It’s easy to forget that all things exist in context and to take for granted what has brought us to this place. As a kid, I had an awareness that exercise was good for you and it could be fun, but perceived societal pressures and my latent (mostly unindulged) desire to rebel prejudiced me against ‘going to the gym’. Also, as is often the case when you’re young, I didn’t have a sense of self-discipline or dedication towards my own personal development.
Generally we need some problem to come up – something to remind us that things could be better – something to inspire us to change. If left to our own devices, with little to complain about, we are unlikely to evolve at a rapid pace. Or any pace. And that’s fine – if you don’t need to develop, if something doesn’t inspire you to change, sooner or later something will and our responsibility is only to ourselves – to be aware and respond to our needs truly.
So says I!
When I was a teenager and getting into all this exercise-stuff, I regarded conventional gym training as boring (even though I had no real experience of it), as something that you would only do if you were pandering to societal expectations. I bought into the lie that weightlifting was reserved for people who were ungifted in the brains department, and figured it would be a remarkably unexciting way to spend my time. Funnily enough, I loved to draw, which I now identify as being quality stillness-time, with myself and by myself, doing my thing. This is how I approach training these days too – it’s stillness time for my mind while my body is busy.
When you lift heavy weights, your focus naturally sharpens. Distractions fade into the background, and you experience clarity of mind, purpose and intent. I did not understand that concept when I was young, even though I liked the idea of zen. But it doesn’t work if all you’re focused on is how training might make you look - you need to care about completing the task at hand.
Physical intensity forces distractions to the side. It leaves you no place to hide. It’s no wonder most of the people you see training at a gym are simply spinning their wheels, watching TV while they train. Most of us don’t automatically seek out that intensity.
I started kung fu training because the more exotic martial arts engaged me imaginatively and creatively. Also I was easily intimidated as a kid, so it seemed like a good idea. And for someone who’s easily intimidated, boxing is the last thing you want to do.
At my first kung fu school – much more than valuing simple, strong techniques – we valued sophistication and complexity of technique and we had like fifty-something kicking variations, hundreds of strikes and punches, and many complex coordinated actions that – although they required endless repetition to master – kept us from getting bored. It was entertaining training.
Also we were rather elitist about it – we regarded our sophisticated techniques as superior to raw strength as we maintained the view that quality of technique would trump raw power, and so a kind of distain for simple strength training developed. Of course the truth is quite different – all training systems have something to offer and they all have their shortcomings too. If you can dedicate years of time to your training, a sophisticated system can be both rewarding and practical, but if you need to learn effective self defence methods quickly, taking a simple and direct approach is best. Either way, the stronger you are the better; the trade off is always the same – if you’re weak you need advanced technical proficiency, and if you’re strong you don’t. At any rate, if you want to be good at your martial art, you have to spend your time training something. So it comes back to that same point I am always making: train what you enjoy, practice what you personally find rewarding. It’s always going to be more effective than some half-assed attempt at what you think you ‘should’ be doing.
As I developed, I started to notice where my weaknesses lay, what was holding me back, and I started to notice the value of specifically training my strength and flexibility as well as my skills in order to excel. I started to realise that if you want to succeed and develop, you have to invest in some things that weren’t simply entertaining by themselves, you had to really bring yourself to an exercise or technique and nut your way through it. Through doing this, you develop determination, discipline, resilience, and all those other good things. Hopefully you also develop perspective, flexibility of mind, patience and understanding, but you need to dig a little deeper for those.
Most of all, you develop awareness and self-respect. Muscling your way through something without understanding why will never help you in your quest for personal development. If you train with focus and awareness, you start to develop an attention to detail, and an appreciation of training for its own sake - for the sense of satisfaction the process itself gives you - rather than just enduring training for the sake of the cool shit you want to be able to do, and all the glamour is stripped away pretty quickly as you confront yourself, understand the process, and grow.
What I did not notice at the time, but has a sense of vital importance to me now, is how much training for an actual purpose – to improve your physical capacity – is superior to training for vanity’s sake. When you train to develop skills and strengths, you have a clear process and you can track your progress and work out specifically what brought you from point A to point B. Also – well – that’s the actual reason to train: to develop yourself on the inside, where it matters. To improve your mind-body connection, to improve your awareness, and focus on what’s really healthy, rather than what exploits your fears. Maybe this is just my own personal propaganda, but there you have it.
Now the vast bulk of my training is based on half a dozen simple and heavy barbell lifts or bodyweight exercises. The variety is way down, and the effectiveness is up. I don’t need my training to entertain me. Instead, I bring myself to my training, and I entertain it! Well, not literally. The deeper you look, the more there is to learn in the simplest of things. That’s the zen part of martial arts training: stillness in doing. Concentration that’s born of simplicity and repetition. Being present and aware in the world; it’s pure experience without concepts.
My barbell lifts are exceptionally simple, deeply rewarding, and internally focused. I no longer find them boring, I find them rewarding, complex, satisfying, and I treasure the improved strength gains, awareness and a deeper sense of self-knowledge. Despite the apparent simplicity of these lifts, I still learn new things by doing - my technique changes as my strength increases and my awareness of tension, leverage and my feeling for application of power through efficient technique is still developing. I have a clarity of focus that has grown as my strength has grown. It may only be an untested illusion, but I feel better equipped to deal with failure and stress than ever before, because I have gotten used to taking myself, willingly, through the physical process of working hard in the face of failure. Exercising the body is exercising the mind, and it’s the simple stuff that stimulates my development and the methods that once seemed vain and self-serving are actually the ones that provoke insight.
