The unexpected spiritual gains of weightlifting

Though often associated with toxic or superficial attitudes, weight training can still strengthen a healthy spirituality.
Our Faith

Ten years ago, I lived by the Venice Beach Boardwalk, famous for its outdoor weightlifting complex known as Muscle Beach. Bodybuilders such as Arnold Schwarzenegger used Muscle Beach for the dual purposes of fitness and strength exhibitionism. Though not a bodybuilder, I enjoyed going to Muscle Beach to lift. I trained there not for the applause from tourists but to nourish my soul.

Some might think the goal of weightlifting is to be like Schwarzenegger, while others might decry the cultural overemphasis on physical appearance and the trajectory toward narcissism. But for me, weightlifting builds not only my body but also my soul. Going to the gym centers me, brings me stillness, and offers me many of the same fruits as meditating in a chapel.

With a full-time job both in the office and at home with two young children, I rarely have time to pause and connect with God. And to combat hereditary health troubles, I must prioritize time to exercise. While managing my physical health is important, however, I cannot lose sight of maintaining spiritual wellness. Thus, the gym is where I am able to calm my soul while nurturing my body.

When I pray, I surrender my burdens to Jesus, which allows me to grow in union with him. When I lift, my burdens become lighter, giving my soul greater freedom to grow closer to God.


Years ago, when I was discerning a possible priestly vocation, I did 30 days of the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises and learned that prayer can occur outside of church pews. St. Ignatius of Loyola states: “For as strolling, walking and running are bodily exercises, so every way of preparing and disposing the soul . . . to seek and find the Divine Will as to the management of one’s life for the salvation of the soul, is called a Spiritual Exercise.” During those 30 days of silent prayer, I encountered God while walking in a garden, admiring paintings in a museum, going for a morning jog, and even while lifting weights.

Since then, I have found that weightlifting takes my mind off of worries, which often block me from turning to God. While I lift, God lifts my burdens, and I experience God’s peace. With my worries out of the way, I become still and open to divine love. Throughout the duration of my workout, I maintain contact with that stillness, knowing this is God within me.

And when I return to work and home, I remain cognizant of that encounter with God, allowing God’s love to transform my interactions from stress-driven to Spirit-driven. This is one way weightlifting has enabled me to draw closer to God and express greater love to those around me.

In addition to helping me let go of my anxieties, weightlifting can help me hear God speaking to me in and through this activity. This is something I discovered in my initial experience with weightlifting the summer before I started ninth grade. Growing up, kids teased me for being skinny. To counteract the negative self-image this induced, I used my eighth-grade graduation money to buy a bench and dumbbell set.


That fall during physical education class, we spent the year alternating between sports and lifting weights. While I enjoyed the former, the latter felt like a futile exercise. I didn’t progress much beyond benching the 45-lb bar. Then one day, the PE coach challenged me to add weight to the bar. When I told him I wouldn’t be able to lift that much, he assured me that he would spot me. I lifted the bar and, to my astonishment, was able to lift beyond what I had been mechanically doing.

This interaction revealed to me that God is always with me. My coach noticed that I was limiting myself. He believed that my potential was far greater and boldly pushed me so that I, too, could believe in myself. This reminded me that God sees me through and through, knows my capabilities, and desires to breathe in me God’s Spirit so that I can be the alive, confident, joy-filled person that God created me to be.

And just as my PE teacher pushed me to go beyond my comfort zone, God wanted to move me out of feeling discouragement and mediocrity so that I could see myself as God sees me—full of love, mercy, and hope—and grow into the potential that God has in store for me. My coach reminded me that I am not alone and that God has given people the ability to communicate divine love to me, as well as invited me to be a vessel of divine love for them.

But I believe God was also with me when I carried a negative self-image and when I was bullied and teased. Although gaining physical strength superficially counteracted the negative images I had of myself, it was only by God’s hand that this harmful self-image was erased. Yes, I gained physical strength, but my identity was based not in how much I could lift, but in the depth of love God has for me. I discovered that God loved me completely, even knowing my weaknesses. Thus I grew in my capacity to be honest and vulnerable before God, which increased my capacity to see others and myself as God does and to grow in my own ability to love.


Societal connotations of weightlifting, bolstered by social media, may make it seem incompatible with following Christ. However, we can allow the physical exercise of weightlifting to become a spiritual exercise of surrendering our worries to God, relying on God’s strength to carry our burdens, discerning what God is saying to us, seeing ourselves as God sees us, and recognizing that strength is born in vulnerability and weakness. This can allow us to grow in union with God and be a vessel of divine love to those around us.

Weightlifting for me is a contemplative act. Gym time is further confirmation that my strength comes from God and is in God, and of my understanding of St. Paul’s revelation that when we are weak, then we are strong (2 Cor. 12:10). 

This article also appears in the June 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 6, pages 45-46). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Image: Unsplash/Samuel Girven


About the author

Matt Kappadakunnel

Matt Kappadakunnel has a background in investment management and investment banking. He spent multiple years studying to be a Catholic priest and graduated from Creighton University. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.

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