I used to work out a lot when I was younger. My goal was to look the way Brad Pitt does in Fight Club. I never managed to do it, probably because I’d go to the gym for a few months and then get side-tracked, feel like I wasn’t putting on muscle fast enough or decide that I needed that gym membership money for delicious, delicious beer instead.
Recently though, I’ve gotten back in to it with a completely different perspective. I’m a Dad of 3 and they’re all boys and they won’t stop getting bigger and stronger. So I’m back in the gym, making sure I can keep up with them.
I’m highly motivated and feel stronger and happier in myself than I have for a long time. My perspective on the gym is totally different now than when I was a younger man and I want to talk to you about why that’s a good thing and what I’ve learned from the experience.
Modern society is obsessed with looks. We might not want to admit it, but we are. I do love the Marvel films (and to a far, far lesser extent, the DC ones) but can’t deny that the superhero movie genre has helped to promote an image of both men and women that is far removed from what most of us will ever achieve.
On our TVs, reality shows and music videos are filled with buff dudes and women that look like they need a slap and a burger (to use my wife’s phrase), with the songs themselves littered with references to various body parts being somehow described as both “tight” and “thick” at the same time. Like a well-wrapped gammon joint?
One of the most popular shows in the UK (and a few other countries too, thanks ITV) is Love Island. The show consists of a bunch of single men and women, all near perfectly proportioned, being thrown together on a hot island somewhere, wearing very few clothes and awkwardly trying to fuck each other for a few weeks. I don’t watch it, but I think that’s the gist.
If you’ve ever Googled anything about exercise of gym memberships, chances are every other ad you see on Facebook or YouTube will be someone who looks like they were carved out of solid marble telling you about their way to look like they do, whether it’s CrossFit, calisthenics or that awful Huel stuff. You know why they call it Huel don’t you? It’s meant to mean Human Fuel. That’s right – IT’S MADE OUT OF HUMANS.
So what do normal folks like us do in the face of all this human ‘perfection’? We look at them and we look at ourselves and we think “I should look like them”. So we join a gym or get some workout videos to do at home or try and go for a good old fashioned run. The most popular of these options would be joining a gym.
Fun fact: in the UK alone we waste over £500m every year on unused gym memberships. 11% of people with an active gym membership say they haven’t been FOR A YEAR. Over 20% say they’ve been 3 times or LESS in the last year. It’s worse in the US where one article I found suggested that a whopping 67% of gym memberships in the US have NEVER been used at all.
Clearly there is a problem here. Huge numbers of people who sign up with the best intentions waste a lot of money and probably end up even more despondent about their looks than they did before. Why does this happen?
Well, the most common reasons include; not getting the results they want (be it losing weight, tightening up or putting on muscle) self-consciousness, boredom and lack of energy and enthusiasm. What do these reasons say to you? That exercising is hard and people are lazy? Whilst I’m not going to disagree with you, I think these reasons tell a different story. I think people are signing up to gyms for the wrong reasons.
I’m going to propose that there are two main categories of people that sign up for gyms, and if you’re in the first category then you could well end up being amongst the ones that waste their cash on unused memberships. If you’re in the second category, however, you’re much more likely to stick with it in the face of any of the aforementioned circumstances.
The first category of people sign up because they want to look different, more like the sculpted and airbrushed versions of people they see everywhere they look. They buy in to the fact that if they follow the latest fad diet or work out like Chris Hemsworth for 4 weeks then they’ll be sorted. This doesn’t happen, obviously. It was never going to either because they have jobs or families or other real life shit going on and can’t train 16 hours a day and buy all the ‘magic Hollywood syringes*’ they want. And then they give up.
*Disclaimer: I am not accusing Chris Hemsworth of anything other than being the buffest cyclops since that one at the end of Hercules.
The second category of people approach exercise differently, and I’ll reference one of my earlier posts here about Mindset. These guys have a growth mindset towards exercising. They are not training just to lose weight or look like a superhero, they are training to run a marathon, to get promoted from the reserves to the first team, to be healthier, live longer or just for the pure enjoyment of it.
Compared to those training for looks, people who are training for growth reasons give only tiny fractions of shits about how they (or other people) might look, because they are much more focused on their journey than anything else. Training for aesthetic reasons places your focus on the wrong thing. Rather than train parts of your body, you’re much better off training your determination, your strength, speed, agility, endurance, grit, focus and commitment instead.
I’m not saying that it’s wrong to exercise just because you want to look different. I’m saying that it’s much harder to maintain this type of training over time, and refocusing on progression and self-improvement makes it less likely that you’ll give up for the reasons listed.
Let’s have another look at the reasons for quitting I listed earlier and think about how they are perceived differently when your focus is on improving in a non-aesthetic way.
Not getting the results you want
OK I’m not going to beat you over the head too much more with this but it’s worth saying again that if you’re training to look different and you don’t look any different after a month, you’ll probably want to throw in the towel.
The wonderful thing about training an aspect of yourself though, whether it’s your strength, your speed over 5 kilometers or how many sit ups you can do before you shit yourself, is that you can measure exactly the results you are getting, and you have the ability to step away from it if you’re not moving in the right direction and think about what else you could try.
When you ask yourself “what else could I try?” you’d rather the answer wasn’t “liposuction” right?
Training for growth or progression really helps to minimise the extent to which you feel self-conscious about training. Trying to exercise when you’re surrounded by people who look more like how you want to look than you do can really bum you out.
But exercising around a bunch of people who can’t possibly know how you are performing vs yourself from last week means you don’t really give a shit how they look or what they think. You’re focused on you, not them.
Every time you push that extra rep out at the end of a set, every time you feel strong enough to add another little plate to the bar, every time you shave a few seconds off your personal best, every time you sprint up a flight of stairs, every time you stop and realise just how healthy and confident you feel.
I’ll take “exciting little moments you can experience when training to get better at something” for 200 please.
Lack of energy and enthusiasm
I’ll also take “moments that help maintain your enthusiasm for training” for 500! See above.
Enthusiasm shouldn’t be a big problem as you track and monitor your progress, but lack of energy could be an issue still. Not as much so if you’re training for looks, as this type of training can make you more likely to lean towards overtraining if you’re really going for it, but you’ll probably still feel knackered from time to time.
This is where the mindset and perspective of training for progression can benefit you. You can take a week off to recuperate and know that you’re doing it to benefit your overall training goals. You won’t experience guilt from not working out and you’re more likely to take the initiative on things like extra rest (going to bed earlier) or changing up your diet to increase your energy levels as those things also fall in line with your mission to improve whatever characteristic you are training for.
Here it is in a nutshell: if you are training to look a certain way then you are more likely to give up, but if you are training to be a certain way, you are much more likely to succeed. Competing against every idealised image out there is too big of a task for most people. It is de-motivating, bordering on depressing. Competing against yourself, by contrast, is measurable, focused and empowering. Plus you always win, one way or the other.
So there you have it. If you’re wondering what my training programme looks like, it’s not complicated but it is highly focused. I do 15 minutes of cardio to warm up, 15 minutes of stretches for flexibility and preventing injuries, then I follow Joe Wendler’s 5-3-1 programme but condense it so I do two exercised per session over two sessions each week, rather than four sessions per week each focused on one exercise. Then some core work for stability and warm down and I’m out in about an hour and fifteen.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether you already use this approach to exercise or whether it’s something you think could benefit you. If you want to find more information on the Wendler programme I mentioned, you can find it here.