Today we’re going to talk about evolution. We won’t be talking about Darwinian evolution, and I don’t plan on questioning your beliefs… yet. Today I offer to you what I believe can be a useful framework for us to to appreciate how our training goals evolve over time.
This may be useful for someone who is brand new to exercise, as well as someone who can count their training age in decades. It can also help coaches who are working with clients, and are asking the question, “What do we do next?”
According to the Google, ev·o·lu·tion is a noun which means “the gradual development of something, especially from a simple to a more complex form.” It’s such a clear idea for me, and as a coach one of my favorite articles is Mike Boyle’s Evolution of a Strength Coach which looks at the Stages in a coaches career.
As a coach working in what’s considered a “general population” setting, I believe that I see an evolution of goals of the Ninjas that I’m coaching at MFF. As a framework, I believe that most of the goals we have in fitness follow a specific pattern. This pattern isn’t one of linear evolution, but rather a cycle that occurs over time. To establish that cycle, I’m offering my four Stages with references to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
A linear evolution is clean and easy to appreciate, while a cyclical one can seem messier. Our experiences and emotions are indeed messy, so let’s stick with that one. Here are our stages:
Stage 1: The Desire for Physical Change
Aesthetic change is what gets most of us into the gym for the first time. So many people have shared that it was the desire to lose pounds or inches that brought them into a gym for the first time. When I first started exercising, it was to prepare for the lacrosse season my senior year of high school. Preparing meant to be bigger on the field.
If we consider “first time goals,” the desire for physical change often starts the journey.
In reference to the Hero’s Journey, this is the Call to Adventure.
Stage 2: The Desire to Perform
Somewhere along the way, athletic performance becomes a second point of focus. This may mean that we become interested in learning or practicing certain exercises, or are interested in the amount of weight we’re lifting.
I didn’t play lacrosse my senior year, but years in the gym at the University of Delaware made me increasingly interested in the big lifts, and that evolved into a powerlifting practice as I finished school at Adelphi University.
The focus on physical change isn’t completely gone, and we’re adding awareness to how we practice and progress with our training over time.
In reference to the Hero’s Journey, this is the Test, Allies, and Enemies.
Stage 3: The Aesthetic and Athletic Struggle
The Struggle may be the stage with the most room for personal growth. It’s in this stage that I believe we experience most of our emotions of fear, struggle, and failure.
Why am I not losing the weight that I set out to lose? Why am I not lifting the weight that I set out to lift?
Several weeks after my second powerlifting meet, now almost four years ago, I hurt my lower back. 4 months after that, I did it again. It was during that time that I struggled most with that injury and how it affected how my body appeared, how my body performed, and ultimately my quality of life.
During this stage, our previously strong and steadfast goals that we laid out may seem murky. The aesthetic and athletic struggle is rarely for a lack of trying, and we feel deeply invested in what we’re working on. We don’t see the results that we want.
In reference to the Hero’s Journey, this is the Ordeal, Death, and Rebirth.
Stage 4: Quality and Calmness
Quality and Calmness come out of our physical and emotional struggles with aesthetic change, athletic performance, success, and failure.
This Stage marks a transformation from physical goal setting to mindset and quality-of-life based goal setting. It’s at this point that we allow ourselves to prioritize quality of life over any singular training goal. Rather than our happiness depending on the way we look or perform, we allow ourselves to engage in a practice that helps us feel our best.
Then there’s an ironic twist.
When we focus on habits that enhance our happiness, we see our best aesthetic and athletic results. The biggest moments of achievement happen after the emotional work of struggle. It’s when we give ourselves permission to not lose the weight, or build the muscle, or set the PR, that we are the best able to do just that.
Some may consider this giving yourself permission to fail. I consider it transcendence. That may sound super woo-woo to you, and that’s fine with me.
In reference to the Hero’s Journey, this is our Resurrection, our Return with the Elixir. We have completed the narrative arc. Now, let us ponder:
Consider which stage applies to you the most.
I believe that we can all identify our current position on this arc. In your current story, where do you believe you are?
Perhaps you’re seeking a Desire for Physical Change. Maybe it’s a The Desire to Perform. You may be in the Aesthetic and Athletic Struggle. Or, you’re seeking Quality and Calmness.
The Stage that you most identify with in this moment is simply for this moment. As we evolve over time, our training goals evolve, and we journey through this circle time and time again. We seek changes in our bodies, our performance, and measure this with or against our quality of life to realize the best version of ourselves at that point in time.
When I recently polled the Ninja Army at MFF on Facebook, and publicly asked on Twitter, it seems as if the majority of us are seeking multiple things, and that’s quite alright:
When I asked the Ninja Army, I started with the same three questions, but forgot to turn off the “Add your own option” ability on Facebook. New answers rolled in quickly, and I’m proud of where things went:
The “All of the above” and “Both” answers show me that while any singular goal may be labeled with one of these four Stages, we’re not humans of simple goals. We’re complex, as are our goals, and what drives us over time. These four Stages may apply to one thing that you’re working on, but we repeat it many times as our goals develop and expire.
Confession and Conclusion
If I have any bias, it’s this: I believe that this framework is paralleled by personal development, appreciation for our bodies, and appreciation for the world around us. That as our bodies change, we grow as people. That growth may mean we abandon goals that weren’t best for us, and learn to appreciate different goals in the future. I want to see this evolution over time.
I ask this of you: Do you see the same thing?
Over time, how have your goals changed? Does this journey of aesthetics, athletics, struggle, and calmness apply to you? My hypothesis is that it sure does, but I’m not certain unless you let me know. If you’re interested in sharing more, please chime in with a comment or a message to share what you are experiencing.
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