Blog » Real-Life Strength Training

Not many years ago I realized that I genuinely enjoy spending time in the gym, performing the slightly absurd task of lifting heavy objects and putting them back down again. Weight lifting combines self-challenge, attention to detail, and a meditative focus on the present moment that I find compelling and satisfying. And it's pretty great at getting me in better shape, which is something I’ve only started to care about as I leave behind the youthful decades when it comes most easily. Unfortunately a lot of what I see people do in the gym drives me nuts because it's the product of an approach to training that's fundamentally impractical and generally no fun.

Traditional weight training coaching, and thus most of the popular advice about it, has its roots in the world of bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is a strange pursuit: it demands untold hours of physical effort and discipline, all in the name of competitions that are judged visually, on the basis of muscular symmetry and proportion. It thus seeks the appearance of strength but not any demonstration of it, and is ultimately aesthetic rather than practical in principle. Not that most body-builders couldn't out-lift me (or just lift me) in a second -- it's just that they do their lifting in the name of a very specific competitive goal, and that goal is not being better at lifting heavy things. That goal, rather, is to enlarge each and every muscle in the body.

The exercises it takes to succeed in body-building are therefore very detailed in what muscles they work: you need to be able to develop your brachialis independently of your biceps, your rhomboids apart from your trapezius. This leads to the existence of a multitude of exercises and manifold exercise machines, all of which attempt to single out a particular muscle to exercise it in isolation. And that's where this approach to working out and I part ways.

I am looking to become stronger and fitter in order to deal better with the demands of the real world. I hike and hunt and canoe and climb stairs and carry heavy cases of wine home from the liquor store. There are lots of things in life that are far more pleasant if I am stronger and fitter. But at no point when we are moving and turning and lifting, out and about living our lives, do we use single muscles in isolation. We are always using and coordinating chains and groups of muscles that work together. And this is what’s missing from body-building-influenced exercise advice: real-world movement and practicality.

Most folks at the gym aren't planning on getting all slicked up with oil to flex for a panel of judges. Er, I assume. They want to have more muscle, less fat, and to be able to shovel snow or hoist groceries without too much effort or injury. (They also want to look sexy and awesome, of course. But looking sexy and awesome isn't the same thing as looking like a body builder.) Getting started in weightlifting is tough, however. If, like me, you tend to self-educate, you’ll initially encounter a vast majority of workout advice that’s muscle-specific and machine-heavy. It leads to onerous training plans -- like the ones I first used -- that read like an anatomical laundry list, involve twenty separate exercises, and take two and a half hours to complete.

I like to train in the gym to do things I might actually have to do in life. That means avoiding single-muscle exercises and machines that support the body while it performs some strange movement. Something like a preacher curl only trains you to do preacher curls. A deadlift, on the other hand, trains you to pick up heavy things in general. It works the body in ways the body actually needs to work.

Now, of course there are some great reasons to do isolation exercises. They can be very helpful if you are rehabbing an injury or working to get over a training plateau. I have proportionately poor upper body strength, and routinely use triceps pulldowns or extensions to help improve my push exercises (bench and shoulder presses, pushups, etc.). But if they structure your routine, then you are missing out on some very fun, effective, and practical workout ideas.

And full-body, practical workouts should be fun. They can be relatively conventional, focusing on power lifting and olympic lifting moves like snatches, presses, squats, and so on. Or they can be whimsical, in the style of crossfit or bodytribe, and have you tossing sandbags around, flipping truck tires and throwing kettlebells. What they have in common is the use of free weights and body weight, and they make demands of the whole body, either in exerting power or stabilizing movement.

Ideally, as in the bodytribe approach, working out should involve celebrating movement and taking joy in challenge and improvement. A workout should never be onerous or boring. I have found no better way to stick to exercise than by abandoning the tedious muscle-by-muscle checklist in favour of fewer, larger, more challenging movements that my body enjoys doing. So “practical” training is a lot more than the pragmatic pursuit of fitness; it’s also fun, exciting, tough, and celebratory. Our bodies evolved to move and lift and run, and I know that I’m much happier when I get away from the computer to feed that primordial appetite for activity, whether it’s lifting in the gym or getting lost in the woods.

The following resources have been amazingly useful along my journey to figure out strength training. I hope they are just as awesome for you: