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$300 loan.

I’ve been working with trainer Shane for two years now, one-on-one since the fall of 2010 and in a group setting with Boot Camp since October 2011. Throughout all those fun/difficult/sometimes grueling workouts, I’ve kept a smile on my face. I would visualize myself in top form, completing each circuit with ease and super strength. And, over time, my visions have come closer to reality. But last night, I just couldn’t keep the happy, fit Courtney in my mind’s eye.

And it was all because of the rowing machine.

For an office worker like myself, the rowing machine is a great tool, and one of the few Shane incorporates into our workouts (he focuses on multijoint/compound exercises that recruit several muscles, usually in the form of body-weight exercises, kettlebell swings, and free weights).

Rowing in proper form requires one to pull their shoulders back, but it also utilizes the legs: rowers use more than 20 different muscles with each stroke, including the hamstrings, pecs, lats, traps and glutes. It burns tons of calories, more than any other cardio-style workout, according to rowing expert Frederick Hagerman, PhD, emeritus professor of physiology at Ohio University. For those wanting sprinting-style interval training that’ll be nice on your joints, rowing fits the bill.

Occasionally, Shane will forget his watch so he’s without a timer (on purpose?), so he’ll keep track with one exercise. In the past, this responsibility has fallen on one station where a person has to run five flights of stairs or around the block away from their teammates, while the other group members complete the exercise at their station of the circuit, be it burpees or renegade rows. But with the row machine, I must face my poor group members as I struggle to make it to 500 meters.

The pressure was so intense last night that I had to step outside both to cool off and hold back the tears. Why is this so terribly difficult? I could breathe just fine, but the longer strokes I took (thereby increasing how quickly I’d get to 500 meters), the more I felt the swelling of emotions build up in my chest. When I ruled out vomit, I knew the tears were coming.

By the third and last circuit, I was spent: on the other stations, my vertical jumps were tiny hops, my burpees sad and slow. We had switched places with another group member each round, and this last go had me at the rowing machine for my final exercise. I pushed and pulled, but as soon as Shane yelled “halfway!” panic set in.

Everyone is counting on you, Courtney. You have to finish this, and do it quickly! People are waiting! Hear them struggling with their station? The longer it takes you, the more they struggle! Hurry!

And then the negative self-talk started:

If you were stronger or taller or more athletic, this would be easier. You should be fitter and thinner by now. You should be at your goal weight. If you didn’t have this extra fat on you, you’d be a champion rower! You need to work harder and lose more weight. This group is fit, they shouldn’t have to wait for you anymore. Pull as hard as you might, you’re just not fast enough.

The nasty voice, the one that tries to defeat me. She bullies me into complacency, into indifference. She attempts to prevent change. She’s quite wretched.

But she comes from a place of fear, because the voice in my head that sees me improving and watches me step outside my comfort zone knows my expectations will also change. The fitter I get, the more I’ll want to work out. The healthier I am, the more energy I’ll have to do the activities I’ve been wanting to try all these years. I’ll feel more confident and may start socializing more. What if I attention and admiration I don’t know how to respond to, like from the guy who called me a supermodel this weekend? Will I accept the compliment graciously and move on, or will I get stuck in my head? What if I make new friends only to be hurt later?

I do my best to quiet the voice, but she still lurks in the dark corner of my mind, waiting for moments of weakness to speak up, like last night on the rowing machine.

But then, something better happens: my teammates cheer me on. Trainer Shane says “Nice work!” And cooler still, he tells me my time improved each round, with my personal best at 2:11. The fastest group member, Joe, rowed 500 meters at 1:40, and gee whiz, that doesn’t feel too far off. As the tears trickle down and my face starts contorting, the cheerleader voice in my head says, “Hooray! Look around you. Your teammates are proud! This was a challenging workout for everyone, but we made it through together.”

And the nasty voice? She sulks off as her powers grow faint.

For more on the scientific research behind emotionally charged workouts, see “Laugh, Cry, Lift“.

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