At a party we hosted recently, we ended up talking a lot about lifting heavy weights in the gym. In the middle of the conversation, my wife wondered loudly as to why “so many intelligent people are into weightlifting nowadays”. A few theories got postulated in the following few minutes but I’m not going to talk about that here.
Anecdotally, this is true. The two people I hold responsible for getting me lift heavy weights are both people I consider rather intelligent. I discuss weights and lifting with quite a few other friends as well. Nassim Taleb, for a long time, kept tweeting about deadlifts, though now he has dialled back on strength training.
In 2012 or 2013 I had written about how hard it was to maintain a good diet and exercise regime. While I had stopped being really fat in 2009, my weight had started creeping up again and my triglyceride numbers hadn’t been good. I had found it hard to stick to a diet, and found the gym rather boring.
In response, one old friend (one of the intelligent people I mentioned above) sent me Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength (and a few other articles on cutting carbs, and high-fat diets). Starting Strength, in a way, brought back geekery into the gym, which had until then been taken over by “gym bros” doing bicep curls and staring into mirrors.
It’s been a long time since I read it, but it’s fascinating – I remember reading it and thinking it reminded me of IIT-JEE physics. He draws free body diagrams to explain why you should maintain a straight bar path. He talks about “moment arms” to explain why the bar should be over your mid-foot while deadlifting (ok this book we did discuss at the party in response to my wife’s question).
However, two incidents that happened last week gave me an idea on why “intelligent people” are drawn to lifting heavy barbells. It’s about challenging yourself to the right extent.
The gym that I go to (a rather kickass gym) has regular classes that most members attend. These classes focus on functional fitness (among other things, everyone is made to squat and press and deadlift), but I’ve for long found that these classes bore me so I just do my own thing (squats, press / bench and deadlift, on most days). Occasionally, though, like last Friday, I decide to “do the class”. And on these occasions, I remember why I don’t like the class.
The problem with the gym class is that I get bored. Most of the time, the exercises you are doing are of the sort where you lift well below capacity on each lift, but you do a lot of lifts. They train you not just for strength but also for endurance and metabolic conditioning. The problem with that for me is that because every single repetition is not challenging, I get bored. “Why do i need to do so much”, I think. Last Friday I exited the class midway, bored.
My daughter is having school holidays, and one of the things we have figured is that while she has grasped all her maths concepts rather soundly (the montessori system does a good job of that), she has completely failed to mug her tables. If I ask her what is “7 times 4” (for example), she takes half a minute, adds 7 four times and tells me.
Last Monday, I printed out (using Excel) all combinations of single digit multiplications and told her she “better mug it by Friday”. She completely refused to do it. There was no headway in her “learning”. I resorted to occasionally asking her simple arithmetic questions and making her answer immediately. While waiting to cross the road while on a walk, “what is six times eight?”. While waiting for the baker to give us bread “you gave him ?100 and the bread costs ?40. How much change should he give you?”. And so on.
She would occasionally answer but again her boredom was inherent. The concept learning had been challenging for her and she had learnt it. But this “repetitive practice” was boring and she would refuse to do it.
Then, last Friday, I decided to take it up a notch. I suddenly asked “what is four and a half times eight?” (she’s done fractions in school). This was a gamechanger.
Suddenly, by dialling up the challenge, she got interested, and with some prodding gave me the correct answer. An hour earlier, she had struggled for a minute to tell me what 8 times 7 is. However, when I asked her “what is eight times seven and a half?” she responded in a few seconds, “eight times seven is fifty six..” (and then proceeded to complete the solution).
Having exited my gym class midway just that morning, I was now able to make sense of everything. Practicing simple arithmetic for her is like light weight lifting for me. “Each rep” is not challenging in either case, and so we get bored and don’t want to do it. Dial up the challenge a little bit, such as bringing in fractions or making the weights very heavy, and now every rep is a challenge. The whole thing becomes more fun.
And if you are of the type that easily gets bored and wants to do things where each unit is challenging, barbell training is an obvious way to exercise. and “intelligent” people are more likely to get bored of routine stuff. And so they are taking to lifting heavy weights.
I guess my wife has her answer now.