When The Gym Is Bad For Your Mental Health And What To Do About It
Lifting and training is wonderful for mental health MOST OF THE TIME.
It's excellent for mood, depression, self-image and a whole host of other fantastic benefits when your relationship with the gym is healthy.
However, the gym can be a source of stress, anxiety and pain for people who don't have a healthy relationship with training or the gym.
Has the gym ever stressed you out? Perhaps it is a huge source of difficulty for you at the moment?
If it is, then this article should be able to help you out.
Grab a coffee, protein shake or suitably macro-fitting snack. Relax and enjoy the read as it could take a while!
SOURCES OF GYM AND TRAINING STRESS
A common problem for many of the people I work with who are stressed out with the gym is that they been trying to follow a plan that doesn't suit the demands on their time.
As you'll know people have lives and huge demands on their time when they have jobs, families and a whole host of other responsibilities that need to be taken care of for someone's life to run relatively smoothly.
So if someone is trying to follow a plan that requires 3 hours per day 5 days a week and you only have 2 hours spare 3 times a week it's not ever going to work.
Yes, we could make the whole argument that if something is important then people will make time for it but life doesn't always work that way. I've worked with lawyers man, they work more hours per week than I spend awake.
To set yourself up for success rather than failure you need to set yourself a plan that fits into the time you have available.
Sit down and workout when in the week you can train. Look at how long you have to train, how long it takes you to get to the gym, how long it takes you to warm up and get home again.
Once you know how much time you can spare in the gym you can plan your sessions around this.
This idea is particularly important around times when you are stretched thin by work, exams or just life. When time demands are high, work your training around your calendar not your calendar around your training.
Once your time demands ease you can work in longer sessions or more frequent sessions but if the time demands of your training doesn't at least match the available time you have you simply cannot follow your program properly, so change the program.
TIME DEMANDS AND SLEEP
Getting enough sleep is directly correlated with good health.
Most people train to be healthier but will often negatively effect their sleep by either cutting into the amount of sleep they are getting by trying to train incredibly early or by training incredibly late at night with the assistance of a truck load of caffeine.
The high dose of caffeine reduces recover and makes sleep less effective, the person needs a bigger hit of caffeine and the cycle continues until you breakdown in a blaze of not-that-much-glory.
Caffeine is usually super beneficial. I'm not saying give up caffeine; just time your dosage to suit your sleep patterns!
Getting enough sleep can be to manage if you work incredibly long hours or have to be dragged from pillar to post in order to look after the people in your care (or both) and still have to fit in training.
It's all about giving yourself options.
If you are short for time make sure you join a gym you feel comfortable in that's as close to either home or your work as possible.
If you have a great demand on your time you don't want to spend an hour driving to and from your gym 4 times a week.
That's at least 3 hours of time demand per workout.
For some reason, when creating the graphic above I entirely forgot about the concept of SUNDAY
Be sure to plan your week. In the graphic above we see that this person has 2 hours to train so we need to make sure it doesn't take more than 30 minutes each way from the gym so we can get a solid 60 minutes of training in 3 times a week.
If more time than this is demanded it simply can't be done. I'd suggest sitting down and working out when you can feasibly train every few months just to see if you are expecting too much (or too little) from yourself.
This should help you stay on top of your training and your calendar.
Having some equipment at home like resistance bands, sliders and maybe the odd kettlebell is a great idea for when time demands are at their highest.
Have a coach teach you how to create effective workouts in a short period of time so you can at least maintain your progress. Typical examples here are when students are around exam time and suddenly go mental because they can't train and have 46 million exams at once plus a job they need in order to eat.
Other examples of people struggling with time (and stress) demands include people who work in jobs with extremely busy periods (or jobs that are very long hours.)
Sometimes getting to the gym isn't going to be an option but a bodyweight, resistance band and kettlebell circuit that takes 10-15 minutes at home rather than doing nothing can be the difference between a healthy life balance and a gradual breakdown in physical and mental health.
