The gift of strength

No one is ever given the gift of strength, you have to earn it. – Selwynn Syquia

Recently my birthday passed (yes I am claiming title to the quote above unless I later learn it was said by someone else) and over the quarter century I like to think I’ve learned a couple of things. After about a month of sporadic training sessions through late January & early February I’ve slowly been trying to get back to my December 2011 levels of strength. This hasn’t been an easy journey and at times quite discouraging. When I think about how much strength and muscle I have lost, I sometimes think it isn’t fair that I’ve regressed so quickly. But I push those thoughts out of my head as quickly as they arise and have continued on my training journey. It’s been slow and gruelling (as it should be) and I’d like to say I’m probably back to 85% of where I left off.

The night before my birthday happens to be a good friend’s birthday, it was my off day, so no gym and off to dinner and drinks. Indulging in cocktails, beers, fried shrimp and a giant birthday Pizookie with ice cream; I counted this as my birthday dinner as well. This meal was definitely NOT in line with my current health goals, but it was rest day and a birthday dinner, so I let myself indulge (Yes, I know if I was stronger I would have stayed true to my goals… maybe next birthday!)

Yes, this 6 flavour Pizookie was finished

Nevertheless, I didn’t want to let yesterday’s actions overshadow tomorrow’s dreams. So I knew the next day I continue as normal and make a few adjustments to account for last night’s excess. 6am arrives and maybe it was the excitement of my birthday or the tonne of sugar & calories I just consumed a few hours ago, but I woke up early with an urge to go for a run. So I strapped on my new Vibram KomodoSports (my birthday gift to myself) and I went out for a 40 minute run before work.

Yes, I now own a pair of Vibrams... Yes, I get weird looks at the gym...

I also resolved to fast for the day (part of that balancing for the previous night’s excess), minus a couple of pieces of fruit & a protein shake before my afternoon workout (this also included watching my mates eat In N’ Out). After work I then went to the gym for a 2 hour workout. Followed by baked chicken & veg with one beer for my post workout/birthday dinner. Not very exciting? Well it was.

Why didn’t I just follow ‘the norm’ (also how I’ve celebrated my previous birthdays) and continue the celebration, grab (a few too many) drinks, get slightly inebriated drunk and head into work the next day dog tired? Well, it would have meant I woke up feeling like death, eaten horribly that day (deep-fried everything, anyone?), skipped the gym that afternoon and also not have gone to the gym the day after either. One night of extended celebrations, would have probably cost me two days of training, plenty of bad dietary choices and push me further away from my goals. I also know that in a couple of weeks I will be away on vacation again, at which point I can indulge for a couple of days.

Everyone knows where they want to be, but not everyone gets there. We get to our destination one step at a time, day by day, sometimes life throws things in our way, but we find a way through, around, over or under, and continue; one step at a time. Great things happen through the accumulation of little events. The benefits from skipping the birthday binge are far greater than simply avoiding a hangover and some fatigue. The bigger lesson is to continue with the hard work, even if you don’t want to or it’s not the funnest option available (ironically, I actually enjoyed the run & lifting that day). No one else is going to do the hard work for you and even if they did; you wouldn’t really truly benefit anyway.

Did not realise in the myth, Hercules kills his first wife and family!

So, it was pointed out that Hercules was  given strength, thanks to being Zeus’ son (Thanks Glenn), born half human, half god, he however, was not immortal. Long story short,  after killing his family, he sought redemption, which would be granted if he completed 12 difficult tasks, at which point he would also be granted immortality. He successfully completed all the tasks, which wasn’t an easy feat by any means. A long and arduous journey fraught with tragedy, monsters & villains that would have been impossible for any other man. Hercules successfully completed all of the tasks and was summoned to Mt Olympus, where he became a god and immortalised forever. What does Hercules have to do with the topic? After all he was born a demigod granted superhuman power & strength. Well just like people who are naturally strong or genetically gifted at packing on muscle and pushing weights; whatever their innate talents may be, they’re not worth squat, if they don’t (ahem) squat. Yes, you may be strong without training, but you’re not going to be the best you, unless you push yourself passed your limits through hard work and sacrifice. Only then will you be truly strong. It’s not about being stronger than anybody else, it’s about being stronger than the you from yesterday. Just as iron ore starts as nothing more than rock & mineral, albeit naturally hard and strong. Only until the blacksmith forges the iron through fire and impact, will it be shaped and formed into something useful and infinitely greater than what it started as had it stayed as iron ore.

