the joy of strength training


October 24th, 2009 at 9:09 pm

What does ‘in shape’ look like for you?

vitruvian_manMany of us here are pure-hearted strength fanatics who would carry on training even if all the mirrors in the world were broken (how many years bad luck would that make?).

That said, we might also harbour a notion of a corporeal geometry, a desired shape or look that bespeaks the things we want to project about ourselves.

Looks are important for two reasons, neither of which need have anything to do with vanity:

  1. They are part of how we present ourselves to the world
  2. They are often the first sign that something might be awry

It might seem noble not to care at all what you look like to other people, but turning up to someone’s wedding, for example, unwashed, unkempt, in your oldest jeans might be disrespectful to your hosts. So, on some level it does matter what you look like.

Likewise if you notice you are gaining a little extra podge, this might be a useful signal that you’ve let your discipline falter on your diet.

The great thing about training is that if you do it right (and that includes the recovery and eating part too), you’ll look better. But often it is helpful to have the visual signal to tell you how well you are doing…or not.

Body composition

Bouldering_at_ClodgyBeing sensitive to changes in your body, whether or not they are easily visible, is important in measuring and understanding progress. It’s not as simple as picking a number.

Take me, for example. I am stronger, fitter and hotter than I was ten years ago. As it happens, though, I am heavier in terms of scale weight and my body shape is different (hips are smaller, shoulders are bigger).

So if I’d said to myself back then that I wanted to be x weight and fit into x dress, I would have needed to take a different path. Frankly I probably wouldn’t look as good – and I probably wouldn’t be as strong, fit or happy about my physicality.

In other words, rather than picking a number, I just got on with it (“it” being getting fitter and slimmer) and used the changes I saw in the mirror as feedback with which to refine my tactics.

For me, visual feedback worked and it taught me a lot about body composition along the way. How did I truly comprehend, for example, that adding muscle mass actually makes it easier to lose fat? Because I saw the results in the mirror.

Visual indicators

I remember the first time my abs starting showing. I hadn’t been aiming for this as a goal and it took me by surprise. I’d been working hard (I was doing a lot of break dancing at the time) and counting my calories and suddenly there they were. So then I had a marker for what it takes to get to that point.

I’ve got a similar marker with diet. I wonder if any of you experience this? I can draw a conceptual line, a meridian if you like, where on one side I’m happy with the way I look and on the other side I am dissatisfied.

This meridian isn’t in an unhealthy place; it’s a place where my weight is normal and my dress size is normal for my height. It’s even in a place where several bits of me aren’t exactly how I’d choose but I gave up those battles long ago.

This meridian denotes a place where I feel happy enough to walk tall, to dress up if I choose, not feel inadequate in social situations, smile, laugh and generally be relaxed in my own skin.

Staying on the right side of the meridian isn’t difficult but it does take some concentration and discipline. It requires the embedding of good habits to maintain.

Do you know what you need to do to stay on the right side of that meridian, without taking it to an unhealthy extreme? Do you know what your diet and training look like to keep you there?

Body image

There are obvious dangers to relying on visuals to tell you about yourself. People who become unhealthily obsessed with body image can end up with eating disorders or body dysmorphia.

There are some people who end up on the extreme side of the issue, like there are some people who exceed the speed limit, or train to exhaustion. There has even been a new disorder coined, orthorexia, for people who are obsessed with eating healthy food.

Obsessive-compulsive behaviour is rarely healthy, whether it manifests itself in how we eat or not stepping on the cracks in the pavement.

But a healthy interest in how we look can alert us to issues that might turn into health problems later. If my dad had been more concerned about his weight earlier in life, he might still be here instead of shuffling off this mortal coil at the age of sixty.


So how do we do it? How do we maintain a healthy relationship between our bodies and our psyche? Something written by Dr Steve Bratman, who coined the term ‘orthorexia’, caught my eye:

Orthorexia begins, innocently enough, as a desire to overcome chronic illness or to improve general health. But because it requires considerable willpower to adopt a diet that differs radically from the food habits of childhood and the surrounding culture, few accomplish the change gracefully [my emphasis]. Most must resort to an iron self-discipline bolstered by a hefty dose of superiority over those who eat junk food. Over time, what to eat, how much, and the consequences of dietary indiscretion come to occupy a greater and greater proportion of the orthorexic’s day.

That notion of accomplishing it gracefully is an interesting one. Whether it is health, body image, athletic performance or something else that motivates people to start paying attention to diet and training, if you go at it desperately, violently, guiltily or angrily, you might well become unhealthily obsessed or at least piss everyone else off in the process.

