Warrior of the Soul Part 2: To See the Soul

Gushing water
To see the soul is an art that requires utmost patience. Indelible stillness, like the water’s surface, is your goal. And yet, a body of water is hardly ever still; the wind blows and it ripples forward, a vortex within churns, and the water swirls – currents deep beneath under the surface ebb and flow in endless undulations. There is always movement, whether seen or unseen. But – and this is where the secret lies – waters always move unhindered.

Look at the brook, the river, the sea; they are ever-moving in sync with nature. When there is no perturbation, water is still and unshaken – as in a quiet lake, a genteel pond. But as the world buzzes with motion, water follows.

And water is powerful indeed. At great heights, falling water can crush rocks. Over time, rocks are ground to pebbles, and then fine sand, washed away by the current. There is much to fear about water – while it is essential for life to flourish, in excess, it crushes, drowns, and kills.

Because of fear, our instinct is to resist. When we resist the moods of the soul, we place dams in the streams of our heart, and our emotions cannot flow as they normally would. Waves gush against the artificial barrier, and try to find another way around. At times, the waters ease away safely; excess seeps into the ground, a new outlet is found without much fanfare. But when the currents are too strong, dammed up rivers are trammeled dangerously against our walls. They pound with all of nature’s might, and when they finally break free, it is with an explosive burst that comes at great cost. At times like these, our bodies, the ones we love, and the life we live – these may be the first casualties.

About a week after I wrote the above paragraph, I got into one of those funky moods where I was being intensely self-critical and completely closed-up to all kinds of interaction. Just as I was at the peak of this emotional perturbation, a family member unintentionally spoke some harsh words – all of which were intended to release steam rather than to hurt anyone – and I took it too personally. In response, I reacted with an uncharacteristically angry outburst that stressed my body, distressed my family member, and upset myself further.

On hindsight, I realized that I was seething with self-critical rage, and instead of processing it properly, I suppressed it and tried to get on with my day. I was essentially constructing dams that impeded the natural flow of these powerful, negative emotions. If I sat myself down, if I stilled myself and felt my emotions, I would have been able to realize that all the internal discomfort simply came from my inner critic gone haywire.

With this knowledge, a number of options would have been available to me. I could call out on my crazy inner critic, taking the edge off its bite. I could rationally consider if some of its observations were sensible or just exaggerations. For the sensible observations, I could re-channel the anger I felt at myself to fuel productive pursuits.

Indeed, by understanding that torrent of uncomfortable emotions and feeling it instead of blocking it, I would have been able to transform it into power – power to change my circumstances by taking proactive measures. Instead of being crushed by it, I would have had a source of energy. Negativity could have turned into positivity, and frustration could have become fuel.

Armed with this observation, I decided to practice stilling myself, and then watching my inner turbulences during the weeks after that event. I was quite surprised to notice that there was a lot more going on under the surface than I was expecting – supressed anger, grief, anxieties. Being able to stay still and bear the discomfort and fear of dealing with strong emotions helped me to see deep beyond the surface. From there, I could begin to do work on the soul. So long as I practiced this discipline of seeing the soul, I noticed that I was better able to brush off my family member’s negative moods, or even diffuse it, instead of allowing it to affect me. By being still myself, I was able to help still others.

Stages of Drive

Motivation is temporal. Good music, a cup of coffee, or a great TED talk could make you feel inspired, pumped up, and raring to go – but give yourself a couple of setbacks, and that same source of inspiration might start to feel like a toy hammer against a two-tonne rock. You’ll need something way more powerful than a short spurt of energy to break down the barriers in your way.

Stages_of_Drive

Stages of Drive

I like to think of motivation in terms of stages. Each stage represents evolutionary growth in our personalities, in the very core of our beings – and that can be ultimately reflected in the way we are driven. Getting to the next stage means that we are motivated by a new kind of desire; a new purpose or meaning forms the foundation for our actions, and a new force gives us power to overcome the unsurmountable. This motivating energy is fundamentally different between stage to stage, and I imagine it to be on a hierarchical scale: higher stages present more sustainable and powerful energy, while lower stages burn brightly at first, but wear off just as quickly, especially in the face of challenges. And challenges are aplenty when we are engaged in any worthwhile pursuit, so if we don’t transcend to the next stage fast enough, we may not be able to persist in our mission!


