I squat, therefore I am

Squat*In anticipation of your question, no, that’s not a picture of me 🙂

Before I begin, allow me to assume the style of a sleazy, black hat internet marketing spam jockey…

OK. I’m in character.

I’d like to share with you this one weird trick (I’m not sure whether or not it has angered any doctors) which will get you closer to achieving whatever it is you’re trying to achieve.

Obviously, I think a lot about things like manouevering oneself into a position where having a job is no longer necessary or starting a small business (or another, or yet another), but I think I’ll go out on a limb and say that this trick has the potential to increase your degree of success, whatever the particular undertaking.

It might help you to deal more gracefully with a few of the yuckier aspects of life too.

To aid my explanation, I’m going to take a brief detour into my own personal psychology.

Soft on the inside

If you met me in person, on an average day (or if you’ve read the majority of what I’ve written on this site), you might describe me using words like

  • confident
  • self-assured
  • optimistic
  • level-headed
  • rational
  • maybe a bit, erm… arrogant?!

Indeed, I actively cultivate that personality (well, except for the arrogance I hope 😉 ). I often walk into a room with the premeditated intention of leading the conversation. I like my ‘internal locus of control’ to be very apparent when I deal with people.

Life isn’t just something that’s happening to me whilst I flail around helplessly. Rather, I am a proactive person. I will play the hand I am dealt to the best of my ability in order to get what I want.

I mean, I sometimes charge people money to help them confidently execute a plan to seize the life they’ve designed for themselves.

However, a tiny handful of people are/have been close enough to me to know that confident, self-assured Andy, real as he is, is a wrapper around a person who is altogether different.

I’ve mentioned briefly before that since my late teens I’ve had my share of mental health issues. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had it very easy in this respect by comparison to many other people, some of whom I’m very close to. But I definitely know what it’s like to be ‘down’.

Beside the occasional episode of depression, I actually have quite an emotional temperament in general. I’m deeply introspective. I’m easily moved by stories and pieces of music which ‘press the right buttons’ for me. I have a few very close friends with whom I share very deep emotional bonds.

In fact, when I was much younger, despite having a strong intellectual preference for being very cool and rational, my behaviour was dictated almost entirely by emotional reactions to things that were happening in my life.

Now, I’m not ashamed of admitting any of this. I wouldn’t change my emotional nature or the ups and downs I’ve experienced over the last couple of decades for anything as my experience has shaped me into the individual that I’ve become.

However, nowadays I have big plans. And big plans can’t be executed effectively by a reactive navel gazer. Unfortunately, I have to admit to having done plenty of navel gazing recently.

A confluence of various factors has led to me feeling very jaded for the last couple of months and I’ve decided to write this article both to help anybody else who might be feeling the same and as a reminder to future me about how to fix it when it happens next time.

The abyss

I am of the opinion that life is hard. I don’t mean my life – my life is easy by anybody’s standards.

I mean living is hard. That is, there’s an inescapable truth about ‘the human condition’ that living is always a struggle. If you’re not struggling, you’re not living.

I’ll never forget a particular conversation I had with a friend who I’ve not seen for a while, which went something like this:

Friend: …but it’s hard. Life is hard!

Me: Yes! So we’re agreed. Life is hard. You can’t escape it. Now you’ve acknowledged that, you’re at the starting line.

Life is hard. Go and get what you want out of yours because as well as being hard, life is beautiful, unpredictable, incredible. It’s worth it.

I know it sounds trite. I’d imagine that’s exactly what my friend was thinking whilst I was waxing lyrical about the beauty/pain juxtaposition inherent to being human! But it’s what I wholeheartedly believe.

To do it (get what you want out of life), the secret is to find a way to stop yourself from focussing upon the unpleasantness. I’ve known this for a long time.

Don’t dwell on the past.

Don’t contemplate your mortality.

Don’t be scared of getting cancer.

Forgive.

It sounds easy when you say it quickly. Just find a way to focus upon where you want to go and then keep putting one foot in front of the other until you get there.

But we all know that it’s never quite as easy as it sounds. Shit happens.

If only there was one weird trick that could help to keep you (or get you back) on track. Well, I believe there just might be, and that brings me neatly back to squats.

Gym rat

I’ve been weight training, on and off, since I was about 20 (I’m almost 36 now). My initial motivation was (as is typical for tall skinny guys) to gain some muscle mass and get stronger.

And I did. 21 year old me was much stronger than he looked and 22 year old me was even starting to look like he was familiar with the inside of a gym.

I don’t think Arnie felt particularly intimidated by my arrival on the weightlifting scene, but seeing yourself in the mirror with actual muscles after being a gangly, skinny nerd for your entire life is quite intoxicating.

