You want to change your life, but can you change one habit?
Lofty goals and ambitions are inspiring, but they can be confusing and even demotivating if we don’t have the tools to achieve them. It’s great to aim high, but if you’re not investing in learning and mastering the small steps, you may find yourself frustrated and going nowhere.
For example, if you decided you wanted to get more involved in your local political scene, wouldn’t it make sense to introduce yourself to your neighbors, or take a public speaking class? Those may sound like small actions, but they are ACTIONABLE (they are something you can do) and relate directly to the main goal of running for office.
So if your goal is to get bigger shoulders, or more muscle definition, you need to choose actionable goals, that will carry over to your big goals. For changing your physical aesthetics, it may be something simple and hard like going to bed early enough to get 7-8 hours of sleep consistently. Can you do that for 2 weeks? Great. Now can you add a serving of vegetables to every meal? Awesome. Now can you increase your gym frequency from 2 to 3 days? Fantastic. You are making small, action based changes that contribute back to your long term goal of getting in better shape.
Many of us were taught to dream big, but never learned how to think consistency. This is hard, and it looks like simple, unglamorous, daily work. Almost everything worthwhile I have ever done was the product of simple, relatively uncomplicated, CONSISTENT time put in.
If you want to change your life, pick simple tasks, and master them, show up for them. And every time you achieve consistency with one skill, reward yourself by picking up a new one. Some of these skills you can try to learn simultaneously (increasing gym frequency and veggie intake, for example), but beware the temporary gratification of doing fifty new things at once – you’ll feel like a new person for a few days, maybe longer, but change IS HARD, and if we take on too much at once, the temptation to abandon it all when we start to burn out can be overwhelming.
Start slow, and take it daily. Every day counts, every day you do something for yourself by building discipline will add positively to your life.
Let the simple actions guide you to your greatest potential. They will.
“Listen like you are an animal in the forest,”
Steve was my first year acting workshop teacher, specifying in a practice called “Meisner,” based on the theories and exercises created by Sanford Meisner. Without getting bogged down in actor lingo, I’ll try to describe parts of the Meisner method and how it ended up translating into practical techniques in athletics and fitness years later.
“Listen like you are an animal in the forest,”
What image springs to mind for you? A rabbit, a big cat? Eyes wide, ears twitching, breath shallow and excited? Electrically still, ready to pounce? Steve used these images to describe something called “ACTIVE LISTENING,” which simply meant that you, the actor, were really paying attention to what your scene partner was doing.
Active listening would also be a great way to describe some forms of meditation – focusing so intently on the present that your mind clears and you are able to react to what is presented to you.
The point of this as an acting exercise was to enable the actors to respond truthfully to each other, and without preconceived notions of what the other person would do, or what “should” happen in the scene.
How many times have you cut someone off mid sentence because you thought you know what they were going to say or ask? Has that approach ever really helped grow a relationship, professional or personal? In my experience, not usually.
The way that we practiced and warmed up in Meisner class was with an acting exercise were we made a simple factual observation about our scene partner, and they would repeat it to us – “you’re wearing a blue shirt,” “I’m wearing a blue shirt,” and back and forth, letting the words change as our reactions naturally changed based off of the other person’s being and reactions. The idea was to let the words change, but not TRY to change them – we were trying to access honest reactions by truly paying attention to what was going on with our scene partner, and letting our responses organically grow from that interaction.
This is something I have been trying to practice in my coaching lately – not literally repeating the words that my trainee says, but renewing my attention constantly to how they are moving and what are they doing – actively listening with my ears and eyes and attention. By treating every moment with them as if I’m seeing their movement for first the time, I will allow myself to stay fresh in how I view their progress – I never want to get too comfortable and let them go through the motions. I need to be as present as I want them to be.
This idea of total present-ness helps me as an athlete too. In my warm ups I can practice this attention giving with myself – am I feeling my feet on the floor? Am I connected to my breath? Have I checked with my body, really?
“The text is your greatest enemy.” – Sanford Meisner
Meisner warned against getting mired in what the script says – it can chain the actor to preconceived notions of what “should” be happening, rather than allowing honest emotion to guide the play.
