Action Overrides Emotion

“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.”

you-cannot-command-an-emotion-but-you-can-command-an-action-emotion-quoteMy 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.”  mental-toughAt 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.

Excitement vs intensity

I have almost always enjoyed exercise and structured my day around it.  Since I began running cross country in high school, exercise has been the one constant in my life and the part of my day that brought me the most joy.  Of course, there were times that I was tired or sore or for some reason my heart wasn’t in it, but that was always a quickly passing thing for me.  In high school and college, a lot of my teammates trained so they could compete; I was the opposite – competing so I could train.  In my 20s, the days when I got to do long marathon training runs with my local Road Runner’s club felt to me like moving parties – seriously, like happy hour with sneakers instead of cocktails.  Even when I was 7 months pregnant with twins, the highlight of my day was getting to the gym, doing what I could do, which at that point was mainly walking on a treadmill.  And recently, some nights I dream about the squat rack or deadlifts or pull-ups or just being at Fivex3Training, and when that happens, I usually wake up too excited to fall back asleep.  I know; weird, right?  That’s just the way I’m wired.

Group fitness instructors and exercise companies spend a lot of energy trying to foster a similar sense of joy in their participants.  They focus on music selection and constantly changing combinations of “choreographed” moves to keep participants interested and excited and coming back for more.  My awareness of the marketability of exercise as fun coupled with the fact that I’m more wired to find joy in exercise rather than in the intensity of competition, contributed to my initial attitudes towards lifting heavier weights.  But the more time I spent with serious lifters, the more I started to notice that my a level of excitement was a bit off compared to what I observed in those around me.

When Craig approaches the squat rack to lift heavy, he often has headphones on and audibly psyches himself up.  He seems to create his own mental space occupied by only the weights and himself; he usually declares something like, “Now it’s time to WORK, mother-f**er”, heads into that space, and gets the job done.  When Amy coached my form for a power clean, the look in her eyes was so concentrated it was startling, especially given that she was demonstrating with a dowel, a very light PVC pipe.  The weight of the dowel was light enough that it was disconcerting to me, but that didn’t hinder Amy from exuding serious athleticism even on a demo.  I’ve seen the same in Emily who, when she taught me overhead press Rippetoe-style, seemed to be instantly transported into competition mode.  In observing each of them, I saw something in their eyes that gave me insight into what was happening in their minds, something that was different from what had been happening to me when I approached the bar.

In their eyes, I had seen a level of focus that I envied.  Where I was giddy with the newness of strength training, they were confident and calm.  At that point, I knew enough at least to realize that developing this type of focus was going to be an essential part of lifting heavy weights, that it would help keep me safe.  I thought about something my husband had said to me recently when I was going on and on … again … about strength training.  “I’m going to say something that sounds like I’m repeating myself, but I’m not,” he said.  “What’s cool about all this is that you are in love and you are falling in love with what you are doing.”  And that sort of summed up the difference between me and my mentors.  Where I was giddy with new love, they had cultivated the security of a long-term relationship.  I had a feeling; they had put that feeling into practice, and the result was that while I was excited, they were intense.   They possessed the quiet confidence that comes with commitment and experience.  They had developed an intensity born of focus, attention to detail, and dedication.  They had earned it.  And I realized that I would get there too; any of us can.  It just takes willingness, time, and practice.

That Flippin’ Tire

jenn TireIn my lifts I focus a lot of my attention on bracing and breath to protect my low back and my “not hernia.” This is important.  I am also always amazed by the number of compensations my body uses, all of which become apparent under heavy loads.  Craig would say I’m distracted by the idea of compensations and being balanced.  I’m sure he says that because I talk about it … a lot.  And of course, if you are talking when you are lifting heavy weights, you lose the breath that fills your diaphragm, supports your low back, braces you. If you talk, you are at risk for injury.

The day Craig and his client Jenn let me join her for conditioning work, I was talking … a lot.  I had never flipped giant tires, pushed a weighted-up prowler, swung a sledgehammer, played wall ball with a med ball.  I was in heaven!  I talked out of excitement, and I also talked out of one of my usual place of insecurity, my concern about my compensations leading to imbalances.