The only way to make iron useful is through fire and impact

Great warriors didn’t simply become great because someone said so. I’m no soldier, but I’m pretty sure no one ever entered the military to immediately become a General. Everyone starts at the bottom, they prove themselves and are then promoted. War is hell and those that survive to fight another day, become better soldiers. They all stood in the face of adversity and either failed or succeeded at their mission but accomplished growth. Their mental and physical strength have formed through many trials and tribulations. You don’t simply become a strong warrior by hoping to turn into one. True strength is not a birth right. It is to be earned and struggled for. It has to be proven in the trenches, the dirt, the battle field, the real world. Life doesn’t always present the best circumstances, pushing forward in the face of adversity requires a special person, someone who has been through it before and knows that there is light at the end of the tunnel. When when life stops giving you lemons and you find some steak, know damn sure that you worked hard to get there and never gave up.

Strength is not only determined by how much you can lift, but also (if not more importantly) by your grit, tenacity & intrinsic self-motivation, i.e., your mental strength. This is not a quick fix, something that can’t develop overnight. This type of strength takes a long time to develop, through adversity, many set backs,  plenty of failures, lots of lessons learnt and a few successes. Some people will never attain true mental strength, others will. I’ve read of one study*, (but there are plenty more out there) that has shown that negative experiences have a greater impact on the brain than positive ones. Now there are many, many theories to try to explain this (all remain psychological theories, not too sure how you prove exactly how a brain works). One of the more basic concepts is based on evolution and survival. Basically, if you choose to ignore a potentially rewarding experience the consequences won’t generally have a severe impact (i.e., you forego gathering a new tasty fruit which leads to you missing out on some extra happiness – definitely not life threatening). However, choosing to ignore a potentially bad experience (i.e., ignoring a sabre tooth’s territory) has far more severe consequences (i.e., death, injury, sickness). This trait to avoid potentially life threatening situations has been passed down through the generations, whereby our negatives experiences have a greater impact on our future actions than good experiences. Now does this mean we avoid negative situations? Even if that were possible, that is not the solution. It means that these negative situations, provided we make it out alive; help us to grow. Lessons are learned; we become stronger and more knowledgeable by having the resolve to see ourselves through to success. The next time they occur we’ll know exactly how to deal with it or better yet how to avoid it.

Now keeping things in perspective, everyday life for most isn’t a life and death struggle. Far from it; we work, we sleep, we play, we exercise, all in our little bubble of existence. Going to the gym and throwing around weights, isn’t exactly the greatest of causes, nor will it save the world. But it can change your life. The point here is that it is important for us all to make ourselves better people. We can’t do this however by simply standing still, we must present ourselves with challenges and learn from failure. Sometimes we’ll swim against the tide, through the storm or simply just swim and keep kicking. Small steps accumulate to run a marathon. A quest for strength isn’t accomplished overnight, it’s accomplished over a lifetime. Hard work, dedication and resolve to a cause forge strength; exercises in misfortune help train your mind & body to deal with them in the future. It is far easier to squat 300lbs once you can squat 315, not only because of the extra muscle, but also because you’ve trained your mind to handle the weight.

Injuries, relationships, society, friends, family, work, money, health, don’t always line up to form the perfect environment. Learning how to keep truckin’ over the mundane as well as the treacherous will do a lot in your quest for physical health & strength. Little decisions: saying no to that Big Mac, only drinking two beers, choosing the healthy option when eating out, making sure you cook the majority of your food, not skipping a training session for fun, adding the occasional extra exercise session, an extra hour of sleep. Whilst none are big changes or actions, all accrue to start forming life long habits and patterns that will soon turn these ‘hard choices’ into a lifestyle.

Physical and mental strength are completely connected. You’ll be hard pressed to find a strong, healthy individual who isn’t mentally strong. Their commitment to their cause is what has allowed them to achieve greatness.

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swaps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.” ― Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

He who would learn to fly one day must first learn to stand and walk and run and climb and dance; one cannot fly into flying – Friedrich Nietzsche


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