If you are training late have your caffeine as early as you can to minimise the effect on sleep.
Don't nail a black coffee at 9pm when you are meant to go to sleep at 11.30 if at all possible.
And avoid pre-workout supplements where you can. Those bad-boys are terrible pretty much all of the time.
PERFECTIONISM and PERFECTIONISM OCD
For the purpose of this article I decided to do a bit of research into what I was calling "bad" or "negative" perfectionism and to see whether perfectionism could be a type of OCD.
I ran into an article by a man named Owen Kelly who breaks down perfectionism into 2 main categories:
"Adaptive/Healthy Perfectionism: This type of perfectionism is characterized by having high standards for yourself as well as others, persistence in the face of adversity, and conscientiousness. Healthy perfectionism usually goes along with goal-directed behavior and good organizational skills.
Maladaptive/Unhealthy Perfectionism: This type of perfectionism is characterized by excessive preoccupation with past mistakes, fears about making new mistakes, doubts about whether you are doing something correctly and being heavily invested in the high expectations of others, such as parents or employers. An excessive preoccupation with control is also a hallmark feature of maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism."
You can find his wonderful article by following THIS LINK
We get concerned as coaches when we see maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism in our clients.
There are people who put more pressure on themselves than necessary to get every single rep absolutely perfect or are always trying to do every rep with some idea of perfection that they can't ever achieve.
Or more accurately, they are expecting the impossible or trying to be better than perfect.
And think they are somehow bad for not achieving the impossible.
This is a difficult mindset to come out on top of. It's another way to set up for failure rather than success and leads to the gym facilitating shame and guilt.
This isn't a mindset we want the gym or training to ever promote.
This isn't a healthy relationship with yourself. When you demand perfection it's actually 'ranges' of positions rather than a set position that is essential for progress in the gym
Much of my training is done alongside some of the best athletes in the country if not the world and they are far from perfect when outside of competition.
Reps go wrong.
They have bad days.
I've seen them fall over and nearly kill themselves squatting (see below).
They get injured.
They make mistakes.
Sometimes their form is off completely.
Sometimes they can't sleep and come in and leave having a paddy.
Here are some of the athletes I train around:
Jack Oliver- British Weightlifting Record Holder, Commonwealth Silver Medalist and Greek Classicist (I feel the last accolade is the best as I am a jeoulous of his ancient knowledge)
Here's Jack with essentially one working arm. I, among others never thought he'd be elite level again. How pleased I was to be wrong!
Sarah Davies- British #1 Weightlifter, Commonwealth Silver Medalist, Miss Intercontinental England
Josh Greenfield- 105kg Class Squat World Record Holder
Here's a screenshot of Josh nearly dying after a set of squats!
Coach V who is a multi-weight class bench press record holder
And Coach V eating a human-sized amount of candyfloss
These are some of the most gifted athletes in the world AND NOT ONE OF THEM EVER ACHIEVES PERFECTION for more than the odd repetition.
There are many people who are lifting to look and feel a little bit better who are terrified of lifting heavier (and getting better results) because of a fear of not having perfect form.
A wonderful coach called Brandon Senn put this post on Instagram and I think it shows very well that not only spinal positioning but exercise form in general works in ranges rather than absolutes and in order to add weight to the bar and make the progress you are capable of you simply have to challenge and work within that range in most training sessions.
I'll say that again. NOT ONLY IS GOOD SPINAL POSITIONING A RANGE BUT SO IS "GOOD FORM" IN GENERAL.
Good form is essential. Perfect form isn't.
What should you do if you have maladaptive or unhealthy perfectionism?
I'm not qualified for this answer so I'm going to let Owen take the stage once again:
"Learn Cognitive-Behavioral Techniques: Techniques such as cognitive restructuring and behavioral experiments can be helpful in learning to objectively evaluate the likelihood and/or consequences of making catastrophic or even minor mistakes. Cognitive therapy can also be a useful tool for critically examining the beliefs we hold about ourselves and others.
