Sometimes people seem to behave as if everyone in the world shares their own particular aesthetic sensibilities. And sometimes they believe their own aesthetic sensibilities are not influenced or even dictated to them by the culture in which they reside.
Some people are attracted to the soft, round-edged frame of the sensitive individual who feels no shame, but takes joy in pleasure and sensuality, who has refined tastes and who possesses a deep physical understanding of the word satisfaction.
Yet others admire the lean, shredded physique of one who has endured suffering and hardship, who has forged their body with iron and discipline, as if sculpting their own physique from marble.
But then it seems to me there’s no escaping the truth: an individual is not a Jungian archetype; shapes and bodies have symbolic significance, but when it comes to any single person, their own unique circumstances often do not intersect with our own prejudices and expectations, and what we can extrapolate based on what their body represents to us – in truth it’s very narrow. All is often not what it seems.
Some of the people at my gym who work the hardest, and who possess the most admirable discipline, still struggle to burn any fat or gain any muscle, and many who are naturally thin and lean, who also possess a degree of muscular definition, really don’t apply much effort or sophistication to their training, and take a casual approach to their nutrition.
One woman in particular is fit, skilful, and dedicated to her boxing, but you wouldn’t know it by her physique. There’s a slight internal rotation to her shoulders, which is common among boxers and all other humans who might engage in some sort of activity that tightens the muscles of the chest and shoulders. So you can’t see her skills, or the effort she has applied, reflected in the shape of her body.
And even reading what I’ve written – the desire to look all tough and shit is there, in me, maybe as a compensation, but I suspect everyone knows what it feels like for the outward manifestation of their form to not accurately represent their true internal life, or maybe more simply, to not represent what they want. This lament is what the industry exploits when people talk as if there’s a thin person hiding inside every fat person, waiting to get out, as if you’re not free to be you until you’re thin. Or when they rub your fears and imply that there’s secretly a fat person hiding inside every thin person, so you must remain obedient and oppressed or else...
But the other dynamic to consider – quite apart from how you want to look, or how you feel you have to look – what you are attracted to, or what you think is attractive, might not actually be what attracts people to you. Often there’s a gap.
I used to think I couldn’t trust my own perception when it comes to the shape of my body. It seems to me – based largely on comments from other people –it’s obvious that I train, but it’s not necessarily obvious that I possess any remarkable degree of “fitness” or “core strength”. But people seem to think strength and conditioning are more separate than they actually are.
I think though, what I actually can’t trust are the standardised images we are fed daily, about what fit and healthy bodies look like. These, more than my own body itself, are what have distorted my views and expectations.
Most of the time, to attain some sort of athletic physique, it seems to me you will have worked much harder than the infomercials and magazine articles have indicated. I read a Q & A in the paper the other day, a woman was wondering about those “last five kilos”, and looking more toned. She was training a bit, and the answer provided instructed her to keep doing what she was doing, increase the intensity, reign in her diet, and in eight to twelve weeks, she “should notice” some improvements. It’s a lot of work for a “should”, especially when we know that nobody else is really going to notice the extent of our hard work or appreciate the severity of our self-imposed suffering.
But it seems to me, you require two things – work and luck – not just one. Hard work is not enough, and it’s not just luck that gives you an athletic physique – it is in fact, both.
Luck sure as hell won’t do it, and hard work it seems, won’t necessarily get you there either. People who have worked and suffered are resentful when others accuse them of simply being lucky – and I get it; when you’ve worked your fingers to the bone and someone else dismisses your accomplishments merely as luck, it’s offensive as hell.
But on the other hand, to deny that luck or something like it plays a role, is to completely ignore and trivialise the people who work their asses off, yet who do not achieve the results they are seeking. I think we all know, deep down, that it is possible to work, and work, and work and still fail, but we want to believe in order and science and predictability. And we fail, and we believe it’s because we didn’t hit the magic, elusive combination somehow.
It’s no wonder people give up when they are not rewarded for their efforts. You cannot expect someone to keep applying all their effort and dedication when they fail to see results, month after month. Year after year. It is not sensible to keep pursuing ineffective methods for the long term, yet we are very stubborn about our expectations of fitness training.
But what does “realistic goal-setting” look like? In a Biggest Loser kind of world, where people think that several pounds of weight loss per week is healthy, attainable, maintainable and sane, how do we even know what’s realistic? Sometimes beginners experience rapid progress in one form or another, but it slows down. Your progress might not actually plateau immediately, but sooner or later it’ll feel like it does and you don’t generally see “beginner” gains or progress again, when you’re no longer a beginner.
I was reading an article recently about Powerlifting, and they pointed out that if you could increase your bench press by one pound every month, that would be an improvement of 120 pounds in the amount of weight you can lift over a ten year period. This was phrased as if it were both realistic and ambitious, and I happen to agree. If you dedicate yourself completely to Powerlifting, and you built up a solid base before you were 22 years old or thereabouts, you may see excellent results like this over the next ten years.
