Posted: Sun, May 26, 2013 | By: Exercise
by Chris Armstrong About a year ago, I heard a Transhumanist opine: “If you’re into Transhumanism and you’re not doing anything to improve your body and be in the best shape you can be in, you’re just a POSER.”
Futurist, science writer, and ethicist, George Dvorsky, put it more diplomatically: “If you call yourself a Transhumanist, but you’re not doing anything in the here-and-now to improve upon yourself—whether it be your body or mind—then you’re simply misunderstanding it and doing it wrong.”
When I heard the original “poser” version, it hit me very hard, like a big fat REALITY SANDWICH. Yes, I thought, that’s exactly what I am: a Transhumanist POSER. I’m not taking enough steps to increase the odds of me living long enough to see this amazing Singularity come to pass.
I took this criticism VERY seriously and decided to get in shape and improve my ominously bad health stats. As I thought more about the reasons that this point of view had such a huge impact on me, my thoughts moved beyond the specifics of my personal health situation and to the reasons that made this blunt yet incisive judgement important for Transhumanists in general to take seriously.
I realized that specific Transhumanist premises, combined with the particular point at which we find ourselves in the projected timeline of the approaching Technological Singularity, demand that we do all we can to preserve our “hardware” so that we can have even a CHANCE of prolonging the life of our “software.”
FOUNDATIONAL TRANSHUMANIST PREMISES
Probably the most fundamental of these premises is the assumption of a materialist foundation of consciousness: “minds are what brains do”—that the sum-total of each person’s personality, memories, skills, emotions, you name it—even those properties that some have nicknamed “soul”—are all the output of a complex, hierarchical, massively interconnected network called the brain. This premise leads to the conclusion that, if we can understand this network at a sufficient level of detail, it can be replicated in some form other than the fragile human brain. This is the idea of, “substrate independent consciousness.”
With these two ideas in hand, we are set to move ahead toward an “immortality of consciousness.” All set…except for one little detail: We DO NOT yet understand the workings of the mind-brain synergy sufficiently to make a functional non-biological replica of a brain. When I was studying AI, with an emphasis on neural modeling and Lisp programming in the 1980s, I was fond of quoting AI/Lisp pioneer, John McCarthy: “We understand human mental processes only slightly better than a fish understands swimming.” While much progress has been made in the past few decades, we still await further breakthroughs. Although Ray Kurzweil has proposed that we don’t need to understand everything about the mind/brain complex, as long as we develop a sufficiently fine-grained brain scanning technology that will essentially “copy” the functionality of a given brain, we still have a way to go before we get there as well.
To compound the problem, we do not yet have sufficient medical knowledge to keep our bodies alive and highly functional long enough to insure that our consciousness will still exist at that future time when it can be transferred into something more durable than these entropic “meat machines” in which it is currently trapped.
BRIDGES TO IMMORTALITY
Enter, Ray Kurzweil’s “bridge metaphor”: By using the best medical information and technologies currently available to keep us in peak-health, we can use these as “bridges” to keep us alive long enough to make it to the next round of breakthroughs that will enable us to extend our lives even more, and on and on. Through this iterative, progressive and accelerating process we will be able to “live long enough to live forever”—to live as long as it takes to achieve “consciousness uploading.” To increase the possibility of achieving “consciousness immortality,” we’ll be able to make backup copies of our “mind-file” to be kept offsite…on another planet…in another solar system, galaxy, or even in some form that is decentralized and distributed throughout the multi-verse.
The bad news, for those who have let their bodies descend into a state of “accelerated decrepitude,” is that we can’t depend solely on heroic medical interventions to bridge our gaps in optimum health. Although, at some point we will be able to repair the damage caused by neglecting our health through injected nano-bot swarms and other currently unimagined methods, Kurzweil’s first bridge involves a strict adherence to diet, supplementation, and exercise protocols so we can last long enough to take advantage of these future, more invasive and repair-oriented innovations.
People well versed in the constellation of concepts and values comprising Transhumanism or Singularitarianism, may recognize Kurzweil’s bridge approach as akin to “biohacking” or “DIYbio” or “the quantified self: self knowledge through numbers.” This manipulation and self-tracking of one’s health stats are essential for anyone wanting to achieve the “plus” in “humanity-plus” (H+). We, as Transhumanists want to be “all that we can be”—AND THEN SOME—and that includes being more in touch with our bodies. It’s not enough, at this stage, to be awesome superheroes “in our heads”—great mental athletes with highly upgraded “software”—while letting our “hardware,” our bodies, deteriorate into premature “obsolescence” and “system failure” due to abuse and neglect. The even worse news is that you can’t even function at your peak, mentally, if your body is struggling to function due to deterioration.