Practice Giving up Control: As part of cognitive-behavior therapy and/or exposure and response prevention therapy, you may be asked to participate in exercises designed to build your capacity to tolerate a loss of control. This can involve being prevented from checking something or adjusting something until it is "just right." Although this can initially be extremely distressing, over time you will gain more confidence in your ability to tolerate a loss of control.
Adopt a Mindful Stance: Mindfulness emphasizes being less “invested” in our thoughts. Accepting that we have less control than we think over our thoughts can be very helpful in reducing the distress that often accompanies intrusive thoughts. Mindfulness meditation exercises can help to promote a more objective awareness of our day-to-day thoughts and emotions."
AN UNHEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH GOALS
We often see the same kind of unhealthy or maladaptive perfectionism with goals, weight loss/weight gain and any other kind of gym related or performance related goal.
This can lead to catastrophic or explosive behaviors where someone goes on a crazy eating binge or goes on an epic bender or into a spiral of poor mental health. We see the same effect as when people are "too perfectionist" with their form i.e. a high preoccupation with control, feelings of guilt and shame and an overwhelming worry about what other people might think.
The advice on how to deal with this is the same as above with another suggestion from me which is:
Speak to a coach about your goals. They should be able to give you feedback about whether you can actually control the things you are trying to control and might be able to help you distill your goals into things you can strive for without having to resort to unhealthy behaviors that making it harder to get near your goals.
I don't mean to say we need to set goals that are achieved easily. Far from it, I think goals should occasionally push you to at least near your limit but the goals need to be based on things you can control and not require you to try and control things you can't even begin to control.
UNREALISTIC PROGRESS EXPECTATIONS
When you first begin training progress is seen every week. You see new muscle growing, you're lifting more and more weight.
Can that go on forever?
There is a limit to how strong you can be.
So what should you do about it?
If you are a high level athlete get yourself a coach or team of coaches who can coach and programme you to be the best athlete you can be.
If you are a casual gym-goer wanting to be healthy and happy and look good naked then if you hit an exercise plateau for a few weeks simply change the exercise you are stuck with and enjoy the progress you see in the new movement.
There is no need to piously stick to one particular exercise and keep banging your head against an iron wall when you can just change your focus to a slightly different movement.
Maybe you'll come back to the movement where you got stuck and lift more weight but who knows? Don't stress about it. There are literally millions of exercises out there where you can get personal bests, more weight on the bar, faster times, you name it.
If you are really invested in a particular movement but you are stuck try adding bands or chains where appropriate, have a play with tempos and pauses, rep ranges and even use the movement in a superset.
You can make a movement different without doing a different movement!
How fast should you be progressing?
Here is an accurate graph of my progress as a strength athlete:
This is such an individual question with so many millions of things to consider.
As a general rule you should see progress in some way every 1-4 weeks especially if you are early in your lifting career. Once this stops it's time to either look at your recovery or to make specific changes to your training to get the progress on the go again.
If you are struggling with what changes to make then maybe it's time to invest in a trainer or online programme to help you rediscover the direction you need.
FITNESS INDUSTRY SOCIAL MEDIA
Once again I don't feel qualified to address to stress and anxiety that social media can elicit so I'm going to turn to Girls Gone Strong author Jaya Dixit to help us deal with the sometimes harmful beast that social media is.
"As much as we draw motivation and positivity from a lot of what we share and post online, there are times when the feelings elicited don’t totally jive with how we want to feel, or don’t align with the values to which we wish to adhere. Sometimes this whole business of posting, liking, or merely looking at all these images can start to negatively impact the way we live and the choices we make."
So should we just come off social media all together for the sake of our mental health?
In today's world that often isn't possible and would make life more difficult than is necessary. Sometimes TIME AWAY from social media is certainly warranted but for me, establishing a healthy relationship with social media is something to aspire to.
