In my late thirties I began to notice some changes in my physique that were pissing me off.
All through my teens I trained in different martial arts, like boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Kempo, Aikido, Shotokan Karate, and judo. In my 20’s and 30’s I hit the gym 5 days a week to get my swole on, as the cool kids say.
But by my mid-thirties I noticed that the routines that had kept me fit for almost 20 years were no longer working. My pants felt tighter, which made me grouchy. Stuff that had never jiggled before started jiggling. I became even grouchier.
I was by no means overweight, but I could see where things were headed and I was far from thrilled.
I started experimenting, trying different routines and exercises in the gym. Where I previously went heavy with small set/rep schemes, I switched things up and went lighter and increased the reps. I took up martial arts again, this time training Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at a gym in Westchester, NY. I played around with my nutrition, experimenting with the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet and others.
The years went by and still the body fat crept on. I kept searching out new ideas and experimenting. Finally, in 2011 at the age of 40, I read about a training routine for long distance running that involved running only short distances. Testing yourself physically without boring yourself until you cry? Count me in.
Almost all of the training – in this case for a marathon – was for much shorter distances like 200 and 400 meters, but at a near-maximum effort. I found a template online by Brian Mackenzie of CrossFit Endurance in Colorado, and it involved a lot of exercises I’d never heard of (what the hell is a thruster?!?) and equipment I didn’t have. But CrossFit gyms did have the equipment, so I found one in the area, CrossFit 203, and made an appointment for a trial class.
The class started off innocently enough with some warmup movements and back squats, which I had been doing for years. But then we started the workout – a “metcon” in the parlance of CrossFit – named “Fran”.
The workout seemed simple: 21 thrusters (starting in a squat with the barbell in the front rack position, 95 pounds, then standing as forcefully as possible and “thrusting” the bar overhead), 21 pull-ups, 15 thrusters, 15 pull-ups, then 9 thrusters and 9 pull-ups.
I started out fine, trying to keep pace with some of the bigger guys in the class. After I finished my 21 pull-ups something felt wrong. My heart wasn’t just pounding, it was shuddering throughout my whole body. My hands were numb. I felt almost drunk, and I couldn’t walk a straight path to the barbell. I picked it up and started my set of 15 thrusters, unable to breathe and wondering if anyone would stop their workout to give me chest compressions when I keeled over.
3 thrusters. 5 thrusters. Every rep felt impossible now. 7 thrusters. As I began the eighth rep I felt something move in my throat. It was my lunch. I locked the bar overhead, dropped it clumsily on the floor, and staggered to the door. I shoved my way through it into the cold night air, took a few steps to the side and let it all come out, my hands on my knees, my stomach heaving to my throat in revolt.
Kirk, the coach (we’re now good friends) came out to check on me. He chuckled, slapped me on the back, said something I couldn’t hear because the blood was still roaring in my ears, and went back inside. I retched again. It took me a good thirty minutes to recover, and I remember thinking all the way home, “What the fuck just happened?!?”
I was hooked. I emailed Kirk the next day to tell him I was in, and the next year of training and nutrition at CrossFit 203 wrought changes in my body and mind that I never thought possible.
Today I’m 47 years old and in better shape than most 20 year olds. CrossFit made this possible, and I never would have found it if I hadn’t done two things:
1) Hammer Away
Alberto Giacometti was an Italian sculptor who lived in the first half of the twentieth century. His friend, James Lord, sat for Giacometti for over two weeks while the artist painted his portrait. The result is a world-famous work of art.
Normally we mortals would look at this painting and say, “Well that’s just a work of genius. There’s no way I could do that.”
You’re wrong. You could. You can.
Lord wrote about the eighteen days he sat for Giacometti and published his writings as a book, A Giacometti Portrait, in 1965. Lord describes in careful detail Giacometti’s process. The artist would paint, then impatiently obliterate, then paint again. He had particular trouble with Lord’s head, which he painted over and over dozens of times. Each time he was dissatisfied with the result and he started again.
Giacometti hammered away at the painting, trying different things until he finally saw something that worked.
This is exactly what you have to do. If you’re unsatisfied with anything in your life, be it your job, relationships, physical health, finances ,etc, you have to hammer away.
Look for solutions. Read about them, ask people you know, ask the people you know if they know anyone and ask them. Experiment with everything that seems like it might work and even the things that don’t seem like they can. Stay with those experiments until it’s clear that they won’t pan out – not until you get bored with them, or until they get difficult – and then move to the next.
2) Stay On It
Maybe you’ve never heard the name JJ Watt. Sports fans know his name well, though, and have since his rookie season as a defensive end for the NFL Houston Texans in 2011.
Watt was overlooked in high school, became a star in college, and is now a superstar in the NFL. Many point to his size (6’5″, 290lbs) and his freakish athletic ability. The NFL is loaded with huge guys with freakish talent, however. In fact, anyone in the NFL is by definition a freak of nature.
What makes Watt the monster he is? Consistency. He trains an aspect of his mental game, mobility, strength, flexibility, agility, etc every day. Every single day. When most NFL players are resting on a team day off, Watt is training. When others are on a Caribbean island, umbrella drink in hand and soaking up the sun in the off season, Watt is training.
JJ Watt has made himself into something very rare by doing something people rarely do: he identified work that had to be done and he did it every day.
It does little good to pound away at a solution for hours, then take a few weeks off, then start over again. Develop the habit of working on these solutions every day, preferably at a time during the day when you’re at your most energetic. Start with 15 minutes at a time to ensure you don’t skip a day, then increase it, slowly, to 30 minutes, then 45, then an hour.
In time that work will become a habit, and habits that change you little by little, for the better, will change your whole life.
You want to live your dreams? Be like JJ Watt and Alberto Giacometti. Keep moving, keep trying different things and following them all the way to the end. Work on yourself every day, without fail, day in and day out.
You may not get there tomorrow. Or next month. Or next year. But you will get there as long as you keep going.