This is going to be about philosophy. It will also, I hope, be about you—about your unique experience with fitness.
Whether you work out a lot or not, whether you think about it regularly, or whether you even work out at all, each of us already has some philosophy on fitness, a set of guiding beliefs that influences and even dictates our behaviors.
Those beliefs were not born overnight. Humans learn from their surroundings, interpreting the world to construct an overall narrative , and that process begins at a young age. The family you grew up in, your childhood eating habits, the magazines and articles you read, your beliefs on self-improvement and motivation, every experience with sports you’ve ever had, and every time you look in the mirror has an impact on your overall philosophy.
Your beliefs are the result of years of watching, learning, doing, observing, enduring guilt, feeling motivated, being successful, and facing failure. Ignoring those years of experience, and the influence they have on you, can be a disaster for your budding exercise habit.
And yet, painfully, we often don’t even realize that these beliefs exist at all. The conclusions we’ve drawn from our observations may never have been conscious; they are wedged in our minds without our awareness.
I began my fitness journey as an undersized kid who was just good enough at sports to participate and just not good enough at sports to be cool. That feeling of “not quite enough” lasted for some time; for a long time, I believed that it wasn’t possible for me to “be fit.” I blamed genetics, or metabolism or (on especially self aware days) my own laziness.
I was sure that the “fit guys” had something I was just missing, even if that something was simply six hours a day to spend at the gym. Every time I tried to work out, I got no results and burned out within a month.
My beliefs were holding me back. Yours might be too.
The Beliefs Holding You Back
Fitness beliefs vary quite a bit, but I have seen my own experience mirrored among my friends, family, clients, and readers. Beliefs are usually unspoken, and they usually hold people back. There are also some that seem to be particularly common. See if any of these sound familiar:
- I want to be fit, but I don’t want to work out every day and eat nothing but chicken breast
- My metabolism is just too slow to lose weight
- You really have to know what you’re doing to work out or you’ll hurt yourself
- Everyone that goes to the gym is in great shape. I wouldn’t fit in there.
- If I don’t have the right workout it isn’t even worth trying
These kinds of beliefs about fitness are extremely limiting and extremely common. Popular media, with its alternating emphasis on “quick and easy results” and “FITNESS MUST BE YOUR LIFE,” does little to change them.
But even once you recognize your beliefs about the nature of fitness (like those above), there are still plenty of beliefs about the process of training. For example:
- Doing lots of cardio is the only way to lose weight
- Functional training is more important than aesthetic training
- Doing high reps with low weight is better for getting toned (instead of muscular)
Many beliefs hold a kernel of truth, but most also push you towards black and white conclusions.
Yes, cardio can contribute to weight loss and yes, functional training can be useful (although many so-called “functional” programs are not), but they are not the be-all and end-all of every program.
In some cases, being blind to shades of gray can even lead to helpful action! If you are convinced cardio will help and start running off the couch, you’ve taken a positive step in the right direction.
But that step is still the product of belief.
My purpose is not to tell you what to believe. It isn’t even to get you to change your beliefs. I only want you to examine them.
Examining your beliefs is an enormous step toward enacting positive change. Throughout my fitness journey, I have had to confront a variety of beliefs. Old beliefs that I’ve discarded include:
- Bench, back squat, and deadlift are the only exercises worth doing
- Long-distance running is how you get more in shape
- Long-distance running is totally useless (I went too far the other way on this one)
- No nutrition supplements are ever useful
- What you eat doesn’t matter as long as you hit your macros
- I’m too lazy to work out consistently
Gradually coming to new understandings has had a huge impact, and will continue to have a huge impact as I challenge new beliefs.
I would encourage you to go through the same process.
An Unexamined Belief
Renowned strength coach Dan John once wrote:
“I have a bit of advice for most of us that goes back to the Greeks: what is your philosophy of training? I’m serious, too: what are the basic suppositions that drive your vision of training, health, and fitness?”
I used to work out for only one reason: I wanted to be ripped.
I bought a pull-up bar and couldn’t do a single pull-up. But I wanted to be ripped.
I watched YouTube videos in my basement and tripped over myself trying to mimic the instructor. But I wanted to be ripped.
I went to the gym and tried to bench, nearly dropping a 65 pound barbell on my (now extremely red) face. But I wanted to be ripped.
When my desire to work out came from the desire to look “hot,” I struggled. Every workout was a reminder of what I wasn’t; every repetition was visible proof that I was weak.
My motivation for working out was insecurity, but it was that same insecurity that held me back. Driven by insecurity, every failure made me hide. I was already fragile. I was afraid I would break. I was afraid of the gym, and stayed away from it.
This is not to say that being ripped or gaining muscle or losing weight are always bad goals. It is to say that my “basic suppositions” were that I was scrawny and weak and unworthy, and that those beliefs arrested my progress even when they were hidden below the surface.
The painful irony is that once I was able to release those beliefs, to extinguish my insecurities, I actually was finally able to get ripped. I have been described, at various points, as ripped, swole, buff, shredded, diesel, and jacked.
Eventually I settled on “me.”
I stopped focusing on how my workout was going to affect my appearance and started focusing on giving my total effort to each exercise. I chose programs and exercises that I enjoyed, rather than ones the internet told me I had to do.
I adopted a new set of basic suppositions, one focused on living an enjoyable and meaningful life. In my new framework, fitness was no longer a subject of shame and guilt. I work out because I enjoy it, because I like how it make me feel. Because it is a small part of the kind of life I find fulfilling.
As you think honestly about your own basic suppositions, I would urge you to consider what they lead to. Do your beliefs lead you to action or inaction? Are you happy with that result? Do you feel fulfilled?
Do your beliefs lead you to do what matters?
I’ve given you some examples of beliefs in this article. Do any of them ring true?
Whatever your answer, I would encourage you to take a closer look at what you believe, at your basic suppositions. On a piece of paper, a Google doc, or even the URL bar of your browser (anywhere you can put words) answer this question with the longest list you can muster:
What do I believe about fitness?