The physical culture
One sunny Saturday afternoon I was preparing for my otherwise regular hour of exercise, except for that this time I was to surpass what I had previously achieved. I picked up my kettlebell, 35 pounds (16 kilograms) of cast iron in the form of a ball with a handle, and went outside to train on the green grass, gentle under my bare feet. The breeze was just about perfect there, mildly shifting from one blossoming bush to other while waving their leaves and stalks, soothing and cooling my skin warmed by the beaming sun. Feeling strong and confident about the test, I stretched for some minutes on the grass, preparing my body for the coming ordeal.
After 75 repetitions for each arm of lifting the adequately heavy object overhead, with lavish rest breaks to make this pursuit of strength possible to complete for my meager body, I was feeling somewhat tired, but of course, the climb has to be tough to be rewarding. Upon this new peak, a sense of accomplishment blew fresh over me, and I was well sated with the inner reward that challenge always bestows its victor with. Still, I knew that today's training, scheduled to be a hard day, had one more exercise I had to deal with before I could allow myself to rest. Throwing a dice a couple of times, I got a random number of minutes for my next bout of torment: five, but that is enough because the program obligates me to work at a 100 per cent efficiency.
Having my wife count the reps - better to concentrate myself on perfect form than numbers - I set in the position above the kettlebell sitting idly on grass, picked it up, my wife starting the timer. I planned in advance how to progress effectively through the five minutes of 100% effort, and decided to do sets of 20, rest a bit and so on, because surely I could not keep the kettlebell moving through all those cursed, slow moments that awaited me now!
Picking up the bell, I heaved it forward and then passed it back between my legs, and then gave it an explosive push with my hips, which swung the weight to around head level. Pulling it back down to get more speed, I inhaled and prepared for the next push in the split second it takes to pull it down. As the minutes passed by, I simply could not count the reps despite trying to have some semblance of the length of a set, and all the huffing and puffing sometimes drowned out my wife's voice calling out every "twenty," causing me to go on to complete the set even though that was actually seven reps past and I couldn't do them anymore, forcing a break. After five minutes of this I scored 101 reps, thus just passing the good round number I had in my mind beforehand, and leaving me feeling very satisfied and empowered under the overwhelming tiredness. I had conquered a goal, and even if I had not, I certainly gave all I had to swing the piece of iron around, forcing my body to adapt to the stress, squeezing the weakness out of my body as I gripped to pull the kettlebell down.
One could say it was pain I felt during the exercise, mental or physical, but it did not matter. Pain tempts me to shy away from pushing further onwards by promising a reward of its absence like some devilish imp luring me to open its cage to shut its gibbering up. It only acted as a gateway towards a higher state when I did not succumb to the lure and the easy escape it promised, and refined both my mind and my body, for they are united together and together they ascend, or should it happen and my spirit slip, they both fall into hopeless ruin. Failure never adapts, grows or moves: it is destined to stagnate and deteriorate in its comfortable cage. The refined body and mind do not falter on the face of a mountain, and instead move on through a landscape of crags and barren rocky fields, leaving the excess behind.
Despite the drive to abolish physical demands from our daily lives, strength is certainly renowned nowadays. It is obvious that it does not hold as definite respect as it used to, however, since the physical requirements of our society have lowered and so the thorns in man's valley of life have been coated with too much sugar to feel the sting. An urge to ease the life - and succeeding - leads to a fear of challenge and only promotes sly methods of getting past the trouble instead of bravely facing it, disciplined and without fear. Now in the modern age, people have escaped from the monstrous visage they saw in physically demanding toil, but their blind run only led them to a cul-de-sac; they cannot go back without strife, but the will to do so is diminishing by the nature of our course.
Many of us are engaging in some sort of physical activity in our free time for a multitude of reasons. Some have been snared by the latest fad spat out from the fitness industry, some have their exercise alongside another hobby or fancy of theirs (nordic walking in the forest like quite a few older people do, or playing some game), some simply want to get big and strong, and some, likely a minority, are rather dedicated to bettering themselves as a physical whole, both in body and mind.
