A journey less than 1% finished.
I had an ego-related problem for years.
I began strength and conditioning training at seventeen years, and until recently, I saw hopelessly volatile results.
There were a number of reasons that I now understand with more clarity. I will explore them below, with help from words by Stewart Friedman, Professor of Management at UPenn Wharton, and Firas Zahabi, MMA coach and BJJ black belt.
My true goal from the start until now has been to gain strength and endurance, to better engage in what I love. These things include martial arts, exploring wilderness, and scuba diving. All of which require a baseline fitness.
Along the way, I fell off the wagon.
In pursuit of short-term
As a newbie, I noticed quick results relative to my benchmark, which fed my ego and made me chase aesthetic goals, contrary to my initial long-term aim.
This set me on a spiral. I expected to see those same newbie gains as a constant, and I became frantic when I failed my expectations. My frustration led me to conduct hasty experiments with all sorts of gimmicks ranging from powder supplements and binge eating, to compromised form and overstretched weight loads.
My impatience also led me to bounce between regimens. I scrambled between YouTube channels and articles trying to optimize a process I had barely begun. I exchanged simple, foundation exercises for a mess of overlapping, complicated routines.
My process ruined my confidence, and took the fun out of it. I was no longer exploring something with the intention of self-discovery and growth. I was obsessed with something that was draining me.
Long story short, I put my body through a lot of avoidable stress over the course of five years. I suffered both mentally and physically for this.
Back to basics
When I graduated from university, I felt like a shell of a person. I had depleted myself, engaged in a lot of failed experiments (refusing to learn from them), and wrecked my immune system. Worst of all, I was learning to pity myself.
So I confronted an ugly truth.
I was farther than ever from both my true goals, and even my shallow goals. My ego had stopped me learning from my failures. I never allowed myself the experience of adapting to the fundamentals. I was piling bricks on an absent foundation.
My ego also got in the way of relationships, and progress in other areas of life. It made me hasty and self-centered.
I had read somewhere about a basic challenge. Complete 100 pushups in a day. Not necessarily all at once — the goal was to check off 100 by the end of 24 hours. My first reaction was to scoff. I had been training for years. This, I thought, was too simple for me.
I caught myself in the same trap. While it was true I had been exposed to training for almost four years at the time, I had never seen lasting progress by any measure.
The truth is, I failed again. Once the month was over, and I was proud of my fresh results, so I stopped pushing myself. Complacency was killing me.
It was only until months later I resumed when I bought a pull-up bar for my door frame.
I had heard from Firas Zahabi about his coaching philosophy during an interview. Zahabi had trained the likes of George St-Pierre, a two-division MMA champion.
I was stunned by how simple his training style was. In essence, his goal was to promote consistency above all else. He said,
“It’s consistency over intensity. Intensity entails you need to take a break.” (Zahabi)
This resonated with me because I was no stranger to burning myself out fast, and making excuses to skip training.
My process was to compile a number of workouts from around the web. I would go to the gym for a few days, and overshoot my ability; pushing too much weight for my size, then burning out. This would leave me feeling hopeless and sore. I would skip any training altogether for the following week or more, until I gathered some motivation to repeat the cycle.
Firas was telling me to undershoot my ability each time, to preserve energy to re-enter the gym the next day, and measure steady results.
“The champion, the best guy, he’s training for the long-run. It’s far more intelligent; he’s getting far more workouts in than me — that’s burned out, and next day [needs] a rest.” (Zahabi)
I had finally learned that the way forward was to make small gains everyday. I began at home, drilling pushups, pullups, and body-weight squats.
At first it seemed juvenile. But I found myself still energized throughout the day, and when I woke up to continue my process.
I was beginning to learn how to conduct better experiments.
Lowering the stakes
It’s easy to get swept up in narratives of ‘hustle’.
When I succumbed to the world of appearances, I suffered for it. I watched other people’s successes on social media, but I didn’t consider the small things they achieved over time to reach their heights.
I read a piece by Stewart Friedman in the Harvard Business Review about leadership and living a richer life. His message is to tinker with experiments that position us to succeed over the long-term.
“The best experiments let you try something new while minimizing the inevitable risks associated with change. When the stakes are smaller, it’s easier to overcome the fear of failure that inhibits innovation.” (Friedman)
I had been making good progress with my health doing simple bodyweight exercises. I was eager to elevate my aim and get back in the gym. I decided to keep the principle of simplicity, and master three compound movements: the deadlift, the squat, and the benchpress.
These are the fundamentals of powerlifting, which is a training style that optimizes absolute strength via the three big lifts. I figured the way these movements target entire functional chains in the body would be useful to build back my immunity system, and set me up for enhanced performance in all the adventures I seek.
Although I needed to start light.
The process I’ve gained isn’t exclusive to the gym. It’s helped me focus on organizing my goals efficiently by starting with the small thing, and growing steady.
More importantly, I’m learning to separate myself from the impact of failures, instead to use them as data-points. This has been helpful for building internal resilience. Also for focusing on what is most essential, and discarding what is clutter.
In his piece, Friedman continues,
“If an experiment doesn’t work out, you stop or adjust, and little is lost. If it does work out, it’s a small win; over time these add up so that your overall efforts are focused increasingly on what and who matter most. Either way you learn more about how to lead in all parts of your life.” (Friedman)
My goals are to explore what I love doing most by getting slightly better each day. I’m playing the long game, to sustain doing what I do, and sharing that with those who mean the most to me.
Looking forward, I’m beginning to measure 3 things in the gym:
- Daily volume per lift (number of sets * reps)
- My energy levels per set
- Total weekly load per lift (in kg),
to best sustain this discipline with minimal risk of repeat injury.
I measured these results during my first week in the gym:
Deadlift: 50kg for 5 sets*10 reps; managed 3 days
Total week load: 2,500kg
Squat: 50kg for 5 sets*10 reps; managed 2 days
Total week load: 2,500kg
Bench press: 44.5kg for 5 sets*8 reps; managed 1 day
Total week load: 1,780kg
Now, 12 weeks later, having made incremental adjustments, I recorded:
Deadlift: (avg.) 85kg for 5 sets*10 reps; managed 2 days
Total week load: 9,520kg
Squat: (avg.) 65kg for 5 sets*10 reps; managed 2 days
Total week load: 6,600kg
Bench press: (avg.) 51.5kg for 5 sets*10reps; managed 2 days
Total week load: 5,090kg
Thanks for reading. I’ll continue to document my various experiments. Stick around if you’d like to read more about my adventures.