I no longer think in terms of laziness or slackness, or being tough and sucking it up, because I’m stripping away the judgement and I trust that I know what’s best for me. I know that training hard for its own sake isn’t what leads you to develop and I know how to train to a level of intensity that’s appropriate for my athletic progression. I trust my ability to take myself to that point, safely and responsibly, and I trust my ability to judge when and how I am going to do so. If I’m unmotivated, there’s a reason. If I’m keen to train, there’s a reason.
I recognise and respect my own autonomy. I don’t require the attention of someone else to push me towards my goals. The purpose of a personal trainer is not to ‘push you harder than you can push yourself’. Any asshole can yell at you, but how many people can genuinely help you along the path towards your own development?
What keeps me grounded is focusing on what’s actually useful. What will help me to develop, athletically? What’s enjoyable? And what only amounts to pandering to other people’s expectations?
I no longer train in order to learn cool tricks that might impress someone else. My training no longer needs to look fancy or to impress anyone, and so my training serves me, first and foremost.
I don’t train to serve some societal expectation. I don’t train because maybe one day if I’m good I might have rock hard abs. I no longer waste time trying to blowtorch the fat off my body with some high intensity super fancy blah-blah exercise regime. I train for myself, and I train what I want, on my terms.
Also, I’m thoroughly aware that I train like this because it suits me. It seems to be what’s right for me now. I know in ten years time I’ll be doing something different, and I’m no longer under the delusion that we have to be doing anything specific just because someone else says that we should, that they know the best training program for lasting and effective... y’know... moneymaking.
If you’re reading this and thinking – it sounds good, but I just don’t like weightlifting. I wish I liked it, but I just don’t – well don’t worry, it doesn’t matter. The point is I’m lifting weights because I like it, I find the process itself rewarding, and these are my own observations from my training. It’s not the system that matters – it’s you that matters. The training serves you, you don’t serve the training. Find what you like and do that. It won’t come naturally, it will be distressing, and the way to progress is – clichéd as it may be – to move outside your comfort zone. When you attempt something you’re not good at, when you engage in a process that’s unfamiliar to you, it’s normal that it’ll be distressing. You need to look ‘deep within’ if you’re going to find what’s rewarding in this activity - movement - that is intrinsically good for us. If you don’t seek that out, if you don’t find what’s enjoyable and pursue that, I don’t know any other way to develop a reliable and healthy relationship with exercise.
So I recommend – whatever it is you do – investigate it and try to get a real experience of training. If you go to a personal trainer or some sort of coach, most of us aren’t prepared for that. We’re prepared for people who want to look different but who don’t want to have to think about it; we see people who want to be different but who don’t want to change. If you go to a trainer and you want a real experience of training and development, many of us simply wouldn’t know what to do with you. We spend so much time working with people who are on auto-pilot, who want to burn calories and be entertained and do anything other than be aware of the process they’re going through. There’s no way to make up for a lack of awareness other than just trying to encourage it gently, and there are precious few ways of communicating to someone who isn’t even open to developing their awareness to begin with. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it pump iron.
It’s not easy. You do need to think about your progression. There’s no path mapped out. Just blindly hoping that what the diet gurus are telling you is true, is not enough to make you healthy.
So anyway, having just romanticised the hell out of training, I do have to admit that some sessions are an absolute grind. Sometimes I trudge my way through training, every lift is a grind, and when that happens I take it as a firm sign that I need to take a break from lifting heavy things. Right now I’m eating a cupcake and preparing to take it easy. I also have my days where I just don’t care. And let me tell you, when you’re at the gym, waving it around like you just don’t care achieves zero. If you’re not motivated, it’s okay to go home.
Strip away the judgement. There’s a difference between being lazy and being smart. Being resistant to a process you despise isn't laziness. And when you’ve worked out what you do like and learned how to really bring yourself to the task at hand with enthusiasm and commitment, how much is too much? How far do you want to take it?
It’s almost 20 years since I started training martial arts. Curiosity and insecurity led me to begin, and I developed a sense of discipline through training, but it’s not discipline you need in order to develop and excel. I started to realise fairly quickly that if I was going to succeed, I needed to practice simple things again and again, and recognising that process naturally resulted in the ability to discipline myself to a task, but that was not the determining factor in my success. Ambition, and more than that, a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment were what fueled my training.
Curiosity or dissatisfaction, or a feeling that life could be better, might inspire you to train, or to try to change your life in some way. Discipline will help you to commit, but it’s enjoyment and satisfaction that will keep you going, more than anything else. As long as your training is motivated by the idea that you’re not good enough, it’s not going to work out. That’s why I keep coming back to the point: do what you find rewarding and satisfying. Dedicate yourself to that, fully. That’s your compass. It isn’t as hard to dedicate yourself to what you enjoy, and that’s what will lead you to your own personal development. You can work on your weaknesses, while playing to your strengths.
This post will be continued soon, as I take a look at what it means to focus on your athletic development.