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Why I Gave Up Wearing Pants
Notes on Weightlifting, Competition, and Age
We all meet with a shit-ton of resistance in life, so why add to the load? Especially as we age, and our burdens feel progressively heavier.
A number of years ago, during a period when I was experiencing higher than usual stress, I made the genius decision…no, I didn’t even decide, I blindly backed into countering that life stress not with yoga or diazepam, but with more stress, albeit of a different type. My day job was editing a contemporary art magazine, while most of the rest of my time was spent trying to finish a book. Two deadlines for the book had passed, the current one was, my agent and editor warned me, an edict from god. And I’d taken a substantial (for me) advance, so there was no backing out. Yet, rather than unwind each day after work by vegging out on videos or by writing or drinking at art or literary events, which would have at least advanced my professional life, I began to wind things even tighter—by getting serious about lifting heavy barbells over my head.
When done artfully this activity is sometimes called weightlifting. I say sometimes because weightlifting is an obscure and neglected pursuit, of interest largely to introverts who prefer numbers or books to socializing. A measure of its obscurity and neglect is the fact that it doesn’t even have a commonly accepted name. For the majority of gym-goers, weightlifting refers to almost anything you do with weights, from bodybuilding to powerlifting to just messing around, and so to clear up—or add to—the confusion the sport is often referred to as Olympic lifting, because its two components, the snatch and the clean-and-jerk, comprise the only barbell sport in the Olympic Games. Yet because it demands the production of the most power of any barbell activity, weightlifting is often confused with its more extroverted cousin, powerlifting, which would be a more appropriate moniker were it not already taken.
Initially I took up weightlifting just to get better at CrossFit, which incorporates the lifts, and which I’d begun in order to get as fit as possible. After all, I was rapidly sliding into middle age: staying in the best shape I could seemed a reasonable response. In retrospect, I also wanted to look good—in clothing and out—although at the time I didn’t acknowledge, or even realize, this fact, in part because I didn’t need to. I was biking to the gym six days a week in order to be fit and, I believed, I didn’t care what that looked like, as long as, I told myself, I performed better and better.
But only saints and a few born puritans don’t worry about what they look like, and I am far from either. At my CrossFit box I was known as Eight-pack Dan, because I never met a shirt I didn’t want to rip off. Weightlifting would change all that: as soon as I lost the abs, I kept my torso well hidden under large T-shirts, while being demoted from Eight-pack to Old Dan.
Despite a lifelong aversion to wearing clothes, I do appreciate fashion. Our second skin is a daily expression of who we are or aspire to be: I care about cut and color, feel and fabric, and how those things make me look and what they say about who I am. Unfortunately, I soon found that my new stress intensifier refused to cooperate with my taste in clothes. I have, for instance, always been a skinny jeans guy, in part because I’ve always been relatively thin. Not rocker thin, not a tall Ramone who needs to peg even the narrowest of pants, but a shortish mesomorph with a long torso, stubby limbs, and not much extra fat. It’s a build, I would eventually learn, that is well suited to weightlifting. Weightlifting, however, is not at all suited to fashion. If skinny jeans are the sexy, teen idol of the pants world, weightlifters are the baggy, faded, sky-blue dad jeans of the sporting world. When you practice it, you spend your days squatting (front and back, as well as with the bar overhead, in the snatch), which bulks your quads like yeast causing rolls of dough to expand, and fashion, be it men’s or women’s, famously cowers at thunder thighs. And designers, it seems, loathe a juicy bottom.
After a few years of squatting and pulling heavy weights, I could no longer shove my calves through the leg holes of skinny jeans, and I felt like I needed to rent out an extra room for my quads. My shirts ticked up a size (which is fine if they’re Ts but turns dress shirts and other types into tents). This was a while ago, before the widespread advent of Lycra-infused apparel, but it remains pertinent. For ages I’d been exercising under the delusion that it was all about what my body could do, while delighting in my prominent inguinal crease and the lines I created in clothing. It wasn’t until I’d spent months weightlifting exclusively that I came to see what training for performance, as opposed to health, really means—it means sacrifice.
