Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why Train Strength - Part 1

The world we live in is funny. Honestly, strength isn't that useful day to day. We live in a world so divorced from physical survival now. There's no chance I will be chased by a tiger tomorrow. There's no chance someone stronger than me will take all my food. I mean, someone could take my food, but I could just go to the store and buy more. There's no animal carcass I need to haul home to feed my family. It's all cut up for me already and put in little plastic wrapped packages.

I have a computer job. Tapping on a keyboard all day does not require any strength. The only time I ever have to do anything remotely physical is to change the water bottle in the water dispenser. Sometimes I get boxes on the top shelves in the store room.

The water bottle holds 5 gallons of water so it weighs about 41 pounds. Of course it is bulky and awkward and you have to be able to pour the water into the reservoir and then flip it over without getting water everywhere. I'm usually the only man in the office so it's my job. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I used to struggle with it a bit. The consequence of my weakness was that sometimes the carpet got a little wet. Hardly life threatening.

So why waste your time training strength?

There are lots of reasons, but lets start with a very basic one - just to be a functional human being throughout your life. Once a person starts to hit that downslope of their life, somewhere around 35 years of age or so, they start to lose muscle mass. The technical term is called sarcopenia. It's a natural product of aging; it's inevitable that you will lose muscle mass.

Is it hopeless then? Hardly. The old adage of "use it or lose it" applies here. If you sit at your desk all day, and then sit in your car on the way home, and then sit on your couch all evening, then you will lose muscle mass faster then someone who trains. But is this really a big deal? It becomes one, yes.

It is very common for elderly people to have lost so much muscle that they have trouble standing up. You can get to the point where even in our incredibly non-physical world you can't function. What happens when you can't carry your grocery bags? What happens when you can't life a carton of milk to put it in your refrigerator? What happens when you can't maintain your balance standing and risk falling just walking around? The rest home is the next stop. It's not a question of longevity. It's a quality of life issue. What's the point of living to 100 if you spend the last 30 years of it having someone wipe your butt for you?

So training with weights gives you two advantages. You lose muscle more slowly and you can start from a higher level. If over the next 30 years I lose half my strength I will end up about where I was before I started lifting. I might start spilling the water again, but I'll still be able to do it. If my peers who are sedentary lose half their strength then changing the water bottle will be the least of their problems.

In a way lifting is like taking supplements. We take supplements because the food we eat doesn't provide all the nutrients we need to be healthy. We lift because the lifestyle we lead doesn't provide the physical stimulation to be healthy.

Of course there are many more reasons to pick up heavy sh*t on a regular basis. Stay tuned for part two.


  1. Good post, Matt. You've only scratched the surface, of course -

    Here's a list of the things that are MUCH easier now that I'm lifting with you - some of them, for no other reason that when I bend down to pick something up, I'm using the right form, so my joints and muscles are more comfortable:

    - Picking up my bike so I can walk up the steps to BART
    - Using our microwave (under-counter, so about thigh-height - I get to do an air squat!)
    - Picking up Jayden, wrestling with him, holding him over my head - there are many dozen ways playing with a kid is better if you have usable strength
    - Building the garden box in our backyard
    - Getting up and down out of my chair. (Yes. Stupid computer job.) I am basically doing a half-squat out of a chair now, and it's super comfortable - I can feel that my weight is over my heels, and now it feels 'right'
    - My hip joints were still weak from the replacement surgery - they are getting Physical Therapy like never before
    - My achilles tendonitis is healing from increased flexibility
    - Sleeping better
    - Filling out t-shirts baby - generally feeling better about yourself. Don't short-change the quality of life about feeling fit.

    Like I said - tons more exist. Great post.

  2. +1 for the bandwagon.

    However, keep in mind, that we are all probably closer to needing that strength that we realize. I recently spent a week visiting my sister and her family in Maine. I joked around about things like "hey they have electricity here after all", but there were plenty of examples of needing to be at least functionally fit and serious advantages of being in good, strong shape:

    - 2-3 chords of firewood drying in the yard. A nice site in the summer but not the 20 yards you want to travel in the snow in the winter. My wife and sister's husband moved half of it into the garage in like half an hour. I doubt some of the people in my office could have survived a few round trips.

    - A few acquaintances of theirs got the rare moose-hunting licenses this year. Apparently you get a single week and some GPS coordinates you have to hunt within. Not guaranteed to be near a road. One of them got a moose, and then had the task of getting 700-800 lbs of deadweight a few km's back to a truck. Food for the winter, but only if you can get it out.

  3. Besides - it is bad ass to be able to forward someone the link of you deadlifting 215lbs on youtube!

    Thanks Matt!