To follow the path with grace means both to accept yourself now and the better you that you want to become. We need to have patience with those around us who don’t understand what we’re trying to do and try to explain our actions while not imposing our views.

We need to be fair to ourselves too: it’s tempting to beat yourself around the head when you screw up, but that doesn’t seem to help in the long run although it relieves a bit of frustration at the time.

There’s also a need to accept the learning process. You probably won’t get it right first time and there’s no reason why you must. What else comes that easily in life? So learn, use feedback, keep an open mind and try things out. Over time you find out what works for you, and those things gradually become habits and are embedded into your life.

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  • 1

    I certainly know what you mean by “meridian”. I have a definite weight/size line which divides acceptance of my self and good body image on one side and feelings of inadequacy on the other. It is not an unrealistic line – quite easy to maintain, in fact. Perhaps that is why I am so unhappy when I cross it – because it is an indication that something is out of control in my life.

    FlamingJune1967 on October 25th, 2009
  • 2

    Where I am now in my journey is pretty close to the place you’ve found yourself. I’m way stronger, fitter, and better looking than I was 10 or even 20 years ago. I have that meridian thing in my head too. It’s there in the appearance dimension (body fat must stay in certain range) and it’s there in the performance dimension as well (I must be able to keep up with my dog–she’s a super fit Jack Russell Terrier–if I can’t, better work on speed and endurance a bit).

    Appearance does matter but it’s more an indicator of a successful approach than an end in itself. If you’ve got things dialed in that will be reflected in how you look. No matter how much society pushes the idea of being overweight as being “okay” because the masses are fat; or pushed starved weakling models as being “ideal” neither is healthy or good from a health perspective. Train and eat well and your body will reflect the wisdom of your decision and provide beneficial rewards in terms of your appearance. And that external reward is really an external reflection of inner health and beauty. (I won’t go any further here as I touched a lot on this in my last post).

    Despite being in a pretty good spot in terms of my approach to training, diet, and life, a couple of things struck me about my own journey. I made some less than optimal diversions in my journey to where I am today. Yes, I screwed up!

    First there was orthorexia. I had not heard that term before, but it sure described me 15 years ago. After suffering some severe physical issues as the result of a small brain tumor (which was successfully treated–no worries!) I ended up with orthorexia. I grew out of it—I’m I’m not sure how—but I did (I’ll have to ponder that). I’ve got a more balanced approach to things. I eat mostly eat on plan—which for me is lean meat, some protein powder or eggs, lots veggies, various nuts, and a few noodles and sprouted bread here and there). But that’s out of taste not “because I have to” and I eat pizza, pies, whatever if it strikes me as something I want from time to time.

    About three years ago I started having the weirdest experiences. I’d find those things I used to love and crave (certain kinds of “junk food”) just didn’t appeal to me. For example, I went for a chicken burger and fries (chips) at my favorite place (which I hadn’t been to in 18 months) and found the fries very unappealing. They were the same tasting as ever–in fact, these are the best fries I’d had anywhere! But I only ate about a 1/3 of them. Why? I was just so into the chicken burger! It was just “plain” but top quality meat perfectly cooked on a fresh but very thin whole wheat bun with some fresh lettuce, a little fresh mayo, and some ketchup. (Damn, I’m getting hungry!) I should have gotten two of those and skipped the fries! Then again, there was this fresh thin crust pizza baked for 90 seconds in a wood oven with fresh pine nuts and pesto, not greasy, with just a small amount of cheese that I had two weeks ago—of my was that good! Or my wife’s homemade apple pie….it’s just how things strike me. (Maybe I’m just picky!?)

    All I can say is that it’s weird, but it’s not a bad thing. I take an “eat and let eat” view of the world now–I didn’t get to where I am without screwing up and going a bit off the wall. Why should I judge others? They’ll find their way on their own or they won’t just as I did. I do what I do and they can see the results. If they ask why I do what I do, or how I got to look the way I did (it happens), I’m quietly helpful and share with them as much as they’d like to know. I don’t evangelize. I have enough to worry about managing my life and my own issues let alone tell others how to live their lives.

