When I was a young man I served in what was considered an “elite” unit. I still remember the first time I got to wear my jump boots and my beret with my dress greens and see all the people in a room – or for that matter all the people in an auditorium – take notice. And while we trained long and hard to the extent that my four years in the Army seemed more like eight simply due to the long hours we spent in the field, that feeling of pride, of knowing that I was something special in a way that everybody could identify, never went away. If nothing else, we constantly were going to new Army schools and receiving new badges, we constantly deployed and added ribbons to our so-called fruit salad bars (the display of all the ribbons worn on the left chest of a dress uniform). We simply constantly added to the pride that we all first felt when we put on our uniforms for the first time.
When a soldier puts away his uniform for the last time, he has to say goodbye to that direct experience of pride. You still remember and feel the pride, but you don’t get to wear it anymore. And, of course, when you don’t get to wear it any more, the only person in that room or that auditorium who knows what you’ve accomplished is you. Which of course can still be satisfying, but it just isn’t nearly as fun.
All that said as my setup, it turns out that even though I’m not wearing a beret and dress greens replete with all my badges and ribbons, well, I still get to enjoy that feeling of “standing out.”
I don’t have a uniform that I can put on and take off; what I’ve got instead is a bunch of muscle. Muscle that also stands out and sets me apart in a way that anyone can identify.
And just like the uniform that used to give me so much pride to wear, I don’t have pride just because of what I look like; I have pride because what I look like represents a lot of hours of hard, grueling work from which came strength.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at the kitchen counter at my church getting a cup of coffee, and a strikingly pretty young girl who was a member of the Hispanic congregation came up to me and said, “Are you a bodybuilder?”
Well, that question always discombobulates me. Because, no, I don’t think of myself as a “bodybuilder.” A bodybuilder is somebody who shaves off all their body hair, puts on a speedo, rubs on a bunch of oil and flexes onstage in competitions with other bodybuilders. I’ve never done that and I’ve never wanted to do that. Me, I’m a weight lifter, not a bodybuilder. But, well, then again, I usually do a “bodybuilding” weight lifting routine, although I also do quite a bit of powerlifting stuff, and so I guess I’m kind of a bodybuilder…
Well, this pretty young girl bailed me out of fumbling to answer what had been intended as a very simple question. And she said something I will probably never forget: “I saw you walking by and you looked like a super hero.”
That’s right. A super hero.
Let me tell you why those words meant so much to me. Two things.
The first thing you should know is that, as the years passed me by following my career as a soldier, I allowed my body to basically go to pot. Eight months ago, before I finally decided to do something about it, I weighed in at over 300 pounds. And I am now over sixty pounds lighter – even as I’ve put on quite a bit of muscle.
Now, sixty pounds in eight months is right in the range of the 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week that is considered optimum (overall, I’ve lost nearly two pounds a week, on average). But for anybody who has ever tried to lose a lot of weight, I don’t have to tell you what a struggle it is, how hard you have to work to succeed, how many battles you have to win against your out-of-whack desires and most of all how frustratingly – even agonizingly – slow it feels to lose weight over a long period. I’ve had an awful lot of compliments about how well I’ve done and how much better I look now, but that “super hero” line took the prize as the one that I will most treasure.
I’ve come so far in reclaiming myself and attaining some difficult-to-win goals. And in that sense, all appearances aside, I AM a super hero, aren’t I?
It sure feels nice to be one again.
The second thing about that comment from that young girl is that it underscores why I started lifting weights in the first place when I was a kid.
I didn’t grow up in the computery-world of smart phones and apps; when we had our family vacations, my brother and I loaded up on comic books. You know, the Marvel and DC kind, the kind that are replete with “super heroes.”
I wonder if there was ever a boy who read a comic book who never had it occur to him that he would very much like to look like the comic book super heroes they were looking at.
What sealed it for me was when my older brother – who was already lifting weights himself – got me turned on to the Robert E. Howard Conan the Barbarian character. Believe me, Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t even come CLOSE to holding a candle to the incredible warrior that comes to life in the short stories of Howard. Howard wrote so vividly and so viscerally and so visually that you could SEE Conan in your mind’s eye. And I wanted to bring out my inner “Conan.”
And the only way I knew how to do that was to follow my big brother – which of course I’d already done so many times in the past – and start lifting weights.
I was already a big strong kid, and it didn’t take those weights very long to start leaving their mark. The muscles came out just in time for the coach of my high school football team to notice them. And those muscles made me one of the best players on the team. Thanks to Conan the Barbarian.
I really got into lifting after I got out of the Army. I seriously injured a knee during my service, and fell back into weight lifting during my rehab.
As I got big and strong, and then bigger and stronger, one of the things that I observed was the fact that those muscles gave me presence. I couldn’t help but notice that people noticed, much the same way they had noticed when I was wearing my jump boots and beret with my dress greens. A fair number of times I was in night clubs back then and women would come up to me and say, “Everyone in here is looking at you!”
I became used to that attention, such that it kind of went into the background as a common experience.
Which was why, as I first started to get away from weight lifting, and then as I began to put on the wrong kind of weight, I hardly noticed that I wasn’t getting quite so noticed. And then one day it was gone entirely.
Eight months ago, when I decided that it was time for me to start loving myself enough to start taking care of myself, I didn’t start out thinking about reclaiming my former glory. But it didn’t take long as I started dieting that I realized that I had to have some kind of vision of what I wanted to become. When you need to lose sixty pounds and beyond, you aren’t just going to lose weight; you are going to TRANSFORM. And as that realization came, I knew that I could never be content merely becoming smaller and thinner. Because I’ve always had that drive to stand out. And because when I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the ideal “me,” that “me” was always muscular and powerful. It took me about three weeks to decide that I needed to join a gym and get to work transforming myself from what I was into what I wanted to become.
