The Zen of Weight Lifting – The New York Times

Chop wood, carry water and other lessons that apply far beyond the gym.

By Brad Stulberg

  • Nov. 22, 2019 – The New York Times

One of my favorite movements at the gym is called a farmer’s carry. You hold a heavy weight — for me, around 95 pounds — in each hand and attempt to walk with a solid, upright posture for between 30 and 60 seconds.

Once, while my workout partners and I were carrying, as we say, at our local YMCA, an older gentleman enthusiastically asked, “What’s it for?” I was quick to explain that farmer’s carries work your grip, core, arms, legs and even cardiovascular system — an utterly elegant full-body exercise. But the man wasn’t satisfied. “What’s any of it for?” he exclaimed, alluding to the two hours I spend repetitively moving iron every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning.

It’s a good question. The physical and mental health benefits of weight lifting are well documented. Weight training can help us to maintain muscle mass and strength as we age, as well as better mobility and metabolic and cardiovascular health. It may help ease or prevent depression and anxiety, and promote mental sharpness.

And yet, regardless of why anyone starts lifting weights in the first place, most people I know who stick with the sport over the long haul don’t do it because it’s a means to an end. For us, lifting weights becomes a transformative practice to be undertaken primarily for its own sake, the byproduct of which is a nourishing effect on the soul.

Weight lifting offers participants a chance to pursue clear and measurable goals with outcomes that can be traced directly back to oneself. In his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft,the philosopher Matthew Crawford writes that “despite the proliferation of contrived metrics,” so many activities in the modern world suffer from “a lack of objective standards.” In the workplace, for example, a job well done is almost always contingent on external factors like office politics, the opinions of your supervisors or the mood of your clients. In many sports, outcomes are affected by things like weather, equipment, officiating or the performance of teammates.

In the weight room, however, it’s just you and the bar. You either make the lift or you don’t. If you make it, great. If not, you train more, and try again. Some days it goes well, other days it doesn’t. But over time, it becomes clear that what you get out of yourself is proportionate to the effort you put in. It’s as simple and as hard as that. A kind of straightforwardness and self-reliance that gives rise to an immense satisfaction, a satiating feeling that makes it easier to fall asleep at night because you know you did something real, something concrete, in the world.

This doesn’t mean that progress happens fast or is always linear. Consistency and patience are key. If you try to rush the process or force heroic efforts, you invariably wind up getting hurt. Weight lifting, like so much in life, demands showing up day in and day out, taking small and incremental steps that, compounded over time, lead to big gains.

Whether you like it or not, there will be plateaus, which in my experience tend to occur right before a breakthrough. Weight lifting teaches you to embrace them, or at the very least accept them. This is an important outcome, with consequences extending far beyond the gym. “In the land of the quick fix it may seem radical,” writes George Leonard, a pioneer of the human potential movement in the 1960s, “but to learn anything significant, to make any lasting change in yourself, you must be willing to spend most of your time on the plateau, to keep practicing even when it seems you are getting nowhere.”

For most, the plateau is a form of purgatory. But to advance beyond the low-hanging fruit in any meaningful discipline — from weight lifting, to writing, to meditation, to marriage — you must get comfortable spending time there. Weight lifting shoves this reality in your face since progress, or in this case, lack thereof, is so objective. Yes, you can make tweaks, some of which will prove beneficial. But none of that matters if you don’t keep showing up and pounding the stone.

But here’s a paradox: Pound too hard or too often, and you’ll run into problems. The only way to make a muscle stronger is to stress it and then let it recover. In other words, you’ve got to balance stress and rest. Exercise scientists call this “progressive overload.” Too much stress, not enough rest, and the result is illness, injury or burnout. Too much rest, not enough stress, and the result is complacency or stagnation. It’s only when yin and yang are in harmony that you grow — another lesson that applies to a lot more than lifting weights.

It is true that from the outside, weight lifting can seem dull or boring — same movements, same barbells, same people at the same gym. But once you steep yourself in the sport you realize — and not just intellectually but also in your bones — that it contains the essential ingredients for human flourishing. The perennial wisdom traditions and decades of psychological research point to three basic needs that, when fulfilled, allow people to thrive. Weight lifting offers all three in full:

  • Autonomy: The ability to exert oneself independently and have control over one’s actions.
  • Mastery: A clear and ongoing path of progress that can be traced back to one’s efforts.
  • Belonging: Being part of a community, lineage or tradition that is working toward similar goals.

