Building Strength in your Wants, Awareness, and Boundaries

Niki Sims shows you ways to start enjoying your training and eating habits more by defining your wants and boundaries.

Building Strength in your Wants, Awareness, and Boundaries

By: Niki Sims

20 years ago, I was a girl fighting to be skinny. Today, I am a woman thriving in strength. That means I’ve been working out for a lot longer than I’ve enjoyed how I look and feel—many years of being at war with my body, feeling frustrated by how it wouldn’t respond to my eating and exercising, and being embarrassed by it. I see a lot of women and men fighting the same battle I was in.

Relationships with every other human come and go, but your body is the one you’ll be stuck with until your time is up. It’s worth appreciating that magnificent meat system of electricity, levers, and contractile tissue, and getting on the same team! Fortunately, it is possible to want to improve your body, yet still like what you have.

Lifting and certain nutrition habits have laid the path to my own Niki Nirvana. In analyzing more about my habits and mentality, I’ve noticed that there are three elemental components that are always present as I forge ahead (and coach others): Wants, Awareness, and Boundaries. The WAB of life 😉

These components support each other and provide a useful balance of objectivity and subjectivity. That balance is very helpful for those of us who are a bit more emo than robo.

Wants

If you’re reading this article, you probably have what you need to survive and now you get to have some fun getting what you want. Just to clarify: need = food for you and your family; want = more stuff from Rogue. I know that is a tough one for some of you.

Coming to terms with what you want can be challenging because it may feel selfish—but it is also really really fun! And you can want things that also benefit others.

Some examples of wants:

  • Being healthy so I can live longer and enjoy time with family.
  • Competing in jiu-jitsu.
  • Living independently as I age.
  • Feeling sexy and confident.
  • Not feeling guilty about food choices.

Your wants should be pretty darn clear and should excite you. This is important because you’ll face lots of forks in the road where you’ll have to choose to either take the road that leads you away from what you want, or the one that brings you closer. The more you’ve mapped out the scenery, the easier it is to say “Fork, yes!” to what you want and “No, thanks” to what you don’t.

Good qualities of a want:

  • They are forward-thinking, seeing far ahead in time.
  • They give you a visual and a feeling that you instantly connect with.
  • They open the door for you to be hella descriptive with actions that support them.

I love the “5 Whys” exercise for this. Think of something you want, then ask yourself “Why?” up to 5 times to get to the core of the want. We talk about this in podcast episode #382. It can be a little uncomfortable, but stick with it! You deserve it.

I spend a good amount of time doing this when I’m making decisions:

because it’s important for me to act in alignment with what I want. If I don’t, I’ll end up resentful of myself or others and that’s not what I want. Cue more of this:

Awareness

Awareness is the objective pillar. (You’re welcome, robots.) Awareness helps you separate your circumstances from your thoughts and feelings, and thus gives you more control over how you want to feel and act.

When you have a “bad” training session, it can lead you to feel angry, disappointed, and frustrated. To get out of that negative thought loop, try thinking about the circumstances around the training session: Did you miss any sessions last week? Did you sleep poorly the last couple of nights? Think about what is making you qualify your training as “bad.” Bad compared to what? Identifying this context enables you to flip the switch from frustrated to understanding and curious.

Another game-changer in dealing with frustration is having awareness of who you are independent of others. What do you look and feel like without comparing yourself to others? The more you see yourself as your own, rad manifestation of the genetic lottery with asymmetrical boobs, a funky cowlick, a deviated septum, and a predisposition for Russel Crowe movies, the more energy you can spend on things that are more within your control.

Many people start working out as a means to look like someone else, or at least less of themselves. I certainly did. No one in particular, just some twiggy girl with a thigh gap. My goals have evolved a bit, and I see this happen with clients, too.

Having aesthetic goals is fine, in my opinion, but it is far more enjoyable when those come from appreciation and respect, rather than jealousy and insecurity. Beautifully said by authors Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro in their book Power for All: “Maintaining high self-esteem is critical to our well-being and our capacity to set and pursue goals, savor positive experiences, and cope with challenging ones. Yet our pursuit of self-esteem can be both dysfunctional and functional. When we seek it because we are feeling insecure and vulnerable about our self-worth, we engage in strategies that are motivated by the need to protect or aggrandize ourselves. The esteem this behavior creates is fragile—unstable and relative, contingent on external validation from events and accomplishments. In contrast, when our behavior is grounded in realistic acceptance of who we are, without defensiveness, the resulting self-esteem is secure—congruent and stable, an authentic expression of a person’s core self.”

In addition to the awareness of how you happened to be put together and what you want, you need to pay attention to the outcomes of your actions and habits. What ABC lead to your current state of XYZ?

This is incredibly important when it comes to eating. The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and the best way to your stomach and thighs is through your mouth. Your eating habits can snowball in ways that get you closer to what you want or in ways that get you further from it. Once you have a grip on how you need to eat to feel the way you want, you have unlocked a major superpower!

One of the best ways to figure this out is by doing a food journal. We use Visual Food Diaries (daily photos of food and drink) at Barbell Logic because it’s easy and gives you a (sometimes very surprising) synopsis of patterns. In addition to the photos, note how you’re feeling throughout the day. Pair this with metrics like weight, waist and hip measurements and you have some very useful data!

Some effects of food are instantaneous, like satiety and emotional gratification—but other effects arrive very unfashionably late. Like a couple days or a week later. So whenever you feel great, look back over the last several days and note patterns. Same thing for when you feel not so great. Turn the patterns that make you feel good into habits. It really is that simple.

