10 Things the Gym Taught Me About Life

UPDATED: July 21, 2022
PUBLISHED: July 22, 2022
10 Things the Gym Taught Me About Life

For the past month, I have been posting raw and fairly unflattering gym selfies of me in the process of transformation at the gym to Facebook. Sorry “friends,” but I needed a place to be accountable and also to give myself some external recognition.

My photo array, a visual depiction of change in progress, was intended to become the stuff of this essay. It might seem indulgent to the audience on Facebook, but I see myself more as the willing lab rat in this endeavor. These are not vanity shots.

Admittedly, I started out in pretty good shape, so this was not going to be the kind of dramatic visual result the rest of the world might consider being the only thing worthy of this effort. But I, a lifelong serious athlete, had lost my way again. The mantras I had become used to—especially those that came in the form of encouragement from others admiring my physical prowess—started to sound empty. I was having trouble believing them myself. Some things, inside and out, were broken. No need to elaborate—life is hard. But because I cannot make sense of my life without the ritual of physical mastery, I was stuck in a true contradiction: I didn’t want to go to the gym and be something less than I knew myself to be at my best. But I also struggled with the structure and rhythm that daily physical exertion presented.

For a while I floated in and out of the gym—and life—like a ghost, going through the motions just to mark the spot without totally giving up. But like always, when I had enough of the mediocrity, I set out on this path to find out, again, if these beliefs about overcoming, about recreating, about showing up, were really all within the power of a person to make true when it was hardest.

In the process of reaffirming these tenets of power and will, I relearned why the body, as both obstacle and conquest, has always given me such profound certainty. Here is what the gym has taught me about life:

1. There is all of the potential for greatness every day.

If you endeavor to make a change in your physical form, you have that opportunity every day, no matter what happened the day before. If you are determined to exceed a boundary, whatever the measure, you will. Knowing that I can recreate the opportunity to not only exceed a limit previously set, but to do so with magnificence, is one of the key reasons I return to the gym every day.

2. You should leave it the way you want to feel about it.

In the moment of the greatest physical demand there is a threshold for discomfort, one that’s built into our natural condition as humans, that seeks relief from pain. To endure beyond this discomfort, one must conjure something within—you have to “dig.” If I fold into the desire to be relieved of momentary discomfort, then folding becomes my point of internal reference. Conversely, if I push through, I see myself as a person who is capable of doing so. It sounds easy when you already have the strength to do so, but it is significantly harder to do when you don’t have the same physical prowess and you fall. Yet, when you push through discomfort, you can recreate who you are to yourself.

3. There is no progress in vague goals.

If you go to the gym and step onto some equipment, you might burn some calories. If you lift some weights, it’s possible you will encourage a muscle to adapt and strengthen. But true transformation requires intention and an absolute goal. You must articulate the desire to make it manifest. Nothing definite can ever come from something undefined.

4. Growth comes from destruction and repair.

What I know about the cells that make up muscle tissue is that they are temporary. They die and regenerate. The nature of a cell is that it is in a constant state of flux. Its purpose is to grow to its inherent potential and to die in order to create the opportunity for a new expression of cellular code. This truth alone has become foundational to every great thing I have ever done to my body in movement. You are never stuck with a form you do not like, and all the potential exists every day to create something completely new. It also means there is no point when this potential does not exist. We are made up of prewired potential. The cell is only the manifestation of some greater intelligence at play.

5. Make choices in the way you want your life to become.

One of the key things I learned about purposeful and maximal training is that the best results come from carrying your muscle through the form you wish to create. A muscle becomes what it does, and you too can become what you do.

6. Sometimes just the act of showing up is enough.

It is true that consistently training without purpose will not permit progress, but showing up precedes all the possibility purposeful training allows. If it is all you can do on that day, just show up.

7. If you show up when you don’t want to, you get more credit.

This speaks for itself.

8. Climbing is the hardest but most rewarding endeavor.

When I least want to train, I step on the revolving stairs first. Climbing is the hardest thing you will ever do to your body, no matter how well-oiled your physical machine. It will net the greatest results, because in a natural state of ease, you don’t want to climb. You just don’t.

9. The greatest opportunity lies in the deepest void.

If you lose all of your conditioning and are at a state of physical zero, you have the best palette for creating the thing you most desire. The void is where the greatest opportunities are. If you have nothing, there are no limits to what you can become.

10. There is no limit to the number of times you can recreate yourself.

No one is ever given a defined limit on failure, progress, success or rebirth. You can have the most profound loss and the most soaring success. You can overcome adversity thousands of times, and if you are alive long enough, you will. You can never use up all the times you can become something else.

If you need it to, the gym can stand for everything. In the hardest moments, I have whispered to myself, “are you really doing this again?” Sometimes there is a pause, but always the answer is “yes.” Yes, you are doing this again. Now go and conquer something.

This article was published in July 2016 and has been updated. Photo by ESB Professional/Shutterstock

Debbie Sanders is a lawyer and the owner of Bar-None Prep where she teaches a bar exam preparation method aimed at creating a "methodical and predictable” approach to the exam while placing an emphasis on the spirit and well-being of the person taking the exam. Debbie is also an author, writing mostly about purpose and overcoming adversity, and in addition to her essays, she is currently writing a book entitled The Spiritual Path to Passing the Bar based on her experiences teaching bar exam students for more than 15 years.