On pushing yourself

Pain; achievement; embodiment; resilience; fat bears.

On pushing yourself
The winner of Fat Bear Week 2022, 747, a.k.a Bear Force One. Photo courtesy of L. Law via NPS.


This is the paid Sunday Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s a Beast, a newsletter about being strong mentally/emotionally/physically.

The Question

Hi Casey!

Lifting is going great, and I’m making my gains slowly but steadily. However, we’re getting up to numbers that I can technically do but also feel a little unsteady and basically heavier than I’ve ever lifted before. It’s resulting in some unstable sets or me chickening out and reducing the weight or number of reps. Sometimes putting on a favorite song helps and (as always) using my core, but it’s led me to wonder if you could talk about the mental game of lifting for people not necessarily used to putting their bodies through stress in this way. I have big beautiful horse thighs, but sometimes they need to be reminded of that.


Shaking at the Squat Rack

The Answer

There are so many dimensions to what you are talking about here, but it got me thinking about the philosophy and practice around the idea of “pushing yourself.” I came up in the “no pain no gain/grind and girlboss” era. Now, to paint with a broad and overly simplistic brush, we live in a time where exerting any kind of effort can feel Problematic, with a zillion rapidly unfolding political dimensions, not to mention encyclopedically well-documented risks. This gives us two dimensions of your question to explore: pain and achievement.

On pain

There is a realistic and immediate dimension to fearing trying something you’ve never done before. You might get hurt. You might well get your ass kicked. Why sign up for an ass-kicking, ever, but especially in this wholly optional activity of lifting weights?

In the past few years, there has been a growing focus on building “resilience” in kids, teaching them to have “grit” and take life’s lumps. This is a far cry from the “gifted and talented” years I grew up in, when schools and parents dedicated resources to ferreting out already “smart” and precocious kids and squirreling them away into special classes and camps and programs where they would... learn? These kids would, by and large, go on to do little more as a demographic group than complain about this craze and many other things on Twitter and Tumblr (I include myself in this).

The book Ouch!: Why Pain Hurts, and Why It Doesn’t Have To is a wide-ranging look at the human experience of pain. Yes, pain as pleasure, etc., but also pain as an inevitability of life. In its section on kids and pain, the writers state:

“When children don’t have opportunities to make decisions that might result in pain, they never get the chance to learn from that experience and to make better predictions next time. Emotionally, they never learn they can manage and withstand pain when it occurs, reinforcing a cultural message that children are fragile and the world is dangerous. The subtler point here is that this kind of experimenting is not just about physical activity and the pain it might cause; the lessons extend in the emotional and mental realms, too.”

Fitness brands and instructors have had this wrong for a very long time, I think not entirely by intention. They encourage people to “push through the pain” and “show no mercy,” take “no days off.” At this point we have to assume they put these messages out there in a sort of dimwitted way, without stopping to consider that people may push themselves so hard they get injured, or “push themselves” into so much discomfort they come to dread the next session that will inevitably involve “pushing themselves” again. The kind of people who get all into fitness, I think, don’t realize they have a sophisticated relationship with the spectrum of good vs. bad “pushing yourself” that is a lifetime in the making. For people who are, say, trying yoga for the first time, this is not the case. The “pushing yourself” dialogue has lacked nuance.

This is a shame precisely because working out is, effectively, a controlled environment for learning how the whole spectrum of “pushing oneself” feels. The point of it should be exactly what the authors of Ouch! are describing: time and space to familiarize yourself with what “just enough discomfort for growth, but not so much for grievous injury” feels like. Sure, that involves pushing yourself, but with a constant eye on when it becomes too much, or when it’s not enough. What does that feel like? You don’t know yet! That’s okay.