Have I mentioned I spend an inordinate amount of time at the gym? I can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that. After all, this is not a fitness blog, it’s a going-back-to-school blog. Nonetheless, it’s true: I’m a gym rat. I love the gym. I fell in love with weight training about nine years ago and haven’t looked back since. I’m there four nights a week on a good week, three on a bad week. Before I went back to school, I was often there five nights a week.
I’m not sure what it is I love so much about weight training. I’ve never been big on team sports, instead favoring individual sports where I can compete against myself. Weight lifting is a sport that never gets boring. There is always something new to try, some new way to challenge myself. Whenever I see someone doing something that looks hard, I think, yep, if they can do it, surely I can too. Handstand pushups: check. Single-leg squats: working on it. Ten good-form pull ups in a row: making good progress, I’ve got six. Squat 135 lbs: check, time to increase that weight. These weren’t always my goals. I’ve had many over the years, but they keep changing and it never gets boring.
My original idea for this post was to talk about physics as it relates to gym equipment. Being the nerd that I am, I’m constantly thinking about how gym equipment works with regards to statics, dynamics and other exciting engineering topics. Force components, tension, moment arms…are you sleeping yet? Yeah. So that’s not what I’m going to write about.
More interesting, I think, is what the gym has taught me about learning and succeeding at things that are hard. Interspersed among my nerdy thoughts about cable tensions and moment forces around the elbow joint, these other thoughts have been popping up, and I like them.
If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Our bodies and our brains are extremely efficient machines. They don’t like to waste energy. Your body won’t maintain muscle if you don’t ask it to. Maybe you used to be able to bang out twenty pushups, but if you haven’t done a pushup in two years, you’re going to be pretty disappointed when you get down on the ground and can only do five.
I used to get really upset when I would go back to subjects I took a few semesters ago and realize I barely remembered how to do them. Problems I flew through like a gazelle outrunning a lion barely even looked familiar. Why? Because I stopped doing them. I’ve learned over time that it’s normal to forget things that we don’t use regularly. It doesn’t mean we can’t get them back. With both your muscles and your brain, if you build it up once, it’s easier to get it back than if you’d never built it up at all. So either use it, or cut yourself some slack if you have to spend some time rebuilding it.
You can’t improve if you don’t challenge yourself.
Your muscles won’t grow if you don’t force them to take on challenges they aren’t used to. Most people know if they haven’t worked out for a long time they tend to get really sore afterward. They might even consider it progress if they keep working out and stop getting sore (I’m looking at you, Dad). It’s not progress. It means your muscles have adapted. They’re not being challenged. You have to add more weight so they have a reason to grow and get stronger. If you challenge your muscles to do something really hard, and they succeed, the weight you previously thought was difficult will feel easy. A squat weight that used to feel impossible to me is now my warmup weight. It’s awesome.
It occurred to me not long ago that the exact same thing happens to me with engineering homework. At first, I’m asked to do easy problems, and since I’m new to the subject, they feel difficult and confusing. Then I’m asked to do much harder problems. Problems that make me panic and hyperventilate. And I kick and scream and struggle and finally figure them out. And when I go back to the easier problems, low and behold, they feel easy. Doing the “can’t” is the only way to get to the “can.”
It’s okay to ask for help.
This is honestly the hardest one for me, both at the gym and in school. I don’t like to ask for help. I don’t like to be vulnerable. I don’t like to risk being embarrassed. But sometimes it’s difficult to turn a “can’t” into a “can” without a little help. You can either stick with the same bench press weight because you’re afraid of dropping the bar on your chest, or you can ask for a spot and power through to the next level. I’ll admit I rarely ask for spots. But I’m getting better. I’ve started getting a spot on my bench press almost every week, because I want to improve.
As many of you already know, last semester was a doozy. I’d have never made it through without a little help. It sucked, but it was worth it. I met lots of people, I made new friends and I learned to do school a little different than I “always do it.” I learned to be a little less perfect and a little more adaptable. It’s a good thing. The world doesn’t need more perfectionists. It needs resilient people who can get knocked down and get back up. People who can try something new, fail completely, and keep trying. I want to learn to be one of those people. I’m a work in progress. It’s what keeps me coming back to the gym year after year, and it’s what keeps me going back to class, semester after semester, when I just want it to be over.
But it’ll never be over, right? If you don’t use it, you lose it. Keep those challenges coming.