It’s just exercise (Part I)

by Melissa, after a very bad day in the gym

I was working a strength program this fall and winter, hitting some Olympic lifts and up to two additional strength movements a day, limiting met-cons to sprint-style bursts.  Since coming off the road in late November and working hard in the gym, I’d put on at least five pounds of muscle, which was doing great things for my squat and bench and overall general happiness.  It was not, however, doing good things for my pull-ups.  I’d kind of abandoned pull-up work this summer, having fun with other stuff and neglecting my dead hangs.  As a result, I set myself a goal of getting back to five dead hangs by the end of the year – not a personal best, but a decent goal based on where I was when I started in October (which was back down to… one).  Aggressive, but I thought once our travel schedule let up and we were able to train on more regular basis, I could make faster progress. And for a while, it seemed as though I was.

Pull-Up Fail

One day in the middle of my cycle, I went into the gym for a normal training session and decided to re-test my pull-up strength.  I hopped on the bar and cranked out… one.  One dead hang pull-up was all I had in me.   This was major backwards progress!  I dropped off the bar, stomped my foot and immediately proceeded to ruin the rest of my session with negative thoughts.    “This is total (bleep).  Why am I bothering to work my (bleep) off in the gym if I’m not making any progress?  I might as well just save my time and go back to that (bleeping) Thai aerobic class.  At least then I’d be having fun.”

Dallas tried to reason with me, citing a whole host of factors that would have impacted that one day’s performance.  He rationalized that one attempt of one movement cannot be extrapolated to the big picture.   He told me to chalk it up to a tough day and let it go until tomorrow.  But after five more minutes of watching me host my own little pull-up pity party, Dallas grabbed me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and spoke three little words that have stayed with me ever since.  “It’s just exercise,” he said.

It’s.  Just.  Exercise.

Those three little words gave me pause, because for most of us, it is just exercise.  Emphasize any word you like – it IS just exercise, or it’s JUST exercise, or my favorite… it’s just EXERCISE.  Most of us aren’t professional athletes or Olympic contenders.  (I’m leaving CrossFit Games competitors out of this one, because I’d tell 99.9% of them it’s just exercise too, although that’s not a very popular position to take.)  And for those of us who aren’t professionals, for whom performance doesn’t actually make a difference to our fame or fortune, sometimes we just get a little too worked up about our workouts.  And Dallas’ admonition helped me to remember why I exercise in the first place.

I train because I love it.  I love picking up heavy things, swinging kettlebells,  moving my body and feeling strong.  I love having a goal and working towards it, checking off objectives along the way.  I love meeting people who like the same things I do, who can teach me new tricks or show me a better way to move the same object the same distance.  I love seeing my body change, watching muscles develop, seeing a few extra pounds on the scale.  I love feeling strong when I do “real life” things like snowboard or hike.  And finally, I train because it makes me happy, plain and simple.

Train, not test.

But none of those factors add up to life or death.  If I don’t make my pull-up goal, my Mom is still going to love me, my bank account is still going to look the same, the number of readers on our site aren’t going to dramatically fall off.  And, as Dallas went on to remind me, we go to the gym most days to train, not to test. So maybe that day, my pull-ups weren’t so hot.  It doesn’t mean I’m not getting stronger or better.  It just means I had a bad day, due to lack of food or sleep or yesterday’s training or poor mental focus.  So, really, extrapolating  the results of one attempt at one movement on one specific training day to the general success of my overall physical fitness is just plain dumb.

And even if my pull-up stats crumble, which they darn well might in the short-term if I keep adding muscle mass… it doesn’t really matter.  Because it’s just exercise, and I’ve got far more important things in my life to be proud of, worried about, and focused on… and it’s stupid to let a few seconds on the clock, a missing rep or a lighter bar ruin your day, and the view of your big-picture training.

However, that’s not the end of the story, because despite the fact that it’s just exercise… in some ways, it’s NOT just exercise.  We’ll be posting Part II of “It’s Just Exercise” next week, so stay tuned, and drop thoughts to comments.