Stage_1

Driven by Success

In the first stage, success is motivated by success. Our drive to get things done is derived from the feel-good sensation of having seen success in either someone else, or ourselves. That’s why inspiring TED talks, tales of exemplary people in their field, or even a sports game can cause us to be fired up about our own projects. We see great people swinging their hammers of accumulated ability and smashing apart boulders with seemingly effortless ease, and we think to ourselves – hey, we could be like that too. So we pick up our own tiny hammers and take up our own quests. We embark on our creative projects, our ambitious routines, our competitive journeys. When we succeed for the first time, the dopamine rush makes us feel great; it makes us want to repeat the fantastic experience. The more fortunate ones of us may get to see longer stretches of success than others, and for as long as our season of victory continues, we may believe that we have finally found the holy grail to this game of life. We have no trouble waking up in the morning, swiping aside any sort of negativity, and getting on with our day – smashing problems to smithereens left, right, and center.

But soon enough, regardless of talent or chance, we may meet with an unexpected failure. Our book launch fails. We miss a scheduled exercise session. The competitor trumps us decisively. We feel horrible, and the negative thoughts are harder to swipe off each morning. At first, we may try to block off the hard feelings by listening to more inspiring talks, watching more incredible wins, telling ourselves about how we have attained the gold medal before, and how we can do it again. Temporarily, we are fired up. We keep at our quests. We keep breaking boulders. Yet, the experience of negativity is inevitable: the harder we try, the more we expose ourselves to failure. Each experience of failure makes the naive part of us realize that all the buzz associated with doing well is only just fairy dust and butterflies – it’s not substantial enough to take us all the way to the top. Eventually, that link between our quest and the feel-good, dopamine-rush of success gets completely rend asunder; to truly complete our quest, we conclude that it is essential to go through the dirt, the mud, and the thorn vines. There are no shortcuts. We don’t feel quite as excited anymore. For some of us, this critical realization makes us want to give up – which may not always be a bad decision. But for the rest of us who really, really want to turn our visions into reality, we become obsessed with the question: how do I keep myself motivated? How do I persist beyond the sting of failure?


Stage_Temporal_Shift

The First Transition

To do that, we’ve got to change our focus. I call this the temporal shift, because we take our eyes away from short-term, feelings-driven, self-indulgent motivation to a longer-term, vision-centered drive. We stop thinking about how an activity makes us feel good, but we think of how our vision and mission is important to us. We focus on that vision more than the temporary good-feels that a short streak of success gives us. This means that we are okay with not feeling okay. In fact, we begin to embrace failure – it is just part of the process of growing. By focusing on the longer term mission instead of the shorter term feelings and sensations, we have made the first transition.


Stage_2

Driven by Growth

Once we’ve made the temporal shift, our eyes are set on higher things. We are no longer motivated by the sweetly deceptive allure of success, but instead, we continue bravely, exposing ourselves to difficulties – difficulties that could lead to even more failure. It may be terrifying, yet we quell our fears and press on. This vision that we have is so important, so captivating, that we begin to learn how to take the failure in stride. We except it like how we except the cycles of night and day, the seasons of spring and summer. We learn how to make it work for us instead of against us.

Indeed, in order to achieve what we can imagine, we must accept that growth is absolutely essential. We hit against strong boulders and they do not break because we do not have the right tools, technique, or strength. Failure and mistakes are now re-framed – instead of being the horrible, unacceptable parts of our quest, they become guiding lights, homing beacons, signposts; information that guides us to the very tools we need to move or break the barriers in our way.

To be quite frank though, making mistakes alone is no road to victory. Neither is it a pleasant experience. Just because we’ve switched our motivation does not mean that the bitter fruit is no longer bitter. No, it is still inimically bitter, but we eat it to get better. We are incensed, incentivized, and inspired to study all our losses with greater diligence and alacrity. We know that this is the only way to learn. No, we do not make mistakes with pleasure, nor derive perverse joy from falling each and every time in battle – our senses are still preserved and our tastes are still refined.

