Spiritual Training: The Linear Progression

by Geoff Bischoff | November 14, 2018

bischoffs at the tempe fall classic

If you’ve spent much time reading here, you probably know someone you’d desperately like to see get into strength training, but who views it as inferior to other forms of self-improvement. Perhaps they haven’t seen the value of physical strength, and they think that the spiritual or intellectual should take precedence. You know that if they would just Do The Program (DTP), they would see its value. After all, as Rip writes at the end of the opening paragraph of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd Edition, “it is instructive to see what happens to these very people as their squat strength goes up.”

I am a spiritually-minded man whose strength has gone up. And it has indeed been instructive. I’ve learned that strength training, especially the active pursuit of physical strength, is the best servant of my soul. Barbell training is training in virtue, and virtue is foundational to a healthy soul.

I am a Chaplain Candidate in the US Army National Guard. I wasn’t always a Guardsman, wasn’t always in the Chaplain Corps, wasn’t always a man of faith. Prior to my Christian conversion in Sadr al-Yusifiyah, Iraq, in 2008, I’d have said I was somewhere between atheist and agnostic. Early in my Christian life, I found the gym. During the Surge, we converted a lot of properties into patrol bases. Ours was called Patrol Base Warrior Keep. It was a mansion the preceding unit had fortified with sandbags, machine-gun turrets, a 120mm tube, and concertina wire. You couldn’t do much there between missions, but there was a gym with some old, beaten down equipment.

When I found myself so stir-crazy and cooped up that the gym sounded like a good idea, I had no idea what to do. All I had was an abandoned muscle mag with a workout I followed slavishly for weeks and weeks, repeating it at higher intensities. Because nobody told me I shouldn’t do so, I progressed linearly on the stupid exercises I was doing. Adding more weight than last week seemed a natural thing to do, and I hadn’t read enough of The Literature to know that Just Wasn’t How It Was Done. I ate a lot because I wanted to get bigger, which worked somewhat. I left Iraq 30 pounds heavier than I arrived, but I was still underweight for my height. I got stuck at that weight and strength for a long time. I learned the basic barbell movements in Crossfit, and got the squat to 255, the bench to 245, the strict press to 145, and the deadlift to a single at 335 that, if captured in watercolors, would be called “Angry Alley Cat on a Fence.”

I lacked focus, but pursued all of it as a spiritual discipline, a pursuit of virtue. I knew I needed something more focused. My rounds were missing, but somewhere there was a target. I didn’t have the vocabulary for it yet, but I needed training, and I was merely doing exercise. The Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (LP) provided what I knew God was calling me toward: Physical strength, and alongside it, the virtue learned in the progress. LP both requires and directly increases at least two specific virtues: Diligence and courage.

Diligence. Diligence is persistent and focused effort. Effort that is abortive and erratic, no matter how focused, is not diligent. Effort that is diffuse and aimless, no matter how persistent, is not diligent. Diligence requires persistence and focus, and without it we accomplish very little of value, spiritually or otherwise.

Diligence continues toward a particular goal. Paul is right in line with this when he writes, “I run in such a way as not without aim; I box in such a way as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave.” Most of us desire the diligence that allows us to truthfully say, “My body is my slave.” This caliber of diligence does not arrive in the mail: It has to start small, and grow up in roughly linear fashion.

Barbell training both requires and increases diligence in a linear fashion. At the novice training log section is replete with examples of men and women who began to DTP. Often, within a few weeks, a person heads out on vacation without providing for training and has to reset or start over; sometimes a person just disappears from the training log forums after a week or a month. These fail the first test of diligence: persistence. Others begin their logs with a caveat that they will DTP, but they won’t allow any weight gain or they’ll insist on continuing a regimen of running or distance cycling or some other recovery-limiting factor alongside LP. These fail the second test of diligence: focus.

Diligence learned in barbell training is immediately applicable outside the weight room. In my graduate studies, at least three of my professors will assign at least 2,000 pages of reading. Nobody can sit down and read 6,000 pages. But most people can read 60 pages a day for 100 days if they’re persistent and focused. In work projects, any large project can be diligently pursued in smaller pieces. In spiritual discipline, I would like to be able to concentrate on the Divine for a long period of time without deviation of thought. For one as multifocused as me, even half an hour seems a nigh unattainable goal for such perfect meditation. What is half an hour, though, but 30 minutes? Or better yet, 6 sets of fahve.

Courage. Courage is continuing in the face of fear. Don’t tell my ecclesiastical authority, but my favorite quote on courage comes not from the Bible, but from Robert Heinlein, in his novel Time Enough For Love: “Courage is the complement of fear. A man who is fearless cannot be courageous.”

Fear takes many forms, acute and chronic, large and small. And courage, the complement of fear, therefore also takes similarly diverse forms. In active battle, there is an acute terror associated with the real possibility of immediate death or dismemberment. What drives some forward, into the danger, while others shrink back? Are the courageous and cowardly born that way, unable to move the needle in either direction? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’d say that the courageous have progressed linearly, from smaller to greater fears, and thereby from smaller to greater exercises of courage. Barbell training, and especially the LP, both requires and linearly increases courage.

Take the squat, the emperor of exercises. In the initial phases of LP, you may be squatting a heavier weight than you have ever had on your back before, and you’ve got to do it fifteen times. I was scared, the day I got my body under 355 – not the acute terror of impending mortality, but a series of smaller fears. What happens if I fail? I could injure myself: physical fear. I could look stupid in front of all the filthy quarter-squatters and squat-rack-curlers in the globo-gym: social fear. What happens if I succeed? I would probably be in pain afterward: physical fear. I would have to face the same chronic dread for three days until it was time for 360: call this one the “fear of fear.” But because I had faced every increment of weight up to 355, my courage had increased incrementally, so when the time came, I got under the bar. In this case, the weight came up, all sets and reps. Later, at higher weights, that was not the case, but by then I was prepared for it.

Within your faith tradition, assuming you have one, chances are high there is a discipline or duty expected of you that requires courage to perform. Most of us in Western society have limited opportunities to incrementally increase courage by incrementally facing smaller fears. For most of us, increasing courage requires seeking out voluntary hardship. Barbell training, and especially LP, provide the opportunity to do so in a controlled environment.

I could make similar cases for the value of LP in training the virtues of Humility, or Patience, or nearly any other virtue you may care to name. When that spiritually-minded person in your life – maybe you – casts into doubt why you’re doing all that heavy lifting in the gym, you can tell them with a straight face that you are making your soul stronger. Barbell training is training in virtue, and virtue is foundational to a healthy soul. The most effective and efficient barbell training is the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression. By extension, the LP is the most effective and efficient training in virtue you are likely to find.

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