One reason people get discouraged at the gym is because they underestimate themselves. To be more precise, they underestimate just how unfit they actually are. Going the gym can make their utter lack of fitness evident and uncomfortably palpable. I should know. It happened to me. Maybe it is happening to you right now?
I have probably already told you the story of my fitness conversion. I was a 22-year-old graduate student at the University of Rochester, heading to an aerobics class simply because a friend invited me. I’ll do this just once, I thought. It will be easy. I was slim at the time and quite confident as I joined the group on a large, brightly lit basketball court. Our instructor, named Denise, turned on the music and then led us through what would now be called a “boot camp” routine, though it was 1990 and hints of Jane Fonda springiness remained. Denise was funding her university education with a scholarship from ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps), and by teaching fitness classes based on her army drills. She also earned money by working at UNO pizza at the mall. I was in awe of Denise. She was a compact, no-nonsense young woman with a loud voice who liked to order people around. Sigh.
Back to the first class: we started to warm up with jump squats and jumping jacks. I was gasping for breath after two minutes. I was not so much embarrassed as absolutely stunned. Denise could not help but laugh at the expression of sheer horror on my face. To say that I was shockingly out of shape would imply that I had ever been in shape. I did not even know what being in shape felt like. From then on my fitness goal was straightforward: to get through an entire class without having to stop and rest. I think it took about 20 classes before that happened. This event occurred 27 years ago but it was important and perhaps even traumatic, for I still remember it vividly. I have worked out regularly since that fateful day in Rochester, New York, with only a few medical interruptions.
Dr. Ironcore and I discussed this incident at the gym earlier today. She had had a similar experience, discovering with amazement that she was a weakling and then working hard to gain flexibility and endurance. We are both what you would call “over achievers,” otherwise known as smartypants who enjoy a challenge. We are not afraid to suck at something because we are certain that we will eventually succeed. Yesterday, for instance, we focused on our push press technique mostly because we are not particularly comfortable with that motion. Dr. Ironcore has fantastic squat technique, whereas I pride myself on my chest press. [Shout out to the super quads of our beloved Concentration Face. And to Fitbabe, who is good at everything]. Yet we deliberately avoid what we are good at and choose to do other exercises most of the time. Not everyone embraces a lack of proficiency in this way. But they should! Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and the weaknesses deserve the most attention. Obvs.
The “moral” of the story is: I used to suck. And so did you. Or so DO you if you are a newbie. The bad news is that those new to fitness are not going to get fit quickly, easily, painlessly. It is going to take a lot of work and a very long time, though it depends on how you define and experience fitness of course. Few people will tell you that, least of all those selling fitness programs and advice online. Get abs in just 3 minutes a day. Follow my workout plan three times a week and you will get jacked like me! Total bullshit. That ripped guy selling you a standard program spends about 8 hours a day at the gym, training, making videos, drinking protein shakes etc. He is an athlete, working hard every day at his profession. Every time I go to the gym I see that guy. Every single time. And I am there 6 days a week, sometimes in the morning, sometimes during the afternoon.
Reaching your goals won’t solve the problem. Remaining fit is just as difficult because you have to continually work harder and do more to improve and get stronger. Note that I said “do more” not spend more time. It is completely possible to get an efficient and effective training session done in 45 minutes or less. You have to try new movements, and work intensely. That means not trudging away on the elliptical every time. Hello LSP. Yes, I am talking to you. (He is still here, much to everyone’s surprise). When LSP started going to the gym last year, I generously offered to help him out by teaching him some new moves, with kettlebells and what not. I will do anything you suggest, he said amicably, as long as I can watch Netflix on my phone at the same time. Argh. At least he is open about his priorities.
Fitness is easily lost. Take a short vacation or break and you will quickly feel your strength gains slip away. When I was pregnant I was super fit (I realize this in hindsight). I taught spin until I was 7 months pregnant, squatted, and trained continually. I never rested, I worked full time, and I worked out until the day before I went into the hospital to have my son. Fitbabe took a picture of me at the gym around this time and I looked like hell, but I dug up that photo and now you can see for yourself. Even so, after I had a c-section, I could not train for two full months. It was a slow road back to fitness, one that was not helped by ongoing sleep deprivation and the fact that I worked like a donkey every day, writing books and doing ridiculous amounts of laundry. When I started training again, I was pathetically weak. I was so pissed off. How unfair! Did those 25 years of working out count for nothing? I fondly remembered those heady days of training with PDDs after my figure competition. We would jump up on benches, do pull ups, and then take pictures of each other’s ripped backs. So awesome. … Those days were gone. They are gone.
So after my pregnancy, I just kept going, building up my stamina little by little. It was over three years before I “felt” like myself again. Even now, five years later, I lift, I squat, I jump, I run (slowly), but I am not as fit as I used to be. I have to accept this new reality. I will never be as strong as I was at age 45, when I was young and barren. My current body is almost 52 years old, wracked with hot flashes while I head to the school yard, carrying bags full of basketballs, water bottles, and rain coats. No one told me that motherhood would require carrying so much shit around all the time. But I digress: attempting to regain my fitness at my stage of life is difficult. At the same time, I realize that it is not possible to do everything. I try to cut myself some slack but I cannot figure out just how much slack is reasonable.
Newbies, you can’t be too hard on yourself, especially if you are a parent of small children. Yes that does make everything more challenging and yes it is a good “excuse,” particularly if you were crazy enough to have more than one child. But you can’t be too easy on yourself either. If you can afford it, get a professional trainer to help you figure out what you can and should be doing to improve your physical health, however you want to define that condition. For me, my gym routine is now primarily about mental health, doing physiotherapy exercises for my upper back, socializing with awesome friends (including PDDs who is still ripped), and pushing myself to do more each time. If you cannot afford professional assistance—i.e. not that online bullshit full of empty promises—find a friend to train with who is somewhat knowledgeable and not a complete jack ass. That is probably not me. I am still a jack ass. A jack ass who blogs every 2.5 years.
Bonus feature: Here is what Dr. Ironcore and I did at the gym this morning:
-back squats, 8 reps (bar, then 10 each side, then 20, 30, 35, Dr. I. did more weight than me), drop the weight to 25 each side (so 95 total) and do 4 more sets, 6 reps with pulse
-split squats, 8 each side, 4 sets, adding 10 pounds each set
-leg press machine, just the platform 2 minutes without stopping, and without releasing or resting. Crying after 1 minute is permitted.
-finisher: 3 sets of 20 seconds hard on assault bike/10 full burpees with push up
-core, 3 sets of the following: bicycle 10 times, legs to floor 5 times, pledge plank, in-outs, 10 times each.