It’s easy to get attached to what you think your clients feel and want, rather than what they actually feel and want. It’s easy to get attached to what you “should” be able to do, rather than honoring what you can do in that moment (Ever say “that squat should have felt easier, it’s only 75%,” or,”that should have been faster/more explosive/etc”? Those critiques often mire us down in the numbers rather than focusing on making our performance the best that it can be that day).
It’s been my experience that the ability to listen is one of the most underrated skills you can have, and what I mean when I say “listen,” is this full body moment-to-moment awareness of the trainee and of yourself. We will not achieve that 100% of the time, and we don’t have to. But if we strive to, we will improve our abilities (this type of mindfulness carries over to many if not most areas of life, in my experience).
This listening is literal. The best, most effective workouts in the world won’t matter if your trainee feels ignored and lacking validation of their efforts and concerns. Coaches are supposed to be there in a supportive and guiding capacity, and while it is our job to make the hard decisions about the program, progress, etc, if we do that while ignoring our client’s feelings and perceptions, we may find ourselves losing trainees and not understanding why. We may lose our own focus and perspective of our progress if we are not actively listening to ourselves week to week and month to month as athletes. Are we talking about progress with our coaches? Are we journaling or noting or tracking how different workouts effect us or describing and paying attention to other important variables like diet and sleep?
My experiences in talk therapy were invaluable to helping me grow this understanding of the importance of listening – my memories of therapy are fairly vague, but I overwhelmingly remember the RELIEF I felt at finally have a place to unburden myself without fear of judgement or social reprisal. And now looking back at my acting school experience, I realize that what the Meisner technique explored was in fact a practical means of accessing mindfulness and awareness of the people we work with, and giving them that potentially healing attention, as well as giving it to ourselves.
While coaches are not therapists, we do have a similar obligation to our clients to create a place for them to open up, explore and grow, and we won’t know how to do that without listening to them attentively. Listen to your clients, your colleagues, your partner, your friends – with your whole head and body and heart. It may be exactly what they need, and maybe what you need too.
You can help me make the second episode by donating a few bucks (or a lot of bucks) HERE.
The show is 20 minutes long, and we are gearing up to shoot an additional five episodes – a complete season of original mayhem for your viewing pleasure. I cannot wait.
We start shooting Episode 2 this week.
THE SEASON OF STRONGWOMAN
This weekend, I fly out to San Clemente California to compete at the IHGF All-American Strength Games 2017, which is a qualifier for a big competition hosted in Norway next summer (The IHGF Stones of Strength World Championships, to be precise). It’s gonna be a blast.
In about one month, I go to Las Vegas to compete for the 160 lb MW Women’s National title, and to qualify for the Arnold Classic. I feel 10 times the competitor I was last year, and I’m really excited for this show. I’m blessed to be able to go and have some family come see me compete on the national stage. Nationals is November 10th and 11th.
THE OFFICIAL STORNGMAN GAMES PRESENT: WORLD’S STRONGEST WOMAN & MAN
I did not think that within two years of starting to compete in strongwoman I would be able to compete alongside the strongest women on the planet, but the lifting gods were feeling generous. Through the orchestrations of promoter and all around rad dude Lynn Morehouse of Train Strongman, I, and about 20 other amateurs in the middleweight class, will get the chance.
We entered an online qualifier, submitting 3 lifts to certain specifications, and Official Strongman and Morehouse took the top 20 in each weight class. I tied for 5th among the middleweights. I’m going to Raleigh, NC to compete, the weekend before Christmas.
Historically, WSW and WSM have not been hosted simultaneously, nor have all weightclasses been represented. Official Strongman and Train Strongman are billing this as the Strongman Games: World’s Strongest Man and World’s Strongest Woman, and it will be a first in the history of the sport both in size and representation across the sexes and divisions. It’s a big deal and it’s going to be a remarkable event. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go and participate.
So I now have three competitions before the end of the year (WSW will be my 19 strongman competiton and 20th strength sport event). Because these events are so close together, there won’t be much more training. I mean, I will train, drill the events and stay active, but there’s no more time to get strong, only rest and prepare. It feels like a karmic reward for taking time this summer to simply build and rest and be patient. I am grateful beyond description.
My writing is the only thing I’ve been neglecting this summer, but I have a few drafts waiting patiently to turn into full fledged pieces and I’ll hopefully carve out some time soon to let them bloom.