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  1. jastclark says

    thanks for the reminder to look at the big picture of health and not just that one rep…

    good luck with your pursuit of dead hangs

    finishing up the PTP using weighted dips and front squats, i’ll post my results over there.

  2. says

    @Mark: Thanks for the idea. My programming isn’t the issue – in fact, the strength cycle I was on was the specific creation of Dutch, with coaching from Dallas. Dutch’s stuff is brilliant, and certainly wasn’t the reason I had a bad day in the gym.

    @JastClark: Thanks for pulling the message out of the story – can’t wait to see how your PTP goes!


  3. Jimi says

    I can certainly relate to a bad day in the gym equaling a bad mood for me for the rest of the morning.

  4. anu says


    I’ve found myself at the exact same situation the past several weeks. Life has given me other priorities to focus on , worry about, plan for, and I’ve realized that it would be uber selfish of me to focus on / be pre-occupied with my workouts and how many plates go on the bar … so it’s really become “it’s just exercise” for me. And I’ve found that with out the pressure, it’s fun like it used to be, and it’s preparing me and helping me deal with the stuff that I should focus on, worry about and plan for.

    It’s all Perspective!

  5. Renee says

    Hey Melissa,

    You know that I’ve been on the hunt for a dead hang for almost 2.5 years. I’ve had a few setbacks, mainly due to what you said above. i.e., “Why am even BOTHERING?! I’m not getting any better at this effing thing!!!” and since I don’t have a Dallas to talk me down from my tantrum, I’d stop doing them for months. Rinse. Repeat.

    Well, I’d finally had enough of the cycle. I swore that I’d get a dead hang by 2/28 (my birthday), and have programmed around acheiving that goal. I’ve seen more progress/strength in the last 4 weeks than I have in the last 2.5 years. (Seriously, who kept the valuable “if you want to get better at pullups, you gotta do pullups” information a secret?)

    Keep your perspective, Moxy. What’s your longterm goal? To have a good max deadhang pullup number? Or to have all your other major lifts improve and be a Strong Awesome Female? Program accordingly!

    (Note: I don’t have the pullup yet, but there WILL be a video of it in your inbox as soon as it happens)

  6. says

    Great write up. And lucky you that Dallas is there to remind ya!! it is true, it is JUST exercise but for some of us, exercise=health too. Not that the one pullup makes a difference in the long run but the goal of getting up and going to the gym and giving it your all. Thanks again for being there.

  7. says

    I’ve had a rough six weeks. Changing consulting clients (which means a new city, new gym, food and travel challenges), sick wife, sick kids and sick me. I went back to CrossFit after a nearly six week hiatus and was MISERABLE. It was in a new gym, with new (albeit AWESOME) folks and all I wanted to do was not embarrass myself.

    My performance was NOT stellar, to say the least. And just like you, I was my own worst critic. I talked my self out of pull ups, snatches and an easy run at a max clean. The devil on my shoulder was spewing gallons of poison by the end, until the coach came up to me and thanked me for coming in and working so hard and being a part of the class. I helped at the start of class with a couple of demo snatches and helped a couple of the newer folk find their landing positions, and it had a positive effect on the class.

    My point is that no one knew I was having a bad day. They were ALL in the middle of a rough point in their own day (it was a WOD, they suck, let’s move on). It _was_ “Just Exercise.” But my presence had a positive impact, and let’s face it, a year ago, it would have been a whole different ball of suck. So. on a continuum, how bad was it, really?

    Special thanks to Crossfit Progression in Rochester, MN , for helping me get my “Ball of Suck” for the day and accepting the new kid so quickly. A thanks to all the coaches and trainers that help us get over that nasty little shoulder angel and move on.

  8. tra says

    i’m working on getting ONE deadhang pullup by my birthday! : ) (dec 23rd!) i loved your post today, because last week i had a breakdown because i couldn’t do my max on deadlifts. but you’re right, it’s just exercise.