Which leads me to another important thing to be aware of: how much do you know about training and nutrition? These may be great things to outsource for a while. Professionals can coach you properly, help you find habits you respond to well, provide accountability, and set up the most objective thing of all: Metrics.

These are the facts that let you know if you’re driving in the right forking direction. They are measurable and quantifiable. Examples of useful metrics:

  • Weight
  • Waist circumference
  • Hips circumference
  • 1, 3, 5 Rep Maxes for the Squat, Bench, Deadlift, and Press
  • Weekly tonnage
  • Number of training sessions per week

Examples of not so useful metrics:

  • Did I get a good pump?
  • Would Henry Cavill do a double-take?
  • Do I look better than her?
  • Am I bulky now?

::record scratch::

Let’s spend a minute on that topic because I know it’s a juicy one. Becoming bulky is a big “NO” for many women. Totally fair! When someone says that I hear two things: There is fear of looking like someone they don’t want to look like, and they are missing some education on testosterone and muscle mass development. Here’s the tip of it:

Testosterone is a great hormone. It is present in both men and women and affects the following in each:

  • Bone density
  • Fat distribution
  • Muscle strength and mass
  • Facial and body hair
  • Red blood cell production
  • Sex drive
  • Sperm production (directly in men, indirectly from women 🙂
  • Fertility
  • Sex drive (Yes, I said that twice. No, I am not sorry.)

Testosterone levels for men range from 300nanograms per deciliter to 1000ng/dL. Women produce much less testosterone than men do. According to Mayo Clinic Laboratories,  normal testosterone in women aged 19 and up range from 8 to 60 ng/dL.

There is little, if any, evidence that lifting weights produces large spikes in testosterone for women. While lifting can momentarily increase testosterone for both men and women (a bit for men and a much smaller bit for women) it is not a recommended treatment for men with diagnosed low testosterone. It just won’t get the job done. Doctors prescribe testosterone and benefits are seen in muscle strength, but not the other way around. (Fun fact: slow steady cardio has been linked to reductions in testosterone.)

Another way to look at this: If a male with low testosterone of 300ng/dL or less—who already has much more testosterone than a normal woman does at 8-60ng/dL—can’t get bulky from lifting, a woman is not going to either.

Lastly, putting on lots of muscle mass takes a lot of time and it really is a choice, not an accident. Like I said above, I’m all on board with you looking how you want to look. If you don’t want to look bulky from muscle, I am sure you won’t.

While we’re on the subject of hormones, I absolutely recommend that women start becoming more aware of how their hormonal cycle impacts how they look and feel throughout the cycle.

Before doing this myself, I would become frustrated with my Jabba the Hutt bod, not appreciating that it was cyclical. And when I had my favorite bod of the month, I’d attribute that as “the best bod” and thus perpetuate a cycle of ups and downs without seeing the full cycle and what each phase brings.

Now I can recognize when I’m in the follicular phase (feeling great), then moving into the wonderful juicy bod phase, and finally (ugh) into the 5lbs-up-emotions-tired-please-hug-me phase, and know that each will pass and it’ll be alright.

In her article titled, “How your menstrual cycle affects strength training,” Caroline Hardy writes,

“Several studies have looked at differences in responses to strength training in the follicular phase (the time from your period until ovulation), versus training in the luteal phase (from ovulation until your period). Some research has found that strength training during the follicular phase resulted in higher increases in muscle strength compared to training in the luteal phase (1–3).”

And,

“In the second part of your cycle, progesterone rises significantly. Your body temperature is also higher during this phase — body temp shoots up by at least 0.4 degrees celsius after ovulation and stays high until menstruation. Your body is preparing for a potential pregnancy, should an egg have been fertilized at ovulation.

“As a result, you may find that you don’t have as much endurance during your luteal phase. You may not be able to hit max lifts, and may feel worse in training compared to the first part of your cycle.”

By understanding and being aware of your cycle, you can connect changes in energy and performance to normal hormonal fluctuations, rather than beating yourself up over it.

Boundaries

Boundaries are lines you draw to protect what you’ve decided is important to you. They preserve the longevity of your training and the success of your nutrition habits by shielding you from yourself.

You know, the voice you have an internal dialogue with? The “higher level” you and the “lower level” you? The former fights for your long-term wants, while the latter begs for instant validation and comfort. That is why getting some clarity on your wants is crucial for establishing your boundaries.

An example of this in action is your workout schedule. You need to lift 2-4 days per week to make steady progress. When you are busy and important to other people, you have to fight to keep your training times as part of your schedule—which means you have to plan for it and make adjustments around it.

Another example is dining out, socializing, and staying up late when you are trying to maintain a caloric deficit. When we are in environments we have full control over, we tend to make food and drink choices that support a deficit—but when we are out socializing where food and drink is often the core of the activity, the fight between higher level and lower level voices can be much louder. By going into social engagements with some clarity on what exactly you’re going to eat and drink, you can have a plan for the night that aligns with your nutrition goals and allows you to socialize.

Boundaries also help you prioritize when you are balancing training with another sport. There will be times when one has to take more priority than the other, and you have to do a lot of saying “No” to the lower-priority sport. This can be challenging for many people.

If you are like me, you are doing things because you are competitive, and “more ≠ more” can be a tough pill to swallow. I have learned that this is hugely important because it protects you from pushing yourself too hard. Again, boundaries protect you from yourself.

WABing it up

Your wants and boundaries may shift over time. That is totally fine because it means you are learning and staying curious. Learning what works well and what doesn’t for your body equips you with awareness—enabling you to make changes that you know will work, or are at least worth trying. Feeling like you can make changes to your strength, aesthetics, and health is what ends the fight against your body and gets you moving in the same direction toward what you want.

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