I said emotional content. Not anger!
Now try again. With meaning.
Many of you will probably recognize this as a line from the iconic film Enter the Dragon and it is a thought I often carry with me into the gym. As the population of powerlifters continues to grow and get more social media attention I see an increasing number of athletes trying to find some darker part of themselves, a trauma or scar, a thought of someone who wronged them, etc., in order to harness the spark of anger or rage that comes from that encounter and turn it into a moment of “strength.” Lifters are doing top sets in training with chalk handprints on their faces from slapping themselves or having someone do it for them. Otherwise laid back and lighthearted lifters are stoic and antagonistic in competition warm-up rooms. It has almost become a symbol of pride.
Is it captivating? Absolutely. I would be lying if I said it wasn’t alluring as well. Who wouldn’t want to see someone get slapped in the face and then go ragdoll a 700lb deadlift? It is visceral.
There is a problem though. I have been a high-level competitive athlete for over 20 years and I don’t ever plan on stopping. I have probably trained an average of 2 hours per day 4-6 days per week during that time. That is 520 hours per year of training – 10% of my waking life. I don’t want to spend 10% of my entire life angry and searching for something to haunt me just to lift some hunks of metal or be good at a sport. I don’t want to justify negative thoughts and feelings with results nor do I want every moment of success to be shrouded in darkness. It isn’t healthy and it isn’t necessary. More than anything, even if the feeling were real, I would feel like a phony because those feelings do not belong to that moment.
What Mr. Lee was trying to get at when he said “emotional content” is that none of this is about your opponent or victory, it’s about you honestly expressing yourself. Not trying to be something, but being. Not putting on a performance for you or anyone else to believe, but feeling that moment rather than thinking and bringing in something from outside of it. Creating feelings isn’t feeling. That is nothing more than a distraction. In a later interview he explained: “It has always been very easy for me to put on a show and be cocky, and be flooded with a cocky feeling and feel pretty cool and all that. I can make all kinds of phony things. Blinded by it. Or I can show some really fancy movement. But to experience oneself honestly, not lying to oneself, and to express myself honestly, now that, my friend, is very hard to do.”
When I was playing tennis on the USTA circuit I ran into guys all the time who came out like a bull, yelling and screaming after every point, hitting every forehand 100 mph until their hands ached, trying to be intimidating. In each one of those matches I knew all I had to do was settle in, even if they blew me away in the first set, and make the match last as long as I could. Why? Because they would burn themselves out, cramp, wallow in frustration when their aggression wasn’t intimidating. While I was analyzing and enjoying the match, they were on the other side burning themselves out trying to keep the fuse lit. Their mindset made them miserable even when they were winning.
In powerlifting you can’t intimidate the weights. It doesn’t matter how much rage you have or what demons you dredged up when you walk out with a squat. The barbell on your back couldn’t care less. If you are creating an enemy to battle, the only enemy is yourself. I am certainly not saying that you shouldn’t be inspired and passionate. Hype yourself up. Get excited. Celebrate with your team. Take moments to appreciate what you have done and what you are about to do. Just try to find something constructive in that moment to give you strength. Be yourself, not what you think you need to be.
Rage won’t make you stronger or more invincible. You know what makes me feel invincible? Being happy, laughing, gratitude, being completely present in a moment. I will never feel stronger than approaching the bar for a deadlift and having no other thoughts in my head than appreciating the fact that I get to be there in that moment doing something I love. Powerlifting is a pretty lonely and selfish sport. It is a lot of time spent alone doing something most people don’t understand for nothing in return other than health and some pride. I am very fortunate that my wife is also a strength athlete and that my time in the gym doesn’t compromise the time I get to spend with her, but it does for the rest of my family and friends, my other pursuits, which is why I want to make that time valuable and positive in more ways than numbers or PRs and Instagram likes. I don’t want that time to be filled with negativity and old nightmares. I want it to make me a better person when I go home.
I have been thinking a lot lately, in the context of all of this, about the atmosphere at Kilo’s Gym here at Lifting Large HQ, which is what brought this post to life. If you come train with us you won’t find any anger or demons. Honestly, I can’t remember a training day when I didn’t almost miss a lift because someone made me laugh in the middle of a set. We laugh a lot and most of our training days are spent cracking jokes, giving each other a hard time, playing with dogs, and catching up on life. We also train really hard and support each other. If it’s obvious someone is having a hard training day, everyone is there being supportive, offering encouragement. If someone is about to do something important, everyone stops and takes notice. We take care of each other.
In 50 years I am not going to remember what numbers I lifted or records I had and I doubt anyone else will either. What I am going to remember is the emotional content—the fun and laughs I had, the people I got to spend time with, friends I made, the moments when I was having a hard training day or things in a competition weren’t going well and someone said something encouraging. I am going to remember how supportive the powerlifting community was and how privileged I was to get to spend so much of my life doing something meaningful. I hope these are the things that will remind others of me. My next bench press PR isn’t going to end world hunger and I am not going to go into the gym tomorrow and act like it is. It’s just a game, an art, and I am going to go have fun and express the best parts of myself through it to the best of my ability.