Here we go again. Yet another “no excuses” mom needs us to laud her 6-pack abs as she shames the rest of us for not looking like her. As a trainer, and a gym-owner, these things make me cringe. They are not inspirational, except that they inspire rage in me with an intensity that few other things can. They are amongst the most harmful things out there, if what we’re really trying to do is inspire people to be strong and healthy. And happy.
Let me acknowledge the work that you put into that body. It’s commendable. You have clearly set a goal, and achieved it, and I will be the first to applaud you for that. You at least think you are proud of your body, and let me applaud you for that also. It’s not an easy thing to do, in this day and age in which women are shamed for their bodies.
If you were my client, however, we’d be talking about whether you are actually proud of your body, or proud of your ability to contort it to meet an arbitrary external standard, because those are very different things.
What I really want to talk about is the reasons why very few of the hundreds of athletes that I train have 6-pack abs. Because they’re really important. (And as people, they’re all really awesome.)
They don’t care about having a 6-pack. This, really, is my favorite. Having a 6-pack does not mean that you are strong or healthy. In many people, in fact, there’s an inverse correlation there. All that having a 6-pack inherently means is that you do not have any body fat covering your muscles. For some people, that’s how they’re naturally built, they don’t gain fat even if they want it (and yes, lots of people do want it.) For others, it means that they are starving themselves in order to have no body fat. That is unhealthy for too many reasons for me to list. I would say that the strongest and healthiest people I know actually do NOT have 6-packs. They also have the emotional strength to know that it doesn’t matter. (I know plenty of strong people who do have 6-packs, ironically, they don’t really care about it either.)
It’s not in their DNA. Having spent years training hundreds of athletes, I can tell you that some people simply will NEVER have a 6-pack. Men and women alike, some of the top-performing athletes in our gym do not have visible abs. I say visible because they all have abs, and they’re strong as fuck. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. Abs are like love, they’re there whether you can see them or not. Anyway, I have athletes that are in the gym 2 hours a day, doing amazing shit, and still don’t have visible abs. I doubt they care, because they’re busy doing things rather than looking at their bodies and comparing them to others. But if they don’t have ripped abs, it’s sure as shit not because they’re not doing the work.
Their life really does interfere. There are plenty of people for whom finding time to work out, in any way, just isn’t the top of their priority list. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a realistic reflection of what they value. (What they value, NOT what they’re worth.) Or what they need to do in order to make their lives work. Recent studies have shown that 20 minutes of cardio a day improve your length and quality of life massively. On a substantive level, I say that’s what we work for; quality of life, not quantity of attention from people who might want to “bang” us because we have visible abs. As a corollary, I’d suggest that the ability to get attention for conforming to someone else’s arbitrary fantasy is a dubious achievement. But maybe that’s just me.
People Like You. Yes, people like you are a HUGE reason why lots of other people are resistant to get started on a fitness routine, even if they know they should. Even if they want to. When you put out images of YOUR body and say “no excuses,” you create an environment of intense shame. Many people don’t want to go somewhere where people like you will immediately look at them and say “not good enough.” Of ALL the obstacles I face when I train people, the biggest one is fear, caused by shame, caused by a society of people who say that it is inexcusable for people to look like they do.
You make my job harder. No, you do not attract people into the gym, you repel them. I have had SO MANY cups of coffee with people who want to start, but are afraid they will be the weakest person in the gym, people will make fun of them, they are not good enough, that it’s pointless to start because they know they’re not good enough, that they’ll NEVER look like you, so what’s the point.
People like you really ARE one of the primary reasons that people don’t start working out.
There will never, ever, be a day when it is healthy to compare your body to anyone else’s. Our bodies are all very different. Not in a “you’re a special snowflake and everyone’s a winner” sort of bullshit way. In a genetic way. We are ALL different.
It is possible to be healthy at a wide variety of sizes. It is even possible to be SEXY at a wide variety of sizes.
It is almost impossible to be happy when you are constantly told you’re not good enough. It is almost impossible to love your body when you believe that it is shameful, bad, wrong, worthless…. And the first step towards getting stronger, happier and healthier is to love your body. So let’s help people do that, first and foremost. Loving something generally inspires us to treat it well. Hating something, quite the opposite.
If you want to inspire people, helping them see value in themselves is really the better way to do it.
To anyone who is striving to make your body conform to an external standard, I caution you, it’s not worth it. Sure, I get people in the gym with me who tell me their goal is to lose 20 pounds, or to be a size 4 or to….. And the first thing I tell them is that we don’t set goals that way. It is simply NOT healthy.
We set goals around things that you WANT TO DO. Dance all night? Cross-country ski? Squat your body weight? Run around with your kids? Play soccer? Think of things that bring you joy and use your body, let’s work towards those goals.
What better goal is there than feeling joyful?
As for what your body looks like? All you can do is do your best to eat in a nutritious manner, and work out regularly to elevate your heart-rate and stress your muscles. If you are treating your body as well as you can, it will show you what it looks like.
Ironically, when I met my husband, I had visible abs. All of ’em. I had a friggin 8-pack. But I didn’t eat much, I worked out too much, and I was, honestly, pretty weak. 4 years later, I’ve packed on some weight, but am stronger and healthier and happier than I ever have been.
Some of it’s muscle. Some of it’s the natural difference between being 40 and 45. But a lot of it is realizing, FINALLY, that what I look like doesn’t matter. Yes, even for me, it was an adjustment. But letting go of the “what do I look like” message and focusing on “what can I do” and “what do I feel like” has been the most magical life gift I could have given myself.
And that might be my greatest strength as a trainer. My muffin-top is like my super power. I can whip it out when a client is in the depths of despair and blind them with body-pride, inspire them with body-love, assure them that no matter what you look like, you can be strong, do more than you know and feel great joy.
I will blind you with joy and jiggle, I will help you find strength that you didn’t know you had, I will push you through things that frighten you, I will call you on your shit. But I will NEVER let you mock yourself, or anyone else, because that is destructive to you and everyone around you.
Your body will change, and not always in ways that you predicted, or that you wanted.
But if you let it, and find the power in it, your life will change.
And be better than you ever expected.