Philosophy and Workout Motivation

The philosopher Hegel (1770-1831) had a famous theory of history: the ups and downs of human affairs – the rise and fall of empires, the victories and defeats of nations, the trials and travails of leaders –  may, at first glance, seem arbitrary and senseless. But seen in a broader perspective, they represent a coherent narrative: the progress of the human spirit toward freedom.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831)

Whether Hegel was right or wrong about the progress toward freedom is a long and difficult question. (For those interested in learning more about his philosophy, and its relevance for our times, you can check out my article: “Putting Work in its Place: Lesson’s from Hegel.”)

What I want to emphasize here is that Hegel has a valuable lesson for workout motivation.  I’m not kidding when I say that Hegel has actually helped me do more pull-ups. I’ve derived from his philosophy a key insight to help power through the tough times in the gym:

Judge your bad days by your previous bad days, not by your previous good days. 

It’s all about historical perspective.  Viewed up close, your training may seem like a brutal and senseless series of events: One day, you’re repping out and hitting a new PR, like Napoleon crossing Mount Blanc with the prospect of limitless progress.  The next day, you’re dragging your feet in exhaustion, on your way to exile on St. Helena. One step forward, one step back.  We’ve all been there.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Jacques-Louis David

The key is not to get caught up in the day-to-day trajectory of your training. Channel the wisdom of Hegel and take a broader historical viewpoint on where you’ve come from.

When you have a bad day, step back and look at the big picture: sure, compared to your breakthrough workout a week ago, you didn’t do so well.  But that’s not the relevant test of progress.  In any given workout phase, at any level of fitness, you’ll have good days and bad days.  That’s the nature of training.  Success comes in bursts.

What you have to ask yourself is this: How much better is my bad day now than it was six months ago, a year ago?”  That’s the true measure.  If your bad day now is better than your bad day then, you’ve made progress and should look upon the workout as a success.

Remember, finishing a workout when you’re down and want to quit early, even if you don’t run quite as fast or lift as heavy as the previous week, is what prepares you to improve. Some days, you just have to tell yourself: “Finish the workout. That’s a victory!”


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