The way to get better at a thing is via feedback. Feedback, unlike criticism, can come in many forms, and is absolutely necessary if your goal is to improve at a thing. My Kung Fu and Tai Chi students sometimes struggle to practice, because they lack confidence that they are practicing correctly.
We often mistake a lack of confidence for laziness, and wonder “why can’t I bring myself to this practice? What’s wrong with me?” and we find ourselves doing something else, even when we have the time to practice. Mostly I think, it’s about not quite knowing what to do, feeling adrift, or unsure of ourselves. We question our own methods and motivation, and on some level it’s very easy to wonder what is the point, if we’re not training rightly? This is one of the ways in which perfectionism can really get in the way of, well, everything.
A Tai Chi teacher I know recently said that the belief you should be doing it perfectly is the number one reason why people don’t practice, especially beginners.
Frequently I’ve gone to the gym to train something – push-ups, chin-ups, bench press, squats, boxing, rowing, whatever – only to discover that I’m capable of far less than I thought I was. It’s easy to feel discouraged, but this mentality is not helpful.
It’s important to only work on what you can recover from. When you’re done, you’re done – strength training is about stimulating progress and to that end – the essence is simply this: challenge the muscle to a point of fatigue, then rest it and feed it and it will grow stronger.
Oftentimes just trying to add more reps doesn’t quite work. It can, in the long term, but day-to-day, it can also feel kindof pointless and frustrating, depending on what you’re working on, and the mentality you bring to the task.
If you want to progress your chin-ups, it’s true that you’ll need to work hard, but it’s better to work at something useful, something that gives you a sense of progress, and to that end, there’s probably something more useful you can do than stubbornly try to muscle through something that isn’t quite working.
My usual approach to any technique or exercise is this: identify the weak spot, find exercises that target it specifically, train them, and then in time test your methods by training the original exercise again. See if the weak point has shifted or improved in some way. I think it’s good to remember that what you are testing is the effectiveness of the training methods you have employed, not your worth as a person. If the test fails, then the training methods were ineffective. That’s where the problem lies – there may not be a problem with your work ethic or personality. Instead, it’s just that the training methods did not work for you. Were they poorly prescribed? Did you work too hard or not hard enough? Were the assumptions off? Do you simply need more time or patience before your body can adapt?
I always feel too big or too small. I know that neither is ultimately true, and I have a better handle on things than I used to. But it takes a degree of dedication and patience to shift my perspective, because what I actually do have is a life-long habit of feeling like my body is the wrong shape in some regard. After a while, and somewhat fortunately, I realised the problem was not with my body, but with my perception of my body. And to dig a little deeper, the issue is not how I perceive my body in a specific sense, but how I – and we – are taught to perceive bodies in our culture.
If you read my blog regularly, you’ll know that this is nothing new. And maybe now I’m not bringing anything new to the table, only a reminder that it takes a lot of work if you’ve decided you want to single-handedly combat all the body prejudices of our modern fat-hating society. So the answer is, I think – don’t do it single-handedly.
It always amazes me how strict people can be about rest periods. Here’s the thing: you can’t get it wrong. Sometimes people say you shouldn’t sit down, and they’re quite insistent. Keep standing, keep moving, keep your energy up – and there is a benefit to it, it’s about intention. But it always depends on what you’re doing. And not every workout is about psyching yourself up for some crazy intense training.
Often, we might bitch about how other people spend too much time on their phones at the gym. But if you’ve just done a set of leg press or whatever, I don’t care if you check out all the dinners your friends have been sharing on facebook from the night before, while you recover enough to be able to do another set. And who cares, really? What is the point of resting? Recovery. So you can do stuff again, and do it well.
Think about what you want to achieve.
If you’re at the point where you’re confident with the strength of your grip, you’re familiar with the scapular pull exercise, you have a reasonable muscular awareness of pulling through your back, and you’re familiar enough with the movement pattern that is the chin-up (even though you’re not yet pulling your whole body’s weight through space, maybe you’re using a band or you’re jumping into the technique or something) now we can talk about simple strategies for just getting stronger.
There’s a difference between what is easily measurable and communicable to a population, and the essence of effective training methods.
Science is observational, and as such – the task is to try to interpret the essence of a thing. What we learn from observation then needs to be communicated – this may happen via scientific journalism, or it may trickle down through various levels of social media and rumour.
Much of modern gym training comes watered down from bodybuilding, powerlifting, and other sports. Sometimes also from studies, from research in the field of sports science.
But there is much that occurs in the lab, in experiments, and in sports that cannot be easily measured or clearly communicated.
We may be made to feel guilty if we take naps or if we sleep ‘too much’, but the thing with taking care of yourself properly is that it often means doing things that other people don’t quite understand. If you find you’re tired all the time, you sleep a lot, or you desire nothing more than to nap when other people are awake and energetic, this does not mean you’re weak or flawed in any way. It’s never lazy to invest in your recovery, and if we re-phrase the question, it becomes obvious that being sleepy, or needing to sleep, is not a character flaw.
You’ll often hear people say that if you want to improve your chin-ups, it helps if you can lose weight. Not from your back muscles, of course, and if you can already do half a dozen chin-ups or so, getting a bit lighter might well increase the number of reps you can do by a few. But to what end? Getting stronger will achieve the same result, and if you cannot do any chin-ups, or if you cannot do any push-ups, losing weight isn’t magically going to give you the skill or strength to move your body through space. It sounds logical, but if you’re not strong enough to do a single rep, the sad truth is that losing a few kilograms isn’t going to make a difference.
But you can, over time, grow consistently stronger. It’ll take longer than you expect. I had a new client start with me in 2014 and it took her about a year of training with me to get to the point where she could do one unassisted chin-up. She’s in her fifties, and she actually achieved that rather quickly, but it varies so much for everyone. And in real life, shit comes up all the damn time, and that shit will interfere with your training and progress. If you can make it to the gym fifty or a hundred times in a year, you’re doing pretty damn well. And if you’re only practicing chin-ups once per week, of course it’ll take a long time.
We are told, more often than not, what relationships to have with our bodies, rather than to explore our own relationships with our bodies.
This for me, is an issue. Partly just because I don’t like to do what I’m told.
We are taught to hate certain body parts or ways of being, we are told to be proud of some rare things, but often we learn to be ashamed of anything representative of pleasure or desire. And we are told to be proud of the things that are... most standardised. We are told we have certain flaws, or strengths, weak points and problem areas, we are taught to have some few favourite body parts, and we talk about beauty, but really - all this is generally interpreted through the language of desirability.