However, aside from the physical aspects, I also noticed that frequently lifting heavy weights until I was very tired had a few interesting and useful psychological side effects:

  • It stabilised my mood. It didn’t cure my depression (or whatever heartbreak I happened to be going through at the time) but it changed me from being a person who was incapable of being effective to somebody who was in control and able to move things in the right direction.
  • It boosted my confidence. I could literally walk into the gym with a persecution complex, thinking that everybody in the world hated me, and walk out an hour later feeling like I could talk to anybody and achieve anything.
  • It provided frequent positive feedback. When you start lifting weights, you’re basically a weakling. But you get stronger really quickly – and this has a magic effect on your motivation. Stacking ever more plates on the bar every week (and then successfully performing the lifts) proves to you that if you just execute the plan correctly, you will get results and make progress.

So, if

  1. I knew all of this 15 years ago and;
  2. I’m the kind of person who takes on ambitious projects which require focus and motivation and;
  3. I know that I have a tendency to get into a mental ‘funk’ when things don’t go to plan

then why the hell did I stop taking my magic medicine last year?

That’s right, you heard me right. Idiotically, around a year ago, I stopped lifting weights!

Everything’s OK

Last year, things were looking good.

I was enjoying my work (both freelance projects and slogging my guts out on FaderMate). I had no trouble motivating myself to get in to the coworking space every morning and put in a solid day of effort.

But my kids were still pretty young. My home life was a bit chaotic and I was feeling extremely tired.

Getting myself to the gym at 7:30 in the morning 3 times a week was becoming a chore, almost like being in a new rat race. When I got there, I wasn’t enjoying my workouts either. It literally felt like taking medicine. I hated it, but I knew deep down that it was doing me good.

But then I allowed my good habit to slip. 3 times per week became once per week, and then not even every week, until…

There was an easy way out, and I’m ashamed to say that I took it.

At the time, I was only really keeping up with my weight training in order to keep my moods under control and I hadn’t been feeling depressed anyway. What harm could it possibly do to give the weights a rest?

So I gave it up, rationalising my decision by convincing myself that I would feel fine anyway because everything was looking rosy.

Predictably, I’m going to tell you that I made the wrong choice. And here’s why…

Not alright

I absolutely believe that you should focus as much mental effort as possible on the things that you can change. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to ignore the fact that life will also throw you plenty of curve balls and there won’t be anything you can do to stop it.

This is why it’s important to be resilient. That is, to proactively maintain the right frame of mind to be able to make the best of a bad situation, should one arise.

Exercise in general, but weight training in particular, has formed the nucleus of my strategy for keeping my head right for my entire adult life.

Of course, that stool has other legs too:

  • maintaining close friendships (and actually talking to my friends about how things are going)
  • some occasional (although admittedly, not regular enough!) mindfulness exercises
  • not drinking very much alcohol
  • having a creative outlet (writing music)

…but lifting heavy weights has always been the most effective thing.

Alas, last year, instead of carrying on with the main practice which was keeping me resilient to adversity, I fell into a trap.

If I remember correctly, I felt something like this:

I don’t need this.

I’m feeling good at the moment. I’ve proved that I can be happy without it.

I can sit down, focus on my work and get into flow state every day without ever touching a barbell.

I’m not being a moody fucker.

I don’t have time to spend at the gym and I’m not getting anything out of it anyway.

I was making an argument of the same form as ‘I can’t afford life insurance’ or ‘I can’t afford to save up‘.

I’ve recently reminded myself that ‘I don’t have time to go to the gym’ is just bullshit. I have complete control over my work schedule and besides, 3 hours of focussed, endorphin-fuelled creativity trump 4 hours of being ineffective any day.

The real truth of the matter is that, if I want to experience the life I’ve idealised, I can’t afford not to go to the gym in the same way that I can’t afford not to have close friends.

I wouldn’t die if I didn’t lift weights, but the challenges I’ve set for myself can only be tackled by Competent Andy. And, whether I like it or not, that guy lifts weights, 3 times a week, every week! In fact, he’s not missed a training session for the last 7 weeks.

Perhaps following in his footsteps might help you to move more quickly in the right direction too.

What’s it like?

If you’d like to give weight training a try and you’ve never tried lifting weights in a gym before, there are a few things you’re likely to discover.

The first thing is that it can be a bit intimidating to go and strut your stuff in front of all of the beautiful people and meatheads. I feel your pain, because that’s how I felt too when I was younger. The thing is, some of those people are actually really going to help you.

They’re the ones who will spot you to stop you from hurting yourself when you fail your last rep on bench press.

