Contesting the Barbell

by Ted Willi

Resist gravity!

"Every natural gift must develop itself by contest" wrote the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in his essay on "Homer's Contest" and he reminds us of the high ideals the Greek youth held when participating in the original Olympic games:

The youth thought of the welfare of his native town when he vied with others in running, throwing or singing; it was her glory that he wanted to increase with his own; it was to his town's gods that he dedicated the wreaths which the umpires as a mark of honor set upon his head (58).
In the pursuit of excellence, the weightlifter, too, develops his natural gift by contesting the barbell. The weightlifter's success depends upon his Will To Lift: to overcome the resistance of the barbell and the pain associated with training, and to turn these to his advantage in the form of increased strength and muscle mass. "I assess the power of a will," Nietzsche wrote, "by how much resistance, pain, torture it endures and knows how to turn to its advantage" (Will 382).

Mythic heros like Hercules and Samson were tested by contests of will and strength and became stronger in the process. Hercules performed his Labors using pre-industrial forms of resistance such as lion, boar and hydra, and really bulked up. Samson was tested by Delilah which led to his short-lived, but successful, career of isometric training against the support pillars of the temple.

Nietzsche was tested by his experience of serving in 1870 as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, from which he returned in ruined health. Migraine and general debility plagued him recurrently for the rest of his life. In spite of this, he was able to write such masterpieces as Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Twilight Of The Idols, The Birth Of Tragedy, Beyond Good And Evil, and many other books, essays and musical compositions. Through his strength of will, Nietzsche transformed his bodily pain into creative energy: "The perfect lightness and levity, even exuberance of the spirit...are quite compatible in my case not only with the deepest physiological weakness, but even with excessive pain" (Ecce 657).

The weightlifter shares in Nietzsche's "exuberance of the spirit" every time he has a good workout or completes a lift in competition; he knows from experience that handling heavy weight, though painful, increases his strength; he, like Nietzsche, is able to joyfully affirm the consequences of the contest: "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger" (Twilight 467).

The above affirmation appears at the beginning of the movie Conan The Barbarian, indicating Conan's basic philosophy of life. Young Conan's family is slaughtered by a gang of marauders who sell him into slavery and he is chained to a giant threshing wheel which he must push around and around for years. This practice, like the progressive-resistance training of a weightlifter, gradually transforms Conan into a muscled giant, enabling him to crush his enemies. In Nietzsche's terms, Conan was able to "self-overcome" the "all-too-human" weaknesses of the herd and become an Overman. Conan, of course, was played by the real world Overman Arnold Schwarzenegger who overcame a sickly childhood to become a bodybuilding legend with seven Mr. Olympia victories.

Another real world Overman is Vasili Alexeyev, the phenomenal super-heavyweight who overcame a serious back injury on his way to becoming the first weightlifter to break the 500-pound barrier in the Clean & Jerk. Alexeyev claims that his injury gave him the introspectiveness he needed to discover a training regimen which allowed him to heal, avoid further injuries, and express his full potential.

It seems to me that some of the talented athletes lack one thing -- they haven't had an injury. That's right. An injury that will put them out of commission for a year during which time they'll have a chance to weigh everything. I, too, would not be where I am if I had not injured my back. I suffered for a year and a half thinking everything over ... After a misfortune, people pull through and become, if possible, great people -- and sportsmen, in particular. Those who are stronger find their way out and to the top... (Ivanov 184).
"Every natural gift must develop itself by contest." In contesting the barbell, the weightlifter exerts body and will, and develops progressively in the following ways: 1) by lifting heavier weights, 2) by training with more intensity, or 3) by doing a greater volume of training. Through his gradual accumulation of strength and endurance, the weightlifter overcomes limits which had previously stopped him, even to the point of spectacular achievement:
The strength of the muscles, as if blending with the strength of the will, makes for a third strength, the strength that helps sportsmen set phenomenal world records. That is the very strength people find in themselves, people who have crossed a limit that until then had been considered impossible (Ivanov 195).

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