Iron butterflies

A barbell loded with 2 20kg plates

I spent some time thinking while I was deadlifting this evening, as you do.

In conversation a few nights ago I was asked if lifting is like aikido, and at the time I said ‘no, not really’. On reflection I think the truth is a little more nuanced than that.

When I lift, I know exactly where the bar is before I start. I move the bar into position – when I deadlift, I roll the bar gently toward my shins to set it ready for the upward pull. Before I lift, I put tension on the bar – it’s not quite a lift before it becomes a lift, but I get the feel of it first before I pull. I have heard it described as if when I am lifting a hundred kilograms, I need to be consciously lifting at least ninety-nine before I try to break contact with the floor.

Moving the bar into position is a little like blending with an opponent – it’s finding my opponent’s centre and moving it to where I can apply force. Applying tension before actually lifting is reminiscent of finding an opponent’s balance point before I throw. The movements are slower, more deliberate, and I am always in control; but I think there are some parallels.

It’s different though, significantly enough that I find cross-disciplinary translations confusing. Lifting is a calculated process, thought out before a lift begins. I approach the bar with intent, like I move with intent in aikido, but unlike aikido I more or less have a fully formed plan to work with and I can follow it to its conclusion.

When I lift, tension is key. As in anything, unnecessary tension is counterproductive, but a successful lift requires muscle groups to be set in position and held firmly. For a deadlift, that’s a held breath, a rock hard torso, shoulders set back and gluteal muscles engaged. Deviation from a set motor pattern means a failed lift – or injury. My commitment to a lift requires a full body response, and I do not begin until I have connected with every muscle I will need.

Aikido Kokikai badge on a dogi sleeve

Aikido seems a polar opposite. When in doubt, relax. If the technique isn’t working, use less strength – feel for the tipping point, gently, gently. The more muscle tension I hold in my body, the less able I am to feel where I need to be and how to join with my opponent. I impose my will on the barbell, but I need to blend with my partner’s will in aikido – and I find myself having to completely relearn physical responses that I have worked hard to build in a weightlifting context. Aikido feels completely counterintuitive, where weightlifting seemed to fall naturally into place.

O Sensei said, ‘one should be prepared to receive ninety-nine percent of an enemy’s attack and stare death right in the face’.

I lift weights which could permanently disable me if I slip. It’s not melodramatic to suggest that some of those weights could even kill me, given a sufficiently unfortunate accident. Were I to fall underneath the weight of a loaded barbell across my shoulders, the consequences would be distinctly non-trivial.

When I approach a significantly heavy weight, at the same time that I am preparing to take hold of the bar I also want nothing to do with it at all – because I know my opponent, and it is powerful. To take the weight, I prepare for the force it will exert on my body: I know that it will tax me, perhaps to my limits; I know often it will hurt. Bruises are a regular take-home from the gym. Although I take precautions to prevent accidents – safety rails, or help from a ‘spotter’ – I take that danger and absorb it. It becomes mine, and I commit to the lift.

In his essay ‘The Iron‘ Henry Rollins reflects on the lessons he learned from lifting. He sees lifting as a journey of self-discovery, an anchor to reality and a form of meditation. Rollins’s essay resonates with me deeply: lifting is a solitary meditation, a teacher which leads me to insights about myself, the world, and my place in it. It calms and centres me, and leaves me better equipped to respond to others thoughtfully and kindly.

Aikido is less solitary, but there’s something about landing repeatedly on the floor that also offers insights into who I am and where I belong. There aren’t so many meditative moments – at least not while I’m on the mat – but perhaps that will come in time. The one point I access with my hands on a barbell seems elusive on the tatami, which frustrates me, but once I find it consistently perhaps I will find more overlap between disciplines.

Rollins said, ‘Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.’

And in this, I find the same mind in both lifting and aikido.

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