Masculinity Forged in the Gym

In Mental Mastery, Strongman Mastery by admin17 Comments

I had a hard time becoming a man. As virtually everyone in our culture, I was not initiated into manhood. We’ve forgotten how to do that. Thus, my growing up was in large part my attempts at self-initiation.

A great book on what masculinity looks like, both the actualized and shadow elements of it, is King Warrior Magician Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. In my second reading through this book I noticed the following that I didn’t see the first passing:

“Our Western civilization pushes us to strike out on our own, to become, as Jung said, ‘individuated’ from each other. That which used to be more or less unconsciously share by everyone – like the process of developing a mature masculine identity—we now must connect with consciously and individually.”

I’ve touched on this topic before but wanted to dive deep on it. (You’ll see me writing a lot more about masculinity in general in the future as I’m being called into doing so.)

Masculine

My Self-Initiation through Working Out

There may be no better arena for self-initiating than the gym.

(And note that when I say the gym, I’m talking about wherever your training takes place. Much of my early training took place in my cramped bedroom as I did bodyweight exercises. It could be at any gym, at a park, at your home in your home gym or not, pretty much anywhere. Related to this, throughout this article I’ll mention pitting yourself against iron. While that is the case in many exercises and methods of training, it is largely the same thing for bodyweight and other non-iron-based forms of training too.)

There is a differentiation in working out and in most sports. While a lot of training is focused towards an end of sport performance, it is, in essence, a sport itself. While there are plenty of competitions available, strength training is largely more self-focused than team focused. This is true even if you are part of a team, or workout with a training partner. When it comes down to it, it is you against the iron.

I had a rough time in high school, as many people do. I went through a crisis of identity. When I emerged on the other side, I recognized that I had to become self-responsible. No one else was going to make my life better for me. If it was to be, it was up to me.

Unlike many who become interested in fitness from their first engagement with it, the first time I got into strength training, I was not all that gung-ho about it. My older brother got me started training and sent me to play football in high school (which was pretty much my first foray into sports). Throughout the four years I played we did a fair amount of strength training and conditioning. And you know what? I was never any good. Not naturally athletic. Not fast. Not even coordinated. Looking back, I can see that I really hadn’t “grown up.” I had not yet taken self-responsibility. I blamed my genetics, my build, etc.

And I was too much of a wussy to quit playing football even though I hated it! Four years of playing. Did I mention I didn’t have much confidence either?

It wasn’t until my senior year when things begin to turn around. From that same brother that got me started training, I heard about a guy named Matt Furey who taught bodyweight exercises. I started learning these and practicing them. Here, for some reason different than the 24-Hour Fitness I went too, I was seeing results. I was getting somewhere. Soon enough I canceled my gym membership and went full-force into these.

While there were some great exercises there, I believe the key was that I begin to understand the principles behind effective training, such as progression, goal setting and more. It may also be that during this time I was transforming from a boy into a man. Sometimes it does come true that when the student is ready the teacher will appear.

Crucible of the Gym

The Crucible on which Masculinity is Formed

These workouts became the crucible on which my masculinity was formed. Aggressiveness. Physical Toughness. Mental Toughness. Stoicism. Skill. Power. Strength. Conditioning. Confidence. Athleticism. Competition (against self as well as friends).

It’s not an overnight thing, but instead a gradual process of chiseling away the weakness and building something stronger, something better than before.

This crucible is a means of gradually transforming a boy into a man.

I can remember the feeling I got when I recognized that I could do physical things that other people could not, like a pistol squat and a no-hands wrestler’s bridge. That sense of power and ability. Here I was building up my ability beyond what the average could do.

I remember training for about six months to complete my first handstand pushup. The sense of achievement, the elation that came out of that was beyond anything I had experienced before.

I no longer felt weak. I was no longer so scrawny. I was slowly building confidence.

In other words, I was no longer a victim of fate.

The transformation in my training continued. I met other father figures along the way, men who shaped me in various ways, helping in the initiation process. Brooks Kubik, Pavel Tsatsouline, Bud Jeffries, Dennis Rogers, John La Tourrette, and many more. These were my mentors, the sages along the way in my Hero’s Journey.

