Comfort zones are fun. If you want to start exercising, and just get a feeling for what you are good at, what you enjoy, what your capacity actually is, your job is not to push your comfort zone. Your first job is only discovery. You can push it later, if you want – but you don’t have to. Pure movement is the pure expression of human emotion. It does not have to be forced. It can be exuberant, or subtle, wild and free, or structured and rationalised. All paths are valid.
There is no point – there is nothing to be gained – by trying to push your boundaries before you even know where they are. Pushing your comfort zone, challenging those boundaries, smashing it at the gym before you’ve developed basic skills of movement, before you’ve got a sense of your capacity, that simply will not help you to progress. All that comes of that kind of approach is injury and if you’re after progress, that’s not how you get it. There is actually nothing to be learned by flailing wildly and trying as hard as you can, without awareness, without reflection, at some random exercise some dude told you about. If you seek progress, know your boundaries. They will surprise you again and again. God help me they will! Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes really not. But you do not need to blast them away – the more your understand yourself, the greater your capacity for growth.
Enter the risk/reward concept. What are the stakes for you? If pushing your boundaries puts you at risk of sore biceps, fine. If it puts you at risk of a herniated disc, be very fucking respectful of your boundaries. You never need to push into uncertainty when illness and injury are an ever-present reality.
This is one of the reasons, when weightlifting, you can go closer to failure on lighter weights. If you’re doing a heavy set of three or four repetitions, it’s not necessary to go to failure – the stimulation to your nervous system and muscle and connective tissues is already extreme – you don’t need to push failure to stimulate a strength or growth response within the body. If, however, it’s a lighter weight and you can do fifteen reps, you might need to really push the envelope in order to stimulate your body to develop.
But if you are at the point in your training where you immediately understand in your body, when reading on a website someone you don’t know describe the difference between a heavy set of three, a medium set of eight, and a light set of fifteen – if you’re at the point where you know the feeling of these imagined weights intimately, then odds are you’ve spent a lot of time in that comfort zone. You know it inside and out, you know what lies beyond, you know how far you have to push those boundaries to stimulate the zone to grow, and you know – you probably learned the hard way – the consequences of pushing too far.
Nobody deepens their squat – nobody lengthens their hamstrings by trying to crush it and blast through their limitations. One can get stronger with simple hard work, but nobody improves their mobility by trying to be tough at being mobile. We do it through perseverance and understanding. Through the acceptance of reality and many tiny resolutions of tiny issues.
But these are merely weightlifting analogies. If you don’t immediately know the physical sensations that differentiate these exercises in the ways I have described – as children we learn about overreaching and consequences. Life teaches us over and over.
The thing is, as adults we are taught to ignore what we’ve learned. We are told to push that comfort zone, to submit, to be obedient, to complete the required whatever, and we are told about our recovery ability too – we are told what our limitations are – it’s garbage. Nobody else knows how much of what you can take, nobody else knows how you recover from a stimulus, and nobody else knows what the consequences of over-shooting the mark are.
Nobody ever regretted playing it safe in the weight room. Not like they regretted that risk, that one time. Your comfort zone keeps you safe, and when you are safe, you can grow. When you are stimulated and nourished, you can grow.
You know yourself. You’ve been with yourself since day one. You know what your comfort zone is, and if you’re a bit out of touch, you can rediscover it very quickly, simply by seeking it out. And then, if you want to build, you will do so from the point of deeply and truly understanding your own capacity. And then progress is actually possible, and you won’t turn into one of those people who busts their ass so damn hard at the gym and then wonders why they feel so awful when they’re doing all the right things.
It is useless trying to change if you don’t even know who you are. Know yourself first. Practice seeing yourself clearly. If you can achieve that, if you can even catch a glimpse of it, you’re already well above the curve, and you didn’t have to fuck yourself over to get there.
All it takes is kindness, that you are not cruel to yourself. Which is, of course, one of the hardest things these days. Respect yourself. You are worth it. If you want to improve your condition, your circumstances, it starts with respect.