Without patting myself on the back too hard, I would say I’m in pretty good shape. I wouldn’t consider myself a model of human perfection by any means (by fitness industry standards, I’m average at best), but in a country where general unhealthiness and obesity are so common, I do tend to stand out amongst the general population. This brings plenty of admiring looks and compliments, and the occasional wandering hand, but what I find most common of all is the exclamation, “You are just OBSESSED with working out!” I usually laugh this off, but it does get me thinking. What I think this idea of “obsession” does, is it makes results like mine seem much harder to reach. That word, “obsessed,” implies that the only way to build muscle and get lean is to eat, sleep, breath, talk, dream, and read, about fitness. Put in that light, it’s no surprise that so many people fail in their fitness goals so consistently that some gyms build their business models counting on it.
The thing is, I find that it’s this very “obsession” that stands in peoples’ way! The problem arises when one starts from a place of damage control; working out to off-set all of the pizza and beef consumed over the previous weekend. Right from the get go, there is a negative connotation, “I messed up, therefore I must punish myself with weights and treadmills.” I think that we can all agree that that is not healthy or sustainable. When a movement practice comes from a place of damage control, it become not about being healthy, but rather, about not being unhealthy (again, negative). Yes, there are people who have done damage to their bodies that needs to be repaired, but even that implies that it’s just a hole that can be patched and walked away from. Fitness isn’t the kind of journey that has a finish line; it’s not just a means to an end. We’re all on the path whether we like it or not. Some are running along the path, some walking, some crawling, and some are just sitting still, but we’re all still there. It’s a path with no end, but infinite milestones.
For me, exercise, or just movement in general, has become the means AND the end. That’s right folks, I just love working out. I’m not a masochist. I also don’t subscribe to many of the, “no pain, no gain,” or, “fear of being average,” mantras that have proliferated the fitness industry. These carry with them their own negative connotations, not to mention that fear is not a sustainable or a healthy motivator.
I didn’t always feel this way. I had the typical “six-pack, barrel chest” physique goals. And at that time, yes, I was obsessive. I anxiously checked my progress in the mirror and on the scale. I panicked if I thought I’d miss a workout. I agonized over anything that didn’t perfectly align with my self-prescribed diet. The result of all this? I didn’t reach ANY of my goals! This obsessive attitude sucked any and all joy out of my training. The reason for this was that I was obsessed with a subjective result. When you’re focused on how you look in the mirror, you obsess over every single detail. I also don’t think it’s uncommon for checking in the mirror to be an every day ritual, which actually makes it harder to see the results! Changes in body composition happen in minuscule increments. When you see yourself every day, it’s impossible to actually see the change.
The change for me happened when I stopped focusing on the mirror, and started focusing on the weights I was lifting. This is different because weights are objective; forty-five pounds is always going to be forty-five pounds. It doesn’t matter if you had a bad day, it doesn’t matter if it’s raining, it doesn’t matter if you ate a pint of ice cream the night before, that bar will always weigh forty-five pounds. Its objectivity means that you can always count on it. It also makes tracking your progress very simple. Did you lift five pounds more than you did last week? You got stronger! Did you get two more reps than last week? You got stronger! It’s that easy to track your progress. Now of course, the chase for heavier weights can become its own obsession, but at least then you know whether or not the goals you are chasing are getting closer. That certainty can go a long way where your mental health is concerned.
When I changed my goals to objective, performance-based goals instead of subjective, aesthetics-based goals, I immediately stated making progress. I wasn’t thinking about if my abs were showing, I just wanted to lift heavier weights. And you know what? As the weights got heavier, I started to see those aesthetic results I had been chasing!
Konstantin Stanislavsky, the father of modern acting, said, “Generality is the enemy of all art.” So, instead of just talking about these “results” I had, I’ll give you the specific examples.
We can consider this picture the baseline:
I’m 200lbs in this picture. Decently strong (Squat: 315, Bench: 250, Deadlift: 450, OH Press: 135), but not much muscle definition. This was when I decided that I wanted to make a change.
This is six weeks later:
I’m 185 in this picture. Sure, I’ve got more definition, but at the expense of my mood, energy levels, strength, and libido with the aggressive carb-cycling I did to get here. But, nothing tastes as good as skinny feels right? … Right?!
Picture number three (below) is after a year of touring the country unhappily trying to maintain what I’d done, and then a year of eating 3,500-4,500 calories a day and sticking to a very basic 5/3/1 program:
FIRST though, and more importantly, here’s what the guy in that picture can DO:
That’s a 160lb Overhead Press, a 420lb Squat, 315lb Bench, and 525lb Deadlift, up from 135, 315, 250, and 450 respectively.
Now, the shirtlessness:
How much do I weigh here? Before I tell you, go back and look at the first picture (200lbs) … the answer is—204lbs! That’s right, I’m heavier, but with more muscle definition, AND instead of a 315lb Squat, I have a 315lb Bench!
I really think the reason I was able to make such progress in both of these areas is because I focused on my performance. When you think about it, the human body is designed for those kinds of goals; it’s designed for function and performance. Ancient Homo sapiens didn’t care if they had six-packs (even though they were probably all shredded); they cared about running away from lions. I don’t say that to try to win you over the Paleo side, but what I mean is, given what we know now about the mechanisms and functions of the human body and how/why they evolved the way they did, we have a massive amount of information to use to our advantage. Look at top level athletes for example, whose physiques many try to emulate. They are a perfect example of form FOLLOWING function. They train to run faster and lift heavier, not to be ripped and jacked. But, in becoming faster and stronger, they BECOME ripped and jacked. When it’s capable of performing a certain way, the human body has to look a certain way. A perfect example is a friend of mine who’s a professional powerlifter. A fellow shopper at a grocery store told him, “With arms like that, you must be a physique competitor.” Curveball—he never directly trains his arms! Do you know why they’re so big? Because they have to be to hold onto the bar when he deadlifts 700lbs!
The change in mentality—from training for looks to training for weights—will not be easy, especially if you’re unhappy with how you look. It may seem like it won’t work, but your body will adapt. Your body doesn’t care about your goals; it just reacts to stimuli. The same stimulus that makes you stronger can also give you that body you’ve been chasing! I could write a whole other article about the benefits of just being stronger (more confidence, faster metabolism, easier to carry all your groceries in one trip), but, as I discovered myself, it doesn’t matter who tells you what. You have to experience the change and make the choice yourself. With this article, I hope I’ve led you to some crystal clear waters: it’s up to you now whether or not you’ll take a drink.