The secret to strength training? Embrace A Reality Most Of Us Prefer To Avoid

This is a payment of Good Fita column on the army.

The first time I tried to do a back squat, with just an empty barbell on my back, I failed spectacularly. I was in an introductory CrossFit class and already intimidated by the din of slamming weights and grunts of effort around me.

When it was my turn to try the move, I planted my feet, took a strong inhale, and began to bend my knees. But as I lowered into the bottom of the squat, I felt like I was leaning too far forward. The bar rolled slightly towards the back of my neck and I panicked, throwing my weight onto my toes and releasing my grip on the bar. Suddenly, I was on my knees, and the barbell was on the floor, slowly stretching. I could feel the heat rising to my cheeks.

That’s how everyone’s first class goesI thought, or am I not cut out for this type of fitness? Just as I was beginning to consider abandoning the whole weight lifting effort, the instructor pointed something out: While I didn’t make the lift, I managed to fail properly. Instead of trying to save the lift with poor form – which, if the bar had been heavier, could have strained my back – I had let it go safely. Accepting midlift failure allowed me to avoid injury. It meant I could start thinking about what had gone wrong and plot the changes needed to hit the lift next time.

Strength training is not a success at all, I eventually learned. For me, it’s about learning to accept, expect, and ultimately love failure. The resilience you develop through these missteps, and the knowledge that failure does not did you a failure permeates the rest of your life, affecting the way you take risks and find yourself in work, school and social settings.

Before I started lifting, I was a distance runner, and I found it easy to largely avoid failure in my training: When I went for a long run, I knew that barring some major catastrophe, I completed the distance, even if I did . so slower than i had expected. The elevation was not like that. Training to build strength often meant loading a barbell with a weight you could only handle for two or three repetitions of big lifts like the overhead press, squat, or dead lift. Some days, I literally lifted “to failure”, the moment my muscles were so spent from effort that I could not finish the set. I was regularly pushing against the absolute limits of my physical strength, and occasionally, no matter how much I wanted the weight to move, it simply wouldn’t move. It forced me to get really comfortable with uncertainty—and to treat those failures not as catastrophes, but as challenges.

“Failure is the most consistent part of lifting,” says Priscilla Del Moral, a personal trainer and co-owner of JDI Barbell in New York City. “It was a turning point for me when I realized that this is just a routine.”

For many of us, “failure has been tied to identity” since childhood, says Jenny Wang, psychologist, author and mental health activist. “When a child trips and the parents immediately rush to solve the problem, we are actually saying that there is something wrong with you stumbling. There is something wrong with you struggling through.” We grow up believing that failure is scary and should be avoided.

The fear of failure can have real consequences. For some, it can lead to increased anxiety and depression. How you respond to failure, however, is a good indication of your level of resilience, or the ability to adapt to setbacks. Resilience has been shown to have wide implications, from perceptions and psychological responses to stress in a work environment to improved quality of life with aging. And how does it strengthen resilience? Embracing failure.

Two years into my lifting journey, I started training for Strongman (that sport I know from late night ESPN reruns in which huge men lift, carry, press, or throw extremely heavy strange objects like rocks, logs and beer barrels). Despite its name, I learned that strong women are equally dominant in sports. (Lucy Underdown holds the current women’s world record for the deadlift at 700 pounds.) There is also a novice division in most competitions.

From the moment I started in Strongman, the circus dumbbell (about three times the length and width of a regular dumbbell) has been my nemesis. I’ve tried pressing this on my head probably hundreds of times, constantly failing. Strongman competitions feature five events, all of which competitors are supposed to at least attempt, so for a long time I avoided those that included the dumbbell circus. I didn’t want to fail in front of a crowd. Once I noticed that I was ruling out most of the contests I wanted to enter, however, I decided to press on.

I started to train the supporting muscles that I would need to strengthen enough to press the dumbbell. I watched the videos of my missed attempts and analyzed where I moved my foot or my hand. Almost a decade after my first failed attempt, and now 40 years old, I walked up to the judges at a competition and looked down at the 55 pound dumbbell resting by my feet. The first time I tried to press, my nerves took over and I reverted to old habits, moving my body away from the dumbbell instead of getting under it. I missed the rep. (“Failing success” in this context is mostly about not letting it fall on your head, which I managed to avoid.) For my second attempt, I shook off the frustration, planted my feet in a better position, got up the dumbbell on my shoulder, and finally!

Sometimes, in the gym, I still miss that lift. But now I recognize that from each of these failures, I’ve learned a little more about myself, how willing I am to push my limits and what I need to do to succeed. It’s something I use outside of the gym too, from retrieving discarded items to trying to unlock the magic phrase that will make my 3-year-old agree to eat something green.

Eric Potterat, a performance and sports psychologist and author of the book Learned excellence, has worked with thousands of professional athletes and shares a similar sentiment. He suggested that what separates the good athletes from the truly great ones is how they bounce back when something goes wrong. “They all have one thing in common,” he says. “The best of the best see their failures as nothing more than a statistic.”

At 41, seven years after entering my first Strongman competition, I finally made it to a national competition. And I came in last place. At the beginning of my lifting career, that result would have leveled me up. This time, however, after giving it some time to sink in, I thought about what that failure meant. Now I could clearly see my current limits. I had a goal post, and it was up to me to decide if I was willing to run towards it, knowing how many times I would fall flat on my face along the way.

Lifting has taught me to embrace the opportunity to fail so I can determine the best path to success. This article is a prime example of that. To write it, I spent a lot of time staring at a blank document and a flashing cursor, the words ready to appear on the page. So, I started writing, expecting that the first draft would be a mess (it was). I also realized that, as in lifting, I had to start somewhere because once the words were down on paper, I could see where to go next. A few times, I confidently added a new paragraph only to realize it didn’t fit. So I put it away and tried something new. Find out what doesn’t work, you might know what would have

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