Six years ago, I was about 5’6” and 120lbs. A lot has changed since then. I went from that prototypical skinny kid who was always picked last for basketball games to becoming a strength coach featured at places like Men’s Health, Golf Digest, and Men’s Fitness. Certain things in my life changed forever... For one, I look better (thank God)! But that’s only one side of my transformation. Instead of giving you the predictable "fitness makes you look better speech," I want to share how my dedication to fitness changed my life in ways that have nothing to do with fitness. The skills I've gained in the gym carried over to everything else I've done outside of it.
Everyone’s story is different, but as you read this, I invite you to think of your own experiences with fitness. You might just realize how far you’ve come in all areas of your life.
When I started my fitness journey, I used the StrongLifts 5x5 system. The central tenant of the program was working out three times a week with a day of rest in between. At the time, I was teaching English in South Korea so I had to find a gym with the correct equipment AND navigate the transit system to get there. Nevertheless, I rarely missed a workout. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I knew exactly where I would be after work. Rain, heat, snow, wind, and even illness couldn't stop me. I'd plan my life around fitness — a Monday workout meant no staying out late on Sunday, and a Friday workout meant less craziness afterward. But that’s really the “secret” to success in life, isn’t it? Picking something, committing to it, and staying consistent until the finish. I’ve noticed people don’t really like hearing that; they want the “quick fix.” But there’s nothing quick about gaining 20lbs of muscle, losing 10% of your body fat, or going from sedentary to benching 275lbs. It takes time and consistency. And I owe the gym for developing my belief in consistency and hard work.
Fitness showed me the immense control I have over my life (the same control we ALL have over our lives, really). Sure, there’s a lot about myself I CANNOT change. But there’s a tremendous amount I can. Around the same time I started my physical transformation, I set out on a journey towards personal development. I wanted to change the parts of me I considered negative and cultivate the positive aspects of my personality and character. I didn’t give into the, “that’s just how I am” mentality. I was seeing my body transform so why couldn't I transform my self-destructive thoughts and behaviors? I believed I could, and over time things changed. Now, when confronted with obstacles, I feel far more self-assured that I can develop the skills, habits, etc. to succeed. Sure it takes time, but I learned from fitness that it all starts with us believing that we can do it and putting in the effort to make it happen.
As I changed my body and took control of my own wellbeing, I started to notice that the people around me didn't have the same ambitions. They were stuck in the same place and showed NO signs of improving in any aspect of their lives. Think about it: How many people are truly better off than they were a year ago? Most people look the same (or worse). But remember this powerful fact: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Over the years, I started spending more time with people who had a positive influence on my life. Even if they hated lifting weights, they still pushed their lives forward unapologetically and shared my love for personal development. Surrounding myself with great people became a natural extension of what was already going on physically.
I notice that a lot of people suffer from a “cram” mentality. They live a life of poor habits and then impatiently demand quick results. “I need to lose 15lbs in two weeks! How do I do it?!?! Help plz!” I've learned, however, that if you eat the right foods, do the right training program and stay consistent for a year, you’ll get results. "A YEAR?! I DON’T HAVE A YEAR, ANTHONY!!" To that I say, the year is going to elapse no matter what... Suck it up for 12 months and you’ll be exactly where you want to be. Life is similar. Improving yourself isn’t a series of a-ha moments; it’s a diligent and gradual process of destroying old habits and paradigms, and building new ones. It takes time and humility, but hey, spend the time and you’ll get there. And if you’ve transformed your body, you will have experienced – firsthand – how powerful that mentality is.
I don’t think “looking better” helped me feel more confident. To this day, I’ve never been in a situation where I felt unconfident and thought, “Oh wait, never mind… I have muscles! Confidence restored!” To me, it seems kind of insecure if I have to rely on my physical appearance to feel at ease. Instead, I think confidence comes from knowing you’ve conquered a challenge before, or that you can prevail over your fears. That comes from inside. That comes from shattering your comfort zone and thriving in discomfort. I believe working out helped me learn that lesson. Look, I know it’s hard to walk into the gym when you’re a complete novice in fear of looking silly; I know it’s hard to admit when you don’t know something and have to ask for help; and I know it’s really embarrassing to ask for a spot when you’re benching only 115lbs. But doing those things will eventually make you stronger. And THAT’S how you build real confidence, in the weight room and in other areas of life.
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Anthony J. Yeung, CSCS, is a fitness expert at Esquire, GQ, and Men’s Health and helps guys get fit for their wedding at GroomBuilder