Most men ebb and flow in wretchedness between the fear of death and the hardships of life; they are unwilling to live, and yet they do not know how to die.
Seneca, Letters from a StoicAdvertisements
Over the years I have developed an intense dislike of goals and goal-setting under non-competitive conditions, primarily because our current obsession with self can cause them to both define and limit us. It is oft repeated that goal-setting is an essential component of the strength training journey, otherwise – what is the point in training at all? The nebulous “for life” response is typically met with disdain / dismissal and/or disgust in a professional context and though irked by this, I could never fully provide the goal-setting camp with a rebuttal that didn’t devolve into some form of existential babble.
If goals can be self-limiting or self-destructive, how can one find purpose behind strength training and why should we even bother doing it? A confluence of ideas and questions during my most recent visit to New Zealand brought the answer to light.
It should not be a revelation that humanity is in its twilight. Our urban environment is filled with constant light, constant noise, densely populated areas, limited movement and limited sleep, resulting in a crushing array of stressors so great we self-medicate with [name-your-comfort-poison]. Abundant garbage in the guise of food and drink, social media, repentant exercise, pain-numbing entertainment or chronic starvation through ethical delusion exemplify the beginning of a seemingly endless litany of ways in which we alleviate the torment of this mismatched existence.
The term ‘mismatch’ is key here. The human animal is maladapted to the combination of our modern environmental stressors and even more so – comforts. We are not doing well by any standard and only our incredible will keeps us stumbling forwards through each day. Society convinces us that looking a certain way or gathering trinkets large and small opens the door to utopia. Some of us work toward this, yet never reach the promised land of happiness and long, fulfilled life.
If we look at past evidence of indigenous tribespeople, we typically find a life of comparative environmental hardship occasionally punctuated by short outbreaks of violence caused by inter-tribal war, the defence of their way of life or the quelling of an authoritarian figure gone too far. Any recorded imagery shows humans suited to that environment, with body composition and musculature matching the cyclic nature of the factors affecting them. We also see largely egalitarian societies with strong social bonds, cooperation, and a sharing of food and resources that is an almost entirely alien concept in a free modern Western democratic neoliberal societyTM.
The facets of capacity developed in the pursuit of strength training can be (but are not limited to) positive hormonal, musculoskeletal, structural and neural changes in the body, resulting in a more robust battlecage than the previous iteration. What’s interesting about developing this environmental capacity is that it’s essential for ensuring protection from the elements of our urbanal existence. That’s a strange thought, isn’t it? We must work hard to survive our comfortable surroundings.
The modern untrained human is not like it used to be, it is also not, and never was, the fault of the untrained human in question. It is born without consult into a world it was never prepared for. The genetics passed on to it are likely to be from relatively weak, low muscle mass, primarily sedentary parents that grew up in a global dichotomy of obsessive cleanliness alongside innumerable pollutants pumping into air, water and food sources. The overweight, the underweight, the weak, the exhausted and the inconsolably miserable are identified as somehow responsible for the circumstances they find themselves in. Nobody would ever suggest the fault may lie in the collective hubris of previous generation’s delusion of “progress”.
If this stuff seems a little gloomy, maybe that can explain the troubled miasma that hangs on the human disposition these days. We’re collectively aware that things aren’t right, but haven’t the equipment to resolve it. This should come as good news. It should enable us to shrug off the personal labels we carry regarding our health, physique and mental state – which are usually given a name by others before us. We can disregard the “motivation” memes marketed to us. We can decide to upgrade our battlecage or watch it degrade knowing that our environment is to blame – not we as individuals.
The reason to develop strength is to protect us from the life we have created. A necessity against the battle that rages around us each day. We are beset on all sides by equally deadly comfort and stressors and for this, we must develop an environmental capacity greater than the forces that work against us.
Strength training slows the accelerated decrepitude afflicting the modern human.
Exist > Survive >
If we are in agreement that we do indeed exist and that we are indeed in an environment, we may be able to see more clearly the poisons and pitfalls it presents. With that in mind, it may become easier to understand there is more reason to maintain and upgrade a battlecage than to expect it to withstand the elements in perpetuity. The more harsh the environment, the more maintenance and protection required. In gaming, many of us understand that upgrading equipment directly correlates to challenge difficulty and our ability to survive. What we may fail to realise is this game only has one life, with no save points. We’re effectively playing hard mode with permadeath rules.
From this perspective, it should be clear to those who do not strength train that it would be of benefit to enhance their battlecage. There is no downside to increased defence against what could be called environmental toxicity. We don’t have to compete, we don’t have to have goals, we don’t have to do it for aesthetics, we can simply do it to make this game a little more enjoyable to play. It should also now be self-evident that we shouldn’t have to strength train, which presents a compelling question: how do we thrive in modern life – but that is a larger discussion for another day.