The word “motivation” comes up often when talking about training, strength, weight gain, weight loss, or most other self-improvements. Every time the word arises, it pretty much irritates me. It sets my mind down the path of the excuses that people often make to justify not improving. Another classic case of believing a bullshit truth to justify staying just where they are. I often hear things like, “I just can’t seem to stay motivated,” or questions like “How do you stay motivated?” My answer almost always starts with something along the lines of “Motivation is a false idol that will always let you down!”
Interestingly enough, as I started to write this article, I did have a small perspective change. It dawned on me that I should start by looking up the actual definition of the word. As I was scrolling the inter-web, I realized that all of the different definitions fit into just two categories. The first is similar to what I always think when I hear people talking about staying motivated for training and such. This definition usually uses words like enthusiasm, passion, excitement, exuberance, etc. Meaning you have this great inner magical drive to do this thing that creates so much joy while unicorns, rainbows, leprechauns, and lucky charms spew out of your ass. In the second definition, the word motivation just means the reason why you do what you do. Now, if I knew that most people were thinking in terms of definition number two, I would not have much of a problem with the word. The answer to the question of how I stay motivated would become much simpler as well: “I want to be strong as FUCK!”
I know it is not good to make assumptions, but in this case, I feel it is warranted by how people speak about motivation. I think most people are searching for magic feelings or, like I said earlier, an excuse so that they can give up. They think people just love what they do and that they are motivated all of the time. This, of course, is complete bullshit because I have yet to meet anyone at the top level who is always “motivated.” We all have struggles, and at times we don't want to do the things we need to do to get strong(er). In fact, I have never met a top athlete of any kind who did not have times where he or she struggled to keep doing what he or she needed to.
I will not deny some kind of magic because every top-level strength athlete I know has some kind of love for it. It is not like we do this for the money or fame because there is little of that out there for most strength athletes. Even the ones who do well are not near the level of some of the main sports. So, there is an inherent love or attraction to the sport. Still, what we sacrifice and put into it heavily outweighs what we get out of it. The exception to that is what personal gratification we get back, but that is hard to put an actual number on and varies with the individual. My point here is, why the hell do we even do this? We do it because, like I said, there is some part of it that we love, and we would do it even if there were no competitions. Still, this does not mean we are full of fairy tale motivation all of the time. Shit, how much of life is full of that kind of motivation? How many people hate their jobs but still go every day? How many people maintain their homes, lawns, and other shit? How many people run their kids to endless, exhausting events? Life is full of ups and downs with the things we love and sometimes hate. Why don’t I ever hear people ask how others stay motivated to go to their jobs, go grocery shopping, or cut their damn grass? Life is not all fairytale rainbows, gumdrops, or rock candy mountains.
To try to put this myth of romantic motivation to rest, I will tell a few stories about my career as I have managed to improve my depression and sleep issues a lot over the past few years. Some may not realize precisely what I went through. I have written about times in my life when I would be sitting at home with a gun in my lap or to my head in tears, and then it would be time to train. I would get up and make myself go to the gym. During many of these sessions, I would not talk at the gym, not a single word. When my team asked questions, I would nod my head up and down or sideways but would not open my mouth at all. I feared I would bust out in tears or lose it altogether. There were times when I was so severely depressed that it took everything just to go to work, and when not at work, I would do nothing at all. The one exception was going to the gym. During some of these times, I would go to the gym with a plan, but before I knew it, I was just trying to put myself in as much physical pain as I could because somehow it lessened the mental pain. After training, I was right back at home doing nothing or trying to find reasons why I should not stop all of the pain permanently. I must have had hundreds or even thousands of training sessions while I was suffering from severe sleep deprivation and insomnia. If I trained only when I felt good, then I would be weak as shit. Does it sound like I did these sessions because I had happy or excited motivation?
Over the years of competing, I had many different issues to deal with, as many top lifters have. I have torn damn near every muscle that is possible to tear. This meant lots and lots of training sessions where I had to go light and work around these injuries. It took many, many sessions doing mobility, recovery, and rehab. All of these things I kind of hate doing. As I got stronger and started to compete at a higher level, I simply could not train as often with the intensity levels I wanted. This is when I started to do way more recovery and supplemental sessions, which, to this day, bore the hell out of me. They must be done, though. Not to mention the simple ideal of being only as strong as your weakest link. It sucks to train your weakest links. The time of actually lifting weights the way I want to is so minimal in the full scope of strength training.
I think what I really love about strength training has changed a little bit over the years. When I was in my prime, I loved to compete. I loved being on the main stage against the strongest guys in the world and laying down my cards. Now the total time under a bar is probably something less than nine minutes at a competition. So, I put in years of my life for nine minutes two or three times a year. A little deeper in my psyche was the love of the challenge to keep getting stronger. In my early years of lifting, I loved the challenge of each grueling session and seeing how far I could push myself. Of course, this was not the way of training that was going to get me to the highest levels. Nowadays, I love the continual learning process and trying to make others stronger than they thought they could be. I do still love those days I get to max out and see how much strength I can gain while staying healthy.
Throughout my career, I would guess that somewhere around 25 percent of my training that I have that happy-go-lucky, just-want-to-train kind of motivation. Yes, there were days I could not wait to get to the gym to lift. More often, I trained because I had a goal and I wanted to give myself every possibility of achieving that goal. I had sticky notes on my bathroom mirror of the numbers I wanted to hit. For years, I had an old card that Dave Tate sent me stuck to the wall by my bedroom door so that every time I walked out, I saw “2100 total.” Every time I did not want to train, I reminded myself of my goals. Even when I was fighting my suicidal tendencies, I would think, “Well, since you’re not sure, then you should keep pushing to your goal, so get your ass to the gym.”
If your idea of motivation includes things like enthusiasm and excitement, then I think you are praying to a false idol. You need to start thinking about discipline and how you’re going to strengthen yours. If your idea of motivation is as simple as why you’re doing what you do, then it seems to me that you’re on the right track. I train because I want to squat x pounds. I want to bench x pounds. I want to compete at x level. Magic motivation is merely a feeling that comes and goes. Discipline stays with you and becomes part of who you are. Motivation is fleeting and leads nowhere, whereas discipline leads to goals accomplished. Stop expecting things to be easy and stop believing that it was for the people who are accomplished. Focus on yourself, and find that inner discipline to achieve yourself!