I believe we are as sick as our secrets. I believe it, because I have seen the healing that can come when people divulge the things that they feel separate them from others.”
This post is about training – but it’s also not about training.
The Double-Edged Sword
I know you can relate.
I used to train for competition. I didn’t just ‘go the gym’. I trained to compete in a sport. I craved the highest level of powerlifting. I was relentless in my pursuit of it. I was meticulous in the detail of analysis of my lifting; hundreds of iPhone notes and sheets of A4 on the topic. I set my goals lofty – and was constantly adjusting them. I had an insatiable thirst for knowledge on how I could get better.
That, and consistently applied intensity, got me to a semi-elite level.
IPF World Championships 2014; Potchefstroom, South Africa
It all seems so trivial now. One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, though. Value is relative and the value you place on something often gives you a direction or cause to your life. This should be commended. Only in retrospect when my own means for competing was snatched from me through a dobber of a hip injury can I look back on the fixation I and so many others placed on a sport and see it clearly: it consumed far too much headspace and time. If you do have a passion in life, a life balance should clearly still be sought. And it’s even better when that passion earns you money and financial security! All I ever really earned from Powerlifting was a set of percolating pectorals and sheets of congratulations.
But it was a lifestyle. And somehow, but not surprisingly, it became part of my own perceived identity.
The reason I tell you this is because not only was I ambitious but I was also self-defeating, punishing and ridiculing of myself – here are some examples from some very old phones notes I dug up:
“Just know that if you wanna miss that shit then it’s gonna take you that much longer to get there, time you don’t have. Each day and every act paves the way to the end result. You are not a genetic freak, unfortunately.” “Never rest. Rest is a horrific thing.” “Fuck complacency once injury free let’s get this mind of a champion back on the go.” “Not everyone is fit to be a champion..are you?”
The above was also indicative of the wider philosophy for living I had. I applied it to most everything I did in my life. Whether that was relationships, work or intercourse – it didn’t matter:
“You can’t build a reputation on what you think you do or what you want to do. You need to show. Jeez I was such an immature asshole. So self absorbed, absolutely ridiculous.”
“You CANNOT do things to please yourself, it’s all about pleasing others and in return YOU will receive.”
“Get your to do list DONE motherfucker, stop doing the shit that won’t get you better ffs.”
“Who are you? Are you this sensitive soul or what are you? Where did all this bullshit come from?”
Pretty comical eh?
Setting lofty goals, always striving for more and ridiculing yourself upon failures to constantly propel yourself higher and realise ‘success’ in any endeavour, can be constructive and desirable qualities to have.
Until they’re not useful.
The reason I disclosed all of that is quite simply because I no longer want to be a non-contributor to an important conversation. Like anything in life; a heavy squat or bench press, the more you push against something, the more tension you create. Because the very essence of shame and stigma conjures up fear. Therefore, there is more strength in spilling than in holding it in, maintaining a Stoic upper lip and perpetuating the cycle of shame.
I suffer from anxiety and depression. I have done for nearly three years.
I, like so many others. Those who squat 300kg, those who curl 40kg, those who deadlift 200kg, those who clean and jerk 140kg. And of course – more widely this time – encompassing all cultures, all genders, all races, all classes, all backgrounds, all sexual orientations, all ages, all heights and weights. I am cognizant that we all, of course, carry things. Some heavier than others. But their weight will again be exclusive and relative to you as the individual. Nothing is “worse” or “easier” than what you are going through – unless you can see another’s situation through their consciousness.
Thin Slices of Anxiety; Catherine Lepage
As soon as I started getting signs of mental illness (PS, obviously mental illness is not caused by striving..) and worked through these with a therapist, this self-defeating rule ceased to work for me.
I had to turn the page. It was no longer helpful. It was a burden. I had to aim to extinguish a rule which was married with “if I do this or achieve this or get this..then I’m good enough/I’ll be happy” or “if I do this or achieve this or get this..then X will think I’m good enough/I’ll be happy”.
Some Wisdom, Garnered From This Condition
There can obviously be no why, no clear-cut reason why mental illness happens to someone. It has taken time to accept this. I no longer ask “why me?!” Instead, after all this time, I say “why not me?!” Probability and statistics demand it.
It follows peaks and troughs. It ebbs and it flows.
I didn’t choose it; it does not define me, but it is something I have to manage.
I don’t need to be treated differently, my shortcomings just need to be acknowledged.
It is always there and if it will always be there – I accede it. Despite some days of barely staying afloat (I’m always trying). Despite the ‘ordinary’ tasks and events it cloaks in anguish (this shouldn’t be so hard). Despite the relationships and friendships that have now docked in the distant past (forgive me, old friend). Regardless of frequent emotional inhibition (what I would give to feel what I used to feel). Regardless of the gnawing shame and guilt (why am I deficient?). Regardless of the frequent pursuit of solitude and the avoidance behaviours (I want to be alone but I definitely don’t want to be alone).
In spite of no longer wanting to exist if I can’t be the person I used to be.