What we do is to let the failures guide our path away from more failure. We still feel the sting of defeat and the pain of a thrashing, so we would still prefer to take a victory over a loss at any time. But we are now more resilient, we are more patient, and we can deal with the pain long enough to discover the new pathways that we can take to grow. We do that by managing our negative emotions, and engaging in quiet reflection and contemplation. Moving from post-defeat pity to (not overly-detached! but) fully-engaged reflection is an evolution of character. Doing so will give us critical insights that can bring us closer to victory road. Through continuous reflection and adjustments, we avoid past mistakes and repeat what works until we know what each situation calls for, until we develop confidence in our own skills and abilities. In other words, it is through mistakes that we are pushed towards acquiring a bigger, better hammer, and it is through reflection, application, and correction upon re-correction that we learn to possess it.

The end goal for us is no longer that temporary sense of satisfaction, but the stable sense of growth – a pursuit of excellence, a mature, resilient motivation – an unshakable knowing that our selves have grown to the point that we can acquire satisfaction more easily than before, indeed to the point where we no longer worry about it. Give a man a large hammer and he may learn to break rocks. Teach a man to forge his own, and all the rocks of the world are for his breaking.

And yet, there is an end to this stage. There is a cliff that we reach, a path that we can no longer easily traverse on foot. The block here is yet another negative feeling. We’ve worked so hard in the past, dusted our knuckles against the rocks, plumbed the depths of our soul for the inspiration to continue against seemingly unbeatable odds, but now that we’ve gotten so far, there is a creeping shroud of uneasiness that begins to overtake us. We start to feel soft, saggy, stagnated. Things that were difficult for us are now easy. We look for the next peak to scale, but it feels like way too much effort. We want to stay here. We want to bask in our worn-out glory, lay in our half-baked success (because half-baked is good enough for us), and stay unperturbed by the forces of change.

But, if the bit of us that first discovered the beauty of our vision still remains somewhere deep within, we will feel that creeping shroud of uneasiness with greater sensitivity. It will permeate our beings and cause us to be unable to laze with serenity. No, we are plagued with a relentless invasion of ennui – we know that we must strive harder. But to what ends, and for what purposes? We tell ourselves that we are satisfied, though, if we were really honest, there is still something not quite complete about our success. Right at where we are at, there is a danger of being ensnared by stagnation, bogged down by boredom, and goaded into the same goals as everyone else. Our projects may be unique, but they seem like just another dime in a pile of so many. Our routines may feel effective, but it’s still someone else’s, stolen from the net somewhere. Our victories are sure, but only because we copied the strategies of another. We are successful, we have overcome failure, but we have yet to find our voice. And that is the thing that bugs us, that is the thing that irritates us, yet it feels insufficient to motivate us forward. We need to get to the next stage, and fast.


Stage_Planar_Shift

The Second Transition

So far, we have only striven for ourselves. We’ve put ourselves through the furnace to look for gold within, we’ve traversed the path of peril to seek treasure without, we smith and re-smith stronger hammers to bash the boulders in our way – but things get too difficult past a certain point. Things may even just get too boring. So what gives us the push – or to put it another way, what sucks us through to the other side? Whatever it is will have to be a higher, transcendent purpose. We need to take our eyes off ourselves, and stop asking for what we can gain from it. We need to start looking at the bigger picture. What can we give? Who can we serve? How do we reach that state of evolved strength that enables us to smash the boulders in other people’s way? Previously, we made a temporal shift, a vital change in perspective from short to long-term. Now, we must make a planar shift, to cease looking at the small area of space that we know as ourselves, and to begin setting our gaze on the wider world. Our perspective must be enlarged, it must grow to encompass not just the people we naturally care about, but also the people whom we don’t yet know, people whom we could one day serve.


