How Deciding to Train Instead of Just Working Out Changed My Life

            Last year, after many years of being an avid fitness enthusiast, always trying out and frequenting the newest and most popular workouts in New York City, I changed my approach to exercise in a way that brought about the results I had been seeking—both in terms of performance and physique—since I was a teenager. Instead of just working out, I started training. 

            What is the difference? To me, it is that training requires consistency and a concrete commitment.   It entails developing and adhering to a plan to achieve goals you have set for yourself, and making the sacrifices necessary in terms of time and effort to ensure you attain them.

            I think a lot of women who grew up without an athletic background can identify with my story.  I never participated in sports and dreaded gym class because I thought I was slower and weaker than the other kids.  In college and in my early 20s I would log time on the elliptical and take spin classes two or three times a week because I enjoyed the distraction from work and thought squeezing in some sweat breaks would offset all the indulgent foods I liked to treat myself to (it didn’t). 

            Then, in 2011, I joined my first boutique fitness gym, took my first strength class there, and, for the first time, felt that becoming stronger and fitter was not a realistic goal just for people who had been athletes their entire life.  I finally felt that it was accessible to me.  The instructors were so enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and encouraging, constantly challenging me to increase my level of difficulty and giving me a boost when they caught me struggling.  The classes were so innovative, always incorporating new equipment and moves that kept me on my toes.

            As the boutique fitness industry boomed in NYC and my options grew exponentially, so did my reasons for exercising.  I worked out to take classes with a particular instructor who just had great energy, to spend quality time with a friend at their favorite class, to check out a new studio that everybody was raving about, and sometimes just because I felt like getting a good sweat going.  None of these are bad reasons unto themselves for choosing to take a particular class here and there.  In my case, however, where I was not anchored by a specific plan or goal so all these motivations were governing my day-to-day fitness regimen, it was a recipe for ensuring that I would never make any progress.  As I took a bunch of different classes every week for years, pushing myself to the max with weight and speed until I was thoroughly fatigued, I never saw any improvement in my performance or shape and I could not figure out why.   I would get frustrated and either stop working out for a while because I was discouraged, or up my classes, only serving to further inflame my exhausted body. 

            Then, in the winter of 2016, I went to watch a mini-Olympics at a gym where I periodically took barbell strength classes, and I finally got my answer.  I watched one member, who just a few months ago could barely hang from a monkey bar for more than a few seconds, pull herself up a several meters high rope with ease.  I watched another member who used to struggle to finish a bootcamp class, come in first in several events.  And there were several more people who had undergone similar transformations.  I asked them what they had done to attain these results and they all had the same answer—they set goals with a trainer who designed a plan to achieve them, and did whatever they needed to do to accomplish them, including taking pre-dawn classes and abstaining from particular workouts and fitness classes they enjoyed because they would interfere with their performance. 

            Inspired by their example, I decided to follow suit.  I set two goals for myself in 2017—to complete an unassisted pull-up and to deadlift 200 lbs.—and formulated a plan with a trainer at that gym.  He advised me that the key to accomplishing both goals would be consistency—putting in two upper and lower body strength workouts per week so my muscles would get used to the movements and steadily build strength, and taking additional classes to maintain my cardio endurance.  He also warned me about the importance of recovery and taking rest days to ensure I saw progress every week, meaning my habit of taking random classes all over the city had to end.  But after witnessing the types of results that came when you committed to the training process, I was more than ready to make this sacrifice.  

            So in January of 2017, I embarked on my strength journey, taking early morning classes to ensure that neither work nor any other life obligations would interfere with my training.   That consistency almost immediately began to translate into steady progress every week.  Even with the upper body movements that I always struggled with, such as bench presses and pull-ups, I saw incremental improvements.  On the mornings I was tired from being up late working, I still found a way to get myself to the gym because I was excited to set new targets with my trainers and see whether my body would hit, or maybe even exceed, them.  I finally understood the meaning of the saying “results are addictive.”  By August, I had my first pull-up, and by October I nailed that 200 lb. deadlift (205 to be exact).     

            Moreover, I experienced other benefits that I did not anticipate.  My body began to naturally crave clean, healthy food to fuel it.  Aside from indulging in my favorite treats from time to time, I had no desire to eat oily or sugar-filled foods.   Due to this and my consistent training approach, the extra weight I had been carrying for a while just began to peel off without me even concentrating on it.   For the first time in my life, I built muscle and felt strong and powerful in my body.  That feeling translated into a stronger mindset that empowered me to tackle any obstacles in a more calm and strategic way.

            After that experience and all the ways it positively impacted all areas of my life, I can never return to my old, aim-less approach to fitness.   Last November, I decided to shift my focus to running, and this girl who thought she just was not built to run is already experiencing drastic improvements in her speed and endurance.   For anybody who thinks they can never be strong or fast or able to master a particular athletic skill, I strongly encourage you to pick one goal, develop a detailed plan for accomplishing it with an expert, and then stick to it and have faith in the process.  I promise that you will surprise yourself.     

 By Sheela Pai, @ahealthysliceofpai