Life Lessons from the Weight Room

If I’m paying attention, everything in life validates what I already know, teaches me something new, or advises me on some issue I have at the moment. The weight room at my gym is no exception. While I have been a runner for many years (though I run neither as far nor as fast as I once did), I have only been doing weight resistence training for a little under three years. During that time, the equipment and free weights have had their way with me, using their unique language to remind me of some very important things about life. Here are a few.

    Beginner’s Mind Makes All the Difference

Adventure often means being willing to return to beginner’s mind. Among other things, that requires a willingness to make a fool out of yourself as you try something new. We adults have mastered enough things over time that it can be disconcerting to stumble, bumble, and otherwise be a novice.

My first day at the gym, I wisely had a session with a trainer. Jay (Jay Willy, something of a living legend in Broomfield, Colorado) showed me how to use enough pieces of equipment to get me started. He even took notes on the settings. Of course, when I returned for my next visit, I couldn’t make much sense out of the notes and spent some time at each piece of equipment, just staring at it, as if staring would reveal its secrets. It took some time before it became second nature. Before it did, I got to experience the thrill and challenge of being consciously incompetent at something. It’s humbling. It’s also exciting. And it’s how we learn.

    Showing Up is Half of It

I get up very early on the mornings I go to the gym. I run, return home and record the dreams I’ve had during the night, meditate, and then pull myself together enough to get to the gym, work out for an hour, and get home before many people have begun their work days. Some of the people in my life think this is an admirable routine and others think I’m crazy. I know that I’m not doing anything special. I’m just showing up for life.

In truth, I could easily talk myself out of the run, the gym, the meditation, and the journaling if I allowed myself to think about the work involved or the time these things take. Instead, I just show up. It all falls into place once I’ve done that. Any of the elements of my early morning routine may be difficult or easy that particular day, but once I’ve shown up and am in the process of doing them, there is momentum to carry me through. Showing up is really half the battle.

    Form is Important

It is true that form follows function, but that doesn’t mean form is unimportant. At the gym, form is critical. Use a piece of equipment without attention to form and, at best, you will simply not work the muscle group you are trying to work. At worst, you will injury yourself.

Fortunate for me, Jay is often in the weight room when I am. Even though I only schedule a session with him once in a blue moon, he keeps an eye on me and my form, gently correcting me when I am a bit off. Staying in form requires vigilence. Caring about form is something else again. I often see men and women (men more often than women) applying incredible weight and losing form. They grimmace. They power through. And they may not actually be accomplishing as much as they think. They may look tough, but when the form is off, there is a great deal of waste to the effort.

    Consistency Matters

If it is a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, I’m usually at the gym. I’m willing to make sacrifices in other areas of my life to manage that (like going to bed on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights at roughly the time a six year old would). I am consistent. Some people call it disciplined. I sometimes call it persistent. Whatever you call it, it is easier to show up when you decide you are going to do it on a regular basis.

Consistency is related to, but not the same as, showing up. Showing up gets you there on any particular day. Consistency gives you a plan for showing up. Consistency turns a concept into an ongoing practice. And, at the gym as well as in many other life experiences, mastery requires ongoing practice.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but if I were not consistent in my practice, I would never make those small but meaningful gains in strength. Instead, I would begin to develop strength, lose what I have begun when I dropped out of the practice a while, and have to start over when I came back to it.

Interestingly, it is actually easier to be consistent than sporadic. And the gains come from the consistency.

    You Can Talk About it or You Can Do It

I have met some wonderful, inspiring men and women at the gym and I always look forward to seeing them. That doesn’t mean I spend half of my time at the gym chatting. On the contrary, the time I spend on weight resistence machines and with free weights is darned near aerobic because I am very focused.

There is pausing between sets and there is killing time. I’m friendly with my fellow weight trainees, but I don’t use other people to avoid working out. It would be easy to do that and I see folks talking themselves right out of their workouts on a regular basis.

