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The Lost Art of Deep Work in the Gym

I guarantee that I can take most individuals who are on a quest for more muscle and a leaner physique and multiply their progress several times over within several weeks. I don’t like the word guarantee very much and avoid mentioning this overused term, but this is a time I can confidently expouse that infamous phrase. More on that shortly.

I am a fan of analog. Not because I’m some sort of trendy neo Luddite or trying to make some in-your-face point. I grew up before cell phones, consumer use of the internet, and, believe it or not, before TVs littered gym walls. I walked into the gym at 15 years old feverishly focused on the crude (by today’s standards) setup of benches, racks, and metal plates and dumbbells. Some of those dumbbells were made by the gym manager that included welded plates and steel piping for grips.

I remember hearing the clang of metal plates being hoisted overhead or squatted before I even entered. It was a sound that would become a familiar and welcoming beacon every day afterward. It was my very own Pavlovian dog whistle which signified the beginning of each workout session. The clangs were loud enough to drown out the music overhead — no one minded.

Deep work: the only choice

Love it or hate it, Crossfit cultivates a unique environment of community, motivation, and focus. Go to any “box” and you will only find strangers cheering on each other sans cell phones, headphones, or brainless loitering.

Most of my experiences in the gym were similar. I was the young, naïve kid stomping his brash feet into the gym full of experienced lifters. At first I was most-likely seen as young, dumb, and inexperienced. I soon realized I instantly became a small fish coming from my backyard home gym setup replete with visions of conquering mountains and the self-belief that I was starting to become “somebody” with a little muscle to show for it.

It didn’t take long for me to settle in, realize my place among the natives, and begin the second chapter of my physique development. I became a sponge requesting help from the older lifters picking their brains, watching their training techniques, and processing all this information at light speed. I befriended many of the older lifters and listened. I listened not only to the training advice I also started to understand proper etiquette and due respect.

You see, gyms back then weren’t full of all walks of life like they are today. Most of the general population were out running or biking. Weight training was reserved for us “obsessed types” who formed a close family of sorts. A family which I was immediately adopted into. This welcoming gesture was a normal occurrence. Experienced lifters would see a young guy like me and extend a helping hand regarding everything from lifting technique to how to act properly and respectfully. It was an atmosphere that fostered a sort of self-generated and naturally-evolving brotherhood/mentorship. It was an unconscious indoctrination required to enter into the iron pit of weight plates, muscle, and discipline.

The wrong path?

A funny thing happened one day when I happened to blink for too long. Looking back on my 30-plus years under the bar, in gyms around the world, and setting my feet on multiple competitive stages something seemed to happen figuratively overnight. The “fitness landscape” took on a seismic shift. Maybe I’m being a bit too dramatic or possibly taking all this to heart, but the sun started to set on the brotherhood and pupil/mentor era of the unofficial university of weight training. No longer did I hear the clang or iron and steel. That music was quickly muffled by plastic and rubber-coated material designed to usher in a kinder, gentler demographic of those willing to pay higher prices for “fitness.”

I must clarify that my experience wasn’t the cliched and stereotypical world of meatheads, a monopolizing mentality, and the exclusion of outsiders. It was a welcoming atmosphere of the inclusion of us weird types who loved lifting. The shift to an even more inclusive population of “doctors and lawyers” as I like to say was taken with open arms.

The seismic shift I’m referring to here is the advent of the intense and whirlwind movement of social media, Youtube, and the so-called “influencer.” No longer were we, as kids, following and paths of competitive bodybuilders and more importantly the very men we were training with and along side of. We were now instantly muted despite any level of experience, knowledge, or useful practicality. No longer did our advice, inclusion, and camaraderie matter. Not that we were high on our horses or self-important. It was more of a matter of the brotherhood splintering through both attrition and the shifting climate of more intrusive technology.

The distraction trap

As technology took advancing leaps it started to permeate through the gym doors, stomping in much like I did as a teen. TVs were put up on walls, headphones covered ears, and cell phones came in and set up shop. We went from a social family to a closed-off, leave-me-alone robotic culture seemingly overnight.

The excuse of focus along with music choice, checking social media incessantly, and the overbearing busy culture became accepted. It instantly became the new normal. But this new normal killed the traditional gym culture. It came in while we were sleeping and quietly slashed its throat in its sleep.

Now we are left with a crowd of strangers relegated to their proverbial corners. The serious lifters are no longer communicating with each other. They now hold tight to their chosen dogma solidly entrenched and ready for a fight. The melting pot of training styles split and found rival homes within the same walls. Now we are left with a disjointed wasteland of distracted gym-goers lost in their screens without much regard for actual physical and mental results.

It’s not all bad, however. As mentioned earlier, Crossfit has single-handedly and successfully reinvigorated the fitness culture at least for a segment of the population. Additionally, there are still those of us, me included, that hold tight to the original culture of the friendly hello and willingness to help others.

We are all at a point, however, where we can honestly notice the current state of things. As with everyday society, we are less communicative, avoid face to face interaction, and in need of socialization for mental as well as for physical health. An app won’t make you healthier. Possibly in theory, but the practical evidence just isn’t there. We jump at the novelty of some new tech promising a doorway to a leaner body, more muscle, and a better life, but are quickly disengaged and on to the next shiny thing therefore making it ineffective.

