The Zen of Iron

By Michael Applebaum, MD, JD, FCLM

A friend of mine started a new diet and had some questions about it for me.  To learn more about this plan, I did an online search..  In my cybertravels, I came across the Website,  This site purports to critique, compare and contrast different diets.  Whether it does or does not do a good job of this is not relevant, what caught my eye was the following phrase which is seen repeatedly on this site:

“The biggest problem with … health club-style workouts in general is that they are pure exercise. Most people lose their motivation in time. That is why we prefer lifestyle exercise sports for health, fitness and muscle building. Examples include tennis, hiking, cycling, climbing, dancing, etcetera...“

Although the notion that muscle-building is the result of these activities shows a basic misunderstanding of the process, what attracted me most was the idea that “The biggest problem with … health club-style workouts in general is that they are pure exercise” and not a “lifestyle exercise.”

This is very, very wrong.

In fact, a “health club style workout,” i.e., “pure exercise,” is arguably the most lifestyle-like of all possible "exercise" activities (at least that is what I hope to get you to consider).  This is so, because a “health club style workout” is very much like life itself.  I will limit this discussion to resistance training.  You can apply it elsewhere.  Your choice.

Lifestyle is a way of life.  It speaks to how we live.  In all domains.

If I asked you what you wanted most from Life, i.e., the results of your lifestyle, what would you say?  I mean, if you really thought about it.  This will rid the answer pool of responses such as “Mel Gibson,” “Michele Pfeiffer,” “a million bucks,” etc.  If you really thought about it, you would most probably say something like, “Happiness, freedom from worry, absence of suffering, etc.”

Zen comprises the Chinese and Japanese schools of Mahayana Buddhism.  This belief system asserts that enlightenment can be attained through meditation, self-contemplation, and intuition.  In fact, the word “Zen” is derived from the Sanskrit word for meditation.

Meditation is the act or process of reflection or contemplation.  To meditate is to plan in the mind; to intend.

The Buddhist notion of enlightenment is that of a blessed state in which the individual transcends desire and suffering and attains Nirvana.  And Nirvana is the ideal condition of rest, harmony, stability, or joy.

A successful lifestyle, yours, mine, whomever’s, is based upon our ability to contemplate what we do and to free ourselves to succeed through the Zen of that activity.

Human relationship is a fundamental of lifestyle for most of us.  The weight room serves as a proving ground for relationship building.  Following the etiquette of the club (“being a good citizen”), asking for help/a spot (humility, need, politeness) or providing help/spotting (giving, caring, assisting) are relationship types in which we engage daily.  No person is an island.

I feel most comfortable speaking to you in my role as a medical doctor.  In my practice, which is diagnostic ultrasound, I try to become one with the image I create.  To portray the world realistically.  To make an image that is true.  Before I begin an examination, I contemplate what I am likely to encounter.  I develop the intentionality of the image-making process.

I would hope that others doing what they do in life: aircraft maintenance personnel, research scientists, assembly-line workers, would think similarly.  Lack of intention, care, concern and focus; or distraction, confusion, unpreparedness can all lead to disastrous consequences.  Even having fun is ruined by lack of clarity.  Interruption of fun by worry is just plain too bad.

If you have ever witnessed someone who actually wants to do well in the weight room, you will see him or her prepare for the lift.  The inward gaze to the spirit and soul is obvious.  The union of harmony with the mass of iron, stability with it and the technique of perfectly moving the load is the goal of the contemplation.  A clarity in the mind of focused effort results from a successful contemplation.

What you accomplish in the weight room is all you.  There is never the “I did better because the weight did worse,” “My progress was due to a strong tailwind,” or “The weight helped me.”

True, there is a purity to the weight room.  It is generally purely you one on one purely with the iron.  No other persons (except a spotter).  No other personalities.  No equipment to fail or blame (in general).  Just you and the iron and your relationship to it.

The weight room is a perfect lifestyle setting because with a weight there can be no excuses, only reasons.  In life, reason always trumps excuse.

Another similarity with “Zen” sports.  Take grunting, for example.  When pushing or pulling a significant amount of weight, it is not uncommon for a lifter to vocalize.  Generally, when done right, this is the result of an abdominal contraction, from the center of the body, focused at marshalling the body’s energy into the lift and using proper form by preventing the lifter from holding his/her breath.

Ever hear of the “kee-yop?”  That is the sound Bruce Lee used to make as he marshaled his body’s energy into a punch or kick.  The “kee-yop” is associated with the gathering and release of the chi, which is the energy or life force of the universe, believed to flow round the body and to be present in all living things. The manipulation of chi is a basis of the Chinese martial arts.

Focus is basic to a successful lifestyle.

If it is true that “most people lose their motivation in time,” it is not because resistance training is not a" lifestyle exercise," it is more likely that those people do not understand the nature of "exercise" (really, training) and the body’s need for it.  It is also likely that many of them lead an unsuccessful or unsatisfying lifestyle.  At the professional level, "exercise" (really, training) is routine.  It is technique performed repeatedly over and over again to achieve excellence in pursuit of perfection.  Countless ground balls, countless post patterns, countless free throws, countless lobs, countless drives.

Let me tell you a story.  Japanese sword making is a craft that reached its acme some 1200 years ago.  A samurai sword is made of 32,768 layers of 0.00001 inch-thick steel forge-welded together. It is hard and flexible.  It is a wonder.  How was such amazing quality control achieved?  Especially in the absence of advanced scientific and engineering knowledge like those of temperature control systems and measuring the carbon content?  Ritual and ceremony.  That is the answer.  By having a ceremony surrounding the sword-making, these craftspersons were able to consistently produce swords of extreme quality.  An unwavering and precise ritual assured quality and outcome.  Similarly, violin-making during the eighteenth century was ritualistic.  The point?  Ritual and ceremony, as in the preparation and performance of training, can help yield outstanding results.

Do you think that firefighters have no plan for most types of fires.  Do you think that crime scene investigations occur in a random fashion?  Do you think that airplane pilots fly each flight differently through improvisation?  Do you want that kind of pilot sitting in the cockpit of the plane you’re on?

The weight room is that kind of environment where excellence through the repeated application of technique can manifest.  It is where the routine of lifestyle can be developed and honed.

Truly participating in the weight room is at least as much lifestyle as participating in “tennis, hiking, cycling, climbing, dancing, etcetera.”  It is possible to find lifestyle features in virtually any endeavor.  To suggest that resistance training is void of this value, seems, in my opinion, to miss the point.

Succeed in the weight room and you can succeed in any of life’s domains.