Choosing Hard: What CrossFit has taught me about trying and failing – and going back for more

Choosing Hard: What CrossFit has taught me about trying and failing – and going back for more

By Dr. Matt Poyner –

The WOD (workout of the day) at our gym today was special. A “Hero” WOD of local design. In other words it was meant to be hard.

But for me it was really hard. Heavy. If I did my share of the work (it was a partner WOD), I would have to do 10 squat cleans at 225 pounds, then a whole bunch of other stuff, then 10 front squats at 225 pounds from the ground – so that meant a bunch more cleans.

Thing is, my one rep max is about 225 pounds. I was looking at the prospect of attempting my one rep max 20 times in one workout. Ugh.

So, I had a choice. I could decrease the weight to something a little more manageable or I could forge ahead. My partner, who is a little stronger than I am, wanted to “Rx” the workout. So we loaded up the bar – all 225 pounds. We chose hard.

If you’ve ever done CrossFit before, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. This situation is not so unique. CrossFit is not a fitness routine where you can show up and mindlessly go through the motions. You will plan, you will strategize, you will talk yourself out of anxiety. You will engage.

And once the workout begins, you will experience directly the consequences of your choices. Whether you realize it or not, you will make many more choices before the workout is done too.
I’ve been doing CrossFit for nearly six years and it is still teaching me lessons – not only about fitness, but about myself.

This particular workout started rough and never got better. From the beginning I was missing just as many cleans as I managed to complete. Did I make a mistake going this heavy? No one would care if I went a little lighter. At least I wouldn’t be failing all those attempts. No, I wouldn’t give up yet. It was hard – really hard . . . but maybe not impossible.

I started to swoon about 7 minutes in. I’ve never fainted before but this felt bad. I held on to the mats for a few minutes in case I passed out. Still conscious, I decided to get back up and keep on making attempts. I really wanted to complete the workout as prescribed, if only for my partner.

He was giving everything he had too – while encouraging me at the same time. At one point I missed three lifts in a row. I felt badly that my partner was having to accumulate all the reps himself. I wasn’t pulling my weight. It seemed clear that one more miss – four in a row – would mean I’d have to take some weight off the bar.

“What is the best thing I can do right now given the circumstances?” I said this to myself because I felt so close to failing. I was not angry or sad or frustrated. The bar was just so damn heavy.

I was fighting gravity acting on a massive barbell. Truth is, I didn’t really think it was likely I’d be able to complete this workout in the first place.

But what if it was possible? So, I said to myself, if I’m going to fail, I am going to make sure it wasn’t for lack of focus or effort. It will be a clean fail.

Then I shut out all the noise and stared at the bar. I walked up to it just like I would at any other time I was attempting a one rep max. I tried to do everything the same: hands, feet, prime the hamstrings, slow off the ground, get ready to accelerate – jump! – then under that bar as fast as I can, catch, rebound at the bottom and push, push past the sticking point . . . and there it is.

One more rep.

I failed many more after that. But I also made a few, perhaps just enough that together we might be able to complete the workout as prescribed.

It’s days like these that get me thinking about what CrossFit has to teach us. Or maybe CrossFit is just one particular classroom and if we’re paying attention, we are just seizing opportunities to learn wherever we find them.

My academic background is in medicine and biology, so I often think about such unique circumstances through this lens.

For example, I think about the evolution of our species, Homo sapiens. How 99.9% of our evolution was spent in small villages hunting and gathering, working with friends, fighting with enemies. We are designed to move, because our survival depended on us moving well.

The last few hundred years has been a period of abundance. “Working” at a desk. Calorie-laden foods at our fingertips. It is easy to sit around lazy and gluttonous because evolution designed us to seek calories and conserve energy – evolution which occurred under very different circumstances than we now live.

So, it is hard to break that inertia and get moving. It’s even harder to face the discomfort of vigorous exercise like CrossFit.

But CrossFit has taught me that for all the benefits of our modern culture, we indulge in it’s easy comforts at our own peril. From an evolutionary point of view, our lives are not hard enough. To be healthy, we have to choose to add a little hardship back in. It will not happen automatically.

Once upon a time, exercise was a necessity. Now it is a choice.

Going from sedentary to active is a huge step. But then what? Is it enough to be a runner? A cyclist? To lift heavy weights? Maybe. Some people may experience endless joy and motivation by one movement or one sport. I am not one of those.

Could a marathon runner lift a boulder to rescue a mountain climber? Could a power lifter run 10kms to get help in an emergency? Specializing in exercise leaves so many faculties untested and undeveloped. I’m more of a generalist.

CrossFit is humbling. It finds weaknesses and exposes them. Some athletes who are good at their sport won’t like CrossFit because no one feels like they are good at CrossFit at first.

It is easy to stick to what you are good at. It is hard to voluntarily engage in a program that is designed to expose your weaknesses.

Funny thing about working on weaknesses though . . . If you do it enough, they start to disappear.

The other funny thing about working on weaknesses is that if you do it enough, you get used to it. You start to not mind having weaknesses. This is called resilience.

Resilience is not about the absence of weakness. It is about the capacity and choice to improve on those weaknesses.

Making the choice to engage in a program that exposes our weaknesses solely for the opportunity to work on them is a hard one. It takes humility. But it grows pride.

In CrossFit we fail all the time. In fact, we do it on purpose. We are failing at the things most people never even attempt. We fail not out of weakness but out of a blood, sweat, and tears effort to turn our weaknesses into strengths.

And when you learn to do this in the gym, it is only one extra step to apply the same mentality to other aspects of life.

These are some of the things CrossFit has taught me with WODs like today’s.

By the time we were attempting our last reps everyone else was done. They surrounded us, sweaty bodies, flushed cheeks, smiling, cheering. My CrossFit village. By this point I was failing every lift I tried.

My partner, who had racked up the majority of our reps while staying positive the whole time, stumbled and nearly dropped the bar on the second last rep.

I knew with a little rest he could have banged out the last one. I felt like my neurons were fried, cooked, done. My failures were evidence.

It would have been easy to leave the last lift to him. Or I could have made some mediocre attempt in keeping with how my body was feeling, knowing I would fail.

My body was crying for easy. But I chose hard.

I did not expect a successful lift but I did choose to make the best attempt I was capable of. It was hard to visualize lifting that bar again. Hard to make sure my pre-lift routine was tight.

Extremely hard to execute that attempt with speed and accuracy when my muscles and nerves were screaming for rest. At that point, there was really no reason to think I’d be able to stand that bar up.

But I did.

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