Earlier this year I had the pleasure of speaking with Alyssa Ages, an independent journalist who is also a strength fanatic. At the time Ages was working on a novel about the mindset of strength athletes (specifically those competing in World Strongest Man/World Strongest Women style events). The book has subsequently been published and I devoured it within 3 days. You can find the Publisher link to it here, and, at the time of writing, it costs $28.
This article serves as a review of the book, an endorsement for you to purchase it, and also a rumination on why we need to think deeply about strength. To get it out of the way early, I appeared in the book and was given a complimentary copy. As much as I’d like to think people may pay for my opinion, this is not a paid endorsement (but seriously I have zero scruples so if Shake Weight wants someone for their come-back tour… I’m here).
No, I’m just an individual who loves good writing and strength sports. So here is my review.
Secrets of Giants: A Review
The premise of this book is simple. Strength athletes have a unique and specific mindset which allows them to push the body past what is thought possible. For anyone who has attempted to break a personal record, they will likely be familiar with the mindset, the internal tricks, and at times the brute rage, that needs to come out to lift a heavy weight. Likewise, they will also understand the sense of personal joy one feels on completing a rep with the heaviest weight you can manage. This joy exists for both the rank beginner and the seasoned veteran.
In Secrets of Giants, Age interviewed exercise scientists, philosophers, historians, entrepreneurs, strongman officials, and strength athletes to understand how and why strength athletes do what they do. Against the backdrop of this is Ages’ own story of overcoming difficulty and reimagining her own beliefs.
Without delving into Ages’ journey within the text, she was once the child who refused to swing at bat – which even my European non-baseball mind understands means she was afraid to fail. Throughout her competitive strength journey, which was delayed at one point due to a miscarriage, Ages sheds self-defeating beliefs and becomes, in this reader’s mind, a more open person to life. Failure is no longer presented as a thing to avoid, but something that is part of being alive.
A reoccurring theme in this book, for Ages, and the athletes she spoke with, is the ability of weight training to transform people’s lives. It is no coincidence that Age’s book includes passages from Henry Rollins’ critical essay on the Iron. For some, strength training allowed them stability during times of personal strife and uncertainty. For others, the gym meant a welcoming community, for all shapes and sizes. Strength, and the joy of strength communities, matter to people.
There are two ways of viewing this book. First, and superficially, this is just an awesome love letter to strength sports for men and women. Taking off my academic hat for one paragraph, strongman contests only emerged in the late 1970s, and took a couple of decades more for women. There are very few substantive works that detail this subculture, and even fewer that trace the personal journeys of both the sport’s biggest names and the average trainee. This book presents a snapshot of a time when strength sports have grown in popularity but have yet to truly become mainstream.
For those who have tracked the rise of powerlifting as first an emerging sport in online fitness and, then for a brief period, the dominant form of training (heck even bodybuilders began ‘power-building’ for a minute), I think strength sports are on a similar curve. Rogue and CrossFit have helped to popularise odd implements and, anecdotally, I see more amateurs turning to the sport. Eddie Hall, Brian Shaw, and Robbie Oberst (who is just amazing in The Righteous Gemstones) have pushed into the mainstream to certain extents and public interest is growing.
As an aside, why did the History Channel not run more seasons of this? Gold… it was gold!
This book has vibes to me of the original Pumping Iron book which captured a culture on the rise. But back to my academic brain. In the sociology of sport, we often warn students against a functionalist approach to sport. This is the idea that sport is fundamentally a positive force in society and, taken to its illogical conclusion, that we must always treat sport as good. Such an approach ignores issues like sexism, racism, homophobia, and class discrimination in favor of PR-style soundbites about the wonders of sport. As a fan of strong men and strong women it is really hard for me to not hold a functionalist approach to these endeavors and Ages’ work reiterates this point.
Yes, there are issues with strongman and strongwoman (which is likely a topic for a future post and was briefly something I discussed in an article about the sport’s split in the early 2000s). But at its core this subculture is incredibly accepting, helps people, and, most importantly, gives people the resiliency to deal with life. Summing up my review, Ages does a fantastic job showing the sport’s heart and soul. Acting as both an insider and an outsider to the sport, Ages taps into the century’s long truism about lifting – a strong body helps a strong mind.
The Need to Think Deeply About Strength
Earlier this year I read David Szalay’s All That Man Is, which is a series of nine short stories, across the life cycle in which men face questions about the meaning of life. Mid-way through the book, one character, now middle-aged, realizes that this is it… his opportunities to begin a new career have dwindled and he is trapped, in a sense, doing what he has always done. It was a rather macabre realization and, truthfully, is one I occasionally feel when I peek my head into online fitness spaces.
There is a large… A VERY large, subset of the fitness community who are charlatans, preying on people’s desires to improve their bodies. This has been the case since time immemorial in fitness but social media has kicked it up a notch. So I share the character’s despair when you realize part of what you have devoted your life to is meaningless and, truthfully, the work of jackasses.
Pulling me back from nihilistic despair are the good folks in the evidence-based fitness community, sound coaches like Dan John, Jim Schmitz, etc., and good historians like Jan Todd, John Fair, Dave Chapman, etc. Heck Joe Roark’s Ironhistory forums have been a daily reminder that this stuff matters. Nevertheless, I do feel a tension in this space between people I genuinely distrust at a core level, and those who I respect with the same intensity.
Between these two poles exists a fundamental question. Why do we do this? Why bother lifting weights regularly and, even more, why try to lift heavy things? Ages’ work is the closest literary book I have found which captures the almost spiritual transformation that lifting can incur. Unlike Sam Fussell’s excellent, Muscle, which captured his dysfunctional relationship with bodybuilding, Ages grows as a person – more mature, more determined, and more open to life – thanks to her engagement with lifting.
Discourses in fitness tend to be problematic. If you are not ‘going to war with the weights’, you are getting shredded for summer, etc. Ages, much like Henry Rollins, engage with the philosophical, not just physiological changes, that lifting can bring. Yes we can get angry when pushing weights but we often leave happier.
Unlike, some excellent, but ideologically charged, books of this kind (which were partly written to defend CrossFit), Ages’ book does not end with a rousing endorsement for one style of training, one particular diet or one particular ideology. It asks readers to test themselves, to embrace fear, allow failure and, in doing so, become happier.
This is a book that will stay with me for some time because it encourages the reader to think about their own journey, their own traumas, and their own motivations for lifting heavy weights. For an industry often defined by more sizzle than steak, these are critical questions. My hope is that more writers, and even influencers, begin to speak about these issues in a more substantive way.
If you made it this far… you can find Alyssa’s book through the Publisher link to it here, and, at the time of writing, it costs $28.