You going to the gym tonight?
What you working out?
Chest, biceps, maybe some tris. Going to hit it hard until I fail.
Nice, I’m probably going to do some cardio tonight.
How many times have you had conversations similar to this with a buddy of yours? Maybe you guys will work out together after work, because you know, you always work out harder when you have someone spotting you to get in those extra reps. When I first started lifting weights in college, I was victim to these simple unimaginative workouts. Monday was chest day, Wednesday was leg day, etc. As I grew older and learned more about diet, fitness, and lifting, I found that working out intelligently is more important than how much you actually work out or lift. Tim Ferriss’ The 4 Hour Body opened my eyes to what we actually need to build the muscle mass we want.
Recently, I started asking myself high-level questions like why do I workout in the first place? Why do I want do build my muscle up and burn fat to achieve some optimal body composition? For most people, working out is considered a chore, and perhaps you rationalize to something along the lines of “staying in shape.” I challenge you to dig deeper; why bother staying in shape? Why do we constantly strive for more muscle, more mass, and more gym? For me, it came down to fear.
I was tall and lanky. I ate like a garbage truck and for reasons unbeknown to me at the time, my metabolism evaporated any food I ate and I stayed mostly lanky throughout high school. Once I started playing team sports, especially football, I saw how important the weight room was to many of my teammates. It was like a temple where everyone seemed to go through the motions of grunting, lifting, and sweating. I wondered whether my teenage body could even be shaped by lifting a few weights here and there. My teammates seemed to know what they were doing, but at the end of the day, I harbored this belief that you came into this world with a certain body type, and you were either built for sports or not.
I felt that working out in high school was very vain, and those that worked out just had nothing else better to do. I felt that no matter how many times I went to the weight room, I would still be the tall and lanky kid I always was, and my athletic ability was a function of the genes my parents passed down to me.
My friend Paul took me to the weight room freshmen year and actually showed me how to lift weights properly. Paul used to be a high school football player, and I could easily tell that lifting weights turned him into an athlete meant to hit and tackle other players. If there was anyone I could learn from, it would be Paul. He showed me the proper technique for curling, skull crushers, shoulder presses, and more. After our first real workout, I was exhausted, and I could barely lift my arms the next morning. After a few weeks, I began to see my body change, and I wasn’t a lanky kid anymore, I could actually look good in a t-shirt! That’s when I started going to the weight room regularly to do these workouts that made me look “good.”
I became the vain person I had once despised. I was the typical lifter; only focusing on upper body workouts and neglecting legs and cardio. I just wanted to look buff because it made me feel good and I hoped girls would notice too. Going to the gym was like getting plastic surgery. If I just did a few more chest exercises, then I could achieve some nebulous goal of looking a certain way. Needless to say, my overall fitness and diet were terrible. I was still eating pizza and bbq every day, and I couldn’t run a mile without feeling like I had to pass out.
I still had these images in my head about how I wanted to look. I would go to my company’s gym and do a lot of the same things I did in college, but I also met people who taught me about health and well-being. I learned about eating right, limiting your workouts to maximize results, and resting to regenerate your muscles. I threw away these notions of wanting to looking buff in favor of building up my endurance and having a healthy heart.
Coinciding with this new found knowledge, having a work schedule meant I had to be smarter about my workouts. I had to maximize the little time I had at the gym to get the results I wanted. There were weeks when I didn’t go to the gym at all due to work, and my drive to go the gym was sapped. Mentally, I couldn’t workout anymore for the sake of working out. I had no goal, no image of what my body should look like, and I reverted to that high school kid with the lanky frame who didn’t care about being muscular. I told myself, as long as I eat healthy enough, I don’t have to worry about working out anymore.
Since I stopped lifting during this phase of my life, I noticed my energy levels also decreased. I never felt like doing anything active–I just wanted to stay at home and watch TV or just do something sedentary. I missed all the endorphins that would fill my body after finishing a workout that made me feel invincible. I needed a goal to strive for, and I knew it couldn’t simply be to look a certain way. I turned to basketball to be the main purpose for all my workouts. I was still playing in a few leagues, and I’ve always wanted to be quicker and faster on the court, so I tailored my workouts to make me a basketball player. And it worked. I was jumping higher, running faster, and had a quicker first step. The goal was still a moving target, since all I told myself was that I wanted to be better. It wasn’t like once I scored 40+ points in a game I knew I’ve reached the top and can put down the weights. Working out became a game in my mind, where there was no win or lose situation, just better.
Looking into the horizon, I question what my goals are since I am not a professional athlete by any means. Maybe I’m still interested in looking good? Or maybe I’ve gone to the gym so much over the years to the point that not going would be like not eating or sleeping.
As I reflect more about my purpose, I started to chip away at two theories.
At the gym, I am irrevocably held accountable to me and me alone. The gym is the one place where aspects of my life become crystal clear. There is no more bullshit and pretentiousness, your abilities are laid out like a deck of cards on the table. You either lift the weight or you can’t. You can finish the rep and work until failure or you don’t. Your choices are easily broken out into two categories: do or don’t. You can’t blame your inadequacies on someone else or make excuses for the lack of will or strength. Unlike the real world where many events fall into this gray area of bullshit, the gym is a place where everything is black and white to me. It’s both simple and elegant.
They always say you are your worst enemy. At the same time you are also your best ally. I like having to rely on myself to push through a rep, and if I can’t finis the rep, I look at myself and call myself words that are usually associated with a female body part. Then, when I finally deadlift the weight I’ve been striving to do for months, I get a rush and am hungry for more. Lifting has allowed me to push beyond these mental and physical barriers I have established for myself.
I am driven by fear. Not the original “fear” of looking lanky or unmanly, but rather deeper fears and insecurities we all face in life. I am afraid of slowing down. I afraid of becoming irrelevant. I am afraid of becoming obsolete.
Fitness experts and psychologists cite studies that show exercise and lifting can help with depression, mood, and a host of other issues related to the homeostasis of your body. For me, working out gives me a conduit to face these fears and insecurities I’ve experienced throughout life. When I’m done with a set and worked to the point my muscles are failing, I face these fears head on and feel an overwhelming sense of satisfaction from being mentally vulnerable. I realize how silly and insignificant these fears really are.
Even things from my past surface during a tough workout. Feelings of rage when I had racial slurs thrown at me during elementary school. Insecurities of not being smart enough to get good grades in high school and college. My fears of not being able to finish a project on time at work. I experience the feelings resulting from these events in my life and confront and overcome them in the gym. Any of the criticism I face–from my past or present–drives me to push harder on the next rep so that I can train my mind to be more resilient.
We all experience criticism and doubt. Thank the haters in your life. They will make you stronger…literally.