TW. A vague discussion about suffering, adversity and work follows.
There are lessons to be learned in lifting weights and also in failing to lift them, but they’re not what you might think. Failing at a lift, we think it teaches you how to be mentally tough, but actually it teaches you about forgiveness, commitment and priorities. In the end, the weight is not important. You are what’s important. Nobody else cares – unless you’re a competitive athlete – what you can or can’t lift. It’s for you only.
And toughness is overrated. It’s important in an immediate sense, it helps you to be able to deal with emergencies in a rational way, but it is for the short-term. That’s how you apply it: it will get you through a crisis. And for that, it is extremely valuable, but it is not the only thing. And after the crisis, then you start the hard work of unpacking your shit, of paying attention, of being respectful, patient, consistent and loving. It’s fashionable to talk about mental toughness and all that badassery, but – it’s just – Personal Trainers aren’t always the people you want to see for lessons in personal development, emotional maturity or coping skills. As much as we love to talk shit, we specialise in fitness. And to that end, we are broadly skilled in overdoing it and so we rely on toughness to get through, always falling into the trap of thinking we need to be tough, when instead, oftentimes, we are already rigid enough.
It has become very common to brag on the internet about how you understand hardship because you go to the gym and work out. And you diet. Please. You were running on a treadmill, or pushing a damn training-sled. It’s not a rickshaw. You weren’t running through the streets for six kilometres each day just to get an education. It’s the damn gym, that’s not suffering. It just isn’t. And if your training is actual hardship, if you must endure abuse or you have sacrificed your life to attend the gym, you’re doing it wrong.
Strength training doesn’t simply teach you how to be strong, and toughness is not strength. Strength is about self-knowledge, and toughness, too often it seems to be about ignorance. Ignoring what’s in front of you and forging ahead, no matter how much harm you inflict upon yourself.
Actually, training teaches you to be efficient, forgiving and methodical. When you fail to lift a thing, and then a year later you succeed, you have made the impossible possible. But the lift is only one small thing, and the gym does not matter much in the end. What matters is the experience of taking a thing-you-could-not-do, even when you applied all your effort, and changing that into a thing-you-can-do. It’s kind of a game-changer for self-confidence and belief.
But in the end of course, the weight means nothing. It’s the experience, not the number. We track things with numbers for the sake of convenience, but experiences are what change us. It amazes me how frequently people seem not to notice this. When we fail we think we have failed, and we lament – oh, why could I not lift the heavy thing? But we have succeeded in discovering the limits of our capacity. Think how rare that is to experience! Almost never, do you discover such a valuable thing at the gym. Mostly we just attempt to do stuff we can already do, and that’s the end of it.
So we don’t suffer in the gym; it’s not like that. We learn, and hopefully we have valuable experiences. Hard work is easy. In the end it is only work, and honestly, most of us are good at it. It is not hardship. At the gym, your freedom is not at stake. When you choose to squat freely on your own terms, the weight you feel is only a barbell, not the weight of oppression.
Or is it? The beauty standard is bafflingly demanding. But in the end it is hollow.
People suffer both in and out of the gym, not because of the effort they apply to lifting heavy things or running, or because of any kind of exertion, but because of trauma, misogyny, racism, abuse and assault. Training is not hardship, no matter how hard I grunt, how loud the music, how heavy the load, or how thick my beard grows. It’s me-time. It’s a luxury I am grateful to be able to include in my life.
Training is the easy part, which is ultimately why it is pleasurable to train hard.
If you train well, climbing stairs becomes easier. If you practice struggling, in time you may become better at it, you may become more resourceful, more resilient. You may also become more patient and gentle, more understanding. You may experience gratitude. You may learn something about yourself, and probably – it’ll be something you didn’t expect. Or maybe I’m laying it all on a bit thick. Training is only training, and hard work can be just as fun as simply fucking around.
But I realised the other day, while discussing diabetes with a client – exercise just makes it all easier. It’s not about doing what you’re told. It’s not about obligation, pressure or obedience. It’s not about being trapped, doomed or sick. It’s not about the looming, inevitable threat of chaos or mortality; it’s not about any of that. I don’t train because I’m told to. Exercise makes diabetes easier to live with, that’s the benefit, that’s all it is.
But I don’t go to the gym because of diabetes. That doesn’t motivate me. Usually I train hard because training easy is boring. You work at a thing, because that’s more interesting than spinning your wheels. It is more interesting to engage with a thing than it is to resent it. Diabetes isn’t what motivates me when I’m stuck under a heavy barbell. I just don’t like being bored all that much, so if I’m getting bored – just make it harder. It’s not badass, it’s indulgent. It’s just about doing things that are engaging.
And almost irrespective of what I actually do in the gym, the fact that I’m there, the fact that I’m exercising in some way – it makes diabetes easier. We train, because it makes shit better in some way.
And if you do have diabetes, if you’re new to training, for fuck’s sake take it easy. Expect hypoglycaemia. Plan for it. If you’re trying something new, especially if it’s at an unfamiliar degree of intensity, or it requires endurance or commitment, for the next few days or week, pay attention. Ease into it and remember: do nothing that harms your body or mind.
Nobody ever hurt themselves by easing their way into training slowly. Give yourself an opportunity to experience the training for what it is and be careful. Exercise, especially something you’re not used to, can eat up your blood sugar. So monitor closely, don’t do anything crazy, and remember – the point in the end is this: all this shit we like to overcomplicate – it should make your life easier, not harder.
It’s actually less boring to commit. You don’t need variety, you can trick yourself for a short while with novelty and gimmicks, but what makes it all interesting is when you give up on the tired old clichés you’re supposed to care about. When you give up on the idea that you need to be made better in some way, when you give up on the idea that you’re not enough as you are. You don’t want the gym to just be another reminder of how inadequate you are – who would willingly engage with that? When you’re free of obligation and judgement, it’s fun to challenge yourself from time to time, to try shit out, and give yourself a chance to become really good at something.
None of this means you have to suffer. Training is not about suffering. Unfortunately, it is too often about status, but we can be a weird bunch of glorified monkeys sometimes. In the end, nobody cured the world of ills by going to the gym. The reward for going to the gym is not status, it’s that you get to be fucking healthy. Or at least a bit healthier, and that is so damn rare. Your reward is not getting to lord it over everyone else and be a dick about how badass you are because you’ve got a little spare time, no, your reward is not getting to bitch and moan about how everyone else in the world are lazy bastards and nobody understands what you’ve sacrificed: your reward for your effort is improved fitness, strength and mobility. It’s improved quality of life. Having improved health, a better life, that’s not sacrifice. It’s the very opposite of sacrifice! We live in a crazy backwards world, where people are able to indulge and spend their own time dedicated to their own pursuits, and then they call that sacrifice.
Your reward for your effort and your dedication is that the rest of your life gets a little bit easier, a bit better, slowly over time, bit by bit. And if it is not, if your training is not delivering in this regard, something is wrong. Stop doing what you’re doing. In the end iron, load, intensity, exertion – these things are not adversity. If they are, if you feel the gym is a place where you are unsafe, where you must always be on your guard, if the gym really is a place where you experience suffering, something is desperately wrong. The gym is just the gym. Your life is what matters. Your training serves your life, your life doesn’t serve the training.