  9. says

    I think it’s really healthy to have thoughts like these from time to time. Just this past weekend I went to deadlift less than my PR, and was confused when I struggled to do it. After a few minutes of thinking on it, I realized how little I had deadlifted over the past few months, and then it started to make sense. I could have easily let the “failure” bother me, but I stayed calm and just adapted to the situation.

  10. Patty - Whole9EE says

    So many of us so know that feeling. It’s easy to get caught up in what we can’t do instead of what we CAN. Pity partys & bad days in the gym can be good reminders of that. In my endurance class I am almost always last. This used to piss me off to know end until I changed my perspective – I do this because I CAN, and I will never stop trying. I love it, I have a great time, and do tons of work. Out of no where I can suddenly run 6 miles non stop. I’m not even sure when that happened!! Point being, giving it the energy and weight to what it really is in your life changes it dramatically. Just like a dumb number on a scale, age or anything else. It doesnt define you. Why do I bother???? Because I CAN!!! Enjoy what your body can do!

  11. Debbie says

    Thanks for the reality check. I keep having illnesses/injuries that push me back further than where I want to be and I am my worse critic. Thankfully, I have a husband who is a trainer that keeps me focused on the smaller goals.

  12. says

    I ate my way out of multiple reps on the muscle up.

    Fuck it.

    I can still do A muscle up, which puts me ahead of 98% of the US population, and I can squat 305×5 (today) or DL 355×5(Thursday).

    I will be skinny again some day, we all know how easy it is to be a skinny bitch. I am on the mats again, and that stuff is like aids for getting your weight up.

    But strength takes time. The line up is wavy, but the average slope is what matters. If your pull up max is 130lbs, it only makes sense that when you weigh 90% of that 4 reps is possible and when you weigh SEXY of that, you may only get one.

    Melissa: keep gaining weight. PLEASE.

    Love ya’,


  13. Lauren G. - Whole9 EE says

    I used to get really frustrated when stuff like that would happen to me. Thankfully, my rationality eventually kicked in and I started thinking “You can’t really expect to be good at something you haven’t really spent time doing lately.” Makes sense. At least, it makes sense when you don’t have a stopwatch staring you in the face. :)

    I had a really nasty yet enlightening experience with a hero WOD not long ago. For some reason me being slow and sucking during the WOD equated to me sucking at life in my warped exercise-induced delirium. When I was almost at the end I had a great light bulb moment and thought “I seriously doubt that these kinds of thoughts were running through his head when this guy risked his life for his country. It’s just a workout.” Even though I seriously hated everything about that workout, I ended up really liking it for what it did, reminding me that there’s a bigger picture and this was just a workout. It really is all about perspective sometimes. Great post!

  14. Svend says

    Excerpt from the speech “Citizenship In A Republic”, delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910 –

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    T. Roosevelt

  15. Natalie says

    Melissa, thank you for this post. I can totally relate. There have been times at my CrossFit box (CF Athens, GA- what what!) that I let my inability to perform as well as or better than I had in the past totally f-up my entire workout/day/week. The day that comes to mind is when I had been doing a strength program for about a month, sacrificing the metcons, and concentrating on strength alone.

    Everything was going really well. I was increasing my strength in all movements (squats, deadlifts, bench press, etc.) and really pumped about my progress. I had increased my 1 rep max back squat, setting a PR, and a gym record for the females in my gym. I was totally psyched and feeling great. Then fast forward a couple of weeks and I can’t do it again. I maxed out at 10 or 15 pounds less than I had done before and quit. I pouted and felt completely defeated. Then tried to tell myself that it could just be that I haven’t been eating as well as I should have, didn’t get enough sleep, am stressed, whatever. I wish someone had been there to say “it’s just exercise!”

    It seems to me that for those of us who self-identify with being strong and healthy, and especially for those of us who do CrossFit, that it’s hard to accept that it is JUST exercise. CrossFit becomes our community and affects decisions about how we eat and sleep and spend our time. There have been times when I have almost been in tears during a wod, not thinking I had the strength to get through it, but I do, and that experience changes how I look at the challenges of everyday life beyond the box. So I guess you can argue both sides- the movement is just exercise, but the experience is much more.

