Don’t worry, you’re not suddenly going to start talking about ‘grafting’ if you give it a go says Phil Hilton
The male cast of Love Island – a show which I don’t officially watch but reaches my mind like a plant growing up a wall - mostly have bodies comprised of these components: massive abs, massive arms, massive hairless chests. They are, doubtless, a varied bunch in many other ways but they all lift weights.
They’ve put the work in - and I admire anyone who has the discipline to do that - but I have a worry. My worry is that they represent a culture, a type and a world that some of you may find alienating. And for those who are already gym doubters and workout sceptics, their very particular take on weight-training, fashion, and tanning might put you off even further. “Why would I want to do something that would turn me into something I don’t want to be?” you might, reasonably, ask.
But wait. Hear me out, because resistance work is a very special way to spend your time. I’ve been addicted for decades and at no point has it led me to a full body wax or use of the term “drop me out”. It can be done, and it can be hugely, life-changingly enjoyable.
First let me come clean on the downsides.
Lifting weights is ludicrous. The action of picking something up is usually a means to an end - you need to transport an object somewhere or make use of it. To put it somewhere new, or hammer something with it, or take a sip from it. Whereas, absurdly, the lifting of weights is the goal itself. You lift the heavy object and put it back in the same place making no use of it whatsoever.
Sometimes a gym will carry out maintenance and awkwardly, men paid to hammer, measure and…lift, will perform these tasks next to those of us who labour at nothing and pay to do so. The dignity is always theirs, turning us into preening soft-skinned princelings whose lives are so removed from anything constructive, we resort to these padded, safety-regulated warehouses of heavy.
Don’t however, allow the silliness lull you into thinking that strength training isn’t also filled with risk.
The most serious injury I ever managed took place on the squat rack in a sports centre in Dagenham, East London. The bar was resting on my shoulders, I’d performed my exercise but as I went to replace it back on the rack, I slipped and my spine kinked for a second.
I can’t remember how many 20 kg disks I’d loaded onto the bar but I was over my own body weight. The pain was a whole torso flash of stretch and tearing. I managed to put the weight back into place and undertook a stiff walk out of the gym. The criss-cross network of muscle and tendon around my upper body performed a spasm and my immediate issue became breathing. Every time I took an intake of air, I stretched my chest and the pain was, as you can imagine, frequent. I took myself to A and E where they told me there was nothing they could do and that I should try sleeping on the floor.
My errors – in no particular order – were failing to warm up, lifting far too much, lifting without a training partner to help me, failing to build any of the muscles around my lower back… but more than any of these, I’d fallen in love with strength and I wanted it to snatch me up as quickly as possible.
My love at that time (I must have been about 19) was new and intense and fearless. I injured myself roughly every two months. Yet decades later, I still train.
So why keep returning? Why risk breaking yourself three or four times a week in a pastiche of manual labour that loads no trucks and builds no houses?
Firstly barbells and dumbbells are absolutely the best objects. They make other stuff seem hopelessly fey and rococo. The chair you’re sitting on, your phone, your desk, all of it fussy and fiddly next to the monumental lump of metal that is a dumbbell.
My hands are the hands of an office worker. The skin has a fragile softness created by a lifetime avoiding gardening, diy, washing up. Once a rare privilege afforded by high birth, now nearly all of us can have these pillowy, emoji-clicking fingers. Feeling my palm curl around the metal grip of a dumbbell, this indestructible object with its anti-design shape is a special moment and remains weirdly satisfying even after all these years. Occasionally they have been reimagined and given modern innovative shapes but the ones I like look as though they were not so much created as just arrived at as a way of solving the problem.
That’s part of the appeal of weight training, it’s just profoundly uncomplicated.
My working day, much like yours I suspect, is a performance, a negotiation, a navigation of hidden meanings. I’m persuading, and pretending, nodding and smiling. I’m trying work out what’s really going on, and then what’s hidden beneath that layer, then what will be going on next. I yearn for labour that ends when it ends, that has objective success and failure criteria. The weights are always just as they appear and the act of lifting them, always precisely the same.
Then there is the effect on your body.