If you ask, many of them will also show you how to do the lifts with good form.

And the other thing to remember is that, rather than looking down their noses at skinny/overweight you, the lifelong gym-goers are likely to be the ones who actually admire you for making a start and putting some effort in.

I personally am always a lot more impressed by the overweight people who are in the gym on the advice of their doctor than by any of the bodybuilding guys.

The next obvious thing most people experience when they start out with weight training is the dreaded DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). It’s possible to mitigate DOMS to some degree by starting out with light weights and ensuring you have plenty of rest between training days. However, at least for the first few weeks, it’s going to be necessary to harden the fuck up and just accept the discomfort until your body adapts.

If you don’t know what you’re doing and are generally uninjured/in good health, a simple program such as Stronglifts 5×5 is probably a good place to start to build a good foundation of full body strength. Make sure you start with much lighter weights than you’re actually capable of shifting and get your techniques for all the lifts right before increasing the weights very much.

The key thing to remember is that you need to make your gym sessions habitual. This is another good reason to take it steady with the weights you’re lifting to start with. An early injury or a bad dose of DOMS is likely to put you off course before you’ve formed the habit.

I’ve personally just about crossed the ‘habit’ threshold again (I don’t have to force myself to go and train, it’s just what happens on my way home from work on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays).

And finally, remember that weight training isn’t just for vain poseurs with fake tans. It’s a magical activity which makes everything in life better.

I doubt this is new information to many of you as it’s a very popular theme in the personal finance/personal development/entrepreneurship communities.

So remember…

You can’t change Brexit, no matter which side of the fence you sit on, or how cross you make yourself about it.

People you love will die in your lifetime. You will watch them suffer. You will suffer yourself.

That business you’re working on – you know, the one that you put your heart, soul and 50 grand of your life savings in to, well it might fail.

You can’t be 21 again and know what you know now.

You can’t change the choices you’ve made, and you will live with the consequences.

You can’t avoid making huge decisions which will affect other people’s lives.

But here’s something you can do. You can turn up at the gym 3 times every week and work your arse off lifting heavy weights.

Then once you’ve formed a habit around that, you can use the resulting sense of focus and feelings of wellbeing to start moving in the direction you’d like to go.

If you’re trying to break free of the daily grind, you can start executing your plan.

If you’re a coder, you can get in to the zone and start building your software project.

If you’re a writer, you can make sure that you’re practising your craft every single day.

If you’re a leader, you can step up and start to lead by example again.

When it all goes wrong (and it will, repeatedly, because life is hard!) you can use the stable moods and confidence you earned at the gym to get yourself back on track.

I hereby pledge to never forget this lesson again. Because, without fail, every time I lift weights I feel like the good version of myself 🙂

14 thoughts on “I squat, therefore I am

  1. Thanks Andy. You’ve just given me the kick up the backside I need to get back to serious meditation (get that monkey mind back into training).

  2. Interesting article on the benefits of weight lifting. I’m a keen mountain biker and cross country runner, but always struggled with upper body work. I couldn’t keep it going as I simple found it too boring compared to getting outside. Until I discovered aerial hoop. For some reason, the combination of always learning something new, the social nature of classes, and element of danger and performance really hits the spot. So much so, that I am doing pull ups, kettle bells etc outside of class to get the most out of them.

    1. Hey Chris.

      That’s an interesting point you make about boredom. I think that one of the reasons I let things slip last year was that I was bored. I’ve thought about it since and at the time I wasn’t trying to get any stronger (just to maintain my strength and keep my moods stable) and therefore there was no ‘challenge’ involved.

      I mentioned Stronglifts 5×5 in the article – this is actually the routine I’m doing to get my strength back up again. What I’ve noticed since I started 5×5 is that it feels a bit like a computer game. Every session, I’m aiming to add more plates (points?) The first few levels are really easy, but very quickly, you come up against some really hard work. Now it seems like I’m competing again (even if only against myself), the boredom of ‘just being indoors in a sweaty room lifting heavy things up and putting them down again’ is hidden behind the gamification of levelling up each session.

      It sounds like you definitely needed a ‘why’ to make you want to do strength/conditioning work. Glad to hear you’re enjoying aerial hoop. I just had a look on YouTube and that looks pretty hardcore!

  3. Andy,
    Totally agree with you! It works exactly the same for me!
    Thanks for sharing this! It really helps me to understand why it works for me too!

    1. Cheers Pedro.

      I wanted to put a reminder in a place where I can’t miss it next time I’m tempted to slack off!

