Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not Dead, Keep Going

130 days.

A lot can be accomplished in that amount of time. If you’re Forrest Gump, you can run from Alabama to California. If you’re Phileas Fogg (thank you, Wikipedia), you can go around the world 1.625 times. If you’re Kim Kardashian, you can get married twice, although you’ll have to wait an extra two weeks to file for that second divorce.

And if you’re as lazy as I am, you can complete the workout program P90X.

I know, I know…it’s supposed to be a 90 day program. That’s why they put the number “90” in the name. But working out six days a week is a lot, and when you mix the typical, everyday life responsibilities with my occasional “Screw it, I’m going to Chik-Fil-A” moments, even the most structured of schedules can get out of whack.

What counts, though, is that I made it through, and it was every bit as grueling as I had anticipated. Tony Horton, the program’s creator, is an evil genius, and he doesn’t let up for a second, forcing you to bend and twist and push your body to places it’s never been. Even the moves that appear to be the most basic are much easier watched than done, and I invariably ended every workout questioning whether I’d rather set the DVD collection on fire or smash it Office Space-style with a baseball bat.

Fortunately, my efforts did produce some results, although how much, exactly, is difficult to tell. For whatever reason, I didn’t take the recommended “Before” picture when I started (probably because I knew I’d suck in my gut), so I’ve got no reference point to which I can compare my current “After” state. But my chicken legs do appear to have a little more meat on them (although that could just be self-conscious wishful thinking), and my t-shirts do seem to be a bit more form fitting (although that could just be because of weekly washer/dryer shrinkage).

Regardless, as I explained here, my hopes for the program went beyond just the potential physical benefits. An honest internal assessment had shown that, consciously or unconsciously, I’d constructed a protective existence for myself, built on keeping things safe and secure. Terrified of the unknown, I seemed to always stick with what I knew, with what was familiar, so as to limit the possibility of failure and embarrassment. My sole goal, my own maxim had become the pathetic antithesis of what you’d ever want to see on a motivational poster:

“Don’t look like an idiot.”

Doing P90X was a way to start to change this. It was a test case of sorts, an opportunity to stretch myself, to prove that I was capable of stepping away from my comfort zone without simultaneously combusting. And even though it was a rough four months, full of sweat, tears and the torture of Single Leg Wall Squats, it ended up being the perfect trial run for the grander experiment that is my life. Within the friendly confines of my own home, I was able to stumble and struggle with little more than my pride at stake, all the while learning (or being reminded of) the following lessons – lessons that will hopefully help me the next time I can summon the courage to actually step out into the real world.

And somehow, I did it all without vomiting…

Nothin’ But 3-irons

There’s a scene in the movie Tin Cup where Roy McAvoy (played by Kevin Costner) is attempting to qualify for the U.S. Open, when he gets into an argument with his caddy, Romeo, over what club he should hit on a particular shot. Things escalate, and before you know it, Romeo has quit in disgust, and Roy has literally broken in half every club in his bag – with one notable exception: his 7-iron. His 7-iron, he explains, is the one club that has never done him wrong, the only thing in his life that he can truly count on.

Then he proves it by using it to par in and advance to the next round of qualifying.

While I’ve never shot even par with it, I do share a similar fondness for my own 7-iron. The way it feels in my hands, the way it sits behind the golf ball, I’ve always loved it. Whenever I line it up, I can’t help having confidence that something good is about to happen.

So it was only natural that several years ago, when I was attempting to play competitively, that I relied on it heavily. Working with an instructor, there were a number of uncomfortable swing changes I needed to implement in order to become the player I wanted to be, and there was no better club to help me implement those changes than my 7-iron. Hour after hour, bucket after bucket, I stood out on the range, hitting it over and over and over. I practiced with it so much that I eventually wore down a slot in its grip where my right thumb rested.

But in using it so often, I was neglecting the other clubs in my bag, clubs that I didn’t have quite as much confidence in, clubs like my 3-iron, for instance. That thing scared me to death. Just pulling it out of the bag made me regress to the days when I was first learning the game, when every hideous shot imaginable – a top, a chunk, a shank – was a possibility. And because the swing changes I was making were challenging enough, I avoided the added anxiety by simply avoiding my 3-iron.

And that’s when the relationship with my 7-iron tipped from infatuation to obsession.

It became my crutch, my pacifier, the only club I trusted. I tried to convince myself that using it so often was no big deal, that the only thing that mattered was that I was putting in the work and honing the proper fundamentals. But deep down, I knew the truth: it was a cowardly approach that was limiting my development as a player.

Instead of improving my weaknesses, I was hiding from them.

What I should’ve been doing was practicing with only my 3-iron. That club was the biggest soft spot in my game, meaning it needed the most work, which meant it should’ve never left my hand – not on the range, not on the course, not even in bed at night.

