Why We Lift:
The Deeper Motives
In Chapter One I identified four motives for lifting weights. I named these motives "I Should," "I Have To," I Want To," and the "Path for Personal Growth." Important as these distinctions of motive are, they are not sufficient to fully understand why people devotedly lift weights. These four motives are relatively easily recognized, or, we might say, are surface motives. If we look more deeply, however, we find motives which may be unconscious and thus operate for the most part outside the lifter's awareness.
Lifting weights is usually an overdetermined behavior, I believe. Just as I suggested in Chapter One that more than one of those surface motives may be operating at the same time with a particular lifter, more than one of the deeper motives to be discussed in the present chapter may be operating coincidentally. It is to these deeper or more inferred motives that I now want to attend.
In order to understand unconscious motivation to lift weights, we need first to understand the peculiar challenges of the lifting sports. Just what does lifting weights uniquely offer?
There are several basic parameters of exercise: strength, speed, flexibility, endurance, and coordination. These are the components of physical activity, itself. Although these parameters may seem self-explanatory, I believe some brief explanations would be helpful to our understanding here. In reversed order, coordination means the timing of movement. It means putting several movements in a particular sequence and with a particular rhythm such that a particular effect is produced. Endurance refers to the ability to continue an activity through time. It includes both muscular endurance and respiro-circulatory endurance. Flexibility is a measure of the range of motion of body parts, or the extent of their excursion as they are moved to their limits. The rate at which one is able to perform a particular movement is referred to as speed. And, finally, strength is a measure of the amount of resistance which one can overcome in the execution of a movement. Combinations of these qualities will, of course, create more intricate parameters, i.e., strength + speed = power.
With these five basic dimensions in mind one can evaluate any given physical movement or activity. On a grosser level, a particular sport can be analyzed in terms of these parameters. Any given sport has its own peculiar profile, requiring more or less development of each of these five dimensions. To do well in any physical activity requires a certain level of development of all of these, but certain activities are outstanding in their demands in terms of certain dimensions. We can think of particular sports of physical disciplines which are extreme in the focused demand on a particular parameter of movement. Some such pairings which I think of are coordination and figure skating, endurance and the marathon, flexibility and gymnastics, speed and sprinting, power and Olympic weightlifting, strength and powerlifting.
Although the degree of involvement of coordination, endurance, flexibility, and speed differ among the weight sports, what they hold in common is an extreme emphasis on the development and demonstration of strength (in bodybuilding, the emphasis is on the development of muscular hypertrophy which reflects and symbolizes strength, even though the strength is not demonstrated directly). If strength is valued highly, then the weight sports will have great appeal. So far, however, we have not tapped the deeper psychological level. To do so, I enlist the notion of the "archetype" as developed by Carl Jung.
Jung hypothesized that, in addition to the personal unconscious so thoroughly explored by Freud, there exists a "collective unconscious." This deeper unconscious manifests itself through universal images expressed in dreams, religious beliefs, and fairy tales. Jung referred to the structural components of the collective unconscious by several names, one of which was "archetype." The archetypes derive from the accumulated experience of humankind and are inherited just as the form of the nervous system is inherited. Archetypes then function as universal thought forms, serving as a frame of reference with which to experience the world. Examples are god (good), devil (evil), earth mother, hero, unity, magic, birth, death, rebirth, old wise man, male principle, female principle, and self.
The archetype, as a universal thought form, does not have a predetermined content, but is a possibility of representation which can be actualized in any number of ways. Jung demonstrated through his research that archetypes are not only passed down through tradition and language (myth, religion, folklore), but can arise spontaneously, as in dreams and art. Archetypes can combine, and so, for example, the primordial images of wise old man and hero can interfuse to produce the conception of "philosopher king."
Allow me one example of how an archetype can become manifest. The child inherits a readiness or tendency to have certain experiences. By virtue of the human nervous system, as it has evolved to this point in time, the child is programmed to recognize certain universal motifs. This is shared by all humans, by virtue of the human nervous system, or in psychological terms, the collective unconscious. The child's archetype of mother produces a primordial image of mother, and through this the child can "recognize" mothering as it is presented through the person of a literal mother. The child's preformed conception of "mother" then determines in part how the child perceives his actual mother. The child's experience of his mother will be, then, a combination and interaction of the mother archetype (universal inner disposition) and the actual behavior of its mother (specific, literal events).
With this very basic understanding of archetypes, we can return to the question of the deep psychological appeal of lifting weights. One of the primordial images recognized by Jung is the archetype of strength or power. The strength or power archetype is a predisposition to be fascinated by power. It leads to a desire to create and control power. When an archetype is tapped into, there is often a rather mystical quality to one's experience. Perhaps you can recognize in yourself that mystical fascination in some experience with an event of power. Some examples of situations which would elicit or invite such archetypical experience with power are fireworks displays, drag racing, pile drivers, a heavy surf, a tractor pull, a violent storm, and firing a high-powered gun. Recall when you have been mesmerized by such an event, of have observed someone else so entranced by such an occurrence. I remember, vividly, standing on the rim of Mauna Loa while the volcano was active, enraptured as time stood still. I was completely in awe of the incomprehensible power as I felt the intense heat of the rising air currents, smelled the sulfur fumes, and watched the molten lave bubble and flow.
But, again, I have mentioned lifting weights only to go on about the power archetype in general. In the above examples of experience with power I mentioned natural events and two categories of man-made events, machinery, and chemical explosions. The events which are focal to our discussion, however, are the events in which men perform an act of strength, thereby tapping into the archetype of power. What I am proposing is that the weight sports are valued insofar as they provide a primitive, personally-embodied manifestation of the power archetype. That is, the act of lifting weights is a living out through one's own body the archetype of strength.
