This October I’ll celebrate a personal milestone. 15 years ago on my 18th birthday, I started an intense strength training regimen while a freshman at Cornell University. At that time I was training for my Black Belt test in both Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do and I figured a little extra strength and flexibility would help me when it came to that dreaded “break bricks and boards” part of the test. I didn’t know much at the time, just that lifting weights gives you muscle and protein is important for that – but that didn’t stop me from jumping in headfirst and giving it my all.
Over the last 15 years I’ve certainly had ups and downs. I’ve slacked off and felt completely out of shape for months at a time. I’ve also hit my stride many times throughout the years and realized that when I’m exercising regularly, just about everything else in my life comes into serious clarity. I’ve learned that for me, the benefits of strength training (and martial arts) are far more mental than physical. I’d tradeoff any gains in strength, size, or flexibility for the things I list below.
In 1999 I started a list of the things I’ve felt I’ve learned “in the gym” and I’ve been expanding on this list ever since. These are things that I learned as a kid (and as an adult) training in martial arts, and how I’ve since expanded my understanding through intense strength training in a gym environment. Just like other posts in the Exercise category, the things I list below are certainly not limited to the activities I perform. If you’re a dancer, a yoga practitioner, a cyclist, or a volleyball player, chances are a lot of these same lessons can be learned with your activity.
Here are the 26 things I’ve learned and continue to learn:
- Always drive for results. A good effort is important, but what matters at the end of the day is the results. Are you making progress, are you pushing yourself hard enough, or are you holding back for some reason? Learn to push yourself harder than you thought you could.
- Overcome fear. What would you attempt if you knew you could never fail? Would your outlook on what’s possible change at all? Learn to work through the fear of failure and open your mind to the amazing possibilities of accomplishment.
- Work as a team. If you’ve never had a training partner, you’re missing out on one of the best parts of training. Teamwork and “spotting each other” all the way through can help you both breakthrough walls and set personal bests. Sports – all sports – can help people internalize how important teamwork is throughout life. Learn to work well as a team and see how doors start to open.
- Maintain a positive attitude. Intense exercise of any kind is hard stuff. If you’re going to get through it, you need to stay positive all the way through – or you’ll end up curled up in a fetal position on the floor. Learn to use your training time as a time to train your mind to stay positive.
- Perform well under pressure. Pushing yourself hard creates a sense of pressure and urgency. Some people buckle, and others rise to new heights. You can quickly determine the kind of person you are through intense exercise and, if interested, set a course to improve. Learn to get better at dealing with stressful or uncomfortable situations.
- Embrace a sense of accomplishment. When you achieve something you once thought to be impossible, your notion of what’s possible changes. Even if it’s something others consider a minor accomplishment, the fact that you’ve pushed yourself beyond the limits you thought existed means you can do the same for just about anything in life. Learn to embrace this sense of accomplishment when you feel it, and start doing that in other areas of your life.
- Foster healthy competition. Competition is healthy if approached with the right mindset. The word ‘competition’ is actually a combination of two latin words – com (together) and tition (improvement/growth). Ask anyone who has competed with others and you’ll always hear that you don’t know what you’re made of until you’ve to put it to the ultimate test. Win, lose, or draw isn’t the point – it’s the preparation you go through that matters.
- Be goal oriented. This involves setting short-term as well as long-term goals for what you’d like to achieve. Use this arena as the first one in which you experiment with writing your goals down and reaffirming them on a daily or weekly basis. Then branch out into other aspects of your life (finances, professional, family, etc.)
- Focus on incremental progress. Be sure to focus on progress from session to session, one step at a time. Don’t worry about perfection! The philosophy of kaizen is all about focusing on incremental progress, and before you know it you will have accomplished the impossible. Tip for how I use this: instead of adding 10lbs to a strength training set, or adding 3 miles to a run, try smaller increments. A 1lb increase in weight or a .3mi increase in distance for 10 weeks adds up! Learn to take baby steps towards the big goal.
- Be honest with yourself. It’s hard to trick yourself into thinking you’re better than you are when the results don’t lie. Intense exercise will force you to be honest with yourself about where you and what you need to do to improve. There’s no better test. Learn the truth about where you are right now, and set a course to improve on it.