There were other defining points. As I’ve shared many times before, reading The Spiritual Journey of Joseph L. Greenstein (aka the biography of the Mighty Atom) grabbed me in a way that nothing else had before. I said “I want to do that. I want to be him.”

To me the strongman of old are almost an archetype in and of themselves. To me they were an ultimate expression of the value of strength and vitality. There was something primally masculine about bending steel that shouldn’t be bent. Thus, I sought to become like them.

Because of what the gym was doing for me, it made sense that the natural progression was to turn it into a career. This started out as being a personal trainer and has since morphed into what it is today. It is why you’re reading this here today.

Up to the present day I still feel like what I do in the gym continues my growth. But now, let’s switch gears and show how these different archetypes are embodied in the work done there.

The 4 Major Masculine Archetypes in the Gym

Warrior King Archetypes

The Warrior in the Gym

The connection to the Warrior archetype is obvious. Strength training is essentially a preparation for war. Nowadays, fighting in the traditional sense isn’t as necessary as it was in the past. So, the battlegrounds have shifted. And that is why the gym is so necessary! Without something to fight against, a man cannot be a man. It’s for these obvious reasons that the parallels to war are often used with training. You pit your will and muscle against the iron, like you would be pitted against an enemy in a battle.

It is in the Warrior that we cultivate aggressiveness, competition, toughness, achievement and decisive ability. But I feel many leave it only at that. And the Warrior without the balancing factors of the other archetypes is the stereotypical “macho male” that no one likes.

The Magician in the Gym

The Magician is largely about the intellect, about gaining proficiency in “hidden arts.” Contrasted to the idea of the “muscle bound meat head,” the strongest people I know also tend to be highly intelligent. They use that intellect in their pursuit of strength.

Of the four archetypes, this is the one I most strongly identify with. And it can easily be seen in my career. I sought out some unusual teachers and “arcane” knowledge to bring into my strength training. I got into nutrition which led to herbalism and ultimately to founding Lost Empire Herbs. I did a deep dive into NLP and hypnosis and used these abilities to become stronger, as I’ve covered in Mental Muscle and elsewhere. I studied energy medicine, energy psychology, and some even “weirder” stuff because I found that it works. Like a wizard, I continue to explore “the outer realms” and always this comes back to the crucible of the gym for me. That’s my testing ground where I proved out what works and what doesn’t.

The King in the Gym

The King rules the kingdom. This is the leader, the man in charge. He is the one that creates order and confers his blessing to others. When I was young, my king was weak, possibly non-existent. But through the courage, the confidence and the strength (not just physical, but of character too) forged in the gym, I feel my King has emerged.

My kingdom now expands to my family (becoming a father has certainly enhanced the King as well, a new crucible on which my masculinity grows) and through my business landscape. I seek out to enrich the world that I touch, as a good and wise King should. And I truly believe that if it weren’t for the gym, I could not be in this place today. I fear that I could easily have gotten lost in the shadows along the way. For me, the King helps to keep what I do in fitness in balance with everything else that is important too.

The Lover in the Gym

Is the Lover involved in the gym at all? At first glance, and perhaps even second glance, the answer is no. But on reflecting on it some more I see that there are elements of the Lover present. The Lover is about feelings, sensitivity, relationship and humanity. There is the element of intuition involved. This getting in touch with feelings (aka internal sensations) has become the bedrock of biofeedback training for me. (Although there is a big Magician component to this as well.)

And I see that this may come out in the grace that is used in flowing movements such as kettlebell juggling or stand-up flows.

In a big way it is also love for mankind that has me writing these articles to you. I want to support you in your growth in the interests of brotherly love…And the Warrior in me is thinking this is way too mushy right now 😉

Our Culture is Dismantling Masculinity

We have forgotten how to have initiation. That’s one strike against men.

An African proverb states, “If you do not initiate your young men into the tribe, they will come back and burn down the village just to feel the heat.”

Do you see any problems in the world today that might be reflective of this statement? I sure do.