Performance, of which sport is the most obvious physical expression, deforms—or rather forms—us. The tennis player’s unequal forearm hypertrophy, the gymnast’s upper-body development, the size of a lineman in American football or Japanese sumo. To perform, one must prioritize certain qualities at the expense of others, most notably aspects of health. Which is to say, the aims of performance do not always square up with those of health or fitness: if I focus my training on my results in the snatch and clean-and-jerk, I inevitably neglect aspects of cardio-respiratory fitness, of deadlift strength, and, to some degree, of my overall muscle mass.
And, as I mentioned, I am formed by my practice in a particular way: my quads have grown too large for skinny jeans, while my back is expanding beyond the bounds of what even an imaginative tailor might cut for. Stylish clothing, it will shock no one to say, is designed for a very specific silhouette, one that for men is thin, with long narrow legs, a wispy waist, and rangy shoulders. That is as true today as it was then, although now we also have the great boon of athleisure. Back then, however, I realized that either the squats had to go or my commitment to fashionable clothing, and so I abandoned my trousers and button-downs and sports coats in favor of sweats, shorts, and T shirts.
Physical practices have long changed modes of dress, and in turn these sartorial swings have both reflected and helped foster socio-political shifts. In the late 19th century, the advent of the bicycle led to the acceptance of trouser-wearing by women, and the two together allowed women far greater independence, of movement but also of general agency. A woman could leave the house to travel far, unchaperoned by a man. A couple of decades of bicycle-riding, trouser-wearing women resulted in American and British women garnering the right to vote. Toward the end of the 20th century, jogging and aerobics informed feminism and the sexual revolution in producing the sports bra, again providing women with greater freedom of physical self-expression, while at the same time demolishing long-held standards of modesty and formality.
Now, it’s not that I imagine that my sweats somehow delivered me from oppression by some junta of the long and thin. But it does seem interesting to consider how the world has changed in the era of ubiquitous #legproblems.
Observers of culture tend to see athleisure as a sort of extension of the style revolution of the sixties: a rejection of formality in favor youthfulness. It is those things, however I think we can go deeper than that. The replacement (by only a portion of the population, of course) of boxy suits and oversized shirts by sweats or gym tights represents an evolution from draping the body—denying it, hiding it, out of sight and mind—to spotlighting how it looks, broadcasting our shape and contours, as well of course with how it performs. Your dad and granddad’s suits did not allow for crouching and crawling, kicking and running, twisting or leaping. And baggy though they were, those suits, like todays tighter ones, did not allow for legs built by squatting or deadlifting, for big legs, despite what one can do with them, were regarded as ungainly, uncouth, and unaesthetic. The cultural modification of athleisure prioritizes movement and plasticity, the ability to change and do, rather than camouflaging our decay and eventual decrepitude.
Of course, decline is inevitable. The kilos you once added to the bar are now steadily subtracted. Maintaining one’s general fitness as a stay against age makes sense, less so stubbornly trying to compete in weightlifting. Doing so in your forties makes about as much sense as deciding to become a gymnast at that age: you’re suddenly demanding from yourself absurd levels of flexibility, speed, strength, power, and balance. Why train and strive for peak performances at all as we age, especially as those peaks sadly jut with less and less amplitude?
Here the comparison with CrossFit is useful. Like bikers, swimmers, and runners, CrossFitters practice the art of suffering: the more pain you can take the better you do. Weightlifters, by contrast, suffer for art. Despite the fact that they train neither to look good in clothes or out (both of which involve dieting down to body-fat levels that tend to hinder performance in strength sports), weightlifters are in fact quite preoccupied with aesthetics. This may seem like an odd thing to say: there are no style points in weightlifting; it is judged solely on an objective criterion, the combined weight of your best snatch and clean-and-jerk on a given day. And yet those of us who are fans of the sport attend not to the numbers per se but to the beauty of an athlete’s movement. In the vast majority of instances, the weight you see lifted in competition, in training, or on social media are weights you’ve seen made a hundred times. Nobody shows up to a meet to find out what it looks like when a woman snatches 110 kg, as impressive as that is—because we’ve all seen it, and we’ll probably see it several more times that day. Sure, every once in a while someone hoists a truly huge weight, breaking a record, but we don’t spend hour upon hour watching solely in hope of glimpsing the all-time best numbers inching upward. Rather we follow the lifter’s limbs the way an audience gazes on a dancer’s—and in fact the comparison is especially apt. We’re at a weightlifting meet for the ballet the lifter dances with the bar, and thus hers is a performance both in the theatrical, or entertainment, sense as well as the athletic sense. For seasoned viewers, the aesthetics of a lift portends the future, for the prettier the movement the more efficient it is, and efficiency lends itself to heavier lifts. Once you’ve recognized that fact, you come to understand that the weight on the bar is simply a measure of how challenging it is to move well around it.