In the meantime, I have some giant stones lift and a TV show to produce.
Make sure you’re following me on Instagram and also following @Ashertheseries for show updates.
I’m at a point now where lifting feels like a relatively simple and routine part of my life. But lo, it was not always so! I like to remind myself that the great stuff sometimes didn’t feel great until I had given it time – learning something new is often accompanied by the growing pains of discomfort and uncertainty.
When I think back on my earliest ventures into the weight room (all of about 4 years ago; I’m still a newb in many ways), I don’t wish I had done anything differently (wishing is a waste), but there certainly a few things that would have been good to know that I took a while to get wise to.
Here are my top lessons on being a newb.
ASK QUESTIONS AND REMEMBER IT’S OKAY TO NOT KNOW SHIT
I am very shy about asking questions. I’m someone who would prefer to ask Google and parse through information myself, trying to find answers. I don’t like looking like I don’t know things (insider secret: most people don’t like looking like they don’t know things).
That fear of looking ignorant, even when I WAS ignorant, led me to ignore the brains of some very bright experts when I was around them. I missed opportunities because I was too shy and self-conscious to ask questions they would have gladly helped me with.
I try to ask a lot more these days, though it’s still something I’m working on. That’s scary, because what if someone mocks you? Well, then you’ve learned an important lesson: that person sucks. Embrace your ignorance and learn from it, but don’t think for a second that you have to let anyone condescend to you.
EXPERIMENT LIKE YOU’RE A CONFUSED CATHOLIC IN A COED SCHOOL FOR THE FIRST TIME
Experimentation is how we figure out who the fuck we are sometimes. How will you discover your true unique style if you don’t go through an awkward leotard or hat phase? The same often applies to lifting and exercise.
I’ve done lots of stupid exercises. I really wish I had a video of the time I did shoulder raises standing on a Bosu ball. Seriously (if you’re not sure why that’s funny, ask me, I will explain. See above).
Experimentation was how I discovered I liked barbell training.
Experimentation is how I went through said leotard phase.
Experimentation is what’s gotten me into most of the cool shit (and dumb shit) I get to do now. Is Intermittent Fasting effective? I dunno, try it (it was effective for me to help learn to eat more consciously as well as develop better eating habits). Does taking cold showers increase your mental discipline? I dunno, try it (I did that for a month, it sucked, but I felt like a bad mofo after). Will this strength program be a good fit for you? TRY IT.
I’m not the first person to say this, nor will I be the last: STOP OVER ANALYZING AND GO TRY SOMETHING NEW. It might become the new love of your life (Hi, Strongman!).
GET COMFORTABLE FEELING AWKWARD/SILLY/UNCOMFORTABLE
Oooh yeah, this is the sweet spot. Here’s the thing. For lots and lots of people, new shit is TERRIFYING. Your brain is all “What in the Heck is THIS?” and you’re so self-conscious that you can’t properly be present in actually doing whatever the hell it is. It’s very weird and stressful. But I have good news for you – that is true of literally almost everyone.
So if you can accept that it’s going to feel strange, accept that you will fell self conscious, and realize that that means you are LEARNING, then you will reap great rewards. As far as I’m concerned, the fear of looking silly or awkward is a cancerous leech that will suck the life out of you and prevent you from discovering unimaginable joys.
Accept awkward, accept the silly, it’s okay.
CELEBRATE DAT BODY
Your body can do a lot of crazy, amazing shit. Really. Yes, YOUR BODY. Maybe you don’t know it yet, maybe you do. I’m discovering new shit all the time (experimentation!); sometimes it doesn’t go great (I feel silly) but I realize that’s okay. It is a indescribably incredible thing, your body. And mine. And I am so so so so so so SO DAMN GRATEFUL to it. I hope you are too.
Whether you’re a newbie and have literally JUST started on your wellness/fitness/strength journey, or an advanced intermediate, or Marisa Inda (hey gurl!), it’s never a waste of energy to invest in activities or modalities that make your body feel good and either make it stronger (train!), let it have fun (drum dancing class!), or help it recover (a 90 minute massage!).
THE BOTTOM LINE (Heh, “bottom”)
Your body (ie, you) deserves respect, love, health, and the physical skills to thrive throughout your life (fitness!). There is way more to be gained by living in honor of your body than there is by being afraid of being uncomfortable.