Secondly, the pervasive cultural conversation right now is that masculinity is in and of itself is toxic. I don’t like the term “toxic masculinity” at all. I understand what people are driving at. But how about immature masculinity instead? That is really what it is about. With this all patriarchy is bad, and men are leading patriarchy, therefore men are bad. Strike two.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has released new guidelines that call into question values of “traditional masculinity”.  Some of these include achievement, competition, adventure, and risk-taking. While there is no doubt that these things can and have been taken too far by many, to say that masculinity shouldn’t involve them is ridiculous. Yet they say, “The main thrust of the subsequent research is that traditional masculinity—marked by stoicism, competitiveness, dominance and aggression—is, on the whole, harmful.”

On the whole? Get rid of these things and you have effectively turned men into eunuchs. If I didn’t aim for achievement, I’d still be a scrawny kid decrying his fate. If I didn’t take risks, I’d still be working in a grocery store.

We don’t need weaker men.

Weaker men that haven’t been initiated, that haven’t come to embody these archetypes in their ideal form, lash out in rage and violence. Or they swallow their hurt inside themselves until they’re dead inside.

We need stronger men. Physical strength, absolutely! Because in the building of that tends to come strength of character too. It certainly did for me.

We don’t need more men in touch with their feminine side.

That came with the wave of feminism, and while there was undoubtedly some good that came from it, I see lots of confusion out there in all sexes. Women stepping fully into the masculine, especially in their careers and being miserable from it. I see women who are put down (mostly by other women) and thought of as weaker because they want to be a stay-at-home mother to their children. I see men that do not have the values of “traditional masculinity,” and seek the answers in femininity. These men become confused, lost and unhappy too.

We need men to first and foremost embody masculinity. Mature, well-developed masculinity with plenty of the traditional values present.

We need men to aim for the ideal.

The gym is certainly not the only place to develop this. But it is one of the best places that we all can use.

Become a strongman, not so you can lift heavy things, but for what it will make of you to aim for it.

Comments

  1. Well said. I coached wrestling at a high school in Memphis for 8 years. High school wrestling is no more about takedowns and headlocks than high school football is about tackles and first downs. We just use these contact sports as a vehicle to develop those inner characteristics which you describe, the ones that make you a man. And it’s the best way. It worked for the ancient Greeks, and it’s still working today. Developing the warrior blood, where you have to fight to live, or you won’t be happy. Whether you are fighting an opponent or an obstacle or tackling a vision, real men need to fight. That’s what testosterone does to you, you want to fight and also to f***. Wimps can’t do either.

    1. Author

      I enjoy coaching and feel like I will do more in the future. Kudos to you for raising men. I just went to see Jordan Peterson live and one thing he said was something along the lines of growing into a man is learning how to take aggression and channel it in proper and desired directions. That’s what sport, strength training and other things are for, among much else.

  2. Excellent observations! Good article and I concur. I have been working out sine my 20s and did an lot of experimenting with different physical disciplines, spirituality, philosophy and herbalism. You are not at all weird or odd and my story has a lot in common with your and at 65 all I can say is the work is never done ad new initiating lie around each bend. Be open to that. I have been involved in men’s work before and recently a new group has started up here at my home . I still work out and train, and have been doing some work with the cold and breathing after learning about Wim Hoff. You are so correct that our culture lacks mentors and initiation for young men, that is what we see so much violence, and dysfunction in our culture and politics. I did find some help along the way but had to cobble together my own initiations, went to sweat lodged, studied Native American Philosophy. Part of being a man is service to others, dumping the victim mentality. We are the one’s were have been waiting for. I finally realized I was both my hero and the one hoping for rescue adn guidance. I had to finally take up my armor and get on my house and become my own hero, no excuses, no limits. Limits exist int our minds, argues for them and them are yours. we become what we respect. We see the world as we are, if we are noble and good , show kindness and love then we will see that and more will comets us. If we are fearful, play victim, suspect others are out to get us or chest us or show how there is a lack of what we needs and we can’t share, that our world will be a place of fear sand hostility. You are right to look back on the physical Culture Fathers of old, they had an aesthetic and discipline. I also look to many Native American Chiefs and statesman who have inspired in me courage and set me on the path of the Warrior. I am sure you have read Joseph Campbell and Iron John. Do not let any steal your thunder! Be well, safe Journey!

