Independently Strong

Three years ago I read a weight training book that was more influential on me than I expected.

Muscle

According to the book, called “Training for Mass” by Gordon La Velle, weight training is best done at high intensity. You might think all weight training is high-intensity. High-intensity training (HIT) is a particular flavor of weight training that advocates deliberate, intense action, in a short workout, to stimulate muscle growth. While some people who lift weights may spend hours at the gym, several times per week, with multiple sets per exercise, Training for Mass says this is overkill. It’s unnecessary at best, and may cause burnout or injury at worst. What’s needed is just one “work set” per muscle group, once per week. But it must be very intense.

“The higher intensity, the greater the growth stimulation. Within the realm of weight training, where muscular growth itself is the objective, the ability to generate a high level of intensity is the most critical factor under your control.” (p. 33)

Source: Flickr user mjzitek

Source: Flickr user mjzitek

Contrast the objective of muscular growth with the objective of appearing strong. If my goal is only to appear strong, there are certainly ways to fake it:

  • Assisted repetitions — An assisted repetition is when your friend helps you lift the bar. “If someone is helping you lift the weights, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in physics to deduce that the weight you’re lifting is equal to the mass of the weight minus the force being applied by the helper….” (p. 111)
  • Cheating — Cheating is to use bouncing, or momentum, or a change in your body position to lift more weight than normal. Not good. “[There] should be no bouncing, swinging, or using any other deliberate technique meant to increase the momentum of the lift. Any momentum present in the lift should come only from the simple linear movement of the weight.” (p. 107)

(Technical note: There is a place for assisted reps and cheating — on the very last repetition. Because it’s harder to raise weight than to lower weight, our muscles burn out on the raising part of a repetition (“concentric contraction”) before they burn out on the lowering part (“eccentric contraction”). When you can no longer lift on your own, assistance or cheating, if it can be done safely, can be used to raise the weight one more time, and then you should lower the weight entirely on your own.)

If your goal is muscular growth and you’ve been using assists or cheats (for more than the last rep), it’s better to reduce the weight, and the *appearance* of strength, and use a weight you can actually lift on your own.

“Why don’t these lifters just go lighter and lift the weight themselves, at least before reaching failure? This seems like it would make a whole lot more sense. Inflated egos might be the culprit here, since the lifters may want to appear to be lifting heavier weights.” (p. 111)

Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis

Source: Flickr user Pete Bellis

Character

Suppose we think of our character as a muscle. How could the above principles change our mindset about the development of character?

One of my favorite quotes of all time is from D. Todd Christofferson:

“[God] is endeavoring to make us independently strong — more able to act for ourselves than perhaps those of any prior generation.”

To me, “independently strong” is different from “appearing to be strong” or “strong when assisted.” I don’t know that we can expect to have character that’s chiseled and solid without actually lifting heavy weight. When the weight is heavy and it feels like there’s no Trainer assisting, maybe that’s on purpose.

A friend recently told me that 2013 has been the hardest year of his life. If we had been leaving the gym, and he had said this was the hardest *workout* of his life, I would have congratulated him. Maybe hard days and hard years are cause for congratulations. If you’re having the hardest year of your life, maybe you’re becoming the strongest you’ve ever been.

UPDATE on May 17, 2014: Elder David A. Bednar has an excellent talk on burdens: Bear Up Their Burdens with Ease

3 thoughts on “Independently Strong

  1. Jared

    Well written and very true. Christofferson’s quote is one I return to often. It’s a great reminder of how many “workouts” we’ll likely still have to endure if we hope to become independently strong.

    Another angle I’ve wondered about regarding the strengthening and refining effect of trials and difficulties is can too much cause lasting damage or trauma, much like over training in the gym can cause irreparable physical harm? Or is preventing trauma or damage to our psyche or character always in our control and merely a matter of how we interpret and respond to adversity? I think it’s the latter, though it doesn’t always feel that way.

    This Ted Talk by psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that stress and difficulties may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. This is similar to your idea, Richard, of viewing trials in a positive light. This talk claims that changing our perception of trials and stress, rather than removing them from our lives, actually results in significant, measurable, positive physiological effects.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend.html

    There’s also a great quote at the end: “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort. The best way to make decisions is to go after what creates meaning in your life and then trust yourself to handle the stress that follows.”

  2. sara

    Little lights were going off for me as i read your article. Rather than a refiner’s fire – a hard workout. We may feel like we are being beaten down, but really we are being built up. Seeing it that way, changes things. Thanks Richard

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