Chronicling my quest to accelerate the onset of the not-so-mythical old man strength.
After high school ended, I decided it was time to put on some muscle. I had resembled a cyclist mid-Tour de France for most of my life, and enough was enough. By the end of the summer, I had gained 10 pounds, could lift 115 percent of my body weight, and felt strong for the first time in my life.
It didn’t last long.
Something around the house needed to be moved—an enormous cast-iron device for cutting paper, I think it was—and my father and I were tasked with moving it. As we walked over to the device, I remember wondering how he’d handle the weight. He had spent a good amount of his life working with wood and was pretty strong, but he had never lifted at the gym or anything. I thought about his back, hoping he’d be okay, and fondly remembered the good ol’ days when he was bigger than me. Boy how quickly those days had passed.
Except they hadn’t.
The moment we got this impossibly heavy, ancient thing off the ground I knew I was in trouble. We started to walk slowly, me going forwards and him in reverse, and I began to question my body’s structural integrity. I soon contemplated life in a wheelchair, which must have shown in my face because he said we could take as many rest stops as we needed to—sweet of him to say “we.” “We” took at least three.
The next day a friend explained the whole thing to me. “He’s got old man strength. Almost all old guys have it,” he said. This was the first time I had heard of old man strength, but it’s a very real thing—at least according to the Internet. Apparently as you get older, you just…become stronger. Simple as that.
The lore of old man strength stresses that it’s not really brute muscular strength, but rather a general robustness that centers around strong hands and forearms. Usually, these muscles are the weakest links when you lift something. When strengthened, they allow you to reach your full potential.
I noticed my dad’s hands and forearms later that day, and put my baby hands in my pockets. Evidently I had work to do.
How could I get old man strength at a young age, years before it starts to trickle in naturally around thirty? Exercise and manual labor didn’t exactly interest me, so instead I opted for the path of least resistance: grip-strength builders called the “Captains of Crush.”
These “Captains” came in 5 tension levels, the highest of which had only ever been closed by four people. I went for the lowest level, and though I did successfully close it, I strained a neck muscle doing so. Back to the drawing board, I guess.
They say there are no shortcuts to getting strong. Hard work, a good diet, and lots of sleep are required. Though I know that to be false—as there are many shortcuts available in Mexican pharmacies and MLB lockers—I’ve found a better, and much safer way to accelerate the onset of that elusive old man strength—rock climbing.
I started climbing a few years after college, and my initial visits to the gym brought back similar feelings of struggling to move furniture with my dad. Stricken with a moderate fear of heights, I was constantly white knuckling on the holds, leaving my forearms burning. Though it was painful at the time, that sweet, sweet burn told me I was going to get stronger in exactly the way I hoped. After all, the entire sport of rock climbing is an exercise in old man strength.
I do not consider old man strength to be in my possession, and I doubt I’ll officially get it before my thirties. I fear this feat is reserved for construction workers, people who work in sawmills, and extremely good rock climbers who are several levels above me. But the more I climb, the closer I get, and one day I hope to amaze my own son with a display of old man strength, starting him on the same Quixotic journey I find myself on today.