And those swing changes I was working on? Learning to do them with my 3-iron would’ve been the best way to master them. After all, if I could perform them with that club – the one I feared the most – then I could perform them with all of my clubs. And the confidence I would’ve gained would have filtered down through the rest of my game.

Yet I chose to stick with what felt safest.

And when I started P90X, I initially fell into the same trap. Pull-ups, yoga, abdominal contortions…the workouts were littered with 3-iron shots – moves that I either couldn’t do or couldn’t do very well. And my natural tendency was to recoil, to not put much time into them and wait for the exercises I felt most comfortable doing.

But then the ghosts of My Squandered Golf Past showed up, and they were not happy.

“Where did that approach get you on the golf course?” they screamed. “The point of working out – or practicing, or really any worthwhile commitment – is to get better, to achieve something that you weren’t able to achieve before. So what’s the use in doing all of this if you aren’t willing to strive for that, to attack those weaknesses and turn them into strengths?”

Once that tongue lashing set in, my entire mindset shifted. Whenever the particular exercises I struggled with came up, I started digging in like a defense on third and inches. I fought for every rep. I concentrated on correct form. I would pause the DVD to make sure I was doing everything properly, and if I wasn’t, I’d rewind it and do it again.

And whenever I inevitably tumbled, I just tried to not land on my face.

It wasn’t always easy, and it was never pretty, but making the same mistake again was not an option. Sure, it was tempting to let a set slide from time to time, but I knew that giving into that temptation would’ve done more harm than good. It would’ve meant conceding that there was a ceiling of results that I could achieve – that same ceiling that Roy McAvoy ultimately ran into when it was just him and his 7-iron:

Even par.

Body Blows

One thing you are constantly told throughout P90X is to write everything down. How many reps you did, what weight you used, how close you came to blacking out – everything. Each routine has a worksheet, and after every set, you’re reminded to record whatever it was you just did. It’s a valuable tool that not only guides you through the program, but also helps you track your progress from week to week.

But as helpful as the sheets can be, they can be just as deflating. A visual representation of your work, they make it very clear all that you have – and have not – accomplished. And in my case, they were like a scoreboard broadcasting just how pathetically out of shape I was. I’d watch the psychos on the DVDs knock out rep after rep, and they'd make it seem so easy. Then I’d look down at my worksheet and see a rep count that resembled an illegal blood alcohol content level:

Exercise: One-Armed Push-ups

Unless you’re one of those people who actually enjoys working out, you’re probably not doing P90X for the fun of it. You’re doing it because you are trying to change something – your strength, your fitness, your overall health, your ever-expanding gut that doubles as a tray for your nightly Big Mac – and it’s that motivation to change that gets you committed, that pushes you to keep hitting “Play” when you’d normally be hitting the drive-thru.

But few things will extinguish that passion quicker than a lack of results.

If you’re grinding away, working so hard that you can’t lift your arms high enough to apply shampoo to your entire head (this actually happened to me after my first workout…I think I only got my “Costanza Ring” of hair fully clean that day), and yet you’re not getting any return on your investment, the urge to head back to your couch will pop up quicker than you can say "Bacon Explosion."

This exact frustration is something I deal with constantly with my writing. When a topic comes to me, I’m initially invigorated, the same way I was during those first few weeks of P90X. My mind is clear, the ideas are flowing, and I’m energized by the possibilities of what I can potentially create.

But once that opening surge loses its momentum, and I settle into the tedium of the process, things become a bit more challenging. No longer is it as easy as turning on the faucet of inspiration; instead it feels like slamming a sledgehammer against a seemingly impenetrable mental block. Either I can’t think of anything to write, or what I’ve already written reads like poor Miss Teen South Carolina’s answer in the personal interview round. I recognize the words, and I think they’re forming sentences, but they don’t make the slightest bit of sense.

And that’s when the agony of defeat creeps in, when it feels like I’ll never finish. Sure, maybe I’ve worked my way through these types of droughts before, but those were all just flukes. They happened by accident. And I’m not confident I can fool anybody this time around.

So what do I do in response? How do I combat these darkest of hours? I avoid. I do anything I can – refresh my email incessantly, read random movie trivia on, flip through Facebook photo albums of people I’m not even friends with (that’s gotta be, at most, two steps away from real, live stalking) – to duck the inescapable staring contest with that blank white screen.

At some point, the guilt kicks in, and I force myself back behind the keyboard, but that doesn’t make all of the stopping and starting any less demoralizing. If anything, being driven by shame makes my frustrations that much more intense.

