Mediocrity and Moderation
distinguishing between conflated concepts
I read an article by Adam Ellwanger entitles “I Don’t Even Lift, Bro” and feel compelled to comment. It essentially casts the behaviors of the author as “moderate” indicating at one point that “moderation is a virtue.” I agree with that very much, but I didn’t see any defense of moderation within. What I did see was summarized eloquently by William Hunter Duncan thus: An Ode to Mediocrity.
What Adam has done is conflate moderation with mediocrity. By the standards he outlines, he demonstrates he misunderstands the role resistance training has in optimizing health. He doesn’t see the utility. This is mind boggling to me. Of all the things you could allocate time and effort to in life, one of the things with the largest magnitude return on investment is resistance training. Let us examine why resistance training is useful.
From subtle things like self-perception to more obvious things like how much your spouse enjoys your company, looking good has value. Looking powerful, or at least like you know how to handle yourself, unlocks something else that I don’t see people reference often: Magnanimity. Generosity is meaningless from a position of weakness. If you appear incapable of defending yourself against aggression, your compliance in a variety of contexts can easily be attributed to fear. On the other hand, accommodating weaklings when you are strong is dramatically pro-social. The opposite dynamic just isn’t the same testament to the human spirit and virtue.
I define health as the optimal state of well-being. If you want the duration of your life to approach your genetic potential, then resistance training is necessary. You might not need strength to get through your activities of daily living now, but the ease of modern life in the West is unnatural, just like the availability of hyper-caloric foods is unnatural. Moving against resistance is a requirement for health for a variety of physiological reasons beyond energy balance as well. Your circulatory system can’t function without regular muscle contraction, just to state one of many possible examples. Strength training also prevents injury in a dose dependent manner. There is no other form of exercise that comes close to demonstrating this effect.To put it bluntly, foregoing resistance training is unhealthy.
The idea that you don’t need strength because you have what you need for activities of daily living at the moment is myopic. First off, you never know what tomorrow might bring. Things could get very dicey very quickly, and physical competence could rapidly become what separates the living from the dead. You could of course gamble that something like this will never happen, after all, we’re at the end of history, right? Well, regardless of what the next several decades bring in terms of socioeconomic volatility, your quality of life as the years progress is very closely intertwined with strength. As you age, at a certain point you will atrophy. If you live long enough, that atrophy will begin to infringe upon your pain free envelope of function. Resistance training reduces the risk of metabolic disease as alluded to above, but it also accrues a functional reserve of strength to prolong functional independence to the greatest extent possible. Once strength falls below a certain level, risk of falls with community ambulation skyrockets. In a frail, sarcopenic state, a hip fracture resulting from a fall carries a >80% mortality rate. If metabolic disease doesn’t get you, this terminal consequence of physical decline probably will.
I don’t know if the Pareto Principle is always accurate, but when it comes to planning a fitness routine to suit your values and objectives, I think it is helpful. As wikipedia puts it, this principle states that “roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes.” In the case of resistance training, I phrase this as you’ll get 80% of the gains from 20% of the time/investment. When I accuse Adam of advocating for willful mediocrity, I don’t mean in comparison to bodybuilders. I mean in comparison to his potential. With very little effort, he could dramatically improve his long term health and physical performance (if he ever finds himself in a situation where it matters). He already jogs quite a bit. He could dial that back and replace some of that time with resistance training and he would look, feel, and perform better given his own values. It would take effort though, and I do understand that some people are allergic.
The fact that he isn’t interested in that is why I say he is pursuing mediocrity. He says it is moderation, but zero resistance training isn’t moderate, it is extreme. On that note, drinking often to get a buzz also isn’t moderate. Eating more or less whatever you want when you’re surrounded by hyper-caloric foods isn’t moderate either. Just because something is normal, doesn’t mean that it is moderate. Adam estimates that he is 15lbs overweight. I have little doubt he is basing this off Body Mass Index, which isn’t really an effective measure of anything. It is most likely that Adam is 30lbs over-fat, and has a reasonable chance of putting on 15lbs of muscle and losing 30lbs of fat over the next 5 years or so by taking a moderate approach to incorporating resistance training into his routine. This would be virtuous as it would make him more useful and less of a potential burden to those around him in the coming decades.
Nature has imposed various constraints upon us. One of these contraints is that adaptations to resistance training take many years to develop to their full potential. Using the Pareto Principle again, you might be able to get 80% of the VO2 max you’ll ever be able to manage in some months with endurance training, while achieving 80% of whatever strength you may be ultimately capable of will certainly take years with resistance training. We occupy a reality that has rules. What Adam is trying to do is break the rules. By articulating his preference for sloth and sauce while tearing down a straw man conception of the utility of resistance training, he thinks he can subvert reality. He can’t. Does anyone doubt that if he cut back on his drinking and replaced 2 hours of leisure with resistance training every week for the next year that he would be absolutely thrilled with the outcome? Of course not. Moderation is a virtue because it allows us to pursue all-around excellence. Using it to mask a defense of mediocrity is a viscious perversion. As John Carter put it, Just Fucking Lift, Bro.
This notably includes stretching. It is a continual effort to have compassion for individuals who forego resistance training in favor of Yoga in the name of “health.”