by Melissa Hartwig, who likes to argue both sides sometimes
First, if you haven’t read Part 1 in this series, please do so now – you’ll need a little background to follow along with the discussion. Last week, we talked about the idea that for most of us, our time in the gym is just exercise. It’s not our profession, it doesn’t make us money, and if we happened to get pinned under a squat clean gone bad, Sports Illustrated isn’t going to embarrass us with an ugly front page photo. But while there are a lot of valid arguments for the position, “It’s just exercise,” in the heat of the moment, we came up with some pretty good counter-arguments. We thought it only fair to the story to share those here.
Maybe it’s NOT just exercise
We may not be professional athletes, or fitness stars, or sponsored by Nike. But exercise is still an important part of my life – right up there with family, friends and work. Some days, the hour or two I have in the gym is the only “me time” I get all day. And that makes it important to me. The time I spend there isn’t because I have to, it’s because I want to. And for a number of reasons, it’s not just exercise – it’s so much bigger than that.
My exercise program and the goals I set in the gym, are things I do for me, all by myself. I decide what I want to do, I come up with a plan, and I work as hard as I feel like working to get there. It’s the one piece of my day that is almost entirely under my control – my nutrition, my mobility, my mental fortitude, my effort. (I can’t say that about any other aspect of my life – can you?) My accomplishments in the gym bring me a real sense of personal progress and achievement. In my training, I get to chart my own path and create my own space, even if it’s just for an hour. And that makes what I do during that hour vitally important. Miss a big lift, fall short of an expected result, fail to finish a tough set? That has an impact on my general mood, like it or not. And that’s not necessarily an unhealthy place to be, in my opinion.
A goal worth setting…
When I set a goal in the gym, it becomes just as important to me as a goal I’ve set for my business, for my finances, for my personal development. While the number of pull-ups I can do doesn’t really have an impact on any of those other goals, it doesn’t mean my efforts there aren’t just as important. To achieve a goal – any goal – gives you a sense of accomplishment, and confidence. To fail at a goal, or perceive a lack of progress towards your objective, is just as discouraging in the gym as it is in the business world, or in your personal life. It’s not just exercise – it’s a target you’ve failed to reach. And that feels, for lack of a better world, icky.
So, it’s just exercise, yes… but it’s more than that, too. The trick is to balance the two positions, not spending too much time living in one or the other. To toss all your failures aside by saying, “Meh, who cares, it’s just exercise,” is to sell yourself, and your goals, short. You’ll likely not develop your nutrition, your mobility, your mental fortitude as much as you should, which means you won’t ever be as fit or healthy as you want to be. And to stop setting goals in the gym because it’s just training means you’ll flounder around from one hour to the next, moving your body without seeing actual progress, which brings you to the real danger – stalled for too long, you might just give up exercising altogether.
But to wallow in that other place, telling yourself, “It’s more than just exercise,” and extrapolating that out to your life in general is a very unhealthy place to live. The only person you’ll be mentally chastising is yourself, and beating yourself up over something as big-picture inconsequential as a missed pull-up or a failed squat clean is, in a word, silly… and detrimental to not only your future gym performance, but the rest of your life. (Can you really justify being cross with your kids or your spouse because your 5K time was a minute off your PR?)
The solution? Compromise.
My prescription is this – start in one place, end in the other, and finish the whole darn mess with an action plan. Allow yourself to express the disappointment, the discouragement, the anger that comes with a bad workout. Say, “It’s more than just exercise – I’ve failed at my goal.” Go on and feel sorry for yourself, even, because it’s no fun to bust your butt for an hour and still come up short.
But after you’ve vented, take a deep breath and see the bigger picture, the opposing argument. Because, after all, it’s just exercise. In the scope of your life – family, children, friends, your job, your charity work – one pull-up or two really doesn’t make a lick of difference. Remind yourself of the good things that have happened since you’ve started exercising, how far you’ve come in the last month, six months, a year, what you can do now that you never thought you’d be able to do. And if the entirety of your recent training has also been crap, you can always be satisfied with the knowledge that you are at least doing something to improve your health and fitness, which is in and of itself commendable, and worth being proud of.
Finally, the last crucial step in recovering from a terrible gym performance – do something about it. Set a new goal, if your original goal was just a touch too lofty. Create a new plan to achieve your objectives. Get serious about your nutrition, start actually doing the mobility work your trainer has been telling you to do, recruit a specialist to help you with technique or movement patterns. Recommit to your program in a way that feels healthy and sensible, and in a way designed to remind yourself of all the reasons you train in the first place. And if that doesn’t work – if your gym time is no longer fun and you can’t break out of the negative cycle of your performance failure… take the damn week off. Heck, take a month off, if that’s what’s necessary. It will do your body and your brain a world of good, especially since most of you high-intensity exercisers haven’t taken a full week off since 1997.
As for me, I started working on different pull-up assistance drills and shoulder mobility work, and realized that at 10# heavier today than I used to be, pull-ups are just plain harder. Yesterday in the gym, I cranked out my standard one–just one, but it was gorgeous. And I can live with that, because, after all… it’s just exercise.