POWERLIFTING AS DIY HARDWARE UPGRADE
In an effort to stop being an H+ poser, at the age of 53, I took up CrossFit, an intense and varied exercise routine (and culture) using functional movements that include Olympic lifting and Powerlifting. After several months of success—trading a lot of fat for muscle and gaining a lot more stamina—I gravitated toward a Powerlifting emphasis and eventually to Powerlifting exclusively. My WONDERFUL coach, Stephanie Davis, is a 108 pound female who is pound for pound MUCH stronger than me—with numbers to PROVE it—even after months of great strength increases on my part.
For those only vaguely familiar with weightlifting as a sport, as opposed to “weight training” at a gym, you are probably much more familiar with Olympic lifting than Powerlifting. Olympic lifting involves two kinds of lifts, both culminating with the barbell being held overhead. Powerlifting involves three kinds of lifts, none of which goes over the head. The three lifts are: dead lift, back squat, and bench press. These lifts, together with all the ancillary exercises a Powerlifter must perform, recruit most of the muscles of the body and tax one’s endurance and mental toughness, providing a great all-around workout.
The systematic and quantitative nature of Powerlifting training provides great feedback about the effectiveness of the training program in measurable numerical terms. There are many different training philosophies and systems. My coach programs my workouts according to my experience level, age and any ache, pain, and recovery issues I may be having on that particular day.
Each workout involves a warm-up, mobility, strength, and ending with some special additional exercises. The warm-up is always different, but may include: 200 to 400 meter sprints; pulling a sled 200 meters to a mile with 90 to 225 pounds of weights on it; sit ups of various types; squats; push ups; lunges, and anything else my coach may dream up on any given day. Mobility involves stretching and preparing the applicable muscle groups for the lift of the day. The strength portion is sort of the “main event,” which focusses on only one of the three lifts, sometimes adding chains or giant rubber bands to the bar to increase resistance and ocaisionally limiting the range of motion in some way to tax certain muscle groups that are used in that limited part of the lift.
The special movements at the end have become a regular part of every workout, at my request and consist of exercises that isolate some relevant muscle groups and movements similar to those found in the warm-up, but just MORE of them. The purpose is to take whatever muscle energy is still remaining after the strength portion and exhaust it all so that I am totally spent after each workout. An additional goal is to try to do as well as I did in the warm-up on any exercise that may have been repeated at the end on that day. For example, yesterday I did a 200 meter sprint in the warm-up and one at the end and, even though my legs were pretty worn out by the end, I was still able to do the final sprint within 4 seconds of the time it took me to do the initial sprint. This isn’t always possible, but it’s what I shoot for.
PUSHING BEYOND LIMITATIONS
The actual lifting portion of the workout goes through various cycles over the course of weeks, each lift using “dynamic effort”—speed and explosiveness with lower weights—or “max effort”—using higher weights approaching your absolute max. The amount of weights used in each workout is determined based on a percentage of my “one rep max,” which is a weight that is so heavy for me that I am only able to lift it once and no more. For dynamic effort workouts, I may work my way up to 50 or 60%, but for max effort workouts, I may get up to 90%. Once a month I go to 100% and then try to go beyond that to a new PR (personal record or 1 rep max). In the past 4 months, since converting from CrossFit to doing Powerlifting exclusively, I’ve increased my max in dead lift by 40 lbs to 415 lbs; back squat by 45 lbs to 380 lbs; and bench press by 35 lbs to 255 lbs.
The goal of Powerlifting is to constantly increase your max for each lift. To do this, I train 4 days a week: 2 days on bench press and one day each on back squat and dead lift. I assume that my coach has programmed it this way because she knows that bench press is my weakest lift and could use the extra work. The ideal is to have a rest day between each workout day to allow you muscles to recover, repair and grow. I usually make my rest days “active” rest days, involving some light activity like running around in the park with my dog, some not-too-heavy overhead presses or I’ll do some grip strengthening exercises to improve my dead lift. If I am really worn out from an extra hard workout the day before, I won’t do anything taxing at all—just 3 long walks with my dog throughout the day and stretching. This is the famous, “listen to your body” advice.
YOUR BODY AS A FINELY TUNED MEAT-MACHINE
Besides building stronger muscles (fat burning machines), strengthening bones, improving hormone levels, increasing metabolism and mental toughness, a side benefit is the improvement in your ability to notice the effects that food, supplements, and sleep have on your performance. This gives you greater motivation to optimize these things in service of your training goals. You soon learn that an inferior diet filled with low-quality, processed, sugar-laden “foods” will result in inferior rates of progress toward your goals. You will be motivated to research information about all kinds of supplements that will help you repair and build muscle. You will pay more attention to getting greater quantities of quality sleep. You will become aware of a stressed-out nervous system that will render you unable to lift weights one day that, according to your max number you should be able to lift. This will lead you to an analysis of your diet, recovery, sleep, and other variables leading up to this unexpected lapse in strength in order to make adjustments. The same kind of analysis must be performed in response to those special days when everything comes together and you feel supremely confident and able to lift beyond your previous limitations.
