February 7th, 2015 is an auspicious date for me. It was the day I walked down the stairs into the Ximen World Gym and signed up for a membership. I started with the things I was familiar with: running, bicep curls, kettlebell swings. Soon, the draw of the weight room was too much and I started powerlifting. In the year from when I first started, my programming has become much more balanced and a lot smarter. I’ve gotten stronger and more confident. At 30, I look better than I ever have. And I’ve picked up a lot of things that I’m finding useful in my life. Here are the lessons I’ve learned:
A Life in Cycles
There are patterns to be discovered in the weight room and they become more and more obvious as time goes on. The most apparent comes in the form of rest. Five reps, rest. Three reps, rest. One rep, rest. Exertion and relaxation are opposites, but they work together in getting stronger. Similarly, we use periods of intense concentration and focus to accomplish things in our lives, but these bursts of energy require a balance in the form of leisure. Unless aneurisms are your thing.
Cycles come through athletic lives constantly. We bulk and we cut. We scale the weight up and down. We breathe in and out. But the one takeaway that we can all learn is that things begin and things come to an end. Adversity is only temporary. So too is success. There is no resting on our laurels or despairing at a failure because this cycle will end and another one will begin. And it deserves your full attention.
Time Under Tension
Here’s a simple concept that can paralyze the best of us: Everything gets easier the more you do it. I remember my second time getting under the bar to bench press. Earlier in the week, I had rocked through a set of three at 95 pounds. I didn’t find it very difficult. This time, I put a plate on each side for 135. It went down, and stayed there. I roll-of-shamed my way out from under the bar and learned something new. We don’t rise to meet challenges. We challenge ourselves to see how high we can rise.
I had that backwards for a long time and I get a constant reminder of it every time I hit the gym. A plateau is only a plateau if you’ve stopped working towards breaking it. My squat hasn’t moved from 305 in a long while, but the more time I spend repping out 285s, the sooner I’ll break into the three-plate promised land. This holds true for everything we do. Where there is discomfort and stress, we find ample opportunities for growth.
I’ve written about injury before, so I’ll keep this short. Do the responsible thing and stay off whatever it is that hurts. I wear my injuries with pride. I tell my friends about this scar and that one. I complain about my shoulder and my foot. Soreness is a reality for everyone, but acute pain needs to be managed. In life, we deal with little problems on a daily basis. Your coworker makes too much noise sometimes. Your alarm clock didn’t wake up you on time. This is the soreness of life. If you find an acute source of pain in your life, something that is affecting you negatively on a consistent basis, triage it. Manage it. And don’t be afraid to manage it right out of your life.
I don’t mean getting your ass to the gym at 5AM. I don’t mean setting goals. These things are for grown-ups. Let’s start simple, shall we? PUT YOUR SHIT BACK AFTER YOU’VE FINISHED USING IT. I honestly thought this was only a problem in Taiwan, but after going home this summer and working out in a gym in Arizona, it has become clear that this a problem the world over. If you can’t re-rack your weights, you’re just not the kind of person anyone should want in their life. And you never will be.
There’s a guy I see about once a week. He’s fat. He clearly has no idea what he’s doing. He grabs a 90-pound dumbbell, stands with it at his side, and rocks it an inch back and forth. In his mind, I’m sure he’s doing curls. But you know what? When he finishes his three “sets”, he puts that dumbbell back on the rack right next to its 90-pound pair. And to me, he’s a more worthwhile human being than the meathead benching three plates and can’t be bothered to re-rack them.
A Quiet Mind
A year ago, I was living inside my own head. I was thinking about her. You know the one. Maybe you’ve still got thoughts of her bouncing around your head. Maybe it’s not her. Maybe it’s other people’s opinions. Maybe it’s your opinion of yourself. Here’s the thing: An over-active mind is a symptom of an unchallenged body.
Strive to be tired and sore constantly. Don’t give your mind a moment to butt in with doubt or focus on the things you can’t control. Exhaust your body so that your only concern is, “Where can I get the food and water I need to survive?” Get so tired that your only worry is, “What time do I need to go to bed tonight to get nine hours of sleep?” Be so sore that your only thought can be, “How can I get through today most efficiently?” Go back to the basics. Leave no room for unhappiness or regret. Rely on your instincts and don’t give in to hesitation. Be exactly who you are meant to be.