From the outside a gym looks to be a place where all people do is work up a sweat, make newbies feel terrifically inadequate and curl in the squat rack. For many, this is the case. They turn up, move some weight around following some kind of movement pattern that only kind of looks like an exercise but definitely looks like some form of voodoo magic. This ritual takes so much of their energy that they have to text and snapchat the gym gods pictures of their “swole” for ten minutes between sets before they have enough energy to go and do it all over again.
Alright, so maybe this is a bit extreme and very high and mighty of me, but it is true for some people. Some people DO go in there just to move some weight around in no logical pattern or with any kind of purpose and if they enjoy that then all the more power to them. But that’s not for me. That’s not for most people.
The gym is about much more than that. It’s about so much more than the four walls that contain it and the quality of the equipment within. The gym is as much training for a person’s mental capacity as it is for the physical. The first time I heard this I thought it was a load of dramatised, fairy tale, hippy nonsense that really had no merit whatsoever and could be disregarded completely. However, since I started training, really training, I’ve come to realise that it really is the gods honest truth!
A typical training session involves moving weights that are relatively heavy for a predetermined number of sets and reps, with a bit of rest between. People who are training effectively will not only do this explosively whilst squeezing the hell out of their muscles, but will actively make this more and more difficult for themselves as time goes on by adding more and more weight. The fact is that the more effort you put in and the more advanced you become, the harder and harder it becomes.
This isn’t unlike life. We all start off struggling with the simple things. Walking, crawling, talking and even holding our own head up. We learn so much as we grow and over time these things get easier and easier and easier. After a few years most of us have mastered these skills and can do them with ease, but life comes along and “ups the weight” a bit for us. We start school and we start learning even more. Maths, english, science and other subjects. We start to learn how to interact with other people our own age. We learn what its like to be away from our families and are placed in environments we have never been before with a much reduced support structure (one teacher for 20-25 students vs our parents for one, two or three kids).
Once again, with time we learn to master this and it becomes a part of daily life. We continue to learn a bit but are mostly content and able to deal with these challenges. Yet again however, life comes and adds in an extra set. We graduate to secondary school and start to develop and grow from children into adults. We are not only under pressure from the education system to complete exams that will “decide our future” but are starting to figure out who we really are, what we want from life (or at least think we want) and develop a sense of individualism. Again, the support structure is reduced even further with a great deal of teenagers feeling like they have no one at all despite that usually not being the case.
We power on through though and hopefully end up going to college or getting a job that we are happy in. It doesn’t end there though and yet again (You can see a trend here), life decides to up the difficulty. We now become fully functioning adults with very little support for everyday life. Bills, job stress, eating healthy, finding or keeping a loved one, starting a family, buying a home. All these things are new experiences that come with their own difficulties and issues that need to be overcome. Over time we learn how to deal with these as best we can and do our best to enjoy life.
This is where life and the gym part ways though. Life as it happens, ALWAYS has a support structure. There’s always someone there to help even when we feel there really isn’t. As we progress along through life the influence and presence this help has falls off but it is never truly gone. When we’re a kid in school we have our teachers, when we’re starting work or college we have our colleagues, managers and family. Even when we become self-sufficient adults with families we have a whole host of support structures to help, be that with friends and family or with professional organizations who are there to help us tackle any burdens that become overpowering.
The gym on the other hand, has no support structure when it comes to completing a lift. Sure you can follow your favorite trainers program, do an extensive mobility program and eat like a horse but the weight isn’t going to lift itself and there is no one but you to do it. Your best friend can’t come in and take half the load and your 5th year maths teacher wouldn’t be able to do much more either for you. At the end of the day, the only way that weight is going to move is if you are 100% capable of doing it on your own. It doesn’t care if you had a bad day, are just back from holidays or even if you just REALLY want it. Either you can do it, or you can’t.
At first, like most new experiences in life, this is incredibly daunting. When you start off the weights others around are moving you may seem insurmountable. You will feel weak, small and out-of-place. It’s scary as hell and usually people feel like they have no place being there. Over time however we learn how the equipment works, how to perform the exercises and like a board game slowly progress up to higher and higher ranks. The unfortunate thing however is that this board game is more like snakes and ladders then anything else. Sure every now and again you’ll come across a ladder – a period of huge progress in what seems like a short amount of time, but the flip side of that are the snakes. The failed PB’s, the injuries, the missed workouts, the botched meals, all of it. These snakes aren’t optional either and over time you will come across more than a few if your training correctly.
This inevitable failure is what makes the gym so much of a mental stimulant and source of growth. To progress you have to push past when your mind tells you to stop. When its screaming “that’s enough” or “I’m tired” or “fuck this shit” you need to plough on through until your body tells you otherwise. You need to walk up to that bar loaded with a weight that you failed the last time when everyone was looking, the one that gave you a slight injury, and take ownership of it. You need to go up, rid your mind of all distractions and forget all else. Forget the stresses of life, forget that there are people looking, forget that your mind is looking to go back to bed. You need to forget it all and lift.
One rep later and you’ve accomplished something that you could never do before. You didn’t get any help, no one went easy on you and there was no “half assing” it. The only way that this is different from the time you tried and failed is that this time you got it. You grew, you advanced and you conquered. You put yourself, both mentally and physically, in places that were very uncomfortable and made them comfortable. In the gym you do this again, and again, and again.
The spill over this has in life is not negligible. We are faced everyday with problems and issues that need to be overcome and the hours and progress made in the gym just shows us that regardless of the fact that right now we don’t know where to start or what to do, that with time we WILL know what to do. We WILL figure it out and it WILL be a thing of the past. Subconsciously, our mind doesn’t even give it the same level off attention any more. What once was “Oh Shit, ‘dafuk am I going to do” now turns into a simple “fuck this, let’s get it done and move on”.
Regardless of your background, upbringing, education or passions, if you really want to progress through life and achieve anything, overcoming adversity is going to be a huge part of that. Getting in the gym and pushing yourself in hard and intelligent ways may add more adversity to that life, but in a way that it doesn’t matter how long it takes to overcome. The real benefit comes from the fact that practice makes perfect, and although we may be training for our physical being, overcoming that adversity trains our mental one too.
“The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”
– Henry Rollins