Updated: Aug 9, 2021
For the past three, going on four years I have been dedicated to lifting weights, in an effort to grow muscle, and build strength. When I first began it was just something that I did as a hobby, with no clear goal or understanding of how to get from point A to point B. I had no knowledge of training principles, nutrition, or the proper technique of the lifts that I was performing.
To this day, I shudder at the sight of seeing myself attempt to deadlift weight that far exceeded what was necessary. Yet, with determination, grit, and a rounded back that rivals Quasimodo, the weight was lifted from the ground.
The first two years of lifting provided me with respectable muscle-gain, tons of memories and good times in the gym, and perhaps most of all, an avenue to release the excess energy that is natural for any twenty-one year old male. But it wasn’t until I began to view lifting as more than a hobby, and more of a personal investment, that I could see returns that will continue to pay-off internally and externally for the person that I am in the process of becoming.
Now that I’m in year four of lifting, I am more able to take a step-back and reflect on the benefits of lifting, both on my mental and physical health. I am able to recognize that lifting, or any pursuit toward a goal, brings along with it numerous obstacles to overcome, and lessons to learn. This post will be the first edition in a series of posts detailing a few lessons learned from my short time in the gym.
It’s important to note that these lessons extend far beyond the gym; and as I’ve found, gym lessons are life lessons. So as you read, consider the context of your own life, and how you can apply these ideas to your own pursuit of personal growth!
Understanding the Journey
We’ve all heard the adage, The journey is more important than the destination, but do we really believe it? For most, this statement doesn’t hold true. Rather, we overvalue the destination, and if we don’t see immediate progress towards the end-goal, we cease to put in adequate effort. Ultimately, the journey stops before it ever truly got started. We fall victim to our overwhelming desire for instant-gratification, as if a day or two of work deserves reward.
Imagine an athlete who competes in the Olympics. The athlete will only compete on the Olympic stage once every four years. Four years, on top of a lifetime of work before stepping onto the world stage. And when the time comes, they aim to capture a medal and the national attention that follows their hard-earned success. But they could have quit. They could have hit one of the many unavoidable bumps in the road and considered the journey to be unworthy of their time, energy, and heartache.
So why didn’t they? Because they fell in love with the process. The successful athlete is more focused on the day-to-day execution of their plan, rather than the destination that sits in the seemingly distant future. They are more process-oriented, than they are goal-oriented. Sure, they have aspirations to win a gold medal, set a world-record, and sign sponsorship deals, but these external sources of success pale in comparison to the internal drive that the athlete has to execute their daily process.
There is a place for both process and goal-orientation in our lives. It isn’t bad advice to have long-term goals, to write them down, and to envision achievement, but no one ever achieved a goal by simply writing it down. The process is a necessity, and the more comfortable that a person becomes with the discomfort of delayed-gratification, the more proficient at their crafts they will become.
The 3-Step Process:
As it goes with many things in life, an effective process is an individual craft that must be utilized through trial-and-error. There is no process that will fit the needs of all users, because we all live different lives, with their own set of unique circumstances. In order to develop an effective process that serves the needs of our lives, we must be willing to fail forward, not allowing any bumps in the road to stop us from executing the next day.
While no person’s process may look the same from another, there are basic principles that seem to recur in any individual path to success. Lifting has allowed me to recognize and apply three stages of action that should be applied to any process-oriented mission in life: preparation, execution, and reflection.
Here’s an idea of how I use these three stages of action through both my physical and mental training:
This is perhaps the easiest step for any of us to take. We love to envision success, and to sketch out the theoretical path that we will embark on to achieve it. Yet, when the rubber hits the road, the wheels fall off pretty quickly. It’s almost as if we’ve convinced ourselves that creating the plan was good enough.
Don’t get me wrong, preparation is important, but it must be done with a great degree of thoughtfulness and realism in order to make it worth our time. Because as you probably know, nothing can be more disappointing than having a well prepared plan, only to create nothing out of it.
A basic rule of thumb for me when planning towards my goals is this: limit your scope of focus. Limiting your scope of focus means that you are keeping things simple, and that you are allowing success to be within reach, something that is very much achievable.