None of this is about achieving a specific result or acquiring some bright and shiny object and then suddenly becoming content, an illusion we chase outside of the gym all the time. The Zen of weight lifting — the joy, fulfillment, hard-earned calluses and growth — lives in the process, in the journey. That’s why if you hit a big personal record lift, sure, you’ll enjoy the moment. But odds are, you’ll be back — same movements, same barbells, same people at the same gym — for your next scheduled workout.

There’s an old Eastern adage: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” It’s great training advice too.

Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) writes and coaches on performance and well-being. He is co-founder of the Growth Equation and co-author of “Peak Performance” and “The Passion Paradox.”

Fit for Life – Friday November 29, 2019


Strength Day

Part 1

10 minute EMOM
3 dynamic/tempo squats
progressively load each set to an RPE of 8/10

Part 2

10 minuted EMOM
3 deadlifts
progressively load each set to an RPE of 8/10

Part 3
Perform 4 sets of each exercise, alternating between the 2

6-10 hip thrusts

10 physio-ball hamstring curls

Avoid Frailty – Take Control

This past Monday many of you shared interesting articles from the news with me.  I also received an email from one of you from Zoomer Promotions and the Canadian Frailty Network.  The information below has come from the Canadian Frailty Network and is part of its new public health awareness campaign:

“Frailty is widely misunderstood,” says Dr. John Muscedere, Scientific Director for the Canadian Frailty Network (CFN). “People assume that frailty is just something that is going to happen as we get older, but frailty is not an inevitable part of aging.”

Frailty is often unrecognized and commonly attributed to getting older. Luckily, Canada is a leader in frailty research and ways to identify it. What we know is that while frailty can affect people of any age, it is increasingly common in adults aged 65 plus and affects over half of those over the age of 80. It strikes women more than men, is more common among people of lower socio-economic status and First Nations communities. Common symptoms of frailty are low physical activity, weak grip strength, low energy, slow walking speed and/or unintentional, rapid weight loss.

The hallmark of frailty is that it increases the risk of severe, adverse medical outcomes and even death from minor stressors like the flu or a fall. People living with frailty may require frequent visits to emergency rooms, often require assistance with daily activities or need long term care. Severe frailty is often associated with people approaching their end of life.

That challenge, to reduce the number of people who become frail, is one that has been embraced by the Canadian Frailty Network (CFN). CFN has launched a public health awareness campaign, one that literally spells out how we can reduce the risk of becoming frail, take control of our health and AVOID frailty.


See below how you can AVOID Frailty and take control…


The best way to stay mobile, strong and healthy is to do activities that strengthen your muscles, get your heart beating, and challenge your balance. It’s never too late to start! Even adults in their 80s and 90s have been known to rebuild muscle strength with regular exercise. Activity and exercise can slow, and in some cases reverse frailty. Remember to also let your body recharge and repair.  Older adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep nightly. Find out more about staying active.


As we age, our body’s ability to fight off infection is reduced. Vaccines are safe and effective, and they greatly improve your ability to resist infectious disease and avoid illnesses that can cause hospitalization or lead to poorer health. Adults over 65 years of age should get the high dose flu vaccine annually, as well as a shingles and pneumonia vaccine once as an adult over age 50. Also, check that your booster shots up are to date, including diphtheria, tetanus and pertussisFind out more about vaccines.

Optimize Medications

1 out of 4 Canadian adults over the age of 65, take at least 10 different types of medications. Some medications may no longer be required, while other new medications may be needed. Have your health care provider review ALL your medications periodically, including prescriptions, over the counter drugs and even vitamins and supplements. If unchecked, multiple medicines may interact poorly and cause side effects which may lead to frailty – like poor nutrient absorption, confusion, dizziness and falls. Find out more about optimizing your medication.


