Strength Isn't Power

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I once wrote a piece for National Wildlife Magazine declaring the wild turkey the strongest flier. For years after, reporters called me for a quote every Thanksgiving. Those big dark-meat legs let the bird accelerate faster than any other, launching its delicious body into the sky. The turkeys on our land roost in trees. They sound like rocket launchers when they achieve liftoff. People say I have bird legs. If I’m stuck with bird legs, let them be the legs of the mighty turkey.

But I was wrong in calling the turkey the strongest bird. I should have said it was the most powerful. I learned the difference for myself by doing high-intensity workouts.

Thanks to Insanity, speed work and hill climbs, I have more power than I’ve had in 20 years. These days I’m doing push-ups instead of weights, and doing pulses—slight dips in a squatting position—instead of weighted squats. I’m jumping up and down a lot instead of making my legs bigger. My arms have gotten a bit thinner, my skinny legs more ropy. But I’m more powerful. I can take these smaller, tighter muscles farther and faster than I’ve been able to do in years.

Since I’ve laying off the weights, on the other hand, I’m a bit less strong. The distinction is critical, not just for me but for you and this big powerful nation of ours.

Back in the late nineties I commuted from New Hampshire to North Carolina for two weeks of every month. I joined a gym up north, and another down south. In both of them I played with the weight machines, getting stronger. Machines limit your range of motion, decreasing both the risk of injury and any power. They make your muscles bigger, but for no purpose except to add weight to the machines. I didn’t know that at the time.

While both places had machines, there was a big difference between the universally polite, overwhelmingly white early morning clientele in the New Hampshire club and the one in Greensboro. Down there, as I sat among the machines, moving my muscles back and forth, a few tough-looking types would pass through the machine room and descend below ground. I wondered what was going on. So one early morning, right after the club opened for the day, I went down to the basement. I discovered the free-weights room, a dim place with a musky but not unpleasant smell. No one else being around, I put a bar on a bench rack, loaded some plates, and lay on my back. I felt good. Strong. Without hesitation I pushed against the bar to free it from the rack, lowered it, and only then realized that I’d mistook the weight of the plates. I hadn’t actually read the numbers on them—had just eyeballed them for size. Which is why I found myself, lying alone in the empty weight room, with about 200 pounds on my chest.

Think about how you might get such a weight off. Do you lie there and wait for help, risking both suffocation and, worse, humiliation? Do you yell for help and face the derision of the entire club? Or do you shift the weight to one side until it tumbles onto the floor, with the likely result of permanent injury?

I waited—not so much because I decided to but because I couldn’t decide at all.

It wasn’t long, probably just a few crushed minutes, before I heard feet pounding slowly down the steps. My head was to the staircase, so I couldn’t see who was coming. The footsteps stopped, pausing. “Um,” I said, opening the conversation.

Two brown hands lowered into view, followed by thick, richly decorated forearms. The hands grasped the bar and lifted it back onto the rack with the ease of a store clerk hanging a pair of pants.

I looked up at a man shaped like an armored personnel carrier: squat, wide, and closed, with a large birthmark on his cheek like dark camouflage. A close white fuzz capped his skull. I figured him to be in his fifties.

“Uh,” I said in gratitude.

“Motherfucker,” he replied. “Who taught you to lift?”

I sat up and swung my legs over, facing him. Rightside-up, he looked more astonished than angry. “Read the plates wrong,” I mumbled.

And from then on, Samuel—he introduced himself the next morning-- took me on as his pupil. Every morning I was down in Greensboro, we met at 5 a.m. in the free weights room and spotted each other. He taught me how to lift slow and lift fast, how to breathe, how to vary the weights and number of reps, how to add or decrease weight set by set. I got stronger, much stronger. But I also got more powerful, as my balancing muscles learned to keep the bar from tottering.

Samuel never introduced me to the other lifters, who would straggled in over the next hour (they were all men; I was the only white guy). Some of them muttered things—“skinny” and “white” and “motherfucker” were the only words I understood—but they tolerated me, probably because they all clearly respected Samuel. Besides, what kind of thug shows up at 5 a.m. to exercise? Still, I was scared of. The tattoos on a few of them looked to me, on the basis of pure prejudice, like they’d been crafted in prison from shivs and ashen ink and maybe victims’ blood. When the other lifters reached the last couple reps in a big set, they screamed. Their partners encouraged them by smacking them in the face and sometimes hitting them with a fist. The first time I heard the screams I almost dropped the bar on my chest.

“Whoa-whoa,” said Samuel, easing the bar up from me.

I never got to know him outside the free weights room. I never thanked him; he didn’t seem to want to be thanked. I never asked him for coffee, never learned about his family, never even knew his last name or possibly even his first one. No one else in that room ever called him Samuel. They didn’t call him anything.

I still don’t know why he took me on. Maybe he just couldn’t bear to see a weak man.

I still love lifting weights, and can’t wait to get back to them. After I run my age, I may indulge myself in the bulk-up Beachbody program called Body Beast, whose sole purpose is to make you large. It will be my dessert. It won’t make me more powerful, though.

It seems to me that the strongest weapons make us less powerful. Look at nuclear weapons. They’re so mighty that only the insane would ever use them. Their power is reduced the level of the rhetorical gesture: they work only insofar as the enemy believes we might use them. I think the current fad for arming ourselves with guns suffers from much the same delusion. But then, what do I know?

Montaigne lived in a far more dangerous time, when well-armed unemployed mercenaries roamed the French countryside, robbing or kidnapping or murdering people with money. Montaigne’s neighbors were arming themselves, hiring bodyguards and holing themselves up in their compounds. Montaigne limited his own guard to an old servant who answered the door. He carried a sword, as every nobleman was expected to do back then as a sign of rank. But witnesses say he let it drag behind him. Montaigne opened himself up to danger, and the world. Why? Because he wanted to live a free man, he said. His power remains undiminished.

Strength is size and potential. Power is the ability to use your strength. It requires balancing muscles and those muscle-nerve interfaces called proprioceptors. Plus flexibility.

We’re a strong nation making ourselves powerless from bulk and fear. I wish we had more proprioceptors, more balance and perception and flexibility. And I wish Samuel still spotted me.