Annual Fitness Post: How to Be Aristotle in the Gym

I always enjoy writing my annual fitness post. I’m frequently surprised by how much I learn about fitness each year even though I’ve basically been involved in it my whole life. Before we get started here are my past fitness posts for future reference:

I often like to mock click-baity headlines in my posts. However, in this year’s post I find myself actually believing that what I’m about to discuss in this post IS the “one weird trick” that will allow you to achieve your fitness goals. 

Let’s Start General…
Across many life activities distraction from connected devices is a major problem. This shouldn’t be a revelation to anyone with a smart phone. I spend a significant amount of time contemplating how to avoid digital distraction in my own life and have only met moderate success. In my teaching I also try to establish classroom culture and conventions to minimize the possibility of digital noodling. 

The way I see it, digital distraction is a genuine threat to quality of life. It pulls us out of the activity we are doing and prohibits the deep engagement necessary to make that activity meaningful and, hence, worthwhile. Also, genuine learning requires deep engagement and concentration. In short, if you’re doing something while your mind is elsewhere, you’re only getting a fraction of the benefit: You’re leaving money on the table.

Distracted Fitness: You’re Losing Precious Gainz!
The implications of digital distraction for fitness should be obvious. Depending on the gym I’m in I’ll often see up to 2/3rds of people texting and scrolling between sets. And while on the cardio machines, it’s even worse. 

I won’t go so far as to say it’s the only ingredient for success, but you simply cannot make worthwhile progress in your fitness if your mind and body aren’t working together when you train. Every top bodybuilder, fitness model, and athlete I’ve ever trained with will talk about the importance of the mind-body connection when they’re training. (Bodybuilders will say ‘mind-muscle’ connection—same, same).

Try imagining for a moment an Olympic athlete checking their social media while they are in the middle of a training session. This would be insane. Even if they’re catching their breathe between intervals, they need to be focussed on what’s next and assessing what they just did. 

Success requires total engagement. Every time you glance at your digital device you’re pulling your mind out of what you’re doing. This constant engagement, disengagement, and reengagement never permits the deep emersion necessary for worthwhile results.

Of course, you aren’t training for the next Olympics but you are training to get particular results, aren’t you? I mean, why the heck are you there if you’re not? And if you don’t have any goals, get some

The bottom line here is intensity or as some philosophers have called it, passion. You are at the gym for a reason and that reason isn’t to check your social media account. Take a just one measly freakin’ hour away from your phone to fully engage in training your body. Commit to it. I see so many people essentially wasting their time in the gym.

If you want to get more out of your gym time, practice mindfulness. 

But How?
Let’s begin with the painfully obvious: Leave your freakin’ phone in the locker room. (“But I need if for my music.” Buy a freakin’ ipod, you maroon!). 

Moving on…

When I’m lifting weights I’m doing several things. First, I’m paying attention to my breathing. Second, I’m paying attention to what each muscle is doing. Do each repetition with a conscious and deliberate contraction of the target muscle(s): squeeze at the top and stretch at the bottom. 

Slow down. 

Pause at the bottom of the movement and make sure you have the correct muscles engaged before you begin the repetition. Focus your mind on contracting those particular muscles. At the peak, squeeze; then pause just enough to stop the momentum of the movement. If you can’t feel which muscles are contracting, you’re just moving the weight up and down. It’s not the same thing.

Make everything deliberate. 

Fitness is a form of meditation. Just because lifting weights or doing cardio isn’t steeped in Ancient Wisdom woo, it should be just as meditative as yoga. At its best it is discovery and contemplation of your physical self. You are learning and creating what’s possible for your body to do and become. You are forging and strengthening the connections between the mental and physical aspects of your self. 

On the cardio machines, I like to do interval training or set the machine to random. Regardless of which one I’m doing I set goals for my rate (rpm or steps/minute). If I don’t set goals I can never push myself beyond my comfort zone. In the long term this means I can never improve my fitness level; or if I do, my improvement will be far below what it could have been. 

At the ‘random’ setting I like to give myself a minimum rpm that I don’t allow myself to go below regardless of the resistance. When I can achieve my time interval at that rpm, I either raise my target rpm or increase the overall level of resistance. I want to know how far I can push and develop my body. I treat my training time as a journey of self-discovery and creation.

Aimless and distracted training rob me of this fruit.

I also pay close attention to my breathing and posture: Doing so is yet anther way of developing and achieving knowledge of my physical self. So many people have no awareness of what their body is doing or how it is positioned.

Aristotle in the Gym
Aristotle is probably the most plagiarized philosopher in history. Most self-help and management books are basically cheap rip-offs of his ideas.

At the core of Aristotle’s Ethics is the idea that you become what you do repeatedly. Otherwise stated, you are your habits. 

The lesson here is simple and familiar, but invaluable. To change aspects of yourself, change your habits. Find people who you want to be like and adopt their habits in respect to those aspects you want to become. 

Aristotle’s philosophy doesn’t just apply to particular skills or professions but—and most importantly—to character

If you want to become courageous you have to do courageous things. If you want to become generous, you have to do generous things. 

I see a lot of people generally unwilling to push themselves. These individual surrenders accrue over time to form a habit which manifests, in the long term, as satisfaction with mediocrity. No one should be content with mediocrity. It’s a waste of a life.