Thin Slices of Anxiety; Catherine Lepage
What I have found to date, though, is this:
There will appear small flickers of meaning within and amongst the suffering. Of courses tread, opportunities and triumphs cultivated, which would never have been possible. Another path would have been chosen by virtue, if it wasn’t for this.
There can be an appeal to self-discovery. Decisions you’ve made because of this that steer yourself in a distinctly different direction from what you had previously envisioned. One which has intentions of compassion, mindfulness and meaning. Something which was never you before but which is fruitful and edifying.
These become evident only with the passage of time and retrospective reflection. I now believe the above only occurs when we make either of the following realisations in life:
- Even in the best of circumstances, happiness is elusive. Wondering whether a deeper source of well-being exists; a form of happiness beyond the mere repetition of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
- “Some things need to go permanently wrong before we can start to admire the stem of a rose or the petals of a bluebell” . Extremely flowery, I know. Indeed, to me this has no literal meaning. Instead, this could apply to mental illness and can be interpreted as often only when we have lost something can we grasp how precious or ‘normal’ it is and appreciate other avenues we could never imagine ourselves appreciating before.
Training as Therapy
What aids in getting to this point of both release and understanding is self-care and self-management. Only one, but nevertheless appreciable way in which I have personally done this has been exchanging training for competition with training for therapy. For meditation. For sanity.
Beginning de novo and trying to release the shackles on my rule for living, now more than ever I appreciate the versatility and importance of the barbell. The countless uses and benefits of resistance training never fail to amaze me. But never did I predict I would use training for what I do now; for its anxiolytic and antidepressant effects.
Exercise appears to have an inverse relationship with anxiety or depression sensitivity. That is, at rest your mind may race but during exercise the mind begins to calm. I believe resistance training itself is so valuable psychologically due to it resembling a graded-task assignment where visible improvements in your own capability are noted . In addition to being a distraction or “time out”  and besides the fortitude of mentally pushing yourself to where your body is screaming, arguably, there are very few activities or sports where personal physiological progress is as measurable as within resistance training programs. If the weight on the barbell is even incrementally increasing, you are progressing. Simple.
I trust that this clear physiological progress, coupled with desirable aesthetic changes in body composition induces a plethora of positive effects: a sense of accomplishment, enhanced internal self-efficacy (cue Jonny’s chat on the transcendental rep) and internal locus of control, augmented mental toughness, in addition to boosted self-esteem [5, 6]. Such changes can, and often do, maintain positive and capacious mood states or lead to increases in mood and act as a management tool of our meta-stressors [7, 8, 9, 10].
The actual physiological mechanisms in which the more important psychological changes above occur through resistance exercise remain contested within the literature but I hypothesise it is, in both the short and the long term, a combination of:
- Opioid system alterations – boosted production of endorphins and vital neurotransmitters like dopamine [4, 11].
- Monoamine system alterations – regular exercise appears to increase serotonergic and noradrenergic levels in the brain, not dissimilar to the effects of antidepressants [4, 11].
- Neurogenesis or the growth of new brain cells – leading to hippocampal increases in production of new neurons .
- Reductions in hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and autonomic nervous system (ANS) reactivity [4, 7].
- Enhancement of neural plasticity or the ability of our brains to reshape themselves as a result of activities – leading to a more beneficial state of functioning .
- A direct impact over time on gene expression and functioning through exercise-mediated increases in the synthesis of the fascinating neutrophin, Brain Derived Neutrophic Factor (BDNF) [4, 11, 12].
Reframing My Own Training
Revising my own training to benefit my own mental health involved lots of experimentation.
The first step was to modify my whole program to work around my hip injury. The only exercises I can’t do at all involve deep hip flexion – squats, cleans, snatches and most of their close derivatives.
Next, I constructed my program (unknowingly) to resemble a type of High Intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIRT) which has been detailed within the literature . Increases in resting energy expenditure (REE) and decreases in respiratory ratio (RR) leading to greater levels of fat oxidation have been observed post-workout with HIRT. Coupled with less time in the gym and more time to try and live life, I really enjoy it.
- I programmed using HIRT to train for more of a ‘heart rate effect’ (in line with the literature on boosting psychological effects). I train now to sweat, to be out of breath, with strength as a by-product (inb4 crossfit).
- I then, on the whole, decreased intensity and increased volume for more metabolic stress, or more of the ‘pump’.
- I superset or tri-set all of my exercises, no matter the planned exercise or intensity of that exercise.
- I swapped the Lamb of God for more chill music, if any at all.
- I no longer max out on compound lifts, 9 RPE RIR (repetitions in reserve) is the limit.
- I leave the Nose Tork at home.
- I now place a focus on additional aerobic exercise too – stationary cycling, surfing, hiking and walking, footie, badminton, etc (Aerobic exercise is seen as very psychologically efficacious within the literature, particularly if it is carried out in a social group or out in nature [11, 14]).
Yet, I have not forgotten about my first love in resistance training, my baby; progressive overload. I feel that it only adds to training’s therapeutic effect if it is used gradually and incrementally. I tend to program using a Daily Undulating Periodisation (DUP) system to progress my chosen compound lifts.
