The Secret to Strength Training? Embracing a Reality That Most of Us Would Rather Avoid

This is an installment of Good Fit, a column about exercise.

The first time I tried to do a back squat, with just an empty barbell on my back, I failed spectacularly. I was in an introductory CrossFit class and already intimidated by the din of crashing weights and grunts of exertion around me.

When it was my turn to try the move, I planted my feet, took a sharp inhale, and began to bend my knees. But as I lowered into the bottom of the squat, I sensed I was leaning way too far forward. The bar rolled slightly toward the back of my neck and I panicked, pitching my weight onto my toes and releasing my grip on the bar. Suddenly, I was on my knees, and the barbell was on the floor, rolling slowly away. I could feel heat rising to my cheeks.

Is this how everyone’s first class goes, I thought, or am I just not cut out for this kind of fitness? Just as I was starting to consider ditching the whole endeavor of lifting weights, the instructor pointed something out: While I hadn’t made the lift, I had succeeded in failing correctly. Instead of trying to save the lift with poor form—which, had the bar been heavier, could have strained my back—I had let it go safely. Accepting failure midlift allowed me to avoid injury. It meant I could start to think about what had gone wrong and plot the necessary changes to nail the lift next time.

Strength training isn’t about success at all, I eventually learned. For me, it’s about learning to accept, expect, and ultimately love failure. The resilience you develop through those missteps, and the understanding that failing doesn’t make you a failure, permeates the rest of your life, affecting the way you take risks and bounce back at work, in school, and in social settings.

Before I started lifting, I was a distance runner, and I found it easy to largely avoid failure in my workouts: When I went for a long run, I knew that barring some major catastrophe, I would complete the distance, even if I did so slower than I’d planned to. Lifting wasn’t like that. Training to build strength often meant loading a barbell with weight that I could handle for only two or three repetitions of big lifts like the overhead press, squat, or dead lift. Some days, I literally lifted “to failure,” the moment when my muscles were so spent from exertion that I couldn’t finish the set. I was regularly pushing up against the absolute limits of my physical strength, and occasionally, no matter how much I willed the weight to move, it simply wouldn’t budge. It forced me to get really comfortable with uncertainty—and to treat those failures not as catastrophes but as challenges.

“Failure is the most consistent part of lifting,” says Priscilla Del Moral, a personal trainer and the co-owner of JDI Barbell in New York City. “It was a turning point for me when I realized that this is just routine.”

For many of us, “failure has been tied to identity” since childhood, says Jenny Wang, a psychologist, author, and mental health activist. “When a child trips and parents immediately sweep in to fix the problem, we’re actually saying there’s something wrong with you stumbling. There’s something wrong with you struggling through it.” We grow up believing that failure is frightening and should be avoided.

Fear of failure can have real consequences. For some, it can lead to heightened anxiety and depression. How you respond to failure, however, is a good signifier of your level of resilience, or the ability to adapt to setbacks. Resilience has been shown to have far-reaching implications, from perceptions and psychological responses to stress in a work environment to improved quality of life with aging. And how do you strengthen resilience? By embracing failure.

Two years into my lifting journey, I started training for Strongman (that sport you know from late-night ESPN reruns in which huge men lift, carry, press, or throw extremely heavy odd objects like rocks, logs, and beer kegs). Despite its name, I learned that strongwomen are similarly dominant in the sport. (Lucy Underdown holds the current women’s world record for the dead lift at a staggering 700 pounds.) There’s also a novice division in most competitions.

From the moment I started in Strongman, the circus dumbbell (about three times the length and width of a regular dumbbell) has been my nemesis. I have tried to press this over my head probably hundreds of times, failing consistently. Strongman competitions feature five events, all of which the competitors are supposed to at least attempt, so for a long time I avoided the ones that included the circus dumbbell. I didn’t want to fail in front of a crowd. Once I noticed I was ruling out most of the competitions I wanted to enter, though, I decided to lean into it.

I started training the supporting muscles I’d need to strengthen enough to press the dumbbell. I watched videos of my missed attempts and analyzed where to move my foot or my hand. Almost a decade after my first failed attempt, and now at 40 years old, I walked up to the judges at a competition and stared down at the 55-pound dumbbell resting by my feet. The first time I’d tried to press it, my nerves took over and I fell back on old habits, leaning my body away from the dumbbell instead of getting under it. I missed the rep. (“Failing successfully” in this context is mostly about not letting it fall on your head, which I did manage to avoid.) For my second attempt, I shook off the frustration, planted my feet in a better position, hoisted the dumbbell to my shoulder, and—finally!— nailed it.

Sometimes, in the gym, I still miss that lift. But now I recognize that from each of those failures, I’ve learned a little bit more about myself, how doggedly I’m willing to push my limits and what I need to do to succeed. That’s something I use outside the gym as well, from repurposing rejected article pitches to trying to unlock the magic phrase that will make my 3-year-old agree to eat something green.

Eric Potterat, a performance and sports psychologist and author of the book Learned Excellence, has worked with thousands of professional athletes and shared a similar sentiment. He suggested that what separates good athletes from truly great ones is how they bounce back when something goes wrong. “They all have one thing in common,” he says. “The best of the best are viewing their failures as nothing more than a statistic.”

At 41, seven years after I entered my first Strongman competition, I finally made it to a national-level competition. And I came in last place. At the start of my lifting career, that result would have leveled me. This time, though, after giving myself some time to wallow, I thought about what that failure meant. Now I could see my current limits clearly. I had a goal post, and it was up to me to decide if I was willing to race toward it, knowing how many times I would fall on my face along the way.

Lifting has taught me to welcome the opportunity to fail so I can determine the best path to success. This article is a prime example of that. To write it, I spent a lot of time staring at a blank document and a blinking cursor, willing words to appear on the page. Then, I just started writing, expecting that the first draft would be a mess (it was). I also understood that, as in lifting, I had to start somewhere because once the words were down on paper, I would be able to see where to go next. A few times, I confidently added a new paragraph only to realize that it didn’t fit. So I pushed it aside and tried something new. By finding out what wouldn’t work, I could find out what would.

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