The riddle of steel


Everybody's favourite grumpy strength coach, Mark Rippetoe, wrote up a really superb article the other day in which he pointed out the reality of powerlifting as testable, provable, repeatable science. In other words, powerlifting is strength engineering:

In the field of the “exercise sciences” in particular we find an astonishing paucity of truly useful information with which to improve human performance. Instead, we rely on what is essentially an “engineering” approach – the application of physiology (the general-kind, not the exercise-kind), arithmetic, logic, analysis, and experience tempered by observation and constant adjustment for process optimization to the problem of how to improve human performance.

The application of these engineering principles to the problem of human performance has yielded the Starting Strength Method, which is testable, reliable science.

To wit: unless you are already a strength specialist – and you're probably not unless you have spent many years preparing for powerlifting competition, and are therefore not the subject of our concern here – you can improve your performance by getting stronger, 100% of the time.

The tested, reliable truth is that, when performed correctly, there is no more effective or more efficient approach to maximizing human performance in existence than the Starting Strength Method. This is true every time, without exception, because strength – the ability to produce force against the external resistances encountered in the environment – is the most fundamental adaptation necessary for increased performance.

The Starting Strength Method uses the basics of biology and arithmetic, refined through logic and analysis over decades of testing and millions of hours of practical refinement to produce the most effective and efficient strength program in existence. The Starting Strength Method is essentially strength engineering.

The really amusing thing about that article was that Rip started with a direct quote from a blog post by Supreme Dark Overlord Vox Day (PBUH) that discusses how most "science" out there is nothing short of garbage, because it is not reliable or testable in the real world.

This, predictably, caused quite a few of Rip's more liberal readers to shit bricks in the comments section. The rhetorical beatdown that ensued was nothing short of epic.

All of these antics and the highly amusing resulting drama unfortunately distracted from the main point of Rip's article, which is that there is simply no faster, more reliable, more thoroughly battle-tested method of making oneself strong and resilient than through powerlifting using a program like Starting Strength or one of its many derivatives.

Powerlifting, at its core, amounts to three things:
  1. Programming
  2. Repetition
  3. Dedication
And that's it.

If you are just starting out and want to build more strength, then you need a simple, rules-based program that gives you basic exercises, tells you how to do them with proper form, and insists on adding weight. And then you just get on with doing it.

This is why powerlifting "just works"- because ultimately it just comes down to: add weight and simplify.


But Rip goes well beyond making a simple point about why powerlifting works and is so effective at building strength. He points out later on in the same article that more strength equals better performance, in every application.

And this, too, is correct.

There are so many benefits to lifting heavy things that I could go on about them for a week and still not run out of things to say. Most regular readers of my work do not need to be reminded of any of these, but for the new folks, here are just a few.

The most superficial of these benefits is of course that you will look better. Your body becomes more muscular, leaner, tougher, bigger, and vastly stronger. You will look strong because you are strong.

Beneath this superficial layer, though, is the immense boost in confidence that lifting gives a man (or woman). One usually starts lifting with nothing more than an empty bar, and it is indeed hard to get past the ridicule and judgement of one's peers in the gym who look at some skinny-fat douche occupying the squat rack and barely bringing an empty bar down to parallel.

But it doesn't take very long- maybe 8 weeks, which is virtually no time at all in the life of a dedicated lifter- to go from lifting an empty bar to squatting at least one's body weight for reps. And very quickly, the sneering looks are replaced by shock and awe. The jackass dudebros who f@ck!ng CURL in the SQUAT RACK quickly realise that you actually have some idea as to what you're doing, and stay the hell out of your way.


Eventually, of course, your initial, very rapid, gains will tail off and you will hit plateaus. This is inevitable. One cannot continue adding weight to the bar indefinitely. Sooner or later, the laws of biology and physics catch up.

It is at this point that most lifters face an important choice.

They can shrug their shoulders and say, "that's it, I'm done, no point continuing down this road". In other words, they just give up because their numbers aren't going up in the same smooth progression that they used to.

