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.
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.]
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.
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.
At 6 am on December 21st, I stood outside my job, at David Barton Gym Limelight. There was a padlock on the door, and a note saying that the gym, the entire franchise, was closed. Effective immediately.
Permanently. Just like that, I had no job.
I won’t try to summarize my whole year – it would take a while, and it would not be that interesting to read (I don’t find lists of events that compelling, even if they are about me). But, 2016 was crazy, right? That is the pop culture consensus. Sad. Savage. Lit. Woke. A whole bunch of other strange adjectives we made up (language is a living creature, yo). Personally, this year, was incredibly challenging, fun, scary, joyful, and full of adventure. It was pretty great for me, in some obvious ways (heyyy Mark!) and in some less than obvious ways (bombing at Nationals, being stressed about money).
In striving and achieving and falling short of various goals, I learned a lot about how I learn, and about who I am. I fell in love. Like, really in love. We just celebrated our one year, and that is very rad.
That has demanded more vulnerability, more change, and more scary raw emotion than I ever realized.
I got a lot stronger physically, and mentally. I got bigger, physically, and emotionally. I got more uncertain, and more positive.
It was a really full year, and it seems incredibly appropriate that it end with one more paradigm shift/mega-life-change.
You know that somewhat childish fantasy we all have occasionally, that one day you’ll wake up and go to work but work doesn’t exist anymore? Just, poof, no job! And you’re like “Yes, snow day! Forever!” Well, that happened.
The events are still unfolding. David Barton Gym is liquidating. They gave us no notice, at all. We, the former employees of DBG, are still waiting for our final paychecks (which would have been issued December 25th had things progressed normally), and it seems like everyone has been scrambling to find a new job and get themselves and their clients set up somewhere new. I know I have. The first 36 hours after the shut-down, I spent almost entirely on my tablet (did I mention my phone died the Tuesday night prior? Good timing!) emailing my clients and colleagues, trying to make plans.
In the aftermath, a lot of people have been asking me “Oh my god, are you OKAY?” and declaring that what had happened was terrible (it was) and unethical (also true) and bizarre (yeah, I felt like I was in the Twilight Zone, standing outside that gym in the dark of the morning, with no one around and no idea what to do next). I was incredibly touched by how many people reached out to me; I am very grateful to have the support system that I do.
It took a few days for the loss to set in, but I wasted no time. I found somewhere to train my clients, and I ended up only really taking two days off of working, which was a relief.
Being a personal trainer, like any essentially freelance job, has many degrees of insecurity, but when you work out of a big box gym, you feel like you have consistent work, even if that’s not strictly true. I learned a lot working for DBG, and I will forever be grateful for the ways it has changed me and for the people it brought into my life (hey clients! You are the best). When it sank in that I no longer had an employer, I felt a bizarre mix of emotions – relief, astonishment, amusement, sadness, confusion. I also realized that all that much-vaunted job security was, in many ways, a total lie.
Nothing is certain. Anything can happen, at any time. This is terrifying, but it can also be freeing.
I am excited because I am learning how to cherish the unknown. When you have a certain type of job or lifestyle, it becomes easy to believe that things will always be a certain way, or you will always experience certain kinds of outcomes. For me, this manifested as my expectations trapping me into certain patterns that were not necessarily benefiting me.In some ways, even though I wanted so much more, I got complacement.
While I will miss David Barton and the people I worked with, I am grateful for this opportunity to recreate my expectations for how I work and how I run my life.
By acknowledging that tomorrow I could wake up and my whole life could be different,that that can happen at any time, in any infinite number of ways, I remind myself to be grateful.
To stay present and not assume or take my future for granted.
That I have no ability to predict what will happen around me.
That I am strong beyond my own comprehension, and that when these catastrophes or miracles or freak accidents occur, I will adapt, I will grow, and I will continue to live.
That I control how I engage with my life.
That the greatest gift I can keep giving myself is not worrying about what happens to me, but trusting that I will come through any “what” having learned more about myself or the world around me.
How does one deal with the constant ghost of the unknown?
I have started to be able to answer that question confidently.
