Seventeen-Point-Five: The Underestimation of our Unforeseen Strength.
Another day at the gym, another chance to fit in some resistance work. It was crowded on the floor, the weight rack reminding me of the produce shelves at Trader Joe’s Chelsea on Sunday evenings: picked over, plowed through, only a few choices left now that the “good ones” were gone. I was left with my own personal equivalent of bruised-up apples and overripe bananas and strange veggie combos that no one else wants to cook.
In fitness – specifically, resistance training – there are two main schools of thought: you lift light with high reps, or you lift heavy with less reps. For me, someone once told me along the way that lifting lower weights until fatigue was the way to go. Eight-to-ten-pounders it was, then. No more, rarely less. It maintains “lean muscle,” I was told. It burns what you don’t want and keeps what you do.
Which technique was actually “better” or not is besides the point. If I’m being honest with myself (which I always try to do), I stuck with the advice I did because it was easy. I knew exactly what to expect. It was familiar. And even when I felt myself getting stronger, which I did every now and again, I shied away from the larger weights not because I feared I wouldn’t get “results” – but because I was scared I would be disappointed with myself if I couldn’t lift them to begin with.
Sighing at the lack of ten-pounders on the rack, I picked up the only option under sixty pounds available: 17.5. I had to look down to make sure I’d grabbed the right one. It can’t be, I thought. Why did I think this would be so insurmountably heavy?
We live within an epidemic of underestimating our strength. In this world, it’s become easy to be angry, easier to be cruel, even easier to be simply “nice,” than it is to speak up and live out.
Is it that we are culturally shamed into not showing strength? “Speaking up” is having a moment, thank goodness, but we’ve still got a long way to go until voicing our hearts is seen as a sign of courage, not a scarlet letter of deficiency. Is it we view the idea of “living the dream” as just that – a silly, unattainable dream that’s unworthy of a fight or our courage? Or is it that there’s so much else that’s a distraction in this world, too much else that’s over-stimulating and overpoweringly strong, that to add even an ounce of strength to the mix is almost too overwhelming to bear?
The majority of our environment is artificial; banking on our arousal to keep us engaged. Oh look, a fancy restaurant! Oh look, a sample sale! Oh look! An ad telling me I must not be good enough as I am because I definitely need that cream to do away with my shortcomings! It might be fun (no hate; not knocking it till I try it), but even the new Pokémon GO iPhone game thing is worth questioning. What does it say about us that the game begins with a reminder to “stay alert” — not while we quench a thirst for information or knowledge, but feed a hunger to “catch” imaginary creatures, ps — lest we should bump into a light post, or a person, or a moving car, or an assailant? (this article on Forbes does a good job of summing up my feelings on that one – on the other hand, this one does a nice job of expressing how it might be able to help folks with depression, but it’s more about actually getting people outside than it is about what people do once they’re there.)
All any of this means is that when we get the chance to make our own decisions and decipher our own feelings, we’re way less likely to go for anything other than the easy way out. After all, the world is constantly coaxing us to spend our energy elsewhere. We will never cease to be tempted by the ease of the moment until we start investing in what it means to explore our own strength.
The true work doesn’t come in the ease and the fallback, it comes in the unfamiliar and the spaces outside of comfort zones:
Growth, whether it’s muscles or mindset, comes when you move forward fearlessly and pick up that weight, and maybe one day are surprised by the fact that picking it up wasn’t all as hard as you’d worked it up to be.
Fitness, to me, is not about a number of reps. It’s not about the perfect lunge, and it’s certainly not about the number of calories burnt per minute. Fitness is about realizing you’re stronger than you thought, you’re tougher than you realized, and you’re way more intricate than you ever could imagine. Fitness is about realizing that it’s okay to be both strong and soft, determined and delicate, in the gym and out of the gym – because life asks of you everything the gym does and more. Lifting a weight over and over might look impressive from the outside (how does she do so many reps?!), but you’re ultimately just waiting for the inevitable fatigue.
Choosing the safe bet – the anger, the fear, the perfunctory cheeriness, the popular viewpoint – might be easier to choose and more readily accepted from the outside, but ultimately, it’ll get old.
But choosing the more mindful option? The one that presents challenges no one can see? Now that is something. Now THAT is strength. It’s not about the way it looks, it’s about the way it feels.
And so picking up a seventeen-point-five pound weight, it meant so much more to me in that moment than just a few extra units of heavy metal. It made me ask: Where am I not upping the weight in my own life? Where am I settling for the ease, over and over again until I fatigue? And in what parts of my life am I not facing my own true strength?
I am not perfect. I stay silent when I long to speak up. I cower in the face of fear. I shrink myself to make others feel comfortable, and I overextend myself to protect others instead of protecting myself. I feel rage-bubbles bubble up inside, and I smile a sweet smile even when I’m betrayed. But I always go back and I pick up the weight, and remind myself that every ounce of metal and every moment of equanimity counts when it comes to building myself up into the woman I strive to be. When it comes to building the world into the world I want to see. We’ve got to start somewhere, and we can’t discount the power we have as individuals to shift the landscape.
So go ahead. Pick up the dumbbell and lift the weight. You might be surprised at the strength you’ve built – and the power that’s been locked inside, waiting for you to use it.
In the comments below, tell me one way you’ve impressed yourself with your own strength. Doesn’t matter what it is – all acts of strength are HUGE in the WANT playbook.
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