The data needed to perform these analyses are available because you have fastidiously kept a log book of all of your workouts containing information about all weights used, reps done, and any failures to accomplish what your coach has prescribed and any extra things you may have done on those “feeling like I can conquer the world” days. Information about supplements added/subtracted and dietary changes/lapses should also be logged as well, as these must also be factored into any analysis of successes or failures. Once you have learned a lot about your responses to these variables and have gained sufficient strength, you may want to enter a Powerlifting competition to test yourself against others of your age, gender, and weight class. This kind of date-oriented goal will help you to learn, with your coach’s help, how to adjust your training, diet and everything else so that you can be in peak physical and mental shape on a particular day.
Yes, there are Powerlifters who go to extremes in an effort to be at the top-most “elite” competitive level. Some, still eat huge amounts of very low quality food just to put on weight that is a mixture of both muscle and extra fat, thinking only of the short-term gains and disregarding long-term negative health effects. This same kind of short-term “thinking” may also lead some of them to take LARGE amounts of steroids, testosterone, and growth hormones. These hormones allow people to push their bodies beyond what may be “reasonable” or physically sustainable and sometimes suffer injuries that may have long-lasting effects. But, for the more moderate person who approaches Powerlifting in a scientific and patient way, the benefits can be enormous for both men and women.
I’ve often heard women say: “I just don’t want to get huge muscles.” Well, the fact is that for most women, huge muscles are not going to just sneak up on them against their will. Women have to really go out of their way and actively take extra steps to get huge. Because of their much lower testosterone levels, women have to work extremely hard to get hyper-muscular and, in the most extreme cases, you’re probably looking at someone who is “benefitting” from, shall we say, “pharmaceutical enhancement.” Remember, you are in charge of transforming your body. It’s not something that will be “imposed” upon you without your consent and cooperation.
A POWERFUL BODY IS AN H+ BODY
Aside from other health benefits, the physical transformation alone is well worth the effort. The improvements in body composition—the ratio of lean body mass to fat—begins to flip. Fat is traded for muscle. Your t-shirts that were previously loose on top and tight on the bottom begin to get tighter on top and looser on the bottom. Your abs and the whole core muscle complex of your lower torso, front and back, tighten up and gain in strength, as this area is crucial for all 3 lifts. Your whole relationship to your body will change. You will feel more in command of it and it will respond much better when you need it to.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a focus on building muscle and transforming your body is mere superficial vanity. Sure you will feel better about the way you look, but Powerlifting is not the same as Bodybuilding, which, for some people, can have an over-emphasis on looks at the expense of actual strength. In one sense, you ARE literally engaging in bodybuilding. You are, through your efforts and discipline, building a strong and more well-balanced body. You are taking charge of your physical destiny. You are “hacking your body” in true Transhumanist fashion—not passively allowing your body to “happen” to you…not standing by watching nature take its course. This is what the “deathist” surrender-monkeys do, NOT Transhumanists.
Powerlifting is one path to a body that is well matched with an H+ ethos and the Transhumanist goal of longevity and physical enhancement. If you already go to a gym and do a couple different circuits of weight machines on alternate days with some treadmill or other cardio thrown in, you may want to consider upping your intensity by investigating the world of Powerlifting. One extremely important psychological aspect of this training is that you won’t get bored by doing the same routine all the time. As my coach says: “The program is that there is no fixed program.” There is a general framework; a tried and true system, big-picture-wise, but each day is a different workout, while still hitting all the essentials. The workout changes to keep providing your body with ever-changing stimuli so that it doesn’t adapt to a static routine and also changes in response to one’s level of recovery and energy fluctuations. You need constant challenge and change of stimulus to grow.
If you get a good coach, do your own research, document your progress, and treat this as a serious project, as though your longevity depends on it—because it DOES—your body will thank you by becoming a durable and strong “hardware” platform to house the ONE AND ONLY copy of your “software”—a desirable goal of any worthy non-poser Transumanist biohacker, I dare say.
Chris T. Armstrong is a percussionist/composer, Secular Transhumanist, martial artist and Powerlifter. Back in the 20th century, he was also a student and researcher in Artificial Intelligence (neural modeling), Lisp programming and a professional software geek.