Think of your earliest memories of your father. If he wasn’t around, think about a man that played a central role in your childhood. What comes to mind when you think of him? How would you describe him? In doing research for this post, I asked many other men these questions, and not surprisingly there were some common threads. The overwhelming majority of men spoke about the physicality of their fathers; or even their lack thereof. Sure, plenty of them talked about their father’s personalities, their careers or even their financial status. By far the most common subject was their father’s physical presence and his strength.
Children see their fathers do things that seem simply superhuman. While most dads can’t even come close to the feats of strength we see in a World’s Strongest Man broadcast, that kind of context is nonexistent to children. “Dad strength” is a product of the huge disparity between the strength of adult men and that of children. I want to focus on that point in order to bring some perspective to this book. Being a strong and capable man is about more than impressing your kids with your strength. Even the weakest adult can do that, to an extent. It is important to be strong, powerful, and physically impressive. However, the effect that those traits will have on who you are as a man will have an exponentially greater effect on the lives of your children. Perhaps most important of all is the process of becoming strong, powerful, and physically impressive. Ask any good athlete, and they will preach tirelessly about the transformative effect of becoming. Accomplishing your goals is a wonderful thing, but becoming the person capable of reaching them is what defines you.
Perhaps I could have just said “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” Sounds like something a dad would say, doesn’t it? I don’t want my children to look at my accomplishments, or anyone else’s for that matter, and just focus on how great it feels to accomplish a goal, or be at the top. I don’t want them to only focus on victory or being better than their opponents and peers. I want them to have the patience and clarity of mind to understand how working to become has changed them.
“He who gains a victory over other men is strong; but he who gains a victory over himself is all powerful.”
– Lao Tzu
Strong and capable people value victory highly, but not above all else. There is no rival that will be as persistent as the one in the mirror. Someone who understands that will also understand that their successes and failures in seeking victory rely, in large part, on their own thoughts and actions. Not fate, luck, or other people. In 1954, the social psychologist Julian Rotter developed a concept known as “locus of control.” Simply put, locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe that they can control events that affect them. An external locus of control means you are likely to assign responsibility for events that affect you to other people or forces. An internal locus means you tend to take responsibility for them. In my experience, everyone believes they have an internal locus of control. A key component to becoming strong and capable is to figure out if you actually do.
Once you are fully awakened to how responsible you are for where you are and what happens to you, the next step should be obvious:
What can you do about it?
There are innumerable advantages to being physically strong. Men and women alike have sought, envied, and admired strength all throughout history. There was once a time before automobiles, computers, grocery stores, and air conditioning that a man’s physical prowess was the key characteristic that ensured not only his own survival, but those of his family as well. While much of this book praises the social and psychological benefits that strength confers on men and their offspring, it’s important to remember that strength is very often the quality of humans that keeps them alive and breathing. As a species, our ingenuity and social development are undoubtedly the keys to our outrageous success on this planet. In the day to day lives of ancient human beings, though, the ability to act upon that ingenuity – to forge the physical world to your will – is what helped successful people become a lot of people’s ancestors.
“Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.”
- Mark Rippetoe
The world is relatively safer than it used to be. For the industrialized world, the threat of predators or death at the hands of a rival tribe is so minimal as to be insignificant. Some people might make the assertion that brute, physical strength is no longer a necessity, but a vanity. Those same people probably couldn’t pull someone from a burning car wreck. On the surface, the world around us is more convenient and safe. It’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security and forget that the, visceral, raw and ruthless nature of it all lies just barely under the surface. It’s when things go wrong that we see flashes of how the world really is. Car accidents, building collapses, fires, natural disasters, and violence; these are the type of things that pierce the veil of comfort and safety we have built as a modern society. Not so coincidentally, these are quite often the situations that call on our mastery of the physical world, or put more simply, our strength, to see us through and ensure our survival. We might even find ourselves relying on the strength of others. In any such unlikely circumstance you should consider it your personal responsibility to either be strong enough to save yourself, or strong enough to protect the well-being of others. There’s a reason heroes are drawn with broad shoulders and muscles.
Saving the world and rescuing people in need is commonplace for the heroes in our comic books, movies, and television shows. Here in reality, you and I probably aren’t going to see that kind of action too often. Some people may never have a moment that their life is in danger or they have to save someone else’s. This is the blessing of a developed, modern society. We have created jobs like soldier, paramedic, police officer and firefighter who see life-or-death situations regularly so we don’t have to. This is what our strong and capable ancestors wanted for us with each successive generation. Human beings want a better life for their children and grandchildren. Viewed this way, the industrialized world in which we currently live, with its cutting-edge healthcare, social contracts and built-in protections is precisely what we have worked for as a species. In many parts of the world, it is commonplace to earn a living with a job that has essentially zero risk to life and limb. Take a moment to appreciate how novel and amazing that is in the context of human history. All of this has made us, as mentioned previously, outrageously successful. There are billions of us.
