques. Now in my forties, I’m impacted daily with the injuries and overuse pains of foolish training in my twenties and thirties. My lower back forced me to completely eliminate conventional back squats which was almost enough for me say, “What’s the point? Why continue to train if I can’t squat?” I chose to bury my ego and find other ways to challenge myself in the leg department.

Today my workouts contain the same brutal intensity of my youth, but employed in a more intelligent manner. I learned to adapt with a level of perseverance which spills over and holds value in all areas of my life.

My gratitude and respect for the iron’s ability to humble me keeps the fire alive to the extent that I see myself training until they put me in a box and cover it with dirt.

Michael Warren – Strength Coach

Success in the weight room requires the same principles as success in life.

Your love life, your business life, and your gym life all require dedication, commitment, and consistency. In the gym you get results by showing up day after day, rep after rep. It’s the same in business; successful people are constantly striving to perform each day. The best people in business have the same qualities as the best bodybuilders: ruthless desire, intensity, commitment, and drive.

A solid relationship requires you to be loyal and committed. Same with the gym. Results require your commitment.

Tony Gentilcore – Strength Coach

I’m going to cheat and mention two lessons.

  1. I was raised to treat your word as bond. If you said you were going to do something or be somewhere, you better sure as shit show up and do what you said you were going to do. Those people whose strength feats make our jaws drop and whose physiques we admire most are the ones who show up. Day in and day out, they’re the antithesis of most people’s biggest weakness… consistency. Not only that, the irony (and real kick to the balls) is that the programs these same people perform are mind-numbingly monotonous and simple. Not only are they consistent, but they’re consistent with the basics. It’s a lesson many still need to learn.
  2. Lifting weights helps give you an appreciation of failure. Our society hates failure, it sees it as a sign of weakness. However, some of the most iconic people in recent memory – Steve Jobs, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Muhammad Ali, Oprah – have failed at some point or another. The difference is that they didn’t see failure as being a failure. They saw it as a way to grow, get better, fix some wrongs, and come back stronger than ever.

We’ve all failed in the weightroom. Anyone who’s dumped a squat or been stapled on the bench can attest to that. The ones who persevere are the ones who take those failures and use them as ammo to get better, to work on weak links or technique flaws, to not suck long-term.

In no place does one learn to build more resilience in life than under the bar.

Arash Rahbar – IFBB Classic Physique Pro

Every job i’ve ever had has been effected by what i learned from bodybuilding.

When I first started to lift at 12 years old, it served only one purpose to me: to look like Arnold, Sylvester, Bruce Lee, and Hulk Hogan. That was all I had in mind, but that’s not all I got. Day after day I practiced, read, learned, failed and succeeded. I kept pushing the envelope, testing myself physically and mentally, and I grew.

Bodybuilding is very demanding in terms of training, nutritional consistency, adequate sleep, sacrifice, and discipline. These practices are usually learned later in life, so learning them early gave me a head start. All the food preparation, supplements, expenses, strict schedules, and structure gave me a sense of maturity you don’t normally see in a teen.

I’m a 35 year old IFBB classic physique pro with a successful career, and there’s an obvious relationship between my years of bodybuilding and current status. I was able to transfer the discipline that I learned from bodybuilding into any job I had.

Bodybuilding has played a tremendous role in my development as a man and it’s almost become an outline for my life, a rulebook, if you will. What I’ve learned in bodybuilding I practice in everyday life.

Chris Colucci – T Nation Forum Director

Training gives perspective.

Conquering heavy weights is kinda fun, and building this meat-suit is gratifying, but at the end of the day training is a luxury that we’re able to participate in until we’re not.

I’m not talking about the luxury of going to a well-outfitted gym with the best machines, smoothest barbells, and most hardcore members. I’m talking about simply having the option to make your body stronger, healthier, bigger, leaner, whatever your goals are. The sobering fact is that not everyone has that choice.

Some folks have significant physical disabilities or disorders they can’t train around. Some people get diagnosed with life-altering diseases out of the blue. And you’re worried because it’s chest day but your tri’s are still sore and might interfere with your pressing?

Sit at someone’s hospital bedside 35 hours a week wondering if they’ll ever wake up again and tell me how important hitting your next PR seems. Step foot in the gym for the first time after attending a family member’s funeral and see if you notice the fact that you can still take a breath while they can’t.

And if you’re the dude whose life orbits around eat-sleep-lift and you see a career and family commitments as “distractions,” then you’re living in a small, sad, sheltered world and either your mindset will be forced to shift due to calamity or you’re on track to pump your way through life without recognizing the stuff that actually matters.

For sure, train for abs and big delts. That’s fine. Go get that 4-plate bench. Cool. But understand that the ability to train, let alone set and reach goals, is just a hobby. That’s it. The physical and mental benefits are great, but it’s just a thing we do for a very small fraction of the 168 hours we get each week. Appreciating its role in the context of your entire life is important both for you and for the people your encounter day to day.

The only people who think it’s not a problem to be eat-sleep-lift guys are other eat-sleep-lift guys; everyone else can see how much real life takes place outside those three points.

Dr. John Rusin – Doctor of Physical Therapy, Performance Expert

The iron is a metaphor for life and the way in which you choose to live it.

Early on I realized that if I first had the drive to step through the doors of the gym and work hard, train heavy, and even grind out a set or two, I’d have a direct positive correlation between my training and the results that it yielded. But as we all know, training harder or adding more volume to any endeavor in life doesn’t always mean more success. Many times it’s the contrary.

Training will humble you quickly, even when you’re seemingly doing everything right and leaving the gym with a sweat-stained shirt and some bloody hands. Training hard doesn’t always equate to success. Evolving your practice and continuing to seek out the more effective and efficient methods to yield a desired outcome is the thing that allows continued progress for the long term.

Life is the same way. Doing the same old shit day after day, year after year, usually ends up getting you the same old results. But for many, we want and need more. We need to see results and positive outcomes, and I’m not just talking about more iron. Training makes you step back and look at yourself objectively, which a scale, a mirror, or your best buddies probably can’t do for you. Are you making progress, or are you withering up and getting ready to die?

There have been times in my life that results haven’t mattered in the gym; the training itself provided emotional, psychological, and social release from some of the hardest events I’ve ever experienced. And hell yeah that’s important, and a mainstay of why I continue to train with passion and purpose. But creating a habit of results-based practice allows you to depend on your training in multiple facets of your life. It allows you to control every single variable you can for 1-2 hours a day before you step into a world of randomness. It allows you to free your body and mind to achieve something bigger than yourself.

Without it, many of us would be lost, underachieving in many aspects of our life, and probably not very happy. We work hard to make sure we have that staple in our lives so it can pay back in return.


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