"If my Aunty Brenda can handle social media without having a nervous breakdown why can't I!?"
These are the thoughts that people who struggle with social media have amongst many many others on the positive and negative side of the spectrum. So how should you deal with your own social media and how you deal with what other people post?
Here's Jaya again:
"Be awesome, be real, be you.
Consider whether you’re posting in ways that make you feel that you’re awesome and real, rather than ways that make you wonder if they will think that about you. Does posting your daily smoothie give you a sense of accomplishment, or reinforce your commitment to taking care of yourself? Strive to create a vision board based on you. Make it the kind of place you’d like to visit. What would you post if it were for your purposes alone? What kinds of images affirm the messages and ideas about wellness that you want to champion for yourself and other women?"
"Suddenly we can see that [people] who are training hard can look the same and also different from those in the magazines. Realizing that fitness and wellness come in all shapes and sizes can have an incredibly liberating effect! When strong bodies come to the fore in their various glorious shapes and sizes, the space for inclusion explodes."
"Seek out and support the kinds of photos and content that would make you want to high-five, hug, talk with that person if you were face-to-face. Find your tribe. Be aware of the ideas and messages you are exposed to and perpetuating with the types of photos you seek out. Let yourself be inspired to draw from what enhances your own fitness experience or journey, rather than because you want to be like the person who posted it. Try an awesome recipe because you’d love to eat it, and not because you want to look like the person who posted it."
"We’re all in this together."
You can read Jaya's article by following THIS LINK.
STEROIDS AND MENTAL HEALTH
I wanted to take steroids for years and I'm a lifetime natural athlete. I'm not sure I've ever said this on the blog before.
To give you the full story I had been an aspiring bodybuilder since the age of 13-14. I was certain I'd take them no matter what. I wanted to be the best and thought steroids were the way to achieve that.
I found advice from a famous bodybuilder named Lee Priest who certainly has taken his fair share of gear!
I read an article I can no longer find but the message behind the article was this:
If you can win a show naturally you might just have the genetics to make it worth taking steroids.
So the journey began.
I would win a natural bodybuilding show then I'd take steroids.
8 years later I won a natural bodybuilding show and still had that message in my head.
I couldn't even afford creatine monohydrate a this point. How I thought I'd ever fund numerous steroid cycles I have no idea!
By then I was a coach, Personal Trainer and lifetime natural athlete. I didn't ever want to have to answer someone who asked me how I got in shape with "loads of gear mate."
I'd also have to start again at the bottom of "assisted" bodybuilding and that was something I just couldn't be bothered with so I decided against steroids for the foreseeable future.
So before taking steroids I'd recommend any young person to try and win something naturally before making the jump or before making a decision either way.
I'm incredibly grateful to Lee Priest for putting that opinion out there. It was exactly what young me needed to hear at the time.
With this all being said I think we should let someone else with greater experience with both steroids and steroid users take the stage and say some words without it turning into a steroid bashing festival.
Here's Chris Shugart of T-Nation:
"The only folks who "succeed" with steroids are usually older, wiser, more intelligent men with families, real jobs, real responsibilities, and a long background of lifting naturally and learning everything they can about training and diet. These guys tend not to get too crazy with the drugs.
But for everyone else, I've observed two interesting things about regular-guy steroid users, meaning, guys who just wanna get huge and aren't high level bodybuilders, powerlifters or athletes:
1. Steroids encourage and reward ignorance, especially in younger men.
In other words, everything comes a whole lot easier. Just about any kind of training will work, as will just about any kind of diet. The gains come so quickly and easily that the young steroid user never actually has to learn much. Everything works while he's "on." This essentially makes him dumb. There are exceptions of course, but not many. Which leads to the second point.
2. The guy who begins using steroids early in his lifting life usually has a very short lifting life.
No, he doesn't die. But he does quit, often never returning to the gym. How does that happen?
