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Exercise Motivation - Follow Your Bliss, but keep score

Posted: Mon, June 03, 2013 | By: Exercise



by Chris Armstrong

Over the years, I’ve been through several cycles of the typical gym routine: alternating days of working different muscle groups on various weight machines and 30+ minutes on a treadmill or some other cardio machine - all in the hope of achieving the vaguely defined goal of getting “in shape.” 

This article originally appeared at “healthy Isn’t Boring” HERE
I had been overweight for years, but it hadn’t affected my vanity enough to motivate me to lose it. I always felt perfectly healthy and didn’t feel any desire to work out regularly in order to “feel better.” It was only some pesky numbers on blood test results that my doctor insisted were “outside normal parameters”, and her suggestion of putting me on additional medications, that got my attention like nothing had in the past.

I began looking for a form of exercise that could hold my interest more than my somewhat unfocused gym experiences had several times before. 

Eventually, I discovered CrossFit. I was immediately drawn to the variety it provided: different workouts everyday, consisting of a range of activities like, running, jumping, gymnastic/body-weight movements, Olympic weightlifting and Powerlifting - anything BUT a predictable routine. A quick online search led me to the nearest CrossFit gym and I was off to the races. 

Another thing that was attractive about CrossFit was that all workouts could be modified to match anyone’s level of fitness. In the same class, there can be teenagers and 60 year olds; firefighters, police, former and current military people; soccer moms of all sizes and fitness levels; and seriously overweight and out of shape guys of all ages. We’re all doing the same general workout, but some are lifting more weight or jumping on a higher box and some finish before others. 

I’ve heard people say that they need to get in better shape before starting something as challenging as CrossFit. The best comeback I’ve heard for that:

“Saying you’re too out of shape to start exercising is like saying you’re too dirty to take a bath.”

In a typical CrossFit workout, we all start together with a running clock. Some workouts are meant to be finished in a predetermined time, while others take as long as it takes to finish all the prescribed exercises. We work out together and encourage each other all along the way. CrossFitters like to say that CrossFit is the only sport (and it IS also a professional sport) that has more cheering for the last person to finish than for the first. The last ones are always cheered on and encouraged by the ones who have already finished.

All of this working-together makes it feel like a bit of a family and I have found that even people of VERY different cultural/economic/political backgrounds find common ground through CrossFit and get along swimmingly.

“CrossFitters: Creating bonds through shared agony.”

As this blog post is about motivation, you may be thinking all this motivational stuff I’ve mentioned so far is my main point, but I haven’t even gotten to the MOST motivating part yet, at least for me.

In CrossFit, everyone gets a notebook in which to write down the workout of the day (the WOD, posted online each night), and to record their times and scores for each workout. For most of the movements, people are advised to also record their Personal Records (PRs), as measurements of progress. It is this score-keeping practice that provided the quantitative, progressive, goal-oriented motivational factor that made all the difference for me.

CrossFit was the first opportunity I had ever had to lift free-weights, as opposed to weights in weight machines found in most gyms. I immediately gravitated to the Powerlifting lifts: bench press, back squat, and deadlift. I was good at these, progressed pretty quickly and soon started lifting some serious weight. After about 6 months of CrossFit, one of the owners of the gym, Coach Chris Morton, suggested that I get serious about Powerlifting and maybe even compete someday. 

At this point, I should mention that I am 54 - an age when most Powerlifters who have already been lifting for decades are winding DOWN their careers and here I am thinking about jumping INTO it for the first time. 

But, no matter, I’ve always been a “road less traveled” kind of guy anyway. I immediately liked Coach Chris’ suggestion, since Powerlifting fits my “athletic personality”…such as it is. By that I mean that I have always been WAY more attracted to all-out, explosive, short-duration physical activities than long, slow activities like long distance running. So, the challenge of Powerlifting was just the thing for me.

Coach Chris, suggested that I get together with another coach there, Stephanie Davis, who is a certified CrossFit trainer with certifications in Gymnastics and Powerlifting, and have her start programming Powerlifting workouts for me. Stephanie was very enthusiastic about helping me, and we worked out a 4 day-a-week training schedule. At first, I tried keeping up my regular CrossFit classes in addition to the new Powerlifting workouts, but I soon discovered that Stephanie’s workouts were QUITE taxing in their own right and I would have to make a choice to do one or the other. I mulled it over for about a SECOND and chose Powerlifting.

My training began with various exercises that would develop the major muscle groups of the whole body, which are needed in various combinations to support the three Powerlifting events. These exercises would include pulling a sled with 45 to over 300 lbs of weight on it for a distance of 400 meters (.25 mile) to a mile; several kinds of sit ups on machines, with a resistance  band, and while holding various weights; push ups (sometimes weighted); triceps dips on bars and rings; all kinds of squats and MORE squats; running and sprinting for time; planks; ominously named “Wheel of Death”; and many other things.

All of that is just in preparation for the main event: the lifts. Each workout concentrates on one particular lift. Sometimes the lift is done with lighter weights, for speed, and at other times, it is done with heavier weights that approach your max (your current PR) while staying below 100%. Only once a month is there an attempt to set a new PR. 

In the beginning, everyone experiences fairly large increases, often 20-30 pounds or more. As time goes on, and the weights get heavier, you run into more plateaus and you may not be able to get a new PR for a couple of months. Then, when you finally  break through with a 5 lb increase, you are VERY happy with that.

The training is very systematic and there are several overlapping cycles of different kinds of workouts moving through the weeks and months, all leading up to new gains in strength. 

In 6 months of exclusive Powerlifting training, I’ve increased my bench press by 30 lbs to 255 lbs; my back squat by 50 lbs to 395; and my deadlift by 55 lbs to 430lbs. 

I have traded a lot of fat for a lot of new muscles in my arms, legs, core, and back and my physician has reduced my medications, which I may be totally off of soon.

The most transformational thing for me, as far as motivation is concerned, is that I NEVER even CONSIDER “blowing off” a workout - something that I had developed into a high art form in the past. If I have a conflict with one of my regular workout days, I immediately figure out a place in my schedule to make it up on the next day.

What’s the difference now?

The difference is that I now have a clearly defined goal to reach each month and I have a systematically designed course of training to get me there. Skipping workouts would sabotage this goal, which I look forward to attaining each month. 

Combine this with the fact that I have found a type of workout that I ADORE and I have a WONDERFULLY helpful coach who takes into consideration all my ups and downs, aches and pains, strong days and weak days and adjusts my workouts accordingly, all in service toward gaining new personal records. My coach, Stephanie, is also a HUGE inspiration in that, although she is quite petite, her Powerlifting PRs, relative to her body weight, make her MUCH stronger than me. 

And now we come to the moral of the story. 

If you go into an exercise program with vaguely defined goals like “getting in shape” or “toning” you may find that your motivation will leave you pretty quickly, because you never developed a passion for anything in PARTICULAR, only some foggy notion of attaining “fitness” because you “should.” So, here’s my recommended plan of action:

1. Find something you love doing.

2. Set clearly defined and objectively measurable monthly goals to work toward. 

3. Follow a method that systematically moves you toward those goals, while expecting periodic and TEMPORARY plateaus along the way.

          “Make no small plans for they have not the power to stir men’s blood.” 

                            - Niccolo Machiavelli



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