Simply Stronger, II: Getting Your Head Right

At least 90% of successful improvement of any kind has to do with “where” your head is. I’m sure there are plenty of mental health professionals who would vomit after hearing my simpleton description, but anecdotally and from experience, I know this much to be true: psychological context means (almost) everything. Usually, the process happens in a predictable pattern. A person perceives their life to be off-track in some way, and they decide it is bad enough to invest in changes, with their time and money and emotional capital (they’re ready to trust someone or something new). They make some changes, or do some new things, or learn some new skills, and their world expands.  Possibilities blossom (“Maybe I could do a handstand someday!”), but so does doubt (“Whoa, I am more off-track than I thought!”).  Motivation is fed, yes, but usually that pool of investment is debited, too.  A good teacher/coach encourages consistent practice, outlining a manageable path toward mastery, but pretty soon their new, larger and more exciting world-view starts to be normal--and now that person can only see how off-track they are compared to that.  In the best case, the cycle repeats, and in the worst case desire to improve gradually erodes.  But neither is satisfying according to the original getting-back-on-track goals.

There are some important issues at work here.  First, at every moment except for that initial trusting one, people are concerned with how off-track they are. That is expected--even admirable (wanting to be better definitely beats the alternatives), but it is a decidedly negative way to see the world: you are NOT something. Ouch.

Second, the solution to the problem is assumed to be outside of yourself. Again, while the premise is good (“I am going to be open to new things!”) it is also has some seriously negative potential (“I--with the tools I have--am not enough”).

Finally, while the process seems circular (it returns to where it started), it actually is a collapsing spiral. With each trip around, your world-view gets larger but your sense of self-efficacy rots. Instead of living and working with new skills, you are bombarded with all the things that you can’t do.

While most of the fitness industry is consumed with feeding this cycle (mostly for selfish reasons--that’s what the next post is about), each of us as individuals have the power to break free! And we must. Big surprise, but I think it has everything to do with being committed to getting and being stronger. Here’s why:

1. There are few goals more straightforward than just plain getting stronger, which is one of way of saying that working on it makes your mind quiet.  Strength is easily measured objectively, and progress is easily tracked.  This is hugely important for people on the not-good-enough (not-so-)merry-go-round.  Also, the concrete nature of the results only reflect the concrete nature of the activity itself.  When one trains for strength, they are committing to focused improvement on a few tasks--at the exclusion of others.  If those few tasks are holistic and global and widely-vetted by the experts (squatting, deadlifting, pressing, etc.), you can be secure in knowing that you are doing well by your body without worrying that you are creating gaps in your well-being.

I you can set aside, for a moment, how effective or not-effective such an approach might be physically (that’s what Part I was about...), looking at your training life this way allows you to be at ease with the big picture. No longer does one feel like they have to constantly be looking over their shoulder to see how on-track they are, and they can spend that brainpower on doing things right in the moment. There will always be distractions, but a good coach, a few like-minded friends and a little will-power makes all the difference. With your long-term mind relaxed, getting down to the physical work of squatting and hinge-ing and the rest is pretty cut-and-dried--the “easy” part.

2. The process of simple, straight-forward strength training fits with other paths toward mastery. Think of the concert pianist, practicing hundreds of thousands of hours over their lifetime; the NFL quarterback, taking thousands of snaps/reads in practice and hundreds more in games; the chef cooking a piece of salmon to perfect done-ness, the 8,000th time. Each one of these folks has impressive skills, but that skill is vastly overshadowed by how impressive their work ethic is.

Strength is one of these skills like any other, even if for most of us it is only a means to an end (better movement, better achievement in sport, or better body aesthetics).  And like any skill, long-term commitment and consistency are the main determiner of real success. But since strength is really about creating more mechanical tension, the physiological component is more obvious, in a way. It feels more like building a wall out of bricks than practicing figure drawing. The concreteness of the pursuit, the solidity of changing your muscles and bones helps us make sense of the time it takes to move forward; the patience required seems to flow more easily, too, so long as strength remains the goal.

And once that patience becomes a habit, you have found the real prize. Whether you want to keep working on physical goals or realign your focus, the skill of self-improvement is now yours, and working on strength got you there.

3. The most important bit, though, is still coming: strength shakes up the whole paradigm of trashy self-confidence. Let’s look at body-image as an example:

There a millions of ways to reframe the issue, to shift your perspective so that what you look like somehow means something more tolerable. Then there are a million ways to slash-and-burn, to cut weight or “get ripped,” but that’s worse: when the curtain comes down, all you’ve done is feed the monster exactly what it wanted all along--you’ve given in.

But working on what you can do undercuts the whole fear-breeding operation. Rather than pretending the elephant isn’t in the room, working on something as basic as strength is like politely asking the elephant to get out of the way so that you’ll have room to deadlift, please. Little steps toward being stronger feed a fire in each of us, small at first but growing with each day and month of staying on track. Pretty soon, “you” are a sack of skills and abilities, and your body reflects that. When you look in the mirror, or find yourself surrounded by talented people, your fire of capability warms you; the rest is just noise.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I bet most of you have thought about a lot of these things--because you’re human. What are your thoughts?