As a young man, Teddy Roosevelt was frail, weak, and often plagued by asthma attacks that prevented him from leaving his bedroom. He was warned by doctors against a life of exertion and told not to engage in activities so mild as climbing stairs.
While it could have turned him into an immobilized, self-pitying victim, Teddy’s physical limitations became the single most significant catalyst in shaping the kind of rugged man he would become.
Teddy’s father, concerned about his son’s frail body and sickly health, sat him down for a heart-to-heart early in his childhood.
“Theodore, you have the mind but you have not the body. And without the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body. It is hard drudgery to make one’s body, but I know you will do it.”
And that’s exactly what Teddy did. He visited the gym daily to lift weights, box and spar, and to beat his body into submission. Later in life he’d build his own home gym, walk everywhere at an excruciatingly torrid pace, fight in the military, and work long, dogged hours on a cattle ranch.
Like his father, Teddy recognized and embraced a fundamental truth: One of the core virtues of masculinity is physical strength. It takes great discipline and arduous, persistent work to cultivate. Every man has the responsibility to make his own body.
The Death of the Firm Handshake
Not so long ago, men were measured by their ability to look another man in the eye and deliver a firm handshake (the tradition still exists, particularly in rural, working-class America). As it turns out, the masculine way of sizing one another up is more than simply a cultural tradition. In fact, research demonstrates that grip strength is a key marker of overall physical strength in men.
What’s interesting is that grip strength in men has drastically plummeted since 1985. Men’s chests are smaller in size, and upper body strength is on the rapid decline. Men are weaker and softer than ever.
The natural result is a generation of fragile men who shirk responsibility, prolong singleness, engage in sex outside of marriage, and fail to lead in their homes or communities.
The glaring problem in the Christian community is that we’ve become functional gnostics, and our stance toward physical strength is Exhibit A. We’ve embraced the lie that only the spiritual realm really matters, not the bodily and physical. As long as a man holds regular quiet times every morning, who cares if he’s 300 pounds?
The church has accepted the notion that godly masculinity is merely academic, intellectual, theological, but profoundly not physical. Unsurprisingly, you’re unlikely to hear a sermon from an evangelical pastor—many of whom are either frail or obese—about the moral excellence of real, physical, masculine strength. Flabby itself, the church is in no shape to address the weakening of the bodies in the Body of Christ.
By the way, soft men in the pulpit are one of the core reasons hard men flock away from the church. If the pulpit really does lead the world, then blame and change must start here. We need masculine pastors who value physical strength and manifest discipline and self control over their own bodies, those who stop telling men that any interest in physical strength is idolatry.
Make no mistake, what we’re after—and what the Bible calls men to pursue—is a full-orbed masculinity that encompasses character, body, and mind. We need strong minds, strong virtues, and physically strong bodies to be the men God called us to be.
When he went to college, Teddy Roosevelt’s father gave him instructions that typify this whole-person view of masculinity:
“Take care of your morals first, your health next, and finally your studies.”
What is Strength For?
Men’s bodies are characterized by muscles that, when trained, become hard. This is one of the main differences between men and women. The typical male has 75 percent more muscle than women and 90 percent greater upper body strength.
A man’s physiology and his telos, or aim, are tied together. A man shouldn’t just pursue strength; he should also know what his strength is for.
Primarily, man’s hardened strength is for work and protection.
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15).
Strength isn’t meant for vanity, which is obviously what the Gym Bros have in mind when trying to catch the perfectly-angled, sweat-glistening selfie during a staged tricep pulldown.
Strength isn’t meant for bullying or oppressing the weak, which is what Biff Tannen got wrong when he was assaulting Lorraine and the ultra-nerdy George McFly. Hello, McFly!
Instead, strength is meant for fueling a man’s work, which is necessarily a work of cultivation. He needs strength to harness a plow, sow seeds for 70 hours a week, pull a newborn calf from its mother, swing an axe for hours on end, weld a radiator late at night, harvest timber on a steep mountainside, and operate a gas pipeline during the night shift. He needs strength to quarter an elk, haul the meat back to the truck, and skin a bear.
He also needs strength to play with his little ones, wrestle a teenager, and make love to his wife after a 12-hour shift.
A man’s back was meant to carry the load of responsibility, and for that you need strength. Real, actual, physical strength.
Likewise, a man’s strength is for being a warrior. It’s for killing wolves, pulling triggers, and driving spears through the guts of a home invader.
Strength is needed to defend home and country, which throughout history has been the role of men (and rightly so). A man should be physically capable of killing another man with his own hands in defense of his own person, family, or home. He should be able to do the same with a firearm.
