Five years ago, I started working out. Not to make myself feel better, but to prove someone wrong.
I was a skinny fellow with a poor stamina, stuck in an emotionally abusive relationship. My ex never skipped a beat to highlight my inferior physical attributes privately or publicly.
It hurt. Just to shut her mouth, I joined the gym. I hoped to build a better physique. And maybe, just maybe, she would finally appreciate me for something.
So why is it strange?
Because it’s been five years since she left me for another toy (thank God for small mercies). But exercising has been one of the few constants in my life along with motorcycling and writing. The pain she inflicted is long forgotten. The wounds have healed. But the habit of working out has grown stronger.
In the last five years, I’ve done free weight training, yoga, calisthenics, tai chi, swimming and more. But I’m no gym rat. Nor do I post shirtless photos with the #NoPainNoGain hashtag. In fact, I still feel embarrassed to take off my shirt.
But exercising has taught me some deep lessons which have filtered into every aspect of my life. From work to friendships, self-improvement, and mindsets. Exercising has made me stronger physically, mentally and emotionally. Combined with lessons I learned from the legendary MS Dhoni, exercising has made me, as my friend recalls, “a totally different person from the guy I was five years ago.”
I’d like to share six deep lessons on life I’ve learned at the gym with you.
1. Intent dictates how far you go.
I started working out to prove someone wrong. In the beginning, I progressed fast. For someone who didn’t exercise, even small steps yield giant results.
But I plateaued within six months and stayed there for almost two years. With my ex no longer around, I didn’t feel the need to push myself. After all, people who loved me would ‘accept me for who I was’ right?
Only when I realized that exercise was a means of self-improvement did I begin to progress again. And I turned from the underdog whom the pros encouraged (maybe out of sheer pity) to one whom they now look forward to training with. They can do a couple more reps of heavyweights than me, but I hold the edge in calisthenics.
Likewise in life, intent dictates results. You might start out with the sheer desire to be rich and famous. And if you’re gritty, you’ll experience success early on. But when you plateau (and you will), you won’t be able to dig deep and keep going.
Make intellectual and emotional growth your goals too. That’s when plateaus turn into learning curves. Remember, self-improvement makes the presence of everything else in your life worthwhile.
How will you pursue intellectual and emotional growth through what you’re currently doing?
2. Everything good takes time.
In the instant-gratification era, even twelve weeks (which according to research, is how long it takes for others to see a change in your body) sounds like a lifetime. Long-term is as out-of-fashion as bell bottoms. (Okay, they’re back in fashion, but that’s not the point.)
Many people expect lightning-fast results from exercising. But like everything good in life, exercise takes painfully long (literally) to show tangible improvement. Compounded results become visible only when you play the long game.
Compounded results explain why once people cross the tipping point, their strength and stamina increase quickly. They lose weight faster and lead healthier lives. And the ones who expect quick results? Well, they quit.
Life is just like that.
Success, victory, and even genuine self-gratification come only when you play the long game.
It takes a concerted effort to play the long game. – Steve Campbell.
But it’s hard to stay in the game when you don’t know where the finish line is. So chalk out your own big prize and keep your eyes on it. Each time you take action, ask yourself, “Is this getting me closer to the finish line?” If the answer is yes, stick to it.
What will you do today to get closer to your long-term goals?
3. One thing at a time.
I want to grow stronger AND fitter AND gain weight AND get a ripped body.
But I can’t do it all at once.
To grow stronger, I must do heavy sets of deadlifts and squats for at least twelve weeks. But if I want a ripped body, I must do more reps of various exercises with lighter weights.
You see the dilemma here, right? Doing everything will confuse my body and bring progress to a grinding halt.
Life is no different.
You might want to be an amazing employee, have a startup on the side, travel thrice a year and know everything happening in the world.
But this is like playing a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole. You keep using the hammer. But unlike Thor, you don’t do anything remarkable with it.
In The Innovators, author Walter Isaacson described a certain someone as a serial obsessor. The ‘someone’ spent eight weeks hacking together a BASIC programming language for the Altair. During this two-month stretch, he would sleep for an hour a day in the middle of writing a line of code. He would then wake up and pick up from where he left off.
This certain someone was Bill Gates.
Be like Bill. Cut down on the number of your life goals. Stick to the ones that matter like chewing gum to a shoe.
“It’s not the daily increase, but the daily decrease. Hack away at the inessential.” – Bruce Lee.
