He shifts his weight, each time swaying his shoulders as to not stand square with the man standing in front of him. His eyes scan up as he speaks and catches the coach’s eye for only a second before darting away. It’s as if his body has an almost visceral avoidance of the coach’s gaze.
The coach had a tender look in his eye, but the lifter couldn’t see the softness in his face. He only saw the projection of his own inner-judge.
The young Olympic weightlifter, in his mid-twenties, came to tell the coach he was thinking about quitting, but he had already made up his mind weeks earlier. Rather than talk about the truth, he danced around it, and the young lifter said he just needed a break and would probably be back. The coach knew he wouldn’t; he’d seen it many times.
Why Do We Do It?
What is an exercise routine or practice? Why do one? I’m talking to those who have a more fanciful view of exercise, physical pursuits, and sport, in all its forms—the person who enjoys the romance of the idea behind what they do.
This conversation is for those who think of their physical development as similar to an ancient preparation for war. We do not run at each other in open fields with rocks in slingshots anymore. It’s absurd to believe that we are building strength and fitness for living in a way we read about in a book or see in a historical, action movie about the lives of our ancestors.
I thought along these lines once, and I’m sure if you go back far enough on my blog, I probably wrote about it in my early twenties. But, we must grow up. It has to be said. As we train our bodies over time, our minds should grow as well. Instead, we remain children in stronger, grown-up bodies.
But what is right about humans, and always has been, is that we struggle. We are wired to deal with obstacles. Even in this modern world, we still need these skills. We need something to strive against, rise to, and overtake. It needs to be formidable, so we feel like we’ve accomplished something and chaotic enough that we can bring order.
What we’re afforded now, that previous generations weren’t, is the freedom to pick our obstacle. The struggle could be your career or creative calling, but when regarding physicality, you can choose your challenge. And it can singularly be what calls out to you.
Express Yourself With Exercise
Exercise should bring to the surface what and who you are. There are stories that we tell ourselves about who we are and where our place is in this world. Part of becoming an integrated person, and using exercise as a tool for that aim, is looking past that story.
Our passions show us which paths to take in our lives and is relevant to almost everything we do. When we can’t figure out our next step, we need to do the right things we are passionate about, and they will give us direction and purpose.
Pick the practice of movement and play that brings to the surface the qualities that are unique in you:
Maybe your goal is to see yourself as someone who runs long distances through challenging terrain. You may have a calling to be someone who persists through grueling miles. Maybe you see yourself more graceful, and you come alive with different forms of martial arts. You may need a softer martial art, such as tai chi or yoga, that aligns with your inner mindset. Maybe you’ve always seen and understood yourself as being a physically explosive person, and your sport matches your emotional and mental temperament. Instead of being in the gym all the time, you need to sprint, jump, or throw.
The Pursuit of Strength Comes With a Price
He was never drawn to play team sports, but he was athletic, so he played football and baseball as many did in high school. But he didn’t stand out particularly in either game partly because he lacked talent, but also because he didn’t put in the effort. He did, however, like the training more than the game itself. He particularly enjoyed lifting weights.
He was better at weight training than many of his teammates and friends. Possibly because he had a more natural ability to build strength, and he was more disciplined in practice because he enjoyed it. He didn’t mind the tedious details that were needed to focus on nutrition and the recovery necessary to build higher levels of strength.
Either way, in college, he found a group of friends that loved lifting weights as much as he did, and it motivated him to a higher level than most lifters.
He discovered the sport of powerlifting and found a veteran to guide him. He stuck with this training partner and coach and steadily improved. He took the path seriously. Over time he trained with all the best in the sport, traveling where he needed.
He came to a point where he purposely began to sacrifice his well-being and markers in health for the pursuit of his strength. If gaining more bodyweight would improve his total, he’d increase as much as the experts advised. Achy joints, nagging injuries, and other components of general fitness be damned, there was no room for anything but strength.
His mental state reflected his physical pursuit.
Now and then, he’d look past the influences in his little world that had always reassured him he had rightfully dedicated himself to this sport. He drove by the park on his way to the gym and saw a group of guys playing soccer, running back and forth, jumping over each other, and sprinting at full speed.
He’d see a hiker coming down from a trail and imagine the feeling of scaling a mountain and the beauty of what he saw at the top. It all seemed so refreshing to him, but he could barely walk around the supermarket without getting tired.
He’d put on so much bodyweight for powerlifting that he had difficulty managing himself. He didn’t think of himself as this sluggish mass, which was limited to take on any physical struggle. As a kid, he loved to climb trees, go for long walks, and ride his bike through the woods. He wasn’t the most athletic in organized sports, but he loved the feeling of a challenging physical exertion.
A big part of him always loved the pursuit of strength, and he had become familiar with it. He stifled the other calls. But one day, he realized he had lived and expressed himself too long in this one-dimensional way when there was so much more to him.
It stressed him mentally and emotionally in a very peculiar way. That morning, feeling beat up, tired, unhealthy in body and mind, and plagued with nagging injuries, he decided to quit powerlifting altogether. The thing he loved for so long he now saw only as confinement.
He no longer viewed powerlifting the same, as a sport or a practice. He left the weight room and journeyed outside, lost weight, and hiked trails. His mental burden lifted as he became physically lighter and was no longer denying himself.
But if you looked at him closely, you could tell he missed some of the hunts for absolute strength. If he’d never let one part consume the whole, he may have never felt the burnout and could have found a balance without giving powerlifting up altogether.
