Iron and the Soul – By Henry Rollins

It’s been many years since Henry Rollins had his essay Iron and the Soul published in Details magazine (1994). I’ve read through the essay several times over the years. It never gets old and is like a treasure chest filled with quotes. That last paragraph is perhaps the most famous, but the entire essay is filled with gold if you take the time to read it.

I will use this entry to archive the complete essay.

Henry Rollins - Iron and the Soul

Iron and the Soul – By Henry Rollins

I believe that the definition of definition is reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself.


When I was young I had no sense of myself. All I was, was a product of all the fear and humiliation I suffered. Fear of my parents. The humiliation of teachers calling me “garbage can” and telling me I’d be mowing lawns for a living. And the very real terror of my fellow students. I was threatened and beaten up for the color of my skin and my size. I was skinny and clumsy, and when others would tease me I didn’t run home crying, wondering why. I knew all too well. I was there to be antagonized. In sports I was laughed at. A spaz. I was pretty good at boxing but only because the rage that filled my every waking moment made me wild and unpredictable. I fought with some strange fury. The other boys thought I was crazy.

I hated myself all the time. As stupid at it seems now, I wanted to talk like them, dress like them, carry myself with the ease of knowing that I wasn’t going to get pounded in the hallway between classes. Years passed and I learned to keep it all inside. I only talked to a few boys in my grade. Other losers. Some of them are to this day the greatest people I have ever known. Hang out with a guy who has had his head flushed down a toilet a few times, treat him with respect, and you’ll find a faithful friend forever. But even with friends, school sucked. Teachers gave me hard time. I didn’t think much of them either.

Then came Mr. Pepperman, my advisor. He was a powerfully built Vietnam veteran, and he was scary. No one ever talked out of turn in his class. Once one kid did and Mr. P. lifted him off the ground and pinned him to the blackboard. Mr. P. could see that I was in bad shape, and one Friday in October he asked me if I had ever worked out with weights. I told him no. He told me that I was going to take some of the money that I had saved and buy a hundred-pound set of weights at Sears. As I left his office, I started to think of things I would say to him on Monday when he asked about the weights that I was not going to buy. Still, it made me feel special. My father never really got that close to caring. On Saturday I bought the weights, but I couldn’t even drag them to my mom’s car. An attendant laughed at me as he put them on a dolly.

Monday came and I was called into Mr. P.’s office after school. He said that he was going to show me how to work out. He was going to put me on a program and start hitting me in the solar plexus in the hallway when I wasn’t looking. When I could take the punch we would know that we were getting somewhere. At no time was I to look at myself in the mirror or tell anyone at school what I was doing. In the gym he showed me ten basic exercises. I paid more attention than I ever did in any of my classes. I didn’t want to blow it. I went home that night and started right in.

Weeks passed, and every once in a while Mr. P. would give me a shot and drop me in the hallway, sending my books flying. The other students didn’t know what to think. More weeks passed, and I was steadily adding new weights to the bar. I could sense the power inside my body growing. I could feel it.

Right before Christmas break I was walking to class, and from out of nowhere Mr. Pepperman appeared and gave me a shot in the chest. I laughed and kept going. He said I could look at myself now. I got home and ran to the bathroom and pulled off my shirt. I saw a body, not just the shell that housed my stomach and my heart. My biceps bulged. My chest had definition. I felt strong. It was the first time I can remember having a sense of myself. I had done something and no one could ever take it away. You couldn’t say shit to me.

It took me years to fully appreciate the value of the lessons I have learned from the Iron. I used to think that it was my adversary, that I was trying to lift that which does not want to be lifted. I was wrong. When the Iron doesn’t want to come off the mat, it’s the kindest thing it can do for you. If it flew up and went through the ceiling, it wouldn’t teach you anything. That’s the way the Iron talks to you. It tells you that the material you work with is that which you will come to resemble. That which you work against will always work against you.

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.

I used to fight the pain, but recently this became clear to me: pain is not my enemy; it is my call to greatness. But when dealing with the Iron, one must be careful to interpret the pain correctly. Most injuries involving the Iron come from ego. I once spent a few weeks lifting weight that my body wasn’t ready for and spent a few months not picking up anything heavier than a fork. Try to lift what you’re not prepared to and the Iron will teach you a little lesson in restraint and self-control.