In older adults, loneliness has been associated with a 45 per cent increased risk of death. Evidence also suggests that loneliness can accelerate physiological aging and may lead to several other health problems, including high blood pressure, depression and dementia. Older adults with strong social relationships enjoy a better quality of life and often live longer! So be willing to make new friends: join a club, take a class or volunteer in your community. Meaningful relationships matter to your health! Find out more about staying involved.

Diet and Nutrition

Food is medicine! As we age, we need more of certain nutrients like protein found in fish, eggs and other sources to keep muscles and bones strong. Vitamin D and calcium also support bone and muscle strength and may help prevent frailty. Eating enough good food and getting proper nutrition can reduce the risk of frailty and help you live well, longer! Find out more about eating well.

Fit for Life – Thursday November 28, 2019


Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body – Oh wait, it’s good for our mind too!!

Complete 4 sets of:
A) DB Floor Press   6 reps
B) Ring Rows   6 reps
C) DB lateral raise  8 reps
Conditioning Workout
Part A – complete as many rounds and reps as possible in 4 minutes of:
10 KB Swing
2 Burpees

Rest 2 minutes

Part B – complete as many rounds and reps as possible in 4 minutes of:
15 Sumo Deadlift
5 ring rows

*rest as needed through out the workout

In the News

There were lots of great articles on health and aging in the news yesterday.  Thanks to everyone who shared them with me.  I am not able to provide links to all of the articles here, but will try to summarize and give links where possible.

The first article was in the Globe and Mail and was titled

“New study shows the right workout routine can help fight dementia”

You can read the full article here.

Genetics and exercise habits contribute roughly equally to the risk of eventually developing dementia.  We have no control over our genetics, but we do have control over our exercise choices and routines.

Some tentative answers to what kind of exercise we should be doing have come from a recent study out of McMaster University.  The 12 week study involved 3 groups participating in 3 different intensity types of exercise: higher interval type intensity, moderate steady state intensity, and a control group that did only relaxed stretching. The highlights of the 12 week study saw that the group that did the higher intensity interval type performed better on cognitive performance assessments.

The lead researcher, Jennifer Heisz, that the more moderate group also saw improvements on the cognitive performance assessments, while the control group actually saw a decline in their performance.  Therefore the big take home message is that we must be exercising at a minimum of a moderate intensity for our brain health.  “Adding intensity – “this can be as simple as adding hills to [a] daily walk or picking up the pace between light posts,” she says – just speeds things up.”

The research is also showing that strength training and exercises that involve gross motor skills engage your brain and improve your cognitive health.  One of the researchers suggests mixing up your exercises through out the week to ensure that you are getting the benefits.  Find something you like to do and stick with it!

I hope you found this information interesting and that it will inspire you to keep up with your exercise routines.  As this week progresses, I will try and share more of the new articles from Monday with you.

See you in the gym!







Fit for Life – Wednesday November 27, 2019


Adductor Lunge – Great work from everyone in class on Tuesday with this exercise!

Wednesday’s Work:

Strength Focus
Core Day – complete 4 sets of each exercise.  Make sure you rest at least 1 minute between sets.

A) Bird Dog   8 reps each side
B) Plank holds:  10sec Right Side plank, 10sec Prone plank, 10 sec Left Side plank
C) Dead Bug Hold 30 sec

Conditioning Workout

Working in groups of 3 for 15 minutes

150-200m row
Steps ups
Farmer Carry

1 minute rest

Partners all work at their station until the person rowing is complete, then partners rotate stations.  Once all 3 people have completed one round, everyone rests for 1 minute and then repeat.

Fit for Life – Monday November 25, 2019



Strength Focus

Complete 5 sets of
A) Deadlift 5 reps …. work towards an RPE of 7-8/10
B) Polloff Press   8 reps each side

Conditioning Workout
In teams of 2, alternating movements, leap frog style, working for 20 minutes

10 calorie row
10 Sumo Deadlift
10 KB swing
10 Push Press
2-4 burpees


Fit for Life – Wednesday November 20, 2019


Strength Focus
Complete 5 sets of:

A) Prowler Push
B) Sled Drag
C) 5 Push ups

Conditioning Workout
Compete 3 rounds, working for 1 minute at each station with 30 seconds rest to rotate:


1 complete minute of rest between each round

Work at a steady pace (RPE 7/10), track calories at each station and try to maintain the same number each round.