Looking better vs. feeling better – Why I started bouldering and quit fitness training

When I started bouldering and was overcome by the childlike joy of climbing, I suddenly came to realise how much time I had spent doing things that I had always disliked, for reasons that were not important for me. It was shocking. How was it possible that it had been going on for so long, years after years? Why would it matter if you had the sporty, perfect figure if you didn’t feel good in it? It made me reshape the whole concept of training and change the focus of my workout. I gave up the pointless fitness training, and once it was done, there was no turning back.

Training at Oulun Cave in November 2015. Photo by Jani Lehtola.

Training at Oulun Cave in November 2015. Photo by Jani Lehtola.

It was about 20 years ago when I first started lifting weights, so I have had quite a long history of fitness training. I’m a sports freak, one whose body demands extreme workout and a constant flow of new challenges to be won. Over the years I have been training like crazy with the taste of blood in my mouth, trying different methods of training, but I never felt the love for any of them. It was never motivating for me to repeat the same exercise, week after week, just to be able to lift a little bit more, be a little bit faster, do one more rep, or to get a slightly better looking body. (How on earth can building a perfect bottom be the first priority for anyone anyway?) Let’s face the truth. It was pointless, demotivating and boring. There was no fire in it. None whatsoever. Yet I kept doing it. Functional training was better than traditional gym workout, but it was boring nevertheless.

Kettlebells kept me motivated for a while. I still use them for supportive training.

Kettlebells kept me motivated for a while. I still use them for supportive training.

I’m not saying that it was always pain. From time to time it was great to see the progress, and there is no denying that an extreme workout can make you feel extremely good. But the main thing remained the same: I was happy after the workout but not during it. I felt good mainly because I had motivated myself into doing something that I actually disliked, that I had won the challenge and pushed my body beyond its limits. I was loving the results, the feeling that struck me after an extreme effort, the image that I saw in the mirror, but not the workout itself. And that’s where I went wrong.

Fitness training made me happy when I looked in the mirror, but I didn't enjoy the workout itself

Fitness training made me happy when I looked in the mirror, but I didn’t enjoy the workout itself

Then, in July 2015 I tried bouldering and it was like a bolt of lightning. I suddenly saw the madness in my previous training. I never returned to the gym and I probably never will. So what was different in bouldering? Why was it better? You climb a wall or you climb a boulder, trying to reach the top, you succeed or you don’t. So what? I’ll try to open it up.

1. Bouldering makes me happy

The one most important reason why I do bouldering is because I love it. I climb with my body and soul. It makes me happy, lifting weights doesn’t. Bouldering is something I do for me, not for the image in the mirror. I feel happy during the climb, I feel happy afterwards. I’m not waiting for it to end, I just want to keep on climbing. My strength fails me before I stop. When it’s over, I’ll start thinking about the next time when I can climb.

Climbing is something people do by nature when they are kids, but at some point before adulthood it’s forgotten, or forbidden as it’s considered too childish. But why should we deny ourselves something that makes us feel alive and keeps us fit? I cannot even find a correct word to describe what I feel when I climb. The feeling comes from somewhere so deep that it must be from the core of myself, it’s something that has been buried and lost long ago but what I can clearly remember from my past. It’s a weird combination of freedom, excitement, bravery and happiness. I have felt something a bit similar when testing still rings or practicing handstands, but I have never ever felt the same during fitness training. (Honestly, have you?)

2. Bouldering is problem solving

What makes bouldering inspiring is that there is much more into it than just a physical sport. A major part of bouldering is problem solving, and when you finally succeed after trying for hours, days, weeks, months or even years, it is rewarding beyond imagination. To get on top, you have to invent your own set of moves, it’s like trying to figure out a complex puzzle where your mind and body must work seamlessly together or you won’t succeed. Even if someone has solved the problem before, the same solution may not work for you because everyone’s unique. More than often, you have to figure out your own route yourself, and that’s what really special about bouldering. It’s a mind game that requires patience and logic. Every day is different, every problem is different, and the problems never end.

I'm short and can't use the same moves as taller climbers. I need to figure out my own way to the top.

I’m short and can’t use the same moves as taller climbers, which means I need to figure out my own way to the top. Photo by Jani Lehtola.

3. Bouldering builds patience and persistence

You can’t expect instant success. It takes time to solve complex problems and they keep haunting you day and night. You develop different strategies. You may realise you are not strong enough and you have to build more strength. Sometimes your technique is not good enough or you are too short, so you need to find a different approach. There will also be times when your body doesn’t co-operate – your fingers ache, your muscles ache, you get hurt, and you need to take breaks. You learn patience. But you don’t give up, you will figure out a way to get forward. According to my experience, the patience and persistence you learn from solving bouldering problems also reflects directly to your work and other fields of life.

4. Good shape comes as a side effect

Bouldering builds strength in a natural and functional way, which is nice compared to the repetitive and boring series that I used to do at the gym. Bouldering also encourages keeping up a healthy diet. I have almost completely lost the appetite for sweets (not that it ever was big problem for me, but still, I used to be drawn to them). It feels more important to be able to climb effectively than to fill my stomach with chocolate. Every gram that I gather on my waist is more weight for my fingers to lift and hold. It keeps you focused and motivated because you immediately feel all excess weight on your fingers. So, it seems that a strong and proportionate body comes as a bonus, even if it’s not the main point in bouldering. It is usually good to do some supportive training in order to keep your body balanced, but you can mainly concentrate on climbing and stay fit.

5. I get to travel and spend time in nature

Do I even need to explain this one? I’m not the kind of a person who wants to spend my holidays lying in the sun or staring at dead statues in museums. The world is full of amazing bouldering places to be visited, places where you can climb as crazy and relax enjoying the scenery when you have a rest day. I can guarantee that exploring boulders and wandering in forests is much more inspiring and fun than lifting weights at a hotel’s gym.

Jani Lehtola climbing in the forest of Fontainebleau

Jani Lehtola climbing in the forest of Fontainebleau

As a conclusion, leaving gym and starting bouldering has made me a considerably happier person. This is my own personal experience and probably it won’t be the same for everybody, but I believe that you should listen to your heart and concentrate your energy on sports that you really like. It may not be that easy to find the right kind of sports for you, but if you don’t like lifting weights, it’s definitely worth it to explore other possibilities. Gym isn’t the only place to build strength and keep yourself fit, even though it’s what personal trainers almost always recommend to you. There can be more inspiring alternatives if you just keep yourself open for something new. Who knows, you could even end up finding something that will change your whole life.

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