Fitness psychology is the blind spot of too many individuals who aspire to get in the best shape of their lives. They think that they'll feel and act better when they look better, as if the latter somehow causes the former. Spoiler alert! It doesn't.
Having a training and nutrition program is better than the alternative—not having one—but what's the point if you're not equipped with the mental tools to execute the plan? Why bother if you're going to become obsessive, mean, and unhappy along the way?
If you want to be better, not just look better, you need to invest as much time and energy into your mental outlook as you spend squatting under the Olympic bar. Take a step back and look at the big picture. Ask yourself why you became interested in this journey in the first place. Was it to lose your relationships or enhance them? Was it to gain confidence or lose self-respect?
The answer should be obvious. These are the 10 Commandments of Lean—your mental stack, if you will. Abide by them as seriously as you do to any meal plan or program, and the words "best shape of your life" will take on a whole new meaning.
Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Physique
I'd be lying if I said I've never been guilty of trying to emulate someone else. Specifically, when I first discovered weightlifting in early 2008, I became enamored with Jamie Eason's physique. She was 5-foot-2, just like me, but she seemed waaaay sexier with all those muscles.
My goal became to acquire her physique, like some kind of prize at the fair. I wanted to know her exact fitness regimen: what she ate, how much, and at what times; how much cardio she did and what kind; what her training split entailed, including her rest periods and precisely how much weight she lifted.
But just like the ring toss, this game was rigged. No matter how hard I tried, two carnies by the names of "genetics" and "personal preference" kept making sure I looked like me, not like Jamie Eason. My body doesn't respond to resistance training the way hers does, and eating several small meals per day makes me miserable. And even if I did manage to shadow her every move, I'd always end up with more of a bikini body than a muscled figure competitor's physique. That's just the way it is.
Admiration is one thing. Wanting what others have is another, and the constant comparison does little more than brew toxicity in your soul. This sets off negative, self-defeating thoughts, causing you to be more likely to fail in your own fitness goals. See yourself in the mirror—no one else—and then do your own thing.
Thou Shalt Recognize Thy Strengths
This ties into number one, because it's always easier—particularly when finding your footing in health and fitness—to see everyone else's strengths more clearly than your own.
Does your friend have amazingly sculpted legs? Does she have a strong backside that can easily hip thrust 225 pounds on any given day? Good for her. But what about you? Maybe you can hit a golf ball farther than anyone you know, move like greased lightning on the tennis court, or dominate presses with your boulder shoulders.
I'm all for self-improvement, but first understand that you already have strengths, and they play an integral role in getting you where you're going. Don't hinge all your hopes on becoming something different. Work to become an even more wonderful version of yourself.
Thou Shalt Walk with Confidence
I don't just mean in the gym. No matter where you are or what you're doing, hold your head up high and own it. What is it? Everything.
Be proud of your body and know that you have full control over the decisions you make today, tomorrow, and the next day. No one is going to force a scone down your throat—though I know it's tempting to pretend you had no choice but to "reluctantly" enjoy the dessert your coworker nonchalantly offered you. At the restaurant, if you politely ask the waiter to hold the butter and the bread and bring your salad with the dressing on the side please, don't let yourself feel bad for being a hassle.
This doesn't just apply to diet. You will not be shaken when a fool at the gym asks you if you're really using the squat rack, while he eyes you up and down skeptically with a look that says, "You're a girl, and you're wasting space." You won't doubt yourself when someone asks if you're sure you want to lift weights because your 19-inch thighs are "looking big enough already" (Yes, that actually happened to me).
Seriously: Who gives a shit what anyone else thinks of you? You've probably said those words before without really meaning them, but it really is that simple.
Thou Shalt Not Make Fitness Thy God
Oh, boy. I don't want to think about how many years of my life were tainted by my insistence of making fitness my first priority, above absolutely everything. I'm painfully aware of the friendships that I let dissolve and all the missed opportunities for laughter, cherished memories, and inside jokes. I started countless ridiculous fights with my family over what restaurant to go to, and whether we should go out at all.
It hurts my heart to think about it now because I know it wasn't necessary. And ironically, in my fanatical quest to become lean and strong and physically healthy, I became mentally unwell. I took a sick sort of pride in spending my evenings scouring fitness forums when I could have been sitting by a bonfire with my buddies. I snapped when my brother came near my food, and I didn't let myself enjoy my family vacation to Bali. Does the hotel have a gym? What kind of equipment does it have? I should pack all my own food. It sucked, but I didn't know any other way.
Fitness isn't the panacea to all of your life's problems, nor will it ever be. I believe that it should be an important part of everyone's lives, but by no means should it take up the number-one spot. Family, friends, and religion and spirituality should all come before fitness. So much more gratification stems from those things.
Today my life overflows with love, and fitness is just one part of that—as it should be.
Thou Shalt Celebrate Small Successes
Look, I'm all for setting larger-than-life goals and chasing after your wildest dreams. You want to become an IFBB bikini pro, you want to land the cover of Oxygen, and you want to win your class at the Arnold Classic. You want to lose 50 pounds and run a marathon in the next year. You want to write for Bodybuilding.com and be recognized as one of the hottest bodies on your side of town.
