Everything You Know About Fitness Is a Lie
Credit: Frederik Broden

Little-girl weak: a man doesn't easily forget that kind of crack. So I began my own foray into self-coaching the way I always do when I'm determined to learn something: I bought a lot of books. I asked Shaul and a few other guys for their favorite titles, and I cruised Amazon.com, buying those and anything else that looked relevant. Nobody needs to read all the crap I read, but it's worth getting your hands on the "bibles," a short selection of brilliant resources full of the precise, detailed training programs that will get anybody started.

One book in particular, Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, inspired me to start with the very first of the Fundamental Four: strength. I liked the clarity of the word, and I liked the idea of keeping life simple, learning one aptitude at a time. Many pros will tell you that strength is the place to start, because once you've built pure strength, you'll have no trouble adding power, size, and endurance. I decided to just follow Rippetoe's bare-bones old-school program.

The next six months turned out to be among the strangest and most liberating of my athletic life. On day one, I did like you're supposed to, starting with light loads in the squat, dead lift, and bench, doing five reps, adding weight, doing five more, and so on, until I'd reached the highest weight I could do five times. Then I quit, came back two days later, and made sure to work up to a slightly higher final weight. Week after week, and for the first time in all my years, I got steadily stronger. On a given Monday, I'd squat 135 for three sets of five; Wednesday, I'd hit 145; Friday, 155; the next Monday, 165. No drugs, no steroids, no whey-protein isolate. Before Starting Strength, I didn't even know what a dead lift was, but my dead lift went from 135 pounds to 335. My bench press went well over my body weight. At age 42 – 6-foot-2 and gangly and 20 years into complaining about a bad back and bum knees, and right when any doctor or physical therapist would have told me it was time to embrace the low-impact elliptical – my back squat hit 275, going below parallel. My thighs got so big I couldn't fit into most of my jeans, and I had to start shopping for new T-shirts.

I'll admit this begs a few questions, mostly about how pure strength makes anybody healthier, or helps in a given sport. There's the predictable answer about how numerous studies recommend resistance training for the maintenance of bone density and muscle mass and even for heart-health benefits equal to cardiovascular exercise, how even famous big-wave surfers have begun lifting like this, and how barbells have become de rigueur on the pro-tennis circuit. But there's an even better reason to build pure strength. I've come to believe that men don't go to gyms just to avoid heart disease or support our weekend sports. It's worth getting strong because we go to gyms in large part to maintain a little goddamned self-respect, and to blow off steam, and to insist, against all odds, that we do remain fiercely vital physical beings. And trust me, there's nothing like watching your dead lift skyrocket to make you feel vital. It's the happy exhaustion, the sense of hard work well done, with a clear purpose; it's the rush of seeing your body change, fat turning into lean mass.

Sure, you have to eat right – that's another manifesto in itself – but if you just stick to a basic strength-training program, you can expect a certain wonderment about what the hell you were doing all those years, why nobody told you it was this simple before, and why nobody else in the gym appears to have heard the good news.

If strength just doesn't appeal as a place to get started, then think about the sports you love and decide which of the Fundamental Four best suits the coming seasons. I've personally moved on to the Olympic lifts, developing explosive power. I've signed up for a trail race and a big open-water swim, too, so I'll soon transition into muscular-endurance work. After that, I suppose, comes an effort to build pure muscle mass. Down the line, I'll probably start the more complicated business of mixing and matching, training multiple
aptitudes at once.

The main thing, though, is just to get going. Who cares if you put on more muscle than you really want? Or if you suck during a few weekend soccer games because the squats are hammering your legs? You'll be on a journey, at long last, learning how to own the gym, how to make your thrice-weekly health-club sessions into a confident, focused process invulnerable to bullshit. You'll begin walking right past all the muscle-isolation weight machines, feeling a little sorry for all the guys who still think those are a good use of their time. You'll start heading right back to the barbells instead, back in the gym's darkest distant corner, and seeing them only as tools for your own ends, your own sports and goals. Once that happens, you're on your way. You'll certainly never need another article like this one.