mikewhitemanThere is a curious quote by Arnold Schwarzenegger:

“My body is like breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don’t think about it, I just have it.”

I am not sure in what context he said this. Was he shrugging off a compliment? Or alluding to the idea that a healthy body doesn’t get in the way, doesn’t ache, doesn’t complain but obediently and diligently serves the mind of its owner? As I said, I am not sure of the context but I do find this quote rich in interpretational possibilities. One such possibility of interpretation is almost a literal take on the quote: that body is, indeed, like food – food for thought. What is body? What is mind? Are two the same? If not, how are they different? How do they interact? These are fundamentally philosophical questions. We’ve come to expect that matters of philosophy are for academic symposia or coffee houses or the star-gazing types with a dooby in between lips. But there is another kind of philosopher that too delves deeply into the matters of body and mind. I am talking about an athlete.

Having grown up in the Soviet Union, at a time when the Cold War was fought vicariously through sports, I attended a “sport school.”   The idea behind sport schools was to cultivate Olympic reserves. In addition these schools cultivated discipline of mind. I found it pretty telling that nearly my entire graduation class got into college on the first try unlike my cohort from the non-sport school that I had attended before. In those days of free college education in the Soviet Union, to get into college you had to pass highly competitive entrance exams (most of which were oral!). And we knew how to compete! We majored in competition.

Ever since those days, gym has been part of my life. In my experience, you will find three types of folks in the gym – those trying to get healthy for whatever reason, those trying to look good, and those for whom exercise is a form of meditation. This last group may look hard-core, may look like those stereotypical sportos in tricked-out Hondas on a bar prowl but they are anything but that. There is a lot to learn from these modern-day fakirs, from these Western yogis, if you wish. For them the body is a vehicle of self-exploration, a means to an endless psychological end, a food for mind to chew on.

The following is an interview with Mike Whiteman, a “method-man” – as I jokingly called him when I met at Wright’s Gym in Crafton area of Pittsburgh. On the outside, Mike is an impressive man – on my first day at Wright’s Gym I heard major thumping in somewhere in the backroom. I followed the sound during my tour of the gym and saw Mike doing Olympic-style weight-lifting snatch with a bunch of weight on the bar. In the weeks to come I had many a chat with him and remain impressed with his balanced approach to life.

Recently I asked him ten questions, curious to explore what’s inside. Here’s a glimpse of Mike’s mind.

Pavel:  Mike, what is the meaning of sports and physical activity in your life?  What’s it all about for you?  Why do you exercise and work out?  What’s the big picture of exercise in your life?

Mike:  Sports and training present that continuous challenge to me.  It’s easy to quantify the results as well. Weight, time, speed are a great way to track progress.  It is in my nature to always want to improve.  I train to achieve goals and then I re-establish new ones.  This is important to contrast from just working out which is just training with no goals.  Clarity, focus, and the constant desire to overcome and achieve is what it’s about. I am least productive when I’m not challenged.  It is very much a lifestyle.  I am gluten-free and strict paleo in regards to diet. Recovering and preparing for what is next is equally as important to the physical act of training itself. Longevity, vitality and balance – that is the big picture.

Pavel: What makes for a good gym?

Mike: A good gym is simple.  I’m a big functional movement guy, as you know, with snatch, clean-and-jerk, squats, presses and pulls.  A weight-lifting platform, barbells, and a rack for squats and presses are all that is really necessary for the kind of exercise that I currently do.  Dumbbells, kettle bells and sleds would provide variety but the simpler the better.  Atmosphere of the place is not to be overlooked.  You want to surround yourself with like-minded people who also want to improve.  An “abundance mindset” is important: avoid scarcity and try to find inclusive communities.

Pavel: Having seen you work out, I noticed that you don’t seem to listen to music when you exercise… What’s your take on music in the gym?

Mike: Music helps particularly when training gets repetitive. Music actually is important to me it just so happens that Wright’s Gym plays my genre of rock/metal.  The funny thing is that after I warm up and find my rhythm it might as well be silent as I get that focused.

Pavel: When we first met, I jokingly referred to you as a “method man” because of your very methodical approach to working out… Do you ever come to the gym without a plan, without an agenda and just “play around,” improvising a work out as you go?

Mike: Sunday-Funday!  Sundays are unscripted and the purpose is to get some cardio and do mobility and recovery work.  I usually do sprints and jumps, row, push sleds and mess with the bar. It’s very random.

Pavel: What are your fitness goals?

Mike: Snatch 330 lbs/150 kilos. Clean and Jerk 396 lbs/180 kilos. Back Squat 550 lbs/250 kilos. Stay very fit and balanced in this process as well.

Pavel: How did this all begin for you – who influenced you, how did end up placing an existential priority on exercise?

Mike: Good question.  I’ve been an athlete my whole life and my fondest memories often include competition. So a large part I suppose is not being able to lose that competitive spirit.  I also like the fact that the responsibility in achieving these personal goals falls solely on me.  If I don’t achieve them I have no one to blame except myself.  It’s about personal accountability.

Pavel: Do you have a “soap box” topic when it comes to the state of wellness in US? What are some of the systemic issues that you see in the national/cultural attitude towards fitness and wellness?

Mike: I could probably go on for days with this one!  The biggest and perhaps the saddest issue is the decline of physical activity in the youth of America.  There is no more mandated PE (phys.ed.) in schools. And our increasingly technologically-intensive society is creating a near widespread epidemic with obesity and diabetes.  True, people are living longer because of the advances in medical science but the quality of life is decreasing rapidly.  The shame here is I feel that most people don’t actually know how to take care of themselves.  Perhaps the most important thing that an individual possess – his or her health – is the most devalued.

Pavel: I feel that anyone who is serious about cultivating body is also serious about cultivating mind.  With this in mind, I want to also ask you the perennial philosophical questions: “What is mind?  What is body?  What is life?”  An off-the-cuff response is best.

Mike: Cannot separate mind from body! The mind is the most important aspect. Having a strong disciplined mind is essential in this process of continuous development and growth. Believing in yourself and embracing the process starts with the mind.  The most dangerous thing is NOT setting a lofty goal and failing to achieve it, but rather setting an easily obtainable goal and achieving it.  This is why most people underachieve. Expectations are far too low.  Again, these convictions begin with the mind.

Pavel: Tell me about your podcast.

Mike: The Fast and Jacked podcast is an inclusive information platform designed to stimulate thought and challenge people to live a healthier lifestyle.  I have two co-hosts, Major Mason and Mitch Narbe, and we often have guests on as well from different types of movement disciplines.  It’s saved on iTunes and at our website is www.fastandjacked.com.

Pavel: Do you have a mission of sorts, a legacy you are working to leave behind?

Mike: Legacy would be to change the world of Strength and Conditioning and, specifically, soccer.  Even at the highest levels of athletics glaring holes exist. Between myself and the community I’m trying to grow a unique way to start effecting change.

As you see, Mike isn’t just lifting weights – he is a deep thinker. The “method-man” that he is, he can readily state his goals. At the same time, he understands the value of “going random” on funday-Sundays. There is no paradox here – just balance. He speaks of “embracing the process,” of loving “getting so focused” when he hits the rhythm of the exercise. Zen-like, he values simplicity. And cautions us to not fear lofty goals. No, he is not a perfectionist – he is a skilled charioteer of his own body-mind. A modest change agent in our midst who “preaches” longevity, vitality and balance – a veritable trinity of health.

You can read more about Mike Whiteman and Fast-and-Jacked at www.fastandjacked.com

picture source: www.fastandjacked.com