As a kid in high school, I never particularly liked math; I was OK at it I guess, but it wasn’t my favorite subject. One thing I did like about it, though, was that I immediately knew where I stood. Back then, my ninth-grade brain wanted some things to be at least certain.
You either got the right answer — or the wrong one. If your test paper came back with a lot of red marks, then you got the answers wrong.
And there was no arguing with the teacher, no excuses to be made. The numbers didn’t lie. If I got a wrong answer, it meant that I didn’t understand the problem correctly, or I used the wrong formula, or maybe even made a mistake in dividing or multiplying or even putting the decimal point in the wrong place. It was my fault, and I would have to reapply myself and do better next time.
What struck me the other day is that going to the weight room is very similar to my experience in those math classes of long ago. The world of mathematics is filled with the abstract concepts of, among other things, quantity, reasoning, calculation and measurement, resulting in theories and formulas that great thinkers have put forth and wrestled with since the beginning of human history.
As the wrong answers on my test papers showed, math is subject to the matter of rigorous proof — the application of systematic reasoning to avoid mistakes and fallible intuitions. In its most basic sense, math teaches us that correct axioms correspond with reality. Wrong answers do not.
As I type these words into my laptop, I glance up and look around my dimly lit, 5,000 sq. ft. weight room. To me, it’s my dream come true — my heaven on earth. It’s filled with everything that bolsters and support the world of lifting — walls covered with thousands of photos from training sessions and meets; pure, cold concrete and rubber matted floors, power racks, monoracks, bench racks, monster leg presses, GHRs, thousands of pounds of iron, and 30 other pieces of equipment that surround the room. These are the steel walls where I could return again and again to build my strength, my body, self-esteem, business strategies and other facets of my life.
I used to think that the weight room was simply a place of refuge, a place where I could escape from issues and problems and concentrate on improving my performance. When things started to sour in my personal relationships, when I went through a living nightmare as a result, I ran to the weight room for solace.
What I did not understand at the time was that by running away to train, I was also running away from the real issues in my life that would keep returning to make me unhappy and cause pain.
In fact, I almost saw the weight room as the cause of keeping me from dealing with the things I avoided and, in some ways, this may have been true. What I was to learn, however, was that the gym was not an escape from things, but actually an entrance into the world of reality as I knew it.
It was the place where I could find inspiration and motivation, where I have had to deal with some of life’s biggest challenges. And where I have hand some of my best training workouts, business ideas and negotiations. In the weight room, I have forged powerful friendships, held therapy sessions and made some outstanding breakthroughs toward achieving my goals.
To me, and to many others around the world, the weight room is not just a place to train, but rather a Zen-like temple — a place on symbolically higher ground where we bring our hopes, dreams and aspirations. A place where we commit to grueling personal discipline and the continual challenge to improve ourselves: five more pounds on the bar, one more rep, another pound of muscle mass, another pound less body fat, more self-understanding. If we are serious, it is a way of life.
The weight room is a place where the trials never end. It is the place where we test ourselves continuously — we struggle to reach one goal, and, as soon as we
reach it, there is another and more difficult one to meet.
And like in the hard-knuckle realm of mathematics, the numbers don’t lie. If your training goal is to bench 350 lbs., 345 or 349 won’t cut it. There is only one right answer: 350. In the weight room, we learn the right from the wrong, the good from the bad.
It is a place where, in our determination to better ourselves, we learn control and self-realization. As in much of life, things might not always go our way, but in the weight room, we train to try to shape the outcome of our goals as best we can.
In our programs and routines, we try to discover the right way to train, to “turn the eye inward” and deepen our understanding of what we are doing. We emphasize daily practice and a focused concentration on the task at hand, that we may try to achieve perfection. This means shutting out negative or extraneous thoughts and controlling all that you need to.
As with any difficult challenge, there will be sacrifices, disappointments, anxieties and frustrations, and most likely injuries. But these trials, if we survive, make us all stronger and better individuals. What we learn in the weight room will prepare us for the body blows that life throws at us.
During my life’s most serious crisis, I went to the gym to train, and I learned more about myself in that one day than in any other time in my life. I was alone, and in doing one movement after another, my intensity of emotions kept building inside, ranging from extreme anger to abject fear.
I cannot tell you how I trained or the weight I used, but I can tell you I worked so hard that I had tears streaming down my face. This was not crying, but they were tears of rage, fear and finally — tears of happiness.
I was finally happy because I understood then that my training was not simply an escape and an impediment to solving problems, but a necessary and fundamental part of my life that makes me who I am. I knew that all the discipline, character-building and fortitude trials that I had endured and mastered in the weight room were really all the tools I needed to get through this most recent crisis, and any other crisis that I might have to face.
What the weight room taught me — and still teaches me — is that you have to have the right attitude. But it’s having the right attitude that is hard. First comes understanding yourself. Then, you take personal responsibility for your actions and the way you want to live your life.
I have read emails and spoke to people with no jobs, not a dime to their name, moving from place to place, but only want to know how to get their bench up. Many would see these situations as dysfunctional, but I see these people hanging by the only thread they have at the time.
With luck, this one thread will lead to another and, in time, they will get back on their feet. The far darker thought is what might happen if they stop asking and abandon their training.
Trials will never end, of course. Misfortune and adversity are bound to occur as long as people live. But those of us that are serious in the weight room know things that others do not. There is an understanding that penetrates deeper than surface reality. You see, when you realize that for years you have “been there, done that,” dealt with and overcome adversity in the weight room, you’ll soon appreciate that you already possess the ability to deal with life’s daily setbacks. And with this understanding, we may lead fuller and richer lives — indeed, all we can be, as the slogan goes. This is the goal, is it not?
Maybe in time my “steal walls” will come down. But, only when I am dead and gone and a scrap yard melts them down so they can be crafted into someone else’s temple.