weight lifting · Guest Post

A Deadlift of the Will (Guest Post)

The deadlift is my least favourite exercise. I know it’s good for me. It hits every major muscle, and yet…

Part of it is physical. I have really small hands, and this makes for a weak grip. My hands fail me long before my legs and back. Part of it is psychological. It is hard to muster all those useful emotions that help with other lifts, such as anger and fear.  There is no adrenalin that the barbell will crush you on the bench or that you will be trapped in the hole with the squat. In the deadlift, the barbell is just on the floor, minding its own business until you upset it. Why not let dead barbells lie?

This year I have been training for my first strong woman competition which involves a “last man standing” deadlift event, where competitors will have to perform a 90 kilogram deadlift every 30 seconds until they can’t. In order to train for that, I have recently been lifting 100 kilogram deadlifts every 20 seconds. I’m sure I’ve done more deadlifts this year then I have in my entire training life.  And it has changed my attitude to deadlifts.

When I am asked by people who do not do so much weight training about the events, many puzzle on the word “deadlift”. Why is it called that? Yes, of course, because you are lifting a dead weight off the ground. But is there more to it than that?

I have read on many fitness blogs that the history of the deadlift goes back to ancient Rome from soldiers lifting their dead from the battlefields. But no sources are ever cited and I am a bit dubious. It’s also not a universal term. In Swedish, the deadlift is sensibly called marklyft or floor lift and in French soulevé de terre, elevated from the ground. These words reflect the English meaning of picking up dead weight without assistance of any kind. While the deadlift as a particular kind of weightlifting exercise does not have such a long history, the concept of picking up a dead weight from the ground and lifting it, surely does not need an origin story.

Yet the deadlift has a rich history of more figurative meanings. I am very sympathetic to an earlier meaning of deadlift recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary that was apparently common in the 17th Century: “A position or juncture in which one can do no more, an extremity, ‘a hopeless exigence’.

Deadlifts also crop up frequently in the 19th century. Artist William Morris describes the neglect of art appreciation as requiring a “deadlift”, the historian Thomas Carlyle explores various “deadlift efforts” in history, and novelist F. Anstey talks about “the burden of a conversational deadlift”. And then, I came across this gem from the Transactions of the Michigan State Teachers Association of 1877:

“It is not true that mental exercise is useful only when it is repulsive and distasteful, needing a deadlift of the will; but it is true that a good many ‘lifts’ have to be made, and the child must be got ready for them by lifting. It is true that no subject is good for the training of a child in which the child is not capable of achieving something, and of enjoying the achievement; but it is not true that a subject is always good for him in the long run, in proportion to his present capacity and liking for it. Sometimes it is the case that a child, or older pupil, who has small capacity for a subject, and finds little pleasure in its pursuit, develops, through application and study, great capacity and pleasure.” (my emphasis)

I am going to take that as sage advice from a 19th century writer who would likely be shocked to learn of its application to a strong woman competition in the 21st century. When it comes to deadlifts, I am that child, but slowly through increased application and study, the deadlift is growing in capacity and pleasure.

Weights at a gym. Photo by Evan Wise. Unsplash.

Virginia is an associate professor of literature and a powerlifter.

Guest Post · weight lifting

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barbell (Guest Post)

Catherine of Siena

I am a bit obsessed with bodies. Sinful bodies, holy bodies, compassionate bodies, sick bodies, extraordinary bodies, ordinary bodies. I wrote my dissertation about medieval regimes designed to stretch the body to its uttermost limit while maintaining mental and moral clarity. This spanned from the male desert ascetics to the mostly female late medieval mystics. Yet somehow in the course of this research, I neglected my own body. 

So, shortly after submitting, I decided to redirect my focus and in typical all or nothing fashion, I entered a bodybuilding contest to the outright horror and curious amusement of my academic friends.

It was a difficult and wonderful experience. It made me fall in love with my research again in that vulnerable time after you finish your PhD and nothing makes sense anymore. Whether or not female mystics saw God or not, the shared sensations of physical rigor – little sleep, extreme mortification (okay, we may be comparing lifting barbells with bathing lepers, but for the sake of argument), controlled nutrition – connected me to these women in both material and non-material ways. For myself, I experienced an unexpected pleasure and relief in being my own sadist and masochist. 

I started writing my bodybuilding story many years ago, reshaping it in various narrative voices: empowered, desperate, confused, arch. I’m still not satisfied, but it something about grief, friendship, guilt, self-image, transcendence, being a body and a soul. 

My powerlifting story is simpler. It is a story about my ass.

One of the goals of bodybuilding is symmetry and I am not naturally symmetrical. I have and always will be bottom-heavy, which meant I couldn’t really develop my lower body, which was always the most fun for me. 

So I decided to try powerlifting a few years ago. 

And I love it. Powerlifting is not an act of feminism or bravery that I perform for anyone else. It is a regime of self care. (Although some would say that wearing a Lycra singlet after the age of 30 is pretty damn courageous.) 

When I say it is a regime of self care, I don’t mean that it is healthy. I mean a psychological regime of self care. For me, powerlifting is the perfect antidote for academic anxiety. You slowly progress, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. There are some set-backs but you largely get out of it what you put in to it. 

Powerlifting consists in three lifts: bench press, dead lift and squat. You lift a certain weight and that is that. There is no unclear basis of comparison, uncertain benchmarks, luck of the draw. The weight I lift is the weight that I lift. Sure, I have strong days and I have not so strong days. But I can be fairly confident in my numbers, that it is not a fluke. It is not so clear cut with an academic career. 

And to get back to my ass, I love to squat. There is something really awesome and invigorating about packing on twice your body weight (and for some people, much, much more) onto a bar and then lowering it down without a clear idea of whether you will be able to bring it back up. Most of the time, you do, but sometimes you don’t. And the rack or someone else will catch it. Failure is part of getting stronger. That is just is not the case outside the gym. 

Bodybuilding was an academic exercise. But with powerlifting, I am no longer pumping irony. It is all much more earnest than that. You are there to do something specific. And if you want to be ironic about that, lose your focus, you might miss your lift. And not only would that look tragically ridiculous, but it might hurt.

Virginia is an associate professor of literature and a powerlifter.

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