A strong man is harder to kill and more useful in general.
This is one of my favorite quotes ever by the venerable strength coach out of Texas, Mark Rippetoe. I mean, what man doesn't want to be more tough or durable (harder to kill) and more useful to his family, friends and society at large? I think he perfectly sums up the physical desires of that inner, "primal" man we all live with. Rip (as he is affectionately called) is everything you'd expect from an old-school barbell coach in the Lone Star State. He runs a bare bones strength training facility built in an unfinished metal structure, nothing but barbells and squat racks everywhere, and he will tell you exactly what is wrong with how you're doing...well...anything (probably with a couple of colorful four-letter words as well). Right down to the intimidating goatee, this guy exudes old-school strength. I've never met him in person, but have immense respect for the man and what he has done for thousands of people!
Now, before this turns into a gushing love-letter to a barbell coach, let me back up to how I first became acquainted with his method and what it has done for me. About three years ago I was out of shape...badly. I realize this will alienate almost everyone (my wife used to roll her eyes every time I said this) but my problem was that I was under-weight. I've always been the gangly, high-metabolism kid, and after neglecting any form of lifting or exercise for years, and coming off a month with "The Whole 30," I was crazy-skinny. (If you've never heard of The Whole 30, it is essentially the Paleo diet on steroids for 30 days, and is generally something couples do together because the wife wants to do it and persuades her husband to join her out of solidarity. In short, it sucks!) I came out of that month of carb-less hell at 6' 1" and weighing 163 pounds. Essentially, I looked like one of those dancing wind sock things outside of a carwash.
I could have lived with that (probably), but one day I decided to tackle some yard work - I was finally going to deal with the jungle of weeds I had let the backyard become. If you're not familiar with AZ, we don't just get little dandelion weeds that need to be pulled every so often. No, we get desert scrub bushes that will completely overtake your property, and if you don't get to them while they are small, you are essentially pulling up full grown shrubs by the time they're full grown. I was digging and chopping and pulling on these giant desert weeds, and early in the project something went terribly wrong. I had somehow managed to squat down with my chest against my thigh while I pulled with all my might on this humungous weed, and as I pulled and pulled...POP! Something in my chest popped and hurt, but not blinding pain that would cause me to stop this project (I have a somewhat compulsive issue that abhors stopping once I've started a project...most men do...we have problems), and so knowing something was wrong, I still spent the rest of the afternoon pulling all of those weeds. Of course, by the time I was done abusing myself that way, I knew I needed medical help. My chest was killing me, and there was a visible "protruberance" from my sternum region.
Figuring it was skeletal in nature, I went to my family's old chiropractor, who could tell immediately that I had dislocated a rib-head on my sternum. He popped it back in for me (which hurt 1,000 times more than popping it out had) and told me to take it easy for a couple days. Of course, when I returned home from the doctor, my toddler son ran up to me and I reached down and picked him up out of habit...POP! It went out again. I went back to the chiropractor the next morning, he popped it back in again (somehow it hurt even more the second time) and he told me to do two things. 1) SERIOUSLY, take it easy for a couple days, and 2) get stronger. He wasn't rude about it, but basically said I could benefit from a bit more muscle around my chest and core to essentially keep my bones in place.
Something clicked in my head at that point. As a man, if someone tells you that you are too weak (especially too weak to simply hold your skeleton together) it drives you to change. I immediately began researching strength training programs, got a gym membership, and got to work! Now, if you've ever perused the internet for fitness advice, you're surely aware that there are more opinions than there are brands of overly priced yoga pants (what is LuLu Lemon, anyway?!). Not only that, all the opinions contradict each other. Muscle confusion, hypertrophy, sets of 5 or 8 or 10 or 30, cardio is awesome, cardio will kill you, squats are the best, squats will kill you...it's a nightmare!!! Eventually, all that advice becomes overwhelming, you fart around the gym for a couple months, progress and motivation stall, and you quit working out but keep paying for the gym promising yourself you'll go back next Monday. Ever been there?
Having had a few seasons through high school and college where I was semi-fit and worked out regularly, I thought about just going back and trying to remember what I used to do, but I was stuck on one fundamental truth: In those days, I was never strong. I may have looked and felt a little better, but I was never consistent enough and the workout plan wasn't well-designed enough that I could actually say I was a strong dude. I knew I needed a proven plan from someone who knew what they were talking about if I was going to get stronger. I made a quick mental list of what I wanted and decided I'd find and dedicate myself to the plan that: would allow me to build real and quantifiable strength, had been tried and proven by other people, was clearly not from some bro-huckster who would sell me the 12 steps to razr abs for $99.95, and would continue to work after the first couple months of progress had plateaued. That's when I found Mark Rippetoe and Starting Strength.