Stage_3

Driven by Service

First we were motivated by success, and then by growth. Now, with a stable, empowered self, we make a planar shift, peer out of our shells, and feel compassion for the world around us. At this third stage, we are motivated by service. We have more than enough to share, and we want to give it to where it is needed most. This is, of course, the ideal. Usually, upon venturing out into the world, we may instead learn that our current skill set is not enough to meet the ever-growing demand. Or we may realize that it is not sufficiently fine-tuned for it to be effective. This gap is what draws us forward. It sucks us into a continuum of growth, and makes us able to bear with the days of darkness and desperation up ahead – day that can and will come when we delve deep enough into self-development of all sorts. We may feel lost, we may feel like we want to give up – but when we compare our miniscule pain with the colossal ache of the world, we know for sure that it is only a small price to pay for so great a cause.

Some of us may end up at the other deep end of self-development: complacency. When we get lazy and proud, it is the ones whom we serve who can shake us out of it. Our complacent blindness will lead us to fumble, hopefully in a small way, and immediately, the effects of our mistake reverberate throughout the ecosystem of our influence. Things break down. Systems fall into minor jeopardy. People may get hurt (but hopefully not). All at once, we remember how others need us to be at our best. All at once, we get up, stretch our muscles, and get ready to bust more rocks. There is no time for plateauing when we are service-focused, when our sense of self has grown to include others. We cannot idle in complacency or despair – there are lives and livelihoods at stake. We are pushed off the cliff, and we learn to grow wings.

And as we move out into the world and interact with people – those who can help us and those whom we can help – we are driven towards the deeper ‘why’s’ of doing. Our motivation sheds its selfish outer shell and reveals a vulnerable, humane person within, a person whose heart bleeds for the common cause, and whose hands work to raise others up. At this stage of development, we acquire new facets to our abilities. Previously, our analytical skills helped us grow through failure. By reflection and correction we learn the right path. Now, they show us how our actions can influence or fail to influence others. They show us if our skills are lacking, and whether they are in need of further refinement. On the upside, we also become aware of what works, and what doesn’t; what deserves more time and energy, and what is just a waste of investment. With an expanded sense of self, all the abilities that we’ve developed to understand ourselves become redirected to understand others and our relation to them, transforming us into people who can serve the world effectively.

This can, in many ways, create a distinctive marker in our personal skill sets, helping us to find a unique voice in a sea of so many. It seems like anyone who works hard enough can be a writer, but a writer who writes for gamers, or cooks, or musicians, has found a niche. Extending this to a humanitarian direction brings us to entrepreneurs whose interaction with less fortunate groups drive them to penetrate poverty zones through deftly-organized aid ministries, innovators whose exposure to the countless number in want of a clean drink every morning lead them to discover new ways of creating potable water, and social workers who, when faced with unending demands for skilled attention, use their mastery in technology to multiply the effect of the few on the field. Anybody who puts in the hours, and intelligently grinds through failure after failure, should be able to achieve a fair degree of success, but it is our unique connections to those we interact with, to those whom we feel for, that defines the nature of our expertise, and adds colour to our wings.

As a caveat, we must be careful not to skip steps here. There are many martyrs in this world whose kindness and selflessness are exemplary and admirable. But they remain ineffective in their fields of service, or they may even succumb to the same oppression that they seek to fight against. Why does this happen? Usually, they may have moved straight to stage 3 – the demands of the world around them were so pressing that they had no freedom to develop their strengths first. As such, when challenges come in greater numbers, they cannot care for both themselves and others.

Sometimes, we may be in such a situation because of circumstances. But when given the choice, we should strive to develop in a sound and sequential manner. We need wings before we can save others who are falling, we need a great hammer to smash our boulders, then those of others. While we should not be afraid to step out and serve, neither should we be tempted to rush the pace of our development. Through patience, we grow steadily, accumulate ability, and become a powerful force in whatever field we find ourselves in.

If we do manage to reach this stage without rushing too quickly or hesitating for too long, then our motivation becomes akin to the perpetual motion devices of lore – those around us catalyze our growth as we dedicate the fruits of our labour to serving them. We are inspired, and we inspire, we are motivated and we motivate. Our drive is strong enough to break down all the personal barriers in our way. By now, the only thing that blocks us are the logical limits, things like time and energy. These are things that we can only increase to a certain extent. From there, we will aim for optimal investments of these limited resources. At this stage, we become concerned with fine-tuning, experimentation and achieving the best returns from what little we have. This is a problem that demands constant attention and focus – yet it is a good problem to be dealing with. Because having broken down all the barriers of drive from Stage 1 to Stage 3, we can now look up and gaze into the clear skies for the first time. And that’s when we consider: perhaps, what lies beyond is the limit.

