It’s Just Exercise (Part I)

Written by Melissa in 2011, 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–99.9% of us are not getting paid for our time spent in the gym. 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 get a little (okay, a lot) too worked up about our workouts.

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 paddleboard or mountain bike. 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 books I sell won’t 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.

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. 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 health and fitness.

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.

Do you take exercise too seriously? Are you too hard on yourself when you miss a lift, have a bad workout, or fail to score a P.R.? Drop thoughts to comments.

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  1. Katelyn says

    I have a similar story. One day in class (after 25 mins of back squatting to find our 3 rep max), I tried, for the hell of it, a 1 rep max. I hit 195 and was ecstatic! Fast forward a month later when we were faced with 1 rep max back squat day and I thought I was going to CRUSH 195 and finally be in the 200 club, I missed my first two attempts at 195. I ultimately got it on that third try but it was so disheartening to know I had it in me but couldn’t seem to get it. PRs are great but you may get them or you may not. You may squat 195 easily one day and miss it the next. Lifting is humbling that way.

  2. LindaM says

    This is so timely for me, because I struggle with this frequently. I’m 51 and I have a bad back that doesn’t like long car rides, sitting in hours of training, or that crown jewel and favorite of most Crossfitters: deadlifts. Or really, anything that requires me to bend down and pick up a bar. If I want to live to work out the rest of the week, I have to go light and focus on impeccable form. My chiropractor gave me the best advice: “Technique, not time.” When I found myself feeling tearful after nearly every workout, I had to sit down and face reality. I probably will never RX most workouts. I’ll never be the fastest, and even people my age and older consistently outlift me. Fortunately, I have great coaches, who happen to be married to one another. Both take me and my training as seriously as the athlete who’s going for the Crossfit games next year, and she never seems to mind listening to me on the days I cry because I’m so discouraged.

    Like I said, I’ll never be the fastest or strongest person at my box. Once I accepted that and realized that I worked just as hard even with my 35 pound snatch, I started having fun again. Yep, it’s just exercise.

    Really, really good exercise that beats sitting on the couch and otherwise doing nothing!

  3. Romanesque says

    Seriously, thank you for this. I can easily drive myself crazy with the mental chatter/comparison/self criticism at my gym. And it gets me nowhere. There’s no point in comparing myself (40 year old woman) to my counterparts (25 year old men).

    This is definitely the hardest part about Crossfit for me.

    LindaM, really appreciate your comment, too. We’re in the same boat!

  4. says

    I’m not a Crossfitter, but I do work out regularly, and am one of the few women at my gym who have the guts to hit the weights and get a *real* workout. ;-)

    Most times, I feel great during and after a workout, but every now and then I have a bum day. Just a total wash. I can usually tell right at the beginning if I’m “not feeling it” that day or it’s just “not gonna happen.” And I’m not even talking about PRs or anything like that…I just mean having a good, productive workout. Something that’s “worth it.” Those days, I’d probably be better off skipping it entirely, because I leave the gym feeling defeated — physically, but even more so *emotionally* and psychologically. And that is a HORRIBLE way to feel after a workout — even one that wasn’t especially challenging. Was I better off walking and doing some stretching than sitting in my cube in front of the computer? Yes. So what if I wasn’t lifting like a demon…any movement is better than no movement.

    Do we want to set performance goals for ourselves? Of course. But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good — not every workout, every time, can be killer. Honestly, some days, victory is achieved the minute you lace up your sneakers, stand upright, and *decide* to get moving.

    Even Wayne Gretzky missed the net more than he scored. ;-)

  5. Jennifer Bee says

    I have just started working out again for the first time in 5 years. I am still not to the point where I actually WANT to go. So every morning when I am trying to talk myself out of it I say “Well, a bad workout is still better than no workout. Just do something for 15 minutes and if you still hate it you can leave.” Most days I do much more than 15 minutes and I surprise the heck out of myself. It has only been 5 weeks since I’m back in the saddle and every little bit counts and I cant afford to be mad at myself anymore. Im a recovering “all or nothing” thinker haha! Each week I just try and do a little bit more than I did last week and if not well at least Im not still sitting on the couch everyday.

  6. says

    Oh, yes, I am familiar with this! A couple of months ago I noticed that I was struggling with my overhead press, so I asked one of the trainers at the gym who cited a whole list of reasons why it may be happening — things from, “it’s an off day” to female hormonal cycle. With so many variables listed, I felt better about what was going on. Same thing happens with running race PRs — anything from weather to what training I did that week to the course can have an impact. Now I try to tell myself to just go out by effort and not worry what the clock says so much.

  7. says

    I’m so happy this perspective is resonating with you all. I totally agree – something is better than nothing, and sometimes just getting up and getting into the gym is a victory!

    Jennifer Bee, I LOVE your strategy. When I first started to make a habit of going to the gym, I told myself every morning that all I had to do was wake up and put on my gym clothes. That’s it. If I didn’t want to go after that, I didn’t have to. Well, I get into the clothes and I just feel fitter, healthier, more motivated – and I’d always end up getting into the gym and moving.

    I may write an article about this – it’s the trick that helped me create a habit that’s lasted for more than 10 years now. Thanks for the inspiration!


  8. Cledbo says

    For anyone who missed it, Mark Sisson linked to this article last weekend which sits pretty well in this whole topic: What’s The Point? on Exuberant Animal.

    In it, Frank Forencich questions the often common mindset among exercising folk that exercise is almost an end in itself, or, worse, is a way to stave off an inevitable occurence (otherwise known as death). Working out to meet targets *can* be a way to motivate yourself through slumps, but when you forget the real reason you should be working out, that’s when the problems happen – as Melissa has shown us.
    Physical fitness is a bit like money, in some respects, in that it is a tool, a means to an end. You work out, you get fit. If that’s all there is, so what? You might as well be Scrooge McDuck, with his pile of money and no friends.
    Physical fitness needs to be spent/used, and what you spend it on will depend on what you really want from life. Conversely, the type of working out you do will be (or, ideally, should be!) influenced by that life purpose – someone who feels at their best and like their living their real life while their climbing mountains or trekking across Antarctica is going to need a far higher level of fitness (and money, for that matter) to spend, compared with someone who wants more than anything to have a happy and stable family life.

    I’m not saying working out can’t be a joy in and of itself – of course it can! If it’s not, there’s yet another issue to address, like how working a job you hate just for the money can crush your soul. But you need to think bigger, give yourself perspective, and that will go miles to helping you out of the test trap Melissa has so accurately described.

    Thanks for your blog, I really enjoy it :) Day 22 of my second Whole30 too!

  9. LindaM says

    Another comment…LOL…my coach (the husband) saw me weeping to my other coach (the wife) and asked her later what was going on. When she told him I was feeling discouraged about not making progress, he was truly puzzled and asked her: “Why do you girls do that?” I don’t notice the guys getting down on themselves – is it because they’re just more philosophical about it, or because they’re always progressing?

    Melissa? Does Dallas ever stomp around cussing about his muscle-ups? LOL

  10. says

    I really love your blog.. Excellent colors & theme.
    Did you develop this amazing site yourself?
    Please reply back as I’m planning to create my very own website and want to know where you got this from or just what the theme is called.

  11. says

    Such simple words, yet I think sometimes we as women (and men are guilty of it, too) get so emotionally wrapped up in things. At least for me, right, I am far from a competitive athlete but I often forget the fact that this is something I Am doing to make me more healthy, so should avoid situations where it is putting negative thoughts out there! Always nice to know we are not alone! :)