Jeremy McKey

The Man on the Blue Cover


ISSUE 83 | GOING BIG | FEB 2018

I.

The cover of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition, features a simple illustration of a man at the bottom of a squat. His hips are parallel to his knees or just slightly below; his back, bearing the loaded bar, is straight and tilted forward at about 45 degrees relative to the floor; as for his feet—or at least his right foot, the only one shown—the outward angle is difficult to measure because of the full profile perspective, but a slight foreshortening of the front of the shoe suggests that they are splayed within the ballpark of 30 degrees. A thick red stripe with the boldness of sharpie connects the bar to the center of the man’s foot, but it needn’t yell so loudly. We have no reason to doubt that this man, his eyes trained downward with a Zen-like focus, is anything other than perfectly centered. And perfectly angled: Easy to overlook, ghostly images of instruments from high-school math or physics—a ruler, a compass and a protractor—float awkwardly off to the cover’s side, as though to say, ‘Go ahead, measure his proportions.’ Superimposed over the cover’s blue background are crisscrossing white lines that, on further inspection, appear to be graph paper.

Flipping through the book reveals numerous pictures and diagrams—bolts and wrenches, scales and seesaws, levers big and small—illustrating the principles at work when barbells are lifted: moment arms and pivot points; distance, mass and force; and work itself, the application of force on mass over distance, measured in foot-pounds. Of course, there are also the perfunctory anatomical diagrams that one would expect from a title in the fitness section of the bookstore—the rivers, streams and estuaries of our muscles and bones. But these have a place of lesser importance in Starting Strength than, say, in the primer on yoga or running. The reason is simple: Though all exercise draws the self out of the mind and into the body, weightlifting draws it into the physical body in the literal sense, the body of matter subject to Newton’s laws of motion. Not to mention the law that brought the apple down on Newton’s head—“Mean Ol’ Mr. Gravity,” as the book’s author, Mark Rippetoe, says.

Gravity, after all, is the common denominator of picking things up and putting them down. The heavier the object, the greater the force of gravity pushing it downward—vertically and in a straight line, “always, everywhere, every time” —and thus the more strength required to lift it up. The principle that lifting progressively heavier weights builds strength has been known for millennia, and the central thesis of Starting Strength is that the modern fitness industry never should have abandoned it. Lat pulldowns, hamstring curls and leg extensions—descendants of the Nautilus machines introduced in the 1970s—produce their own resistance and promise to manufacture strength without anyone having to work very hard. Three-step instructions tell you what to do: “Sit on the padded seat; hook the feet under the bar; extend the legs to a 90 degree angle.” But no one ever became strong by performing leg extensions, Rippetoe objects.

Barbell exercises, he argues, are the key to strength. Starting Strength prescribes five of them, each of which receives its own chapter: the deadlift, the bench press, the overhead press, the power clean, and most importantly, the squat. In place a of a circuit of Nautilus machines, all you need are three simple pieces of equipment—a bar, a rack and weight plates—as well as Rippetoe’s own 347-page instruction manual. And one more thing: a reason to get strong in the first place.

II.

For most of my life I considered exercise (and eating) pursued with the sole aim of building muscle to be backward at best, and possibly barbaric. Yes, it used to be the case that the strongest caveman would bag the biggest mastodon, but what is the point of having giant biceps in the 21st century? The environmental conditions that created a survival-based need for strength at an earlier stage of human history have largely disappeared—and that is a good thing, since those conditions were overwhelmingly unpleasant: hunting (killing animals) and warfare (killing people). Of course, there are also peaceful professions that require physical strength—construction work and seafaring, for instance—but those are not what first come to mind during a visit to the typical weight room. Minus the heavy metal music, the clang of bars and weights and the grunts of those clanging them resembles what I imagine a munitions factory might be like. But my main objection to strength training was philosophical. After all, Descartes’ famous proposition tells us that the mind, not the body, is what matters when it comes to establishing existence.

More importantly, according to Aristotle, the mind is what counts most when it comes to achieving happiness. His argument is simple and ingenious. We exist in a world of things that have functions, Aristotle reflects. The function of a toaster is to make toast; the function of an eye is to see; the function of a call center employee is to place calls. “So does a carpenter or a shoemaker have certain functions and activities, while a human being has none, and is by nature a do-nothing?” That cannot be right, Aristotle objects. The human being must have a function and that function must be connected to whatever makes the human being distinctly human. It cannot be growing and collecting nutrients, therefore, for plants do that too; it cannot be movement and perception—animals have already claimed those. What is left when we subtract growth, movement and perception from the human being? Reason. The function and purpose (telos) of the human being is a life of reason, and happiness (eudaimonia) is the reward for functioning well.

Where does that leave the human body? Of course, it also has a function. At the very least, as the vessel of our thinking substance, its job is not to break or leak before its contents are ripe. Or as Plato famously said, in slightly different words, the body is the rocket booster whose purpose is to catapult the soul beyond earth’s gravitational pull and then detach. Don’t become attached to the body in life, Plato warned, or it won’t. Though a deep love of ice cream prevented me from going quite that far in my own renunciation of the material realm, I did accept the general metaphysical framework. Minimal upkeep was my motto, and running outside, even in the middle hour of the Chicago winter, did just that. The morning air kept my senses fresh and my systems able to endure long hours in the library. I didn’t have much patience for the Fitness Center’s Cardio Rotunda (Rippetoe: “Any idiot can get on a treadmill and watch TV and take great pride in the fact they’ve ‘exercised’”), but what lay below it was far worse—the weight room with its barely concealed will-to-violence, its muscle-cult of masculinity. Those within it were the ones whose souls would come crashing back to earth.

