What is Strength?
Updated: Jan 26, 2022
“Thus wu-wei as ‘not forcing’ is what we mean by going with the grand, rolling with the punch, swimming with the current, trimming sails to the wind, taking the tide at its flood, and stooping to conquer.”
-Alan Watts, Tao: The Watercourse Way
I remember my first day of live sparring in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, rolling. I was full of tension and completely rigid; the opposite of a willow blowing in the wind. My breath was erratic, and I tried to muscle every opponent into positions I needed them to be in to perform one of the few moves I knew. And, whenever they moved into a position I wasn’t familiar with, I was full of frustration; a frustrated 2x4. However, every advanced student I rolled with was relaxed, soft, and comfortable with whichever direction my rigid boat turned. It seemed like every choice I made was a bad choice as my opponents allowed me to make them, but then punished me for the route I took. It was like the knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade saying, “You have chosen…poorly.” I remember thinking how strong and mobile I was, and that I was being submitted, a lot, by people who didn’t have much of either of these tools. I tapped to chokes and joint locks more times than I can count on my hands and feet, and yours. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but on those mats, I was rigid in both my mind and body. Perhaps off the mats as well. I was addicted to control.
It was during my early days in BJJ that I began to question strength training. At the time I was doing strength sessions twice a day. My training included upper body gymnastics (planche, front lever, handstand push-up, etc) and weightlifting (Olympic weightlifting and various forms of squats). I looked and felt strong, and had a wonderful set of Instagram-able skills I’d collected. And, most importantly, I thought I was in control. But, what did all this strength mean if I didn’t have the intelligence to utilize the interconnectedness of my entire body? Why train one arm chin-ups if I couldn’t coordinate my limbs? How will a double bodyweight back squat help me if I don’t know how to move through different layers of tension and non-tension? How strong should I be? Why am I training strength? What is strength?
For much of history we didn’t have bulging biceps, ham-hocks, and washboard abs. The Rock-like muscular strength appears to be a new phenomenon among homo sapiens, spear headed by the era of Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, what we did have was giant brains, and we still do despite what we see at Trump rallies. We have the potential to be highly creative and adaptable. We didn’t wrestle mammoths to the ground with our bare hands. No, we built spears, learned to throw, and organized with our tribe. There was uncertainty, and that made us thrive. We had to innovate for survival on a daily basis; a scenario that does not result in lats for days. Rather than trying to be in control, we became good at not being in control.
Modern humans are creatures of comfort, desperate to control nature, and in denial of death. Not only do we try to force and organize nature, we refuse to acknowledge we are part of it. Strength training is an abstraction of human ability and has the potential to weaken us if we are seduced by the illusion. As I learned in BJJ, muscular strength gives the false sense of control, and control makes us feel strong. When we look and feel strong, we think we are in more control of the random, spontaneous, and uncertain world than we actually are. And, perhaps benching 225 pounds, or doing muscle-ups, also gives the deception that we aren’t moving one step closer to death with each passing day (But maybe this is something to dig into in a future blog).
From my experience, and with respect to the gumption and drive to hit the gym every day, strength centered training, from a generalist perspective, within most linear systems does little to make us more adaptable or creative. This includes body building and any sort of “functional” strength training. Dancers, fighters, and other counterculture athletes embody the resilience, creativity, and adaptability that I have found to be high value. For these artists and practitioners, any sort of strength training is supplemental. It exists to keep the body aging in a healthy way in order to continue their practice. Strength training is not the tool; it is a tool.
The quote at the beginning of this blog introduces the term wu-wei , “not forcing” or “conscious non-effort”. I’d like to join it with another term I was introduced to by Alan Watts as well, yugen. Yugen, as Watts describes it, is the idea of “digging change.” To me these two terms go hand in hand; they complement one another. If I’m forceful and controlling, I probably don’t dig change, and vice-versa. Having wu-wei demonstrates a comfort with change in the moment and change over time. If I’m not forcing, I won’t tell the wave how to roll toward me, I’ll adjust and take whatever the ocean sends my way. The person who does not force, enjoys change, and embraces change, because she realizes it is the vehicle for options.
In the past, I would have spoken of strength in terms of gymnastics skills, weightlifting, reps, and kilos. Now, when I think of strength, and how I practice, I speak with terms like resilience, creativity, adaptability, wu-wei, and yugen. For a culture infatuated with measurable progress, these words and ideas may be unsatisfying. They don’t quench the thirst for control. However, linearity, organization, and symmetry are uncommon in nature. Excessive strength training provides comforting answers when we should be asking more questions. As a generalist, strength training deserves a role in maintaining health and resilience; I just question how large that role should be. In my case, I no longer chase skills or numbers. Instead I keep my joints healthy through exploration of the interconnectedness of the body, problem solving, creative expression, and managing the mind and breath. I’m pursuing a 1 rep max in wonder and curiosity. And, I propose that real strength is the embrace of uncertainty and change.