So challenging, in fact, that I often think those of us who bother with this sport of no name (and a nearly equal number of fans) suffer from a genetic predisposition to futility. Those who spend time on the lifts tend to do so out of what Yeats called “the fascination of what’s difficult.” When I first saw people flinging up terrific weights with lubricated ease, I knew I had to try it. Who wouldn’t want to take a heavy deadlift, propel it upward just high enough so that you can squeak under it in the hope that you’ll be strong enough in that absurd squatting position to “receive” the bar, which happens to be crashing on you like a refrigerator tipped out a window? What I found is that few things will expose your limitations like the snatch and clean-and-jerk. Even with the lightest of weights, the physical precision required was beyond my capacity; I felt estranged from my body, like it was a puppet jerking around; the flexibility required seemed unreasonable. The accuracy of movement is similar to hitting a tennis ball or a golf ball or pitching a baseball, except it differs in two respects. First, as my coach once said, weightlifting combines a throw—propelling the bar upward with the legs in the snatch, clean, and jerk—followed, in hundredths of a second, by a reversal of the nervous system and structure, an instant drive down into a catch, be it at the bottom of the snatch, the clean, or the jerk. To do this at all is difficult (try it with a broomstick), but to do it with flair, striking with whip-like speed, only to stop as in freeze-frame, fully locked out, with no wobble, with nothing less than perfect control and balance, is, depending on your point of view, either the height of physical art or about as sensible as imitating Wile E. Coyote. Second, instead of a ball that weighs ounces, you are throwing and catching the maximum weight your strength will allow. If all this felt impossible, there was, I recognized, an upside: mastery seemed unlikely. This struggle, to maybe one day move like a dancer around the bar, would likely never go stale.
To the outsider, however, the idea of weightlifting often seems as boringly basic, as repetitive as breathing: you pick something up and put it over your head. And therein lies the great paradox of weightlifting, how something so simple can be impenetrably complex. Every micro-adjustment to your positioning alters the trajectory of the bar, every stray thought that wafts through the mind affects your posture and speed and effort, knocking you off course, and yet only one minutely specific bar-path leads to success.
One day I run into a friend who tells me she is just back from a meditation retreat in Colorado. I approve, saying I think meditation is an excellent thing to do. “Oh, do you meditate?” she asks.
“No, I get the same thing in other places.”
“I did too, mostly from really intense exercise, but that can amp you up so much. Seated meditation is more calming.”
“I get it,” I reply.
And I do. Then I take pity on her, and instead of pinning her to the sidewalk and forcing yet another of my impassioned monologues on her, I change the subject. What I want to say is that shifting weight to the lifter is even more absorbing than breathing is to the meditator, for it is unique in requiring a frictionless back-and-forth between tranquil relaxation and desperate tension. Consider, for example, the tongue of the magnificent Uzbek lifter Ruslan Nurudinov as he sets up in front of a bar loaded with 180kg (that’s 396lbs). He squats, takes a wide grip on the bar, that tongue lolling out as he lifts this weight to and then past his knee, and only as he flings it past his bellybutton, dropping under the weight, does he draw the tongue in briefly before it seeks the air again as he catches this enormous mass in a full squat and stands with it. Imagine being so unconcerned with biting your tongue off that you can receive, dynamically and over your head, some 400lbs, brace for it, yet be so unclenched, so relaxed, that you can stick your tongue out over your teeth for the entire several seconds. That ease is necessary to move fast enough to execute the lift—a taut whip doesn’t strike.
Rather than abolishing stress, replacing it with meditative calm, a weightlifter focuses on properly assigning tension, putting it in its place, as it were, in the back muscles, for instance, while the arms remain limp. That practice of assigning tension, of flowing between maximum tightness and complete relaxation, allows you to employ stress to achieve an end that will leave you at ease, because once you put the barbell overhead, you can drop it and walk away.
