You can probably think of a couple of people you know who have been blessed with both the physique of a Greek god and the athleticism of a decathlete. No matter how much pizza they eat and beer they drink, they always look good. I know people like that, too.

Unfortunately, chances are, you’re not one of those people. Most of us aren’t ‘blessed’ with those genetics. Sorry for being blunt, but seriously, do you have any idea how much the average person would have to train to get close to that magazine-cover body? Do you know the strictness in eating and lifestyle required for this? And we haven’t even started talking about the ‘supplements’ and photoshop.

We all seem to have a habit of comparing ourselves to the 0.001% of the population that is ‘lucky’ enough to be on TV or in magazines. The ugly part is that the fitness world knows this about us and uses it to manipulate us. The industry perpetuates normal-shaming. We actively promote unrealistic expectations. Articles on the internet and in magazines tell you that everyone can be like that guy in the picture with the 8-pack or that girl with striations on her abs and a perfect butt.

“If you just take these pills, buy my book and do this top-secret program, you can get a body like this!”

What you have isn’t enough, apparently. It seems like the thought process behind this kind of marketing is that if I can make you feel embarrassed and ashamed enough about your normalcy, maybe that’ll make you push harder and exercise more often. That sounds like a healthy relationship with your body and physical activity, right?

It’s disheartening, unproductive and unrealistic. Even worse, it’s potentially really damaging for us ‘regular’ people. Perhaps we should take a step back and think about this. Maybe there’s a healthier way to motivate people.

First, we all need to calm down, recalibrate and realize that nobody has treated us unfairly by giving us ‘normal’ genetics. We are probably not inadequate. We probably don’t need more pills.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably an able-bodied, driven individual with a great brain and full function of all your limbs. Let’s acknowledge how lucky we are to have that. Should you be embarrassed of this? No. In fact, the last thing you should ever consider doing is letting your body go to waste simply because you can’t look like a magazine cover model. Sure, you might be carrying around a bit more body fat than you need, but your body works and it is resilient. All you have to do is push it in the right direction with good movement and nutritious food.

Appreciate the gift you’ve been given – the human body is probably the most complex, adaptable and influential piece of technology you will ever get the privilege of using. It would be a shame to go through life not realizing what your body is capable of and the innate joy and freedom that comes with confidence in your body and abilities. It’s an ongoing personal journey that is uniquely yours, and there’s no finish line – just adaptations.

There’s an urgency in most big cities that’s hard to ignore. If you live in a vibrant city and work downtown, you know what I mean. We constantly feel a need to get things done. As much as possible, as quickly as possible. This urgency is great if you’re at a phase in life where you’re building your career, but let’s acknowledge that we don’t have to apply it to everything we do.

We see this urgency spill over to training all the time. It seems like a subconscious occurrence. Perhaps maximal effort at all costs is the only gear you know. The intention is fantastic. You’re at the gym and you’re ready to work really hard. But what is the purpose of this urgency? Is it useful or harmful in this situation? What are you trying to accomplish so quickly? What’s the end-goal?

I see the root of the urgency, and it’s completely valid. You have 20 minutes to do what’s best for your body – it’s your only opportunity to work on your health today, and you want to make the most of it. What I’m suggesting is that perhaps your intentions should be purposefully focused on the highest-quality stimulus possible instead of just general urgency. The highest-quality stimulus often isn’t simply the fastest-paced, balls-to-the-wall, push-through-bad-form, ‘no pain, no gain’ approach a lot of people urgently resort to. The highest-quality stimulus is the safest, most efficient long-term solution to gradually improve your movement quality and overall health. It requires you to be patient, fully present, and extremely diligent when it comes to exercise technique. It is sustainable and logical, and we’ve discussed it at length here.

When people ask me “what’s the perfect approach to a session, then?”, I struggle to give a ‘scientific’ answer. I almost always give an answer that doesn’t satisfy people because it’s a little ‘fluffy’. The truth is, in this particular situation, I do actually think it’s more about ‘feel’, and that it varies with every single person and at every single training session because the experience of each day is unique. You don’t know how you’re going to feel until you do. The hard part, then, is being able to be real enough with yourself and in tune enough with your body so you can listen to what your body is telling you.

For example, every session at Ritual starts with a drum roll. On the surface, this is done to signal that your session is about to begin, so you need to get to the training floor as soon as possible. But we also do this to help you disengage. The familiar, rhythmic pre-training sounds are there to help you disconnect from the stressors and distractions so you can focus on yourself. It’s a signal for you to leave your ‘baggage’ at the door and to set your mind right (also, Taiko drums are awesome). This is the start of your ritual – it’s the little bit of time you grant yourself to work on yourself. Capitalize on it. Narrow your focus, listen inwards. Feel your body, acknowledge the ‘niggles’. What are today’s areas of tightness, fatigue or general discomfort? Be intentional with the drills done at the start of each session – it’s your time to open up, wake up and start to figure out how you feel. Test out your breathing. Feel the muscles in your trunk engage. Tune in.

Take the first set lightly. The purpose here is twofold: to feel what one set will require from you today, and to warm up with today’s session-specific movement patterns and sequence. You’re dialing in and focusing on common errors you know you make to make sure things are in check.

In the second set, increase the intensity a bit to make sure you feel well-oiled and that everything is firing right. Where are your feet? How’s that shoulder? This is your opportunity to stress-test the breathing pattern you’ve set in the first round.

After the second set, you’ll have your head wrapped around the demands of the session in relation to your current physiological state. Ramp up and fire on all cylinders here if it feels right. Still feeling strong? Slay another dragon. Do it again. If you feel in control and the coaches are giving you good feedback on your form, keep at it. Stay focused and present as fatigue really sets in towards the end of the session. Don’t risk injury or over-fatigue. Step down a level if you need to. You don’t have to be doing backflips and wrestling bears all the way to the finish line to get good training effects. “Finish strong” doesn’t mean try a harder progression – it means finish with perfect reps even if they are done quickly.

This scenario is just an attempt to illustrate the mindfulness that can be applied at every session. These steps obviously won’t work for everyone, and I’m not suggesting you should approach every session like this. My point is simply that the whole thing – this one session, this week, this month, your next five years – is a self-assessment exercise that develops your instincts on how you feel and what you need. It’s an active learning process, and it’s here for you to make full use of. When you take the time to focus on your body and movement, you learn about yourself, and you learn to appreciate the things you’re able to do and the gift you have – a body that works beautifully, that you can trust.

You get one body while you’re on this earth. Use it well and treat it well. A great place to start listening to it is in training. With the right intentions, it never gets boring. It’s not about making exercise tolerable – it’s about gradual, consistent improvement, and getting in tune with your body.

Be Brave,

Ian Tan