Do we need to suffer in order to reach peak fitness?

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The pain was over in two minutes, but the after-effects lingered.

I didn’t think I could run the whole hill at last year’s Humpty Dumpty Balmoral Burn and I certainly didn’t think I could place.

At the start line, I positioned myself in the middle of the pack and hoped I could run (or at least shuffle) all the way. Only when I was halfway up the hill did I think ‘maybe’ … ‘maybe I can do this’.

The effort lit fire in my lungs and released lactic acid in my legs, but I made it to the top and somehow I came third. It was a small victory, the memory of which I’ve conjured in moments of physical or mental challenge ever since, reminding myself of the ability to do things even when you don’t believe you’re capable of them.

It watered a seed of confidence that I have drawn on time and time again – that if I push just that little bit harder, if I can stand just a little bit of suffering, maybe, maybe I can get there.

“The Art of Suffering” is the philosophy on which Gym Jones is predicated. 

“There are no special, fancy movements … It’s old-school squats and push-ups and burpees and rowing but with a view to make sure everyone suffers their way through it – a mindset thing – and comes out the other side as a better person,” says Chris Feather, the owner of exclusive Sydney gym 98 Riley St, and  a Gym Jones-certified trainer. 

Gym Jones (a joking play on words referencing cult leader Jim Jones) was founded in 2003 in Salt Lake City, Utah, by legendary mountaineer Mark Twight, who is known for tackling some of the world’s most challenging peaks.

Although Twight trains various athletes including MMA and jiu-jitsu fighters as well as special forces soldiers, his system exploded in popularity after he sculpted the lean bodies of the actors in Spartan movie 300. Twight is now known as the man who builds the bodies of Hollywood’s superheroes.

“Appearance is the consequence of fitness, and confidence is a consequence of capability,” Twight, who has now left Gym Jones, said last year.

“The mind is primary. Physical training is easy, especially if you only do what you already do well. Psychological training is hard,” Twight has also said. “Unf–k your head and physical performance increases instantly.”

This approach appealed to Feather, 35, who played professional rugby league in the UK for 11 years before moving to Sydney and starting Russell Crowe-owned 98 Riley St Gym in 2010.

“You’re pushing yourself to failure almost but then the feeling after is achievement,” Feather says.

 It is using a controlled environment to create a ‘fight or flight’ response and then teaching your mind to override it.

“To hit a goal you need to get past the point of comfort … there’s a point where your body won’t go further than your mind will,” Feather says, citing a quote he believes captures the concept: “Under pressure we do not rise to the occasion, we drop to the level of our training.  People want to push themselves more and without the mindset stuff you really can’t.”

Which brings me to the question of whether we really need to suffer if we want to improve mindset and, in turn, performance? 

“There’s a place for all kinds of training,” Feather says. “You need to have a good blend – the Gym Jones working to failure isn’t something you need to be doing every day. But as a part of your lifestyle, I think it’s great to test yourself.”

And everyone can test themselves, to their ability, he says. 

“Some people wouldn’t be able to do 100 burpees, let alone for time, but I have trained people who have never worked in a gym before … they all enjoy setting a goal,” Feather says. 

A goal might require challenge, but suffering? For Twight, suffering is the goal.

“If you’re still happy, you are obviously not trying hard enough,” he once told Outside Magazine. “I refuse to coast along and settle for second best, settle for less, therefore I am rarely satisfied, thus rarely truly happy. Permanent satisfaction means the death of the soul, it means one doesn’t have the will to ask the hard questions anymore, that one accepts his place and doesn’t have the strength or will to change it.”

I don’t agree with that take, but I do agree that when we realise we can endure a little suffering, when we realise that by breaking through our aversion to it we can achieve more than we believed possible, it changes our mind … and, in turn, our body. We start to see that maybe, maybe we can go further than we thought and maybe, maybe all the other things we didn’t think we could do aren’t impossible.

“The suffering builds resilience and the resilience breeds confidence,” Feather says. “No you don’t have to suffer, but [the more you are willing to push] the higher the level that you drop back to is … People say you’ve either got it or you don’t. I don’t believe that. Resilience is built through experience.”

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