Generally speaking, I don’t listen to music when I’m working out. I usually only listen to music in my headphones if I’m in a gym instead of at home, and the background music is awful or distracting, and if I can’t do anything to change it. This isn’t to say that I don’t like music, because that’s definitely not the case. I’m a musician and songwriter, moderately proficient with multiple instruments, and I relish the opportunity to lose myself in the magic of sound. But when I lift weights or run, I often don’t listen to music at all if I can help it. Sometimes, sure. Or sometimes I’ll listen to audiobooks. But usually, I listen only to my own thoughts.

The reason for this may be counterintuitive to some, but it makes perfect sense to me. I only ever listen to music I like, and music I like makes me feel good, even if it isn’t “feel-good music.” 

But I don’t want to feel good when lifting weights or grappling or hitting the bag. I don’t want to feel happy or optimistic. When I’m with the iron, I want to channel and make use of aggression and anger. Anger is a powerful energy that can be incredibly useful when directed with purpose. When I’m working out, I want to feel every disappointment, every annoyance, every depressing thought that my “Thrall Mind” has ever used to weigh me down and hold me back. The author Paul Waggener has described the Thrall Mind as the driving force of internal resistance, which retards your progress and darkens your spirit. He is your dark twin who wishes nothing for you but stagnation and a dull grey mediocrity. This feeling of thrallish resistance can be emotionally conflicting and, if you’re like me, this emotional conflict leads to anger which can be channeled into purposeful energy.

When I am angry or depressed, I like to hit things, I like to get physical, and I like to feel pain. Aside from its use as a warning signal of danger, pain is also the physical manifestation of psychological dissonance, which is partly why so many angst-filled teenagers turn to self-harm. Every weightlifter and athlete is, in this sense, a self-harmer. Those of us who work out know that we must first break down our bodies before growing stronger. We must hurt ourselves daily, repetitively, incrementally, to grow, just as a piece of iron is hammered by the blacksmith. Weightlifting and martial arts are the most productive forms of self-harm and flagellation that exist. 

For a long time, I trained thinking that I could make gains by lifting sensibly and going through the motions, but that was just the stupid thinking of a lazy idiot kid who lacked proper guidance. These days when I train, I do so with quiet, purposeful aggression. When you watch me lift, you won’t see someone who’s obviously in a state of berserker rage or riastrád, but you will see someone who knows what he has come to do and who does it with determination and purpose. Every rep and set are planned in advance. I aim to hit a predetermined number, and if I can hit more than that number, it’s a bonus. Working out isn’t some battle or metaphysical struggle of good vs. evil. It’s just exercise. It’s just fun. But it becomes more than just fun if you approach it with strategy and intensity.

Mostly I train at home, but I used to go to a conventional gym. When I looked around that gym, I’d see dozens of people talking shit with their buddies, texting their girlfriends, Instagramming pictures of their chest pump, and generally indulging in distractions and flights of fancy. I’d see guys taking five minutes seated rest between unimpressive sets of squats. I’d see people mixing shakes at the bench. Girls on the stair-machine talking shit and cackling like witches without even breaking a sweat. Guys who were supposedly spotting their buddies staring into their smartphones doing who knows what. The very sight of these distracted people distracted me. 

I don’t want to lose focus when I’m in a physical environment, so the sight of so much indecision and procrastination is an affront to me. That’s why these days, I mostly train in my home gym, usually alone or with one or two of my buddies who take their training seriously. Removing distractions makes it a lot easier to focus.

When I see people fall victim to mindless distractions, I’m reminded that that is not my approach to the pursuit of physical excellence, or as some call it, “The Iron.” 

When I’m with The Iron, I treat it as a solemn and serious occasion. I’m there to achieve something, get some work done, and purify my body and mind from the toxic influences of soft living and civilized habits. I go to The Iron to punish myself for the weakness I’ve fallen prey to due to my living in a civilized environment. I lift weights and train cardio to prove to myself that I’m more than just a flaccid sack of flesh and bile who has never had to survive by the merits of his physicality. I think of the countless lives of men and women who had to push their bodies to the very ends of their endurance just to be worthy of mating and raising offspring over infinite generations in a process that would eventually lead to my birth, and I am ashamed at the relative luxury and indolence that the modern world has afforded me. 

