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.