12 Life Lessons I Learned in the Gym

Everywhere I look, I see people in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle.  People of all ages, from every walk of life, are searching for something that I’m not even sure they can name or define.  After all if, when I ask them, as I often do, to define health or describe the healthier lifestyle they’re looking for, they often can’t.  Perhaps they assume they’ll know it when they see it.  So what is it they are really looking for?  Some will say they want to lose weight.  Others point to a body part they want to improve in some way.  But more often than not, they just want improvement.  Any improvement.

Sometimes, people conceptualize this improvement as a better, different version of themselves.  They think of the improved Self as though it were disconnected from the current Self—as though the goal were to become an entirely new person.  And I wonder if this isn’t why, when someone wants to improve, the first place he or she looks is to bodily improvement.

I have studied body theory extensively—Foucault, Butler, and Bordo are a few of the theorists who have shaped my own understanding of how we think about our bodies.  A big part of my interest is in understanding the relationship between the body and the mind. Why do we equate improvement of the body with improvement of the inner Self?   This question had me stumped for quite some time, and had a lot to do with my choice to stop competing and training clients.  I tend to think of my internal Self as totally separate from my physical Self—so I generally do not associate the changes I make to my body with improvements to my inner Self.  I stopped training people for this reason.  They would come to me for help, asking for “discipline,” “transformation,” “happiness,” and “health,” treating it as though changing their bodies would change their lives.   They came to me because they wanted to become someone different.  This drove me absolutely crazy!

However, after having been asked the same questions over and over, I have begun to learn from them.  For instance, people ask me how I wake up and go do cardio at 5 a.m., or how I follow a strict diet plan, or how I push myself through training when I’m tired.  I have begun to realize that the qualities they find admirable are less about my ability to build my biceps and more about inner qualities that can be applied outside of the gym.

Perhaps my physical Self, my body, is indeed reflective of—or at least tied to—my inner Self.  My “Real Self,” as I call it.    What a concept!  I have spent all of this time arguing against the idea, striving to be recognized as a person with a deeply spiritual side and a strong intellectual side, desperate to separate myself from my body.  I wanted so badly to believe that the gym is just what I do and not who I am.  But is it so bad to accept that there is a connection?

So, while I apologize for the extended break between posts, I have to admit that it has taken me two weeks to identify the following list.  I can apply this list to school, career, relationships, parenting, or anything else life throws at me.

12 Lessons that Training Has Taught Me About Life.

  1. If I can push myself through the first two weeks, I can reach a long term goal.  Discipline is temporary—after that, it gives way to habit and then it becomes easy.
  2. The ten seconds it takes to push out those two reps I don’t want to finish will feel like failure if I give up.  Ten seconds of work, or the lasting feeling of failure…hmmm, tough call.
  3. There is a rhythm to my moods and my motivation.  It’s ok if I don’t “feel like it” every minute of the day.  This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human.  Go through the motions until the motivation comes back.   And I NEVER make any decisions while I’m in a bad mood.
  4. I’m not immune to the Voice of Failure (a good friend of mine refers to this voice as the “bitch fairy”).  Instead of fighting it, I have gotten used to it.  The trick is to KEEP MOVING.  I can think of a million reasons not to go to the gym at 5 a.m., and sometimes I make the list as I’m getting dressed and driving over!  It keeps me occupied when I’m tired.  And I can laugh about it later.
  5. I don’t judge myself in terms of success or failure.  If I miss a personal record, oh well.  I let it go.  Holding on to that as a failure only takes away from the next one.  But I let go of my successes just as quickly—focusing on today’s win takes away from tomorrow’s goal.  I can’t operate on forward momentum or every bad day will hold me back.
  6. I take myself seriously enough to put forth a serious effort, but not so seriously that I go into tunnel-vision mode.  A cookie is still just a cookie.  Which brings me to the next point:
  7. There is a time for everything.  It’s ok to have a bad day, to eat an entire sleeve of oreos, to not train, to get pissed off, to cry, to feel negative.  But the key is to remember that it’s a part of a cycle, and it will get better tomorrow.
  8. I don’t see myself as being on a journey to become a new person.  When this journey is over, I want to be this person, with improvements.
  9. I don’t see myself as being at the bottom striving for the top.  It’s ok to move laterally, to make small improvements and to be content with how things are.  In terms of fitness, this could mean getting used to my off-season weight and feeling good in that package.  If we are constantly fighting an uphill battle, when will we ever rest?
  10. As I tell clients in contest prep, “trust the system.”  I understand that there is a process, and I trust that process.  I will get what I put in.  12 weeks out of a show, I want to see the finished product NOW.  But as many people in the fitness industry say, “the legs and glutes always come in last.”  Well, certainly this translates to other aspects of life, right?  I can’t have everything right now.  If I had skipped the work, I would have a degree and no knowledge.
  11. I do not compare myself to others, and I do not motivate myself with negativity.  I do not look in the mirror and tell myself that I need to get my fat ass in the gym.  How is that constructive?  But I also don’t look to images of other fit women as motivation either, because that is a dangerous road that often doesn’t end well.  My best package is unlike anyone else’s.
  12. I can’t have my “best package” all the time.  I have to accept that my best takes on different forms.  Competition has taught me that it takes hard work to reach that particular best—work that is so hard, it can’t be sustained all year long.  So there have to be other goals throughout the year.  There is a time to strive for single digit bodyfat, and there is a time to simply feel good and let my body recover.  I have to embrace both times equally.
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