As with almost anything else in life, we can plan, posture, and circle around things endlessly or we can do them. We can talk about what we plan to do ad nauseam or we can do what we plan. I don’t want to get to the end of my life and realize that I spent it thinking and talking about the grand things I wanted to do instead of putting one foot in front of the other and actually doing those things.

So . . . those are just a few of the things the gym has shown me. Have I perfected the learning? Hardly! I’m still a pilgrim going down the road. And I translate those learnings to other areas of my life better in some places than others.

But tomorrow is Monday, which means another opportunity to learn something about myself and life at the gym. And you can bet I’ll be there. Look for me in the weight room of the Paul Derda Recreation Center in Broomfield, Colorado at about 6 a.m. I’ll be the very short, aging but determined woman who looks like she means business.

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20 Responses to “Life Lessons from the Weight Room”

  1. Lynda Hilburn Says:

    What an inspiring post, Melanie! You’ve motivated me to move past merely thinking about taking that walk in the morning. Then, who knows? Maybe a gym!
    Lynda Hilburn

  2. Patrice Rowe St. Onge Says:

    Hi Melanie,

    I enjoyed your post. I think as an adult we find it more difficult to enter into beginner’s mind. We are so often looked upon to know things that it’s difficult to accept a humbling position as the student but as essential as maintaining a sense of humor about ourselves. Beginner’s mind allows us to not take ourselves too seriously. It teaches us to laugh – what could be better? Thanks for your reminder to be open to opportunities to expand ourselves without worrying about how we look to the world.

  3. Nancy A. Says:

    I like it! -very inspiring. You’re right… half of it is showing up, and you show up!

    Have a great day.
    Nancy

  4. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Linda,

    Great! The “body” part of our four-part nature (body, mind, spirit, emotions) is not only important, but attending to it makes everything else easier. There are, of course, many things we can do for our bodies . . . but they love movement, for sure! No doubt, that is a part of why you think about taking a walk in the morning.

    As for the gym, you just might like it. You might not, too. I am convinced that we need to find the things (including forms of exercise) that resonate for us. The gym works for me. If you decide to give it a try, remember to enter beginner’s mind and give it a chance. But if it is not for you, find something else that is.

    Our colleague, Gail Storey, takes hip hop lessons (and has been known to entertain her fellow members of the Boulder Media Women). Just watching her, you know she is in joy doing it. And from the looks of her body, it has to be one of the things that contributes to her being in great shape. It’s all about what works for us, personally.

    Thanks so much for the comment, Lynda.

    Melanie

  5. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Patrice,

    You are so right! As children, we are eager to learn things and have a sense of humor about bumbling efforts–at least until we become overly socialized. But as adults, many of us have shored up our ego boundaries to the point of being just a bit too self protective.

    When I began weight training at the gym, in September of 2005, I was immediately pulled back, in my mind, to something that had happened a few months earlier.

    I had met my husband in Rome. He was in Iraq at the time, serving as an International Police Trainer. We hadn’t seen one another for several months, so we made plans to meet in Rome, stay there for a day or two, and then take the train to Florence.

    We were at the train station in Rome, waiting for our train to Florence. I decided to get coffee at the little lunch counter there. My Italian was limited to a few stumbling words, but I thought I would be able to order coffee with it. I ordered my coffee with no difficulty. Then I pulled out some money to pay for it. The man behind the counter waved it at me and said something too fast for me to comprehend even if my Italian had been up to snuff. Embarrassed, I thought I might not have given him enough money, so I handed him more. He shook his head and machine-gunned some more Italian in my direction. Then he looked over to a couple of friends standing at the counter and laughingly said something that was probably the equivalent of, “Stupid American!” He handed me my coffee and change. I hadnt’ paid too little, but too much, and he had probably asked if I had a smaller bill.

    I walked back to my husband, who was rolling his eyes at the entire scene. He had offered to get the coffee for me. I had told him to relax, that I would get my own. He was, no doubt, wishing I had let him get the coffee.