As such, the more dramatic, life-or-death implications of physical strength aren’t as common now. However, there are still countless applications for it in day to day life. You probably won’t save many lives by carrying bags of mulch, moving furniture without hired help, or throwing your children like flailing spider monkeys across the swimming pool. You will be more useful, independent, and fun to be around though. For the modern dad, the seemingly mundane applications of strength will have perhaps the greatest impact on the lives of your children. It is your consistent ability to do what seems impossible to them – moving heavy things, carrying them to bed – that will put an indelible mark on their memories of you and what it means to be a strong, capable man. With no need for long lectures on the subject they will grow up striving to become what you modeled for them. With luck they will seek out those same qualities in other people with whom they share their lives.
In the world of strength training, there is a concept called “physical preparedness.” This concept is often broken down further into “general” and “specific” physical preparedness. General physical preparedness, or GPP, is concerned with what you could call the basics of being a human: standing, walking, getting up, kneeling, sitting, running, jumping etc. Strength coach Dan John refers to these as “the fundamentals of human movement,” and training to improve GPP involves becoming better at these. Specific physical preparedness, or SPP, is more concerned with movements that are specific to executing the skills of your sport or activity. More simply put, SPP is practicing what you intend to perform.
When athletes train and build both kinds of preparedness, they are making themselves more capable in their chosen sport. Most of us aren’t competitive athletes by any stretch, so we may draw a bit of a blank on what we could build SPP for. That’s just fine, because quite honestly if you prepare yourself generally by being stronger, faster, more agile and more durable, you will find that your usefulness and ability to perform in most aspects of your life will be vastly improved. You don’t need to shoot hundreds of free throws or work on throwing a slider every day because 1.) no one is paying you to and 2.) the benefits from that are going to be incredibly specific compared to most of what being a human being involves. Instead, work on being able to do the following things with increasing strength, repetitions and overall ease:
- Pick something up off the floor
- Get to and from a seated position
- Get to and from a lying position
- Descend to a squat position and stand back up
- Push something away from you
- Press something over your head
- Pull your body up onto something
For our purposes, a person that is fully “capable” can do all of these things with a reasonable level of comfort. Even if injury, age, or disability take some dimensions away, the goal of any person should be to practice and maximize their skill in those that remain. These fundamentals are the very things that make us human, in the physical sense. Improving upon our ability to do these tasks by progressively overloading them is what we are doing when we train our bodies. Get better and better at these for as long as you can, and you can quite literally cheat death by slowing the effects of age. Even as you enter the inevitable decline of old age, you can continue to train and fight for your ability to move and interact with the physical world. Even if you lose (and you eventually will), you will likely do so much later than those who didn’t take the time to train their body. Most of you won’t set elite lifting totals or break world records. Very few of us will ever earn our living as athletes. We are using training and sport to hold onto these precious functions of our body for as long as humanly possible.
A wonderful effect of practicing these skills regularly is that you build a general level of capability. All of the sudden, carrying furniture isn’t as arduous. Pickup basketball games don’t leave you gasping for air and vomiting. You can play catch without feeling awkward, even with no experience in organized sports. You can pick up new lifts and training techniques more quickly. Success builds on success, and as you find greater ease in the activities of living, you will find that you have more confidence in your body to take on new tasks. Each success will make you less afraid. Each new found feeling of competence will make you seek out opportunities to feel that way again. You may begin to thirst for competition.
In the time we have, we should find ways to test our strength, conditioning, endurance and overall fitness in whatever way brings us happiness. The importance of competition for the human body and psyche is a rich enough subject to fill many books. Suffice it to say, competition will show you what fundamental part of being a human you need the most work on. It’s very often your brain, by the way. There is an invaluable insight about your brain that repeated exposure to competition gives you, if you are attuned to it: it’s another organ (collection of tissues) in the system. Plain and simple. It can be trained, overloaded, overused, underused, and even become tougher and more efficient. I’m not talking about thought patterns either. I’m talking about the structure and chemistry of your brain.
Time and time again we have been shown that dualism in regards to the mind and body is flawed when you are discussing a real individual developing in an environment. There is no mind that is separate from the body. Our physical presence is part of what makes us human. The fact that our incredibly advanced mind still sits within the body of an ape that has to eat, breathe and survive, is endlessly fascinating and worthy of investigation.
To develop oneself as a complete human being, it is important to train the body and the mind. How much one is done at the expense of the other is up to the user. You will find, however, that many individuals we hold in high regard have significant emphasis on both over a lifetime. Even in primary education through high school, research has shown that the more well-rounded and athletic children tend to perform better scholastically – the idea of the high-achieving geek that has intellect above all else is a misleading rarity.