Falling into a clever ruse set up by marketing people for persons unknowledgeable of their bodies, and who are seeking instant results like having the beach lion six-pack they are seeing in every possible fitness ad in three weeks, or "going to the gym" and working out sloppily with only half the heart in lifting: those are not part of a culture of physical transcendence - called 'physical culture' from here on. That is only searching for some superficial enhancement to immediately stick on themselves without any concern for the effect this action has on the whole: very materialist and ignorant of the function of the body as a whole.
Having huge biceps and a bulwark of a chest - the stereotypical image of the average gymrat - does not either equal being fit both in body and mind, a balanced human being; only having more muscles in certain areas. Of course it is better to be fit in some ways than none, but partial development is always lacking. 400 pounds of bench pressing power is not much without the frame to bind it, to direct and use it; it only floats in existence as itself, not knowing the paths it came from nor what ways it will choose for tomorrow. And besides, if you are a normal person, chances are you need pulling power too, and should work on heavy deadlifting even though it won't puff up your chest and pressing numbers, just for the sake of balance and usefulness.
But how to reach higher stages of refinement in both body and mind then, you might ask, if just going to the gym and pumping iron every now and then is not enough, or if repping your lungs out on some ab machine is not going to cut it, since is physical culture not physical by its very definition? In the time when people had to rough up their hands in order to get sustenance, to coax it from the soil instead of having a leisurely eight hours of office work in return for tokens to buy food with, mental and physical strength was required and that was their mountainside and rocky landscape. Lack of ease was the drive behind their physical prowess, as it will always be. It must be realized, however, that this modern society of pervasive comfort won't disappear with a mere wish, not even a thousand prayers, so the aspiring physical culturalist must cope, as tough as it sounds, with the present environment, and find the meaning and tools within.
With all the choice we have in regard to fitness nowadays, it is far too easy to get caught in the insignificancies, wasting time or even harmful forays in the attempt to develop yourself. As old strength was forged with sweat and blood without the option of slipping, you can buy a gym card and have access to the plethora of exciting machines most public gyms have, winding the things and relaxing in the easy atmosphere. Perhaps have a beer after the workout with your buddies, and continue the discussion you had going on around the power rack between sets? Choice isn't much to revel in (unless you are training rehabiliating patients, or seeking assisting exercises for a few moves you really want to excel in), as for general strength all you basically need is the deadlift, and adding a pressing movement, like the side or military press, takes care of the rest of your muscles.
However, most people into the iron game do more moves like squatting, snatching, bodyweight drills, kettlebell exercises etc. Most importantly, variety keeps your mind fresh for new challenges. Despite the multitude of exercises - which were covered only very, very briefly here - you don't need many for a program, certainly not one or two for every bodypart, but what you need is discipline to stick to the few drills you've chosen to develop yourself with, and to do them with perfect form. Physical strength is a skill, and so is mental strength, and they both need training to keep in shape. Rocky fields, heavy logs of trees and hours of hunting are very simple things, but the kind of resilience and strength they bred in men!
The physical culturist must find his path - a Nietzsche quote is apt here: "The formula for my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal." - and be able to rise from the mire he would be left in if it was not for his desire for ascendancy. To succumb to the lack of demands of this environment is to go with the flow, and we see the course of this stream: lax spirit waiting in apathy, the body dying of this affliction. The farmer of yore had no other choice than to survive with whatever he got, because there was nothing but earth and dust to fall back on, but the nowadays man is faced with the challenge of getting up and starting his journey of refinement, because he could easily just let it be and silently abuse himself with transient entertainment. As cliché as it sounds, it is true that this first step is the most important, because it lays the foundations for future development of the whole that you are - not to discredit the latter steps, though. Many people today lack the strength this step takes, and thus are condemned to be modern, because physical culture is essentially anti-modernity with its spirit of achievement and disdain of weakness.
Whatever your fitness level, be it that of a complete neophyte to physical disciplines or an accomplished athlete, the gates are not closed to you. It is only will that you need for your body and mind to grow into a powerful combination, transcending past limits with graceful ease. In a world sorely lacking determination, societies where people lack higher goals, men and women of stout will are needed for a healthier future, and physical culture, born of this will, is the hammer and anvil for this.
August 11, 2007
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