But when I’ve stepped back and evaluated myself as a writer, what I’ve realized – although not fully accepted – is that this is just my process. As much as I wish I could, I’m rarely going to sit down and write something exactly the way I want to on the first or second try. It takes time for me to sort through my thoughts. I have to think, to experiment, to tinker and tweak – and sometimes erase the blackboard and start over again. The words I’m searching for are somewhere inside me, I just have to dig for them, one re-write at a time, like a boxer methodically landing body shots, until they are eventually revealed to me.

What you are reading now is probably the tenth version (at least) of this article. There were times when I sat down to work on it, and I would write and write and write; there were others when I did nothing more than test-drive a particular idea or delete a paragraph that wasn’t any good (the latter was much more common). But regardless of how many words ended up on the page, what mattered was I was getting closer, slowly chipping away, steadily making it better.

And it took each and every one of those sessions to get here.

It was the same with P90X. An exercise in incremental improvement, my body was not transformed overnight, and the progress was not always easily identifiable, often showing up in different shapes and forms. But it was there…I just had to look for it. It was the little things, like how I started taking shorter breaks between sets, or how the soreness gradually subsided, or how the top of my head was eventually reintroduced to shampoo. Obviously, it would’ve been nice to see more defined results immediately, but each of those minor victories added up, rep by rep, inch by hard-fought inch. And before I knew it, I was finally able to take pride in at least one entry on my worksheet:

Exercise: One-Armed Push-ups

Stopping Short

Until four months ago, I hadn’t done a pull-up since seventh grade, back when school administrators thought it was a good idea to force 12 and 13-year-olds to wear those standard-issued, elastic Daisy Duke shorts to gym class every day.

You know, because puberty and its terrifying hair growth weren’t big enough challenges to deal with.

But right out of the box, P90X puts you up on that bar, and you’re shown no mercy. Standard grip, reverse grip, wide front, close hand, “Corn Cob”…you’ve got to do them in every form imaginable. I had forgotten how hard they were, but it didn’t take long to realize that it’d be a good idea to do them with one foot on a chair – partially because I needed that little extra bit of boost, and partially because I didn’t trust the fine craftsmanship of my self-assembled bar to fully support my weight.

As with the rest of the exercises, though, I battled through the growing pains, and my rep totals steadily increased from workout to workout. I loved referring back to those ever-present worksheets, see what I had done the week before, and then try to beat it. It was great motivation, a solo game of “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

But about six weeks in, I noticed that my numbers were beginning to level off. It didn’t make any sense, because I could tell I was getting stronger, and my performance in all of the other areas was improving. And with its trademark “Muscle Confusion,” the program was designed to ensure that you would never plateau. The structure of the workouts, the sequencing of the phases…there was actual science behind all of it, dictating that your results continually get better and better and better.

Clearly something was off, so I started paying close attention to what I was doing whenever it was time to do pull-ups. And what I discovered was that, not surprisingly, this leveling off had nothing to do with the program itself. I was not being failed by science (shocking!), because my body was, in fact, plenty strong enough to produce increasing results.

My mind, however, was not.

Before the start of each round, Tony would remind you to set a goal for the number of reps you wanted to do. That’s when I’d check my worksheet to see what I had done in previous weeks. And with that baseline number in my head, I’d get up on the bar and start cranking them out.

But then the pain would come.

My arms would shake. My back would burn. My breath would elude me, while the sweat would sting my eyes. But as much as that stuff hurt, it wasn’t crippling. Everything was still working. Nothing was falling off, nor was anything going up in flames.

What was debilitating, though, was the mental anguish that came from being in all of that physical pain.

There’s a certain amount of emotional strength that’s required to manage that stress, that allows you to tolerate the agony and fight through the suffering, and my well was dry. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I didn’t want to put up with it anymore. I just wanted relief.

So, as opposed to early on when I was driven to top my worksheet number, I was now content to match it. After all, that number was an improvement from where I had started, and I could write it down again without feeling too badly. It wasn’t an embarrassment…it was acceptable. It was adequate.

It was enough.

A wise man once said that the human mind cannot be denied. What he failed to mention was that it can most definitely do the denying, preventing us from doing something as trivial as getting our chin up and over the bar one more time, or for something that’s far more important. When it’s faced with unsettling distress, its inclination is often to retreat, to give in – and then use its powers of rationalization to convince us that doing so is okay.

While P90X gave me the opportunity to build myself up physically, it most importantly gave me countless, invaluable opportunities to stand at that crossroads where you have to decide if you’re going to lie down, or if you’re going to keep going. Are you going to finish strong? And even though my worksheets show that I failed more than I succeeded, the hope is that those reps will eventually take effect, and that my mental endurance will one day be strong enough to support its physical counterpart.

Because really, unless you’re Frank Costanza, stopping short almost never leads to happily ever after.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?