Step out of your comfort zone

As a personal trainer, I get to work with many different types of people, from the person trying to get fitter, to the client who wants to take part in an obstacle race (or survive the zombie apocalypse!), to clients recovering from injuries and/or surgeries, to those who simply want to lose weight and be healthier. My clients could not be more different from each other, and yet, there is one thing pretty much all of them have in common.

Whenever I have a new exercise, or I want them to increase the weight, or the reps, or anything, they all make this face, like a grimace, and they either go for it skeptically, or they just categorically tell me that they cannot do it. Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

What is that all about?

See, humans are creatures not only of habits (we base out future experiences on our past experiences), but also of fear. We are wired to avoid predators, to seek the comfort of the tribe, and to not venture into the unknown, because you know, there there be monsters and all that.

Sea monster, Chet Van Duzer, Wikipedia Commons

Sea monster, Chet Van Duzer, Wikipedia Commons

We look into a new challenge and the general response is that it is too difficult, too long, it requires too much effort, it is scary, etc. Only a few people actually look a challenge in the eye and go for it, while the rest of us wished we were more daring to live life to its fullest.

Here I am not advocating to become crazy and do random scary stuff just for the sake of it… But what if we started looking at things in a different way? What if we did not put limits to ourselves? There are stories of parents lifting heavy objects to rescue their children, or people jumping crazy heights when in danger, and other situations in which our adrenaline might be working to inhibit any limitations in our body and allow us to do the unthinkable. Maybe we can put that sort of thinking to our advantage, without having to rescue anyone from under a car.

When I used to work with my mentor Austeja, back in the day, she mentioned to me the upper limit problem, from Gay Hendrick’s book The Big Leap. If you have not read it, and struggle with self-confidence when embarking on new ventures, I highly recommend it.

The gist of the book and the ULP is that we self-sabotage ourselves, usually without noticing, when we are achieving more than we think we deserve, when we are doing great but we think we should not achieve that level of success, or happiness. It is twisted, I agree, but somehow it feels true. It does not have to be something earth-shattering, and sometimes it is just small actions that slow down our progress, things such as binge-eating/drinking on a weekend, after we have done a lot of progress in the gym and then feeling guilty about it; or becoming unbearably over-zealous and over-bearing in a happy relationship because surely something must be going on, there is no way we can be that lucky. That sort of thing. This is sort of the situation in which we are more scared of succeeding than we are of failing (I told you it was twisted).

Say, what?

They say growth happens outside of our comfort zone, but we are wired to stay within. If we couple this with an ULP it is a wonder any of us gets anything done successfully, or at least, anything we have not done before. Taking risks require stepping out of our comfort zone and believing we can deal with the consequences if we succeed. If we fail, we can always crawl back to our safety zone, with the people who love us, even if they might say the old told you so, and we can lick our wounds. If we succeed, we are up there, alone, and everyone we know has been left behind us, there is no one to help us out once we keep going.


I had a situation with a client recently. Up until that day, I had never really understood the frustration the words I can’t instilled in other trainers. This client in particular kept telling me she could not perform an exercise, and every time I asked her to try, she would set up beautifully, start moving, and one centimetre away from actually beginning the exercise, she would bail and tell me she just could not do it. We danced that dance for about three to four times, I was losing my mind. OK, that sounds mean… It was mainly because she almost had it. I told her it was like I was asking her to count to 100 and she was quitting at 98. I asked her to try just one more time, and to frigging trust me for once, and she did, and she did the exercise (really well, if I must add), but man, was it difficult. It was quite surprising even because she is usually up for anything, and she smashes every task I give her. This was just out of her comfort zone, she had told herself she could not do it, and so she believed it.

I must admit I am guilty of doing this, and I have my fair share of I can’t moments, but I am getting better at it. Not because I am better, or have better odds, or better people around me (although those would certainly help!), but because I make the effort to be better at it. I live my life scared of the consequences, scared of the what ifs and of failing, and yes, scared of succeeding! Some people around me will support what I do, no matter what, and some others will not understand and will worry about me and try to pull me back into the herd and the comfort zone. They are well intentioned, it is safer for everyone to stick together, after all, even when it might not be the best thing for us.