The gym experience is then further thinned. It is treated as just another “thing” to try and throw away. The tight bonds never even begin to build; they aren’t even a thought. We want our phones, we want instant results, and we don’t want to be “bothered” with niceties, a quick hello or, (gasp!) a helping hand. We are firmly in our corners of life comfortable at a distance and still yearning for real results, real connection, and real experiences. We think we know what we want, but what we want is imagined as too difficult and uncomfortable. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner.

The advantage of analog

I made an unofficial decision a while ago of sorts. As a freelance writer I was an active player in promoting my work through social media. I acted much like the average user posting things: checking my analytics all too often and obsessing over online interaction. One random day I had enough. I quit posting and subsequently using the platforms I was on. I thought that if my work was good enough it would be shared. I didn’t want to push it out there; it should speak for itself.

Additionally, I started to move away from it entirely regarding posting anything at all. With that said, I took a stance of not wanting others to feel they have to follow me anywhere other than reading my work and/or following my blog. In other words, I don’t want to become an enabler of something I don’t do myself.

***

To this day I still enter the gym sans phone and headphones. I am still an advocate of modeling that old inclusive, social behavior missing from modern day gyms and everyday life. I see this not only from a behavioral/social perspective, but also from a progressive standpoint.

My goal (and I’m sure yours too) is to progress in the gym. We train to either build muscle, lose body fat, or a combination of both. We are trying to reshape our physique into a vision we have of our ideal selves. The bottom line is we want to do some work on ourselves. Period.

The reason I bring this up is that no app will do this for you. No special program, no new device, no special social media inspirational post or image will either. Only you can.

Unbeknownst to me I am a bit of an endangered species. I enter the gym, sometimes severely sleep deprived, sometimes hungry, and sometimes stressed. The moment my hands grasp the bar I am channeling and conjuring years of experience with that dead weight. That dead weight is both friend and foe — it’s the absolute answer. No tricks, fancy supplements, or tech can help me when hand meets bar. It is up to me. I bask in the fact that I am (now) considered a lifting minimalist. I don’t have a ritual of any kind of pre-workout drink or special elbow wraps. It’s just shirt, shorts, shoes, and me against the weight. It’s entirely up to me to make something out of it.

I see plenty of the opposite. Knee wraps, belts, supplements, phone, headphones, expensive “gym clothes,” perfectly quaffed hair, too much cologne, and a plentitude of selfies. The workouts themselves are more for display than for purpose. They resemble photo ops more than actual, effective training. Heaving heavy weights while bending, arching, and straining while checking for notifications between each set.

The deep work is missing. It has gone extinct along with the brotherhood. We have gone from intrinsic motivations and purpose to extrinsic and superficial wants. Those “gym bros” are forever embracing vanity for vanity’s sake. Posts, pics, and videos have successfully permeated the gym and the old culture has been both left behind and lost.

Becoming more analog is the answer.

Get in your head, reconnect with your workouts in a true sense. Disconnect from your obsession with vanity, technology, or anything that isn’t inline with your ultimate goal. Listen to your body, your training, your muscles, joints, and heart. That is the only way to tune into what you really need to be doing in the gym. You’ll develop an unbelievable level of intuition to progress you forward like never before.

But what about useful tools?

I know the argument well. What about those tech tools or other extrinsic things that tout guaranteed success? What about keeping up with the latest trends in fitness such as wearable tech that tracks a wide array of vitals? These things have to give us an edge, an advantage over our striped-down selves right?

All good arguments. As I mentioned earlier, all of these tools have some value in theory, but are we using them properly? Here’s the reality: we like novelty. We like new and shiny and we tend to play around too much with tech. Sure there are those out there who will do their due diligence and try their best, but it’s mainly a distraction. Why bring these things into your life when you can’t even get the basics down.

Answering some important questions is a start toward real progress. Are you making progress toward your goal? What are things you could do better? Are you wasting time with distractions?

The goal should be achieving so called deep work in the gym. Connecting with the task at hand, the real purpose that will produce significant, measurable results. You must be honest with yourself and write down your goals and then list out the most important steps toward those goals. It’s a simple and minimalistic approach, but one that cannot be undermined or ignored.

Backing up my guarantee

At the beginning of this I made a guarantee. One that would bolster most anyone’s progress in the gym many times over. I believe if you dispose of all the distractions in your life and firmly focus on the task at hand you will single-handedly increase performance. Now, this sounds a bit universal, but that’s the point.

In the gym, leave the phone in the car and keep track of your workouts in a notebook, write down exercises, sets, reps, and weight, wear an actual watch to keep track of rest periods, and stay focused on each set.

Additionally, be friendly, lend a hand where you see fit, and erase the mean-looking scowl off your face. We aren’t “soldiers of iron.” This isn’t a war. I’ve always looked at the gym as a shared apartment and we are all roommates. Let’s treat each other with respect and bring back the brotherhood of positivity and progress.

Who’s with me?

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By Brad Borland

Cancer Survivor, Military Veteran, University Lecturer, Strength Coach, Natural Drug-Free Bodybuilder, Husband, Father

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