Well, for various reasons – legal, financial, spousal, health-related reasons, job-related reasons, etc. – he doesn't use steroids regularly. His gains fade and suddenly "lifting doesn't work," or at least it doesn't seem to compared to juiced training.
Think about it. You're not going to keep those gains.
Christian Thibaudeau once brilliantly called the steroid-derived body a "rented physique." So now you're working your ass off and losing most of the drug-built muscle. That's psychologically painful. "What's the point?" the guy says, and he eventually quits.
I've known a dozen guys who loved to train, then only loved to train when they were on something, then when they couldn't be on something they just didn't go to the gym. Again, "what's the point?" they think.
Now, they could still build plenty of muscle and reap all the amazing benefits of the iron, but remember, they're "steroid dumb" now. They never really learned how to keep natural progress coming. Their toolboxes contain an old, bent wrench and nothing else.
Also, a guy will likely never get back to where he was when he was using. That's a lot to deal with. And once his identity becomes "the big guy," can he handle becoming the "merely medium" guy? Often not.
So my general advice is to skip the 'roids. Get your testosterone levels tested as you age and the moment you're eligible for doctor-prescribed TRT, get on it. Be happy with a nice, healthy "high but normal" T level.
You'll feel better, perform better, and get better results in the gym than you would without TRT. Given all the drawbacks of long-term steroid usage, all the stigma and all the asterisks, that should be good enough for the psychologically well-adjusted man." – Chris Shugart, T-Nation CCO
You can find the article I've quoted from HERE which features the advice of Chris and many other great coaches and fitness industry leaders
Injury And Pushing Through Injury Without Training Around An Injury
One of the biggest psychological hits people can take in the gym is when they get their first gym injury and have to adjust their training to accommodate the pain, the loss of movement and the feeling of being vulnerable.
Suddenly the person is starkly aware that they aren't invincible. They are more aware than ever that these big lumps of metal that they are picking up can hurt them, even kill them if the situation goes horrendously wrong.
It is a tough time. We all go through it. When an injury happens (often multiple times before people make proper training adjustments) this can also be a huge psychological blow as people start to call themselves "broken" and think that other people are better than them because they seemingly can do anything and not get injured at all even though it's very rarely actually like that.
When injured it's essential you are treated correctly as soon as possible. If something feels like it has snapped, torn, suddenly swells up or you suddenly feel faint or can't balance or you lose consciousness it's about getting to hospital for medical treatment as quickly as you can.
For the niggles and aches and pains it's about getting a coach to look over your movements to spot what is potentially going wrong, physiotherapy, hydration, getting enough sleep and getting enough recovery time to allow your body to heal enough between sessions.
As with every section of this article we'll once again hear from someone smarter than me on the subject of dealing with an injury.
This time we are going to hear from the man who I consider to be the best PT in the world Mr Eric Cressey:
"The concept is simple: if you ignore minor aches and pains, they rarely just magically go away. Rather, they usually get magnified by volume and intensity and eventually reach a painful threshold where are more extensive intervention is required."
You can find the article this is from by following THIS LINK.
The best kind of rehab is not getting injured in the first place so listen to when the niggles whisper and sort them as soon as possible.
But what if you already have an injury?
Let's assume first that you've been treated by the correct medical professionals and you have a proper diagnosis to work with. This is essential if you want to stand a chance of following the right path to recovery.
Single Limb Injuries
You probably don't need to stop training if you have an injury on a single limb. You have 3 other limbs and a torso you can be training as your limb injury recovers. A good coach and/or physio or just some research into the idea will give you a great head start.
Lower Back Injuries
You only get one spine so we must treat it with respect. If you hurt your back doing a particular thing at a particular weight it's best to start from scratch with that movement when the pain and damage has gone.
If you iron out the issues that caused the injury in the first place you can often come back stronger and a better lifter. Be patient and you'll get there.