So: ask questions, experiment, realize that comfort isn’t all that, and celebrate celebrate celebrate.
[Header image credit Kyle Herbert Photography, Train Strongman’s Mid-Atlantic Strongman Challenge in Charlotte, NC.]
If you don’t know me very well, you might not know that Strongman, my sport, my hobby, my athletic pursuit, one of my greatest passions, is a lot more to me than just something I do to stay in shape or entertain myself.
For me, Strongman has been a refuge, a place of rediscovery and a training ground for who I want to be. It is a spiritual disicpline. It has helped me cope with anxiety and depression, and helped me prevent bad habits from becoming lifelong demons.
Strongman, particularly training for competion and actually competing, is a how I endlessly dig into, reveal, develop, and learn myself. I have always needed something like Strongman, and when I found it, I no longer felt compelled to drink to melancholic rumination while chain smoking on my fire escape – I had something better to channel my angst into. And lifting gave more back to me than any physical vice ever did.
So with that in mind, I want to talk about how one of my biggest disappointments helped me get back on the road to trusting myself and becoming as successful as I can be as a competitor and as a person.
Last Strongman Corporation Nationals in 2016, I bombed, placing 37th out of 43 in the overall weight class (middleweight). It was my second time there, and like a lot of green athletes, I had big aspirations. But I didn’t have the mental methodology or trust in myself to get there.
Since then, I’ve obviously had the generic big goal of “do better next time.” Be stronger, be faster, get your head right. But what does that look like?
There are a million small pieces to these things – the obvious ones being good programming, skill practice, proper fueling, adequate recovery. I’ve been working on those consistently and I know that I just need to keep doing them.
But what about my head?
What was off last time?
A million more pieces.
Stress. A bad work environment, more stress, my old friend anxiety…and lack of belief. Lack of mental discipline. Lack of strong mental habits to reinforce my physical ones. I had contests where I was much more mentally present and calm, and Nationals was a shitstorm of bad circumstances for my head game. It wasn’t just Big Day jitters, though that was certainly a factor. For whatever the many reasons were, I wasn’t able to bring my A game, my best self – I didn’t bring who I knew I could bring, and it was devastating.
In every one of our heads, there is a running monologue, a narrative, a story that we tell ourselves about who we are, and consequently, what we are capable of. I have taken great effort to become conscious of this narrative, and conscious of the ways it both helps and hinders on every aspect of my life.
The narrative I was telling myself last October, underneath my excitement and enthusiasm, was You’re Not Enough. You’re Too Weak. You’re Too Inexperienced.
Day 1 I felt solid, and the first 3 events I completed respectably. I legitimately was not quite strong enough to do very well, but I was happy about my numbers. And then Day 2…I completely psyched myself out. There was no physical reason for my events to go as poorly as they did. I choked. I barely got the max distance 225 lbs husafell more than 100 ft (despite having taken 275 lbs for about 100 ft in training, and done at least twice that distance with around comp weight), and my keg medley was a glacial 34+ seconds (even though I had been smoking my conditioning). My poor performance on the husafell mentally destroyed me and I gave up. I wasn’t there anymore. I felt like I had let myself down and felt deeply embarrassed.
The story – YOU’RE NOT ENOUGH – came true. I lived out the unconscious mantra I had been telling myself for weeks.
I cried a lot that night and struggled to hold back tears while my friends placed topped 10 and got their Arnold invites. I was legitimately happy for them, especially my coach, who fought brutally all weekend through an injury from the first event. I was so proud of them, and it made my utter contempt for myself that much worse.
My boyfriend patiently listened while I sobbed and rambled. But out of the total mess, right before we decided to turn in, clarity happened. I say happened because it really seemed like a fairy godmother dropped into the room and tapped me with her wand, bringing me out of my self pity.
“This is what you needed. This was the best thing that could have happened. This was your worst fear, and you survived. This will make you invincible. This will give you the courage to admit what you really want – You want to win.”
I want to win.
Since I started competing, I never quite considered myself strong enough to even deserve to aspire to winning. It felt hubristic and silly and unrealistic.