Placeholder Habits

Cup

The last two weeks were fairly annoying for me. I had to wake up early for some nasty morning papers, cram a whole bunch of information in my head, and reproduce them as sensible arguments – in as legible a handwriting as I could muster.

Despite that, it was a very fun experience. I got to push the limits of my knowledge retention skills and deal, on the spot, with a few unanticipated questions. Admittedly, I had more fun than I ought.

What was truly difficult though, was sustaining my blogging habit during those two endless, draggy weeks. It probably wasn’t impossible, it just wasn’t at the top of my priority list, and so I shaved it off. And that was definitely an important choice to make; we can’t have it all at once, can we!

That being said, I wasn’t quite prepared to go into yet another season of non-blogging. I’m sure many of you encounter the same deal every now and then: a habit you’d like to keep up, but trying circumstances mean you might have to go through a period of abstinence for a while.

What to do? Thankfuly, I had a few placeholder habits in store. While I might not have been actively working on posts to the point where they were blog-ready, I was still taking out my writing cap once in awhile, shaking off the dust and putting it on. I wrote partial posts, worked on other story projects, and tended to a few small dinglings on the side.

All these lesser, but no less important attempts to keep in touch with the digital-writer side of me helped stave off my perennial lazybones. Now that I’m free from academic obligations, the temptation to collapse into a pile of non-activity is great. Still the desire to fulfill that creative drive – which was admittedly way stronger when I was occupied with exams (because hey, procrastination monkey) – is greater. To be honest, it’s a close fight. But maintaining placeholder habits helped tip the scale.

So yes, it’s true that we can’t always keep up the habits that are important to us. The vagaries of life will be sure to present some kind of speed bump that slows us down every now and then. But even so, we can still keep moving by implementing a lesser version of our habits – a placeholder of sorts that reminds us of the original that we want to be committed to. Before long, we’ll be up and running again!

Inner Child Dysfunctions

Do I have a language for these things? These mindless, useless things that I indulge in but are no good for me in the moment – or at least I know that there’s a better solution to my funk but I do them anyway; either out of habit, or because I’m bored, or frustrated, or down.

Whatever it is, I need a language for it, so next time I do something silly again, I can say, “there – another one of those.”

List of silly things I do:
1) open up a phone game in the morning when travelling, and when I’m too tired to do anything else. I think taking some time to meditate or reflect upon the day will be so much more useful.
2) wasting time looking through albums for something to listen to, instead of having a go-to list of songs-to-learn, or at the very least mood-relevant playlists.
3) starting a game of starcraft 2 without a gameplan, a skill I’d like to practice, or a goal whatsoever, and being emotionally invested. Not very good when you lose, and not even particularly good when you win.
4) nibble some snack/make coffee/buy unhealthy food in an indulgent manner whenever I’m tired and need energizing. I’d rather go to fruits or juice or something good for my body but you know, my inner kid wants all that.
5) brooding in moody thoughts instead of doing something productive about it. I think exercising, musicking, or taking a stroll would much better alternatives, even if the ruminating commentary still goes on in the background.

All these things aren’t particularly bad in themselves, but knowing the opportunity cost of these petty indulgences sorta makes it pretty painful to reflect upon. I think I shall call them inner-child dysfunctions, mostly because they tend to happen when some vital part of me is not being taken care of. Either not enough food, rest, socializing, or play.

I think instead of willing myself to enforce better habits when dysfunctions occur, a more effective way is to build a life around taking care of these needs, and then it’d be much easier to make a better choice.

I suppose inner child dysfunctions are signs of poor management in the past rather than indicators of necessary !immediate action in the present – it’s way tempting to go “okay I’m gonna force myself to do exercise/eat better food/meditate instead of whatever” but the energy required to force yourself in the right here and now has to come from somewhere. Even worse, a sudden forceful will applied to an already malfunctioning aspect of the self might associate negative feelings to the activity in question, which damages future endeavours. Is rolling it right in the present so important that you risk your future development over it?

