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.
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.
Sometimes nothing in particular is wrong, YOU just feel wrong. Unsure, unconfident, like you’re making the wrong choices. Sometimes you get stuck there for days, weeks. Everything you say sounds wrong. Every decision you make seems like a terrible idea.
Ah, anxiety you sure know how to make life suck for absolutely no reason.
If you’re like me, and anxiety is not a constant battlefield so much as an annoying ex roommate who drops in to visit with no forewarning text, then you can probably relate.
It goes like this: One morning you wake up and feel like your brain got spun around inside your skull, and everything you do SUCKS. You start messing up small things, and then leaving your wallet at home and having to add 20 minutes to your commute to go back and get it suddenly feels like a metaphor for how you should have picked a different major in college and oh God that guy you’re into really secretly thinks you’re disgusting and you’re a talentless failure that no one will ever love.
Yes, non-anxiety-havers, it’s THAT dramatic sometimes.
And if you’re a lifter like me, sometimes anxiety sounds like this:
“You can’t get your legs into your deadlift. You suck at deadlifting. You will always suck at deadlifting. Why do you compete again? So other people can see how bad you suck? Who the fuck do you think you are? Why do you even bother?”
Yyyyyupp. One of my favorite not-so-inspirational inspirational quotes is from famous British curmudgeon-quipper Winston Churchill:
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Well, damn, okay then. But how does one do that, when to keep going exacerbates the panic in your brain?
1. Stop Caring
Make a deal with yourself to temporarily suspend all fucks-giving. All caring about The Big Picture of Your Life. Decide that for the next 24 hours (or however long it takes), you will make no value judegements about your life in the larger sense, no decisions about any future course of action, and make no opinion about your life. This alone is very hard, but if you can at least attempt that, move onto Step 2.
Clean your kitchen. Write some boring work emails. Call the plumber. Train and do your best to forget the reps and the amount of weight on the bar. Right now it doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting yourself to a better state of mind. Will any of these one things cure that anxiety, that gnawing sense of misplacement, of ongoing error, of confusion? No, not necessarily, but they may give you something to focus on that isn’t your Whole Life and Every Choice You’ve Made So Far. Or your next competition. Or your next career move. Or whatever Anxiety the Annoying Ex Roommate is choking up your brain with. Once you’ve done a few small things and feel remotely functional, move on to Step 3.
3. Finish Something
Once you have met your basic needs, a sense of well-being, accomplishment, and confidence is really only acquired one way, through finishing something. So in the effort to redirect your mental and physical energy away from your anxiety, pick something you like doing, but pick the very simplest easiest version of it. I’m talking “You could do this with the flu, on an empty stomach, blind-folded and on no sleep” level easy. Do it once. Then do it again. Then maybe make it a little harder or more elaborate and keep doing it.
If your powerclean is making you feel like a total idiot, do some lat pull downs. And fucking MURDER THOSE LAT PULL DOWNS. Make them the greatest pull downs to have ever been pulled down. Feel that shit deep in your arms pits, deep in your soul. Or wherever. You know what I’m saying.
The point of this is to give yourself a focus, a task, and then an easy win. Lots of easy wins eventually turn into moderate wins, and into hard wins.
So on top of the more long term solutions to anxiety (seeking profesional help, medication, meditation practice and other methods of coping/living with anxiety), sometimes it’s the really normal small stuff that will save you. Routine. Discipline. The work. This is part of why I am such a big believer in having a specific and simple daily routine. It can be the lifeboat you need when you feel like your ship is a hot damn mess of holes.
If hell for you right now is your power clean, then get it done, and move on to something you know you can knock out of the park. If hell is your creative passion (writer’s block whaattuppp!!), write a grocery list. Then write a list of your favorite colors. Then a word association game. If hell is something you feel like you “should” be better at, pick the kindergarten version and do that until you start to feel like yourself again.
Anxiety sucks. It takes and takes and doesn’t care how much of your precious energy it steals. So reclaim your energy and put it back into yourself.