Rah rah! I hope you accomplish all that and more. I also hope you recognize that slow progress, however small, is still progress. Don't beat yourself up because you only lost half a pound of fat this week, or that you only made it to mile 3.6 today before you had to call it quits, when one month ago, you could barely jog around the block.
Every little bit counts. Did you opt for carrot sticks instead of potato chips when you wanted a snack earlier today? Did you pack your lunch instead of making a beeline for Panda Express like you used to? Did you a drop a pants size, bringing you just a little bit closer fitting in those size 4 jeans from high school? I can keep going ...
Two steps forward with one step backward may be frustrating, but that's still a step forward—and toward building a healthy lifestyle, not just the desire for one. Give yourself some credit.
Thou Shalt Rest
If you're sick, this one is a no-brainer. If you've got an ear-splitting headache, nausea, or anything equally terrible, just stay home.
But setting aside the obvious, your body needs to rest—and not only when you're asleep. More training sessions, more minutes under the bar, and more sets and reps are not necessarily better. What many people forget—but elite athletes have no choice but to take into account—is that strength training breaks down your muscles. It's during the recovery period that bodies rebuild and actually get stronger.
Are you proud of the fact that you're already hitting the gym six times each week after not exercising for years? Do you brag about running 10 miles every single day, come hell or high water? It might be time to rethink your long-term strategy and ask yourself if this is sustainable for you.
Rest up. Seriously! Your body will reward you for it.
Thou Shalt Be Consistent
Did somebody just say "sustainable?" Think about the current fitness program you're on and ask yourself if it's something you can keep doing five years from now. Maybe, maybe not? OK, what about one year from now? Six months? Two weeks?
I'm strongly against the radical "tons-of-cardio, carbs-are-terrible, slash-all-the-calories" approach, both in the short and long term. It simply never ends well. Believe me, I've been there, and I found myself in a very, very bad place.
Create a plan for yourself that, on paper, may look mild. You'll feel the urge to make it harder, but you'll also know you can follow it day-to-day. Then give it the chance to work over a course of weeks or months, not just days. After all, the world's most perfect program means nothing if you're unable to follow it consistently.
Thou Shalt Have Patience
This underscores pretty much all of the other commandments, but it deserves being stated on its own. Understand that becoming fit, lean, and strong takes time. Many of us have been brainwashed to believe that only 1 pound of fat loss per week is painstakingly slow, and that we should be dropping upward of 10 pounds per week, because that's what they do in The Biggest Loser.
In the real world - the one that doesn't end with a season finale—there will be times when you go for longer than you'd like without seeing a change in the mirror, and when you're not getting stronger on any of your exercises. It becomes tempting when this happens to change your program - add more cardio, switch to a new training split, and on and on - because what you're currently doing "is no longer working."
For most people, strength and weight loss aren't linear progressions. They happen in bursts and cycles. Maybe you just needed a few days more before you experienced a huge whoosh of fat loss. Perhaps a few good nights of sleep and a couple of consecutive days off were the key to having a kickass training session.
Ignore that voice in your head screaming that you should be seeing faster progress or should have reached your goal already. You're always learning how your body works, and just because someone else sheds fat faster than you doesn't necessarily mean their program is better than yours—or that they'll end up at a better place in the long term.
Thou Shalt Forgive Thyself
This one might be the hardest to master, because for many people, self-punishment is, and will always be, part of what they think about while they train hard. That's not disastrous in and of itself, but just to be clear, there's a right way and a wrong way to self-flagellate.
Did you cave in to the chocolate-covered almonds? Don't try to compensate the next day by consuming next to nothing and logging an extra hour of running. Missed the gym for a week? Don't turn to three-a-days to play catch-up.
Compensatory behavior like this can quickly lead you to wake up one morning trapped in a cycle of oops-punish-repeat. This zaps the fun out of fitness, and even worse, you might find yourself intentionally justifying an imminent binge by vowing to make up for it over the next three days through starvation and hours of cardio.
Cut it out. Be kind to yourself. Brush the dirt off your yoga pants and hop right back on the wagon—there's still a seat in the shape of your butt waiting for you. Continue where you left off and don't look back.
Thou Shalt Surround Thyself with Awesome
Some impressive studies have shown that the greatest predictor of success isn't your family background. It's not money or education or pure dumb luck. It's your support group—the people who you interact with most and to whom you feel closest.
Now think if you know anyone who's clearly in your way. If your boyfriend can't share your enthusiasm over the fact that you got a PR in the gym today, and he sneers that you should stop lifting weights and take up "something more feminine," that boy's gotta go.
I've had to do a lot of revamping with my relationships in recent years, and it's paid off tremendously. Before I would have people constantly ask me, "Are you sure you want to do that?" Now, I have friends who willingly lend a helping hand without my even having to ask. My boyfriend is equally, if not more, pumped when I get another article published, and he doesn't laugh when I share my dreams with him. I'm motivated and inspired by the people closest to me, and I do my best to spend time around them. I know how awesome they are.
I advise you to take stock and value people who deserve to be valued, because positive influences can only beget good things. Be around awesome. Bathe in it, bask in it, and smear it all over your face. Then you'll have no choice but to be awesome yourself.