I am not a pretty lifter.
If you have ever seen me training, this will come as no surprise to you. I’m not fast nor graceful. I run like a bag of rocks and my limbs are so long that they poke out everywhere as I fold myself into a squat. My mobility is questionable. My movements are not beautiful. I’ve been told multiple times by knowledgeable people that my chosen iron sport, Olympic Weightlifting, is not for me.
Yet, I persist. And it all seems to bother me. But I’m not sure why.
When my days were consumed with playing basketball I was what you would call a ‘banger’. A rough and tumble, under-the-basket brute who was more concerned with rebounding and shot block stats than being a high scorer. I probably had more scratches and scars than points by the end of any game. At our annual winter sports awards dinner I won a plaque named after an alumnus who died in the Vietnam War. It was for being the hardest worker on the team. Not the most talented. Not the most valuable. Just the hardest working.
As a guitar player I was always drawn to the rustic, gritty, delta blues style which is crude and behind the beat and sadly something that no one is interested in much today. And as a lifter of weights, whether Olympic style of general training, I am someone who relies on strength as their strength. Always excellent at moving objects from A to B, just as long as speed, finesse and great movement quality are not expected.
It should really come as no surprise. As a kid I grew up identifying with fringe players like Charles Oakley and Rick Mahorn – basketballers who were known for their grit and relentless physicality rather than an elegant skill set. I worshipped Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters and Brian Setzer as guitar players. Undeniably excellent musicians but guys who were know for their style and feel more than their technical prowess. And when it comes to training I get more excited watching the sheer will of a guys like Donny Shankle and Zlatan Vanev or strongmen like Zydrunas Savickas. Blood-and-guts lifters who, while remarkable athletes, never make anything seem effortless.
And, clearly, I was drawn to all these individuals because I tried to see myself in them. More heart than talent. More hard work than skill. But not-so-secretly I wanted to glide through the air like Michael Jordan. I studied the absolute perfect timing and complex chord structure of Chet Atkins, I marveled at the seeming ease at which lifters like Khaki Khakashvillas moved hundreds of kilos. Why, oh why, dear genetic Gods can I not move, play and lift like these legends?
I found myself watching an interview with Setzer (who’s technical mastery I am not giving enough credit to in this post – he’s an absolute animal) at the Montreal Jazz Festival recently. They were asking him the standard questions about his influences, how he learned to play, how he felt about single-handedly reviving two long forgotten musical genres, rockabilly and big band swing.
Something about his answer to that last question really hit me.
Music is just music, he said. This is just the way I hear things in my head and put them together. I realized that no one ever had a guitar leading a big band but I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t just do that.
Then a reporter followed up with a question asking how he had to change his playing in order to go from fronting a trio to leading an 18-piece big band.
Well, a big band requires you know more jazz but other than that I don’t do anything differently. I wouldn’t even know how to. I just try to rock cause that’s what I do.
The fitness business is overly focused on transformation. On how you can take yourself from weak to strong, small to big and vice versa. And, of course, there is some real value in that. But there is a less appreciated but just as important side – maximizing and embracing who you are and what you are good at. And maybe that is the ultimate lesson here. Sure, attack your weaknesses. But also value your strengths.
And while it’s subtle this actually represents a sea change for me. I’ve been busy trying to turn my weaknesses into strengths. But what if I simply work on my weaknesses just enough that they don’t hinder my strengths.
And that is my path moving forward. No longer am I the bull in the china shop trying to weave my way through the aisles hoping that nothing breaks. I’m a blood and guts lifter. I’m ready to embrace it. It’s time for some dishes to hit the floor.
I’ll save the pretty for someone else.