I started strength training while on a six month deployment to Iwakuni, Japan, in the Marine Corps. My mentor was a staff sergeant who's arms were the size of my thighs. He was perennially in trouble with the physical training staff because of his weight. In my days in the Marines, the weight limits required did not account for percentage body fat. He was lean and he was huge, but he was overweight by the regulations. The Corps has changed since then.

 

Why does a young Marine come to strength training? I had hit the requisite twenty pull ups which gained me the maximum points on the Marine physical fitness test over a year previously in Non Commissioned Officers School. But my job was very physical. Pumping iron made me stronger and my work less taxing. However, I can somewhat abashedly admit that I did it for the appearance. Appearance is the first measure Marines apply to each other. Fitness was a fundamental requirement: to be unfit was to be a bad Marine. Years later, those reasons no longer applied, but those six months of initial lifting in the Far East, along with my running, carved out a niche in my mind that never disappeared. For my entire later life, fitness was a blend, sometimes a tension, between the need to lift and the need to run.

 

My embrace of distance running only came at age 49. As my mileage grew, I quickly realized that without the strength I gained in weight training, my shoulders and trapezius muscles became painfully tired on long runs. Later, I would discover in the scientific literature that strength in the  core and and along the running kinetic chain strength are strongly associated with reduced running related injury rates and even with improved performance. This was reason enough to pump iron, it was the will to better myself as a runner....and to look good.

 

 As running and lifting mixed in my life, they acquired a philosophic dimension. Officer Candidates School instilled the Spartan Ethos in me: simplicity, excellence in mind and body, dedication to duty. Health scientists have labelled our society as "obesogenic". Those of us who wish to escape, to reject that path in life, must dedicate ourselves to the pursuit of strength, endurance, and speed as goals in themselves. This requires rejecting the miriad comforts around us, and embracing simplicity and discipline in life and training. But the motivation for fitness goes beyond the merely philosophical. Fitness is the manifestation of health. Acquiring and maintaining optimal health is a duty to family and to society at large; to Marines, it is a duty to the Corps. Fitness is a facet of physical beauty. Myron captured this when he created Discobolus.  The Spartans understood this when they held athletic events in the nude. The Athenians understood this in their nudes of the perfect human form. I have said it elsewhere on this site: Why do I train? Because, when I step out of the shower and see myself in a mirror, I need to like what I see.

 

But why is fitness beautiful? It is beautiful because it evinces health. In this age of the mediocre, we often mistake absence of disease, or its symptoms, with health. The symptoms of most of the several life style or dis-use diseases that arise from lack of exercise can be managed and mitigated by pharmaceuticals. We mistake this drug dependency for health. We are wrong. This is not health. In the past half century, modern medicine has extended life by extending end of life morbidity, not by increasing health. Inactivity is not only bad for you, it is unnatural. Fitness results from strength, high maximal aerobic exercise capacity, good flexibility, and a lean body.1 2 3 Fitness is visual confirmation of health. Health is a prerequisite of reproductive fitness, the ability to co-parent offspring. Children are dependent on healthy, fit parents. Evolution merged fitness with physical beauty in order to maximize reproductive success. A healthy sexual partner is a partner mostly likely to be around to co-parent. Thus, the human species came to  perceive the fit as beautiful. 4

 

Pursuit of strength requires its own philosophy. The commitment to slip under the bench press bar at four o'clock in the morning needs discipline in both mind and body. The training requires lifting in sets. With each set, you feel your muscles weaken. In the final set, you push the pre-exhausted muscles to failure: the inability to perform another lift. It is a Sisyphean proposition, press the weight over and over again. According to Camus, Sisyphus finds his consciousness and validation in pressing the rock up his hill for an eternity. The athlete finds his vision for a future in those repeated sets pushing against an inexorable weight that slowly crushes and causes him to ultimately reach "failure". The steel weight crushes the flesh pushing against it, but in its failure, it becomes stronger. A reader of Homer's Illiad can find a like mind in the director of the movie "Conan the Barbarian". There is a world view in its themes that paralles the dark world of Achilles and Agamemnon. The central thrust of the movie is ironically expressed by the arch antagonist and only role who understands the human nature behind the actions of the characters in the movie: "Steel is not strong, boy. Flesh is stronger. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it? Look at the strength in your body, the desire in your heart. I gave you this!" 

 

1. http://www.acsm.org/public-information/articles/2016/10/07/getting-a-professional-fitness-assessment

2. http://www.goarmy.com/soldier-life/fitness-and-nutrition/components-of-fitness.html

3. http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/jsep.16.1.43

4. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150511-why-are-animals-so-beautiful