I used to say that anyone who can physically squat a thousand pounds surely doesn’t have any mental weakness but much like many other definitive statements that I have made, I’m about to challenge this one. I first began lifting back in 7th grade. As I started puberty, I shot up in height very quickly but my weight always lagged behind. People would comment about how skinny I was on a regular basis and during that period it had a pretty major impact. I didn’t like being called small or skinny and in my head believed that a man should be big and strong, hence the start of my weight training journey. Fast forward a couple decades and I met the expectations of my 7th grade self. I got up to 280 lbs, I had elite totals in powerlifting, I had gotten lean enough to step onto a bodybuilding stage. I had checked all the boxes for “manliness”. Then earlier this year I stopped taking testosterone, something I had been on for about 7 years. My levels fell to that well beyond the “normal” range and into the “uh oh, that’s not good range”. Fast forward 6 months from then and I’m still dealing with those terribly low numbers. But beyond the physical changes that I faced, the mental challenges were the hardest to deal with. Since seventh grade I had been focused on getting bigger and stronger and for 17 years I had continued to make progress in those endeavors but once I came off testosterone I had to watch that progress begin to landslide backwards. Spending 17 years building the framework of my identity around what I looked like and how strong I was didn’t set me up well for dealing with the effects of that framework beginning to crumble.
I am not alone in this. I’ve been around lifting and training and fitness for my entire life. People have tons of reasons for beginning their journey and everyone’s journey takes them on a different path but so many people use the gym as a way of dealing with the emotions of life. This can be both good and bad. For many, they have setup up their identity in how they perform under a barbell, how many likes they get on a video of them training, how many followers they have to share their journey with. Unfortunately social media has become a window into so many lifters psyches and while the window my look sturdy and strong, the foundation is weak and frail. Many lifters will read this and think “Man, this guy sounds like a total wuss.” I don’t blame you, I would’ve thought the same thing. But for those who may be a little too familiar with what I’m talking about, I think I can help. I am in no way claiming to have this whole mental strength thing figured out. I am sharing with you things that I have found work for me as I work my way towards daily improvements in mental strength with the hope that they will work for you too.
Do Something You Suck At
Once I stopped pursuing strength and size, I realized I had to find something else to work towards. Luckily for me anything other than strength training was going to be a serious challenge so being the extreme individual that I am, I decided to take on lots of new things that I suck at. First, I started doing CrossFit. CrossFit was a conditioning challenge greater than anything I had attempted since playing college football. Anything that lasted longer than 1 minute was a kill shot to my lungs so when the first workout I attempted lasted over 30 minutes I was pretty sure I was going to meet my maker. Combine that with all the gymnastics movements and, despite being a college athlete, I feel like I can’t even walk and chew bubble gum. I also started doing jujitsu which, for those who haven’t ever done it, is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical challenge and the thing about jujitsu is that your size and strength don’t give you any advantage whatsoever if you don’t have the skills and technique. I proceeded to get my ass kicked on a regular basis by people way smaller and better than me. Finally, I started running. Someone (my wife) convinced me to do a warrior dash which is a 10 mile obstacle course (the longest I’ve ever ran is a 5K). And then another friend (I’m going to classify Angie as a friend here because I really
hate love hate love her) convinced me to do a half marathon. Now, anyone who knows me at all will know how shocking it is to hear me say I’m going to run a half marathon. But here is why: I really suck at CrossFit, jujitsu, and running.
While it feels so comfortable to stay in our lane and do things we’re good at, growth only occurs when we’re forced to adapt. I was as ill prepared for every one of these things as I could possibly be but that made me have to let go of my pride and in doing so I got to learn, I got to grow, and I got to gain strength not only in the CrossFit workouts, on the jujitsu mat, or on the trails but mentally as well. There was something very powerful about saying to myself “David, you really suck at this, you’re gonna suck at it for a while, and it’s gonna hurt really bad. Deal with it and don’t quit.”
Find a New Pain
There is a certain pain associated with different physical acts. As a power lifter, there is a familiar pain involved when you are getting your knees wrapped about to take your third squat attempt in a meet and the lifter in front of you takes forever. By the time you get to the bar your feet are asleep, you can’t feel your legs and you feel the weight of hundreds of pounds stressing every muscle, tendon, and ligament to the max. In football, there was a familiar pain in the 4th quarter when you’re trying to catch your breath as you sprint down the field to get ready for the next play in the last minute of a close game. All your knuckles are jammed, you’re bleeding from your nose where someone snuck a finger through your facemask, and you’ve been in an all out wrestling match with the lineman across from you but you still have to put your hand on the ground and rush with everything you’ve got. Both of those are familiar pains and that familiarity takes away their fright.
It was always easy to think of myself as tough as I watched new lifters squirm like crazy the first time they got their knees wrapped. But I was only tough in the sense that I was prepared for the pain each time and I knew exactly what to expect. A new pain, however, has a far greater power for drilling it’s way into your psyche and telling you to tap out. That has been my experience with distance running. While lifting is incredibly painful, the time frame is relatively short. Running produces a more constant nagging pain, a relentless voice inside your head that tries to make you focus on how your feet, your ankles, your legs, and your lungs are burning. It says “Just take a breather. Walk for a little bit.” Having not been used to this, a new mental battle has begun against an unfamiliar enemy. And like any other battle, while both sides will take their beatings, one will eventually come out victorious. Through that victory new mental strength is gained. Knowing that you have power over that new pain will strengthen you for the next time you face it.
Go Off Grid
As many benefits as technology has brought us it’s brought just as many negative consequences with it. I am reading a book about the Louise and Clark expedition and one of the things that is so amazing to me is their use of the english language. Their only way of communicating other than talking was through writing. If they wanted to invite someone over for dinner they had to write them a letter (much like a wedding invitation) and they would use a thousand words to describe a leaf. Now a days a text convo between two people wanting to go to dinner goes something like:
“thumbs up emoji”
In our hurry, we have become dumb. To top that off, with the majority of our physical needs met very easily (food, water, air, shelter) people have turned to the internet to meet their social and psychological needs. Now everyone uses social media for all other social pursuits: friendship, love, community. While there are benefits to it, many people get sucked so much that the social media pursuit becomes the predominant factor in their physical pursuits. Now the goal is to gain followers, get likes, and share the whole experience through a glass screen. I’m not saying don’t post on social media, I do it as well. But instead take some time off. Do some workouts that you don’t tell everyone about. Even better, get outside and disconnect. Go for a run, go for a hike, go for a bike ride. Enjoy physical activity apart from worrying about getting someone to video it. And enjoy that physical activity in nature. Few things can make you realize how insignificant you are as a roaring water fall that is millions of years old. With that realization you will be forced to separate from your self absorption and just enjoy the experience. When you start to collect experiences and lose the idol of self worth you will be free from the mental and emotional strain that comes from trying to perform for the crowd. You can focus on enjoying the experience, even if it is a painful one.
Go Forth and Prosper
While I may be putting the pursuit of physical strength on the back burner, mental strength has now become my next mountain to climb. I don’t know how tall it is, how hard it will be, or if I’ll ever summit. I just want to keep putting one foot in front of the other and give it my best effort. To anyone who can appreciate a challenge, I invite you to join me in taking it step by step.