But working out felt worse.
It was at an East L.A. boxing gym, where Oscar de la Hoya once trained. A trainer put me through some conditioning paces. Jumping jacks for a few minutes, then stand like a starfish and touch right hand to left foot, straighten, then left hand to right foot, repeat for a few minutes. Shadow box doing jabs, hooks, uppercuts and crosses, then combinations. Then bob and weave under a clothesline resting on my right, then left shoulder, and back again.
Simple stuff like that for about 45 minutes.
The next morning, not only could I not get out of bed, I couldn’t turn in bed. Every muscle hurt to move — rolling a few degrees in either direction was excruciating. I needed help to sit up, shuffled to the bathroom a few inches at a time, and I’m convinced I regretted breathing.
If there’s a moral to that story, it’s not that I was dumb enough in my med school days to court kidney failure and rhabdomyolysis. It’s that I experienced for myself the actual work required to prepare for a combat sport. My body gradually adapted, but if I wanted a certain level of fitness to do a certain type of activity, this is what it would feel like. Talking, watching videos, and reading books were nowhere close.
Reality bites deep in the buttock
It was the difference between seeing a paint commercial on TV, and spending a weekend painting a house (I volunteered to do that once in high school). Curious idea vs. prolonged sweat and pain.
Anyone can think idly about any subject under the sun. Ten ideas for cool movie plots in 10 seconds. Five potential new small business ventures in 30 seconds. Not a lot of movement happening in the universe, except in the flitting of electrons between your ears.
But moving a corner of the universe demands the application of Force, which you have to supply. And applying Force means expending energy, which can be tiring and painful when the subject is your body and how it moves or fights.
You can bring change to the universe by convincing others to work on your project, or by whispering falsehoods in their ears so they’re too busy arguing with each other to notice you moving ahead. You can effect Change with a surprisingly small outlay of clever, unpleasant effort.
Not so with your body. Yes, there are more vs. less efficient ways to pack on mass, increase your 1-rep max deadlift, or lengthen your telomeres (aka “biohacking”). But if you want to dance, you must dance; if you want to run, you must put your feet on the road; if you want to be able to fight, you must spar. Some endeavors demand nothing less than your body as the ante.
And your body gives you the most immediate and unflinching feedback about where your comfort zone ends, and how far you still have to go before you’re halfway decent. And that feedback is constantly, slowly changing; your body is aging, after all.
There’s another wrinkle
Major growth and improvement in your physical body requires major challenge to your physiology, i.e., taking you out of your comfort zone, aka discomfort and sometimes pain.
Not the pain of injury that stops training and growth, but the “pain” of the basic training effect: the fundamental and inarguable overload principle. Your body will cruise at its current level of performance until you give it a reason to up its game, by presenting it with a struggle that stimulates a better response for the next time.
So: to improve, you must apply a challenge. The 1 + 1 = 2 of the training world.
But we are hardwired to avoid pain. Nobody likes chewing on aluminum foil.
The fundamental challenge, therefore: in order to advance, you must place yourself in an uncomfortable growth state that you instinctively don’t want to be in.
This is about more than becoming a better grappler
Ingrid Bergman supposedly said, “Happiness is having good health and a poor memory.”
Rickson Gracie refers to this quality as Getting comfortable with discomfort. Putting yourself repeatedly in situations where your instincts are shouting This is hard, this will hurt, wouldn’t you much rather do something easier like folding laundry, playing with the doggo, or writing the Great American Novel?
Getting better requires the ability to ignore the aluminum foil pressing up against your naked soul, pursuing a less tangible but better you.
This is why the basic paradox goes beyond physical training.
The adaptation response is physiologic, a description of how your nerves and muscles respond to a challenge at the cellular level. But placing yourself repeatedly into a challenging state to force growth? That’s a mental exercise. Figuring out the path to improvement requires research, and completing any step requires effort. But voluntarily and repeatedly going back is most of the work: an uphill climb against your own resistance.
Unless you’re disciplined, dogged, or forgetful
If you’re naturally disciplined, persistent, or easily forgetful (“There’s a pony in here, somewhere!”) you have a tremendous advantage. Stretching your limits comes easily, and like showing up to the gym 3 times a week for 10 years, remarkable stuff accrues.
This isn’t most of us.
Particularly if you’re imaginative and good at modeling different scenarios, overthinking is a real risk. Visualizing all the ways things can be uncomfortable, plus all the ways things could be easier if you didn’t push, can be enough to turn you aside.
It’s been such a long, draggy day — wouldn’t you rather skip tonight’s intense workout and go tomorrow?
Skip the kale salad and sweet potato planks in favor of the cheeseburger and chili fries?
Skip the next online lesson and watch Netflix instead?
Skip the long-overdue phone call to a friend? The review of that new business plan? The meditation and journaling session?
The human avoidance response — to stay with the familiar and safe — is universal, if we permit it.
The real challenge
…is to recognize the difference between Spidey-sense tinglings that you should immediately acknowledge, and work avoidance mumblings that you should blow past and ignore. Don’t Go There in the dark is a 6th sense survival reflex from when we shared the Earth with toothy predators: rarely used but not to be ignored. Wouldn’t you rather stay in and order a pizza?” is almost as ancient — stay close to the fire, scawy monsters out there — but much more likely in the digital era to hold us back from meaningful improvements.
Changing from your current state to a better state requires challenge in order to grow, and by definition, challenge feels different and uncomfortable.
Get comfortable with discomfort. It’s a most valuable skill, if improvement is important to you.