    Thanks again for this post. I will revisit this advice the next time a wod/ lift gets the best of me. Good luck on the pull-ups! Looking forward to Part II.

    Take care,


  16. says

    Training makes me HAPPY too! Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in a test of my training. Not only was I very happy with how I and others with whom I’ve been training performed on this test, I had an absolute blast! In addition to creating some great memories (including seeing you two), this adventure helped to reinforce my feelings of fortune. You see, some days I might miss a lift or and some days I may set a PR, but EVERY DAY I feel grateful that my body provides me the physical ability to train so I can do “real life” things better. EVERY DAY I feel thankful for my family who joins and supports me in my pursuit of better health. And EVERY DAY I feel honored for the American freedom I am provided to make the choice to do something beneficial that I love!

  17. says

    Hey, Moxy-Boss!

    This is such a great message! I think every CrossFit box should print it out and hang it on the wall.

    There can be such a tendency to think that EVERY workout needs to be faster than the last, every lift must be heavier. It’s tricky to stay in the present and enjoy the DOING, but man! isn’t it great when we can do that?!

    As you know, I struggle mightily with this challenge, but my mission in 2011 is to give my best in my workouts and not focus on the ‘what’ of the workout… to really think of it as TRAINING, rather than the thing itself.

    Thank you for this awesome post. And hugs to you — it sucks when the monsters getcha for a minute.

  18. Thor says

    This is a by product of a lot of CF non-sense… Too many people have convinced themselves that their self worth is measured by what they do in the gym. I know a lot of CF’ers read your stuff plus I still coach at a CF gym so I will just leave it at that for now ;)

    It also illustrates another point. You will not always be able to lift as much as you want, run as fast as would like, or have a great day in the gym. People think just because you’ve pulled a 600 lb. deadlift once, that each and every time you step in the gym you will be able to hit that 600 lbs. Thats not the way it works. One needs to look at training over the long haul and not the day to day. I see this a lot and its one of the things that drives me bat shit crazy as coach. No one wants to look at the fact that their base level of fitness, strength, and speed went up and they are only concerned that they failed on some arbitrary day in myriad of training days.

    Oh and yes, keep putting on the weight. My big ass still does pull ups so thats not a good enough reason :)

  19. Jill says

    Boy, did I need this.

    I spent last evening holed up in my bedroom, working and working on the perfect squat. I went through every video and every article I could find, trying all the “fixes” and drills and corrections ad nauseum. All this while the two coolest kids I know sat in the living room and watched TV. The only night of the week that they don’t have sports or lessons or go with their dad, the only one we have to relax and laugh together, and I spent it squatting.

    Thank you, Melissa, and everyone who posted. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my occasional tunnel-vision-ness, and that it’s okay that I have a sucky squat for now.

  20. cindy says

    Hey Dallas and Melissa,

    First off, Melissa thank you for this post. I am no longer able to get to a Crossfit gym. There is just not one close enough for me to get to regularly. I have barbells and free weights in my basement. I try to follow Crossfit style workouts.

    Have you ever thought of providing some daily workouts for those at home or who travel?

  21. Larissa B says

    This is SO true — I had this exact outlook, but for every single day — then I burned out. Couldn’t stand the sight of the gym or doing anything. Then I came across this — it is a quote from an article that a London newspaper did on the failures of now-successful entrepreneurs: “value process over outcomes” — while I know that the reason the vast majority of Crossfitters “exercise” is so that we can attain certain goals, we also have to keep in mind the process. Another quote from the same article “So what if I fail? At least I’ll have a story to tell.” I have both of these quotes posted on my cubicle wall to remind me to keep it all in perspective whenever I tend to obsess over a bad workout.

  22. says


    I LOVED this post! I have been having this type of conversation with my athletes a lot lately because it is so easy to lose perspective. I think your post is a great extension of Dutch’s post on fitness being a journey as well. What we’re doing in the gym for TRAINING today is designed to provide a return on investment weeks, months, or years from now; it is not an instantaneous pursuit, but a lifelong pursuit.