Strength is used metaphorically – mental strength, strong leader, feeling strong. Literal, muscular strength fascinated me the moment it became measurable rather than guessed at. First you confront the reality of what you are able to do. To lie on the bench with the weight above you and challenge your chest and arms against the barbell’s metal and rubber is a moment of drama. You imagine your strength, you have an idea about what you’re capable of but that’s all theory and fantasy up to the moment you push or lift. Suddenly your strength has a number. Don’t you want to know your number? Then, of course, the number changes, you become stronger.
Relatively quickly – in weeks – you see your body adapt to the new demands and grow more powerful. This process is incremental but magical. It operates outside will and calculation. You haven’t learned a skill, you haven’t “got your head around it”, you’ve become physically and measurably stronger.
Performing the same movement but finding yourself able to slip more disks onto the bar is a tangible proof of progress. The increase in weight can be very small but you know that you are stronger than you were. The feeling of completing a set of repetitions at a higher weight than you’ve ever managed previously, is hugely addictive.
There are obviously plateaus and, now that I’m old, the victories have moved to a celebration of still being able to do what I used to (or anything really that isn’t watching telly). But the confirmation of strength, the inarguable physical reality of lifting and pushing and pulling is something I look forward to every time I walk into a gym.
While other forms of exercise change your shape, nothing really alters you like resistance training. Once I saw my chest gain a new heaviness and my biceps become these trackable symbols of progress, I was in. I could make myself. I didn’t have to live with the body I was given.
When I started, hurried, ill-informed, taking part in imaginary competitions with anyone nearby - I created slightly enlarged chest and arms, terrible lower back issues, thin legs and spindly calves – an amphibious mammal physique essentially. I performed almost no exercise for heart and lungs, I did not stretch.
Now I’m older, I no longer feel compelled to enter the Strongest Man in this Corner of the Gym contest. I aim for knotty-skinny. It’s the best I can manage at this stage. The weights I lift form only a sliver of my exercise week.
But the moment I walk past the running machines, past the heavy bags, and I pick up the dumbbells, with their cross-hatched grips and matt black disks and discover how much strength I can muster that day, it is always a camp, stupid, joyful, tiny battle with myself that I can never quite let go.
I go back for the serenity gained from a properly limb-burning session of lifting. Resistance training calm lasts for hours. I currently have two big projects, some gnarly human management issues to tackle and a general sense of modern life fatigue (what do you want now my howling social media platforms?). Lifting heavy weights place all that behind the soundproof glass of knackered. To silence modern life you need to be properly, in your bones, done-in. When you’re ill, recovering from flu, say, the one thing they tell you to stay away from is heavy lifting. Go for a light jog by all means but those weights will drain you. The best night’s sleep are those where the parts of you that want to keep dwelling and fretting just don’t have the energy to work their early-hours magic.
Then there’s the sense of confidence you feel from gaining strength. I’m not even that comfortable with this truth but I’ll share anyway. Inside I’m a bookish geek, I frequently and voluntarily attend contemporary dance performances. I cried at that tricky episode of Young Offenders. Sometimes at work, you find yourself in the company of fellows with a less modern take on being a man and it is helpful to feel, and to an extent, look as though you can match them. What I’m not saying is I’m sitting there thinking, “I could have you, sunshine.” I’m not Ray Winstone and besides I only weigh 70 kg. I’m saying, it’s a quiet, inner feeling that works on a submerged level.
And it’s it’s quick, not time and life consuming like you think. I don’t follow an elaborate programme. I have the technical basics and I make sure I put in 100 per cent at least once every session. Probably my workouts should be longer, more planned, but do I care? I work, I try, I feel a little bored, I leave – usually after 20/25 minutes. I don’t have a beer-gut but I’m very unlikely to win any competition beginning with the word Mr. It’s enough for me. (Oh, and never worry about the others judging. Remember they’re all narcissists. Unless you’re going to help them wax their chests, they don’t care about you.)
The workouts on Love Island are so tied into the maintenance of a look, that’s all about strut and social profile pics, that it’s easy to miss all of these things.
Don’t let them put you off.
Please try lifting heavy things, give it a month, feel that lovely ache in your arms. Worship those weights and their challenge. At no point will a pair of tight, white jeans form over your thighs, I guarantee that your skin will remain free of deep, terracotta tan. Trust me.
Let those lumps of metal perform their seductive magic. Be strong.