    1. Author

      Initiation does seem to be an ongoing thing. It’s interesting in talking to other men. Some feel they had a moment when they felt they became a man. Others, such as myself, feel it’s been a gradual process. I definitely feel like a man now, but also recognize it’s an ongoing journey as you say. Been diving a bit deeper into some Native American work and just ready Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and Iron John last year. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Insighful post. There IS a reason why pretty much all ancient and traditional cultures valued and worshipped, for some (like spartans) physical strength and its cultivation: whether consciously or unconsciously, they knew how important a role it played when it came to forging boys into men. You’ve expressed it well: men need something or someone to fight against, or they can’t nurture some crucial, raw and primal “manly” traits. Defining some limits to the definition of masculinity in order for some not to take it too far, I can perfectly understand, but trying to squash masculinity on the whole is complete and utter madness. How some people can come up with some truly f****d up conclusions is beyond me -_-

    1. Author

      Something I’ve been reflecting on recently is that all cultures are odd in some ways. This is pretty clear looking at many indigenous peoples. We can (and have) laughed at some of their beliefs….But the same thing is true of our culture. Where we seem to be taking masculinity is one of those things.

  4. As a teenage boy I had lots of energy but could not direct it into my school studies. My physical energy was boundless but my family were too poor for me to get into sports. I needed an outlet to relieve the feelings of hopelessness and depression. Physical work was my only option. Shovelling snow, cutting wood, extreme snowshoeing and hunting. As you can see I was raised in a rural northern environment. When I turned 17 I noticed my height and strength increasing steadily. When I turned 18 I was old enough to get a summer job as a mine helper in an old gold mine. It was a good place to test my strength and gain new experiences. I was as strong as some of the men. My greatest asset was my strong back which many were surprised about. I could lift heavy things with the best. I learned that hard work is necessary to accomplish success. Later in life I made a vow to learn as much about everything that I could. Today at age 70 I am a healthy, strong and resourceful man. I found a woman who appreciates what I have invested in my whole life.

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing your story. That also gets to the point that our modern day school system (same today as in yours in structure and so many ways) is really far from the best system that could be created.

  5. Logan – Well said. A wonderful explanation that true masculinity does not diminish femininity. When I told my wife about your post she said to tell you that masculine men make her feel more feminine and for this neither sex has to apologize. She also pointed out that women are warriors as well. Fortunately, you and others are clarifying that men should act like men and women like women, and the differences between the two are to be celebrated, as the French say. In French, of course.

    “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them.”

    Logan, thanks for all your thought-provoking posts. You are adding valuable insights to the training world, and that’s lovely.

    1. Author

      Hear! hear! My wife would agree completely.

      As for women being warriors, absolutely. Although I focused on the masculine here, many have taken these archetypes into the feminine too. Sovereign (Queen), Warrior (Amazon), Magician (Witch), and Lover fit there too, with some differences of course.

  6. I just wanted to say that this article really hits home for me. I have an eleven year old son, and I really don’t want him to be exposed those APA guidelines. I’m very concerned about how far this is going to swing by the time he is becoming an adult male. How in the world is he going to succeed in life if he’s told he shouldn’t be competitive, aggressive, never take risks, etc? By living in my basement for the rest of his life?

    Sorry for the venting, but I hope you will write more on this topic in the future.

    1. Author

      Yeah the future can be a frightening place. I’d say first and foremost do our best to raise them with the right sort of foundation needed for any type of success. Secondly, as part of growing up is detaching, even rebelling, from parents, realize it is not all up to us, so enlist the help of others whether uncles, grandfathers, friends and more.

      I plan to write much more. This is just the beginning.

  7. I can’t tell you how much I needed to hear this. I’ve been struggling so deeply with trying to figure all this stuff out. It’s really difficult with the culture we live in and growing up without a father in order to resolve what a man who looks like in this nation.

    1. Author

      Glad you liked it. I’m still working on figuring it all out myself!

      If you have any specific questions around the topic let me know as I will be writing more on the topic.

  8. I really liked your article. I have been doing some work related to the topic in discussion.

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