Unless, of course, you’re training, in which case you return to the bar again and again like a hapless character stuck in a video loop. Yet if that were all it is, repeated action on a loop, there would not be much of a lure, especially when you’ve trained long enough to know you’re unlikely to match your best results. Indeed, it is this excessive difficulty that causes many, even young lifters with years of personal records ahead of them, to quit weightlifting. In training, however, you are not a hapless character replicating the same movements endlessly, rather you are a protagonist constantly trying to outdo yourself. So, while the pull of training is training itself, the appreciation of attempting to master movements, it is also forms a structure through which we create meaning. The program we follow represents an abstract ideal to which we aspire—I will snatch this number, squat that, do these many sets with a projected amount of effort—while the daily work in the gym is the manifestation of those ideals. Each session produces a new story, as we, the protagonists, seek to embody our ideals each day. The training hall tells the story of our abilities, our limits, the speed of our growth, our injuries, our mental impediments, our fears, our desires, our needs, and our capacity to adapt.
The narrative of training tends to be about hope, the narrative of the platform, of competition, tends toward nerves, frustration, and sadness, punctuated by flickers of expansive joy, or so I’m told. To compete during the consistent-improvement phases of life makes sense: the exhilaration makes up for the pain and ennui of getting to the platform. But what about the rest of us? Given that we see techies of advancing years trying daily to advance through digital pelotons, CEOs rolling in a death grip on jiu-jitsu mats, grandmothers breaking powerlifting records; given that, in other words, whole tranches of previously desk- or home-bound individuals have become masters athletes suggests that my urge to get better at getting worse is not a unique passion. It stems, I think, from the quest for a kind of suppleness.
As we get older, we are less drawn to difficult, dangerous, anxiety-provoking situations. And so it’s not at all strange that sometimes, usually early in a training cycle when the weights are lighter, I find myself relieved that I don’t have the pressure of going into the gym to hit weights that are 90 percent or higher; relieved that a failure today doesn’t indicate anything about how I will perform in a couple of weeks or days. What is perhaps weird is how reliably I return to competition and the months of stress and anxiety that precede it, and which can make training a fretful, almost feared part of my day. Why put oneself through that, especially once you’ve proven to yourself—and maybe others—that you can prevail over the mental, emotional, and physical obstacles of difficulty? The short answer is doing so makes me feel alive. But what I mean by that sort of aliveness (as opposed to say, the aliveness one feels relaxing on a beach in the sun) is important. Meeting the anxiety of having to perform on a given day, responding to the pressure of the moment, even when the day doesn’t go well, entails adapting to these emotional and mental stressors, becoming a little more efficient and consistent in my movements (even as something within me is trying to render me more complacent and ossified), which itself entails becoming a little less interested, or invested, in the outcome of my attempts and thus emotionally more pliable. In other words, those periods of unpleasantness—and it is important that they come within the context of something I love, training—make me more plastic, more open to change. Change is life; plasticity the ability to adapt to it.
That said, what we mean by life is changing; has changed. Life expectancy hundred years ago would put me now at the very end of mine, instead of being near the middle, with perhaps four more decades ahead of me. Almost another lifetime of anxieties and hassles and traumas inevitably rolling over me like the next set of waves in heavy surf. The weightlifter in me responds in two ways. He strives to lift in the most efficient way possible, thereby maximizing his strength, because dealing with resistance efficiently, training to do so, might make the other forms of resistance life affords a bit more manageable. But wait, the weightlifter doesn’t avoid resistance, he strives to take on more and more. He knows that stress is the engine of life, that without it we cannot adapt, and that when we cease to adapt, we face extinction. He knows that the day will come when the fine line of a tapered pant is no longer his line, but if he can avoid sclerosis, training himself not to look back through the rosy lens of sentimentality, back to the good old days when things seemed to fit comfortably, he can find other ways of cutting a figure, being artful.
Daniel Kunitz is the author of Lift: Fitness Culture from Naked Greeks and Amazons to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he is the editor at large of Ultraphysical as well as editor in chief of Sculpture magazine.