Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Why Do You Lift Weights?

by Robert Novitsky | June 25, 2019

hard physical effort

Has anyone ever asked you, "Why do you lift weights?"

It seems like a simple question, but it actually might take you aback and give you a moment's pause. A number of people might have answers that seem a bit vague or cliché. They might tell you that they do it to stay "fit and healthy," to put on "more mass," or they want to "look good naked." These were all things people told me when I asked them the question I'm asking you right now.

Human motivations can be messy, and sometimes we just don't know why we do certain things. Yet we go about our day, never really giving it a second thought. Analyzing our motives takes time, effort, and a willingness to confront some unpleasant thoughts in order to make us better and stronger people. Not everyone wants to be a philosopher (it's tough business!), but I would say it's essential to make a habit of questioning why we do some things and not others, so that we don't become human tragedies, and so that we have a clear purpose that doesn't just feed our narcissism.

If people were honest, then most would admit that their main motivation to "hit the gym" is to lose body fat and look "ripped." That's all you ever hear in Men's Fitness, Women's Health, and all the other crappy publications promulgated by our mainstream consumer culture. It's no wonder that most people get a membership at a "big box" commercial gym, go for a month or so, and never come back. In fact, gyms like Planet Fitness can charge so little because they know that they will never be filled to capacity. They rely on people not showing up.

Why is it so hard to motivate people to go to the gym and stick to a program? Simple: their motivation for going to the gym is ass-backwards.

I did a quick Google image search for men's magazine covers, and what I found was laughable. The words they use hypnotize men into feeling inadequate, while saturating their minds with photoshopped pictures of celebrities (who are, of course, "better" than them in every way): Pack on muscle! Get shredded! Sculpt a v-shape! Big League Biceps! Double your endurance! Fast abs! Your cardio sucks! Instant muscle! Etc!

The magazines for women are no better: Tight and toned! Your best body ever! Flat abs made easy! A sexier body at any size! Lose belly fat forever! Look great naked! Shortcuts to getting fit and sexy! Your best butt! Etc!

Don't get me started on those Instagram "models."

Everybody seems to be selling sex, and an aesthetic appearance is just a means to that end. Yes, most of us want to look good for other people, but if your sole motivation is to get those shredded abs you can grate cheese on in order to impress others…you're just a douchebag. Let me give you a piece of advice: instead of focusing on your perceived aesthetic flaws, just focus on getting stronger.

Strength is truly functional; everything else is glamour. Your ability to exert force against an external resistance is what counts in terms of quality of life, health, and longevity. It's not how big your biceps are, or your protruding abdominals. If you really want that physique  – and I'll be the first to admit that I wouldn't mind looking like a Greek god myself  – you can have that as an ancillary benefit, but just get strong first!

Countless studies have pointed out the benefits of strength training for improving athletic performance [1], building stronger bones [2], relieving symptoms of anxiety [3] and depression [4], maintaining muscle mass [5] and brain health [6] in old age, and lowering all-cause mortality risk [7]. These are all good reasons to lift weights, and these can all be motivating for reasons other than merely achieving an aesthetic physique.

If you're an athlete, your intentions are clear: Strength training improves performance on the field. If you're an elderly person, resistance training can help you stay strong and vibrant. If you're young or middle-aged, male or female, lifting weights can give you something beyond health and appearance   – it can build confidence and mental toughness. Everyone can benefit from getting stronger.

Few want to hear about the hard work, consistency, and overall dedication required to achieve what they're after, and even fewer do it for the right reasons. According to CDC data [8] from January to September of 2017, only 23.7% of American adults between the ages of 18–64 met the government's guidelines of aerobic and muscle strengthening activities during their leisure time. The data doesn't seem to be understated if one also factors in physical activity at work, because most jobs these days only require enough physical strength to pick up a stapler [9].

This data is depressing, but it tells you something. One, don't look for physical fitness advice from the government; to call their guidelines vague is an understatement. Two, our culture is inundated with fitness advice, and yet, 40% of Americans are obese [10] and the majority are sedentary. What gives?

A major reason that people don't stick to a program is that, oftentimes, they don't know what they're doing and they have no accountability. They show up to the gym, get that "pump," see some results for a little bit (because untrained people always see some results due to the fact that they're doing more than they did before), and either quit or get stuck doing the same thing, showing no further signs of improvement.

With a strength program like Starting Strength, an untrained individual can see a massive strength increase in a short period of time. Every training session is motivating because the trainee sees the weight on the bar increase day after day. Rather than chasing a pump and focusing on how good you'll look in the future, you can see a predictable linear progression that's measured in the only thing that really matters: Strength.

Furthermore, when strength increases as a result of doing the big compound lifts (squats, deadlifts, press, and bench press), muscle mass is more efficiently distributed across the entirety of the body. This gives you a solid foundation of strength through neural efficiency, as well as muscular mass, which you can later shape to your heart's content.

Even bodybuilders know the importance of progressive overload to build bigger muscles. However, they aren't particularly focused on developing functional strength. Their main concern is muscular hypertrophy (i.e., muscular size), and they achieve this through high volume work. Strength is simply a side effect of their training, but is normally not intentionally developed to the extent of someone focused on getting stronger.

In my opinion, flipping your priority from looks to strength can be far more rewarding and motivating for you and most people, unless you truly want to participate in physique competitions. You're still getting the benefits that come with both, but with an emphasis on something that will actually be useful to yourself and others. You'll be stronger than the average bodybuilder, and will look good as a side effect.

Now when somebody asks you, "Why do you lift weights?," you can look them straight in the eye and tell them in no uncertain terms:

“To get strong!”

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Lesinski, Melanie, et al. “Effects and Dose-Response Relationships of Resistance Training on Physical Performance in Youth Athletes: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, BMJ Publishing Group, July 2016.  

Hong, A Ram, and Sang Wan Kim. “Effects of Resistance Exercise on Bone Health” Endocrinology and Metabolism (Seoul, Korea), Korean Endocrine Society, Dec. 2018.

Gordon, Brett R, et al. “The Effects of Resistance Exercise Training on Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2017.

Nebiker, Lukas, et al. “Moderating Effects of Exercise Duration and Intensity in Neuromuscular vs. Endurance Exercise Interventions for the Treatment of Depression: A Meta-Analytical Review” Frontiers in Psychiatry, Frontiers Media S.A., 19 July 2018.

Liu, Chiung-Ju, and Nancy K Latham. “Progressive Resistance Strength Training for Improving Physical Function in Older Adults” The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 8 July 2009.

Northey, Joseph Michael, et al. “Exercise Interventions for Cognitive Function in Adults Older than 50: a Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis” British Journal of Sports Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2018.

García-Hermoso, Antonio, et al. “Muscular Strength as a Predictor of All-Cause Mortality in an Apparently Healthy Population: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Data From Approximately 2 Million Men and Women” Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Oct. 2018.

Schiller, Jeannine S, et al. “Early Release of Selected Estimates Based on Data From the January–September 2017 National Health Interview Survey” Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Physically Strenuous Jobs in 2017” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 25 Oct. 2018.

Hales, Craig M, et al. “Prevalence of Obesity Among Adults and Youth: United States, 2015–2016” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, NCHS Data Brief, No. 288, Oct. 2017.   

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