You see, you and I, we don’t have to be strong. We don’t need strength to survive in this world of convenience and comfort. Physical strength is a luxury that we men of the West pursue in leisure. If we weren’t strong, the world would take care of us. I needn’t pull a cart laden with cumbersome goods to the village market to barter goods for food; I just ride my motorcycle to the store and buy it with cash that conveniently fits in my pocket. I needn’t spend my days digging a tiny patch of barren Irish soil in the hope of growing some vegetables to boil in a thin soup; I work a day job where I’ve got rights and benefits. I’ve never been driven from my home into a snowy winter night with no shoes or coat because I lacked the means to pay my rent. Nor have I been driven across the Atlantic Ocean in a Coffin Ship to a foreign land where men spoke a foreign tongue that I didn’t know, struggling each day to scrabble together a few pennies for a piece of bread and a whiskey. I’ve never hunted the Aurochs for his pelt and his meat. The lives that my ancestors endured prove the strength that lies coiled up the human body, a power that’s only rarely called upon in this age of mediocrity. How many of my forefathers would scorn me for indulging in the idle comforts of modern life? How could I meet the gaze of men who have endured such strain for my sake?

When I’m alone with my thoughts in the pursuit of physical excellence, I treat it as a religious rite. Many will scoff derisively at the pompousness of that statement, but fuck them. Where other men and women my age worship nothing but the shiny trinkets of
consumerism and “progress,” I worship an ideal higher than anything I’ve ever attained. I worship and work to awaken that force within myself which has the potential to do great things when called upon. Actually, forget greatness. I work my body so that I can count on being capable of performing even mundane physical tasks that lesser men shun, like carrying my tools to my worksite instead of using a trolley or lifting something heavy by myself instead of asking for help like a child. Excellence is not measured only by those rare instances when we’re called upon to go beyond reasonable expectations. 

Excellence can also be measured by the accumulation of many small tasks performed with tenacity and consistency over a long period of time. Working out might be just a small and enjoyable rite, but each act of physical exercise is a step on the path that leads to something great and uncommon. 

As I said, physical training is a religious rite for me. When I work out, I’m carrying out a ritualized sacrifice to the potential for physical excellence that lives inside me. You might call that a God. The Iron God, perhaps. Barbells and sandbags and stones and other men are merely the instruments of ritual that I use to actualize that which is greater than I am. 

Ten years ago, I was a skinny kid, but today I am more than that. I’m not much, don’t get me wrong. My numbers and physique are unimpressive compared to real men. I’m not yet a behemoth or a giant by any means, and I’m not the most imposing man to look upon. I’m just a man who strives to be strong and capable. But in the past decade, I’ve achieved measurable and meaningful success in improving myself both mentally and physically. I couldn’t have done this without performing the rituals of my worship of excellence.

If you work The Iron, do so with consistency, focus, and tenacity. Do not fall prey to distraction and doubt. Before you ever set foot in a gym, with your program in hand and your shiny new headphones, ask yourself if you’ve come to play or if you’ve come to slay. Listen to music, if you must. But if, like me, your training is better served by sullen silence, then be silent. Get your mind right before you even touch your first barbell. Decide what your goals are, write them down somewhere you’ll see them, and figure out how to meet that high standard. If you’re even in the gym, you’re already way ahead of the vast majority of the sluggish herd. But if you are in the gym or on the field, do yourself the service of taking your training seriously and not wasting any more time than you must.

The road that leads to physical transcendence is long and difficult, and it is littered with the headless corpses of lesser men who quit. Go forth along that bone-road with dogged determination and unyielding focus. Do what you must do, then go home and live your life. Squeeze the most out of every second before you die because nobody will ever tell stories about the guy who worked, lived, and trained without heart.

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