Arnold Schwarzenegger said one time that it takes ten years to build a physique, and he started at the right age, took the right (not particularly controversial) drugs, trained with the right people, in the right ways, had the right kind of athletic base for bodybuilding, and he had competition after competition to keep him motivated. He was a professional, not just someone looking to get a bit fitter.
There doesn’t appear to be a state of fitness that, once you achieve it, you don’t need to work at anymore. So if what you value, what motivates you is a sense of aesthetics or beauty – I don’t know, I’ve been there. That mentality. It’s not enough to support the work. It’s hollow in the end, if it’s just for vanity. That river runs dry, after a time, unless you have near limitless reserves of contempt for humanity.
But simply being fit, and trying to improve your fitness in ways that make sense to you can be deeply personal, rewarding and meaningful. In an immediate sense, and for the long term. What I’ve found to be true is that you will develop – but not in the ways you expect. In some ways it’s more special for this. Maybe if you don’t have firm expectations, you’ll be surprised and delighted by something, and you can start to let your own prejudices and expectations go?
I have been surprised and delighted before, by training, in unusual ways. I have always been interested in weightlifting. But I remember wanting to look more muscular, and being dissatisfied. Sooner or later, I became strong – and I hadn’t thought about what it would really feel like, what it would be like, to feel physically strong – to feel what it was like to go through a process of development that other people could not see, that they would not see. It was more meaningful in the end. Well, not “the end” as such, because I’m only 35. But what looks like one thing on the outside, or what might be barely visible to a casual observer – the reality is always different.
It became a process of self-discovery, and there was something else that I was getting out of training, I wasn’t just spending my hours in blind servitude to the beauty standard. If that’s all you’re doing, that shit will wear you down. It amazes me whenever anyone can apply that much discipline in service of the beauty standard, because ultimately it’s hollow – the beauty standard takes, and takes, and it doesn’t give back. So I’m amazed at the degree of dedication and perseverance some people possess and apply to this shit. If I hadn’t found something else that was meaningful, I would have given up too.
For beauty, it just isn’t worth it. That’s the truth they don’t tell you in the ads. And health and beauty are not the same things.
And of course I see this frequently: people who do not enjoy training, who are envious or astounded and confused by people who say they do enjoy training.
As much as you might not enjoy exercise for any number of reasons, as many and varied as there are individuals on the planet, for what it’s worth, this much I can offer: if you feel like you need to be made better and that’s why you train, training will only ever remind you of that. Of course it’s no fun. Of course it’s not engaging or stimulating.
If you’re training because of guilt, training will only ever remind you of your guilt and shame. And where’s the upside?
I don’t care what the fuck you ate. Going to the gym because you’re trying to undo eaten food is not only an exercise in futility, it’s no reason to go to the gym at all. Instead, this: eat food plentifully, it will not only fuel your training, it will enable you to live a complete life, because that’s what food does – it supports your body and mind, and if you bear that in mind – all food enables your training, and more importantly, your actual damn life. Training is not a compensation for feeling bad about your diet. Instead, you need far more food than you think you do. Food and exercise are not opposites. It’s not yin and yang. They’re connected, related, but one does not negate the other. To act as if they do is foolish; it will only burn you out.
One of my most hated things is when people translate the calories in a food to how much exercise you need to do to burn it off. They behave as if it’s all surplus, as if food isn’t actually required to keep you damn well alive. You don’t need to burn off food. You need food to fucking well live, not to burn.
Training is supposed to make you feel good not bad, confident not insecure, functional not broken, and strong not weak. Whatever it is that you’re doing, whatever it is you’re working on, if it makes you feel better, it’s useful. If it makes you feel worse, it isn’t.
It’s why I keep saying that you should do only what you enjoy. Swimming, yoga, weightlifting – any discipline or activity that you like. Or at the very least, what is useful, or what is satisfying over time: rehabilitation, sensory drills, mobility exercises, whatever serves you. Whatever makes you feel better, in the short or long term. Only what improves you, never what tears you down.
Never train with people who tell you you’re bad. Negative feedback sucks. Everyone has bad posture, everyone is weak, or immobile, or unstable, or unskilled in some way, or ugly, or inadequate or whatever. It doesn’t matter. We are also all beautiful and robust and infinitely divine. I’ve seen a lot of people come to the gym, and they say their posture’s awful. It’s never awful. Somehow, maybe by someone, that idea has just got in there. Their posture may be dysfunctional in some way, there may be pain, their body may present unique challenges, but there’s no value judgment to posture – you acknowledge what you need to work on, and then you just get on with it in whatever way you can. And over time, you see how you go; through experience you determine if you’re on the right path. And you can do that – it may be challenging, it may require effort, but on another level it’s also easy, it’s pleasurable, if you train with people who make you feel like a winner, not a loser. Not that it’s competitive necessarily – it’s about you, nobody else. But never a loser.
You will fail at things, everyone does. Those experiences are valid, and useful. And you will also succeed, usually in some surprising way you did not expect, but if there’s one thing training should never be, it’s this: a constant reminder of your inadequacies as a human being.
Instead, focus on what’s good. Build yourself up, don’t wear yourself down.