    The feeling I was experiencing was familiar, though a bit faint. Then I realized that it was the feeling of being a beginner. It had been a while. And I commented to my husband that what he had just witnessed was, no doubt, why so many people take tours instead of traveling in Europe on their own. They have a layer of protection against bumbling transactions when they are part of a tour group! They get to avoid being an obvious novice about the languages and ways of the countries they visit. I realized that it was a pity because there is such a lot to gain when one is willing to be a novice.

    Thank god I was able to have a sense of humor about my own bumbling.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Patrice.

    Melanie

  6. Denise Walker Says:

    Nice piece, Melanie! I identified with your comments on persistence and consistency. I am in the process of coming back from an injury. I was a workout-a-holic for several years, and now I find myself unable to do one push-up and only a fraction of the workout I used to do. Talk about humbling!

    Denise

  7. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Denise,

    Oh, boy! That takes me back to a long-ago injury. Once upon a time, when I was a more serious runner and also an untalented soccer player, I incurred an injury. Not from running. Not even from soccer–and there were always injuries on my over thirty, co-ed soccer team. Nope, I incurred the injury showing off.

    I was at a party hosted by a fellow member of my soccer team, whose charming young daughter showed me her cheerleading abilities. I told her I could still to the splitz–all the way down. She challenged me. I showed her. I did what I said I could do . . . and heard a little pop in my leg.

    The next day, I heard a larger pop midway on my five mile run. And it brought me up short. I had injured my hamstring showing off, then amplified the injury during the run.

    I went home, called a soccer friend, and described my injury. (I was too naive to even know what I had done.) He rushed over, gave me aspirin, elevated the leg, and iced it. Then he made us steaks on the grill (a really nice touch, I thought).

    I was told that it would be six weeks before I could really return to my running. I waited a week. I tested it, ever so gently. I could run–but it was slow and it was a very abbreviated run. I was humbled by the effects of what my showing off had done to me.

    In another week, I was back to my usual run, but still slower than usual. It took some time for me to recover fully. Interestingly, I think I became a better runner for it.

    That experience taught me a couple of things. First, if I’m going to show off outrageously, I should be prepared for the universe’s sledgehammer. I’m asking for it. Second, I learned to pay attention to my body more and respect its limits.

    You are, no doubt, a more sensible woman than the woman I was all those years ago (not showing off; not being oblivious). You’re learning some things about consistency and persistence. Anything else?

    And I wonder what others have learned from their injuries.

    Thanks, Denise!

    Melanie

  8. Drea Says:

    Melanie,

    This was my first visit to your blog–what a wonderful and inspiring post! I’m especially inspired by your morning routine. Perhaps it begets opinions and judgment from others, and here’s mine: What a good use of time! If I think about all the time spent reeling around in self-defeating thoughts, replaying fears, things like that, I realize that a routine like the one you’re talking about could really serve an important centering function. Whether you’re meditating and running or hiding in bed, waiting for the snooze to go off, time is still passing. So why not spend that time well, in a life-affirming way?

    In fact, I’m going to go on a run now!

    Take care,

    Drea

  9. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Drea,

    You’re right. My routine does serve to center me. It also serves to ground me. The run is meditative. The dream journaling is meditative. The meditation is . . . well, meditative. And the gym time is meditative. To the extent that one flows into the other (and the flow is better on some days than others), it is like one delicious, flowing meditation. And, for me, that really does get the day going with the best foot forward.

    Because I do all of those things before anything else, the potential for negative thinking seeping in is lessened. And, of course, after I have done them, the potential for negative thinking is at least mitigated by all that meditative activity.

    That’s the best case scenario, anyway. Some days are just plain difficult. But any day I begin with that routine is probably going to be better than it would have been otherwise.

    There are lots of ways to spend time well. These things work for me and other things work for others. But I am in complete agreement with you that we might as well spend our time in life-affirming ways because every life-affirming moment is like getting two or three or ten extra life moments when compared to the negative variety. And they are full of juiciness and wonder.

