Listening: How Acting Exercises Helped Me Become a Better Coach and Athlete

“Listen like you are an animal in the forest,”
-Steve Perlmutter

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.

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I just wanted an excuse to use this picture [Credit: Tambako the Jaguar]
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

Sanford Meisner, Wikipedia

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.

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Making A TV Show and Going to World’s Strongest Woman, Among Other Things

What’s new? Everything.

My show is online. It’s about an exorcist helping the lost souls of NYC. It’s as exactly as rad and weird as it sounds. It’s called Asher.

Here’s the trailer.

You can watch FULL episode, for free HERE.

You can help me make the second episode by donating a few bucks (or a lot of bucks) HERE.

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Still from ASHER, Episode 1

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

STRENGTH GAMES

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.

Eating and sleeping well and reaping the benefits. Today's lifts all felt rock solid. 5×5 with the @mbpowercenter #Stoneofsteel at 165 lbs, worked on driving hard with the hips and doing a little less with my upper body, and following my chest through the push over the bar. Not only does this help me plop the stone straight down so my fielder can get it back to me faster, it prevents me from missing a good rep because I backed off too soon. #pickitup #followit #alrightalrightalright #comeherebaby #SoS #stoneofsteel #stonelifting #stoneloading #extension #pull #strongwoman #womenwholiftheavy #girlswhostrongman #strongman #strongmantraining #strongmantrainingtips #liftheavy #friyay #tgif #nystrong #powernyc #carastrong

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STRONGMAN CORPORATION NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIPS

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.

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Still from ASHER, Episode 1

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.

Whew, I am having a great fucking day. My #Indiegogo campaign for @ashertheseries has already raised $1,000 and it's only been up a few hours (which basically means we can start preproduction for episode 2) AND I did some ridiculous #strongwoman shit. I decided to do the qualifiers for the #officialstrongmangames. Here is my #farmercarry (100 ft with a turn halfway), 185.5 lbs a hand. Surprised myself on these and feel like I could have definitely hit 190-192 a hand or so, but it was pretty brutal so I wasn't about to try again. I've never done a heavy turn before so I surprised myself with this. Thanks @powernyc for the coaching as usual! #strong #strongman #womenwholiftheavy #strongmantraining #weightlifting #powerlifting #fitness #crossfit #girlswhostrongman #alpha #shirtismagic #nystrong #officialstrongman #strongmangames #strongmantraining #bodybyfarmercarry #heavyweight #nano7 #reebok #roguefitness #sbdapparell

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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.

@Regrann from @captainstarbuck – Today is the day! The link to our #Indiegogo campaign is LIVE on my bio, and if you follow the links, you can watch the whole pilot episode for free! Check it out, tell me what thought, and if you know anyone who might dig it, please pass it along. This is a work of pure love, and both the love and the work are intense. Every single bit of support counts and is so, so meaningful, whether it's just a regram or a dollar or you showing your roommate. Thank you to everyone who is making this happen! I cannot wait to show you all what's next ! @ashertheseries #ShesGotDemons #AsherTheSeries #ASHER #FRIENDLYNEIGHBORHOODEXORCIST . . . . . . . #INDIESERIES #indiedreams #occult #witchyvibes #strongwoman #womeninfilm #strengthculture #indieproducer #spoopy #halloween #fall #fallinlovewithasher #horrorfilm #director #womenwholiftheavy #art #makedopeshit #horrorphotography – #regrann

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Cara

Train Like A Newb

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.

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Throwing caution and coordination to the wind with Erika Schultze at the Train Strongman Team Comp this past April. Photo courtesy Scott Lloyd Photography (cropped by me).

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.

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Failing a 325 LB pull at NYStrong’s first competition. It lit a fire under my ass, I tell you what.

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.]

It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Get Better

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.

Photo Scott Lloyd Photography

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.

Cara

Spring Update: Strongwoman Competition, Blogs, and What’s Next

My spring has already been pretty packed; I’m sure many of you can relate.

I competed three times in April. It was bananas. I hit a bunch of personal bests, and got my qualification for Strongman Corporation Nationals this upcoming fall in Las Vegas, so that’s pretty cool.

"I sing the body electric, The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them, They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them, And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the soul.  2. Was it doubted that those who corrupt their own bodies conceal themselves? And if those who defile the living are as bad as they who defile the dead? And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul? And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?" -#waltwhitman ++++++++ Photo by @slpfitnessphotography, one of my favorite shots from last weekend. #isingthebodyelectric #strongwoman #strongman #womenwholift #midatlanticstrongmanchallenge #EuropaGames #strongmancorporation #bodyandsoul #ironmind #sacredbody #sacredlife #strengthculture #healthyliving #heavylifting #loveyourself #neckveinonpoint #makesavagethebody #girlswhostrongman #trainstrongman #hypetrain #mondaymotivation #monday

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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).

Hey, Athletes! Stop Apologizing For Selfies

Why Women (and Men) Should Use Deadlifting Straps

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!

That Grey Area – Fail A Lot

Belle of the Bar -Meet the Women of ‘America’s Strongest Adaptive Athlete’

SayerFit – Space Station Dilemma

Precision Nutrition – Forget Calorie Counting

Renaissance Periodization – Triceps Hypertrophy Training Tips

JenSinkler.com – Kourtney Thomas – How Hypertrophy Supports Strength Goals

Oh one more thing – I got to meet Bill Kazmaier!

-Cara

HEADER IMAGE  COURTESY OF SCOTT LLOYD FITNESS PHOTOGRAPHY

The Beginner’s Gauntlet: You Don’t Hate Working Out, You Hate Being Out of Shape

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.

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Baby lifter Cara. About to attempt 225 for the first time, a little over 3 years ago. Also, not that long ago.

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.

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This took a lot of practice and I ended up going the barbell route versus the yoga route or the calisthenics route. BUT THERE ARE MANY ROUTES!

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.

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This took some doin’. Also growing out bleached hair is almost as hard as getting in shape.

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.

Cara