Why Comparing Your Strength to Days and Years Past Is Your Worst Enemy in Fitness

Photo: Getty Images/ Grace Cary
Last year, when a minor surgery forced me to put my workouts on pause for a month and a half, I was beyond excited when the doctor cleared me to safely go back to the gym. I spent weeks dreaming of the day when I could hop back into plank, but when that day finally came, I could barely hold a plank for more than a few seconds. I felt weak, frustrated, and angry that I'd let the strength I'd built pre-surgery slip so far—overall, it felt like I was failing. I wanted to be as strong as I had been before my injury and expected to be able to pick up right where I left off. But according to fitness pros, approaching any workout with a mindset of comparing your body to a version of itself from days and years past is a recipe for disaster.

Experts In This Article

"I tell people, ‘Focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do,'" trainer Ashley Joi said in a recent Well+Good ReNew Year panel about the importance of movement for your body and mind.

Alana Nichols, a paralympic athlete who experienced a spinal cord injury that left her paralyzed from the waist down in 2010, dealt with these feelings of comparison a lot in the wake of her accident. "One of the biggest challenges after my injury is that I would compare myself not only to other women but to my old self," Nichols said during the same panel, adding that these feelings can apply to anyone dealing with a setback in their workouts. "But if you have an injury of any kind—whether that’s your shoulders, your hips, your back, your knees—you're still growing and gaining as much as you can with that setback, it's important to honor that experience and do what you can." After her own injury, she went on to become a paralympic legend and the first American female athlete to win gold medals in both the summer and winter games.

Even if you aren't dealing with any sort of injury (either a minor one, as was the case with mine, or a life-altering one, like Nichols'), we all have days when we step onto the mat and can't give the 100 percent that we're used to. Maybe you're coming back after some time off or simply recovering from a crappy night's sleep, but sometimes the 15 push-ups or minute-long plank that once felt effortless suddenly seem impossible to get through...and that's totally okay. "If I were to compare myself to my old self or anyone else, I would just be setting myself up for failure," says Nichols. "I think it’s important not to feel bad about what your body can’t do right now because that doesn’t matter—it’s about doing the best you can with what you have today. So instead, I look at what I can do today with the body that I have right now and how I can get better for tomorrow."

In other words: Modifications are your friend. When you drop down to your knees to finish a set of push-ups or take the jump out of a high-impact move, you're still getting the same benefits as you would be if you were performing the more advanced version, and that's worth being proud of. "I can’t use my legs, so I plank on my knees every time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t focus on how strong I am in working my core," says Nichols.

No matter what kind of movement you're doing, the simple fact that you're moving deserves to be celebrated—even if that movement looks different than it did in the past. "Don’t push yourself to try to be something you’re not," says Nichols. "Just be patient with yourself and take pride in where you are right now and what you're doing to be the best version of yourself."

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