What health and fitness looks like
I’m going through slow changes, which probably aren’t a surprise to any of my readers, but to say it openly: I’m still shy about the way I look, even though I know I shouldn’t be – these waters run deep.
But I’m making progress: rather than submit to the pressure and starve myself thin, or do like so many others: quit the fitness industry in shame, believing I’m a failure because ‘the ideals’ are not realistic or maintainable – rather than all that, I’m consciously promoting myself as a fitness ambassador who says it’s okay to have a belly. It’s one thing to say – it’s okay for you guys to be fat. It’s another thing to say it’s okay for me to be fat too – even though I work in fitness. Even though people are going to judge it. It might or might not look like much, but it’s never an easy step.
Many trainers are very insecure about their bodies. They have this idea of ‘perfection’, as if it’s a static, absolute and tangible state, and this idea that they need to look a certain way. And only then will they be able to publish that DVD, open that gym, whatever.
Clearly, I think it’s crap. It’s not your job to look any way at all. But it’s one thing to say, and it’s another to bare your belly for inspiration. As a trainer, it’s your job to teach, and instruct, and if you want to ‘be a role model’ – because hey, that comes into it too – I still get ‘the fantasy of being thin’ thing arising from time to time, but I’ve been around long enough now – my job as a role model is to boldly say that you don’t have to be a dick about your body or other people’s bodies to set a good example for the kids. You don’t have to harm yourself in the name of health.
We’ve all seen the ‘you need to be thinner’ examples in fitness. You need to be more beautiful. It doesn’t inspire – it marginalises. You only need to motivate and encourage people to do things that aren’t fun. If it’s fun, you’ll naturally challenge yourself. You’ll naturally play and experiment in the gym. It’ll do your mind and body good, and you won’t need to be encouraged to do it.
I have a lot of problems with goal-focused training, and goal-focused living for that matter. I’ve also achieved a lot because of that mindset, but it’s not without problems. Primarily – when you’re supporting a goal, it doesn’t mean you’re supporting the person. The goal is the thing that becomes important, not the individual. Progress becomes important, rather than the individual. Growth loses meaning.
I often say your training serves you – you don’t serve your training. What’s important? This used to come up a lot in martial arts. You go to a new school, and they tell you to forget what you know – you’ve got to start again at the beginning. There’s truth to it, and if you hold the system to be the important thing in this equation, then yes – it’s obvious you need to ‘relearn’. But if you see yourself or your education as the important thing in this equation – then it’s not about forgetting what you already know, it’s just about learning new skills.
Because you don’t serve the training, the training serves you.
I saw part of a documentary about mountain climbers, one who’d been in an accident and lost the use of his legs. He said you can’t be angry, because when you’re angry you don’t take care of yourself.
It was about these guys who are just climbing for joy. He found a way to get back into it. They weren’t training to purify themselves or make themselves adequate, better or superior. Just because. It’s inspirational not because they’ve found a way to motivate their training – not because they’re active (and if they can climb, surely I can get my ass to the gym, c’mon – I really need to psyche myself up) – it’s inspirational because they’re naturally living their lives, motivated by joy – not fear and judgement. It’s not about the activity. It’s about not living in fear.
Fear is the worst motivator. It’s effective, so we use it all the time. But it makes you feel like crap. Love and joy, all the way. Something worthwhile.
I can be pretty angry about the state of the fitness industry, and the health industry in broader terms. If I wasn’t angry, I mightn’t have been as active as I have been. But anger isn’t a pure motivator either... You can get stuff done... But where does it lead? And what are you angry for, or against? And what’s the difference between the motivation to care for yourself, and the motivation to work for societal change? If you do care about yourself, do you need motivation to care for yourself? Or does that just work itself out naturally – because love begets love? And if you’re angry, and struggling to take care of yourself, what can you achieve in a broader context? What does anger beget?
Buddhists say hatred ceases not by hatred – hatred ceases only by love.
So how can you hate yourself healthy?
Grab the bar, stand up straight. Pull the bar back against your thighs. Drop and repeat
I was at my gym, preparing for a deadlift session, and The Sound of Silence started playing. I commented to the other guy who was there about what a good training song it is, and that launched us into a lengthy conversation about appropriate training music. The Sound of Silence is a great example of something that helps me to focus – with that music playing I find it easier to achieve a single pointed focus, a Zen-like concentration if you will, or a calm attentiveness, and this serves me perfectly. It helps me to pay attention, to train truly. The last thing you want, when lifting heavy, is to be distracted.