Unsurprisingly, neither my studies of philosophy nor my philosophy of physical fitness resulted in my becoming a muscular person. I graduated college at 150 pounds, plus or minus one, and slightly over six foot two—a pound above the lower boundary of the BMI’s healthy weight range. There I remained for several years, flitting in and out of being technically underweight, depending on the timing of my last meal. Meanwhile, family and friends joked about my lankiness, prodding me to put more flesh on my bones. “Jeremy, you should go to the gym more often.” When even the philosophy professor who had gotten me hooked on Plato—et tu, Brutus?—joined the chorus, I thought I should investigate the subject further.

III.

Starting Strength, page 1: “Physical strength is the most important thing in life.” I almost closed the browser when I read this sentence (not in a bookstore—I wouldn’t have wanted to be seen in that section). I thought I could hear Aristotle laughing in his grave, but I kept scrolling anyway, and the laughter subsided as the argument that followed took on a strangely Aristotelian quality:

This is true whether we want it to be or not. As humanity has developed throughout history, physical strength has become less critical to our daily existence, but no less important to our lives. Our strength, more than any other thing we possess, still determines the quality and quantity of our time here in these bodies. Whereas previously our physical strength determined how much food we ate and how warm and dry we stayed, it now merely determines how well we function in these new surroundings we have crafted for ourselves…

Yes, Rippetoe concedes, several hundred years of rapid technological progress have largely eliminated the need for physical strength as a condition for survival in an inhospitable environment. But that is not the end of the story. Or more correctly, it is the end. Long before the invention of the steam engine, hundreds of thousands of years of evolution molded a human body full of “potentially strong muscle, bone, sinew, and nerve”—muscle, bone, sinew and nerve, in other words, designed to be strong, regardless of the current state of technology and culture. Whose function is to be strong. Whose telos is to be strong. Though he may not know it, Rippetoe’s philosophy of barbell training is Aristotelian.

Soon I was squatting three times a week with the man on the blue cover. I would take the book with me to the gym and between sets I would puzzle over its dog-eared pages, its diagrams of wrenches and levers, muscles and bones. These promised to reveal the mysteries of the man squatting above them, the sphinxlike creature guarding the secrets to his own perfect form. Feet shoulder width apart; wrists flat on the bar; eyes straight ahead. At the bottom of the squat, hips parallel to the knees or just slightly below; back straight and angled forward at roughly 45 degrees; don’t fall over. The effort paid off: after a month I was clearing 100 pounds—a staggering number to me, a number that a month earlier I might have guessed to be the world record in squatting. (Spoiler alert: it’s not. The squatting world record is 1268 pounds, set by Jonas Rantanen of Finland in 2011.) Meanwhile, as my squat strength went up, my weight did too—152, 153, 154…

Of course, these pounds did not come from squatting alone. Exhausted after a grueling session under the bar, I would return home before the real work had even begun. I had two days to feed my greedy muscles their exorbitant wages of protein and carbs so that they wouldn’t revolt the next time I went the gym and asked them to carry slightly heavier loads. Meat with every meal, a gallon of milk per day—these were Rippetoe’s instructions, my aspirational mantras. I quickly learned that the key to prolific eating is reverse rationing: not of food-stuff, but of stomach space. I rationed mine meticulously, dispensing its real-estate only to the most calorie intensive foods. It was a race against the clock—a 48-hour hourglass, as I imagined it, each grain of sand a calorie.

I weighed myself on Mondays and recorded in my logbook, week by week, the drumbeat of increasing pounds. 157, 158, 159… “You are what you eat.” Never before had this been truer for me than it was now. I was eating bacon, muscle and fat, and gaining muscle and fat, strips of my own bacon. 161, 162, 163… I cheered as the lower threshold of the BMI’s healthy weight range receded. 164, 165, 166… Groceries felt lighter; my favorite sweater, meanwhile, slightly tighter. 167, 168, 169… Buttons popped on collared shirts. 170, 171, 172… Pants and boxers burst at the seams—twice at the bottom of a squat. 173, 174, 175… I had somehow forgotten to consider that my wardrobe might become a casualty of my crusade. 177, 178, 179… Now my belt is on its last notch.

IV.

One recent Monday morning, I stood on my bathroom’s scale and watched its pointer swivel, as it almost always does, slightly further than it ever has before. This time it landed on 180, a full 30 pounds gained since I began Starting Strength. I usually don’t linger at the scale, but on that morning I did, checking that it hadn’t changed its mind. Yes, 180 pounds—a 20 percent increase in bodyweight within six months. I certainly felt heavier. And I was clearly stronger. But what had I really gained? Cogito, ergo sum. Though I was tempted to carry out the deduction more emphatically (ERGO SUM!) now that there was more of me to do so, what difference would it make? Thoughts, not pounds, are what ultimately count when it comes to asserting one’s existence. Nor had I achieved eudaimonia, by any means.

But maybe a sliver of it. During the past weeks and months, I had found myself functioning better in my body, the quality of my time spent within it improved. My posture had straightened and my ribs had receded from the visible surface of my chest, and I had enjoyed receiving compliments from those who had noticed. I now was happier in virtue of being stronger, I reflected, as I stepped off the scale and started getting ready to leave for the gym. Today I would be squatting 165 pounds—the 45-pound bar loaded with two blue weights (45 pounds each) and, for the first time, two black weights (15 pounds each) as well. My quads would punish me tomorrow, but I didn’t mind, given the rewards at stake. Humans may be creatures of reason, but the idea that physical strength might also play a role in the good life, as one factor among several, now struck me as strangely obvious. Rippetoe’s prediction had been prescient:

A weak man is not as happy as that same man would be if he were strong. This reality is offensive to some people who would like the intellectual or spiritual to take precedence. It is instructive to see what happens to these very people as their squat strength goes up.

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