I don’t think many people start the gym (of any kind), consciously knowing why they’re starting. Maybe the odd person who’s been in great shape, fell off the wagon, and wants to feel great again, but on the whole, I think we all start for the wrong reasons.
When I started training with intent, some seven years ago, I was sick of being called fatty, or chunk, and wanted to not have to hold my breath to tie my shoelaces. Now there’s nothing wrong with any of these reasons, and there were MANY others too, but they’re not the real reason I started. Sure, in their own way, each of them formed part of the larger reason, but at the time, I couldn’t have told you what the real reason was. The things I would have told you if you asked, would have been a long list, and would have included those listed above. I can confidently tell you now though, that the real reason I started was this; I didn’t much like myself, for one reason and another, and I wanted to improve.
You see, when confronted we (read, “I”) tend to default to details, rather than taking the 10000ft perspective to cultivate and present our answer. We do this simply because when we’re unhappy, depressed, run-down or upset, we focus on small, granular details, and lose the ability to zoom out. This is not to trivialise any of the aforementioned conditions; they can be and have been crippling to the best of our race, but the truth is, all of our lives are great when viewed from the macro perspective, not the micro.
Whichever side of the political left-right divide you happen to sit on, we’re at a unique place in history where, regardless of your age, gender, social background, or any other variable you care to use, you have more freedoms, a better life expectancy, and more opportunities ahead of you than you would have had at any previous time. In the balance of things, this makes your life comparatively good. So with that in mind, the only way to enjoy that good life, to seize those opportunities, and to fulfill the potential gifted to you by genetics and environment in equal measure, you have to be in the right shape to do so. This is a complex equation, and differs greatly between individuals, but the general components include your mental health, your social health, your education, your physical health and fitness and a solid social structure within which you can flourish.
A dedicated approach to physical training can form the bedrock for this fulfilling life, but there are myriad other factors to consider. Your training should contribute positively to your life, enhancing your ability to enjoy it, and get the most out of it. All too often, the gym becomes a home away from home for people finding their way to fitness, and whilst their body composition, biomarkers and fitness numbers might all shift rapidly in the right direction, they’ll often end up missing out on the life they tell you they’re training so hard to improve.
You might ask how I’m so confident of this? I was the n=1. This was me for a good two or three years after finding fitness, and is someone I still occasionally become. Add to that the couple of dozen people I’ve watched go through the same rollercoaster journey, and I can pretty confidently tell you that your potential saviour might end up becoming your downfall. It needn’t be doom and gloom though, this can all be avoided. Below are the things I would have done differently for myself, or advised others to do differently with the benefit of hindsight!
Set goals that the gym enables you to reach, but that aren’t in the gym.
A great example of this would be a 10k run. Of course, there are many others, like perhaps the 3 peaks challenge, or completing an obstacle course race, or maybe just not being the last of your group of friends to scale a climb on your group walks. The point here is that these are all still goals which require increased fitness, but which are set well away from the four walls of the gym, and also crucially, with very different people.
Socialise with your gym friends outside of the gym.
You will automatically assign yourself, and those you surround yourself with, a slot in a hierarchy. We’re wired to do it. There is nothing inherently bad about this, but if you only ever see your friends in this one setting, and you happen to be the new person, and probably a little behind on your fitness journey, you will assign yourself a lower slot than you would in other settings. Whilst one friend might be much better than you at pull-ups, you might wipe the floor with them at bowling, and both get your butts kicked by another friend if you went ice skating. All three of you could turn up to a book club, and have another friend who’s in their comfort zone, whilst you feel out of your depth. Keeping a broader perspective will allow you to see your true value, and further validate what fitness adds to your life, without it dominating your life. It’s important throughout this process though, to avoid keeping score!
Don’t bring your personal problems to the gym, and don’t take your gym problems home.
We all have bad days, weeks, and occasionally longer, darker periods. The gym can be a great release for these, but only if you let it. Dragging a cloud along to train with you will not only ensure you keep getting rained on, but will rain on those around you too. The other way round seems less obvious, but in my experience, is more common! The gym is about an hour per day, five days a week (assuming we’re training the way we’re advised to), which is under 3% of your week. Imagine letting a missed lift bring you down all week, when the gym is supposed to enhance your life! We have bad days in the gym. They’re unavoidable and, treated correctly, provide growth opportunities. Whatever happens in a session, leave it in the gym, go home, or back to work, and start with a new focus, knowing that even a bad day in the gym has added more to your life than not going would have done.
Trade a little gym time for the other things that matter.
We’ve all met (or in my case been) the person who doesn’t have time to prepare and eat good food, or get a full eight hours of sleep each night, but yet manages to spend three hours at the gym each day. You have to support your training, and the best foundations are good sleep, good nutrition, and a good social life. These things will allow your training to be productive, without running you down, and help you recover in time to tackle your next workout.
Keep the gym in context.
This works both ways; your 100kg clean doesn’t make you better than other people, but it does help you create a better you. On the other hand, being last on a run doesn’t make you less important than anyone else. Both your successes and failures should be acknowledged, and looked at objectively, but it’s also important to keep them in perspective.
Acknowledge your progress.
It’s easy to get bogged down by the fact you haven’t increased your deadlift or your max pull-ups for a few months, but it was never about that. Sure, you can tell me that’s your priority, but I don’t believe you, and you don’t really believe yourself. Work out what you really come to the gym for; what it really adds to your life, and how it really improves you as a person. Look at your growth outside of the gym, and how your training has facilitated that. That’s your progress. Celebrate that. Briefly. Then get back to continuing your development.