Growth Happens At Our Limits: Embrace it.

flower ground

We all search for inspiration. Sometimes we find it in a movie montage, other times in real life stories.

And sometimes something awesome happens right in front of us that gives us a fresh perspective.  Here’s a story from Taylor, NF’s Chief Wordsmith:

For about 6 months now I’ve seen a guy in a wheelchair come into my gym. He comes with a physical therapist, and does a variety of assisted rehabilitation exercises.  He usually uses low weight dumbbells or assistance bands. He can’t stand up, nor can he walk on his own, and it looks like he is rebuilding the coordination in his upper body as well.

This guy has been training along side me, while I usually am doing basic powerlifting movements.  For the last 6 months, he’s been an inspiration…but last week, he reached an all new level.

You see, in my gym, it is rare to see people take big lifts to failure, especially a squat or deadlift (for the few people who do actually squat and deadlift).  When I fail on a big lift, dropping heavy weight onto safeties, I definitely get some weird looks.

Last week I nailed a new 5 rep squat PR.  It felt great, like I just beat an end-game boss. Then, as I’m headed for the water fountain after my set, I saw my rehab friend.

But this time he isn’t working with bands or dumbbells. In fact, the therapist isn’t even assisting him, he’s just coaching him. This guy was standing up out of his wheelchair, without help, for the first time in his training.

I have NEVER seen anybody work this hard. I watched him fight to lift his own bodyweight. I saw him struggle for every inch. I watched him put every last ounce of effort he had into his legs and posterior chain – and then some. He could have fallen flat on his face, sideways into the weight machines, or on to his  therapist. In fact, I almost thought he was going to. But he didn’t.  He won. It was by far the most inspiring and impressive feat I’ve ever seen.

In a way, it was more impressive than a 500 lb squat, a perfect human flag, or a sub 4-minute mile. And it was “just” his body weight. “Just” standing up.

Growth Happens at our limits


The above story helps demonstrate something crucial when it comes to our training.

It didn’t matter that he was only looking to ‘squat’ his own weight or 500 lbs.

In that moment of struggle where we’re aiming to do something we’ve never done before, we are all the same.

The battle is the same.

The mental chess game is the same.

And the “boss-defeating satisfaction”  is the same.

And years from now, Taylor’s friend in the gym who just stood up for the first time could be squatting hundreds of pounds. And as he breaks personal best after personal best, he gets to have that same struggle, that same moment of “can I do this?” and that final “holy crap, I did it.”

Josh Waitzkin, world champion chess player (and subject of “Searching for Bobby Fisher”), says it best in his book, “The Art of Learning”:

“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”‘

Your workouts should not be monotonous


Most people go about their workout as a dull, monotonous worker bees:

  • Step on treadmill or sit down at weight machine
  • Dutifully suffer through 20-60 minutes of exercise at some arbitrary pace
  • Repeat

Almost all of us have experience with this – grinding out the same exercise, day after day, because we think it’s what we need to do to achieve the results we want.

But as illustrated above, workouts don’t have to be a grind. In fact, they SHOULDN’T be viewed as a grind, but a new opportunity to challenge your limits.

EVERY workout should be exciting.

The awesome part? No matter where that “limit” is – whether you’re 500 pounds, 70 years old, or an Olympic athlete – the excitement from leveling up can be electric EVERY time.

You can harness this excitement to look forward to your training…meanwhile achieving the results you’ve always longed for.

One step further


Remember in the Fellowship of the Ring, as Sam and Frodo set off to Rivendell (and eventually Mordor), Sam pauses for a brief moment at a Scarecrow just a few miles outside of his home:

Sam: “This is it.”

Frodo: “This is what?”

Sam: “If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.” 

Sam Leaves the Shire

For many people that had been in and out of the Shire, they probably walked past that scarecrow without thinking twice.

However, that Scarecrow was something MONUMENTAL for Sam.  It signified the difference between the comfortable, safe, known confines that he had experienced in his life, and the potentially dangerous unknown adventure that awaited him.

Where is the Scarecrow in your life?  

  • Is it that weight you’ve never been able to lift for a deadlift?
  • Is it a mountain hike that you’ve told yourself you would finish but haven’t attempted?
  • Is it traveling outside of the country and testing your preconcieved notions of other cultures?
  • Is it trying to learn a new instrument, or making a new friend, or attending an event?