      It’s good to hear that somebody else is reaping the benefits of a strength training regime. I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who hasn’t experienced something similar from strength training once they get through the initial discomfort.

      1. Andy,

        For me it really works, if I am smashing the gym everyday and my fitness goes well, a lot of others aspects in my life get well too.

        I know that you are not the way you look or how much weight do you lift or whatever…but for building confidence it is one of the more powerful weapon I have never experienced.

        Also teach very good lessons about keeping you focus, determined and disciplined (things that you can apply for being financial free)

        Cheers for the blog! Keep it up!

  4. Andy,

    Very interesting post and a lot of this resonated with me. Last year I found myself in a ‘boiling frog’ situation that I managed to escape, but I got myself badly scolded and I’m still working through it today.

    Like Chris above, I’m a keen trail runner but have always found it hard to get into any kind of upper- (or whole-) body workout and while I’ve tried the gym I’ve always found it far too boring.

    I’ve been using the YAYOG app (https://marklauren.com/bodyweight/yayog-app/) since the new year and have managed to get through the first series with no shortage of DOMS. I was constantly amazed at how little effort it took to completely exhaust my top half! I’m redoing the first series again and it has definitely helped my strength, physique and probably contributed to the running as well.

    I find running to be the main focus though and while a bit antisocial, it does provide a great deal of headspace independent of the cardiovascular benefits. Trail running around Devon I enjoy immensely, even if in my case it is a very slightly faster version of a country walk.

    Although it ironically introduced some anxiety of its own, we recently arranged with a bunch (12) of other blokes in our village to run the East Devon Way. While the actual run was a bit hairy (although not as bad as expected) the training runs – both alone and with others – gave me a real sense of achievement as the distance and my stamina increased.

    Now that it’s over it’s back to YAYOG and more gentle communal runs (e.g. ‘To Beer for beer’ next month) but as I’m up in London more and have rejoined a gym I’ll look into the 5×5 plan. Do you have a gym buddy?

    1. Thanks for the comment Mike.

      The flip side to doing things like running being ‘unsociable’ is that you can do it on your own – no excuse when your mate doesn’t turn up!

      I don’t train with anybody at the moment but am open to offers if you fancy it…

      1. Yes – good point about motivation. I like running as essentially it only involves putting on a pair of shoes so there are far fewer potential procrastination opportunities!

        I’m up in London a bit too often to have much time for a gym buddy down here and it was meant more as a general question, but I might take you up on your offer one day!

  5. “Don’t contemplate your mortality.”

    Don’t let the Stoics hear you say that, memento mori and all that!

    Great that lifting weights helps you out – you seem to have found out the tough way that consistency is always key with any type of exercise.

    just don’t go down the route of the blog who cannot be named and start posting twattish pics of yourself pumping iron on Instagram.

    1. Hey TR.

      As it happens, I do frequently contemplate my mortality. I suppose I meant to say ‘don’t get hung up on it – focus on the bit that comes before death’.

      The thing about consistency is that I already knew this and, indeed, would advise other people to not stop doing whatever works for them. Unfortunately, I can’t shake the whole ‘being a flawed human’ thing. It’s way easier handing out wisdom than following it all the time!

      I hereby promise not to put up a single photo of me in a vest anywhere 🙂

  6. This is so true, exercise always improves my mood and makes me feel like other challenges in life are not so challenging any more.
    Never been one for weight training or gyms in general as I find them too boring, I would rather be doing an activity or outside, but I agree you should do whatever works for you. I have done running and squash for years but always wanted to find a non boring way to improve upper body – as luck would have it a climbing wall has opened near work. I’ve only been twice but it has been great fun so far and can definitely see it becoming a regular part of my exercise regime.
    One key point I can take away from this is to make sure I do things more regularly. I will often find 2 weeks have gone past (especially if I am not at work) and I haven’t done anything and am somehow unexplainably in a bit of a funk (shock!). It’s easier to maintain regularity at work, so definitely something to be cautious about if/when I go full time entrepreneur or ramp down my hours further!

    1. Hey TFS.

      It’s been a while! 🙂

      I’ve been through phases where I’ve been bored at the gym and then (like now) times where I’ve really enjoyed it.

      > …I haven’t done anything and am somehow unexplainably in a bit of a funk (shock!)

      As well as exercise, I’m like that with sleep. I sit there being grumpy for a few hours trying to work out what’s wrong with me. Then I realise I’ve not had 8 hours of unbroken sleep for 2 weeks and it all makes sense. It’s all simple really this mindset stuff: sleep enough, eat right, exercise regularly and all the things that seemed like problems disappear.

      > …if/when I go full time entrepreneur

      You know what I think about that 😉

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