“Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you’d like to act.”― Bob Dylan
“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”― C.G. Jung
Today after listening to me explain her next set of exercises, one of my clients stared at me pointedly and said, “You know,… I really don’t want to do this.” “That’s OK” I replied and shrugged. She chuckled and said, “You’re going to make me do it anyway, aren’t you?” “Yup! That’s why I’m here. You decided you want to be stronger, so this is what we do. You don’t have to want to do the exercises; you just have to do them.”
My client is not alone in this feeling of wanting to avoid certain exercises. This summer, my friend Dan wrote to me to request a post on this type of situation. He commented that while there were plenty of exercises that he loved, there were some he really disliked: “Turkish Get-up, Bulgarian split squat, almost any variety of lunges, hang-cleans, wall ball work: but they are all par to functional strength and conditioning and so I know I should do them.” Getting stronger and maintaining our health is not easy work. And it’s definitely not something that people always want to do. Even people who love exercise have off days, days when the work of psyching themselves up for the job is harder than other days. Sometimes people resist exercise categorically and sometimes they just resist certain exercises. The reasons that we love or hate particular exercises, or exercise in general, are multiple and varied, but well worth investigating.
Sometimes the exercises we dislike are ones that challenge our weaker areas and seem to prevent us from using our usual compensation patterns. Our bodies find the most efficient way to do things, the path of least resistance. So when certain muscles are weak, our bodies recruit neighboring muscles to take over. Exercises that target the weaker areas are often on the list of those most hated, because no one likes to be reminded of their weaknesses. Dan observed that many of the exercises he hated are ones that address the posterior chain, the back of the body, the muscles that we sit on and ignore for large portions of the day, the ones that typically become weaker from our modern sedentary lifestyle. Many of us neglect to train the back side, preferring instead to work on the muscles we can see easily in the mirror. This error in exercise programming is so common that aspiring personal trainers are taught the postural deviations that result from tight pecs and a relatively weak upper back so they can help people address and correct this sort of imbalance in training. Often the exercises we’d rather not do are the ones that help further our progress. For many of us the exercises we know we should do but hate include the mobility and stability work that form the basic building blocks of health, the non-glamorous work of getting down on the floor with the foam roller or training stabilizing endurance muscles at light weights. Stuff you wouldn’t write home about.
I suspect that the exercises we love are most often the ones that we are good at, the exercises that allow us to feel a sense of mastery. Sometimes they are exercises we were not especially good at initially, but they become favorites because they are the ones where we see the most improvement. This too allows us to experience a sense of accomplishment, of inching closer to perfection through practice. This feeling is its own reward and provides ample motivation. The exercises we usually dislike though are the ones that provide the least in terms of short-term gratification or sense of mastery; often they are the ones that force us out of our comfort zone. And as with many things in life, working outside of our comfort zones offers the potential for even more profound rewards, benefits that exceed the physical ones of improved mobility and stability, benefits that also allow us to grow our character.
Doing things we love is easy. Doing things we know we need to do but don’t want to do requires discipline and mental toughness. Our actions override our feelings about our actions. So regardless of whether or not we want to be doing something, when we act on what we believe to be right, when we do the work even though we don’t want to, we shape the way we see ourselves. Whatever our feeling about it, just showing up for each training session and determining to do our best for that day becomes an essential piece in building a habit of excellence and in shaping our perception of ourselves. Little things like that matter. There is a poem hanging by my kitchen sink, a portion of which speaks to this: “Watch your actions, they become your habit. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” At the same time that we build our character, we also build our mental toughness, something that is essential to lifting. We build mental toughness and self-esteem by rising to the challenges that face us, by doing what we believe is right regardless of how we feel about it. In his article “4 Ways to Build Mental Toughness”, Dan Blewett defines toughness as “the internal discipline to not quit.” Showing up and doing our best even when we don’t feel like it, especially when we don’t feel like it, defines us as dedicated, disciplined, persistent, dependable, mentally tough.
For me the irony in all of this is that the two people who expressed concern about not wanting to do certain exercises are people who, from where I stand, regularly exhibit resoluteness of character. When I work with this particular client, what I see in her eyes is determination, a willingness to work hard, a desire to rise above her previous status quo and to exceed her own expectations. I see her through the actions she performs; she sees herself through her feeling about those actions, and so we come to different conclusions. When I think of my friend Dan, a distinguished high school English teacher and principal, I know that he spends a good portion of his day patiently and graciously putting other people’s needs before his own, being reliable, dependable, and trustworthy. And after all of the mental energy that his job requires, he still shows up for training. His feelings about wanting to do the exercises or not inform only his view of himself; for the rest of us, his actions speak volumes about dedication and discipline. It’s easy to get caught up in our own thoughts and feelings about the task at hand. Ultimately though, it is the decision to show up and do our best regardless of how we feel about it that most vividly defines us and provides the greatest potential for us to grow in meaningful and sometimes unexpected ways.