I have come to believe that it is this embodied living-out-into-the-world of the strength archetype which is the primary (i.e., deepest, most primitive, most basic) motivation for lifting weights. All other motivations, valid as they are, are secondary. To recognize power and to want to control it is an orientation we derive from the collective unconscious. The most direct way of controlling it is to manifest it through one's body, to be strong, to BE strength. When one performs an act of strength, there is a congruence between what is manifested and the unconscious archetypal pattern. This congruence is experienced in various degrees of interest, fascination, or awe. An eternal and universal truth is known.
Jung emphasized the universal expression of the archetypes in myth, folklore, religion, visions, art, and dreams. There are obvious examples of the strength archetype manifesting across cultures. Looking at Western civilization, we can find a plethora of examples from our earlier written records to the present. In Samuel, Chapter 4, Verse 9 it is written, "Be strong, and quit yourselves like men . . ." Often we find a blending of the strength archetype with the hero archetype. In Greek mythology we find Atlas, the leader of the Titans in their contest with Zeus, who for eternity bears the heavens on his head and his hands. The great hero of the Greeks, known for his strength and endurance, was, of course, Herakles (Latinized as Hercules). The Old Testament presents us with Samson and his incredible feats of strength, performed when his faith pleased his god. Beowulf was the strong hero in the West Saxon epic of about 700 A.D. Such heroes of strength continue today as the Saturday morning cartoon "superheroes" dash upon the screen with grossly hypertrophied muscles. Conan, Superman, the Incredible Hulk; the list could be extended. The point is that the strength archetype, often interpreted with the hero archetype, is well represented in the world's literature, from its beginning until now.
It seems that of the weight sports it is bodybuilding which most clearly interfuses at least an element of the hero archetype with the strength archetype. The hero is recognized as such only after he has done something heroic. So, too, the bodybuilder is judged after he has done what he does, after he has trained. The names of the contests, and titles awarded also suggest the conferring of hero status on the winner. Rarely, if ever, has a winning powerlifter of Olympic weightlifter been given a "Mr." title. But consider how we designate a physique winner. Even the smallest local contest confers its "Mr. Prairie City" award. One of the first physique contests I attended was the "Mr. Hercules" contest, held the evening that Steve Reeves' movie made its debut in town. (That was three or four years before I attended the "Mr. Avon Beach" event.) The big physique events are clearly infused with an element of the hero archetype. Consider the titles of Mr. U.S.A., America, World, Universe, and, if any question remains, Olympia.
If the hero archetype is less in manifest evidence in powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, the strength archetype is manifested in a form more raw. The physique contestant displays a body which suggests strength and stands as a symbol for it. The competitive lifter, on the other hand, demonstrates strength in its raw form.
Just as the physique contestant draws on the hero archetype to augment his living out a symbolic portrayal of the power archetype, the competitive lifter may draw, to some degree, on the archetype of magic. A heavy lift is clearly a demonstration of power. But it may also touch lightly on the realm of magic. A good lifter is able to lift a weight far in excess of what a nonlifter of comparable bodyweight could. Sometimes these feats seem almost beyond human ability. These are acts apparently in defiance of gravity. It appears as if the lifter is able to partially suspend, or at least reduce the ordinary gravitational pull, to alter the law of gravity. This is an appearance not only to the spectator, but may also be noted by the lifter himself. As I write this I am recalling the sensation I had when as a teenage lifter I did an Olympic press of 190 pounds at a bodyweight of 140. Somehow, it was almost as if the weight were floating up. Paradoxical as it sounds, I felt at the same time as if I were and were not pressing the weight. I have experienced this many times while performing maximum or near-maximum lifts. This is not always the case with a maximum lift, however. Sometimes the weight seems extremely heavy, and is lifted only with the greatest of effort. When I was training for powerlifting competition, I was fascinated with the two different experiences which I regularly had in the deadlift, sometimes the effortful lift, sometimes that "magical" floating lift where I seemed as much the observer as the active lifter. When I began breaking the 400 lb. mark with regularity in training (at a bodyweight of 160), I discovered how to create the floating sensation in the lift. What I discovered worked like magic. (I will describe the procedure in a later chapter on techniques to enhance lifting performance.) Levitation of objects has long been a feat worthy of the best of the legendary "magicians." A lifter can create such an illusion with the most astounded and delighted witness being himself.
I am suggesting a corollary to my above stated belief about the power archetype being at the root of weightlifting's attraction. I believe that in addition to tapping into the power archetype, as all forms of lifting do, bodybuilding taps into the hero archetype and weightlifting may at times tap into the archetype of magic. The bodybuilder lives out an embodied manifestation of the strength archetype interpenetrated with the hero archetype. The competitive lifter may be closer to living out an embodied manifestation of the archetype of power, by itself. Some competitive lifters, at times, may also infuse their performance with the perspective of magic.
Each sport, each form of exercise, each physical activity presents its own unique challenge. Lifting weights is the activity par excellence for encountering the power archetype. Lifting weights is a way of bringing one's self face to face with all of the issues attending strength. Given that the power archetype is a potential force and form in all of us, lifting weights is a path for exploring and actualizing that potential. By lifting weights we bring forth a natural part of us and give life to something dormant. Developing and experiencing strength is an act, then, of self-actualization. It is the realization of a potential core human experience.
Next: Male and Female, Anima and Animus.