My teacher, the iron



What is the greatest friend, teacher, and partner that a man can have?

Some- most- would argue that it is a dog. I happen to agree, most of the time- as long as we're talking about real dogs, like Alsatians or border collies or golden retrievers, not chihuahuas mutated rats. A good dog, when properly trained and broken in, will teach you more about yourself and your abilities as a leader, provider, teacher, and friend than just about any human can.

The same could be said of a well-trained horse. Not for nothing did Ronald Reagan once say that the best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse. (Since I have never tasted horse-meat- at least, that I know of, I've surely eaten a sketchy burger or three in my time- I will have to take the Gipper's word on that one.) A good horse is again a source of comfort, comradeship, and joy to a man that takes the time to train one properly.

Others would argue that this would be your wife. And they, too, have a solid case to make. A good woman in a man's life is a source of warmth, security, and intimate companionship. Finding a good woman is getting harder than ever, which makes the few that remain worth the time and effort spent to search for them.

But, in my opinion, these choices are still subject to one major problem:

They all actually care about you.

The greatest teacher that I have ever found, by contrast, cares not one flying fig about me.

That teacher is the 45lb cold-steel chrome-plated barbell, commonly available in any halfway decent gym that has the sense and foresight to have a squat rack available among its equipment.

Truth in Action

It is easy to think of a barbell, and the weights on it, as an opponent or an enemy. When you're staring the prospect of a 405lb deadlift squarely in the face, it is easy to think that the weight doesn't want to come up off the floor, and that you are engaged in a battle with it to make it do so.

But actually, the iron doesn't care about you. It can't, for obvious reasons. It simply is what it is- an inanimate object that works against you every bit as hard as you work against it, by virtue of the laws of physics.

And because it cares nothing for you, it is the best teacher and friend that you will ever have.

The iron will never lie to you. It will never pat you on the back, telling you that you're better than you know, deep down, that you really are. It will never try to BS you into thinking something you know is wrong. It cannot willfully deceive you, and it cannot change your mind for you. It never tries to make things up, never attempts to change the weight of the plates attached to it, and never gives you anything that you did not earn yourself.

Every time you work with the iron, it teaches you about yourself. It teaches you what your limits are, and what you have to do to break them.

It teaches you when you get pinned under a heavy bench press, because you didn't drive through with your legs properly.

It teaches you when the bar slips out of your hands on a max-rep deadlift, because your grip isn't strong enough.

It teaches you when your knees start to buckle under a hard squat, because you're not ready to hit that weight with proper form yet.

The iron speaks to you, every time you use it. It tells you everything you need to know. You simply have to learn how to listen to it.

The Iron Price

More than this, the iron is the friend that you never knew you had, because working against it gives you the desire to be more than yourself, to be better, to become stronger.

The iron teaches you what it means to be a powerlifter. And trying to understand what that means is impossible until you walk up to a barbell that you think has a ridiculous amount of weight upon it, and then you lift it.

At first glance, it seems downright stupid to ask what it means to be a powerlifter. The sport simply comes down to performing three lifts: squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. At that most basic possible level, anyone who does these things on even a semi-regular basis can call himself a powerlifter.

But at a deeper level, powerlifting is a test. A very personal, very difficult test that each of us faces every time we step into the gym and walk up to the squat rack, the lifting cage, or the bench.

A powerlifter is measured by far more than just the lifts he does. The true meaning of powerlifting really comes down to a desire to be the best- or, at least, the best version of oneself that one can be.

Every time we go up to the bar attempting to max out a particular lift, we face our own personal demons. We face our fears- above all else, the fear of failure, the fear of inadequacy, the fear of looking ourselves in the mirror and realising that the man staring back at us just isn't good enough to do the tasks that were set before him.

Most friends will never force you to face your fears like this. They will attempt to protect you from that which will do you harm. And that is right and good- that is what good friends are for. But the best kinds of friends are the ones who will not only force you to confront your fears, but will walk that road with you, fighting back-to-back with you. (As my martial arts instructors like to say, your best friend isn't really your best friend unless you have punched him in the face, and he's punched you back.)

The iron is that partner- literally. When you work against it, the iron works against you. And when you achieve something, you know that it was all real, because those weights are real, their mass is constant, and your victory was won because you had the strength to put your beliefs into action.

And every time men like us lift that bar and those weights, there is that voice in our heads that we must confront and destroy, that voice telling us that we cannot do it, that it would be easier if we just gave up and walked away, that cries out for respite in the face of brutal demands placed upon our minds and bodies.

The iron, when properly used and respected, is the light that shines in the darkness of our own minds. It is, as Henry Rollins once called it, our call to greatness.

The Will to Win

Those of us who call the iron "friend" and "teacher" come from many different places.

Some of us took up weight-lifting because we just wanted to be "functionally fit".

Some of us took it up because we wanted to impress the girls.

Some of us tried it out as a hobby, and came to love it.

But many of us- I would wager, most of us- came to powerlifting because we were fat and weak and lacked self-respect, and wanted above all else to change that sorry fact.

And that is where the iron truly excels as a partner and a teacher.

