This morning, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Daily Pump Club email mentioned something I often share with people:
Smiling makes you feel better.
(By the way, Arnold’s newsletter is terrific. Great value for a small time investment. Ten out of ten would recommend.)
People tend to assume they need to be happy to smile—that the feeling should precede the action. After all, isn’t smiling a signifier of our mental and emotional state? If we feel miserable, why in God’s name would we grin?
In fact, though, it turns out that smiling—even forced or fake smiling—is JUST the thing to do if you’re feeling miserable. The physical act of making your face take that position actually tricks your brain into releasing neurotransmitters and a general chemical cascade in the brain that makes you feel better.
Moreover, as Arnold’s newsletter mentioned, a year-old literature review (which is unfortunately behind a paywall, but you can read the abstract) found that “smiling may have a number of health-relevant benefits including beneficially impacting our physiology during acute stress, improved stress recovery, and reduced illness over time.”
In other words, you shouldn’t sit around waiting to feel motivated to smile. Smile anyway, and you’ll not only feel happier, you’ll probably get healthier too.
When I share this information about smiling, it’s usually in context of someone having asked me, “What should I do when I don’t feel motivated to go to the gym?” Because the same exact principle holds true for exercise and training as it does for smiling. If you sit around waiting to feel motivated, you’ll never put in the necessary time to derive the benefits. If you train anyway, you’ll actually make yourself feel more motivated AND you’ll get stronger and healthier.
Do it anyway.
As much as I love powerlifting, there are plenty of days when I don’t feel like training. This holds especially true when I have to work out alone in my cold basement on a dark winter night, or when I know my program contains a bunch of exercises I detest. That actually happens quite a bit, particularly during the off season.
The reality is, when you train 3-4x a week or even more, there will be days when you WON’T feel motivated. In fact, you’ll often feel downright resistant. Going to the gym will be the absolute last thing on earth you want to do sometimes.
Do it anyway.
Just like smiling even when you feel down, training when you don’t feel motivated accomplishes two things.
First, very similar magic happens in your brain when you exercise as when you smile: when you get moving, the endorphins start flowing. The very act of getting into the gym and warming up and starting your workout will usually increase your feelings of motivation, which will make doing the rest of it much more enjoyable.
And second, whether you happen to enjoy that particular session or not, you’ll derive the strength and health benefits of having done it. You’ll get one step closer to hitting whatever goal it is you’ve set for yourself (and if you haven’t set any specific goals, you’ll have reinforced your exercise/strength training habit, and you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you got it done despite not feeling motivated.
Believe it or not, the more you push through those feelings, the more your brain will learn that this is how things go, and you’ll find yourself feeling more motivated more often. And, on those days (yes, you’ll still have them) when you really don’t feel like working out, you’ll find it easier to push through the resistance and do it anyway.
Don’t force the feelings; force the action
The mistake many people make here, and what I’d suggest you avoid, is trying to force yourself to feel motivated before you take action, or getting hung up on your lack of motivation and thinking it actually means something.
Let’s go back to our smiling example. Maybe you’re having a crappy day. It’s not a big deal, it’s just one of those crappy days we all have sometimes. The fact that you feel grouchy or angry or like an imposter or whatever it is you’re feeling doesn’t mean you have to go sit in a corner and analyze WHY you feel that way.
And you don’t need to beat yourself up for it. Feelings happen. Sometimes they’re not very nice.
You can still choose to smile, which again the research suggests will probably benefit you a lot more than wallowing in your black mood.
Similarly, if you find yourself feeling unmotivated to train, don’t try to talk yourself out of it—and conversely, don’t assume it means strength training just isn’t for you and quit.
(Obviously, if you find yourself unhappy all the time when you either contemplate or engage in training, that’s a feeling worthy of closer scrutiny. There’s a difference between feeling unmotivated and feeling miserable. If you genuinely hate every minute of your training, then you need to look more closely at what you’re doing and whether you could change up how or where or with whom you train in ways that would address your unhappiness. If that’s you, drop a comment or send me an email and maybe I can help with some ideas.)
For most of us, though, it’s really a simple matter of not always feeling like doing something even though we generally really enjoy it, or even passionately love it. Every world champion feels those feelings sometimes; if they claim they don’t, they’re lying.
It’s ok to feel unmotivated. Stop trying to fire yourself up. Let the feelings be. They’re not good or bad, they just are.
Acknowledge them… and then get your ass to the gym and train anyway.
How do YOU deal with feeling unmotivated? Share your thoughts and secretes in the comments!