I don’t think so.

Of course it’ll be good not to let everything go south, the inner child also needs to be quite firmly disciplined. So perhaps a well-balanced way out of this predicament is to let yourself fail within limits, and institute placeholder habits instead of giving up entirely (indulge in some snacks, but also throw in a couple of fruits!). Ultimately to think long term and give myself space to fight another day will be on my agenda. Plus of course, to make sure that I am moving towards a better future instead of repeating old mistakes, otherwise I’m just buying time for more dysfunction.

All in all, I suppose these inner-child dysfunctions are quite a common place occurence to everyone. How do you deal with it? I’ll be curious to know.

Meanwhile, I shall attempt to regulate indulgences every now (an important step in avoiding plateauing of growth, or flat-lining of expectations), but an overall plan to take care of those deeper needs in a healthy manner is the right way to go.

Exercise Routine! Part 3: Tasty Ideas

And without further ado, let me present to you the final part of this short series!

The 10 minutes

Have you ever felt like a session of exercise is just going to be too hard to get through? Well, I have. And in fact, today is one of these days. My body is worn from all the traveling about, and my mind’s been duly exercised throughout the day. I just want to head home and sleep.

But there is one trick to get you looking forward to the exercise even when you don’t. I present to you: the 10 minutes.

All you have to do is set a timer on your phone, clock, or watch, and let it tick down to 10 minutes. When the time is up, you can go do anything you want. But before that happens, you must promise to get off your couch and move your body! Do whatever you want, do what you feels fun. Just make sure that you move, and very importantly as highlighted in part 2, accompany this move session with a deliberate practice to feel your body. It might take a bit more brain juice than you are used to, but it is only for 10 minutes.

Plus, you’ll reap the benefits immediately. Sometimes the workload for the day divorces our minds from our bodies, and this short period of time helps you reconnect to your primal, sensual, physical parts. You might actually begin to feel more relaxed than when you first started.

And slowly as you move your body, you might feel that you want to do more with this new momentum generated by the first 10 minutes. Go ahead then – it may even become the most productive workout session of the week yet!

Lifting Randomness

For those of you bored stiff of lifting plain ol’ dumbbells like me, there’s good news – there are many ways to keep your upper body pumping while challenging your arms to adapt to new shapes and weights.

The solution is to set down your dumbbells, and embrace all the random physical things around you. Yes, literally embrace them! Put your arms around the dinner chair and lift it up. Grab hold on the ends of the legs, and behold – more leverage! Grapple on the edge of the sofa and lift it slightly. Carry the side table and do pumping squats with it. The possibilities are quite endless.

When we lift dumbbells or barbells, we isolate specific muscle movements and train them repetitively. That is very effective for body sculpting, but not particularly so for a functional workout! If you want your arms to be relevantly functional, you need to keep forging new connections with how your body reacts with the randomly-shaped, not always ideal-for-carrying objects in the world. It is in fact, as much a brain workout as it is a physical one. You don’t want your mind to slouch in a corner while you train your biceps, so find a way to work those muscles while keeping your brain awake.

One way that works for me is to aim for a specific degree of muscle ache on any part of my body that I’m looking to train, and use non-standard weights like parts of my drumset, the piano chair, or even weighted discs unmounted from adjustable dumb bells, to attain that goal of muscle ache through whatever movements feel natural at the time.

If the weight is too light, sometimes that could mean that I ought to change object, or it could also mean that I could change my grip on the object (like holding the legs of the chair) to increase the load. Sometimes, it could mean that I could offset the lightness by doing more reps, although technically this would train endurance rather than strength; yet both are important and a mind-engaging workout like this should demand active balancing during the spontaneity of the workout. The reason why this works is because ache often correlates to growth; so as long as you are sensitive to not tipping over to the other end of injurious pain you should be doing good!