There is something at the core of many powerlifters that we do not like, and that is what motivates us to do things that most people consider flat-out crazy. This is not a thing that we like to acknowledge, but it is true. We each picked up the bar for different superficial reasons, but they all come down to the same thing:

We didn't like who we were. We disliked ourselves so much, in fact, that we were willing to do whatever it takes to change, and become better.

Many of us picked up the barbell because we were tired of being weak. We remember full well what things were like before we found the iron. We remember how we lacked self-respect, how something in our lives seemed to be missing, how we lacked direction and purpose and seemed to be stuck in the same rut that we could never escape.

The shadows of our former selves haunt us. We know what we were, and most of us have in common a burning desire to make sure that we NEVER see that version of ourselves staring back at us in the mirror ever again.

The iron exorcises and banishes that ghost. Through the barbell, we confront the men we were, and we prove through our deeds, not our words, that we will not ever go back to being what we were. We will instead seek to improve our lives, to become more than what we were, to take the long view and focus on what we will be not a few hours or days from now, but years and decades hence.

Patience and Perseverance

The iron teaches you far more than how to be strong. It teaches you self-respect in a way that almost nothing else can. I have never met a man that I thought was strong, who also lacked self-respect. I truly believe that a strong man must have strength in all areas, not merely physical or mental, but both together. All of the truly great men that I have known have been phenomenally strong physically- many of them make me look like a weakling by comparison- but they all also have unshakable self-confidence, resolve, and mental fortitude.

Show me a man who can squat twice his own bodyweight, and I will show you a man who respects himself, who lives his life according to his own rules and rhythms, who knows what is important to him and who is willing to do anything to protect it..

No man who can lift those kinds of weights is weak-willed. It takes real guts to put yourself through mind-breaking workouts for two hours that leave your muscles screaming in pain, your head foggy and light from fatigue, and your lungs on fire. These workouts hurt. A weak man cannot confront that kind of pain- but a strong man embraces it. Such a man knows that the pain is temporary, that- when interpreted correctly- pain is a useful signal, and that when weights are lifted carefully and properly, the pain is merely a sign of progress.

Strength and Humility

If I had to name just one thing that the iron has taught me, I would say that its greatest lesson has been that strength and humility go hand-in-hand.

If I had my way, every real squat rack and lifting cage in the world would come with a small placard that would read something like the following quote, which Vox Day once mentioned was a sign placed in a gym that he worked out in for many years:
This place is for the weak, so they may learn to be strong.
This place is for the strong, so they may learn to be humble.
There is nothing quite like failing to hit a particular mark to teach a cocky young man some much-needed humility.

When you fail to do a lift- or, worse, you injure yourself by lifting weights that you aren't ready for- the iron is giving you the best possible advice it can, through the clear and terrible signal of searing pain. It is telling you that you are being a monumental idiot, and if you don't listen to it, then that is entirely on you.

Fortunately, most of us learn, pretty damn fast, to listen. And in the process, we acquire wisdom, care, and a far better understanding of our limits.

More importantly, we begin to understand what it means to break through those limits.

Being forced to confront your own weaknesses is a truly humbling experience- and I don't mean that in the fake "I'm so humbled to get this pointless award that I didn't actually do a damn thing to earn" sense. I mean that in the sense of having every last one of your inadequacies laid bare for the entire world to see- like you walked into the office wearing nothing but the Superman boxer shorts you wore as a little kid.

I noted above that the strongest men that I know have utter confidence in themselves, absolute self-respect, and will not take crap from anyone about who and what they are. But those same men also have humility. They have the grace and good sense to know their limits. They work hard to improve themselves, because they are humble enough to know that they are not perfect and always have room for improvement.

It is those such men- not the braggarts, not the vain and empty and shallow fools that our increasingly puerile culture strives to uphold- who are worthy role models.

The Long Road Well Traveled

I, personally, have now been lifting for nearly four and a half years. I am not, by many standards, particularly strong. Yet I strive to be better- one more rep, or 5lbs more, just to prove to myself that I can do it. When I am away from the iron for more than a few days, my palms begin to itch and my entire body begins to feel weak and lazy. My mind longs for the solace of the squat rack, the crucible that it represents, and the very personal test that I face every time I go to the gym.

I don't lift for anyone or anything other than myself. Unless you actively set up your workouts a certain way, and unless you tailor your diet to match, lifting for purely cosmetic reasons simply doesn't work. But- trust me on this- the iron will make a difference in how people perceive you.

When, after a few months of hard lifting, you walk into the office, back straight, chest out, relaxed and alert and calm, while everyone else trudges in hunched over and sluggish and tired, you will understand that difference.

When men begin complimenting you on your physique, on the very obvious signs of calm, quiet strength that you manifest, you will realise what a great gift you have given yourself.

When women smile at you for no reason even though you aren't dressed in anything special, just a shirt that fits well and shows a tapered back, strong shoulders, powerful chest, and solid core, you will see the results for yourself.

The iron is an unforgiving teacher and friend. It is incapable of mercy, compassion, or reason. It simply is. Yet, in being what it is- cold, ruthless, elemental, utterly devoid of any human qualities whatsoever- it is also the simplest, most honest, and most objective measure that you can use to chart your progress from the man that you are, to the man that you want to become.

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