Zen and the art of weight training
I came for the gains, I stayed for the zen.
I’m a newbie to the weighlifting world, relatively speaking. I started lifting weights seriously only about a year ago. My goal was to build muscle, trim my tummy into a six-pack, get strong and ripped and fit and beautiful.
To look like Rachel Scheer.
To look good naked.
And, silly as it may sound, to recapture my glory days.
You see, when I was 15 years old, I started studying martial arts professionally. Judo, karate, and ju-jitsu. Three times a week (sometimes more), two hours per session. Competed in tournaments and came home with trophies and plaques. Went to grueling boot camps in the summer and helped Sensei clean up the dojo and even led a class or two myself, in his place.
I did this for two years.
It was an education and an experience. It shaped who I am today, and set the course for what I will become.
Now I call those two years ‘the glory days’. Because I was fit. Deltoids, biceps, six-pack. Speed, agility, coordination. I was a pro athlete when I wasn’t even out of my teens yet.
Then life happened. I started my first job. Went to university. And so I had to drop my martial arts studies and enter young adulthood as a contributing and gainfully employed member of society.
Small surprise, then, that my fitness went out the window. Lost to my youth. Lost to time.
I always ate healthfully and maintained my weight at the same normal range, more or less. But I grew a belly. My joints and muscles creaked from disuse. I’d gotten lazy and slow. More importantly, it was getting harder and harder to relax and to sleep well at night.
I’d become skinnyfat and my energy levels hit rock bottom.
I started lifting weights after it was recommended to me by a close friend.
Though inclined toward cardio, I reluctantly left the treadmill and the elliptical untouched, and grabbed some dumbbells instead. Starting with 5-pounders.
And I’ve been lifting ever since.
Now, I can lift my own bodyweight’s worth in iron, and more.
I can feel the burn, burn the feeling, and do it anyway.
I’m no fitness model by any stretch of the imagination, but I can hold my own in the weight room.
Most importantly, and amazingly: I live my days with cool nonchalance and, dare I say it, peace.
It’s a wondous thing, to hold massive weights in your bare hands. To push against gravity, against inertia. Against your own mind and muscle, which burn with pain and a rebel yell: “No!”
But then you master your own flesh and spirit. Push out the weight, push into your core. Crush out those reps, finish those sets. Yell back, “Hell yes!” And then go for more.
Early in this journey, I realized that the benefits of weight training are more than skin-deep. It does much more than build strength and physique and endurance.
To begin with, it can be just as cardio-intensive as running or aerobics.
My Fitbit doesn’t lie: as I lift heavier and heavier weights, one after another, my heart rate goes from Fat Burn, to Cardio, to Peak. It’s possible and very easy to hit your maximum recommended heart rate just by lifting heavy things.
So why do cardio when you can work your heart-muscle and your muscle-muscle all at the same time? It’s a whole-body workout if ever there was one.
(To be honest, though, I do incorporate some cardio into my trainings. In the form of rapid walks as I go about my day, as well as the occasional 15-minute jaunt on the elliptical.)
Secondly, it’s a welcome release from the stresses of the day.
Day jobs, arguments, social obligations, family matters, chores, bills, emergencies—all of these take a toll on the mind and on the body.
When I lift, I set aside all mundane concerns. I listen to a podcast or a song, and I heave that iron like my life depends on it. My reward? Better sleep, a continually upbeat mood, and relaxation in the face of argumentation.
Third, and best: it opens up a lucid pool of zen.
I won’t lie — I look at my phone while I work out, in those few seconds between sets. But sometimes when I lift, and especially when I do my stretches afterwards, I close my eyes and enter the pool. All thought and emotion flee. I find my center and breathe into it. My mind empties out, like a bucket of water turned upside down, spilling into a garden for the earth to soak up.
It’s a welcome respite from constant thinking, over-thinking, and worrying. It loosens nerves and soothes the savage soul. If you want to be chill, guys, lift weights.
I can’t praise weight training highly enough.
It’s worked magic for me. And I’m sure it does the same for weightlifters everywhere.
Women have traditionally been wary of it because they don’t want to “bulk up”. But it takes grueling, 5-hour-daily trainings to get that musclebound look. Or a steady regimen of steroids . Neither of which I condone for those of us living in the real world.
As a woman, I find that lifting weights tones my body, increases my functional strength, and dissipates all the nervous energy I’ve built up during the day.
It makes my waist thinner and my posture poised.
Sure, you can see the cut of my muscles when I flex. But lifting doesn’t take away from my femininity. Instead, it warms and relaxes me, so that I can be the best, strongest, healthiest version of me.
It makes me a woman, a fit human being, ready to take on the world and everything it throws at me.
Paradoxically, training hard and sweating your guts out paves the path to calm and serenity. It’s by far the best and fastest way I know.
And you know what they say: Mens sana in corpore sano. A healthy mind in a healthy body.
A strong, cut musculature is an added perk. Find your pace — and your peace — by lifting weights, and everything else will follow.
“The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.” — Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values
Zen can be found in the most unexpected of places. I’m glad I found it here.