Anyone who knows me will know that the gym is a fairly big part of my life. While my goal certainly isn't to become the next Eddie Hall or Phil Heath, during the last 3 years the gym has been a valuable source of discipline and improvement for me.
When I sat down to think about it more, I realised there's a number of additional benefits I get from my gym routine, and I wanted to share these here. Hopefully it'll motivate someone to go get that session they were thinking of skipping today.
It's Honest Work
The fruit of your own hard work is the sweetest – Deepika Padukone
Spending my professional career in startups / software has been a real pleasure, and one I don't take for granted. That said, and being as delicate as I can about this, there's some real bullshit too. This isn't unique to any one industry, of course – there'll always be people who prefer talking over doing, to fake-it-until-they've-made-it, and other such attempts to avoid doing the real work.
But in the gym there is no fake-it-until-you-make-it. There are no shortcuts. There's no talking your way into becoming bigger/stronger/fitter. And you know what? I fucking love that.
In the years I've been training, I've made a number of friends in the gym, and they're all bigger and stronger every year. All they had to do was work their asses off consistently. The best part is that they knew that. There's no bullshit here, there's just hard work, discipline, and focus, and that is genuinely motivating.
The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement – Helmut Schmidt
It's all about you, and about you becoming better. You quickly learn that everyone is different. Some of us gain weight more quickly. Some of us have better genetics for muscle gain. Some of us are better built to run for long distances without feeling like our hearts are going to explode.
But none of that matters, because you're only competing with one person. If you don't know who I'm talking about, go look into the nearest mirror.
There's only so many ways you can move weight. Curling a dumbbell, pressing a shiny olympic bar, or deadlifting your body weight isn't going to get you an applause, and indeed nobody is expecting an audience.
It's not a show, it's just about you. When you walk onto that gym floor, you have your numbers and you know what the old version of you achieved. The old version of you is laughably wrong if they think they're going to beat the new version that just showed up.
Every session is an opportunity to walk away having made measurable progress towards your goals.
Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder, but nobody wants to lift no heavy-ass weights – Ronnie Coleman
In the same way that taking a Haskell job is a good way to select for an environment where people value functional programming and type systems, the gym is a good way to select for an environment where people value perseverance and hard work.
Every gym has a mix of people, but regular faces eventually become friends, and suddenly you're surrounded by people who are keeping you motivated and accountable. For me, that took the gym from a thing I did, to a community of people who value the same set of principles, and it now acts as a reinforcing place to go to push harder and get better.
Variety is the soul of pleasure – Aphra Behn
I started going to the gym for two reasons. The first reason came shortly after the horrific realisation of the effects of reaching 26 and still enjoying pizza. The second reason was to start doing something totally different from sitting down all day writing bad code.
I've now reached a point where my routine is to work during the day and start my gym routine around 6pm. That consistent switch of focus from something very mentally taxing to something very physically taxing is both enjoyable and helpful.
It's true (for me, at least) that a break away from some programming problem, spent achieving other important goals in the gym, often gives my brain the time it needs to get clarity and make it easier to solve when I come back to it later.
What keeps me going is goals – Muhammad Ali
The gym is the perfect breeding ground for setting small goals and achieving them. Whether your aim is to drop weight or gain muscle, the human body changes slowly, so goals take perseverance and time to achieve. That makes goal setting very important.
Having a well-defined short term goal, and measuring every step towards it, I find the gym is more like a game. I walk in knowing exactly where I'm at and what I need to do in order to make it another step towards hitting the goal.
With anything, and especially with physical goals, achieving what I set out (and worked hard) to do gives me a deep sense of achievement and pleasure. That kind of progress usually begets progress, as well.
Affirmation without discipline is the beginning of delusion – Jim Rohn
I've always attributed a great importance to discipline. In those moments where your willpower/energy is low, digging deep and remembering why you started is hard, but it's the only way out.
The gym is a great place to practise getting better at being disciplined. Getting out of your warm house to head to the gym is going to be effort. That last set is going to hurt, and you know it's going to hurt before you even start. And after doing the set, you're not going to look any better – that'll take time, yet you'll need to be back here tomorrow.
The only way forward is to repel those feelings, to endure the pain, to dig deep and find a will stronger than the combined forces wanting you to stay indoors, to not pick up the bar again, to quit.
The best part is that it's so simple. It's certainly not easy, but it's very simple. It's a yes or no choice – you either find a way to do it, or you go home. And man, when you manage to push through that a few times, you've got it, and it's an amazing feeling.
It's transferable too – that same mentality can be applied anywhere that there's a difficult problem requiring extended effort to get through. The key is knowing you have what it takes when you need to.
