How Do I Stay Motivated?

Image: D@LY3D via Flickr

As you might already know, this will be my last Ask A Swole Woman column for The Hairpin, since the site is ceasing editorial operations at the end of this month. When I say I couldn’t have done this without you guys, I mean it quite literally; I never would have guessed a single person would want to read this, especially because this column’s genesis was basically some of my friends being like “please give yourself an outlet for this so you stop ranting at us about deadlifts and so forth.” I’m so honored every week that you guys come here to read me ranting about deadlifts and so forth; I love lifting so much and I’m so happy to have been able to share it with so many people. I’m grateful for every single person who has ever reached out to me to let me know that it’s been as life-changing for them as it has been for me. That you guys keep reading and going into the gym with new determination only makes it more life-changing.

I’m working on next steps for Swole Woman; in the meantime, if you follow me (her?) on Instagram and subscribe to the newsletter, you will be sure to know exactly where I (she?) ends up. Thank you again for being such fantastic readers.

And now, to the question!

Dear Swole Woman,

I have been doing the stronglifts 5×5 programme for about 12 weeks now and I have enjoyed and benefited from it so much already. I feel stronger and more secure in my body if that makes sense? I know what it can do now and I know I can do more. I still run once a week because I like getting out on a Sunday morning but I don’t want to go back to the endless cardio I was doing and yet I’m starting to feel demotivated. I upped the weights pretty easily at first but now it’s getting harder to do so and I can spend two weeks on the same weight. How do I keep motivated? (especially now in England at least, it’s dark and cold and miserable all the time and I just want to stay in and be cosy.) How do I keep appreciating the small gains, and not just want to get to the part where I’m lifting my body weight twice over? —Holly

“How do I stay motivated” has to be the most common question on exercise forums, second only, to, like, “how do I get started.” And there is nearly no point to getting starting if you only go a couple of times, so how you keep going even when you are not “feeling” like is it almost the more important questions.

Ideally, just the act of going would pay enough emotional and physical dividends that it would be an easy choice every time—you feel accomplished! Good! Less stressed! Vitality is up! Malaise is down! Likewise, ideally, the individual acts of going would build upon themselves to carry over to your real life so that you can see the effects of your investment—it doesn’t hurt to bend over or sit in a chair anymore! You can carry groceries without getting tired! Your friend needed help moving that thing, and because you’ve been doing your upper body work, you were able to help!

Even in the best circumstances, even the most diligent people lose sight of all of this. You forget what being not-strong felt like. You forget what not exercising for months or years felt like. And when you skip once, it doesn’t feel like a massive drain on your life the way that making the effort to go once felt like a resounding positive. And then you’re like, why am I bothering? If things in the gym are getting daunting, that only adds to the difficulty of getting through the door.

The typical answer I’ve read to this issue is to accept that doing things for your health and long-term well being, or even long-term specific goals beyond that is not about motivation; it’s about discipline. I like to compare it to all of the other things that we do to maintain our existence even when we take for granted what they’re doing for us in the bigger picture. Your job is no longer new and exciting, and while it would be nice to stay inside and not do it, you go every day. The novelty of eating basically nutritious food even though your mother isn’t around to force you probably wore off pretty fast, and while it would be nice to eat Snickers and cookie dough ice cream for every meal, you still eat basically healthy every day, within reason (I hope).

People tend not to think of working out this way, and it may be because we attach insanely outsize expectations to it? Starting working out with the aim of looking like, I don’t know, Alessandra Ambrosio or lifting as much weight as Kimberly Walford is similarly insane to starting a new job with the aim of being Warren Buffett. We in America project these things as being attainable, class mobility and so forth being a hallmark of our culture, but everyone forgets to mention that there is, if nothing else, a lot of work and time and attention and effort that separate the average businessman from Warren Buffet. Deciding to be Warren Buffett is an important component of becoming Warren Buffett, but it is not handed to you because you decided it, and it is certainly not handed to you if you only stick with it once you realize how long the road is that separates you from Being Warren Buffett.

So you just have to go, is the short answer. Go the way you go to work, you go to the grocery store, you go to the bank. Again it’s sort of like your job: some days you might actually really enjoy your job and show up and put in extra time and feel great at the end of the day. Other days (Holly’s boss, don’t read this), you hate it and show up and drag your feet and don’t get much done. But you still go. You do what you can. You leave.

If you are feeling discouraged, focus on doing what you can with the absolute best quality, rather than the most weight possible. Do not build up the gym to be this big insurmountable thing in your head. Brush back up on proper form for a few minutes, practice the movements in your house with a Swiffer or whatever, do weights you can manage. Take careful note of how much better you feel, physically, once you start exerting yourself again. I’ve said this somewhere before but oftentimes, they days I feel like I can deal with the gym the least, emotionally speaking, turn out to be the days it does the most for me. When it feels like I have fucked up or let everyone down or can’t make anyone happy or do anything right, those are the days it feels the best to squat 220 pounds for reps.

As always, make sure you are eating enough and sleeping enough and drinking enough water. If you think you are but aren’t sure, do more that that.

To dig a little deeper than “just go”, keeping up with the gym is a little like getting into the relationships for the honeymoon phase thrill over the first few months, only to bail the first time either your or the other person’s mask slips. You break up, only to seek out a relationship again for all the fun and validation that starting a relationship brings, and do the whole cycle over again. This is not QUITE the same thing as going to the gym, because it doesn’t involve seeking validation from other people, but some people can have a similarly toxic relationship with working out—they’re in it for the easy and immediate highs, not the long term benefits that take some commitment and aren’t as readily apparent.

This is part of human nature, that we love the getting of things but barely register the having of things. It honestly would probably be too overwhelming to constantly register the having of all the things—screaming with joy over my automatic coffee grinder every morning sounds terrifying—but there is ample evidence that making deliberate attempts at registering the having of things, or what might else be called “mindfulness”, actually has a significant effect on happiness. Try appreciating, for instance, that you have time for the gym, that you can afford the gym, that you’re able to invest in yourself and your long-term health this way, even if you can’t feel it.

I know sometimes it’s annoying to do things, and sometimes we don’t feel like doing anything (if this goes on a long time or does seem to be seasonally related, it doesn’t have to be this way and please see a doctor/therapist/both!). And frankly, sometimes we don’t. Lord knows I’ve skipped the gym, sometimes for weeks. It happens! And when it does, you have to do your best not to judge yourself for it. You have to make your peace with going back and only being able to do what you can do, rather doing the best you’ve ever done.

Honestly, most days at the gym won’t be your best days. Treat every day like a new day because it is, and remember that there is always somewhere to go from where you are. Literally nothing in life is going to take the form of relentless perfect progress upward; if you can’t handle that idea when it comes to working out, treat that as the self-knowledge learning experience that it is, and give yourself the space to examine why that’s hard for you to accept—why you’d rather try to lift more weight the wrong way than less weight the right way, why you’d rather not go to the gym than be faced with yourself, who is not as strong as your impossible standards expect.

All this theorizing may make it seem like a bigger deal than it is, but it’s still more of a big deal than you think. If it helps, know that everyone, ev er y one, goes through this. Just go. It doesn’t matter what you did or didn’t do yesterday. Do what you can. You’ll be fine.


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