    Thanks for your comments, Drea. I hope you poke around the blog again.

    Melanie

  10. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Nancy,

    Thanks the comment!

    And for the rest of my readers–who can’t possibly know the meaningfulness of this–Nancy is at the front desk every morning that I come in to the gym. She knows whether I’m there or not!

    Melanie

  11. Gail Storey Says:

    Melanie, I love your blog, and what you said about showing up, as you always do! I’ve been letting myself do more showing up and less planning to show up. At first I panicked: how would I know what to do next? What about my so-called “goals,” my “priorities”? It turns out it’s way more fascinating and fun to, as my meditation teachers say, “just do the next thing.” ;-D
    –Gail Storey

  12. biblitra Says:

    I have to repeat the other ones’ words: your words are so inspiring!
    I’m living a very sad and complicated period of my life, and believe me, your words are ringing a bell in my mind, telling me that I must change direction.
    Nevermind if you don’t understand Italian and can’t read my blog, I’ll read yours! Thank you for your visit and for writing what you write! 🙂

  13. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Gail,

    You have added another dimension to showing up. In fact, it could be another item that combines showing up with trust, being in the present moment, and risk taking.

    Structure is a good thing and I certainly will not argue for complete chaos. But if our goals and priorities, plans and promises become so inflexibly structured that they become part of that cocoon some Buddhists refer to (similar, in my mind, to ego boundaries that are so shored up, they have become dysfunctional), then the antidote (the medicine) is exactly as your meditation teacher would suggest: just do the next thing.

    Even for those of us who have not been hiding out in that suffocating cocoon (I’d like to think that you and I, Gail, are among those who haven’t been living with the blinds closed, the doors locked, stuffed in too small a world), it can be very useful to loosen up our lives a bit.

    Of course, some of the readers here don’t know that you are the hip hop Gail I referred to in my reply to Patrice. The jig is up. They now know. So they can assume that you, at least, are practicing the art of opening doors and windows in your psyche and life.

    As for me, the reminder you provide is very helpful. The life of a writer, editor, and shaman can make me just a bit too closed in at times. Thanks for the reminder. I suspect I’m not alone in appreciating it.

    Melanie

  14. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Biblitra,

    Thank you so much! I hope you noticed the story in my reply to Patrice about being a complete fool in the Rome train station. I love Italy–at least what I have seen of it. I’m going to visit your site, whether or not I can make sense of much, just for a dose of Italy.

    Melanie

  15. biblitra Says:

    You’re really kind, Melanie. I’d be very interested in reading something about how did you reach this point in your life, why did you chose to write about this kind of things…I’m a bit curious!
    But maybe also being curious can work as an “incentive” (I can’t find a better word!) to start up something new and show up, as you said! Isn’t it? 🙂

    PS. Your story about that Italian makes me a little angry, ’cause I can’t stand my fellow conuntrypeople who behave that way with strangers. That’s not fair and not good, first of all for ourselves and our image in the world!

  16. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Biblitra aka Chiara,

    How I reached my present point in life might require a book! But I will return to an earlier statement: I’m just a pilgrim going down the road. I will say that, for me, the magic that led to my becoming apprenticed to a shaman, the work that I did (on myself) in that apprenticeship, and my work as a shaman (after completing the apprenticeship) have been critical pieces in my personal development (such as it is).

    Not everyone is called to be a shaman and I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone not meant to be one because it is not an easy road. It has been a part of my path. I believe that we each have a path that is beautiful and unique. It will find us if we just stand still long enough to let it do so.

    Don’t be angry about my experience at the train station in Rome! It was a very helpful experience as it validated for me that I was, indeed, willing to be in beginner’s mind whilst in Italy. Very useful validation!

    Keep showing up, Chiara!