But my hedging my desires didn’t make them go away. My refusal to freely admit my true and ultimate desires – to place and go to the Arnold – created a chaos and internal conflict within me that drained my energy and maybe even caused some of my error.
And the truth is, I want to win. And it feels damn good to admit it. And since admitting it, I have gotten a lot of clarity in what I need to do, and I actually feel a remarkable decrease in stress. And the beautiful thing about self-honesty is that it can snowball. In the last 8 months I have become more honest with myself about all kinds of different things totally unrelated to Strongman. Truth begets truth. Clarity begets clarity.
And ambition begets ambition.
So, since last October, I’ve done a lot of thinking. I’ve asked myself over and over, “what do you want?”
And the answers keep coming back, clearer and louder.
So the obvious next question is,
“What do I have to do to live this new story out?”
This isn’t about simply wishing I was stronger, or thinking I can will myself into my ultimate goals with magic.
This is about understanding that for me to be successful, every part of how I think of myself is important. Every part of how I treat myself is important. Everything I say about myself is important. It’s all important because ultimately it shapes the reality that I Iive out – in training, at work, in my relationships, and in competition. I believe this to be as true of training as it is of anything else – I can only create true value in what I put in the world if I truly love and invest in the value in myself. And that means being honest about everything, including my faults.
I may not be strong enough or good enough this upcoming November, but that will only be because others worked harder, and showed up stronger physically and mentally, and I am at peace with that. I am at peace because I know when I show up in November, I will have spent a year living a new narrative, creating a new mantra, a new reality:
I am enough.
I may not be the strongest, the most skilled or the most talented. But I will keep getting stronger. I will keep practicing. And maybe my goals will change, maybe other pursuits will take focus over Strongman. I’ve changed a lot in the last few years and I’m open to more change. But right now, I want to win. And I’ve just started learning who I need to be to make that happen.
It’s gonna be Not Fun. You’re going to think things like, “Wow, I’m an uncoordinated potato person who clearly has existed thus far based on luck alone,” or, “I am a shame to my ancestors,” and “Can I die now please?”
It’s okay, really. Beginning a new physical skill and fitness regimen, ESPECIALLY when you are in poor shape, is really, really hard.
And guess what? It doesn’t get easier, exactly. You get tougher, you get smarter, you become stronger, and hard work becomes a habit that doesn’t threaten you as much.
When you’re weak, it’s easy to feel the exertion and the pain and the effort and think “this sucks, I’m done,” because you would rather opt out of the difficult task than face uncomfortable truths about yourself that, maybe, threaten your ideas of who you are. It’s not fun or sexy or badass to feel your own weakness. But it is a crucial part of any kind of growth process.
It’s a mistake to look at someone who is at the pinnacle of their sport and think “Wow, it’s so easy for them, they’re so good at it…they must be gifted.” It is SO easy to look at someone strong and skilled and dismiss them as “gifted,” because it protects your ego and excuses you from taking responsibility for your fitness/skill/etc.
They might be more genetically presupposed to be good at that particular thing, and yes, everyone has different skills or abilities that they are more likely to be good at, but to be REALLY good at something, no matter what it is, you have to work really diligently and intensely. This takes incredible focus. And it’s REALLY, hard.
Cultivating a physical (or non physical) discipline that routinely challenges you is hard, but that is what makes it so empowering when you progress. You confront limiting ideas of yourself, you deconstruct your ego, and you grow.
It doesn’t get easier — but you adapt, and become stronger, tougher, more informed about yourself and more capable of meeting new challenges.
I remember the beginning, it was rough.
And it’s still rough, a lot of the time. But now I expect that, and I know how much better it can make me because I have the proof of my body, my skills, and most importantly, my attitude.
I was having some serious Fear of Missing Out (“FOMO”). A lot of my very strong friends are competing at USS Strongman Nationals this weekend.
In January, I was planning on it. Then after much reflection and a few brutal competitions in a row (and getting my qualification for SC Nationals in November), I decided I would take off as much time as I could. I discussed my plan with my coach Chad, and after a nearly 3 week deload after my last competition, here I am, mid training cycle, while my friends all go compete.
I LOVE COMPETING. I love the adrenaline, I love being on display, I love showing off, I love doing my best with an audience and and cheer squad of badass competitors around me. I love travelling, meeting new people and seeing new cities (even small unglamorous ones, what’s good Davenport, IA?). I’m really obsessed with the entire process of competition.