Safety and the “known” can lull us to sleep.  

They can help us drift instead of taking control (a symptom of “good enough“).

They tell us to mindlessly hop on a treadmill – to aimlessly wander around the gym – to do the bare minimum.

Sure, staying within your boundaries can be safer, but your growth is dependent upon what happens outside of the lines – what happens PAST the scarecrow.

So celebrate each victory, and embrace that happiness every time you pass a milestone.  And then remember that each time the scarecrow moves further away from home, you must reach even further to challenge yourself.

This isn’t about crossing the finish line. It turns out, we’re not there yet, so we might as well enjoy the journey and do it for the love of the game.

Growth happens at our limits, wherever they may lie.  It’s how much we can become comfortable with being uncomfortable that will determine just how much we can grow.

To paraphrase Professor Barnhardt in The Day the Earth Stood Still: At the precipice we change.

I want to hear from you.

Where is your Shire, and what does the Scarecrow represent for you?

For me, it’s been heavy deadlifts.  For 5+ years that scarecrow was stuck at 315 lbs, the “farthest from home I’ve ever been.”  I had been afraid to leave the Shire…so I took baby steps over the past 12 months and just yesterday lifted 320 lbs. I know when I wake up tomorrow that scarecrow will have moved to 325 lbs, tempting me to venture further.

I can’t wait for that moment next week when my ENTIRE existence is focused on one tiny thing: pulling that bar, loaded up with all of that weight, up and over my knees. I know if I can get it there, then I can get through the rest of the lift.  I’m excited for the challenge.  And I don’t know if I’ll fail or succeed. But I’m excited to try.

Post a comment below on what the scarecrow is in your life right now – and how you plan to walk right on past it!



photo pin: Matt Chan: Shire, Legozilla: treadmill, Martijn de Valk: dandelion, Scott Smith: Time Limit

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    93 thoughts on “Growth Happens At Our Limits: Embrace it.

    1. The first major scarecrow moment in my life came after my eating disorder…and just eating really. Now that I’ve grown past that, the scarecrow is a pull-up and a marathon…Pull-up wise I’ve never been able to, and desired to but was scared to push myself to get it done. I finally have been trying again, and failing usually, but one day I hope to try and finally for the first time in my life, be able to pull myself up over the bar! For my second scarecrow I was always scared of how my knees could handle it, I’ve ran a half twice, but never a full. I’ve had this on my bucket list for so long, staring at it and making excuses as to why I can’t, or shouldn’t, or won’t. I finally decided I was going to give it a try, so I have a training plan set up to start in September, and we shall see what happens!

    2. I’m about to embark on fatherhood. Everyday my wife’s tummy is just a little bigger, and the reality of becoming a father more real. At the same time I’m pursuing fitness, and working harder in my career. I’ve leaned these past few years growth is looking for and taking the next step. It’s action and learning to look forward to, and enjoy, little successes along the way. It’s amazing how far you can get just taking baby steps. These lessons I’m learning at 30 I want to en-still in my kids when they’re young; so they can embrace progression from the time they are little.

    3. My scarecrow has been 10 miles for a long time now. I’m looking to get past that by a longshot… 26.2! But the problem is that I hate running! Argh…

    4. My scarecrow is pushups. I have always avoided them with the excuse that my body just was not good at them, and I looked really silly attempting them. I just have to go for it now, and build up that endurance. Love the idea of a moment of resistance as triumph.

    5. My scarecrow recently has been having enough courage to ask this wonderful girl out. I’ve never been confident or brave enough because I’ve always had body image problems. I’ve always feared failure. But since I’ve been working out with Nerd Fitness, my confidence has escalated dramatically. After reading this article, I took my challenge head on. Whether or not the results are positive, I feel great because I took a step to do something I had feared so much.