Movement Complexities

The modern gym-goer is conditioned to think in nicely structured, cleanly defined pigeonholes of compartmentalized movement. “Do tricep extentions for tricep strength! Do squats for leg power! Do high reps low weights for endurance!” And that is really quite the fundamental base of knowledge for every cause-and-effect believing exercise buff. In fact, those with more experience and expertise have a whole host of “moves” that are geared towards specific muscle groups, right down to the modification of each exercise for the particular purpose of the week.

And all that knowledge is really quite splendid. It saves time, allows you to move these building blocks of ideas around to arrange custom-made routines.

But there is one thing that it often misses, and that’s the avid cross-fertilization of specific movements across muscle groups. The average gym-goer tends to build up reps and/or weights over time, and that’s often the effect of settling into a too-comfortable pothole of linear growth and unchallenging, mindless repetition. To help offset this tendency towards mindlessness, I’d suggest an active reconstitution of the moves that you usually do, and combine it with some other movements.

For instance, the pumping squats listed above. That’s essentially a combination of carrying something heavy above your head, squating, and pumping it as you stand up. The reason why it’s such a favourite is because it is easy to do, yet challenging to do properly – you need to pay attention to the co-ordination of the pump up and squat so that you match the bottom and tips of your leg and arm movements together. No longer is this a plain ol’ exertion exercise, it also demands that you pay close attention to the speed of your limb movement relative to each other, with that added load to boot!

Another example of complex movements can include carrying an easily grippable weight, and performing unscripted movements based on the pressure it exerts on your muscles. You could experiment with punching motions, swinging around in arcs of varying arm-length, or slow down and speed up the movements to increase and decrease the difficulty where necessary. Sometimes slowing down the arm movement in an extended swing exposes certain muscle instabilities that need to be strengthened – as can seen by muscle trembles despite what you might think is a very light weight and a simple movement. Repeat the movement slowly and try to get that area strengthened up; this is when play can turn into practice!

Benchmark

Finally, you might be quite concerned that if you took all these suggestions to its full extent, you’ll end up with a different exercise routine every session, and it becomes terribly difficult to maintain any semblance of continuity or trackable growth between them. While I’ll argue that the sanctity and focus of each session should be sufficient to bring you back into the mode whereby you can recall past sessions and build on it, I’ll be the first to admit that the wear and tear of each day usually works on our memories as well, and in a state of low energy, past recall becomes a chore to do with sufficient fidelity, if any.

Hence I’ll recommend one more practice to add on to this completely non-exhaustive list of practices: benchmarking.

Pick any exercise or groups of exercises that you think are indicative of how you feel your goals would look like. For instance, you might want to be able to do one-handed pushups, lift heavier weights, or perform a complicated movement. With that as a benchmark, it should guide your smaller exercise decisions. You can still implement all the creative ideas in this post while working specifically towards your goal.

In fact, this serves to sharpen your exercise routines. You may perform creative, non-standard movements that are fun, enlivening, and mildly different every session, but ultimately they are all focused towards strengthening a particular muscle group and all the relevant supporting muscle groups. This prevents stymmied growth caused by scattered focus.

More importantly, it gives you a sense of continuity – even if you’re lifting other objects in a slightly varied manner each time, so long as it activates the necessary muscle group, you know that you’re building towards the same goal, and you look forward to strengthening that core group of muscles each time their relevant training cycles come along.

To find out if you’re improving, you may want to perform a benchmark test once a a week or after each training session depending on how much time it reasonably takes for your muscles to recover after each exercise period. Perform the exercise if possible, and note for any changes, such as more reps or increased staibility. If the movement cannot be fully completed, don’t push it. Either it takes a longer time to do (like a one-handed pushup) or you need more recovery time. If it is the former, then you may want to break down the benchmark into smaller goals that are doable and visable (like assisted one-handed pushups).

A benchmark need not be linearly marked. It is not necessary that you increase in reps or weight each time you do a benchmark test; you may improve in terms of control, or flexibility, and those can be important too. So it’s vital that you expand your goals if it is too constricted, but of course not to the point of crediting growth when there is really none.

With all these tips, I hope your exercise sessions improve in variety and effectiveness!

For a brief introduction to tthis 3 part series, check out this post: Exercise Routine! Part 1
For a list of good reasons to get your body pumpin’, check out this post: Exercise Routine! Part 2