Admittedly, resistance training does not prove to be some sort of magical wizardry which will alleviate all of your issues. It is a mitigator, not a remover. One of a number of self-care tools that can be utilised to manage your meta-stressors. It is a tool of genuine care. The kind that develops a real sense of soothing, not anaesthesia.
Mental illness can take many forms. This is only me sharing my own experience, coupled with how resistance training has often helped me cope. I do not have all the answers. It’s always ongoing. Fuck my recent MSc dissertation; rather this may be the hardest thing I’ve ever had to articulate. I extend my gratitude to any and all of my friends or acquaintances that have opened up about their own suffering. It has stimulated me to do the same.
If you feel like life is getting away from you, training is there for you. If you feel like you are suffering, I beg you to search on Google and find a therapist. They will help you sort through your own thoughts and begin to understand the mechanisms behind any issues.
Then, add to the conversation when you feel like you can.
Let the mask drop.
- Assess whether you are being self-defeating in your ambitions. Dan Harris gives better advice than I ever could on combatting this mindset (paraphrased) : “I think for the ambitious person who wants to create things and be successful – it’s natural to be trying hard. It should never be about the absence of striving. But Buddhist principles come in around the results – because oftentimes things don’t happen the way you think they should and you have limited control over what actually happens. So when you do fail or make mistakes, you are able to get up, dust yourself off and get back in the fray.”Thus, aim to cultivate a non-attachment to results and self-compassion if things do go wrong . Self-compassion and metta (loving-kindness) meditation can assist with this.
- The primary purpose of resistance training can be for its anxiolytic and antidepressant effects or just to manage your own meta-stressors.
- Utilise High Intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIRT) to induce a desirable heart rate effect in your training .
- In order to increase beneficial psychological effects such as increases in internal self-efficacy, progression should be gradual and incremental. It is important to provide an optimal level of challenge but not to go mad with your loading to consistently fail lifts, etc .
- Manipulate the acute program variables of volume, frequency, duration and intensity to find an optimal psychological dose-response.
- You don’t need to use training just for its positive long term psychological effects, its acute effects have been confirmed and appear to last up to 4 hours after a session .
- Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y.-P. & Dejitterat, K. 2005. Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self Identity. 4, 263–287.2.
- Botton, A. 2016. The Course of Love. Hamish Hamilton.
- Beck, A. T., Rush, A. M., Shaw, B. F., & Emery, G. 1979. Cognitive therapy of depression. New York: Guilford Press.
- Anderson, E., Shivakumar, G. 2013. Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety. Frontiers In Psychiatry.
- Doyne, E. J. et al. 1987. Running versus weight lifting in the treatment of depression. J. Consult. Clin. Psychol. 55, 748–754.
- Singh, N. a, Clements, K. M. & Fiatarone, M. a. 1997. A randomized controlled trial of progressive resistance training in depressed elders. J. Gerontol. A. Biol. Sci. Med. Sci. 52, M27–M35.
- Rimmele, U. et al. 2007. Trained men show lower cortisol, heart rate and psychological responses to psychosocial stress compared with untrained men. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 32, 627–635.
- Cooney, GM., Dwan, K., Greig, CA., Lawlor, DA., Rimer, J., Waugh, FR., McMurdo, M., & Mead, GE. 2013. Exercise for depression (review). Cochrane Review. The Cochrane Collaboration Reviews. Issue 9.
- Dinas, P. C., Koutedakis, Y. & Flouris, AD. 2011. Effects of exercise and physical activity on depression. Ir. J. Med. Sci. 180, 319–325.
- O’Connor, P. J., Herring, M. P. & Caravalho, A. 2010. Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training in Adults. Am. J. Lifestyle Med. 4, 377–396.
- DeBoer, LB., Powers, MB., Utschig, AC., Otto, MW., Smitts, J. 2012. Exploring exercise as an avenue for the treatment of anxiety disorders. Expert Rev Neurother. 12(8): 1011–1022.
- Jacob A. Goldsmith, JA., Quiles, JM., Blanco, R., Klemp, A., Dolan, C., Maharaj, A., Huang, CJ., Whiteburst., M., Zourdos, MC. 2016. Progressive Resistance Exercise Elicits Significant Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Expression. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 48(5S Suppl 1): 635.
- Paoli, A. 2012. High-Intensity Interval Resistance Training (HIRT) influences resting energy expenditure and respiratory ratio in non-dieting individuals. Journal of Translational Medicine. 10: 237.
- Dunn, A. L., Trivedi, M. H., Kampert, J. B., Clark, C. G. & Chambliss, H. O. 2005. Exercise treatment for depression. Am. J. Prev. Med. 28, 1–8.
- Harris, D. 2014. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story. Yellow Kite.
About the Author
Michael Ferguson is a former International-level Powerlifter and multiple national record holder in the 74kg and 66kg weight classes, having previously competed for Scotland and Great Britain in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF).
He holds an MSc in Sport and Exercise Science & Medicine from the University of Glasgow and is currently working as a Sports Scientist in the Rangers FC Youth Academy whilst leading the S&C program at Kelvinside Academy.