I’m Still Waiting to Get Too Big
It came up again on a message board last week. A very nice, intelligent, reasonable young woman told the community that she wanted to try the training program in one of the New Rules of Lifting books, but was terrified of getting too big.
Of course we explained to her the reality of her situation: You can’t catch muscularity like the common cold. Nobody bulks up accidentally. It takes years of hard work, not to mention truckloads of food, to build what an objective observer would describe as “bulk.”
I know because I spent much of my life trying to do exactly that. (The photo above is my son when he was 2 years old, I think. His interest in strength training ended shortly after I took the photo.) I appreciate that some people gain weight faster than others, with a combination of muscle and fat. But pure, functional muscle tissue is hard to gain and easy to lose.
Of course anyone’s who lifted for a while understands this. But here’s something I don’t understand as well as I should: Why is strength training a pursuit that so many begin with a firm idea of what they don’t want to accomplish? What else in life works that way?
I don’t think any young man or woman has ever gone into a salary negotiation and said to the boss, “I don’t want to get too rich.”
Likewise, I’d be surprised if any author has ever said he didn’t want to sell too many books, or any actress told a director or producer that she didn’t want to get too famous.
When you’re a kid playing a sport for the first time, you don’t think about not hitting home runs, not scoring game-winning goals, or not being the first one to cross the finish line.
Even in adulthood, what runner starts out by telling herself that she never wants to run a 10k, much less finish a marathon, because she doesn’t like the way people look when they’re all tired and sweaty? What novice golfer doesn’t aspire to breaking 100? For that matter, what lifelong golfer doesn’t aspire to breaking 90, or 80, or 70, or, for that matter, accomplishing anything he hasn’t yet accomplished on a golf course?
Looks Don’t Kill, but Why Take the Chance?
I understand that these are silly questions, and you understand I’m deliberately ignoring the single factor that makes strength training different from work, writing, and competitive sports. The goal of strength training, unlike acting or golf, is to change your appearance.
People are fine with performance-oriented goals as long as there’s no risk they’ll end up looking like someone they consider hideous. And these days, we never really see hideous-looking millionaires or athletes. Even among writers, a profession that’s perfectly appropriate for someone whose appearance falls at the far left end of the bell curve, a couple of standard deviations below “average looking,” we mostly just see the good-looking ones. Even the ones who’re certifiably homely, like Stephen King, seem to get less ugly with age and familiarity.
More to the point, nobody looks at Stephen King and thinks, “I don’t want to write a bestseller because I might end up looking like that guy.”
And yet, lots of people recoil with horror when they look at the biggest bodybuilders, powerlifters, and strength athletes. They don’t see guys who tried to get that big, who pushed and pulled massive weights for years to attain their awful size, and who in many cases took a pharmacy worth of illegal drugs to get bigger than their genetics would allow. They see their size as a logical and perhaps inevitable result of lifting weights.
Strength training is the only pursuit I can think of that people enter with the idea that it will change them at the genetic level. The odds that it will change your appearance in a dramatic way are slight. The more likely outcome is a slight change in your appearance.
But that’s the greatest thing about lifting, at least to me. That slight difference tends to be one we cherish right along with our more meaningful career and personal accomplishments. It matters to us because it was hard and because it took time.
And yet, those who’ve never tried it assume it’s all too easy. As a lifetime lifter, I can’t tell you how strange that seems to me, even after hearing it for so many years.