The Zen of the Barbell

By Leo Babauta

There was a time when I shunned lifting weights, because I felt they were unnecessary and for guys looking to get buff. I was also a bit fearful of them, because I didn’t know much about them.

Today things are a bit different. I still think you can get a great workout without going to a gym, but I also love lifting barbells loaded with weights. There is something satisfying about putting your entire body into lifting something heavy, an activity so intense that it requires all of your attention.

There is Zen in the iron of the barbell, in the heft of the weights, and every session of lifting barbells is like zazen for me.

Consider my workout the other day:

A few sets of heavy deadlifts between two hard short runs: a total body workout that stimulates every muscle, strengthens my bones, focuses my brain. That’s a pretty good use of half an hour or so.

In other workouts, I will do heavy squats, the bench press, bent-over barbell rows, power cleans, push presses. I’ll add in some weighted chin-ups and dips. These all work out my entire body, exhausting me in a short time. And as I do them, my mind is on almost nothing but my body, the barbell, and my breath.

I don’t write this to suggest that everyone should lift barbells (though I think it’s great, and more people should try them — women and those of us who are aging come to mind). I write this because the focus I learn from the practice of lifting the barbell is something so useful in daily life.

It is a practice, learning to be mindful of what you’re doing right now, and not always thinking about what you have to do later. It’s a practice that you get better at with repetition, as with anything. Does my mind never wander — do I have complete focus all the time? Of course not. I have the same monkey mind that anyone has, but the practice is learning to be aware of that wandering, learning to return your attention to what you’re doing right now.

My mind starts to wander from the weights to the work I need to do later. I start thinking of all the things I need to do before my trip, or something I need to do with one of my kids, or how sweet pretty and loving my wife Eva is, and I miss her. But if I let myself stay in this future-thinking, the barbell will hurt me. I will round my back and pull a muscle (as I’ve done a few times before), or drop the weights on my chest or feet. This is a danger that won’t allow me to be elsewhere, and so I come back from the future. I am here, right now, with a weight in my hands that must be pushed, or pulled.

The returning, and the staying with what I’m doing right now, is the practice. The awareness. I am not good at it, admittedly, but I have gotten better by doing it over and over.

This practice helps with anything I do. If I’m writing, my mind normally gets pulled in every direction, but if I’m to write something worthy of your attention, I have to return to the idea and the writing. I have to be aware of the urges to check email or Twitter, or the wandering to other things that might (or might not) happen later.

When I am with one of my children, I often am elsewhere, mentally. The practice helps me to return to them, to be with them only, and the moment becomes instantly better.

It makes the moments I have with my wife, on one of our dates, so much better. Our connection is more complete, more genuine.

It means that when I take a walk, it is an experience of walking and nature, and not a planning session. It means that a shower is a moment of cleansing, purifying, relaxing. It means a meal is an experience of savoring textures, flavors, smells.

Tea becomes a meditation ritual as well. So does a glass of red wine in the evening.

The barbell sits there, inert, not wanting anything, not expecting anything of me. It becomes a simple tool, one that must only be lifted up, against the forces created by a massive Earth, and put back down. A simple tool that is practice for a way of living — a bell of mindfulness.