  23. Jeanye says

    I’ve been waiting for this one, Melissa. You did not disappoint! I love the sentiment.

    Being one of the older, less experienced at athletic endeavors crossfitters in my box has a few disadvantages. However, it gives me a great sense of perspective. I have no choice but to find a way to make the process an enjoyable one and a doable one for me. I have discovered that my very best workouts are ones in which I surprise myself at what I was able to accomplish. Setting a particular number goal or time goal rarely works for me. Instead, I take it as it comes and literally dance with excitement when what comes is something completely unexpected and wonderful.

    I look forward to Part 2.

  24. says


    thanks! a good dose of reality from Dallas to you….shared to us! clearly? you hit a nerve. thanks for letting your life lesson become OURS.

  25. says


    Couldn’t agree with your sentiment more. Article reminds me of the geezer wisdom of Dan John in his book Never Let Go. A brilliant chapter is The Rule of Five. Fucking hilarious and very true. Check it out.

    “In a group of five workouts, I tend to have one great workout, the kind of workout that makes me think in just a few weeks I could be an Olympic champion, plus maybe Mr. Olympia. Then, I have one workout that’s so awful the mere fact I continue to exist as a somewhat higher form of life is a miracle. Finally, the other three workouts are the punch-the-clock workouts: I go in, work out and walk out. Most people experience this.”

    Love what you and Dallas do by the way. Keep it up.

  26. says

    Melissa, your message comes at the perfect time for me – I can’t wait to meet you and Dallas on the 19th! Just coming into the Crossfit Community, I love the encouragement and the thorough coaching that comes with my membership to Crossfit Potential in Barrie ON.

    My biggest challenge has been unlearning bad habits from before – accepting that a bare bar executed properly is far more benificial than throwing on plates and heaving them around, rendering me useless to do injury.

    I still have a ways to go – but already I feel stronger, more energetic and better capable of handling daily stress. I have even thrown down one or two Rx WODs! I look forward to learning more with you and Dallas and taking on the Spring Members Challenge that coincides with your workshop.

    Keep writing! I’m loving this form of excercise!

  27. says

    Melissa, I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting you and Dallas at the Whole9 at CrossFit Potential. I’ve actually had a couple of reality checks recently just like this one, one being from Sarah of Everday Paleo. I LOVE CrossFit. I love how it makes me feel, I love the comraderie, I love being with a group of people who ‘get’ why I want to be healthy and ‘get’ it too. I love that I am developing muscle. I love how my clothes hang. But I was beginning to feel a bit disillusioned with the seeming mentality that it’s all or nothing. And then I felt kind of guilty that I am not able, at this time in my life, to go to the box more than 3 times a week, and usually only twice. I felt like I wasn’t hard-core enough, that maybe I wasn’t a ‘real’ CrossFitter. So Sarah’s article helped me to remember that the times I DO go are to give me some space to breath so that the real parts of me–my husband, my kids, going to work, etc–are more enjoyable. And then your article reiterated more of the same. I am looking forward to the second half! And the fact that my coaches post articles like these on our box’s website reminds over and over again why they are so fantastic. As awesome as it is to PR, and to be pushed beyond what you believed possible, it’s just a WOD.


    member at Driven Athletics/Huronia CrossFit

  28. Claudia says

    Thanks for this post Melissa, it hit me at the perfect time. I feel like I am constantly “letting myself down” in the gym and you showed me that this just is not the case. I am starting to look at the positive side of all that I do and can do….since I am one of the older women in our gym (43) I should be proud of all I can do (up to 4 dead hangs! among other things) but really I am making way for a healthier and happier life for me and my family. Good Luck to you and reaching your goals, you are an inspiration to all and we cannot thank you and Dallas enough for sharing all your knowledge for free!! :)

  29. says

    @All: Thanks for the comments! I posted a comment on this a while back, for some reason it never “took”. I hate it when that happens.

    I really enjoyed writing these posts – it’s the kind of stuff that we all think about from time to time. Hope you liked Part II as well – thanks again for the comments.