Getting into the Right Headspace to Lift (with reference to Iron Culture Podcast Ep. 128–Book Bodybuilding and the Dog, Ft. Ryan Doris)

CW: Discussion of trauma

I’ve been bustling around all morning making cupcakes for a party (half chocolate peanut butter, like these, and half lemony white cake with berry frosting–summery perfection). It’s mentally demanding work to bake multiple recipes, and I’ve been focused for hours. It isn’t stressful in a unpleasant way for me; I enjoy baking, but it does require attention to detail and a certain amount of tension to keep things moving. The next thing on my to-do list will be heading out to the garage to do my lifts.

And I’m noticing that before I head out there, I need to pause. I feel myself heightened, amped up, and I know that for me, this is not a good state to do a workout in. And it has me thinking about last week’s Iron Culture podcast, a really epic conversation that I didn’t break down for you all because I wasn’t sure what I had to say about it.

If you missed it and don’t have 90 minutes to dive in right now (but please do download it and give it a go later–it’s classic Iron Culture goodness), the gist is a conversation about finding the balance between two modes of lifting–the dog (aggressive, pushing past boundaries and being a little stupid to take risks that might pay off) and book bodybuilding (cautious, thoughtful, introspective planning and execution of that plan). And, I think I understand what they’re getting at, but in a way, at least right now, I really don’t relate. There is no appeal to me to go all in and be a little stupid and aggressive in the gym. Maybe it’s because I started lifting in my thirties and not in my teens. Maybe it’s gender differences. Maybe it’s just not me.

Or maybe it’s my history of trauma. I think part of why I need some transition time today between the hustle-bustle of cupcake baking and working out is that I can feel my body and emotions are in an elevated state, and I associate that feeling with my experiences of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and in particular the experience of flashbacks.

For reasons I’m not going to get into at this time, I have an extensive history of trauma and exhibit many of the hallmarks of PTSD. I can be jumpy and easily startled. My heartrate and breathing can elevate as I go into fight or flight without clear provocation. Or I’ll freeze, unable to speak or explain what’s going on. Sometimes, I go straight into collapse, shutting down as the world around me seems to turn grey. I can experience thoughts and feelings disconnected to the present moment, triggered by environmental factors of which I’m often unaware.

I don’t want to lift weights when I’m feeling heightened because I don’t like the idea of lifting when I might experience these symptoms, and it can be hard for me to tell the difference between a healthier, more commonly experienced elevated state (excitement, urgency, anticipation) and flashbacks of emotions and other physical states from past traumatic events.

So, I don’t relate to the appeal of the dog. I don’t invite that state into my lifting. Choosing to be aggressive, to push myself into fight mode in particular, scares me. I don’t know if I would still be in control or if my traumatized nervous system would take over. And it’s not a neural pathway I want to reinforce.

It is so common to see people hype themselves up for a big lift or to stalk around a weight room like they’re about to hit something. I hadn’t really connected why doing that doesn’t appeal to me until this moment, as I checked in with myself and realized how deeply unappealing it was. And I’m sure it’s lack of appeal stems from a mixture of things, including personality, gender norms, and stage in life. Whatever the reason, though, I suspect I’m not alone in wanting to avoid being fighting mad while I lift.

I’m glad I have the luxury of time and flexibility in my schedule right now to give myself the transition I need so I can lift with a more comfortable state of mind. I’d be interested to hear from others who sometimes find themselves needing to get into the right headspace before they lift too, especially if they are taking the time to settle down rather than to hype up.

Even if you can’t relate, I’m always interested in your thoughts! I welcome you to leave a reply below. (Here is our comment policy.)

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Photo description: Many rows of frosted cupcakes, slightly lumpy swirls of pink frosting, each with a raspberry perched on top.

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