I love winning, both in placing and in pushing the limits of what I thought was possible. As I have improved in overall strength and athleticism, my standards have risen dramatically for what I want from myself in contest. Just participating isn’t enough for me, and the closer I get to getting good, the higher my standards get. I I want to place. I want to win.
I’m patient. I know strength takes time. At SC Nats last fall, I felt like a failure. I did okayish. I bombed on two events I thought I would smoke. I had a ton of stress in my life at the time and there were many good reasons for why my performance went the way it did (that’s another topic). But it was a great learning experience and made me really truly evaluate what I wanted and what I was willing to do to get it. I value the whole experience immensely.
So I’m not competing this weekend because it’s not part of the plan.
What is the plan? In the shorter term, it’s to string together as many uninterrupted training cycles as I can this summer, and become more specific with my nutrition, recovery and technique. It’s to continue to refine skills and improve overall work capacity and strength.
In the long term, it’s what a lot of Strongwomen athletes want: go to the Arnold, get my Pro Card.
That shit doesn’t happen overnight.
I know that to be serious competitive as a middleweight, I have to get a fair deal stronger. That’s not going to happen at the rate I would like if I’m competing every two months. The plan is less is more. The plan is build.
So I’m building. And, surprise, it’s hard! It’s hard to do repetitive work when you want to play and go for the instant satisfaction of trying for PRs and the high of competition.
So I’m writing this for everyone who is rehabbing an injury, doing a seemingly never-ending hypertrophy phase, base-building, or hell, saving money because this is an expensive ass hobby. Stick to the Plan. Build. The time will come.
The time will come, and then it will pass and there will be another goal, another peak to climb. It’s easy get to distracted by the craving for the Big Moments. It’s harder to pay attention to the minutiae of your progress on the day to day, and stay consistent. It’s harder to cherish the boring hard work and what it does for us.
But I have to cherish it. I have to savor it. This is a hobby, yes, but for me, and I’m sure for many others, it’s a discipline that is spiritually and emotionally enriching for the challenges it creates and for how it forces me to grow – how it pushes me to overcome limiting ideas about myself and to cultivate mental discipline (And being really strong is pretty nice on its own). The big goals and big moments of competition and winning are benchmarks I only get when I fully commit to my work, to taking care of myself, and to being present in every part of that process. Competing (and sometimes winning) is now the reward I get when I have been true to my work.
So I’m sticking to the plan. Because my goals are lofty, yes, but also because this is the way I have chosen to work on myself. The plan, the process, IS the goal. The discipline, the work IS the goal. I’m not missing out on anything, because when I am fully present in what I have chosen to do, when I fully show up for my discipline, I am winning the ultimate competition – the battle against self-pity, self loathing, apathy, anxiety, fear and all the other demons that prevent growth, self-determination and progress.
Since the shut down of my old gym, I’ve been settling into a very wonderful private fitness studio in Chelsea, NYC, and finding a new groove as a totally independent businesswoman. That is also pretty cool. I am also now offering online coaching for remote clients with strength, fitness and fat loss goals.
Meanwhile, I’ve been dedicating more time to writing (about both fitness and Strongman, as well as some creative film projects), and you can read some of my recent pieces at these links (you can also click on the BarBend link on the header bar), as well as here on my main blog (just scroll down after this post).
Now that my competition slate is cleared until the fall, I can spend some long, leisurely but focused training cycles on getting stronger, more conditioned, and more knowledgeable about what my body needs to continue to expand its potential (ie, don’t compete 3 times in one month). I am very excited for my competition future, but mostly just excited to get back in the gym and train after some restful time off.
I was honored to get to coach my trainee Mel through her second USAPL meet recently as well; and I had a blast doing it. It was hosted by the South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club, and was a fun and well-run event.
Stay tuned for more content, and in the meantime, check out some of these other fitness and training blogs written by some very smart humans!
Chest pains. Nausea. Body shakes. You dread working out, because this is what it means to you. Total exhaustion and PAIN.
You avoid working out, because working out means pain. UNBEARABLE pain.
But this isn’t what working feels like. That’s what being out of shape feels like.