    Walk in Beauty
    Melanie

  17. Marty Says:

    Great Post,

    I’ll also share an observation now seasoned with a quarter-century more life experience. The weight room (and/or running track, cycling path, lap pool, football pitch…your mileage may vary…literally!) also has the potential for teaching wonderful lessons in both letting go, and in reinventing oneself.

    The “letting go” part may seem obvious; as the effects of time, gravity, and the sins of our youth combine, those of us who have been lifelong athletes are confronted with the need to change our training or risk losing that piece of our life entirely. This provides wonderful opportunities to embrace new challenges…to experience the joy of novelty and learning..and to revel in new achievements. The adoption of the “beginner’s mind” as Melanie described, is crucial to allowing that growth to take place.

    The life lesson of the weight room as path to reinvention may not be as obvious, but even as one faces new challenges (in other arenas of life), the process of transformation from neophyte to a higher level of proficiency learned from sports/training provides an excellent foundation for success elsewhere. The specific discipline may be different, but the overall formula doesn’t vary all that much (with the added benefits of near-immediate positive feedback from the gym!).

    A disclosure here: I enjoyed the privilege, many years ago, of accompanying Melanie as she ran, and bore witness to some of her early exploration into weight training. Reading this post was a sheer delight, enjoying both things remembered and celebrating her wit, wisdom, and warrior’s passion today.

  18. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Marty,

    Welcome to the blog! I hope you will return and comment often. You have some wisdom to offer, brother.

    And I’m going to fess up, here. If my readers will go back to my reply to Denise’s comment, they will find my admission to an incident in which I got injured because I was showing off–and then made it worse through my ignorance. That soccer friend who rushed over to treat me–and make dinner? That would be Marty. In those days, I sometimes referred to him as “coach.” (And, since Marty and I have not been in contact for a long while, he had no idea I was going to dredge up our shared past in my post.)

    Marty, you are so right about the transferability of mastery from one discipline to another. What we learn in the gym, and our success there, can contribute to learnings and success in many other areas of life.

    There is likely to be a Part II to Life Lessons from the Weight Room. Any suggestions? (That goes for my other readers, too.)

    Melanie

  19. Linda Says:

    Melanie,
    I’m glad that you told me about your blog-site and I enjoyed reading your post about the weight room. Yes, sometimes it takes a life-altering experience to force us to reinvent ourselves. Life is all about change, and how we deal with those challenges makes all the difference. One step at a time. I am always most impressed not with the elite runners at the Bolder Boulder, but with those runners and walkers at the end of the race. Just to finish, putting one foot down after another and with the momentum coming from the will to finish they do cross the line. Triumph mixed with pain. Elite or citizen runner. It’s the same.

    I don’t spend much time in the weight room but have found that tai chi helps me to combine the energies of mind, body, spirit and universe. I used to get almost the same feeling running long distances on the foothill trails. You have to remain present. I guess that it is the same in the weight room. Focus, flow.

    Thanks for the great post and keep workin’ those weights!

  20. Melanie Mulhall Says:

    Linda,

    Great post! Seems to me we are called to reinvent ourselves again and again while in human form. It is interesting, though, how often it takes what you have called a life-altering experience to spur us on to reinventing ourselves. I (and many readers of this blog, I suspect) would love to hear your own experiences with that, if you are willing to share them.

    Over and over again, I have also had the experience of needing to just put one foot in front of the other. And I have coached many clients to do the same. At the gym, I am most inspired by those who seem to be new to the weight room and with the elders. These people are committed to putting one foot in front of the other and there is courage to it. Where the elders are concerned, some are old enough to be my parents–and I’m 59! They inspire me to keep on.

    The weight room is certainly not for everyone and I’m a big fan of folks finding what works for them. Tai Chi has hundreds (or thousands) of years behind it. It’s beutiful, elegant . . . and not at all as easy as it looks! You’re right about being present and staying focused. It’s important in Tai Chi, in the weight room, and in our lives outside of both.

    There will be a Part II to Life Lessons from the Weight Room and this issue of presence and focus will be a part of it, so stay tuned.

    Melanie

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