A Progressive Makes the Case for Pumping Iron

By Jason Ahlquist

Like a lot of progressives, I didn’t exactly wake up to the specter of a Trump Presidency because I had been up all night watching results and then semi-sleeplessly pondering the implications until dawn. I think I got about three hours of sleep. I was exhausted physically and emotionally the next day, I was preoccupied with worries about the future and I was filled with righteous rage over the situation. I was a lot of things that day. But there were two things I absolutely was not. I was not surprised and I was not defeated.

The lack of sleep wasn’t exactly from terrified hand-wringing over election results. I’ve returned to school to get a business degree and equip myself with the tools I’ll need to live my vision of my empty nest years. So on November 8th I had a pile of homework in my math and law classes. As my readers might already know, I’ve resolved to become an over-achiever when it comes to the law class. So as election results were playing in the background, I was researching and writing about the criminality clause of the 13th Amendment. By the time I looked up, Donald Trump was our President Elect and it was well past the witching hour. I closed my laptop and shuffled off to bed to lay there and sort of half slumber until my alarm went off.

Thankfully, work was slow that day and I was able to sleepwalk through the morning and afternoon with no repercussions. The evening however, was a cause for concern. Aside from math and law, I’m also taking a weight training class.

I’m not exactly Chris Hemsworth, but I’m also not a stranger to the gym. So I didn’t take the class to learn my way around weightlifting. I just wanted the triple-play of access to a gym, an obligation to use it carved out into my schedule and the side-benefit of two college credits towards my degree. It’s an arrangement that has worked out really well for me. But on November 9th, I was beyond exhausted and even worse… it was leg day. I probably would have been well within my rights to skip it. But I went ahead and drank a lot of water throughout the day, ate my second lunch exactly 2.5 hours before class and zombie walked into the college weight room expecting to take it easy.

But then a thing happened.

While I was warming up, I started thinking about all of the stuff I’d observed from my progressive peers on social media. There was a lot of fear out there. I have a gay kid, so I completely understand it. I have those fears too. But it was still a little jarring to see fragile humanity in a lot of the people I look up to and in many ways try to model myself after. It wasn’t a moment of clarity. It wasn’t a crisis. It was just a moment of frustration and empathy.

My warm-up was done and I turned to my lifting journal to see where I was last leg day. First up was squats. My leg day always starts out with the heavy, compound motion stuff. Last week I was really excited, because I was able to squat 165 lbs. with my skinny legs. My goal was to be able to squat 185 (five pounds over my body weight) by the end of the quarter. So I put 140 lbs. of plates on the 25 lb. bar to get that 165.

The plates rang with a musical clarity as I pushed them together. It was like a church bell.

I got three squats into my first set before I realized that the weight was way too light. So I stopped, and just to test it out, I bumped the weight up to 205 by switching to two 45 lb. plates on either side of the bar.

This made me nervous. It was well over my goal. I’m almost 47 years old and have spent most of my life being either the skinny nerd or the overweight desk-worker. Sure I was a few years removed from that now. But like a dirty dishrag, it takes some heavy bleaching to wash that stink out.

But I stepped under the bar and shouldered the weight anyway. When I lifted it out of the rack, it was hard. It was alien planet, gravity is different hard. I was worried and even a little scared that I had made the wrong decision. I imagined blowing a disc out in my back as I pushed my way back up from the first squat. I was instantly sweating rivers and my face was beat red. I couldn’t wait to get the weight up to the top hook so I could rack the damn thing.

But when I made it to the top, I thought of Donald J. Trump.

I let my legs lowered me and the weight down for another squat. The second one was still hard. But it wasn’t unfamiliar. I knew I could lift it again. I finished a whole set of six repetitions and racked the bar.

It hadn’t sunk in what I’d just done. As I leaned against the rack catching my breath, I was still thinking about politics and fear and all of the people who were swimming in shock and doubt. And I was also thinking about people like Martin Luther King, Alice Paul and Harvey Milk. What would they do – even if the worst-case scenario with this development were true?

I put another 20 lbs. on the bar.

As I stepped under, there was no newfound confidence. I knew this was going to be hard. I knew I had some reason to fear. I had just blown past a mental and physical limit. I had no idea where the real limit was. And at 225 lbs., I knew I was close to brushing up against it somewhere in the dark.

I split the set into two sets of three squats just to be safe. As I focused on my form in the mirror, I could see my face flare red again, my opened wide and I found myself grunting loudly. Later on, I found out that my 20 year-old classmates had stopped their workouts to watch the old man in the corner graduate to the big-boy plates. I made it through the set, but it was very literally the most I had ever lifted in my life. It was a real struggle. And it was blowing my mind.

I stopped to rest and the class went back to work. I had one more set to finish and I had a choice to make. The safe thing to do would be to go back down to the very respectable 205 lb. load. I’d gotten there by being consistent and dedicated and accepting slow gains.

Slow gains.

What are we all afraid of? That’s not a rhetorical question meant to buoy spirits. I think we’re going to spend a lot of time picking over our list. But at the top of that list – at least for me – is that we are afraid of all our slow gains being washed away in four short years by an extremist alt-right wave. I can write a series of essays about where those fears are well-founded and where they are pure blindness. But right now, with or without cause, fear is in the streets tonight. What should we do? What should I do?

I put another five lbs. on the bar for my third set.

It was still hard. It was still scary. But the truth is that I could do it. I probably could have put another five lbs. on. I walked out of the gym that night with more than just a personal record. I walked out with a reminder about a truth that we all need right now.

You never know what you can lift until you step under the bar.

Even more importantly, we have an obligation to step under that bar. We have a responsibility to shove ourselves against the weight that pushes us down. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. So when the shock of November 9th is over. Don’t fall back into the shadows of bitterness. Don’t waste your years complaining about your stolen America.

Thank Donald Trump for adding plates to the bar. It’s your struggle against that bar that made you strong through dedication and risk. Just because the weight jumped up doesn’t mean you can’t lift it.

Step under the bar. When you lift it, go again.