My year was about learning myself more deeply, understanding what I need in order to grow, understanding how to better care for and love myself, understanding that I DON’T KNOW what is going to happen next, and that is okay. No one does.
So I am going into 2017 with my eyes open, grateful and excited for how next year changes me. The end of 2017 will see me a completely different person, just like the end of 2016 did. And I am grateful and excited.
Happy New Year.
P.S. I also looked at a lot of memes, but I don’t know that that is a good thing.
I read a post on This is Female Powerlifting that I enjoyed; wrote a whole thing and then realized I had a blog post! So let’s talk about external validation and wanting to look a certain way (maybe because of said validations, maybe not!).
I empathize with the writer’s many points and she touches on some things that I have also noticed in the lifting world and without. There is a laudable endeavor to transition away from making conscious assumptions about bodies’ capabilities based on observation and preconceived ideas/bias about what an athletic strong body ought to look like. I appreciate that in its complexity and I think general good-intent. The author expressed anxiety about having that view while still wanting to look a certain way, and being conflicted about that, so I write this to share my on take on this topic (and of course, welcome discussion!). Anyone who has spent any time in strength sports knows that those strong and capable bodies look like lots of different things. But I think it’s okay to want yours to be one thing while not holding that standard for everyone else.
I also sympathize with the author in that I was not ever categorized as “athletic” growing up. Now (in part to compensate), I actively endeavor to “look strong” – that is, to look visibly muscular. I find the aesthetic attractive and desirable for reasons that are more about telling a story with my appearance than about generally appearing sexually “desirable” (something usually assumed to be a root cause when it comes to how women present themselves,not without cause). My narrative is sometimes about demonstrating that I am strong – big muscles on women aren’t common, and thus I may automatically be labelled an “uncommon woman” as well as a strong one (as well as potentially less flattering things). I like it, and it makes me feel good and powerful. It’s something I am happy to invest extra energy into, and I utterly respect that many people choose not to/don’t want to/etc.
I do not assume that my goal is every female lifter’s goal, and I also make an active effort not to assume I know something about someone’s body based on its appearance (my work and experiences have taught me that those assumptions are often wrong). However, people are always going to have general assumptions about basic visible characteristics. Most people also don’t know enough about strength training or muscle in general to know that you can lift hundreds of pounds and not look like a physique competitor. That may very gradually be changing, but it’s going to take a while (I am happy to contribute to changing it).
I don’t think anyone needs to feel guilty or conflicted about wanting to look a certain way; it is a pretty basic human concern. We make millions of unconscious decisions based on what we see, and wanting to control or design your visible body is really, really understandable and it doesn’t make you a narcissist, or not hardcore enough about strength. It also doesn’t mean you tacitly endorse judging people based on how they look. It just means you care about how YOU look, and that is okay. It doesn’t make you anymore vain than the average person, and it doesn’t make you anti-feminist, or exclusionary to people with different goals and bodies. It also seems unrealistic to expect oneself to cast off all desire for external validation, especially regarding something you work really hard for. If a stranger looked at me and said “I bet you have a really fast Farmer’s carry,” I would BE SO FLATTERED. I also do not live for that to occur. I can be pleased by the external validation of an old coworker telling me my arms are getting bigger but also self-validate. For some of us, this may be something we have to practice, and that’s okay.
Your goals are YOUR GOALS and you do not owe to the world to tailor your goals or your desires to appear a certain way to anyone but you. Of course, many women are under a variety of pressures with regard to our appearances, many of which can be incredibly damaging. That is not what I am talking about (and is its own topic deserving of LOTS more discussion, of course). I am saying if you want to get jacked to “show” people you lift, GO DO IT, it won’t hurt anyone else, and it might make you feel great. It’s okay to enjoy external validation. It is clear that that cannot be your only motivator; that’s not healthy or reasonably sustainable (and for something as difficult as bodybuilding, external motivation probably won’t get you far). But you don’t have to throw the gainz-baby out with the old wheywater (<—trying desperately to make a lifty joke huehuehue).
I would love to hear other women’s thoughts on the article, as well as their take on getting external validation/learning to internally validate their progress, which is something we could talk about at length!)
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.
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.