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

 

HANDLE IT: Break Down and Prioritize Your Goals

Handle it.

When it gets hard, but you handle it.

When you’re tired, but you handle it.

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.

✖Whole-assed, not half-assed✖ When we decide to do something, we must really decide. In training (which almost always has some real life parallel for me) I've been working on TOTAL COMMITMENT to the task at hand. Being ferocious and completely committing to every single lift with equal intensity. This is hard. This takes practice. This takes self-care and self-confidence. You can doubt your strength and your capabilities, that is normal. But when the moment to act arrives, you have to COMMIT. Or it's not gonna happen. Excellence is a habit. Commitment is a habit. Presence is a habit. You decide your habits. It's on us to be more present in our work, in our training, in our life. It's up to us to show up and commit. #strongwoman #createyourself #trainingislife . . . . #motivation #discipline #inspiration #selfcare #womenwholift #barbend #strongman #startingstrongman #belleofthebar #sportsphotography #chickswholift #reebok #perfectnever #showup #meditation #zenandtheiron #healthyliving #weightlifting #fitfam #crossfit #badass #booty #strong

A post shared by Cara Brennan (@captainstarbuck) on

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.

Cara

Gratitude for the Grind

There are hard days. And then there are days where you feel like the universe has conspired for no particular reason to utterly upend your shit. Be grateful for these days. Greet these days begrudgingly but with an affirmative nod. Because sometimes they’re the days that have something really important to teach you. And sometimes they have come just to remind you what you’re working for.

I had a training day like this recently. It was like in a scifi movie where the heroes are being attacked by an alien ship and the captain’s like “Return fire!” and the weapons guy is like “We can’t, they’ve blown off our cannons!” and then the cap is like “Well then raise the back-up shields, we are getting clobbered!” and the crusty engineer is like “No can do, they’ve disabled our power converters!” And then you think everyone is going to die and it’s really tense, but then some deus ex machina or cleverly established earlier plot point comes along and saves the day.

My training day was like that except there was no cleverly established earlier plot point to save me. “Fire the biceps! No? What about my traps? Fried? Gods dammit, Apollo!” and so on. There was no positive thinking my way into a more powerful workout, there was no more technique to fall back on, I was tapped.

I was taken by surprise; my workouts earlier in the week were solid, and I felt fast, powerful and strong. That day was the opposite. I struggled. My body felt like I’d never touched a weight or run or pressed or pulled.

And my internal mantra was “just get through it,”

And when I did finally get through it, I was totally spent and very proud of myself. I felt that I just exercised something deeper inside of me that had nothing to do with how physically strong I was, but had something more to do with personal grit, and with the mind I will need to have when I find myself in hard situations, whether in competition or in life.

I’m not proud of the fact that I felt like shit even at the start of the workout. Running yourself into the ground on purpose because it’s the “Beastmode” thing to do isn’t smart or admirable. But I am proud of what I mentally kept choosing while in the midst of a hard session.  Our willpower is being constantly tested by the minutiae of our lives, and I embrace fiercely a moment where I can make my will stretch on my terms, to choose something hard that totally belongs to me and ultimately is going to make me better.

This is not unique to strength training or Strongman, though that is my medium. The training of willpower, cultivating personal discipline, has become so much more than a way to help me be healthier and more productive. It has become a way for me to meet myself.

When I decide, or am forced, to do something difficult, I do not fear it the way I used to, because I have grown to trust myself through my discipline. I am less of an uncertainty, I am less of a question to myself.

When I experience hard days like this, I remind myself what I’m made of, and I remind myself what I have been building all those hours in the gym. My body, yes. But also something deeper and just as important.

Now, sometimes the stress outweighs the benefit. Talking about it later with my boyfriend, he pointed out that “You know, it’s okay to just stop and go home sometimes.” In this case I am happy with what I took from the workout (including a plan to increase my caloric intake, heyyooo), but next time I’m struggling, I will make sure I stop and really ask myself if it’s worth it. I think this is especially important for strength athletes for safety reasons. Pushing yourself to such exhaustion that you injure yourself is clearly no good.

But if your day, training or otherwise is really hard and you have to dig a little deeper to get through, make sure you thank yourself and acknowledge what that digging means.

It means you’re strong and you keep getting stronger.

“DOWN”

I tried writing prose and this happened instead. First poem of 2016.

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“DOWN” – 1/4/2016

Thousands of hungry moments pushed through me by some god or some demon

Held breath, held hope, held chance, all hanging midair while I pray

DOWN – It’s over before consciousness realized it wasn’t needed

Again, faster, faster, faster, every task predetermined and strung together by ambition or insanity or arrogance or all of the above

Squeeze, hold, try again

There’s as much room for error as there is for getting back up again

DOWN – It’s your turn again, you don’t know why you’re here

Again, careful, careful, careful, every step means you’re still there and you’re still trying

Squeeze, stop, fall

Breathe, you’re still here, you’re still here, you’re still here

Thousands of  tight moments pushed through us by some devil or some angel

Caught breath, caught hope, caught chance, all crowning my feet while I rest

DOWN – It’s quiet now and the speed  is over and the noise lingers and my hearts sighs,

spent

—————–

Cara Brennan