Don’t get me wrong, an effective workout should often be challenging and uncomfortable, but once you are in good shape, those challenges FEEL different. Your body, now accustomed to hard work, relishes the opportunity to push. A hard workout, while still painful at times, is not excruciating.
I swear I recently read a blog or a Facebook post that quipped something like “You don’t hate exercise, you hate being out of shape.” If I did read that, I cannot for the life of me remember where, so if you’re reading this and you know who wrote that, please message me so I may properly credit them for inspiring THIS post. Moving on.
When you are out of shape – that is, have low aerobic endurance and are generally weak, your body almost perceives physical effort as a terrible threat.
Exercise hurts and is totally overwhelming.
It kinda feels like you’re dying.
That’s not normal. But is is normal if you are out of shape and have just started exercise. It’s not very encouraging, is it?
Let’s call this the Beginner’s Gauntlet. And the Beginner’s Gauntlet comes with more than just with physical pain.
A decently able bodied adult without injuries or significantly limiting physical handicaps should be able to get their heart rate up, plank, row, deadlift around their own body weight, and pick up and carry at least half their body weight in each hand. You should be able to balance on one foot for 10 seconds (according to His Excellence, Dan John). You should be able to perform body weight squats. You should be able to exercise relatively uninterrupted for at least 20 minutes.
These are not super high standards either – and if it sounds like they are, then I think you know what you need to do.
But how do you get past the Beginner’s Gauntlet?
Well, the first thing is acceptance. Accept that it’s GOING to suck a little bit, especially at first.
Realize that you are up to it. A few weeks or months of physical discomfort is not going to kill you.
Realize that it WILL END. This part is important – when we first start exercising, and we are in this Beginner’s Gauntlet still, we think Oh god, it’s always gonna like this. This SUCKS. Why do people do this? NOT WORTH IT. And then we quit. And we continue to feel like shit. And nothing changes.
I have a friend who recently has started training under my guidance, and we recently discussed some of the potential negatives that discourage beginners early on in the training process, and one thing stuck out to me:
The idea that you should already be good at it and you clearly just aren’t cut out for hard physical work. This is wrong. Our body are living adaptations at work and we actually crave physical challenge. If we didn’t, strength training wouldn’t work. We just have to stick with exercise long enough to remind it that this is a good thing.
But again, the Beginner’s Gauntlet is REALLY hard to get through, especially when combined with any number of mental barriers blocking you from working out (low body confidence, exercise knowledge anxiety, fear of being mocked at the gym, and on and on). I am no psychologist, so I won’t try to pinpoint what exactly makes it difficult aside from the physical “It feels like shit a lot,” but I will give examples from my own experience.
My attitude towards exercise is often reflective of my attitude toward my ability to overcome obstacles, AND the level of respect I have for my body.
When I don’t think I am capable or strong, I start to fail, I start to give up. When I feel self-loathing and don’t treat myself with respect and love, I start to abuse my body through neglect. “I hate my body, I’m too weak” — this is a horrible kind of internal warfare, sadly likely familiar to many.
Sometimes, sometimes that attitude can get you in the door to the gym…but it won’t keep you there. SO what is the antidote to hate, even hate for oneself? Here it comes, and you know it’s cheesy AND true;
Self. Fucking. LOVE.
And that can be fucking hard to muster. Sometimes it’s not there at all. This doesn’t make you a failure, it just means you’re a human being and you contain multitudes of highs and lows. Sometimes that love for yourself can be manifested as love for other people. If you don’t feel that love for yourself, maybe it can sound like “I want to be healthy and capable for my partner who loves me,” or “My community that needs me,” — you get the idea.
Love for yourself will keep you in the gym. Love will also give you the courage to fail, which you’re going to need, because you are going to fail, a lot. And that IS A GOOD THING. Because then you will realize that failure really doesn’t kill you – failure is an opportunity to get better.
In the gym, failure is an absolute necessity. In fact, I would say that the gym is one place where failure is IMPERATIVE. if you’re not failing or feeling like you are at some point, you’re wasting your time.
How long does the Beginner’s Gauntlet last? Well, it depends on how frequently you commit to exercising and how challenging that exercise. is, and how out of shape you are. There are tons of variables.
