25 pushups and unhappy

The story of an amazingly strong student and unrealistic expectations

This is a series that I started last week with a post about peer pressure. I want to discuss certain things that come up in conversation with my students because what I've realised is if one of them is going through this, chances are a few more are as well.

the background

This story is a few years old but it has stuck with me because I was not able to get through to my student. MS is about 40 years old and a mom - meaning between the hours of 7 am to 9 pm, her day is mostly blocked off with just snatches of time here and there when her kids are at school (back when school was open). This is when she gets time to do her stuff. Back then, she trained at 5 am and got home before the day started for the rest of the family. And hanging out with her husband happened post 9 pm.

All of us today lead busy lives, unfortunately. Even by ourselves, we tend to lose control of our day. The more variables we add in - deliverables at work as an example - the more we lose control of it. While your day might not be identical to MS, I am sure you can see how crazy it is to manage to come to the gym regularly - let alone navigate life.

intent and drive

Even with poor sleep, she was driven to come to class. Sleep was a luxury as she went to bed late (alone time and hang out with the spouse) and got up at 4.30 am to come to train. But she'd be amazing in class. Get all the work done and be a rockstar about it.

One day, we were testing out maximum pushups we could do in a set - we generally test out once or twice a quarter. She did 25. TWENTY FIVE! Amazing, perfect technique, no half-way down and back or arching or any such nonsense.

Her squat and swing numbers were impressive as well but nothing gets the message across like 25 pushups in a set.

When I realised she was doing this with extremely low sleep, a discussion eventually led her to up her sleep game as well. It took a D9 programme and points to get her going - c'mon, who doesn't get motivated by points and numbers. She continued being super impressive.

Unable to take a compliment

But I realised she was not celebrating her wins as much as I was. In fact, I don't think she understood how awesome she was. Still grates me that I could not communicate this to her and get through. Any compliment about what she did really well was deflected by something she thought she didn't do well.

As someone who squirms when given a compliment, I recognised this and my goal was to keep pointing out what was obvious to me and her friends in class but invisible to her.

high standards vs unrealistic expectations

I think lofty goals and high standards are great. The more successful people I encounter, the higher the standards they set. But something I've also observed in my interactions is that there's a line between having high standards and unrealistic expectations. This tends to happen especially in two cases.

  1. when we have expectations that are too far out, compared to the effort we are putting in. This was not MS' issue as the effort was brilliant.

  2. when we keep moving the goalposts and want something else, anything else, except what we have.

Strength was not an issue. In fact, she's probably stronger than 99% of the women out there. Endurance, movement quality, agility, skill - likewise.

The person who finishes last in the 100m Olympic finals is still the 8th fastest in the frickin' world.

She was just unable to get to what she thought she should get to - unrealistic portrayals that the media today propagates. Here's where my failure was, I think. In my eyes, here was an amazingly strong woman. A great student, eminently coachable and a dream to work with. She moved great and was having fun. But in her head, she was not happy with her aesthetics. The 25 pushups, unfortunately, did not matter as much as getting skinnier. She probably was willing to sacrifice those 25 pushups to look better, whatever that means.

Now, if her WHR was on the wrong side of 0.5, I would've definitely discussed that as a health goal with her. But she was well on the right side of this as well. When her sleep was not in line with what she needed, I made the case and she eventually worked on it. But ...

I am no expert to opine on right versus wrong here. I think my job as a strength coach is to get people strong. And when we get strong and put in the commensurate effort in the foods we eat and our lifestyle, we "look good".

Like I discussed continuums, the far right of this continuum is where the photoshopped people and celebrities seem to live. While we want to move to the right, we need to figure out where the line is and ensure that as long as we are to the right of that line - we are doing well.

We also need to understand that maybe some of the people on the far right are not presenting the entire picture. Or thinking about health.

To MS

Celebrate your successes more. Real ones. You have a lot of them.

Be kind to yourself. The gym is not a scoreboard. Life is not a scoreboard. And if we are keeping track, the scoreboard reads "25 pushups in a set!". If that's not awesome, I genuinely do not know what awesome means.

Look at yourself from someone else's eyes.

Strength is under-rated. You are amazingly strong! On top of a strong base, you can do everything that you want.


A note about "looking good". I think what all of us want is the intersection of health, fitness and "looking good". Putting a qualitative or quantitative note on looks is not my goal. It is simply the most requested goal that I receive and from conversations and reading other coaches, that seems to be the case across the world. I am simply equating it to something like dressing sloppily or dressing well - the outcome always is about how it makes us feel. The eventual goal is about how comfortable we feel with ourselves. That is what I think I mean by looking good.

If there's something in here that I could've said better, do let me know.