Or they take stock and revise their programming- but they continue lifting. And that is because they have reached the point where lifting is no longer just about looking good or getting fit. Lifting has taken on a much deeper, almost spiritual, meaning to them.

We endure the pain and soreness, the exhaustion, the nagging injuries caused by past poor form, the commitment of time and effort, because the iron has repaid our initial investment in it a thousandfold. It has transformed us physically, mentally, and spiritually.

There is a calmness and a peace to be found in the steel. The barbell takes away our inner pain and exorcises our demons, and replaces these negative things with the feeling of bestial triumph that comes from lifting just a little more than we thought we could in the previous session.

The pain, the suffering, the agony- all of these side-effects of the iron become as nothing next to the prospect of hitting that next heavy one-rep-max squat or deadlift or bench press.


The greatest thing about the steel, though, is something that Rip references in his article: it gives a lifter resilience.

When done properly with good form, powerlifting is a very safe and extremely effective way to become very strong. Because powerlifting is strength engineering, it is a direct, testable, repeatable application of a scientific principle known as Wolff's Law, which clearly states that bone mass in a healthy person will adapt to the loads under which it is placed. The scientific hypothesis behind this has been tested and re-tested innumerable times and has been found to hold every time, which is why it is called a law.

The upshot of this law is that, as one's bones and muscles and tendons are forced to lift progressively heavier loads, they adapt and transform.

Through powerlifting, your entire skeleton becomes more robust. Your bone mass thickens to allow your bones to hold up against the weight. Your muscle fibres are torn down and rebuilt repeatedly by the stress of weightlifting, and they grow back stronger as a result, increasing in size and mass and density. Your tendons and ligaments become thicker and stronger in order to keep your muscles attached to your bones, and your bones attached to each other.

All of this makes you much more resilient against injury and pain in other areas of your life.

I have seen this for myself on the sparring mat. Impacts that stop others in their tracks have a much more limited effect on me. Even when I get hit with an especially good kick or punch, I am often able to shrug off the pain and keep fighting.

It is not that I do not feel pain- of course I do. If I get punched particularly hard and well in the nose, of course I'm going to bleed all over my shirt and of course I'll have to leave the mat. It is just that the pain is more easily absorbed and shunted aside because I can put it into perspective. I know that I can recover from that pain and move past it- and I can do so more quickly than most of the guys that I train with, because they don't lift.

Taking impact from hard kicks aimed at my legs, or hard punches aimed at my chest and torso, is less debilitating than it would be otherwise. (Though getting hit in the liver is still horrible. I don't care how strong your core is, a liver shot WILL drop you.) And that is because powerlifting has strengthened my body through repeated application of intense stress.

I'm not even all that strong (or at least, I don't think I am, relative to some of the guys out there). I'm just a hell of a lot stronger than most of the guys who go to any of the gyms that I have attended over the last 6 years.

I am simply someone who has tried to solve the riddle of steel, and in the process found that it gives back far more than it takes from you.

The chrome-plated solid steel barbell is not an enemy to be feared. It is a teacher to learn from. It is the silent friend and ally that tears a man down and rebuilds him, step by painful step. It gives a man the strength, the patience, the calmness and peace of mind, needed to endure the vicissitudes of an often deeply irrational and strange world.

And that is the riddle of steel: flesh grows weak, steel becomes brittle, but will is indomitable. It is through the steel that a man can tear down and rebuild his mind and his will, forging them in the crucible of pain that is the squat rack, so that these things absorb the very qualities of the material that he struggles to lift.

Powerlifting puts all of the scientific theories, all of the bro-science bullshit, all of the posing and nonsense, all of the hot air about how to "get ripped" and "look good naked" to the ultimate test by insisting on hard, rigourous, repeated application of a few simple ideas. That is what makes it so powerful and so effective- like all forms of time-tested engineering, it simply works.

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