But it WILL END. And one day it you’ll wake up, go to the gym, and realize mid workout that you didn’t have to talk yourself into going. You went because you wanted to. You’re a little out of breath, but now you enjoy it. You take pride in it.
Listen, not everything in this blog will apply to every beginner. But everything in this blog DID apply to me, and if I felt these things, other people did too.
The Beginner’s Gauntlet is tough. But one thing is certain – if you keep at it, you WILL get through it, you WILL get better, and you might just even learn to love exercise. You might just learn that it’s one of your favorite things. I know, I was shocked too.
When you want to give up, stop trying and leave it to someone else, but you handle it.
We are capable of so much more than we realize, but sometimes when we work on setting personal goals, we think “Oh that’s probably too tough for me,” or “I’ll just give up eventually anyway,”
We forget all those thousands of moments when you didn’t have a choice, because it was your job or your money one the line, or someone depending on you, or a crisis and you just reacted, and even though you didn’t want to and you were scared and tired, you just handled it.
Why can’t we trust that when it comes to our own goals and our personal desires, we can handle it?
Why can’t we trust that we do have the power to handle our aspirations and the challenges they bring?
Probably because they ARE SO BIG.
It’s scary when we want something big.
And if we’re scared of it, we give ourselves the option to back out – to avoid failure, and to quit before we even start.
When the Goal is SO BIG that you can’t even wrap your brain around the How To, it makes it really easy to quit. Here are some concepts that helped me out a lot.
How do we apply that “This Is Not Optional, I WILL Succeed,” attitude that sometimes occurs naturally when we are at work or helping a loved one, to our personal goals? How do we make huge goals easier to start actually striving for?
One part of it could be in changing how we think about and prioritize our goals. If you are trying to change your body, or your career, or your habits, it takes a LOT of focus, focus that is easily robbed from us by work, friends, and the constant distractions of social media and entertainment. It’s not that ANY of these things are inherently bad, but we have to acknowledge how freely we give away our attention and thus our willpower.
When we give away our energy/willpower, it’s really easy to feel like we can’t handle it.
We lose ourselves in distractions all day, and then in the evening when we are idly dreaming about what we really want to be doing or have, we think “I’m too tired, I can’t achieve anything, I can’t handle it,” when really, you’re just wiped out. You can handle it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or even simple.
Something that I, and I’m sure many others, struggle with is prioritizing activity. There is not necessarily a Best Way to Do This, but just thinking about how you schedule your day is a great start. If you have a job with downtime, maybe there are ways you can utilize your free time better.
For example, as a personal trainer, sometimes I have an hour between clients. Am I writing? Am I responding to emails? Or am I mindlessly scrolling Facebook? Deciding what to do with those free windows AHEAD of time has been really helpful in at least keeping me mindful of what I am doing.
You should see my Google Cal, it’s ridiculous — I started scheduling those free windows. At the very least, I’ll get a reminder on my phone that reminds me of what I said would be doing.
Big goals are usually intimidating, and the more you are emotionally invested in them, the harder they can be to actually start. That fear of failure is SO REAL. Make it easier on yourself to start, and dial them back a little.
Breaking down your goals into smaller, bite size and manageable steps really helps. If that goal is “Being in Athlete Shape” and having ripped abs and defined muscles and superhuman endurance, or “writing a best-seller novel” or “Curing cancer”, then yeah, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
Maybe that “Grand Goal” (as Chris Duffin of Kabuki Strength calls them) can temporarily be:
“I want to work out twice a week consistently,”
and then even that can break down into
“Put my gym clothes on at 6 pm the second I walk in the door,”
and then that becomes
“Lay my gym clothes out before I leave for work so they are there staring at me when I come home and want to lay down,”
Noticing a pattern?
Break things down. Make them digestible. Make them actionable.
Make them something you know you can handle. Accomplishing something for yourself that you said you would do, no matter how small, builds confidence in yourself that you can do what you say you want to do.
This allows you to slowly build your goals bigger and bigger, all the while handling them with confidence and energy.
Action builds confidence. Give yourself lots of bite-sized very doable actions, and before you know it, you will build the willpower and guts to get after those Big Goals.
Get after your goals – you can handle it.
Big shout-out to my training client Jenna who’s use of the phrase “Handle it,” inspired this post.