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.)
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.
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
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.)
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.