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Impossible Feats of Strength and Endurance

This is me. I am ripped.

On Friday, January 9, I went to the gym and did a chin up. Here’s what should have happened next: The clouds should have parted to allow a single beam of light to cast its golden glow on my body. Winged trumpeters should have surrounded me. Confetti should have rained from the sky. A flash mob should have appeared and performed a choreographed dance to Eye of the Tiger.

Instead I turned to the guy doing bridge pose on the floor nearby and said, “I just did a chin up.” He smiled and said, “That’s great.”

There’s nothing special about doing a chin up. Many people can do them. Many people can do many of them. But to me, the act felt momentous. I had never done one before. I’ve long subscribed to the theory that my muscles simply weren’t strong enough. But lately another possibility occurred to me: What if I couldn’t do a chin up because I didn’t think I was strong enough to do a chin up? What if my problem was mental rather than physical?

Much has been made of the power of positive thinking. I belong to a gym, and my instructor likes to say, “Your problem is here.” And then he points to his head. Or sometimes if I’m having a good day, he’ll say: “You’re getting stronger here,” and then he’ll point to his head. To me, this has always sounded like complete and utter bullshit. My muscles are strong because I work them, not because I give them pep talks. But the idea that there’s a firewall between my brain and my body seems equally implausible. The brain controls the body. So of course it makes sense that what you think can influence how you perform.

Science bears this out. In one study, researchers gave competitive power lifters a sugar pill and told them it was a steroid. After a week they were able to squat, bench press, and deadlift 3-5% more weight than they could at the start of the experiment. They expected to be able to lift more, so they did.

This type of experiment works, according to exercise physiologist Timothy Noakes, because athletes don’t perform at their physiological limit. Rather, they perform somewhere below it. According to Noakes’ “central governor” model, fatigue isn’t a sign that the body is hitting a physical limit. It’s an emotion that the brain uses to ensure that we don’t overtax ourselves and, well, die.

It’s our central governor that determines how hard we can work given the expected duration of the exercise. And it’s our central governor that takes into account our biological and emotional state, our mental fatigue, our sleep deprivation, our motivation and prior experience, and our degree of self-belief.

That last one can be slippery to pin down. In the experiment with the power lifters, the researchers revealed the truth to half the participants after two weeks. They told them that they had been taking a placebo. When they repeated the max lift test, the athletes who knew about the placebo only managed to lift what they had at baseline. Their performance declined despite knowing they were capable of more.

And what if you don’t know what you’re capable of? What if you’re just starting out?

When I was in college, I convinced myself that I had been born with one lung. At the time, I was trying to become a runner. And, as many newbie runners will attest, running when you’re not used to it is excruciating. I would jog, feel like I was dying, walk for a bit, and then start jogging again. And the cycle would repeat. The problem, I decided, was physiological. Others made running look so easy. I must have some sort of defect. Hence the birth of the one-lung hypothesis.

I wasn’t entirely wrong. (I mean, I was wrong about the lung. I have two.) The problem was partly physiological. The body has to adapt to exercise. Running is really hard at first, and then it gets easier. But I was barely jogging. I was nowhere near even my own paltry physiological limits. So why did I feel so fatigued?

I’ll admit I wasn’t all that motivated. The stakes were low. But perhaps self-belief (or a lack thereof) played a role too. Stories have power, and the story I told myself was this: “I am not a runner. I will never be a runner. Indeed, I cannot be a runner because — alas! — I have only one lung. This terrible birth defect has ruined what would surely have been a long and prosperous running career.”

I liked the one-lung hypothesis because it was an easy out. I will never be good at X because Y. But what I lack isn’t a lung, it’s a winning, can-do attitude. And that might be even more difficult to overcome.


Image courtesy of Nathan Rupert via Flickr

PS. That’s not really me.

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