Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fear and Lifting (Not Necessarily in Las Vegas)

(Update: A version of this post appears in the October 2013 issue of Stride magazine, where I'm a new columnist. Check it out!)

Part of being a weightlifter is the willingness to regularly confront fear. My emotional state (as it relates to weights) fluctuates quite a bit within and between workouts, but when the heavy squat routine rolls around every sixth week, fear is lurking in my mind somewhere. It’s not a question of whether I’ll be afraid—it’s a question of how I will handle it.

Is “fear” too strong a word? No, I don’t think so. The last time I did heavy squats, I did one set at 165 pounds and a second set at 145 pounds. I always make sure the safety bars are at the appropriate height, so the chances of my being injured at that amount of weight are very low. Yet I think that’s why I feel afraid as I prepare to start the set, then as I get to the difficult last few reps. Part of me believes I am going to be injured. Not only injured, actually, but crushed to death.
Probably not dying, though one wonders

Crushed to death. That is just scary. Even though I can reassure my conscious brain it’s not going to happen, emotions aren’t that simple. In a February 2013 article, Justin Feinstein of the California Institute of Technology states, “We're still learning a lot about how the brain processes fear...”1 This complex emotion can trigger physiological changes such as muscle tension and a faster heartbeat.2 Likewise, it seems that physical actions such as doing squats can arouse feelings of fear. The amygdala, thalamus, hormones, and other parts of our nervous system just don’t respond to rational persuasion in an ideal way.

It’s not just weightlifting that can be frightening. The other day when I was swimming laps, little stabs of fear shot through me as I did the front crawl. It was the fear of drowning. Though I was only slightly more likely to drown in that pool than a shark is likely to drown in the ocean—it was five feet deep, relatively small, and had two lifeguards—the exertion combined with breathing only every four strokes made it feel otherwise. I’ve also experienced fear during sprinting workouts, when the act of running as fast as I can seems to make some part of me think I’m fleeing for my life from a leopard or feral pig or some other unfriendly beast.

If only laps were this serene

Beyond fear of bodily harm and death, exercise can make someone afraid of less tangible things. These fears include not measuring up to your standards, wasting time and resources, and looking foolish. Dying is scary, but so is the suspicion that everyone around you thinks you’re (literally) a big fat idiot.

So the only thing to do is be brave. As the WWI fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker said, “Courage is doing what you're afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you're scared.” Squats, laps, and sprints don’t require nearly as much courage as flying war planes, but they do require some. That makes learning how to face your fears yet another benefit of regular exercise.

1. Sarah Zielinski, What Makes You Feel Fear?” NPR, last modified Feb. 4 2003, accessed Aug. 18, 2013,
2. “What happens inside your body when you get scared?” Discovery, n.d., accessed Aug. 18, 2013,  

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