That tire was heavy.  I noticed that every time I flipped it, after I squatted and lifted it as high as I could, I instinctively shoved my left shoulder under it to move my hands higher, and then balanced it on my left leg for a second to get a big push from my right leg so I could shove that thing over.  I started chattering about all that.  About how I always used my right side to push.  About how unbalanced I was going to be.  I was like Spiderman in the Marvel comics “Civil War” Movie.  The one the experienced superheros look at funny and say, “Uh … I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fight before, but  …. there’s usually NOT this much talking!”  Craig essentially told me the same thing, “Quit your talking and flip the damn tire!”

There are different schools of thought on balance, compensation, and corrective exercises.  Sometimes imbalances cause pain or discomfort and compromised movement patterns.  Sometimes imbalances make someone great.  What would a MLB pitcher be if he were balanced?  This is a big topic of discussion in training circles, and one I’m still reading about.

As I debated this topic in my head, I decided to split the difference and flip the tire back pushing from my left leg.  I looked at the tire.  Craig and Jenn looked at me.  I mentally and physically rehearsed how I would flip it from my left leg.  Craig and Jenn were down hill from me and the tire was between us.  It probably looked to them like I had quit.

Craig yelled up the hill, “Look if you can flip it from the other leg, great. But it doesn’t matter!  Stop overthinking it!  And STOP TALKING or you’ll get hurt!”

Jenn followed up, “It doesn’t matter how you flip it!  It matters that you CAN flip it!”

And that’s when it sort of clicked for me that the other purpose of this work, aside from anaerobic conditioning, was mental.  It mattered that Jenn and I knew we were strong and that we had experiences that validated that.  It mattered that we could train the mental chatter, the voices that whisper “not enough,” so that we could be strong in the moment and get the job done.  It mattered that we trained to work from that place of quiet confidence that would keep us safe.

When Less is More

When I started working with Emily at Fivex3Training, I had to relearn some of the form that I had been using. I had been doing high bar back squats, and Emily was teaching me low bar back squat. In general, that doesn’t really make much difference. I had started barbell squatting with light weight, high rep squats in a group fitness setting that coached the high bar squat. I was comfortable with that bar position and took it with me when I went to the squat rack to lift heavier weight. During this transition though, a small kernel of an idea was beginning to sprout in my mind, the idea that I might want to look into powerlifting competitions.  For that possibility or at the very least for my own personal reasons, I knew I wanted to lift more weight, and learning the low bar back squat the way Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program coached it would allow me to do so.

Since I was still learning a new form, obviously I hadn’t earned the right to weight up the bar much, especially on squat and overhead press. I knew I also had to train my breath and bracing. Stay tight but still breathe. Super important with a post-pregnancy history of hernias. Emily was helping me train this too. My instructions on leaving my first session at Fivex3Training were not to do any other lifting that would interfere with her work with me and mostly to rest. Having just lifted about 40% less weight than I was used to, I resisted that a bit. That old feeling of “not being something enough” was trying to insist that I had not lifted heavy enough, and I knew following her directions would be a struggle for me mentally.

“Emily, I need specific directions so I don’t get stupid. Can I still train my pull up? Can I swing a kettlebell? Tell me what I CAN do, so I don’t do something I shouldn’t do.”

She helped me break that down. I still had my group fitness classes to teach – use minimum weights. I could still train my pull up, do some light cardio, yoga. OK – there was something I could work with to keep that edgy feeling I get when I don’t work out at bay.

So I did what I could, and Craig helped me with the mental piece. He sent me links to articles on the importance of planned de-loads, about training smarter for more gains. Harder work and more work does not necessarily mean better work or better results. One of the differences between training and working out is the recognition of the need for rest and recovery, having an off-season, not constantly moving to move.

Craig is always telling me to “get my mind right.” The meaning of that seems to change a bit depending on the circumstance, but I’m learning. I’m learning that the mental aspect of weightlifting is hugely important, just as important as form and technique, and that I need to train that too. Master the feeling of “not enough”.  Face the discomfort, and not “workout” to silence it. Accept that sometimes doing less for a period of time is essential to moving forward. Resist the idea that busyness is better, the idea that we need to do more to be more. Train myself to move away from a feeling of “not enough” and instead work from a place of “strong enough”.