As a general rule for lower back injuries:
Avoid heavy dumbbells until the worst of the injury has subsided. It is very difficult to put heavy dumbbells away without compromising your spinal position
Avoid loaded lateral flexion (side bending) and loaded lumbar flexion particularly early on a morning
If you have to train early on a morning make sure you have a warm shower and warm up and move around extensively before training to put your spine at a lower risk of getting injured
Focus on maintaining a good spinal position throughout every single exercise and minimise the time you spend out of a good spinal position
Adjust your exercises to completely pin free variations and build up to full range of motion movements over time
Movement is usually good, complete rest and immobility usually bad
Try to to sit or stay in one position for very long
Hernias and Similar Injuries
Listen to your a doctor and follow their instruction to the letter!
Some training may still be possible but under the strictest possible supervision!
As a general rule if your hips are in pain when performing exercises where you need a lot of hip movement (like squats and deadlifts) you can still train and maintain most of your strength by performing knee dominant exercises like leg curls and leg extensions until the problem area is dealt with and the hips are pain free.
Once again contacting the appropriate medical professional is essential for a hip injury.
If you are getting hip niggles have a coach look at your movement and get rid of the 'bad' movement habits that may be contributing towards your pain.
When the knees are beaten up we often have to look at the feet, ankles and hips for issues to see if they are moving in such a way that increases the strain on the tissues of the knee causing pain or injury.
If the knees are painful but able to load bare performing hip dominant movements like romanian deadlifts, good mornings and other similar exercises can help you maintain muscle mass on your legs without overly stressing the injured area.
It's quite difficult to hit the quads without much knee movement. I've had success in the past with heavy prowler pushes where we get the lifter to take very short steps to limit the amount of knee flexion required. If prowler pushes aren't possible you might experiment with isometric holds or exercises that just involve squeezing the quads in a position that is safe relative to the injury you are currently experiencing.
This is a concept I'll write a separate blog post about.
The key to training around an injury in a way that causes you the least possible stress, pain and anxiety is to follow the rehab protocol set by the right medical practitioner and to train the healthy parts of your body as close to normal as possible.
BEING AT THE WRONG GYM
Sometimes it is the gym environment that is wrong for you and it is the source of your gym related stress and anxiety.
Maybe the class crew who bitch about everyone makes you feel self-conscious and exposed.
Maybe you are afraid the two clearly angry, white supremacists are going to bite your face off if you stray too close to them or the mirror they keep badly posing in.
Maybe the colours are too intense for you and you feel overwhelmed when you are in there.
Find the gym that works for you or train at a time where it's quiet enough for you to not feel overwhelmed.
Gyms are so numerous now that you don't need to suffer in a gym you hate.
Make sure you try before you buy and if you can avoid signing your life away in a 12 month contract then that is all the better.
Gyms change, people come and go and how you feel in a particularly environment changes too.
Find the gym that's right for you and your stress levels will be so much lower.
When you hate the gym you train in it won't be long before you feel as if it's the training itself that you hate rather than where you are doing the training.
Well, that was a long journey wasn't it!?
It all boils down to finding the reasons the gym is stressing you out and dealing with those problems.
Often the stress and anxiety is a direct cause of either being ill-prepared, setting yourself up for failure, an unhealthy relationship with the gym or a lack of knowledge about how to solve a particular problem.
I'd encourage you to get help when you need it. It's okay for the gym to stress you out sometimes but you simply have to find a way to work around these stresses if you are to get the results you want and need.
If you need help with any of these issues please feel free to reach out to us or a coach near you.
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org you can contact me directly there or message us through the website with your questions.
By Chris Kershaw
Chris is a Personal Trainer, Strength Coach, writer, man of small stature and reader of The Discworld Series with a decade in the industry.
He trains everyone from beginners to high level athletes. His favourite clients are people getting into the gym for the first time because they can make the biggest changes in their lives.