Rip's process is about nothing more than becoming stronger...that's it. Size comes with that, looking better naked comes with that, but he is in no way concerned with how your abs look or what the latest issue of Men's Health says. He will tell you to lift heavy weights, eat a bunch of food, get plenty of rest, and repeat. With all the fitness plans based on the idea of "muscle confusion" and "functional strength" (whatever that means), Starting Strength sounds too simple to be effective. The whole program is based on 5 simple lifts (lots of squats) and two alternating workouts. You lift three times a week, and the only thing that changes is the amount of weight on the bar. So you do workout A (which is only 3 different lifts), rest a day, do workout B (3 more lifts), rest a day, go back to workout A only the weights are now 5(ish) pounds heavier. And week after week you do this until, before you know it, you're actually getting pretty friggin' strong!
If you're really interested in this, you can head over to the Starting Strength website, or buy the app, or even buy Rip's book (if you're a nerd like me and want to know every last detail about the biomechanics of the system). What I will say is that it works...it absolutely works! It works on the basic principle that when you put your body under a new stress (for example, you barbell squat 135 pounds for your first workout), it will adapt to that stressor within about 48 hours. When you go back and your body is prepared for 135 but you lift 145 instead your body thinks, "well, crap, we need to adapt to this now." And on and on the system goes! This doesn't work forever, and eventually you will get stuck and have to vary some things, but in general a person consistently sticking to the system, eating and sleeping enough, can keep adding weight to the bar for roughly 6 months. If you're skinny, you will gain weight! If you're hoping to shed pounds, you may not actually change the numbers on the scale all that much. However, your body-composition will change - while the scale may read the same, your waist will be shrinking, chest and shoulders will be getting larger, and you're going to look and feel better.
What does all this have to do with manliness and the outdoors? Well, it's no longer a secret that being in shape gives you more opportunities for success while hunting. You can hike farther, pack heavier, and even things as simple as field dressing your animal become easier when you're stronger. If you can press 150 pounds over your head, then picking up an 80 pound elk quarter and hanging it in a tree is a smaller percentage of your overall strength than if that elk quarter is the heaviest thing you lift all year. My first ever hunt at 21, I was about as light and weak as when I dislocated my rib, and I remember taking just the back straps of a friend's elk in my pack for a measly two miles...it was so much harder than it should have been, and I was miserable. On my most recent elk hunt, while the pack out was not pleasant by any means, I was able to haul two quarters, the rack, and a bunch of camera gear three miles back to the truck. I credit that to being 40 pounds heavier and a heck-of-a-lot stronger!
On a more "primal" level, however, I have found that just being strong fills the soul of a man. While true masculinity is about so much more than physical strength, I believe we all long to be strong...to know that we can handle whatever challenge may come our way. That's why every little boy goes through the phase of wanting to flex their tiny stick arms, challenging their dad to feats of strength, and just longs to be big and strong. There is a profound confidence that comes with walking around knowing that you are physically capable of taking on just about any reasonable challenge that may present itself. That could be moving a couch, loading a refrigerator onto a trailer, or even something more catastrophic like being able to carry someone to safety or help in an emergency. Stepping up to a run-of-the-mill physical task and knowing without a doubt that you're going to be able to lift/move/load that thing speaks to that inner "primal" man. This isn't about being a BRO, wearing tank tops in public, or drinking protein every second of the day. This is about being physically strong to more fully embody that heart of a man that was built into you from the beginning. A strong man is harder to kill and more useful in general...but a strong man is also more at peace with himself and the world around him.
One last thing I will say is that if you're in the camp where you've felt you need to get into better shape but you just can't seem to get any traction - you've tried every fad out there, you've had some success but then backslid, or you haven't dipped a toe in the waters of physical fitness since high school gym class - give it a try. As my mother in law is fond of saying, "if nothing changes, nothing changes." This system can work for anybody (possibly with some slight variations for medical issues). It is simple to follow, it provides built-in motivation (as you want to see the weight on the bar going up and you know that if you skip a workout, it's going to affect those numbers), and since it is a gradual progression you will not get yourself debilitatingly sore after a workout (except perhaps the first one or two if you haven't been training at all prior to starting). Forget the BROS, skip all the conflicting internet advice, and for the love of all things give that awkward crotch-strengthening machine a break. Do something simple that has been working since the classy strong-men of the 19th century, and watch how good it feels to push your body to levels of strength you truly didn't think you were capable of.