The idea of getting “too big” is probably pretty hilarious to most male gym rats. Growth is the goal, always the goal, sometimes defined in inches or pounds but always striving toward bigger. Strength is an accessory to the fact. Cutting fat, an addendum, often remembered last minute before spring break after months of eating in excess. Most men, at least, recognize that putting on mass takes a tremendous amount of effort and focus. Very rarely does it happen by accident. Imagine: the skinniest dude you know goes to the gym a few times and wakes up one morning to find himself suddenly, inexplicably massive. “I didn’t want to get huge,” he’d lament, reaching a veined, bulging forearm into the microwave to retrieve his taquitos. “But my buddy made me do leg day once and now none of my pants fit my thighs.” A tragedy.
The opposite is true for women. It took two decades of myth deconstruction, especially after the heroin-chic look of the 90s, to get a casual female gym-goer to approach the weight room. Why did it take us so long to figure out that showing muscle tone requires muscle mass? (Probably because of folks like Tracy Anderson espousing that women should lift no more than 3-pound weights.*) Now, in 2015, a lean, athletic appearance is in vogue. Women throwing around some serious weight at the gym – once an oddity, later a “cool girl, one-of-the-guys” quality – is, wonderfully, from my experience, a regularity. Lady lifters tend to enjoy better health and self-esteem. Guys be like, dat squat booty. Everyone’s happy.
So what happens when you do get big enough?
When I started exercising, I didn’t have a particular aesthetic goal in mind. I figured I might like myself better if I cut back on mac and cheese and World of Warcraft and made myself sweat a few times per week, I guess? So discovering and actually enjoying weight lifting was a happy accident. I was extremely uncomfortable at first, especially sharing the weight room with, you know, the real athletes at my school, but time and research made things feel more and more natural. Soon I was strutting in there with my head held high. I wasn’t strong or fast but I was committed, and if gym rats respect anything, it’s persistence. Hitting a new PR made me feel invincible, unstoppable. “I never thought I could lift that,” I’d think, “but I did it. So what else have I been telling myself that I can’t do?” And, in time, I also bought in to the indefinite-growth, gains-for-gains’-sake mentality; with hard work, I would keep getting stronger, to infinity and beyond. Appearance and body weight were irrelevant, as long as my lifts were going up.
Ship life changed that. Maintaining a serious gym schedule underway can be a challenge. Slowly, over the course of a year, lifting sank lower and lower on my list of priorities. Gym time itself often felt like a luxury; I was happy just to jump on whatever equipment was immediately available and get out in less than an hour. I gained a few pounds – nothing too noticeable, nothing to feel bad about – and also a bit of complacency, which was worse than the extra body fat.
And then I started running.
Running, for the record, is the worst. Every step is pain, each mile an exploration into new and exciting dimensions of torture. Thighs slapping together, chafing. Gasping, lungs aching – am I voluntarily trying to suffocate myself? My glasses slide down my face and sweat rolls into my eyes, my mouth, and my shirt lands with a wet plop on the floor before I hobble into the shower. So I’m not a fan. Or, at least, I wasn’t. I ran underway more or less out of necessity, since, with limited resources, it’s the simplest and most accessible form of exercise. At some point this year, though, something changed. I was running more often than I was lifting. I stopped dreading cardio. Sometimes, I even looked forward to a run, particularly those on the main deck in view of the setting sun. For a once-devout disciple of the iron, this was a terrifying development. So much of my identity, I thought, had centered around my strength and my gainz. Lifting, at one time, had made me different, made people respect me, admire me, my PRs, my ass, and – wait, who was I doing this for again?
Maybe scaling back on the weights wouldn’t be the end of the world. Maybe running – becoming one of “those people” – wouldn’t prompt an identity crisis. Maybe athleticism falls across a broad spectrum and isn’t limited to brute strength – shocking, I know. These were new perspectives, ones I had only considered theoretically, detached from myself and my goals. I remember trying on new swimsuits recently – strapless bandeau tops, perfect for correcting those crew-neck tan-lines – and observing my body as though for the first time. My lats and chest and shoulders exploded out of the top of the suit. I looked ridiculous, somehow big and small at the same time. But I was also bursting with pride. This mass is me, all me, all mine. I made this. This is physical, visual evidence of years of hard work and commitment, of trying and failing, of stepping outside of my comfort zone and pushing myself past my limits. I am, in fact, “big enough” – strong enough, fast enough, good enough.
You’ll see me by the pool in those swimsuits. You’ll still see me in the gym, too, and running around base. It’s okay to let your priorities change. Sometimes you have to sacrifice one goal for the sake of another. “Good enough” is not an appeal for mediocrity or complacence. It’s not a rallying cry to abandon your goals. But it’s not quitting or failure, either. It’s a realistic assessment of your accomplishments and recognition of your achievements. It’s about self-acceptance and pride in self-creation. Most of all, it’s about allowing yourself to experience the peace that comes from completion. And it’s nice to move on.
* In a spectacular demonstration of thoughtlessness, Gwenyth says in this very same video that the arm she uses to carry her 30-pound son is less flabby than the other.