    During the orthorexia phase I was in the “training for “size” phase as well. I was always skinny (like 140 pounds skinny at 5’11”) and once I learned how to train I was into adding “size”. Strength went with it, but size was the focus. After being exposed to some new ideas (our mutual buddy Chip; Chad Waterbury, Dan John, and many others) I realized I like performance training (strength, functional ability) much more than “size” and I found it more rewarding. That path has left me about 15-20 pounds under where I was in my “size” days (I’m now about 185-190 pounds) but I’m much fitter, much stronger, and much leaner. I have a “train and let train” attitude. I don’t fault the bodybuilders (size guys) or fitness gals. I admire their dedication, drive, and focus—which is nothing short of amazing and inspiring! (I’ve seen what some of my gym friends go through for a show—it’s brutal and requires unbelievable discipline and drive—and I respect and admire that.) I don’t fault the runners or anyone else. It’s not what I want to do, but that’s okay. I share the desire to be the best according to my own goals–and I have a drive to do that just as they do. So we share common ground: goals, drive, dedication, focus. I think that’s a healthy way to look at things.

    Now I’m not going to beat myself up over either of these side-tracks I took. I’m found what works for me, accepted my “failure” as learning experiences and moved on. And I have no need to force my new found “view” of allowing many “views” on others. You put it best when you said, “There’s also a need to accept the learning process. You probably won’t get it right first time and there’s no reason why you must. What else comes that easily in life? So learn, use feedback, keep an open mind and try things out. Over time you find out what works for you, and those things gradually become habits and are embedded into your life.” Those are powerful words not only for working to be “in shape” but they also form a much larger philosophy of life that I believe is healthy, productive, and wise.

    Ron on October 25th, 2009
  • 3

    Diet is a very personal choice, as is lifestyle. Talking with people about these topics can be productive, but talking /to/ people never makes a party I have learnt. I read up on the paleo diet not too long ago and try to follow that, but eat more carbs once or twice a week to bolster my hormone production.

    I found the definition of orthorexia quite vague, perhaps left so on purpose by the good doctor. I eat what I do for good reasons, and becouse it is tasty. I might be a case of orthorexia, but I think I am handling it gracefully. If I did not, I dont think I would realise anyway, so why worry 🙂

    What I do know is that my diet have fixed some minor ailments I had. It is also tasty so I dont have to struggle to keep to it. Sometimes I buy a choclate, I have a sweet thooth, but it rarely taste as good as I remember. Quite the opposite in fact (perhaps a sign of orthorexia). Perhaps choclate and sugary stuff is an aquired taste, much like whisky.
    So far the diet I choose have delivered on its promises. Not just on fat percentage, but more importantly on my health, concentration and energy levels. My mood also seems better but that is very hard to quantify. You can call me an orthorexian, but I have become a firm believer in the importance of the right diet.
    I dont look much in the mirror. I am what I am. Performance is much more important. However I notice if my clothes suddenly begin to become loose or tight. We all know what that means and I take corrective action on diet/lifestyle. On the same topic, finding clothes can be a chore without custom tailoring. Buing a new suit always ends up with tailoring or mixing jackets and trousers from different sizes. That is one downside to doing strength training.

    Good post Gub!

    Rolfe on October 25th, 2009
  • 4

    @FlamingJune: This is true for me too – when things go awry it usually means I am being uselessly emotional about something.

    @ Ron: yes, appearance is not an end in itself, or rather, not an end by any means possible. It worries me that routes like cosmetic surgery are becoming ever more socially acceptable and gene ‘therapy’ for aesthetic purposes can’t be far off (if it’s not here already).

    @ Rolfe: sounds like a sensible approach. I find the whole food thing difficult, although I’m better at eating well than I used to be.

    gubernatrix on October 28th, 2009
  • 5

    Hi ‘Gubs’…wonderful post!

    Your statement: “We need to have patience with those around us who don’t understand what we’re trying to do and try to explain our actions while not imposing our views.” is sooooo important. Too often, people tend to preach… = not good.

    For the past few years I’ve been ‘serious’ about “getting fit”…I turned 60 this summer. Over the past year I’ve dropped 20 lbs of fat and gotten stronger than I’ve ever been. Still need to lean out more and get “fitter”, but it’s an ongoing process and getting there is the “fun” part!

    You’re never too old to work on getting to “the better you that you want to become.”

    I absolutely love your site! You’re posts are always right on target! Keep up the terrific work!

    Fred on October 28th, 2009
  • 6

    Hey Fred, haven’t heard from you in a while! I am glad you are still reading. Thank you for your feedback. 20lbs of fat in a year? That is incredible! I can only dream of such success….!

    gubernatrix on October 28th, 2009
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