Make sure that each day has a purpose, and a brief list of tasks to center your focus towards. Sure, we all love a long checklist that we can fly through, crossing items off as we go, but what is truly the focus? Is it to accomplish a laundry-list of tasks at record breaking speed, or is it to execute something to the best of our abilities? As the adage goes, a jack of all trades is a master of none.
For my training, this looks like planning training sessions on a daily and weekly basis. Centering each session on a specific focus, whether that be the one or two primary muscles being trained for growth, or the emphasis of improving the strength and ability on a main lift. The plan should never get so big that I’m doubting my ability to succeed; rather, I am entering the execution stage with complete focus and confidence on the task at-hand.
Envision the person that you aim to become, whether it be mentally or physically, and center your focus on the action-steps that need to be taken. Think very simply, what would a person of success do right now to get better in this area. The practice of planning and preparation allows you to better understand your short and long-term goals, and the process required to achieve them. For most, this stage of action looks like writing (whether on paper or digitally) the plan to be executed, and visualizing the success to be had.
One’s ability to prepare should not be complicated, or overvalued. It should simply be viewed and implemented as a necessary practice on a journey towards growth and transformation.
Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity
This stage of action is easily the most glorified. People love to showcase the highlights of their journey’s, and to direct attention to themselves when everything is coming easily to them. The reality is that these moments come and go, but for one to be successful over the long-term, they must continue to execute the plan each and every day. Even when success isn’t within reach, and the vision isn’t clear, you still execute nonetheless. Consider the actions that you take each day as an investment in your future. In the words of Aristotle, We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. Every day counts, and we all have the same twenty-four hours to perform actions that align with the person that we want to become. But it all starts with a choice, and believing that each action taken is worthy of doing well, and with great intention for the future.
For my lifting journey, this stage looks like the six days per week that I step into the gym and train according to the prepared plan. In order to execute properly, I emphasize mental and physical readiness. I make sure that when I enter the gym my mind is clear, so that I can focus on the one thing that is important at that moment, the workout. The thing that I love about training is that success doesn’t happen by chance. You have to create future success through the mental fortitude required to stick to the plan. When it gets hard, you have to continue to put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving forward.
I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have
- Thomas Jefferson
The challenge with reflection in any area of our lives is that we must drop our ego. The ego clouds our understanding of reality, and seems to always portray us as the victim of some unintended consequence. Reflection allows us to keep our ego in-check on a daily basis, because it helps us to recognize its presence in our lives. No matter the form of reflection that you choose, the act of sitting down and simply considering the events of your day in an unbiased manner will ultimately strengthen your bond with your true-self, separate from the ego that we all possess.
For me, the ego is present in the self-talk that I have with myself about my progress towards a goal. If I have a really good training session, my ego is telling me that I have it all figured out, and the path forward will be linear. If my training is poor, my ego wants to jump ship from the current plan, and to find something that will actually work.
Reflection allows me to take the good with the bad, and to not get too high or too low. Each day will come and go, and all that truly matters is whether we did our part to promote growth within ourselves.
Dedicating time for daily reflections can help us all to stay grounded through times of stress and adversity. It allows us to look within ourselves to realize that ownership must be taken through the good and bad; negating the ego’s desire to push the blame off on external factors. After all, we don’t deserve to be celebrated for our successes if we can’t be scrutinized for our failures.
Practice reflection, and practice it often. It will allow you to recognize the false narratives and victim-mentalities being presented by the ego, and will keep you grounded in the virtues that your true-self intends to live by.
Without reflection, we go blindly on our way, creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.
- Margaret J. Wheatley
Lifting Lesson #1: Be Process-Oriented
Consistent dedication and practice to lifting weights has perhaps reinforced something that I learned at a younger age, as I grew up playing ice hockey. You can’t sacrifice the process for the goal.
In our nature, we love planning, scheming, and dreaming up large goals. We love to envision our success, but are much more reluctant to put in the minutes, hours, and days of tasks that will force growth. Work of any kind is mentally and physically challenging, yet there is no replacement for it in the life of someone who desires progress for themselves.
I encourage you to take inventory of your daily actions. Are you dedicating time to the actions that will promote growth towards a better version of yourself? No matter how accomplished or deserving your ego claims that you are, you still have room for growth. There’s always knowledge left to gain, experiences left to learn from, and a process left to be improved upon. Each action you take is an investment in the person that you are becoming. Take action decidedly, and cast your vote for a better you.