    6. As a teenager I never had a “scarecrow” to speak of. Dare me and I would do it, tell me I can’t or shouldn’t and you could consider it done. It didn’t matter if I could do a back flip or not. Simply challenge me and I would find a way to do it. Then came life after a knee injury ended my shot at a collegiate track scholarship. Throw in an ample amount of depression and substance abuse and that pretty much sums up my 20’s. Once I got sobered up I ended up in a dead end relationship working in one dead end job after another. I had a house in the suburbs and a couple of dogs. For many people this is life and for them I feel sorry. I lived this way for 6 years because it was safe and I didn’t have to worry about venturing out on my own. Because in my mind, on my own, meant I was sure to become a failure once again. Then it all fell apart around me and I was out in the world on my own again. Thankfully I had started P90X just before my safe little world had imploded. So I figured if I had enough discipline to change my diet and start working out on my own I should be able to conquer whatever I set my mind too. It wasn’t easy and at times I wanted to go back to my old ways and find a way to numb everything but fast forward 2 and a half years and I can’t even remember what it feels like to live in a safe little world or be afraid of becoming a failure. I started CrossFit a year ago. I have put on 36 lbs of muscle since my very first P90X workout. I’m setting huge PRs quite frequently. I can honestly say I do not currently have any scarecrows. Once I escaped my shire and learned to let go of my fears it was complete freedom to try and be as awesome as I can be. And the best part is getting to share my drive and my attitude towards CrossFit (and life in general) with the new folks who might be a little timid. Watching people break self imposed limits or let go of their fears is one of the main reasons I go to the gym everyday.

    7. In 2012 I made some epic level ups in my life. I did so as a member of the level up club. I cleaned up my eating, I was working out a minimum of 6 days a week, usually 7. I lost 15 pounds in just over 6 weeks. I even had to buy new pants because my old jeans just wouldn’t stay up in any more. I was in great condition when I left to go to a friends beach wedding in Mexico over New Years 2013. Staci even got me to stop eating pizza for almost the whole 6 weeks. I was even feeling so good I let a friend talk me into signing up for a half marathon in May (on of my goals on my 10 year list). I cruised right on out of my shire and didn’t even look back.

      That week in Mexico killed me. I had an awesome time, drinking at the pool, eating great food, and celebrating an awesome event with friends. When I got home, I was never really able to get on the wagon again with some good eating, but all the running I was doing to train for the half marathon was enough to help keep the weight off. I was running further than I had ever run before. Finally on May 4, 2013 (May the 4th be with you!) after 2 hours, 21 minutes and 20 seconds I accomplished an awesome goal and ran 13.1 miles. Again right out of the shire and didn’t look back.

      Since then I’ve been stuck. My eating sucks. I know it. I know what to do about it, but I just haven’t made it a priority. I’ve had sporadic periods of consistently working out, but some thing always comes along that derails it and it’s no longer a priority. I’m struggling with finding that motivation/inspiration to get me off my ass and clean up my life again, and stay that way this time. I can’t seem to find my way out of the shire.

    8. That was mine too, until recently. The way I got around it was starting by training by back and biceps, then after 2 months I did my first chin up. A couple of weeks later I did my first pull up.

    9. Everything in my life seems like a scarecrow right now. I recently moved to rural Indonesia with the Peace Corps and I’m finding that the things I could do no problem back home are excessively difficult here. I’ve gotten strange sicknesses, I’m learning about a fascinating new language and culture through complete immersion while simultaneously fighting the idea that women shouldn’t be strong. I’ve started establishing a new normal but it’s so much more challenging without any of the resources I’m used to. Even my internet connection is sketch at best. So I’ve started looking at it as a way to completely revamp my workouts. Between this article, the anti-fragile post and my flat out stubbornness I have no doubt I will be able to rock this next 2 years! Thanks for keeping me motivated to find my new normal!!

    10. My scarecrow is basically sticking with a workout routine I have seen the scarecrow but never passed. But come next month I gathered two friends that want to change and we will start our journey.

    11. 200 pounds ughhh I lost the weight up to that without even really thinking about it and now I’ve been stuck at 200 because I’m getting closer to my goal and that scares me to death. For some reason being in the 100’s seems like I shouldn’t deserve that and I should just be happy with what I’ve done so far. Dang typing that I realize how dumb it sounds.

    12. I’ve alway’s been a big girl and everytime I run my knee gives me the
      luigi-look, and it made me fear running at all, but I’ve decided to try
      the “Girls-mile” in Stockholm in september. I’m a bad runner but this is
      my scarecrow and I shall defeat that fear and prove to my knee, that
      running don’t have to be a painful experience. Wish me luck fellow
      comrades <3

    13. My scarecrow is my attitude and lack of motivation. For some reason nerd fitness is what I need to get me moving. Thank you.