Do you remember how I mentioned that our bodies are awesome at adapting? Your body is currently adapted (and adapting) to your lifestyle. Work endless hours in an office, in front of a computer, sitting at a desk everyday? Let me rearrange my body posture so it is not an effort to be sitting down all day, let me relax certain muscles so it becomes easier. Forget to drink enough water during the day? Not a problem! Let me require less water, so you do not have to keep thinking about it, and maybe drink some fizzy drinks instead, to keep us going. Work and life not allowing enough sleep? Pffft… Easy! Sugar, energy drinks and coffee will keep us going forever! Hey, let us even have a nap here and there, just so we can catch up on missing sleep.

OK, those are some basic examples of adaptations, that we all do. Let me repeat that, we all do those things. Do we get use to them? Sure. Are they good for us? Certainly not.

Sitting down all day will have an effect on our posture, will imbalance certain muscle groups and will also have an impact on our health: less activity, less calories burnt, worse cardiovascular health and a long etcetera of symptoms, that hey, they might not show up for a few more years, but they will. Do you get pain in your back or neck? Do you feel your eyes straining? Even sleep is affected by how we spend our days. Hey, even our posture will affect our breathing!

Not drinking enough water means we walk around being dehydrated, which means our body has to work even harder to do everything. Do you not think so? Try driving your car around with no oil, or no water in the radiator… You would not do that, right? Would you put diesel in a petrol car? In a similar way, our bodies are not designed to drink sugary drinks, so this can only cause damage.

What about sleep and patching it up with energy drinks and caffeine? If our bodies are not in the optimal condition, we are not fuelling them right, we are pushing them to the limits with work, social commitments, family life, and leave little time to check how we are doing, perform a little TLC (same as we would do a MOT in a car), is it crazy to think the body and mind cannot switch off to sleep? We keep our bodies in a state of alert, and we sort of drag ourselves during the day, binge on caffeine and then expect our bodies to just go to sleep when we want them to. If you have kids, it would be the equivalent of giving a bag of sweets, sugary drinks, put on a Peppa Pig marathon on TV, and give the news you are going to Disneyland to a bunch of already hyperactive kids and then expect them to go to bed 20 minutes later. It will simply not happen. So why do we expect our bodies to do the same?

How does this relate to the comfort zone?

We tell ourselves constantly that unknown = scary, we push ourselves to the limit of exhaustion and expect our bodies to perform all the time, we want people to accept us in their tribe, so we are not alone in the scary, unknown world. We live our lives telling ourselves we are just not good enough (many of us, anyway, some people out there have no problems with overconfidence and believing they deserve everything!). Then one day, here comes a personal trainer, whose job is literally to push your boundaries, to make you feel uncomfortable, but who believes in you, and we tell you to go heavier, jump higher, do two more… which basically clashes with everything you have been telling yourself since the beginning of time, so you fight it. It is safer knowing you can bench press 20kg for three sets of eight than trying 22.5kg for two sets of six, or whatever. But we are there for you, we make sure your form is good, we give you the safety net you need by spotting you, by adding the safety bars on the side of your squat, by teaching you how to modify. We only push you because we know you can do it. Sure, the last rep is the difficult one, you are tired already, you have been going through the whole exercise, but next time you are at the gym, or about to do something slightly outside of your comfort zone, ask yourself the following question, are you saying no because you really cannot do it yet, or because you are scared?

As with anything else, it gets better with practise. Same as you practise an exercise to get better at it and lift heavier, we get better at taking risks the more we do it. Every time you take a step outside your comfort zone, that zone gets larger by one step, and in no time you are doing stuff you never even dreamed of.

I could keep writing about this for hours…

Let me know if you have experienced the last rep syndrome yourself, or what your experiences regarding upper limit problems and self-sabotaging are! If you are interested in this, and would like to know more, get in touch!