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Fitness is… Failure
By Blair Morrison   View more articles by this author
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July 09

Get comfortable with it. If you’re not failing, you’re not getting better. And if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

This idea represents two important things to me.

First, intensity is everything. A properly balanced program will vary its workouts in terms of style, movement pattern, and volume, but not in intensity. Whether the focus is strength, endurance, or metabolic conditioning; whether you’re working deadlifts, yoga, or distance running; the intensity has to be consistent. This is not to say that every workout must put you on the floor. Intensity isn’t necessarily about exhaustion. It’s about focus, will, and the commitment to a full effort, regardless of the challenge. For example, my grandmother is training to lose weight through a combination of cardiovascular training, group strength classes, and Pilates. Needless to say, her ideal post-workout position is not sprawled on the floor next to a trash can. Her approach to fitness should, however, mirror that level of physical intensity in her concentration and dedication to completing her routine with maximum effort. This attitude will force her to test her limits on hikes, with weights, and on the Pilates mat, ultimately pushing her to the point of failure in many respects. This is a good thing.

The same can be said for more extreme athletes like Crossfitters, just in a more obvious way. WODs are designed to test limits in a wide range of physical and mental capacities. So test them! The people that get the most out of workouts are not the ones who complete them easily, or those who zone out halfway through in an effort to “just get through it.” If you ever find this to be the case during a workout, you’re missing the point. One inarguable beauty of exercise is that, regardless of ability, every workout can be met with the same level of effort and focus, and thus can impart the same physical and mental effects. The biggest beneficiaries are the people who fail over and over and over during the course of a workout, and then get up to fail some more.

The second concept failure brings to mind is fear. People are so afraid to fail. From a young age, it is something we have been taught to avoid at all costs. This fact, combined with the knowledge that failure is actually essential to our ultimate success, makes this fear one of the toughest paradoxes for our psyche to overcome. I, for one, know this emotion too well. Before football games I would get this deep, paralyzing self-doubt regarding my own ability. Every week, I was certain the defensive back opposite me was stronger than I was, faster than I was, and, in general, better than I was. This usually didn’t subside until the first major collision of the game, when the intensity level became so high that I no longer had time to doubt myself, only to act.

This happens in gyms all the time.  People too embarrassed to bench press next to the guy lifting 300 lbs, people who don’t feel comfortable entering a yoga class with a few advanced participants; all are obstructed by the same uncertainty that comes from the fear of failure.

How to conquer this fear? Rather than focusing on the abilities of others, focus on the goals of the workout.  Then, when you really need it, when you’re just about to quit, when you’ve been pressed to the brink of failure, that’s when you start looking for extra motivation. That’s when you use the abilities of those around you to will yourself to take the next step. That’s when the community leans on itself, pushes its collective limits, and builds itself stronger than before.

The bottom line is that fitness requires failure. Your body adapts to challenges it cannot meet in order to better prepare itself for the future. This process involves levels of fear and intensity that are typically uncomfortable, but absolutely necessary. If you’re not outside your comfort zone, you will not improve. And if you're not trying to improve, what exactly are you doing?

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Comment by kamigas
7 Dec 2016 11:33 AM
Hi Blair,

Thanks for the article, amazing!! I would like to find out your further thoughts on this topic. I am a student at Sussex University in England and I am undertaking a research project related to connection between delaying cancellation of gym membership and fear of failure. I thought that you might be able to help me in directing the research. Please let me know if you can help, my email is kmm45@sussex.ac.uk
Many thanks,

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