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Happy Body, Happy Mind – Or, See You In Hell

On Monday I did some long sets of deadlifts at a friend’s gym. Then I collapsed onto the floor and tried not to cry.

On Wednesday I did some long sets of squats at a friend’s gym. Then I collapsed onto the floor and tried not to cry.

On Friday I walked for a mile carrying 176 pounds in kettlebells.


My gym and my two instructors

My gym and my two instructors

Before you get confused, let me add that those were three wonderful training sessions and if I’d had the energy to smile, I would have smiled for the rest of the day. I’ve made this comparison before, but acquaintances who don’t understand the need to train for strength often look at this as mere self-abuse.

“You’re like those mopey teens who cut themselves,” is something I’ve heard more than once.

Happy Body, Happy Mind

James Sjostrom is that friend of mine and his gym is the torture chamber I’ve been talking about. It’s a hot, ugly box in an industrial district in Salt Lake City. When you walk into the building, one of the first things you see on a bulletin board is a paper sign with these words in pen: “See you in hell.”

Then you walk through the doors and, well…all hell breaks loose, but in a good, awful way.

James was one of my instructors at the RKC. He’s a brilliant strength mind and a physical brute. On Monday before the deadlifts, he was talking to some of his clients and I heard him say, “People whine, but the truth is, this stuff makes your body happy in the long run. A happy body makes a happy mind.”

I could not agree with this more. During a squat session, my body is not happy. The next morning, my body is not very happy with me. But my mind is singing because I did something real. I wake up two days later and I know I am stronger. This gives a feeling of confidence and satisfaction that I have a hard time putting into words.

Unless you’re an egomaniac or have a Messiah complex, confidence leads to good things. How could it not?

Give me some clarity

Our minds are busy places.  How often do you really get to slow down and clear your head? In my own case, my mind is usually preocuppied with whatever shenanigans my body is getting up to on the Tourette’s front.

But just about everyone I know has a freaking fire drill going off in their head most days.  They never get a chance to clear their head, they just add to the clutter.  Always reacting, with little time for big picture thinking.

For what it’s worth, I don’t care about the big picture much.  I just don’t want to be bored.  I try to spend as little time thinking about tomorrow or yesterday as possible.

Training can bring clarity because it puts you in the moment.  It roots you in the present reality and if your head is anywhere else you’re not working hard enough. You can’t be bored when the weight’s heavy.

You can’t be bored with something that’s trying to kill you.  If you’re bored you need to root all that ennui out and kick its teeth in.

I’m going back to Hell today to visit some infernal pals.  I can’t wait.

Care to join me? If so, I’m giving you the assignment to bring a list of the best workout songs.


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  • We Fly Spitfires July 20, 2009, 8:51 am

    Interesting stuff. Everyone know’s keeping your body active is important for your health and wellbeing but few people recognise the same thing for your mind. I think keeping your mind challenged is an important part of life too as it’s just a muscle (the second largest in my body) like any other.

    The perfect human would be strong in body and in mind. I aspire to that. If only I didn’t find the gym so damn boring. Any tips on how to rectify that apart from through sheer force of will?

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2009, 8:57 am

      @we fly spitfires. Sometimes it just is boring–I think that’s ok. Putting up with boredom in the gym does something for you that putting up with boredom by channel surfing does not.

      I always default to my kettlebell preaching. You can’t be bored when something is trying to kill you and you can’t be bored if the weight is heavy (for you). I would get bored doing boring bicep curls. I don’t get bored when I’m trying to swing a kettlebell for 15 minutes without dying.

      Back in ancient Greece, they put a high premium on mental and physical strength. You couldn’t show up for the equivalent of a bodybuilding show unless you could prove your intelligence as well. strength, philosophizing, all that jazz…it was considered part of the package and somehow we’ve gotten to the point where some people think you can only do one or the other.

  • Craig Brown July 20, 2009, 1:05 pm

    Good post, and good reply to the above comment.

    If you are bored working out, you are seriously, no questions, not working hard enough. You might actively HATE what you are doing at that moment- you might need to get angry to finish your set-you might think you are going to pass out- but while you are doing the work, boredom isn’t an issue. It CANT be.

    This doesn’t mean that every rep, every set must be brutally hard. That’s just not viable for the long term. But if you are working with challenging movements and/or challenging loads- you literally can’t afford to not be completely present.

    The beauty of something incredibly simple like four minutes of Tabata squats or seeing how fast you can do 25 Renegade Man Makers with a ‘nothing’ weight in each hand- is exactly how damn hard that ‘simple’ is. Having a concrete result of five minutes on the man makers with even 15# dumbbells gives you a live and breathing target to aim for. This makes all the difference in the world.

    I agree endless sets for shoulders and pecs would just drive me bonkers. My sixth grade teacher once told me “if you’re bored, try something harder”. Words to live by.



  • Casey July 20, 2009, 1:10 pm

    “Care to join me?”
    Hell yes! It’s true that most people don’t really get the joy that comes from pushing your body to its limits. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste?… That could explain why the first few weeks are the hardest for people new to the gym.

    The world seems to melt away during a good workout; it leaves my mind uncluttered, focused, and alert. Another great activity that does this for me is rock climbing. You tend to focus on the now when you’re 50 ft off the ground and the only thing between you and the ground is a tiny rope and your rapidly fatiguing fingers. 🙂

  • Casey July 20, 2009, 2:56 pm

    Great question Josh, I wish I had a good answer for you!

    Before I moved to Utah I was climbing at the Pheonix Rock gym and climbed in the Badland Canyons north of Prescott.

    Since I’ve moved to Utah I’ve climbed a few times up on the bench, and at a few random gyms. Honestly, I haven’t found a good group to go with (since climbing should never be a solo sport) and there’s no real climbing gym to meet people at. Supposedly they are opening a Ogden branch of the The Front so I plan on that being my new home in a few months…

    Are you a climber?

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2009, 2:59 pm

      Casey, I’ve never climbed but I’m very interested. I read a book called Kiss Or Kill by climber Mark Twight and learned that he lives in Salt Lake. It’s kind of been on my mind since then.

  • Casey July 20, 2009, 4:50 pm

    Ha ha, I’ve heard of Twight… He is a unique person.

    Salt Lake has plenty of indoor and outdoor places to go. People tend to gravitate towards one or the other, but really both have their uses. If you want, I would be happy to go to a rock gym down in SLC some Saturday. That way, you can see if it’s something you might enjoy.

  • Daryle Dickens July 20, 2009, 7:10 pm

    I am usually not one to leave links in blog comment boxes but the gym you describe reminds of this gym: http://www.scoutingny.com/?p=833 in NYC. But I digress.

    One of the greatest gifts the military gave me was the experience of a clear mind after an abused body. 18 years later I still know the key to getting unstuck mentally is to beat myself up physically. And the real key to never getting stuck is to keep up the punishment.

    Most people do not understand this. Maybe this crowd does.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2009, 7:26 pm

      Daryle, you never have to apologize for leaving a link as cool as that one. I want to meet Frenchie. I may be out in New York soon. If so, I’m going! When were you in the military?

  • Craig Brown July 21, 2009, 9:17 am

    That’s a great link, Daryle! Thanks.

  • James Sjostrom July 22, 2009, 7:51 am

    Josh and Casey,
    I have a few guest passes to RockReation you can have. It will only cost you a session in “Hell”. Is self improvement really that bad? I love the post by the way. I will join you today.