I think most people who meet me think of me as an energetic, go-getter kind of person. And I can be. I can also be chronically exhausted and feel wrung out for weeks at a time. We all have energetic boundaries; there are times when we are able to push through the discomfort and get things done and times when we need to slow down or simply stop and recharge.
For me, these boundaries can be strong, bright lines. I have several chronic illnesses, a long history of physical complications, as well as some mental health challenges including being trauma-impacted and I sometimes experience depression. All of these can cost me energy.
And of course, like anyone, my energies are influenced by the daily stressors of work, family, periods of low quality and/or quantity of sleep, and daily living.
Fluctuations in my energetic reserves means I need to be flexible with my workouts. I need to give myself permission to cut back or cut out workouts when it feels right. And while it might seem like giving myself permission to do less would result in inconsistency and poor results, having this flexibility means I’ve been able to keep going and keep lifting even when I’m struggling in other ways. I’ve learned to adjust my training when I’m recovering from surgeries and injuries, such as having a hysterectomy. I’ve learned to feel really ok with doing something, when I can’t always do what seems best.
Some of this is about responding to my own personal psychology. I consider myself pretty typically “type A.” I always have a to-do list, I have a tendency to hold a lot on my plate, and to some degree, I like to feel busy. However, learning to lift while facing chronic health challenges has required me to find workarounds that keep me moving forward. This means practicing being ok with the discomfort of sometimes crossing things off of my lists without getting them done.
If I’m feeling like my energies are low and I still want to lift, a common strategy I use is to commit to just the “big lifts” of whatever workout I’ve got scheduled. I can usually do my sets of squats or bench press and feel like I’ve done enough and let myself be done with it. However, it’s also worth noting that sometimes I have found that even though I feel low energy, my lifting can still feel really strong. In those cases, once I’ve done my big lifts, I can keep going with the accessory work and be glad that I gave it a go. Getting started is the biggest hurdle in these moments, and then the momentum of getting into the lifting can get me through.
Another way I might keep a workout short is to commit to one set of each scheduled lift. This works best for me when I’m doing a more body-builder style of training, as the longer rep schemes are less likely to require an involved warm-up to get to a working set. But it can be very comforting to tell myself, I only have to do this once, and then I’m good. In fact, as I understand it, there’s research that says if I take that set to failure, I get like 80% of the strength and hypertrophy benefits of my programming. This strategy works best for me when I’ve been struggling with having enough energy for long periods of time. I shorten all my workouts to one good set of each lift. I can always do more if I’m feeling strong one day, but there is relief in planning it advance, making it official that all I am committed to is those 30 minutes or so, and then I add on more volume when I’m ready to again.
Outside of training, I have learned to respect my energetic boundaries with work and home responsibilities, too. As a teacher, I work in a career with strong societal and cultural expectations to always go above and beyond. And like a lot of women, I’ve also been socialized to prioritize other people’s needs over my own. So, I tend to work many hours beyond a typical 40 hour work week, and when I’m home, it can be more comfortable to take care of the household than to walk away from chores and take care of myself. Learning to set boundaries in these areas of my life has helped me to create time and conserve energy for my lifting, too. If I can talk myself into working only an 8 or 9 hour work day, I have time to go to the gym afterwards. To be honest, I am only perhaps 75% consistent about this one, but I try to work my way back to it when I notice that work obligations have started to stack up for an extended period of time. And I’m open with my spouse about my personal commitments at home and to myself, so as we plan the week, there’s time built in for me to take care of myself, to rest when I need it, and to fit in my exercises.
Learning to respect our energetic boundaries, to work with the energies we have in the moment and to give ourselves many ways to do the work and to rest from it, helps keep our fitness pursuits a part of our lives for the long term. I don’t want to just be lifting and progressing right now, I want to keep lifting and progressing for a lifetime. I want to be the buff old lady in the gym one day, still finding a way work within my limitations and still doing the damn thing. The only way I become that woman is by creating and practicing those skills today.
How do you create flexibility in your workouts to respect your energetic boundaries? I’d love to hear from you! Here is our comment policy.