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I have this friend Hope, who likes to tell it like it is. She is an amazing friend that listens to me when I need to vent, but she is also the first to give me real world advice, zero sugar coating, and tell me when it’s time to pull up those proverbial big girl panties. She has a few years on me, and her seniority (can you use that term on someone who is still young?) and life experience often provides me with valuable lessons. A few years ago I remember her telling me that as you get older, you really stop putting so much value into what others think of you; a fault many young people (especially young women) posses. This is not necessarily to say that you become some sort of crotchety old hobbit as you age, but more so that you care about the actual quality and how you feel about YOUR life and experiences, over what other people may think about your life and experiences. As it should be.
PR’s, or personal records, are in my opinion, a mixed blessing in the fitness world. Having a specific goal is a huge driving factor for many people who otherwise might get bored with their fitness endeavors. Running for five minutes without walking. A new mile time. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon. A new back squat one rep max. It could be anything, really. Having an external motivator that can almost always be bested (that is, until you start hitting world record speeds or weights, but in that case, this post isn’t for you) is an invaluable tool to help constantly better yourself.
The problem with personal records is when we start to lose the true meaning of “personal”.
In my line of work, I see it everyday. When you get upset because you’ve been running marathons for years, yet your friend Jane just started running 6 months ago and ran her very first marathon a whole hour faster than your best time. Or you get frustrated because you spend every day in the gym busting your ass, but your friend who spends more time on the couch lifting beer cans and the TV remote has a one rep max bench press more than 50 pounds heavier than yours. Though I love social media as much as I love caffeine (a lot), I will admit that being constantly plugged in to each other’s lives has most certainly made the “comparison game” even worse. When we can instantly see our friends tweet their 5K mile splits, or instagram a picture of their latest front squat PR, it is so EASY to think “I’m not fast enough“…or just as bad “pshhh I can lift twice as much“.
What we don’t see in these instances is the background story of how this PR came to be.
I’ve seen clients and gym members who are naturally strong in one part of their body, but struggle in other areas. For example, I know one person who almost weekly increases their one rep max on their bench press. Yet they do not possess the core strength, balance, nor shoulder flexibility to even put an Olympic bar across their traps, never mind actually do a back squat; something many of us take for granted. The weaknesses and imbalances are indeed that bad. This person is working on those weaknesses however, and I have no doubt with continued training will one day be able to do a weighted back squat. At that time, I will be as proud as a peacock to have seen that person progress to that point. But without a doubt, if that person posted a picture on facebook of them with nothing but an empty Oly bar on their back in proper squat form, they will receive comments like “Where’s the weight bro? What’s your PR? Is that all? My grandma lifts more than that…”. Most people will have NO IDEA of what a huge feat that personal record is for that person to have simply made it to that point.
Another issue is that what we often don’t see, especially via internet claims, is the quality of that “personal record”.
Daily I see people in the gym adding weight to their lifts when they have zero business doing so, simply for the sake of saying “Oh yeah, I can bench ____“. Yet their form and range of motion on the lift is utter junk. The mentality that “more is better” seems to far outweigh the importance of properly learning how to do something. Just last night I had a woman ask me to come and critique the placement of the bar on her shoulders for reverse lunges. The bar was where it should be, however she struggled to maintain balance throughout the lift, and barely bent her back knee, with almost no range of motion. I suggested that she strip the bar of the 45 lb wheels and practice the movement with no weight until she mastered it, to which she gave me a quizzical look, as if that was a very foreign suggestion. In fact, I believe my exact words were “There is no shame in taking the weights off and mastering your form first.“
The real shame is that this is even an issue in the first place, that there is such a fear of being a beginner. Everyone starts somewhere, so why are we ashamed of being in those beginning phases? Why are we embarrassed to take things slow and steady…and learn to do them correctly? Ask yourself what is more important to you: knowing that you can correctly and fully complete a lift and thus properly progress, or knowing that you can put an irrelevant number of pounds “lifted” (while risking injury or lack of progression from poor form) on facebook that may or may not impress your friends? How about knowing that you trained your heart out for that half marathon and completed it injury free, versus running three back to back races on zero training just to say you did it?
I write this post completely without innocence. Years ago I was the girl who ran a marathon, half marathon, and a marathon in three consecutive weekends on minimal training just to join the Marathon Maniacs club and say I did it. It’s a wonder I didn’t walk out of that month without stress fractures. I am the girl who a few years ago found myself hesitant to post actual training run times to dailymile if I didn’t deem them “fast enough”. Compared to who? Kara Goucher? That other running mother my age in another state that I’ve never met but never seems to post a training run with miles slower than 8:30’s? I’m not sure, and in retrospect, it was ridiculous.
Thankfully, these days I find myself in a completely different mindset. (This brings us full circle to my friend Hope, whom you were probably wondering by this point what she had to do with this PR talk anyway.) I am finding far more joy in fully learning and properly mastering new things, over finding joy in people saying “oh you are so fast/strong/etc” or worse, fear of them thinking “wow, for a fitness professional I can’t believe she isn’t stronger/faster/skinnier/etc“. I care about my progress, and how fulfilling it is to see that real progress. I care little about what other people are doing, and even less about what they think about what I am doing, because I’m proud of my accomplishments. And that is what is most important.
The other day I posted this picture of me on instagram. But I won’t lie…I caught myself wrapped up in a negative mindset and hesitated for a few seconds before posting.
I checked my form in the picture: far from perfect. I’m only squatting 115 lbs…paltry compared to all of my badass CrossFit friends throwing around 200+ pounds or more. Should I even bother posting? But I quickly snapped myself out of it. The truth is: I love leg day, and I love to squat. But just last fall, my form was atrocious, my core so weak I couldn’t prevent my torso from wanting to fold over. I was actually scared to squat without a spotter. I struggled with ten reps of only the 45 lb bar, and yet now 115 was go-to easy weight for ten reps. I’ve come so far, and I’m trying *MY* best.
As Hope said to me today when I told her about this post: when we use our PR’s to compare or even one-up our friends, we are essentially ridiculing our OWN performance based on someone else. Because your PR is *YOUR* PR. Not Suzy at the gym, nor Joe on Facebook, nor your coworker or your cousin or your neighbor’s dog’s groomer’s sister-in-law.
Be proud of what you are capable of, how far you have come, and do not sell yourself short trying to impress someone else. This is your journey.