How to progress: make your extraordinary ordinary
I was speaking recently to someone about the concept of progress, or progression. The notion of progress is evocative, and understandably so: it speaks to the part of everyone that wants to be better or improve, and in that way it’s closely connected to the idea of realising your dreams. But the actual tangible process of progress is quite hard to pin down. Sure, in one year from now you want to be doing xyz, or be somewhere, or be someone different.
But how do you get there? In other words, how does your current reality change to become this new and better version?
I often see someone living a life I would like to lead or achieve an impressive goal and I wonder how that actually feels for them, day-to-day. I mean, everyone’s day-to-day includes frustrations, bad moods and mishaps that can make you feel hard done by or even envious of another’s seemingly gilded existence: how do these people, doing incredible things or living lives honest to themselves make being exceptional part of their day-to-day?
Well I’m not sure I have any sort of answer for being great at life, but I know a way when it comes to training.
A great thing about training is how it acts as a parallel to life, and particularly the concept of progression. One of the things that got me into training in the first place is that it is measurable, in a way that life is inherently not. You know that a year from now you’re fitter or stronger, because the numbers don’t lie: you can either lift a bigger number or run the same distance faster or run for longer, or you can’t.
The answer of how to get from a to b in a training sense is quite simple, on paper. You get a routine, you follow the prescribed reps and sets, you gradually increase until you arrive at your target number or weight. On paper, it’s pretty straightforward.
One thing people tend to find though is how quickly training can plateau. After a few months, or even years of slogging along with the program you’re stalling, and mentally you cam’t get over that one number or exercise. You are, in essence, finding it hard to make your current reality more extraordinary.
This where I’m going to contravene the whole ‘recovery is key’ mantra I have spoken about before. Not because I suddenly don’t believe it, but because in order to make your reality more extraordinary than it is right now, you are quite simply going to have to make something extraordinary seem ordinary. Day to-day. Run of the mill. Mundane.
For example to a young child, being coordinated and strong enough to run fast and jump high are amazingly extraordinary. I always remember being an eight year old looking at even thirteen year old boys and being impressed with their speed and strength. But to them, it was just a thing they could do, anytime, anyday.
The first time you step into a gym you’ll see people lifting weights twice your weight as a warm-up. To you, that is extraordinary. To them, it is simply what they do all the time.
So how can you get to this level, and beyond?
Quite simply you have make it a day-to-day activity. Or at least every session. To the point where no matter how tired you are, you can still do it, because it is just what you do.
I realised this recently when I started to practice handstand walking. There’s a strip of astroturf in my gym, about 12 metres long that I wanted to be able to handstand walk without stopping. The first few sessions I managed a few feet, and I gradually built it up. But I was still miles away from doing the whole strip. Even the first time I eventually did, it was, by my training standards to that point, an extraordinary achievement.
And I realised I was holding myself back by treating it too much as a ‘special’ piece of training. How come, I rationalised, if I want to walk the length of that strip with my legs I can do it literally anytime, but walking it on my hands is such a hit and miss affair? It’s because I walk on my legs every day, and have done so for many years.
What I needed to do was do handstand walks everyday, or at least the four times a week I was in the gym. No matter what the session; whether I had just done heavy squats or overhead press so my shoulders were already fatigued. Whether I felt tired that day.
The point was to just make them an everyday, ordinary, occurrence. Ordinary, and not extraordinary.
Within a week or so, I was doing that walk on my hands pretty much everytime, anytime. Now I can just kick up into a handstand walk whenever I want and so I’ve started to make it harder, such as putting a step in the way. That’s one of my new, ‘reducing the extraordinary’ projects that I’m working on.
Everytime I’m there, I do it.
Eventually it’s nothing, and you can move on to the next thing. Handstand walking that strip might seem impressive to a bystander, because they consider it out of the ordinary, but for me, it’s just another thing I now do.
I recently have gotten into muscle-ups (a pull-up straight into a dip) with the goal of soon being able to do them weighted. I can do about 5 now in a row, but not consistently.
They’re still extraordinary for me, in the way that for someone who can do 10+ with ease they are not.
I need to feel like explosively pulling my bodyweight up and over a bar is ordinary, so I’m applying my principle to weighted pull-ups. I started doing a set of 10 with 15kgs of added weight every session, no matter what. Then 20kgs. Now I’m onto about 8 with 25kgs, that I can do at the end of every session. When I can do ten, I’ll go up again.
Once you can do 10 pull-ups with 25 kgs of added weight, anytime, any session, doing 10 bodyweight reps is not even ordinary to you anymore. That’s not arrogance: you’ve just made the once extraordinary, ordinary.