“Reaching your Potential”: The Most Harmful Phrase in All of Fitness

There are a few things in the fitness industry that have been sold to us as trainees.

Especially depending on what “camp” we’ve been groomed by, these influences can very much take a hold of a person’s overall attitude toward their workouts and the gym in general.

The clinician camp can sometimes instill fear toward training intensity, particular exercise choices, or heavier strength work. And it makes sense, since a clinician will spend most of his or her day diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal injuries, often attained from lifting.

The powerlifting camp can discount movements that aren’t heavy strength training endeavors, concluding that they could be a waste of time or effort, and ultimately detract from the goal of getting stronger for various reasons.

The bodybuilding camp can mistakenly fall victim to using a narrow lens to determine the usefulness of an exercise, be it compound or isolated in nature. A movement too imprecise in its activation or patterning won’t contribute to optimal hypertrophy, and shouldn’t appear in a routine.

The sport-specific and athletic conditioning camp can start conflating “difficult” with “better” when it comes to advanced power and speed programming, balance and stability work, and more.

As a result of all of this, the general population follows along, and their confusion is unsurprisingly understandable.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to any of the groups listed above; having the desire to belong to a community and train for results within that community is one’s own prerogative, and to be commended. However, approaching any such community as an adult, needs to be done with the right mindset, in order to be aware that each can display its own discriminating mind toward training.

That’s where my idea to write this comes from.

A person in the general population who takes their training and physical fitness seriously, might prioritize the gym, not miss workouts, and watch their nutrition.  In similarly good intention, they may be focused on making gains, and even parrot popular buzz phrases the industry has fed us for decades:

“I’d like to become the best version of myself.”

“I’d like to reach my potential.”

Embedded between the lines of popular quotes like this, however, is plenty of context and nuance that most aren’t wise to acknowledge.  Depending on who’s propagating the idea of “reaching potential”, such aspirations need to be taken along with a fistful of salt.

See, there’s a hidden danger in thinking that reaching potential, or becoming the best version of self, can be achieved by focusing on one or two goals, for a given length of time. A strength trainee may indeed have the “human potential” to personally squat 700, or press 500, but it’s useful to zoom the microscope outward and see whether other aspects of his health and wellness will be stepping further away from top end potential as a by-product of chasing those goals.

There’s a tradeoff to anything we pursue in fitness. But talk to any 600 pound bench presser or 800 pound deadlifter, and you likely won’t be speaking to someone who can run 3 miles with relative ease, exist free of any sort of nagging chronic pain, or have a list of prior gym injuries to speak for. They may even tell you about the time they tore their pec or damaged their spine.

We’re given countless real-life examples of the dark side of adopting this mentality, be it in the athletic world or the strength training world, where the numbers matter. Social media creates the Potemkin village that shrouds any negative realities associated with choosing this path, instead posting and emphasizing only the “highs” of doing so. And I’m here to take a closer look.

What should “reaching your potential” actually mean when it comes to actual physical fitness and health?

Painting with broad strokes, I’d argue that in most cases, rounded physical fitness and health is linked to increased lifespan and improved life quality. Reducing the risks of ailments like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, or the need for procedures for musculoskeletal issues (like a hip replacement) would also be part of the package.

The question becomes simple: Are the things being practiced (or avoided) regularly, both in and out of the gym, moving you toward or away from those realities?

It’s a sobering thought that beyond a certain point, continuously getting stronger at certain lifts means absolutely nothing for your quality of life or life span, and probably invites more risk than it does reward the body. But this is a regularly chosen course of action in the name of “reaching one’s potential”.

It’s a pernicious notion. And it doesn’t stop there.

The same can be said for trying to get as lean as possible. Or to build as much muscle as possible.

Especially when factors like money, trophies, or status are at play, people will be willing to put more and more on the line to achieve, while not realizing – or even ignoring – the fact in the broader sense, the only potential they’re coming closer to is the potential for physical catastrophe to strike.

This doesn’t mean you stop chasing goals or training hard. Don’t pretend you have Poor reading comprehension.

Like I said at the outset – context is everything.

Of course, there are examples of people who smoke, drink, and do hard drugs for their entire adult lives and make it to 100.

And of course, there are lifters in the training game that have bizarre durability to train heavy and hard, day in and day out, regardless of aging, and regardless of technique. Chances are, that’s not you. It certainly isn’t me or any of my clients. And if you’re not sure, I don’t think it’s worth the risk to find out. I’m not stomping on the idea of training with the aim of getting stronger lifts, or the aim of cutting body fat or increasing muscularity. All of these can be good goals that can be pursued for years. But it’s worthwhile to recognize the point when something a beginner needs as an irrefutable necessity, transitions itself to something an advanced lifter wants in the name of scratching the itch to keep a hobby alive.

Bob from Accounting needs balance (…And flexibility. And muscular endurance. And agility…)

Wordplay aside, a balanced program is truly the name of the game, if the focal point of our training is to make life better and longer. The focus on only a couple of aspects should be short lived in the big picture, and the idea of “reaching potential” should be reframed into a way that benefits a person more than it places them at risk.

Being focused on reaching our best potential health, in my books, is a better task to undertake than reaching our best potential lifts or body composition. The two things are hardly related.

What sounds like such an innocent, ambitious, and positive term, can be glossed over by someone who’s not cognizant to learn the implications of pursuing such a path. We’re often fed and sold the idea that strength or body composition are end-all synonyms to health and fitness, when they’re about 18 percent of the pie.

But brace yourself. What will probably be part and parcel of “reaching your potential” when health and wellness are the name of the game, will be just being “pretty good” at basically everything. And not “the best” at anything.

Can you handle that?

Maybe the mental fortitude needed to face and embrace that reality, serves as its own step forward to optimal health and wellness.

Or I could just be reaching.

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