I never dreamed any of the muscles that I’d fought so hard for only to allow to vanish would ever come back. But it turns out that there truly is something called “muscle memory.” As I started hitting the weights for the first time in years, my body remembered the experience and started working overtime to rebuild.
Weight lifting is probably not for most people. It is hard, grueling, even excruciating work. You’ve got to want something bad enough to force yourself to the limits of your strength and endurance. And then do it over and over and over again. When you lift weights, you literally tear your muscle fibers apart and force them to keep growing so they can survive the next torture session you are going to put yourself through. Every day is ass-kicking day, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the biggest, strongest, baddest dude there; because you are going to be kicking your own ass.
It takes a form of courage to go through workout after workout, day after day, week after week and month after month to keep pushing yourself past your previous limits.
I’ve had it all, and I’ve lost it all. Now I want it back, I’m willing to work hard to get it back, and I will never take it for granted again when I get it back.
It’s a fascinating thing: I can’t say I enjoy lifting weights. For example, I’ve got a case of tendonitis in my right elbow. And so I know that when I do those five heavy sets of standing curls that it is going to HURT. Oh, I could take three or four months off and get over that annoying pain – but don’t hold your breath waiting for me to do that. Sometimes I take a little longer to hit that next set because I’ve simply got to screw on the courage to do it. And even in the other lifts that don’t bother that nasty tendonitis, nothing is easy: in the brotherhood of iron we push our bodies to the point of failure and then past that point, and that kind of failure comes only with pain after an awful lot of exertion.
That’s the thing that makes weight lifting and bodybuilding a “brotherhood.” Every guy in there who keeps coming back for more knows what every other guy has to put himself through. In between our own sets we can watch our brothers struggling through their own. And there’s a respect for one another that comes as a result.
Now, I call it a “brotherhood,” but there are some women in that group, too.
There are some real beautiful women in my gym who push themselves real hard to get in shape and to improve that shape. The women are working toward a different goal, but they’re hitting a lot of the same exercises that hurt the most in their programs. But it’s mostly us guys who are doing that hard pushing. I’d say the hard-core lifters are at about a 15-1 male-to-female ratio. Women are most certainly welcome – please don’t ever think for a nanosecond that guys don’t enjoy watching an attractive woman work out! But until a lot more of them show up, the gym is a “brotherhood.”
Unfortunately, many women continue to believe the rather silly notion that if they lift weights, they’ll put on a whole bunch of muscle. The thing is, if putting on muscle were really that easy, don’t you think that all the guys – who have on average at least 20 TIMES the muscle-building testosterone hormone that women have – would all be walking around with giant muscles? Sadly, these women – along with not giving the men the credit for the muscles they had to work so hard to earn – are undermining their own abilities to transform and shape themselves by denying themselves the incredibly powerful tool of weight lifting.
There are women who work out hard several days a week in my gym. And these women are just absolutely gorgeous. Believe me, NOBODY confuses them for men.
But let us talk a little bit more about a gym as a “brotherhood.”
I can’t speak of every gym in the world, but in my gym, there are a lot of hand shakes and even more “fist bumps.” Many of us tend to train on the same schedules. We therefore see each other for a couple hours a day several times a week, we obviously have many of the same interests, we encourage each other and we start growing rather fond of each other.
Those of us who keep coming in and working hard have something else in common that unites us: we each of us have that sense of soul-deep vision as to what we ideally look like – and we’re each working to make that vision of ourselves a reality. No matter how hard it is or how long it takes. We’re the kind of people who are willing to fight to make what we dream about happen. That’s where the “Brotherhood of Iron” part comes in: we’ve each got to lift a lot of iron and we each need iron resolve in order to keep doing it.
Every man and woman has his or her own ideal self-image. Some guys just want to be big and powerful and they frankly don’t care whether they’re blocky-looking or don’t have “abs.” Other guys – and I’m in this group – want to build the muscle and eliminate the body fat. But there are a LOT of other potential ways to go, aren’t there? Runners and cyclists and swimmers all have a very different idea as to what they ought to look like, for instance. And that’s the way it ought to be. We each have our own bodies and we each have our own ideals and our own goals. What’s important is what we are willing to do to make those ideals and goals happen in the real world.
That’s the ultimate question: the dream or vision you’ve got – just what are you willing to endure to make it come true?
At this point I’ve probably got about twenty pounds more to lose – while working hard to keep the muscle I’ve got if not build more of it – in order to reach my own vision. Twenty pounds is a daunting challenge. But then again, I’ve already been there and done that three times as I’ve lost that sixty pounds, haven’t I?
What I love about my gym is that I’m in the right place, and in the company of the right people, to help me get where I want to be.
Update, July 21: As of today, I’ve lost 71 pounds in 10 months (and 7 pounds since I wrote this). And I have done it through a combination of nutrition/diet changes and an exercise level whereby an overloaded draft horse would look at me and say, “Well, at least I’m not THAT poor bastard!” I like exercise and I have made that work in my favor. But at the core of my program has been the fact that I literally envisioned and SAW what I wanted to become, and then I began to use weight training to help me accomplish my goals and make my vision a reality.
I’m getting there, and you can do the same. But it won’t happen until you make up your mind and truly resolve to MAKE it happen.