- Overcome misfortune. Throughout my 15 years of strength training and 24 years of martial arts, I’ve had injuries, sickness, travel, stress, deaths, births, and so on. Nothing is ever perfect and the second you think it is, everything changes. Learn to work through it to the other side – you’ll emerge stronger.
- Be OK with awkwardness. When you start learning any physical activity, you have to go through the awkward stage. And if you want to be at a more advanced level, the awkward stages never stop coming. Learn to be at peace with feeling clumsy because the awkward stage is a necessary first step.
- Live in the present. Always focus on what you’re doing today. Make sure you meet your expectations and goals on a daily basis so you can meet your expectations and goals on a monthly and yearly basis. Big accomplishments don’t happen in leaps and bounds, they happen a little bit each day. Learn to live in the present moment.
- Treat everyone equally. No one is ‘better’ than anyone else. While there are people who may be able to outperform others, everyone is in it together and each person has their own life experiences and world views. Learn to keep from judging people based on how much weight they can lift or how fast they can run, and instead just get to know them.
- Plan for success. Wandering mindlessly through an exercise program won’t yield nearly the same kind of results as some dedicated planning would. Certainly no one believes that elite athletes got to where they are by wandering into the gym everyday and doing whatever they feel like doing that day. Learn to plan weeks or months ahead – not only is it motivating, but it can keep you from wasting your time.
- Apply acquired knowledge. As Bruce Lee said, “Knowing is not enough, we must do”. Knowledge is only potential power until it falls into the hands of someone who knows how to act on it. It isn’t necessary to know everything there is to know about something in order to apply some of it. For instance, you don’t need to know the underlying structure of your computer’s operating system in order to write an email. Learn to understand and then apply the essentials in whatever it is you’re doing.
- Break through conformist thinking. Look at things through the lens of a scientist and be skeptical about things that aren’t proven. Don’t just accept things for what they are. Learn to question things you hear or read and use a critical thinking process to arrive at what works best for you. Be an individual.
- Embrace humility. The best gyms are the ones that have a sign that says “leave your ego at the door”. Your accomplishments are all relative – there’s always someone better than you – so don’t mistake any success for superpowers. Learn to be humble and earnest.
- Deal with Pain. Physical, mental, and emotional pain is a part of life – but you’d be surprised how many people can’t “breathe through it”. Intense exercise can certainly teach you that pain doesn’t always have to be a limiter in life – sometimes it’s just a minor nuisance along the way. Learn to push through pain. (obvious exceptions here are when pain isn’t just soreness but is actually an injury – it’s NOT good to push through injuries)
- Be aware of what makes you “you”. Do things that you know are "you" while at the same time, don’t rationalize anything by saying, “that’s just the way I am”. What’s important is that you understand what you like and what you don’t well enough to determine a strategy. Learn to leverage your strengths and improve on your weaknesses through an understanding of self.
- Achieve the feeling of "flow". Physical activity is a great precursor to the flow state; a period in time in which one becomes so completely involved in an activity that all other thoughts and emotions – what some consider the "self" – are excluded from consciousness. Learn to trigger this state with less effort.
- Maintain a healthy balance. Balance is an important aspect of any intense training – you can’t go 100% all the time, everything needs to stay in a delicate balance to get the most out of training. Naturally this is just as important as it is in life. Learn to keep things in perspective and keep them in order.
- Use your creativity. Don’t be a robot; sometimes creativity can break-up the monotony or ease some of the pressure of intense training. Learn to think creativity about any situation to see if it can be improved in any way.
- Have patience. Nothing happens over night, success in any area can take time. Patience isn’t just nice-to-have, it’s a requirement in life. Believe that your path is long and that each day you’re one step closer. Learn to be patient and not “rush to the top”.
- Adapt to different environments. Your environment won’t always be what you expect – you need to be able to adapt to changes around you and still perform at your best. Learn to not be thrown for a loop when something around you changes; your strength should continue to come from within.
- Use positive visualization. See yourself achieving whatever it is you want to achieve, and you will inherently start moving in that direction. Train your brain to get better at things through mental practice. Learn to “think yourself better”.
That’s my list! Surely there are more things that I’ve missed on this list. I’d love to hear about them. If you’re into intense exercise of any sort and feel I didn’t cover one of the things most important to you, please let me know about it in the comments below!