Don’t skip leg day

Almost every late Saturday morning, after the baby goes down for a nap, I head out to my garage, open up the door, and do five sets of squats.

Lemme tell you something: I hate squats. I love weightlifting, but hate squats. They’re hard, even when what I’m lifting is well within my ability. One reason, I think, is that squats have a uniquely psychological aspect. You’ve got a few hundred pounds resting on your shoulders, and it feels really, really heavy. The first step in squatting is to get focused mentally; you must first believe that you can lift this weight. You visualize it, and pump yourself up for the lift, especially once you start going heavier. And once you finish a set, you feel the aftereffects deep in your bones.

The reason squats feel like such a big effort is because, physiologically, they are. Squats work your largest muscle groups, the whole posterior chain in combination, and are probably the single best example of a functional compound exercise. This is partly why squats the cornerstone of any good strength conditioning program. They improve your balance, strengthen your knees and hips, and work your thighs. Squats work your whole body like few other lifts, and in so doing, make your body stronger.

Years of weightlifting, and especially squats, has changed my thinking about my relationship to my body and my perspective on everything else. In short, regularly challenging myself to lift heavy pieces of metal is a direct reminder that I’m mostly hamburger and bones. All the other ways I think about myself are, at best, ephemeral, and at worst, imaginary, existing wholly in my head and not in “the world.” This aligns increasingly with the lens through which I evaluate how I feel, and how other people behave. Namely: we are the products of biological processes. And when you draw this thread out to its logical conclusions, it makes a big difference in how you see the world.

Most people like to think that they are, in a way, spiritual beings that exist primarily in their heads. Modern hyper-educated people are particularly drawn to this belief and conceptualize themselves in terms of the ideas they hold. I’m a liberal or conservative; a devout Christian or an atheist; a vegetarian, capitalist, midwesterner or a Panthers fan. These are all fundamentally tribal identities based on ideas. Some of those ideas are good, others bad, many are somewhere in between, and they are all meaningful in their own way.

When you’re doing squats, however, all of that is beside the point. You can either lift your bodyweight on the bar or you can’t. What you believe does not matter, because your body is fundamentally a machine, not an idea. How much force you can exert with it is a function of biomechanical strength, not creativity or intelligence. As someone who works in a knowledge-based job, this is a refreshing change of pace.

The world of ideas – all that stuff going on inside our heads – is awfully interesting stuff, in part because it’s always changing. The way we humans conceptualize ourselves and our world is in constant flux, and that change is faster today than ever before. The reason is mostly technology, which has not only facilitated way more people living on earth than at any other point in history, but also lets us constantly talk to/debate each other. I am one of those people who tends to think that the history of ideas has generally trended in the direction of better ones over worse ones. In most ways, human society is slowly getting better. That process is not inexorably forward, however. It’s also debatable whether this so-called progress has actually made people any happier – or whether that’s even a meaningful question to ask.

The smartest ape

But for all the interesting progress in our world of ideas, we remain rooted by some fundamental constraints: namely, our biology. We are genetically indistinguishable from the first homo sapiens who (we think) tromped around east Africa a quarter million years ago. Like those early people, we also share 99% of our genes with chimps and bonobos. Our psychic development as modern humans, and thus the construction of our modern identities, has taken place utterly and completely within the realm of culture. In other words, our ideas about ourselves are what has changed. Not our biology.

Our brains are remarkably elastic, and thus able to accommodate lots of new and modern ideas. Yet our bodies are stuck a quarter-million years in the past. The human body evolved to move about the savannah. It’s meant to walk, run, climb, work, lift and do fine motor skill work. We evolved very finely-tuned muscles to do skilled things with our hands and to make minute facial expressions, and to recognize them in others. We evolved as omnivorous apes living in small, closely knit communities. We did all of these things for millions of years, long enough to direct our species’ very evolution. And then, in the relative blink of an eye, modern life turned all that on its head. Today, lots of us are sedentary, obtain food through an industrial, invisible food chain, live largely isolated from each other and far from family networks. We still compete for status, but do it through symbolic posturing mediated by capitalism.

While modern science has greatly aided our health (through medicine and knowledge of germs), the modern lifestyle is mostly disastrous for it. Exploding rates of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer are widely observed, and though the exact mechanisms for each aren’t all perfectly understood, we know there’s a link. What much of it comes down to is what we eat and do – or, more to the point, don’t do. In the industrial, and certainly post-industrial, world, we are eating more, but poorer quality. We are doing more in economic terms, but often in seated, or at least repetitive and boring tasks, through which our bodies atrophy. Our health suffers, and we look to medicine to solve it; but there’s no solving the realities of modern life. You either fight the path of least resistance the modern world lays out, with sedentary lifestyles and a processed diet, or wait for them to eventually kill you.

Don’t skip leg day

So back to my Saturday mornings.

I got serious about weightlifting a few years ago. I found that I enjoyed it, which is the most important thing, because it meant I could stay consistent. I liked the feeling of getting stronger. My lifts went up. Progress begets progress, and it led me to take more interest in improving my diet. I started paying attention to what I ate, how much, and when. I got serious about getting enough sleep.

Over time, I dropped about fifteen pounds of body fat. I got stronger. I didn’t get sick very often anymore. Long-term changes are infamously hard to track, and most of them, I only noticed much later. I have more energy now. I don’t mind rolling around without a shirt (in the right contexts, of course), and have a lot more confidence about how I look than I used to. I’m certainly not posting oiled-up shots on Instagram, but that’s not the bar I’m trying to reach. Importantly, weightlifting put me in communication with my body. I know when I’m pushing myself, and when I’m maybe trying to do too much. I know what the “right type” of sore feels like, and what feels not quite right. I know when I’m getting stronger, and when I could push a little harder. You develop a mind-body connection that I didn’t know about before, and which only develops by rigorously testing yourself physically. (Runners talk about this too. I hate running, so I don’t really do it, but I think it’s probably a similar thing.)

But after a while, what weightlifting also did was it helped me get out of my own head. You can either lift the weight or you can’t. You can lift the heavy set for either 3 reps or 4. If you fail, then you can try again another day. You either get stronger, and are able to challenge yourself further; or you don’t, and you know you need to change something. Those are hard facts that exist independently of my subjective ideas about the world. I listened to Matthew Crawford’s latest book, The World Beyond Your Head, in part while doing my routine, which I would strongly recommend to anyone.

I do not always want to lift. There are many, many days when I’d prefer to just kick my feet up and read instead. But I know that it is even more important to go and lift on those days. There’s always a certain amount of activation energy required to go exercise, and one of my reasons for putting in my garage gym was to reduce those barriers as much as possible. Sticking to a program requires discipline, but after a while, it begins to instill the same. Once you incorporate lifting – or any exercise – into your lifestyle, it becomes much easier to do consistently.

I still hate squats. But squats are part of the deal. My body is a machine, and keeping the machine in good condition isn’t always the most fun thing to do. But it’s a better alternative than atrophy. I am my body, which itself is the current iteration of millions of years of primate evolution which I can’t fight. The body is a fundamentally physical thing, and like any machine, if it doesn’t get used, it deteriorates. There’s no such thing as a healthy mind with an unhealthy body.

Now, off to grab a protein shake.