You’re thinking one of two things, we know.
We’re all thick necks, us lifters, with no conversation topics at hand other than the circumference of our biceps — in proportion to our heads.
Or you might believe that each of us secretly wants to be you: lithe, flexible, able to scratch our own backs without help from the nearest door jamb.
That would be nice, admittedly.
Probably won’t happen any time soon, though.
So let’s talk about why our mantra is “pick up heavy things and put them down,” and how lifting is our meditation. Pumping iron is, to us, a lot like what yoga — or maybe running, church or talk therapy — is to you: a mindfulness practice. Since the 6th century, when Milo of Croton built his body carrying a growing calf up a hill, we’ve been grunting our way to Nirvana the only way we know how.
Check in with your body.
Yoga class starts with that, right? Or maybe “meet yourself where you are today?”
We check in, too. Some of us have little tests to see if we’re up to lifting, if our nervous system can handle it that day. One-minute arm hang, maybe, or checking our temperature and resting heart rate when we wake up. Or just looking at the weight: seem heavier than usual? A true meathead knows there’s something that can be done today if the dumbbells gained pounds or if he has an injury. He respects that.
Set an intention.
Most of the time our intention might be phrased as “get it,” but that counts: we’re dedicating our time and efforts to improving ourselves in some way.
And it’s not always about the pump. Strongwoman competitor Elizabeth Carpenter dedicated her recent training to a powerlifting friend and coach named Jules who had passed away. Missing this special person reminded Elizabeth of who she was because of him, and honoring Jules’s memory doing what he loved makes sure he lives on.
“Jules inspired people to be better than they were the day before, in ways far beyond lifting,” Elizabeth says. “He helped me understand how to minister to others by being strong.”
Some lifters choose to spend an entire session on mobility or form, knowing that practice, even at light weights, makes perfect. Which reminds me…
Yogis have got this one down, we admit. What with the hypnotic music, a prayer pose and focus on the exhale, yoga’s hard to top when it comes to integrating mind and body. However, us meatheads stand flexed and ready to explain why Slipknot, a lifter’s wedge and the valsalva maneuver can turn our attention inward, and not just toward the mirror.
Tyler Santiago is a bodybuilder from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who holds a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He’s the guy you notice in the gym, and not just for his backpiece tatts and symmetrical lats; he’s also pretty noisy. Not the dropping weights kind of noise, though he’s won the honor of having set off the Lunk Alarm in the Judgement Free Zone known as Planet Fitness. Think self-talk: Tyler calls out body parts like they’re his next opponent.
“Rear delts only,” he’ll say out loud. “C’mon!”
Tyler takes less anxiety meds now that he’s active, and that’s not uncommon; exercise is a proven solution to a range of problems. But here’s where it gets tricky: when someone’s got anxiety or something like PTSD, standard advice tells them to relax. The logic is there — calm down all those ramped up feelings with gentle exercise, like yoga — but, truth is, it doesn’t always work.
“A significant percentage of PTSD clients may become more anxious from relaxation training,” writes psychotherapist Babette Rothschild in The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment. “In such cases, building or maintaining muscle tension is preferable to relaxation.”
Rothschild says that being tense has gotten a bad rap, and that the positive outcomes of muscle tension are all but ignored by those outside of the gym. Building muscle can, for some, contain those strong emotions and manage them.
Here’s Rothschild on how to do it:
For this kind of muscle building to be effective, it must be done with body awareness — with attention to body sensations generally and to the muscles being exercised specifically.
And here’s Tyler on how he does it:
I’m actually engaged in the lift; I’m not just moving the weight. There’s the mind-muscle connection. I lift to center myself.
You go, lats.
The day I got married, I weighed 120 pounds and wore a size 7. On the day of my divorce twenty-three years later, I was 160 and a size 10. The difference on the scale was mostly muscle, and this was no coincidence. After decades spent knowing no one had my back, I had a strong desire to grow my own.
Bodybuilding forums filled with users named “BigSwole” and “SmeelMyBut” don’t help the meathead cause. But we’re here to say that what we do is just as mindful and therapeutic as any yoga practice.
Not that we diss you yogis. Here’s Sabrina Schutter, who holds a 1443 powerlifting total (that’s total pounds moved, by the way, in the squat+bench+deadlift) in the 198 weight class:
As a powerlifter and busy gym owner, I have always struggled to find motivation to do cardio. Yoga has not only given me a way to get my heart rate up but also has given me a mental escape where I don’t stress or worry for whatever amount of time I spend on my mat.
Yoga as cardio. Lifting as mindfulness practice. We all do what we need to do. In a true judgment-free zone, you’d see dumbbells heavier than 80 pounds, and downward dog instruction somewhere between the tanning beds and HydroMassage chairs.
To each his own.