The Intellectual Gymnasium

by Tom Swift

This morning between sets of deadlifts and overhead presses I pulled out my copy of The Manual for Living by Epictetus (Hallmark edition). I did this in response to a discussion during book club last night. We are reading The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy by David Robertson. In a chapter on the history of philosophy, the author describes the ancient gymnasium as a place where men* worked out both their bodies and their minds. That is, they did gymnastics as well as mental calisthenics.

I like the idea of of combining exercises of the mind with those of the body. I am not sure why or when our culture separated the two. For years I have been asking people, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, to tell me where the mind ends and the body begins (and vice versa) and no one seems to have an answer. This is likely because the distinction is impossible to discern. Yet we seem to strongly desire to keep them separate.

There are few more freeing moments of intellectual stimulation than those immediately after one has just engaged in vigorous physical exertion. Why we plant the butts of kids in chairs for 90 percent of their learning lives is beyond me. Listen to a poem (or another form of music) while walking. Try a math equation after a few push-ups. Have recess all day and you will never stop learning.

I have written before about parallels between my primary pursuits, intellectual (writing) and physical (lifting), and I am curious to further explore the possibilities of combining these two practices. In the current climate, in which I must and want to limit time spent in the public space of the gym, I am mindful not to linger unnecessarily at the squats rack. Yet I do need to take time between lifts. To get stronger, slow down. There are small spaces of time in which I can pick up a book when I am not holding a barbell. At least I tried that today, to good effect.

The current theme of my bodily training, as I continue my restart following the lock-down shutdown, is “don’t do too much.” It is counter-intuitive to most, myself included, but, when it comes to resistance training, more is sometimes less. You should seldom even try to reach your limit. You want to stop a couple reps short of failure. Always. Leave something in the tank. Perform enough to push yourself to grow but not so much that you cannot recover in order to do so.

It’s about the every day, not the single extraordinary day.

With barbells. As with books.


* Women were not allowed. Most thankfully, this wrong has been righted.