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect. I think a lot of inwardly and outwardly directed contempt passes itself off as self-respect: the idea of raising yourself by stepping on someone’s shoulders instead of doing it yourself. When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity. Strength reveals itself through character. It is the difference between bouncers who get off strong-arming people and Mr. Pepperman.

Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.

Yukio Mishima said that he could not entertain the idea of romance if he was not strong. Romance is such a strong and overwhelming passion, a weakened body cannot sustain it for long. I have some of my most romantic thoughts when I am with the Iron. Once I was in love with a woman. I thought about her the most when the pain from a workout was racing through my body.

Everything in me wanted her. So much so that sex was only a fraction of my total desire. It was the single most intense love I have ever felt, but she lived far away and I didn’t see her very often. Working out was a healthy way of dealing with the loneliness. To this day, when I work out I usually listen to ballads.

I prefer to work out alone. It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you’re made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it’s some kind of miracle if you’re not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.

I see them move from their offices to their cars and on to their suburban homes. They stress out constantly, they lose sleep, they eat badly. And they behave badly. Their egos run wild; they become motivated by that which will eventually give them a massive stroke. They need the Iron Mind.

Through the years, I have combined meditation, action, and the Iron into a single strength. I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind.

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it’s impossible to turn back.

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.

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  1. Oh man, I love that essay. I first read it in late high-school and it hit me like a train it resonated so hard (I immediately archived my own copy :)). Thanks for make me read it again!

    There’s a joint interview with him and Ice-T (I think), where they basically try and out-hardcore each other and talk about weights and training. I emailed him asking for details on some of the stuff he was talking about, and actually got a detailed reply from him. Cool guy.

    To this day nothing gets me more fired up than End of Silence. Partly it’s just a great album, but I think a lot of it is the associations with that essay and his general work-ethic. The guy walks the walk.

  2. Amazing.. I have always felt the same way, and can really relate.

    Exercise keeps me sane. If i go with out it i spiral down into depression and hopelesness. It always lifts me back up when i start back.

    And yes iron is the greatest teacher, You can know everything.. But true knowledge and power is knowing your self.

  3. I really enjoyed that. I have always liked Henry Rollins. Well I dont think I can add anything, the man put forth that message beautifully. I am a trainer and I wish everyone felt this way about exercise. I always have, and as he says there is so much good that can come from facing yourself, lifting, if your heads in the right place can be a perfect ego killer. I never feel more alive than after finishing a brutal workout.

  4. Hey Ross,
    Thanks for sharing the entire article. I had seen the last paragraph quoted many times, but had no idea that it was a small part of a great essay. Highly motivating.

  5. “Muscle mass does not always equal strength. Strength is kindness and sensitivity. Strength is understanding that your power is both physical and emotional. That it comes from the body and the mind. And the heart.”

    Thanks, Ross, first time I stumble upon this essay.

  6. I think it is a great essay. Thanks for make me read it. Now I want to have the book of course 😛
    Pain is my master in goinig on working out day after day.
    I Think the quote you wrote in Italic is a real great one.

  7. Incredible. I am writing my Masters thesis on the psychology of fighting and this reinforces all my ideas. What a source of wisdom!

  8. He perfectly described my motivation for training if you suck up and get
    over your “Level set by your mind”, thats the most reqarding
    experience of the day, in fact I still remember my first made minute drill.


  9. Great essay Ross, i have a few Black Flag albums, but i never knew Henry Rollins was into stuff like this.

    And i like the bit, ‘When i work out, i usually listen to ballads’, i must admit, i can’t imagine him doing that myself, but there you go!

  10. Thanks for sharing this really awesome essay by Henry Rollins. I too felt that going to the working out is not really about keeping fit physically, it has also enabled me to find my spirit and condition my mind. The gym to me has always been a place for meditation and discovering little truths about myself.

    Brilliant piece!

  11. I remember reading this when it was first published. I have often remembered the last line and the general arc of the essay. Great to read it again; thanks! Rollins is an interesting guy, to say the least.

