Why We Lift: The Psychology of Working Out

So as some of you may know, if you read my other blogs such as Talking to Strangers, that for some time now I’ve been working on breaking through my introverted nature and have tried to talk to someone new each day. Usually a simple smile and a quick hello, but many times actual conversations. Over the years I’ve met a lot of interesting people this way and discussed many things. Because of my interest in fitness more than a fair share of these conversations involved working out, nutrition, and the like. I’ve talked about working out with several people who are experts in their chosen sport and/or activity: triathletes, marathon runners, bodybuilders, surfers, Division I football players (okay, one),  Division I softball players (helps when your niece is one), casual lifters,

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mountain climbers, rock climbers, and a rugby player (who, by the way, was nothing like the stereotypical Rugby guy. He was friendly, personable – and I later learned through social media has a great sense of humor – and was not only well muscled but well proportioned. More like a physique model or competitor, not the burly “Bluto” type usually associated with the sport). Most of these people, started exercising because they participated in a sport in high school or wanted to prove something to themselves – the latter being especially true of the marathoners and triathletes.

But, there is a subset who work out – and by working out I mean lift weights – for a wide variety of reasons. Because of my own interest in weight lifting I want to focus on these men. Why the men? Well, one reason is that despite my reaction when seeing a mouse scurry across the room I am a man. The second is that from my experience very few women lift weights. Which is a shame because the benefits of lifting weights is well

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documented for both men and women. As high school or college athletes, many women have lifted, but for some reason later in life they stop (as do most men I suppose). Some are afraid of looking like Schwarzenegger I suppose, which isn’t going to happen without chemical assistance and even if it does wide shoulders are making a comeback in women’s wear. Or, just as likely, their focus shifts to losing weight and running becomes the activity of choice.

So, why do guys start lifting and/or keep lifting long after their high school football days? My conversations reveal many reasons:

  1. He started lifting for a sport and discovered that he liked it more than the sport he was originally training for.
  2. He wanted to gain weight to avoid being bullied and/or intimidated by other guys.
  3. He wanted to be bigger and stronger than his older brother (a surprising number of men fall into this group).
  4. He started lifting with his older brother, father or another male member of the family and got hooked on both the weightlifting and camaraderie.
  5. His younger brother started lifting and he didn’t want him to get bigger and stronger than he was.
  6. He wanted to just better when he took his shirt off and have a reason to flex.
  7. He saw a muscular man as a kid and was impressed enough to want to look like that when he grew up (either in person or in a comic book or on television, etc.)
  8. He was a big kid and found that he liked getting bigger and staying stronger than his peers.

You’ll notice that among all the above reasons the classic, “to get the girl” doesn’t make the list. I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who started lifting to attract girls! Impress other guys, you bet, but not women. It seems to me that to most men that attracting the attention of the ladies is a side benefit of looking better – if that’s his goal to start with.

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Personally, I fall mostly into group 7, fell a bit into number 4 when my dad bought a weight set, and now just have gotten hooked on being stronger, bigger, and the “pump.” Obviously, though I’ve had superficial desire and have gotten stronger over the years (until my surgery this summer) I haven’t had the discipline to achieve the look of a bodybuilder. Darn diet and flat bicep peak!

By the way, and if you spend anytime on social media I think you’ll agree with me on this, there seems to be a whole new group who workout just to show off to strangers (a subset of group 6). Guys who don’t participate in sports but can’t wait to flex in front of a camera to try and gain followers on Instagram. Many seem to fancy themselves models, some are just trying to build their personal training business, but others just seem to like it when people like their photos and follow them. I’m guilty of following quite a few of these guys myself because of my habit of following back anyone who follows me. In fact, one of my favorite activities on Instagram is to use new hashtags just to see who starts to

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follow me. Use hashtags like #bodybuilding #weightlifting #exercise and you’ll get a dozen new likes and several more followers. Some are trying to sell their personal training packages, but most just seem to want followers. I know that some are hoping to get rich by monetizing their Instagram account and have discovered that flexing their biceps gets them followers and likes, but I can’t believe it’s true of every guy whose posed in front of his bathroom mirror.

To be fair, I might be a little harsh – if not hypocritical – on my description of this group. After all, there’s a certain amount of vanity and narcissism in participating on social media to begin with isn’t there? I mean does anyone really care what we had for dinner or how often we workout? But I think I’m right even if it’s a fine line between the guy who is genuinely tracking his progress and motivating himself and others versus the guy trolling for “likes” and fans. The former usually has before pictures and candid shots doing other things. The latter is never seen without the proper lighting and would never admit that he was once the proverbial 98 pound weakling (maybe he never was?). But, as so often I do, I digress.

Anyway, these are my observations. Am I right about these categories or way off base? Why do you workout? I’d love to hear from folks (at least those of you who read through the whole thing).

Onward!

2 thoughts on “Why We Lift: The Psychology of Working Out

  • For me, it’s a combination of 2, 6 and 7. I mostly want to look good when I take my shirt off and when I have clothes on. My ideas of what I think attractive is and all that. I also didnt want to get bullied further and thought when I saw muscular guys “I’ll bet he doesn’t get bullied!”

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    • Sorry to see that you got bullied, but I hope lifting helped to resolve that issue for you. I never understood the bully mentality myself and the need to pick on others. It seems all too common. I kind of forgot that if you look good with your shirt off, you look better with it on, too! Unless your chest is so big that the waist of your shirt looks baggy. I guess that’s were fitted shirts might come in.

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