Dear Fellow Gym Rats,
I’ve been thinking about this post for a while and just how to convey what I want to convey. I think this letter, which is to myself as much as it is to you, is long overdue, and I’m hoping that in writing it, we both get something out of it. Before I get too far into it, I want to present my thesis, which is the heart of this letter:
You are loved.
Believe me, I know how shallow, cheesy, or even off-topic that sentence is in a letter to my gym boys, but let me explain. I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about what the gym is to me, and why I spend 7+ hours a week there, why it matters, and what it does to me mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
What are we looking for in these iron bars and plates? Let me briefly walk through a typical gym session.
It starts before I even get to the gym.
The rap music bangs in my car, preparing my mind for the intense session of manliness and physical exertion ahead of me. The tradition of getting “pumped up” before working out predates my college years. I remember being in high school and blasting music or watching YouTube videos to get amped before a workout.
However, somewhere along the line, I realized it was no longer about getting pumped up about exercising anymore.
At some point, I started becoming someone else.
I get to the gym and give my mandatory bro-nods to the guys at the front desk and slowly walk back to the locker room. (Walking slowly emanates swagger and toughness.) Once in the locker room, change and throw in my earbuds producing the same genres of music to produce the best possible workout. Or maybe to encourage the coolest possible version of myself.
What I’ve realized is that when I’m at the gym, I have a tendency to become someone else.
Because of all the places I spend my time, the gym is the one place you don’t want to exhibit weakness. It’s the one place you feel wary of smiling and never, ever, ever want to ask for help. Don’t smile when you’re working out; keep a frown on those brows.
Because weak people don’t go to the gym; strong people do.
If this resonates with you at all, chances are we are in the same boat. It’s a lonely boat, to be sure, because we are looking for love in metal and sweat rather than intimacy and vulnerability.
When the gym becomes an addiction, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing it “just to stay healthy,” but there is a point where a pursuit of health turns into a source of identity. It’s when your level of confidence is directly linked to the circumference of your biceps. I know what it’s like to be scared no one will love me because my six pack begins to wane. I know what it’s like to feel like less of a man when you miss more than 3 days of lifting.
And there are hundreds of companies happy to take advantage of this dilemma: Think about the whole concept of ‘gains.’ There are entire sections of the internet dedicated to helping you improve your gains, add inches, and boost strength. YouTube creators make millions off their “shortcuts to gains” videos. Stores pop up across the country like the acne on a power lifter’s shoulders shelling the same supplements to make you huge. Pre-workouts now include “pumps” because it’s not enough to simply grow stronger, you now need to look more pumped up and vascular.
These companies profit from our insecurities. If we don’t look like Phil Heath, they’ll make sure to put that desire into us until we feel emasculated into buying their products. There is a deep desire in every man to feel strong and courageous, and these supplement companies exploit that to the point of creating an entire culture out of it. The same is true of women and being desirable and beautiful. The gym offers us a sort of identity that promises that people will desire us and see us as more daunting than we really are.
The gym offers us an escape from our own insecurities. If we don’t feel strong and confident within, at least we can look it on the outside.
So once again, I want to remind you, fellow Gym Rats, that you are loved. We are loved. For some reason, it’s harder to lay down our defenses and accept that than it is to put in hours and hours of work in order to look like Hercules, but we keep doing it. We exhaust ourselves in pursuit of this ideal body which will inevitably one day fade away and grow weak. Whether it’s old age or simply death, we will not hold onto a single hour we put in at the gym.
Believe me, I am very familiar with thoughts like But no woman will be attracted to me if I don’t have the biggest pecs and carved obliques. But whenever I look at the old married couples who have clung to one another for decades, I necessarily must come to the conclusion that there is more to attraction than toned physiques. How can these 70-year-olds still be madly in love despite their wrinkly skin, saggy muscles, and creaky joints?
There must come a point where we realize our belovedness. Where we stop working so hard to earn our appreciation, approval, and praise. The more I realize God’s inherent love for me, the less of a desire I have to look like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and can relax into simply being “Ethan…happy in his own bones.”
And strangely, this mindset makes it easier to relate to other people. When you and I strive so much to create this unapproachable and intimidating persona, it’s hard to connect with others. Being intimidating is lonely. But the more we are able to lay that persona down, we will begin to see people being more attracted to who we are as a person. I don’t mean sexually attracted necessarily, but simply as a human being whom others want to be around.
Don’t believe the lie that you need to get bigger and bigger, like a balloon on the verge of popping. This lie is instrumental in getting you to buy more products.
Focus on being genuinely healthy and staying in shape rather than on gains and becoming superhuman. You will never get there; it’s an endless cycle of insecurity and striving to get better or getting just this one final muscle group ‘to really pop.’
I enjoy lifting weights. I really do. And that’s the reason I’m not simply going to stop working out. However, my mindset toward it is changing. I have to remember to keep it as a hobby and a pathway to fitness more than a source of identity. The gym will not save us from insecurity. We have another, more thorough Savior for that.
And He won’t stop loving you if your arms shrink or your belly grows. You are unable to shake His love for you, no matter how hard you try. And you cannot earn more of His love by getting bigger, more sliced up, or better looking. You’re loved as you are, and as you will be, regardless of how you look.
Just like sex, money, and work, the gym is inherently a good thing. It is a place to build relationships, push our bodies, and release stress. The danger comes when the gym, or as The Hodge Twins call it, The First Pentecostal Church of Gainz, becomes more than that; when it becomes a necessary part of our humanity.
When we remember that we are loved first and foremost, the gym can once again return to being an enjoyable hobby rather than a chasing after approval.
I love you guys.
See you in the gym.
Let me know if you need a spot.