The Next Chapter
His name became synonymous with the cutting-edge of strength and fitness for young men. He was featured in all of the top fitness magazines and even had appearances on morning news programs. He certainly lived the fitness lifestyle and influenced a considerable number of young guys to do the same. He tried out new training programs from top trainers and coaches, went through different nutrition protocols, and reported on his experiences.
Then without warning, his name disappeared from his weekly featured column in the most popular fitness magazine. Months went by without any updates on his website.
After some time, he resurfaced, but only on his channels. He started posting again on his social media and sent e-mail updates to his newsletter list. Still showing himself in pictures, it seemed that all the muscle he built to prove to the skinny guys that they could make a physique they were proud of, was gone.
Soon, he rebranded himself as a life coach who taught people how to improve their habits and design a better life. Teaching was a sensible step forward and a maturation many in the fitness space take. But instead of bringing what he had built, who he was, and his message, he closed off the people who had looked to him.
He now spoke of balance, adventure, food, and libations to people who didn’t understand the part of him who had shown skinny, insecure guys how to take control of their bodies. The fitness that he used to speak of, he now claimed, was an unnecessary burden.
There was no room for debate with him. Strength training in the gym could not possibly aid him in his new activities like mountain biking and gentle yoga. Those practices by themselves were all he claimed necessary for both him and his new audience.
Before his self-exile, he had been a pillar in the gym culture. He put everything into not only making himself look the part but also being a part of the right groups. He made sure that everything that came out of him and all his actions were in line with the character he created. Some of it was him, some of it wasn’t. The disparity grew until he couldn’t stand feeling like a fraud. He wasn’t this one-dimensional figure, and he knew it.
Being an influential figure who used discipline to change his physical reality was essential to him. It’s why he started lifting weights and why he made it his career. It was genuinely part of who he was, and the audience saw this. But there were more parts.
Part of what he saw as strong was how he could swim across a lake as a boy without breathing heavily, even as a skinny kid. After he dedicated all of his efforts and energy into his bodybuilding style workouts, he’d have been lucky to make it halfway without cramping.
He never had to abandon that part of himself, who loved to build his body with weights. And, if he would have realized sooner, he wouldn’t have left lifting altogether, and with it, everyone who looked to him as a guide.
I’m Not a Slow Person
Her friend told her she’d feel like a college athlete and part of a team again, so she’d show up for the class. The CrossFit instructor started the workout with warm-up drills that were familiar with what her strength and conditioning coaches in college had done. She enjoyed spending twenty minutes to work a movement deliberately.
Then came the conditioning portion that’s become synonymous with CrossFit class. It was hard, well thought out, organized, and she appreciated it. She had not driven herself this hard in some time, and it brought out her competitive spirit.
The instructors met everyone at their current level, but they also pushed those who were ready to compete. Because of her background as a college athlete, she was prepared to compete against another.
She became a consistent member, coming to all the most strenuous workouts and competing with the rest of the community. She would purposely do the longest, grueling WODs, grinding through rep after rep. The strenuous workouts challenged her and gave her purpose. The crew rallied her as in college athletics.
But when she reflected on what she felt about herself moving in this way, she didn’t like it. This kind of training wasn’t her. CrossFit workouts are great, challenging, and perfect for some, but not for her. The training is structured so that the movements are in a cyclic, slow, repetitive manner.
She didn’t think of herself as a slow person. She was a college sprinter, and this was part of not only her story but her nature. She saw and felt like a quick and explosive person. She became a college sprinter to reflect this in herself. She knew, even though there was a familiar feeling of competition, she needed to find the sport that was right for her again.
There are many ways you can build fitness. Fitness itself is an ambiguous title. People often get stuck behind a rope with the first type of fitness someone throws at them. Fitness is fitness. But it’s not. Why are we fit? There are specific markers of health and predictors of longevity that should be acknowledged.
The task you prepare to do determines the training you choose. And the training you want should be a reflection of how you see yourself. We should do everything in line with what the little voice inside says.
And this can change sometimes, and that’s okay. And this can involve more than one type of training, and that’s also okay. When did it become weak-minded to be well-rounded? You can be plenty powerful and still be able to go for a jog.
The burned-out powerlifter above loved the pursuit of strength, but it wasn’t his whole story. In dedicating his all to it, he denied himself. If he hadn’t rejected expressing his other passions in his physical training, he wouldn’t have felt the need to quit powerlifting. He may have abandoned it as a sport, but not as a practice.
The fitness leader lost the influencing power to teach hundreds of young men a more balanced life because he walked away and then turned on a mainstream fitness culture of which he was once a part. His first followers didn’t see him as someone who had matured when he reappeared on the scene. They saw him as flighty and inconsistent.
He was living out the other parts of himself, but since he had neglected them for so long privately and publicly when he took this step to do so, he looked false to his audience. If he had sought more balance in himself from the start, he might have been able to take his audience on his journey. They may have done the same in their lives as they watched his example.
The balance you choose should suit you. The fitness community got good at telling people they were imbalanced. Not only did the collective voice of trainers and coaches tell people the type of exercise they needed to straighten out their so-called crooked bodies. It’s an excellent way to sell a neatly packaged deal to someone and make money. However, it is not the best way to direct them to find what is profoundly stirring to their hearts.
Your physical disciplines should reflect not only your deepest interests but also reveal the parts of you that need to be better understood. Don’t do what the crowd says is best for health, performance, and balance—do what is best for your health, performance, and balance.
Jesse competes in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, and he was also formerly a competitive powerlifter. He was featured in main strength and fitness publications. You can read more of his work on his website.