There’s nothing more dangerous in the gym or in training than the concept of “should.” OK, if your gym has an alligator wrestling pond that might take the cake, but otherwise should is the worst. It makes us feel shitty, it encourages us to go too hard and risk injury then turns around and discourages us from even trying, and most of all, it is pervasive. I don’t know a single person who spends any time in the gym who doesn’t fall into the trap of should.
Maybe you read my post on my first powerlifting minicycle. If not, I’ll recap the part that is relevant: I missed my final deadlift when testing for 1RM, and said that I could have made it but didn’t due to a failure in form. In short, I was annoyed because I should have been able to deadlift 285 lbs. Hell, I’ll be fully honest with you, I’m still super annoyed that I missed that lift. I really believe that I should have had it (there’s that word again), and I have to keep reminding myself that 285 is not my most recent max lift—particularly since I really want to hit 300 lbs. by the end of the summer.*
No One Judges Us Like We Judge Ourselves
“My 5K time should be under 29 minutes.”
“I should be able to do a strict pull-up.”
“I should have a 50 kg snatch by now.”
“I squatted my body weight last week, I should be able to today.”
“S/he can Rx Fran in 4:30, so I should be able to, too.”
(Need help deciphering that last sentence? You’re not alone! Fortunately, the internet is littered with Crossfit glossaries like this one and this one.)
Your shoulds are probably different, but they share the same theme: You. Are. Not. Good. Enough. And that’s bullshit.
I am a huge advocate for setting goals, and I want to make very clear that there’s a difference between goals and this kind of negative comparison. Goals help you achieve, shoulds tell you that you’re not achieving. Goals tell you where you want to be, shoulds tell you where you’re not. Goals motivate you, shoulds discourage you. (I mean, why fucking bother, amirite?)
The worst part about shoulds is that they’re 100% internal. I absolutely guarantee you that zero people are judging you for not having a strict pull-up, or think less of you because it took you longer to complete a circuit. In fact, if you can find one person who thinks less of you because of something you can’t do in the gym, I’ll give you a hundred bucks.** And, here’s the kicker, those people you see working out next to you in the gym, well they’re watching the stuff you’re great at and thinking that they somehow don’t measure up.
I Want an Oompa Loompa NOW
For all the awesome things about goals, they have a downside: they can be used to fuel your shoulds. “Oh, you want a 200 lb. bench press? Been working two whole weeks? You should really have achieved that by now,” say our sneaky, cruel brains. Achieving goals takes time, and part of effective goal setting is understanding the amount of time it takes to achieve what you want.
Most everyone is familiar with Veruca Salt (no, not the 90’s band who have apparently re-formed), the spoiled brat in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who demands a string of things from the factory, from an Oompa Loompa to the goose who lays golden eggs, to her eventual detriment. The obvious moral to that story is, don’t be a spoiled brat. So, don’t.
That may sound harsh, but we’re all a bunch of entitled brats, firmly addicted to instant gratification. That’s why the diet industry is flourishing despite its lack of success. That’s why job satisfaction is so low and turnover so high. That’s why I want my motherfucking 300 lb. deadlift (and a strict pull-up, and a squat snatch, and, and, and) today. Not in six months.
Unfortunately, things that are worthwhile are rarely easy; it takes time to build strength, endurance, mobility, muscle memory, speed. And some things are going to take longer than others. I’m not coordinated, so that squat snatch, despite the fact that I am strong enough to overhead squat 90+ lbs., is still pretty far in the future. And I have to understand that, embrace it, and not get discouraged.
You Can’t Bench a Volvo
This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but I’m a member of several fitness-focused groups on Facebook. An internet friend who I’ve met through one of these groups recently posted a great note to herself about working on her weaknesses. The element that really struck me, though, was about working within her limits.
You can only do what you can do. Some days muscle fatigue, lack of sleep, not enough food, or stress about the 14,376 things you have on your to-do list negatively impact your performance. And that’s OK. It happens. Some days you feel like you’re totally stuck and making no progress. Again, it happens. Not to sound all hippy-dippy, but it’s important to take time to honor where you’re at today. If you have a rough day, shrug it off knowing that another day will be better. Don’t focus on what you can’t do, think about what you are doing.
Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum
I bet you thought I could make it through this post with only one literary reference. WRONG! In Margaret Atwood’s seminal dystopian novel, A Handmaid’s Tale, Offred finds the above phrase carved into the wardrobe in her room. It’s a jokey, bastardized (ha!) Latin phrase, ostensibly meaning, “don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
I have some really bad news for you guys. Shoulds are always going to be there; you can’t get rid of them. The best you can do is not let them discourage you. Seriously, ignore those voices in your head; tell them that your best is enough, and believe it. Whatever you do, do NOT let the bastards grind you down.