Sadly, when done repeatedly, mediocrity becomes a habit and part of one’s character. I see so many students unwilling to push themselves mentally to produce truly excellent work. I see people in the gym satisfied with merely showing up and going through the motions. 

Aristotle and the ancient Greeks would have had a fit. A good life—one worth living—is one that is lived excellently; that is, in the pursuit, development, and actualization of our human virtues (i.e., excellences)… 

This tendency toward mediocrity has many causes–some blameworthy, some not. But I contend that distracted living is a big one and, fortunately, one we can legitimately control. People will say they want to be great at x, y, or z but when it comes time to do the work they can’t get themselves to do it. The more they fall prey to distractions the more engrained this trait—this unwillingness to push—becomes in their character.

It’s the Small Things
There’s a happy flip-side to all this. We aren’t stuck with poor character traits. We can practice toughness and become tough. Frankie Edgar, a UFC fighter, is known for his mental toughness. He has a reputation for being the mentally toughest fighter in the entire organization. He’s undersized for his division but still became the champion. He has an indomitable will. No matter how badly he has been losing a match he never quits. When asked what makes him so mentally tough, he replied that “[he] practice[s] mental toughness every single day.”

He suffers no delusion that he can train in the comfort zone; i.e., quitting whenever training gets a bit too hard, and then on fight night magically become mentally tough. This kind of thinking is pure fantasy and only happens in movies.

Edgar, the unwitting Aristotelian, offers us some great advice for all aspects of life—whether it’s to a student who wants better grades, someone looking to get in good shape, a musician who wants to become great or whatever. Every time you quit mentally you are contributing to the formation of a habit which in turn becomes part of your character

Habits are default behavioral responses. They eliminate deliberation. 

Developing mental toughness requires practicing mental toughness every day. In a fight, Edgar doesn’t decide that *now* he’s going to be tough. There’s no decision to make. He already is.

In Book 2 of the Ethics, Aristotle explains the nature of and relationships between virtue, habit, and character:

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit. 

The idea is that no one is born with particular moral virtues of character or of intellect. True, people have dispositions but this doesn’t undo the central claim that our character is mostly cultivated through habit.

Back to the Gym: 
If you want to be mentally tough you must practice mental toughness.

When you’re on the cardio machine and your rpm drops below the minimum rpm you set for yourself, you are faced with a choice: You can say to yourself, “waaah! this is hard, I’m going to slow down” or you can say to yourself, “challenge accepted.”

We all experience such moments of choice. It may seem like a small insignificant choice. You’re just riding a damn cardio machine. How can slowing down possibly affect your life in any significant way?

But, if there is any truth to what Aristotle says, it is precisely these small choices that affect, nay, generate the nature of our lives and character. Every action, positive or negative, contributes to habit formation. Which habit are you going to cultivate? Mental toughness or resignation and satisfaction with mediocrity? There are no neutral actions.

The more we quit, the easier it is to quit. The more we rise to the challenge, the easier we are able to. Habit removes deliberation and replaces it with character. We are the habit. That is, the virtue or vice comes to constitute our character.

The challenge to live excellently appears great but do not despair: Rejoice! Aristotelian philosophy offers us hope. Moral virtues like courage and mental toughness aren’t generated by infrequent momentous acts nor are they genetically determined. Instead they are cultivated through the small seemly insignificant choices we make every day. 

Excellence is easily within everyone’s grasp. 

[Ok, Aristotle would have disagreed with universal claim the last sentence but who cares…I’m trying to leave you feeling hopeful and sell you my new Quantum Spirit Inspiration book and seminar!)

The above lessons have both wide and narrow application. Broadly we can apply the following lessons to live better:

1. Eliminate digital distractions.
2. Don’t multitask. 
3. Set up your environment such that deep immersion in your activity of choice is possible. 
4. Identify the character traits you want to have and do small things every day that embody that trait. 

For the gym:
  1. Leave your phone in the got-tam locker room.
  2. Make every action conscious and deliberate.
  3. Pay attention to your breathing and posture.

For School (things I do and am trying to do better):

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  1. When doing a writing assignment unplug your modem.
  2. If your writing requires online sources, download them into PDFs then unplug your modem. 
  3. Put your phone in another room while doing work.
Some times life throws a lot of shit at us and merely surviving another day is a feat in itself. In times like these, pushing yourself to the limit could be counter productive. It might rob you of the energy you need to get through your day. On the other hand, winning small battles is a way to rebuild our self-esteem. Fitness usually takes place in a controlled environment where success is a simple equation: More effort=more success. Outside of the gym, all sorts of confounding factors creep into this otherwise simple formula. If you’re looking to regain a sense of control over your life, doing so in a controlled environment might be a good way to go. 

A final qualification has to do with the nature of your work day. Some people have extremely demanding jobs–periodically or consistently. They have to be at 100% intensity all day. For people with these sorts of jobs, the gym is often a place to relax. It’s an escape from the intensity of work. If your job requires long and intense days, pushing yourself extra hard in the gym might make working out unpleasant for you. If that’s the case, it’s better that you’re showing up without maximizing than not showing up at all. Aristotle famously advocated the doctrine of the mean. That is, any trait in excess is harmful.

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