What are the Big Hairy Audacious Goals that’ll make life meaningful for you?
4. Discomfort makes you grow.
The mind gets tired before the body. The slightest sign of perspiration on the eyebrow makes it scream “ENOUGH!” even though you have a lot left in the tank.
We despise discomfort like my ex-boss despised work. But in discomfort lies the magic of self-improvement.
“Comfort can lead to self-absorption, boredom, and discontent. You can either be comfortable and stagnate or stretch yourself, become uncomfortable, and grow.” — Thomas Oppong.
During pullups, for instance, my mind would begin to whine at the fourth one. But I’d say “two more” and push myself. The result is that I can do twelve reps per set today. (It’s nowhere close to Jordan Yeoh, but it’s fine. I’m competing with no one but myself.)
This trait has positively impacted every aspect of my life. If I’m stuck on a problem and my mind demands a break, I can push myself to stick to the problem for ten more minutes. And then ten more. Eventually, an hour passes and I’m pleased with what I achieve.
It’s also why I feel sad for people who don’t embrace discomfort. Such people barely scratch the surface, let alone stretch their limits. This is why they stagnate. That’s why they don’t see results. That’s why they give up altogether.
Each time you give up, you kill a part of you. You kill what could’ve been. And you allow unhappiness to enter your life and suck your soul.
So make a deal with yourself. When you feel like giving up, do ‘just two more reps’. Stick to your task for just one more week. Discomfort will guarantee your growth.
5. You must do something for yourself.
The eight hours I spend each week at the gym have a tremendous impact on the remaining 160. They help me stay healthy. But these eight hours also help me remain calm and exercise self-control throughout the week.
That’s why working out matters a lot to me, and to people who WANT to exercise. We consider working out as one of the few activities during a day that we do for ourselves.
Then there’s another type – who think they HAVE to work out. These people think of exercising as a burden. They’ll gladly skip it if another task comes their way.
People who enjoy any form of exercise exhibit a pattern. They can choose their priorities from a bunch of items on their to-do list. They’re more likely to reach the goals they set for themselves.
People who don’t like it exhibit a pattern too. They let life dictate how they should use all their time. Yet, they complain that they don’t have enough time to do what they want to.
If actions which make you improve feel like a burden, how will you ever find time to do something meaningful?
So do this. For the next 30 days, dedicate an hour to do something that helps you level up. And if you can, make exercise a regular habit.
What will you do for yourself in the coming week?
6. Don’t ignore the technique.
During the two years when I didn’t feel like exercising, I went through the motions. The results barely moved the needle.
But I learned one thing. At the core of an effective workout lies the technique, the form. The right form pressures the correct muscles and protects your body from injury.
When I consciously applied the right form, my strength increased. And I successfully did 108 suryanamaskars in 80 minutes. Twice. (Trust me, it’s a big deal.)
In life, many people go through motions until they become as easy as lifting a two-pound dumbbell. But instead of leveling up, they stagnate.
Leveling up demands attention to technique. Technique is the foundation on which you can build a skyscraper. Ignoring this means setting yourself up for failure. Your construction will crumble even before you’ve built the third floor.
Prolific batsmen learn the right technique before they begin hitting lofty sixes. Illustrious painters learn the right technique to put brush to easel before they paint a masterpiece. Expert software developers learn the right technique to solve problems before they master syntax.
When you stick to the right technique, witchcraft happens in the background until one day, positive results startle you.
Another hidden advantage of technique? It keeps you going when you’re low on motivation.
“Technique is what you fall back on when you run out of inspiration.” – Rudolf Nureyev.
How will you master the right technique for doing what’s important in your life?
What started off as an act to prove someone wrong, has become a routine that made me a better man.
I’ve grown fitter and can control my urge to spend.
But more importantly, I’ve imbibed traits I struggled with for my entire life. I’ve grown more disciplined. I’ve learned to live in the present and let my emotions flow. I’ve grown grittier. I don’t lose my mind over things outside my control. Nor do I take up tasks that are not important, even if they promise the world.
The gym might look like an isolated part. But the benefits I’ve reaped from it have spread into every aspect of my life.
Life is not only what happens at work, or during a vacation, or when you fall in love. It happens to you at every moment. Use these moments to make a better you, to make yourself the person you wish to become.
(Props to Dev who trained me when I started working out, to Uday and Ajay who’ve been remarkable instructors. I couldn’t have become what I am without you guys. And a special mention to the entire team at JointsNMotion which has made fitness an integral part of my life.)