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Pushing the limits... and learning more about your real potential

"I can't do that"

"My best is...."

"I can't live with/without..."

How often do we say things like this to ourselves? How often are we really sure it's true?

When I am coaching, I work with clients on developing a "growth mindset", which is a fancy psychology way of essentially being a little bit more open to your own possibilities.

"I can't do that... yet"

"this is the best I can do...today, but I could change that"

And it's fun and useful to talk about, but what I like even more, is seeing it in action. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how our little slip ups can give us real insight to work with. Today I want to talk about what happens when we take ourselves to the edge of failure, on purpose.

Gym revelations - or how I totally broke my RPE meter.


For the last few weeks I have had Ryan at Project Barbell coaching me for powerlifting (he's a great coach, go check him out).

At the end of this short block, we came to deadlift day (the best day...) and my working sets looked like this: 3 sets of 6 reps at 80% max [for me that is supposedly 96kg but since when have I ever behaved myself, I set up the bar at a round 100kg]. Then there was a 4th set, an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) the aim being to see how many reps I could get before I couldn't lift another or my form started to break down.

The sets of 6 felt hard, I would have given them an 8/10 for effort. They came up fast enough, but it was a fight to keep going back for another rep. I expected the 4th set to go for 5-8 reps, no more. So I put on my most epic lifting music and set out...

6 reps.

That was OK, as good as the previous sets, lets try another couple.

8 reps.

Not too bad, might still have some gas in this. Lets see if we can make 10.

10 reps.

Actually.... I might have 12 here...

12 reps

Whoa! well that happened, let's keep going.

13 reps.

Can't stop there....

14 reps.

At this point I felt a massive surge of stress and nearly spontaneously burst into tears. I recognised that I was finally hitting the wall in terms of what my body could handle.

15 reps

I finally started to feel my core lose strength and my back start to round through the lift. A definite point of form-failure. So I stopped.

I sat by the barbell for a couple of minutes until my hands stopped shaking, and loaded up my next lift.

15 reps.

Twice what I would have predicted. Also a lot more than most trainers would predict at this portion of my max lift.

What does this mean? Does it mean my 1 rep max is incorrect? I don't think so because I tested that last week and while I do think there is something "blocking" me there, not by that much.

I am more interested though not in how I did this, but in how I *didn't* do this before.

What was happening when I was getting to the 5th or 6th rep of a set, genuinely feeling that I was close to my limit - but in truth, nowhere near? Was I being lazy? I don't think so, I didn't feel like I was "flaking out" on the set or going easy on myself. So what makes me, or any other lifters, feel like they are close to failure, or lifting an appropriately challenging weight, when they aren't?

I often work with women, who are not familiar with strength training. I will pass her a weight to try and ask how it feels. "Heavy" is often the reply, but when I watch her lift I suspect they aren't challenged enough, so we go a bit heavier. "How's that?" I ask "REALLY HEAVY" she says, then bangs out 20 reps.

I'd usually put this down to inexperience. New lifters are often surprised by weight, but more able than they suspect. Sometimes more experienced lifters are too, which is why, for instance, powerlifters sometimes do "heavy walkouts" where they set up with a really heavy squat bar, but simply stand with it, without squatting, to get used to the feel of the load.

Our body often lies to us, about what is too much. Early strength training isn't about building muscle, it's about training the nervous system to understand that it is safe to allow the muscles to activate enough to lift more weight. To dial back the protective mechanisms that stop us from hurting ourselves, but tend to be overcautious in untrained individuals.

Inspiring photograph.
Are you not inspired?


The curse of being comfortable.


We generally live super comfortable lives. Most who read this will generally be warm, dry, well fed, reasonably rested. We aren't necessarily used to pain or discomfort, or if we are (like those of us with chronic pain) it becomes our "normal" and we set our dial there.

Anything outside of our "normal" becomes uncomfortable. Anything uncomfortable can be read as painful, or impossible.

That might be doing 8 reps at a weight you are used to lifting for 6. It might be going without a morning doughnut. It might be going to a class on a Wednesday instead of a Tuesday. It might be picking up the phone to call someone when you'd rather email.

And the gift of being uncomfortable.


When I look back at the things in my life that were a real driver for positive change, they were often also the hardest times in my life. Like when my kids taught me just how little sleep I could truly function on. Or when my appendix tried to kill me and I realised how amazing and precious good health really is. 

Sometimes these lessons come uninvited, but we can also invite them ourselves. Like smashing out an AMRAP, or picking up the phone to call a coaching client after years of phone phobia.

In my coaching, I like to build some small challenges, for just this reason. Free Living Fitness begins with a snack-free habit. Just for a couple of weeks, trying to confine eating to 3 or 4 mealtimes a day. This isn't essential for weight loss (though for some it really helps) but it can teach important lessons about which food choices are hunger, and which are habit. The first time I tried it I was ready to gnaw my arm off only an hour after a 600 calorie breakfast, just because I knew I wasn't going to be having a snack! I don't expect people to stay with this habit, just to try it out and see what they learn.

The Precision Nutrition plan I use with my private nutrition clients has some similar phases. Habits to practice not because they are to keep long term, but as a way of learning about the impact of certain ways of eating, and gaining a better understanding of what we are capable of. 

So while I am all about making wellbeing and fitness simple, sustainable and enjoyable, let's not forget the value of sometimes playing a little with uncomfortable. Because maybe there's hidden potential there, just waiting until it's needed.



I help amazing people get healthy, manage their weight and learn more about their awesome selves. Check out my 7 day reset for a completely free course to inspire you on your journey.

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