I used to work at a different gym – it was new and not very busy and I was sick of the usual radio stations, so I used to play ABC Classic FM when I was there early in the morning. Lots of classical music, no ad breaks. A number of people commented favourably on the selection, but as the gym became busier over time, the demand pushed the radio station back to more poppy, upbeat, energetic music. Which is to say – boring or distracting.
Don’t go back to the thing that hurt you. Exercise – it’s the same as choosing a partner – don’t stay with someone abusive, someone who always wants you to be different, someone who exploits your fears to make you stay with them, who tells you that you aren’t good enough, and that you should be thankful because if you didn’t have them, you’d die alone.
Sometimes you’re better off alone.
The way to combat these sorts of harmful relationships with exercise is the same as the way to combat these sorts of harmful relationships with people – I’m generalising like crazy, but as negativity begets itself, so does positivity. Choose methods that you enjoy, that make you feel good – not those that make you feel judged or inadequate. Invest in developing your own sense of self-worth, and as you do so, you’ll get better at choosing the thing that does not exploit you.
What makes you feel judged and inadequate? Counting calories and measuring waistlines. Sure, it’ll keep you going to the gym if you’re wired that way - but at what cost? I’m interested in building character, not eroding it.
What makes you feel good? Moving for joy and freedom. The pure physical expression of human emotion.
Now how can you systematise that?
Strength training does not have to be complicated.
All movements you can do at the gym, or kinda in ‘real life’, can be broken down into three categories: pull, push and squat. All exercises are some variations of these... depending on your point of view.
You can break it down further – there are twisting actions, which might also be either a push or a pull, there are lunging and jumping actions which often relate to a squat, and there are leaning actions which could combine a twist and a pull, or a push and a pull on different planes of movement.
I was talking with a Pilates instructor some time ago – I might have mentioned this once before – she was doing some gym training, three sets of eight to twelve reps. I asked her why, and she just kindof shrugged and said something to the effect of – well, that’s what you’re supposed to do, isn’t it?
I wondered, because I figure she knows about developing strength. The thing is, the ubiquitous three sets of eight to twelve is an old bodybuilder protocol. Steve Reeves used to do it, he talks about it in his book. If you’re not a bodybuilder, why are you using a bodybuilding protocol?
Lots of mainstream fitness info has filtered down from bodybuilding culture over the years. But if you take one or two things here and there – a body-parts-based training approach, a given sets and reps scheme, or a lifting tempo – and you don’t also eat a lot or you don’t train frequently enough, or whatever – in short, if you take some bits but not others, you get a really disjointed and ineffective training routine. And when you stop to think about it – how crazy is it to employ watered-down bodybuilding methods if you’re not actually looking to get big and muscular? If you want toning, fat loss, or any of that other stuff we so frequently go to modern gyms for – why use methods that were intended to make people big?
The problem with motivation is that we think we need it. Seriously – if you’re doing what you want to be doing, where is the need for motivation?
We have a way of thinking about these things wrongly. You only need to motivate yourself to do something when it’s contrary to your nature. Why would you do such a thing?
We have this expectation that the way to get what we want is by doing what we despise.
Why we think this is a good idea is beyond me – this can only destroy ourselves by eating away at our very essence.
I’m very strong. I can squat all the way to the ground with 115kg loaded up on my back, I can bench press equal to my own body’s weight, and I can belt out a casual couple of chin-ups any time of day. And I can run pretty fast, when the mood takes me. I’m no powerlifter or professional sprinter – not by a long shot, but I have nothing to be ashamed of.
And here’s a novel thought: nobody has anything to be ashamed of.
Sunday through Tuesday I was a bit sick. I still have some vestiges of a cold. And today, for the first time in a week, I trained. I did five sets of squats and five sets of bench press, and after twenty minutes I was totally shagged. I called it a day.
All up, there wouldn’t have been much more than five minutes of actual work in the whole session.
To continue on the theme – what do I ‘want’? I want to be a shining example of athletic excellence and I want to be vital, robust, healthy and mobile into old age, but I’m quite aware that the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long (clip not for the faint of heart). I want my cake, and I want to eat it too. What’s the point of even having cake if you don’t get to eat it?
So I’m also aware that I don’t want to do myself damage in the name of progress – in the name of achieving my goals, or maximising my athletic potential – I don’t want to cut my nose off to spite my face – y’know, however you want to word it. I want to be progressing and developing, and not hurting myself.
I’ve done damage to myself in the past. I don’t mean injury as such – though I’ve had a bunch of those – I mostly mean dieting. For some reason, like many others out there, I seem to have grown up believing in some kind of deprivation and restriction – believing it was necessary for good health.
But all it did was make me sicker – here’s a shocking thought: malnourishment might just be worse for you than being fat.