The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not – Mark Twain
With most physical goals, diet usually makes up a large share of the means of achieving them. For losing weight, what you eat is vitally important. For getting bigger or stronger, diet is the absolute core of it.
Muscle fibres are broken in training, but repaired by eating correctly and getting sufficient rest. Understanding exactly what balance of macro nutrients you need is just as important as making sure you're training correctly.
For me, a nice consequence of a consistent training routine was that I started feeling much more motivated to keep my diet in check. Times where I did/do cheat, I get a sense that I'm not only wasting the current opportunity to eat well, but wasting the session that went before it and all the hard work that went into that.
Looking back, the gym has taught me a lot, and it has become a part of my life I really value. Being in that environment helps me stay true to the work, helps me stay disciplined, and shows me that however hard it is, I can just keep going and find new limits.
If you're a gym-goer yourself, I hope this posts reflects your own experience. If you were thinking about becoming one, I hope this post has been motivating and encouraged you to give it a try sometime.
Before I finish, I'll end with some advice based on things I've learned both the easy and the hard way.
If you can't measure it, you can't improve it, as the saying goes. Track what you're trying to get better at, as those bigger changes will take time to become self evident.
Having measurements along the way to demonstrate to yourself that you're improving is highly motivational, and especially useful if the numbers start going the other way. You'll be able to see problems before it turns into a huge waste of your time.
2: Set Goals
Have short-term goals. Whether it's to lose a specific amount of weight, or bench a specific amount, it doesn't really matter as long as it's achievable.
Achievable goals will give you that focus, and help you stay disciplined, as you can measure progress against them. As per the point above, make sure you're measuring each session – arbitrary goal setting won't hold up over the long term.
3: Know What You're Doing
If you want to lose weight, understand the fundamental principles to help inform your routine. If you want to get stronger, firstly decide where, and then research – watch videos of professionals showing you the movements so you can perfect the form with lighter weights until you can safely apply progressive overload correctly.
A bench press isn't simply moving a bar from your chest upwards. You must understand proper form for each exercise you do, or you won't be training what you think you're training, and you'll most likely injure yourself eventually.
4: Understand Food
Read about nutrition. You should be able to explain how your body regulates blood sugar levels. You should you know which foods cause the biggest spikes. You should know (and track) how much protein you need daily to meet your training goals.
All of this is super important, as described above, and ignoring it is worse than ignoring training. Make sure you understand your macros, track your food intake, and eat the right balance of nutrients to ensure your training isn't being wasted.
Consistency is so important. Trying to look like the cover of your fitness magazine is a long-term goal, and it won't help you keep your training consistent. After a few weeks of not looking like your fitness magazine cover, you'll start to lose motivation and drop sessions here and there.
Use short-term goals and track your achievements so you know how to keep making progress. And do it consistently. The body changes slowly, but only with consistently applied effort. It won't change at all if you just go to the gym whenever you can be arsed.
Rest is underrated, despite there being lots of research about muscle recovery being linked to good sleep and good rest. Rest comes in two flavours at least. Firstly: don't over-train. If you're measuring, that shouldn't be too difficult – do what you need for progressive overload and don't do it every day without giving that muscle group time to recover.
Secondly, don't train the same muscle group on consecutive days. That way you'll be giving one group a day of rest even while you're training the other. For example, don't train back on Monday and then again on Tuesday.
7: Training Partners
I've been very lucky to find someone who has similar goals to me and we have been training regularly together for the last year. It has easily been the single most valuable change I've made in the last year.
From keeping each other motivated to being even more accountable in terms of goals, training with someone else regularly really makes a big difference. Another huge benefit is that you have someone checking your form and making sure it's as good as it can be.
Stay open to doing a few impromptu sets with someone else in the gym – it could turn into a regular thing and will really level-up your experience and results.
8: Change It Up
The human body has a remarkable way of adapting. While we're all different in our own unique ways, we're all very similar in that we adapt to everything we do. In terms of training, if you repeat the same thing often enough, you'll gradually stop responding to it.
The key is to keep your body guessing by changing it up. Change your grip, flye the cable a bit lower, cycle between strength and volume training by applying periodization.
The fun thing about solving this problem is that you can get quite creative. Once you develop that mind-muscle connection, you'll know if your strange new exercise is actually working or not.
9: Have Fun
Ultimately life isn't all about gruelling hard work. Try to inject some fun in your sessions, but avoid the mistake of making them about having fun.
It is hugely empowering when you see your body change and make that first realisation that you're in control of what happens from here. Stick to the fundamentals, train and eat properly, and the gym can be effective without being a pool of sweat and tears.