Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis who believes that, above all else, fitness should be fun. In her weekly column, “Strongly Worded,” she explores what it means to be a confident, mindful, unapologetically strong woman.
The ultimate compliment someone can pay me in the gym is, “You made that look easy!” As a culture, we tend to value all-out effort—in the gym and in life. I train chill, and I admire others who do, too: the ones who make it look simple, who make it look fun, because I suspect it really is for them.
The problem is, if you make a task look hard, if you have to exert a lot of physical and emotional effort to accomplish it, you end up teaching your body that that task is hard. I see it all the time in the context of lifting weights: women and men just barely grinding out reps, grimacing in pain the whole time. Not to mention, consistent all-out effort often leads to all-out injury.
So the other day, I burst out laughing when I saw the following Facebook status from performance coach Alex Viada: “I can’t even be sure these days what’s really beast mode and what isn’t.”
I messaged Viada to get his more serious take on the subject of this pervasive go-big mentality. “For a lot of individuals, I think there’s a sense that accomplishment requires some kind of pain, discomfort, or even agony—that there needs to be negative emotions to ‘overcome’ on the road to success,” he says. “We spend too much time in fitness convincing each other that we’re fighting some noble battle—that the idea of subjecting ourselves to a challenge has to be some kind of conquest over the self.”
Viada is the founder of Complete Human Performance, a coaching company that focuses on building “hybrid athletes,” or those who excel at both strength and endurance pursuits. Viada himself has squatted 700 pounds and run a 4:15 mile—both extremely rare feats, and unheard of in the same person. In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to name someone “beastlier” than he is. And he’s telling everyone to chill.
“For some people, [trying really hard at the gym] provides stress relief—I get that,” says Viada. “But I also see people messing themselves up by pushing harder than they need to, pushing past their limits.”
By going that big, you might actually be at a higher risk of not achieving your goals, he says. “Training can be intense, but it doesn’t have to hurt. Turning things up to 11 when the program calls for a 10 may look good for Instagram, but what’s the cost? Most times, this isn’t their job, it isn’t their livelihood—it’s meant to be a healthy endeavor that makes them feel good about themselves, mentally and physically. If that requires self-destruction, there’s a problem.”
There is a sense that maybe people are trying to prove how hard they’re trying—possibly to themselves, possibly to each other—in the hopes that it might count for extra. And while occasionally we can reach greater heights when we overreach a bit, consistent progress that’s within our current limits is a safer, smarter strategy for making progress in the long run.
So, how do you find that line between making progress and overshooting? First, examine your value system. Just as it’s true with regard to diet, when it comes to training, consistency is the number one predictor of long-term success. In other words, to make progress, you need to be able to train repeatedly. That means that getting into the gym again is more important than wiping yourself out with one hard session that you have to spend days recovering from.
Secondly, consider your rate of perceived exertion, or RPE. If you’re constantly near the top of the scale, you’re likely in the category of going a little too big and putting yourself at risk for greater injury. Though it may not seem intuitive, the most direct path to fitness is by cycling through a variety of effort levels, with only brief spikes near maximal effort.
That way, rather than leaving you in a puddle on the floor, your sessions will leave you better every time.
Jen Sinkler is a longtime fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis who talks fitness, food, happy life, and general health topics at her site, jensinkler.com, and writes for a variety of national health magazines. Earlier this year, she authored Lift Weights Faster, an e-library of over 130 conditioning workouts for fat loss, athleticism, and overall health.
Jen works with clients at The Movement Minneapolis, a facility that uses biofeedback-based training techniques. She is a certified kettlebell instructor through the RKC (Level 2) and KBA, and an Olympic lifting coach through USA Weightlifting; she also holds coaching certifications through Primal Move, Progressive Calisthenics, CrossFit and DVRT (Ultimate Sandbag).
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Lifting Big and Altering Expectations
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