Old Man Fitness: Combating plateaus in the gym and in your head
I’ve never been the type of guy that liked working out in new, shiny, clean gyms. Throughout high school, college, and Marine Corps sports, I always found solace lifting in grimey cave-like gyms, with damp concrete floors and music playing too loud to permit any sort of conversation. If I could commute to Rocky Balboa‘s Siberian training cabin on a daily basis, I’d do it, but instead, I settle for the closest approximation I could build in my own basement.
There, in the seclusion provided by three walls and a garage door, I’m able to grunt, sweat, spit, and gasp without fear of how I’m being perceived by other gym goers. There’s no “lunk alarm” (feel free to eat shit, Planet Fitness), there’s no bevy of cute girls in sports bras to distract me from my work, there’s just a bunch of heavy stuff, a set of speakers, and an old throw rug intended to protect the concrete from me dropping weights. Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, Batman has his Batcave, and I have around 400 square feet of iron and stone. It’s not much, but it suits me.
But then, sometimes that’s the problem.
Functional fitness, which is a phrase many have come to see as an ethos, has very little to do with what suits you. Comfort and progress are independently exclusive concepts when it comes to fitness, and although you can get one hell of a workout in a comfortable garage like mine, it’s important to remember that there’s a fine line between comfort and complacency – and when you stick to the same weights, the same room, the same routine for too long, you run the risk of plateaus, both physically and emotionally.
For those who haven’t run into this problem before, a plateau for the fitness-minded is the point in which what you’ve been doing stops producing an improvement in your game. You aren’t getting weaker, but you aren’t getting better… you’re just staying the same, regardless of how hard you push. This can be frustrating when you’re trying to add to your personal record on the bench press, but the bigger threat is what plateaus can do to your motivation.
When you work hard for no reward, it can drain you, it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the gym or your workplace. When you rely on your workouts to help keep you emotionally stable, it can be even worse.
Like many veterans, I’ve spent time taking my daily dose of anti-depressants, and although it’s a subject I was once embarrassed to discuss, I’ve made a concerted effort to be open about it in recent years. In my case, I didn’t find that the varied prescriptions the VA sent me home with did a whole lot of good, but I’m aware that others have had success with medications and I don’t want to contribute to a harmful “tough guy” culture that thinks asking for help is something we can only whisper about. I’ve had bad times. I’ve been in bad places. I asked for help, and I’m glad I did. When you lose a friend to suicide, you look at these things differently, I suppose. When you’ve lost two, you start to get angry at yourself for not telling them that you struggled too.
And when you’ve lost four, you sit up at night calling yourself a coward for not shouting that it’s okay to get help from the roof of your house.
For me, like many of us, my daily workout is about a lot more than burning some calories to earn the evening’s beer. It’s the one time of day that I get to be me in the purest sense. In today’s world, we all have to tap dance to get by. Don’t say this, be careful discussing that, keep your boss happy, bite your tongue when your spouse gets snippy… but in the gym, it’s just me and my demons, and over years of brutal workouts, I’ve gotten pretty damn good at scaring the shit out of them. The thing is, just like the folks that turn to drugs to keep their problems subdued, eventually, it just doesn’t seem to work quite as well as it used to.
That’s when you’ve reached an emotional plateau.
When you hit a plateua on the bench, squat, or dead lift, there’s only one way around it: change things up. When you hit one emotionally, it’s no different. When I find myself facing both… I go outside.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that going for a hike will help increase your bench, nor will I tell you that a little communion with nature is enough to address what may be a chemical imbalance in your brain (depending on what’s ailing you emotionally), but what I can promise is that, in palpable ways, you’ll feel rejuvenated… and maybe a bit more able to overcome those invisible barriers between you and your physically or emotional goals.
Sometimes all it takes is a change of scenery, a change of mindset, and a change of pace to get you back to feeling like you again, progress and all.
If you’re really smart, you’ll subject yourself to these sorts of shakeups before your mind and body demand it. You can avoid the plateau by maintaining an ever changing route up fitness mountain. Changing course at regular intervals will keep you improving, make you well rounded, and maybe even keep those demons at bay.
Then, once you’re refreshed, you can get back to your own Fortress of Solitude, whether it’s the Any Time Fitness at your local mall or a tractor tire in your back yard, and get back to scaring the shit out of those demons the good old fashioned way: with brute force.
The winter can be a real killer when it comes to fitness and emotional stability. Bad weather might leave you feeling trapped indoors, not seeing the sun in three months can leave you sapped of motivation, and, at least for me, it takes a lot longer to get my joints to stop hurting when it’s cold enough out to freeze the boogers in my nose… but don’t let the weather stop you from taking your internal fight on the road. Find a safe place to go for a jog or walk. Chop some wood. Shovel your neighbors driveway. What’s important is that you get outside and get active in a functional way to remind yourself of what it is you’re doing this fitness thing for, and even more importantly, to remind yourself of how far you’ve already come.
We’re all fighting battles with our demons, but you’re still here, reading this right now. That means there are countless fights behind you that you’ve already won – fights that may have been harder, darker, more painful than this. Fights you were sure you wouldn’t make it out of.
For me, nothing puts my demons in check better than throwing some heavy metal around. For you, it might be a draining bike ride, a long swim, or a hundred burpies… but when your usual tricks don’t seem like they’re working anymore, don’t give up on them, just put them on hold for a week or two and get outside.
Remember, there’s no finish line to fitness. The whole point is be the best you that you can be. Sometimes, that means tossing your workout journal aside and lugging a log around the woods. Sometimes, it means admitting that you need some help.
And for my money, sometimes it’s worth trying both.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with depression or post-traumatic stress, remember that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. You can find contact information national suicide prevention services below:
To reach a VA professional, who is specially trained to attend to emotional crises for Veterans and service members:
-Dial the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number, 800-273-TALK (8255). Veterans should choose option 1 to reach a VCL responder;
Text 838255 — A VCL responder will text back.
Chat online here
-National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Available 24 hours everyday
Images courtesy of the author
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