What are the Benefits of Strength?
First, strength is the masculine virtue that enables a man to execute his God-ordained duty to work and protect (see above).
Second, strength gives a man the confident posture he needs to navigate the world with skill.
Jordan Peterson is right, men need to stand up straight and put their shoulders back if they are to exercise godly dominion in the world. For such a task you need physical strength, which breeds confidence, assertiveness, and courage.
The point is that your physical strength and bodily posture directly impact your ability as a man to shape the dirt of the earth into something useful. To build households, shape culture, and extend the kingdom. Or simply to have that tough conversation, ask her out, start that business. The physical condition of your body has a direct bearing on all of that.
It turns out my mother knew exactly what she was doing when she told me to stand up straight and quit slouching—it was an essential lesson in manhood.
Third, physical strength makes a man attractive to a woman.
Like bees to honey, there’s no amount of Christianized, over-spiritualized gnosticism that can erase the simple fact of our physiological design: physical strength attracts, weakness repels.
First, you should find a woman you are physically attracted to. It’s not the only quality up for consideration, but it is an important attribute nonetheless.
And if you want to attract said highly attractive woman, you should begin by pursuing physical strength (in close connection with moral and mental strength). You might do this in a number of ways, like joining a gym, signing up for a rugby league, or working at a ranch for the summer.
Trust me, there’s a reason no fantasy romance novels are written about portly office workers who can’t muster the strength to operate a stapler (at least that I’m aware of). A woman may settle for a loafy muffin of a man, but probably only because she feels she can do no better. Or he’s rich or powerful or some combination of the two.
Fourth, physical strength earns a man respect from his male peers.
If you want to earn the respect of your male peers, you must be a man in pursuit and possession of some degree of physical strength. If you are weak and can’t keep up with a hard day’s hand-labor, work on it. Get better. Put in a little sweat equity. Get yourself some callused hands and a strong back. Start where you are.
When he left New York as a young man, Teddy Roosevelt hailed from an upper crust of society that was stigmatized as effeminate and intellectual. As a result, he was seen as a soft Harvard man with political ambitions that would save him from anything resembling hard work.
Recognizing a deficiency, Roosevelt headed West to work on a ranch and to harden himself. When he returned, his frail body was gone. The man who returned oozed rugged masculinity. He possessed a thick neck, barrel chest, and callused hands. More than that, his physical transformation resulted in an emboldened character and sense of gravitas as a strong leader. Inevitably, men and women around the country began to revere him.
Here’s the point: Men who actively pursue and possess physical strength (to whatever extent they are able) gain respect from other men.
This is never more clear than on a crew of men in a profession that requires heavy doses of hand-labor (firemen, armed forces, police officers, construction or mining crews, etc.) A man with drive, strength, and solid work ethic gains respect; a lazy, frail, or obese man does not. You can like that or not, but it’s as sure as gravity. If you want respect, work on strengthening your body.
How Can a Man Make His Body?
First, make regimented, disciplined physical exercise part of your regular routine. Have a plan and stick to it.
Sign up for a gym, get a trainer, download a workout plan, or hire a fitness coach. You should focus on a mix of lifting heavy weights and high-intensity cardio. Most of the weightlifting routines I’ve used over the years come from BodyBuilding.com, which is a great resource for nutrition and exercise. The most important thing is to start wherever you are and make steady improvements.
Likewise, don’t get fancy. Navy SEALs get strong off time-tested methods like pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and running. And almost drowning in the freezing cold surf, but nevermind that part for now.
Second, start tracking your caloric intake and macros.
There’s many easy ways to do this, including the MyFitnessPal App, which is free and includes a virtually unlimited food database, barcode scanner, and macro-nutrient tracker. Enter your current and goal weight, activity level, and the app will calculate caloric intake for different rates of weight loss per week. Measure your food (this is critical), track it (don’t underestimate), stay under your calories, and boom, you lose weight.
If you’re not sure what your goal weight should be, start with a simple BMI calculator or talk to your doctor or a health professional.
Third, do work that makes you sweat.
Some men will naturally do this as part of their vocation, while others will have to seek it out. Men were made to work by the sweat of their brow, so find creative ways to do this. Start a garden, raise a pig, do some landscaping, build a pergola.
If you do work at a desk, trust me, there’s nothing more invigorating than a day spent putting up fence, pulling calves, branding, or putting in a sprinkler system. It’s hard. It takes work. And it’s a good way to gain and use your strength.
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