By: Paul Leonard
Meathead, Muscle head, chunky trunk, hulk, gym rat, and other terms which could be viewed in either a positive or negative way have been used to describe those whose physical presence bears testimony to years spent under some serious iron.
Those with a habitual inclination towards exertion can be labeled many things by the members of general society who do not want to “get too big”, as if such a state is possible. I am still waiting for the time I turn on “My 600lb Life” and it is referring to an individual so jacked that his body weight and the weights he routinely lifts are mind blowing. Call us serious gym disciples what you will but never call us dumb. There are thousands of studies that confirm the positive physical benefits of strength training, but what of any studies regarding the effects of intense training on the emotional well-being of a person.
I am by no means a trained clinical psychologist or psychiatrist but I have spent a third of a century competing in high level strength athletics and I just completed a leadership course which focused on emotional intelligence as examined by the Harvard Business Review. After reflecting at length about the lessons taught in the course I will explain, in lifter-layman’s terms how I know that strength athletics greatly increases an individual’s emotional intelligence.
According to the Harvard Business Review the five components of emotional intelligence are self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. Let us take a closer look at each of these qualities and see how they are intertwined with gym performance.
Self-awareness is critical if you are going to be successful in life period, let alone perform as a high level strength athlete. I have trained extensively with some of the strongest powerlifters in the U.S., men such as James Soroka, Art Labare, Josh Bryant and Mike Martin. These men all had one characteristic above all else in their personality, they knew exactly what they needed to do to perform at their best. The hallmarks of self-awareness are self-confidence melded with a realistic self-assessment. None of my mentors and training mates were ever cocky, but they all oozed confidence in themselves in how they were training and how they lived their life in and out of the gym. Their enthusiasm was infectious and if they had a crappy day before hitting the gym, you would never know it as all that nonsense was checked at the door before we trained. The realistic self-assessment allows a person to logically identify their weaknesses, figure out where they need to focus their training efforts for future improved performance, and ultimately allows the lifter to further boot their confidence because they realize that they alone have full control over their results. That’s right, you own you!
Self-regulation is a concept that has been important to lifters since I began lifting weights. In the 80s Muscle Fitness baron Joe Weider had a series of training rules called the Weider Principles, one of which was the instinctive principle. This principle basically instructed a lifter to train what they felt they needed to prioritize or to not train a certain muscle group or lift if it was not yet recovered. For the last ten years, auto regulation is a very popular term that is used to describe the training philosophy of many great strength athletes. My friend and Powerlifting phenom Mike Tuchscherer is the founder of a successful company called Reactive Training Systems which is the most researched and practiced auto regulation training system in the world.
The Harvard Business definition of self-regulation is the ability to control disruptive impulses. Think about that statement for a moment all of you lifters who attempt a max every time you are in the gym. How has that worked out for you? I know it is hard to resist the temptation to go too heavy all the time with the constant stimulus of social media bombarding us with bodacious lifts in 60 second clips without any of the back story of how that lifter trained up to that level. Trust me people, a clip of Larry Wheels smashing 225 lbs incline dumbell benches or the latest Animal cage video from the Arnold never ceases to fire me up, but you must control the urge not to follow your program.
The Harvard folks go on to say that one of the hallmarks of self-regulation is the ability of an individual to be open to change. Sounds kind of counter intuitive to believing in your program, but it means that if something did not work for you after you gave it a fair chance, find something else that will work for you. This is the conjugate method at work everyone. As Louie Simmons has famously stated when it comes to training, “everything works but nothing works forever.” What got you to a 315 squat will not get you to 405. You must assess, plan and apply new training concepts accordingly to move up the strength ladder.
Motivation is pretty self explanatory to anyone reading this site but let us read for a moment what some Harvard Business experts say about the definition of motivation. “A propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence.” Yes that. Those smart people from Cambridge no doubt have you nodding your head in agreement as that is an awesome definition of what makes a human successful at physical culture. You need goals, both micro and macro, then you need to go after those goals like they tried to steal your significant other-with a vengeance. Optimism even in the face of failure is a hallmark behavioral trait of a motivated person. It takes a somewhat romanticized view of the importance of training to your life to push through at times when your progress has stalled, work and/or school is demanding and general life circumstances seem to be creating frequent roadblocks. A motivated person can achieve amazing results by correctly noting that obstacles are things we encounter when we take our eyes off our goals.
Empathy is the next quality of emotional intelligence that is key to a person reaching the pinnacle of their physical capacity. I state the importance of empathy from experience because the strongest I ever got was when I had serious, dedicated training partners to work out with. Training partners push you at times because no one can be “on” all the time. Training partners allow you to push the heaviest weights possible because they provide a measure of safety when they spot each other when a lifter is pushing her or his limits. Behind 99% of the strongest beings I have met their was a fantastic group of training partners. What do training partners and empathy have to do, with each other? According to Harvard, empathy is “expertise in building and retaining talent.” A true strength athlete will find the strongest people to train with as well as grow potential strength athletes along with the meat eater crew they wreck the gym with. As Louie Simmons says, a Ronin is a person who could be a Samurai but does not pass along the skills he has learned. Don’t be a Ronin.
The sport Powerlifting has a long history of older lifters who mentored young kids to become great lifters. I did it with Josh Bryant, Gary Frank used to train with many young football players, and 9-time World Champion Larry Pacifico used to hire potential studs to work in his health spa chains who became world champs such as Joe Ladnier
The final characteristic of an emotionally intelligent individual is someone who possess social skill, which is defined as the ability to find common ground and build rapport. This could be as easy as not tossing a curler from the squat rack if you are in a commercial gym setting but I interpret it to mean train with others regardless if everyone has different goals at the time. The key is that the individuals all have serious personal goals. In my garage gym, I train with two scholarship college football players, Jiu Jitsu fighters, baseball players and a literal rocket scientist who wants to be in the best shape of his life for his wedding. I am the only person whose sole focus is Powerlifting, yet we all thrive because it is like our own private fight club versus the weights. Build a team to help each other with your training and you will never regret it.
Be attuned to your increased emotional intelligence my fellow iron slingers and just ignore anyone who makes the serious mistake of thinking you are all brawn and no brains. That is like thinking that an hour or two of reality television viewing compares to a personal record of any sort. Crazy thought isn’t that my fellow iron intellects?
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