  12. Interesting, and rings true in many ways…… thing that is sad, is that this guy was profoundly lonely during much of the time, and his dad was not there for him. I think we see this a lot, that dads are absent (in part setting kids up for insecurities etc.), and dads’ roles in their kids’ upbringing aren’t valued widely in society…….
    As a dad myself, I have found that the greatest challenge is not in being there for the “glamour events”, like birthdays and school events, but it’s the day-to-day stuff…..dealing with tantrums, issues with your kid’s problems with friends,etc….that’s where it’s at…….it’s a marathon, not a sprint……….kind of like with lifting, running, or anything you take seriously………..

  13. Thanks for sharing this man. I really like the story and there’s quite a few aspects I could relate to. I really see lifting as a character-building technique more than anything. Everytime you throw up a rep, you get a little more confidence in yourself.

    Again, great read

  14. “When I see guys working out for cosmetic reasons, I see vanity exposing them in the worst way, as cartoon characters, billboards for imbalance and insecurity.”

    Why else? For fun? On the off-chance you get into a fistfight? To prove to yourself that you’re tough?

  15. One of the best articles I have ever read.
    So much is said about training and life in this short essay.
    More than 10 books I could read.
    Very inspiring.
    Just awesome.
    Ian Duckett.

  16. Great stuff. I first read this in ‘Black Coffee Blues Pt 2: Do I come here often?’ Hank is a real hero of mine, his music and writing and spoken word have helped me get through some very heavy times.

    He’s the reason I started lift weights and shows how you can’t use age as an excuse to stop.

  17. Love this article . . .I too had a subscription to Details all through highschool. I graduated in ’94 (having never touched the iron) and started lifting my freshman year in college, thanks in part to this article. To this day I have a simple olympic set that has been with me through at least a half-dozen moves (anyone who has helped me move hated me for this!) I also know what it’s like to get picked on in school, and what it feels like the first time someone looks at you and tells you “hey man, you got some big guns.” Thanks to Henry and Ross for this.

  18. I’ve been working out for a few years. But I have no training or no guidance. Right now I am learning how to do it right and it feels so good. I see my future unfolding. It feels so great. This essay is very motivational for me.

  19. My favorite lines are the very last two. “Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”
    Awesome!!! Thanks Henry and thanks Ross for posting the essay.

  20. “I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend.It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”


  21. this comes up at a time when i have to check my ego and listen to what i am being told. ego maintains a fools perspective and you never learn the lessons that are being put before you.

    cheers ross. greatly appreciate that you resonate with this and so do a lot of other people.

  22. I love this essay so much!! and the verse I like most is ‘Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind’ cause it’s how I’m feeling right now, and people think I’m crazy.

  23. Thank you for sharing!

    I used to listen to Rollins band when I first started working out as a young teen. I never read this before. It’s like the thought coming out of my head at the time!

  24. Thx Ross for sharing this with me/us.
    I have always liked Rollins but never read this before.
    So once again thank you from cold cold Sweden :)

  25. Hi Ross,
    Once again thank you for sharing this , I have been home from the gym for 3 hours and im itching to go back, I loved the story and its very true how it makes you feel. When i started out just over a year ago i never even knew about strength training, now its one of my favourite things I love the feeling you get . Thanks i enjoyed it .

  26. Ross, thanks for sharing this. I read and reread this article over and over again.

    But I never found something related to Henry Rollins training philosophy, is there an article or something?

  27. Rollins is interesting- I heard him on a talk show that’s good about Americas downward spiral called the Alex Jones Show- their site is and Henry was on the show. They were talking about in control and as macho rocker as be is be has some of that California hated community trust finder limousine liberal mentality
    Via him saying- civilians shod not own assault rifles like AK 47s. I find his site, email him saying that’s not so we all need an AK if things get really twisted, he emails me back, I email him and although we disagree it was cool because the tone wasn’t anal retentive intellectual or boisterous hostile talk show virulence but rather humorous banter and agreeing to disagree. Rollins strong will and great sense of humor left a positive impression on me and although I was never into his work I gotta say as a person I thought his mind set was real cool.

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