    14. Great story, Steve! When things get tough…really tough…I think about my grandfather. I watched him try to learn to walk again in his 90s. This was a man who had navigated boats down rivers through whitewater, climbed mountains, and hiked most of the desert southwest. But the challenge I witnessed happened in the hall of a nursing home. His life was coming to an end, and he could have just rested on his laurels and called it good. But he wanted out of the wheel chair and he wanted to walk again. I’ve never seen so much courage, determination, just plain grit in a persons face. So when I think it’s too hard and I can just call it good, I think of grandpa. He didn’t let himself down, and I shouldn’t either.

    15. Personally, that is one of my favourite scenes in LOTR because there are crows on the scare crow…the irony!

      This is another fantastic post Steve. I don’t know how you do it week to week…anyway my scare crow is running a half marathon. After seriously injuring myself by running too much too soon, I’m pretty scared I won’t be able to run that far injury free…

    16. This was an amazing article, perfect timing for me too. Going past the scarecrow for me is every time I go to the gym and try something new, I am over 200 pounds working on getting healthier, its working slowly but every time I do a squat or lunge for a moment anxiety threatens to overtake my thoughts and its a battle for me to remember to be as nice and patience with myself as I am with others.

    17. I’m 24 now, but was a competitive swimmer all of high school. I want to say I was a national level, but I missed my qualifying time for nationals by 0.09 seconds on the last meet of the year before I retired. Its a great sport, taught me a lot about pushing past limits, goal making and just general health. I hope Kaitlynn can learn as much from it too.

      For rotator cuff and other shoulder exercises we always either used soup cans or elastic stretch cords, both are pretty easy to come by 🙂

    18. As someone that is currently doing beginner aerial circus, and in order to ‘level up’ we need to do pull ups, one thing I recommend is to do negative pull ups. If you can touch the ground, Jump to the top of the pull up as high as you can, and then as slowly as you can let yourself down. The slower you do it, the more gain you will get, as it works the same muscles.

      And then one day will sneak up on you and you can do a full pull up on your own! It happened to me recently and it was such a great feeling.

    19. I’m pretty injury prone as well – but more due to clumsiness, fear and lack of fitness than anything. I’ve always let that intimidate me into doing nothing, but this year I really want to make a change, so I’m starting off with baby steps. I’ve been going for 10 to 20-minute walks, and I’d like to eventually build up to running (and hopefully, one day, parkour). One of the biggest obstacles that stood (trying to keep this in past tense) in my way was my impatience and over-enthusiasm; when reality doesn’t live up to the ideal that I want to be, I get frustrated and give up. I’ve made the commitment to set these impractical expectations aside, and so it’s baby steps for me, and hopefully for you, too 🙂

    20. Mangatake – I’m totally there with you when it comes to impatience. I think back to previous weight loss attempts when I was really far along in my fitness and strength, and then expect my body to be right back there after taking a year off of exercise! It just boggles the mind and is totally illogical! And yet I still get impatient with myself if I don’t perform as well as I think I am “capable.”

      So realistic goals for me too. I too am going to start with baby steps and take short walks until I’m steadier on my feet. I LOVE doing box jumps and have a plyo-box at home, but will start with a few weeks of step-ups first until my legs get stronger. 🙂

    21. Sounds like a plan 😀 If you feel like you’re starting to get ahead of yourself again, remember this conversation and bring it back to logical levels 🙂 As for impatience, one of the NF veterans was telling me that toning (turning fat into muscle) is a very long-winded process, and it took her around 6 months of really pushing herself to see tangible results. Just to put things in perspective 🙂 I’m the type of person who checks themselves out in the mirror after every workout attempt to see if I’ve gotten fitter :p

    22. I’ve started working on my weight earlier this year after finding Nerd Fitness and needing a different way and mindset for losing weight and getting in shape. I fight the battle of the bulge 5 pounds at a time. I’m not trying to lose 30 pounds just 5 and then another 5. I’m down fifteen pounds and feel better than I did at current weight two years ago. Mangatake has it right, baby steps.

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