Aspire with Alex Doan
Get to know Alex!
On his experiences with body positivity and body image...
I have dealt with body image issues and insecurities for a long time. Ever since I was in third grade, I was (and felt) overweight, unconfident in my shape, and worried that others would judge me. I tried so many different times to lose weight, from healthy ways (cross country, weight training, eating healthy) to unhealthy and unsustainable methods (forcing myself to vomit, hiding the "unattractive" parts of my body, etc.). Finally, with the help of many of my friends, I got into fitness and lifting, and it's now a huge, very positive part of my life. I know it's not easy to lose weight/be healthy (cause it's not always about weight!! it's just about personal goals), but I think I can guide people in the right direction so they can come to accept themselves.
On why he believes that he would be a good role model/mentor...
I <3 lifting. On the real, I have been there, I know it's hard, and I really want to give back.
The importance of goals
And how to set them
“Sit down, take your time, and start thinking about, ‘Why do you want to work out. What is your goal?’”
Don’t take it from me, take it from Arnold Schwarzenegger – one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time, but also a movie star and governor of California. Arnold has accomplished a great deal in his life, overcoming barriers and naysayers the whole way, to become one of my heroes. Of course, most of us don’t want to become Mr. or Mrs. Olympia. Most of us don’t have inclinations to become a governor or a movie star, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have goals. So let’s do what Arnold said – let’s sit down and think about some goals today.
When it comes to fitness, the most important question is the same one that Arnold posed, “Why do you want to work out?” I say this because training schemes vary immensely depending on what your objective is. Usain Bolt, Katie Ledecky, Aaron Donald, and Lu Xiaojun have bodies that look nothing alike. Yet they are all at the top of the world in their respective sports because they train for the activities they do. Even if you’re not a professional athlete—even if you don’t have 4-5 hours a day to spend working out—there’s no reason why you can’t apply their mindset. If you’re going to spend 30 minutes or an hour working out five times per week, that’s a lot of time, so first, commit yourself mentally to the process. In order to succeed in fitness, you need to be as mentally invested as you are physically. Our minds are our best features, and working out smart AND hard is what brings real results.
Why do you want to work out? Who do you want to be? Are you training for a sport? Are you training for strength? Are you going for endurance or even aesthetics?
If you’re training for a sport, think about the athletes you want to emulate. A basketball player might look up to Diana Taurasi or Lebron James or Stephen Curry. Know who your idols are and watch their workouts. Look at their training programs and design one that works for you and go hard at it. As some inspiration, watch Antonio Brown’s training. He could be running a route in the middle of practice but he’ll run it like it’s 4th and goal in the Super Bowl. That’s why he’s one of the best receivers in the NFL. Grind.
If you’re training for strength, start by knowing your own body. What type of deadlift or squat form is best for your hips? What’s your current body composition, and should you bulk or cut? Then think about a routine – do you want to become a powerlifter, excelling at 1RM’s in 3 major lifts, or do you want to have the explosiveness and lean physique of a calisthenics athlete? Regardless of what you work on, make sure you watch plenty of videos on form, especially for the workouts that are going to be your bread and butter. A calisthenics athlete should spend as much time learning about pull-up form as a powerlifter spends on deadlifts, even though pull-ups seem more intuitive.
Finally, if you’re training for aesthetics, focus on nutrition and weight and rep schemes that support hypertrophy. Think about dieting regimens such as intermittent fasting that lead to quick hypertrophy. Work those high-rep sets to get toned and focus on explosive cardio to burn maximum amounts of fat while maintaining or even building muscle. Again, have role models – even in the world of aesthetics there’s a huge difference between Arnold and Jeff Cavaliere. Know that training for aesthetics will require extreme discipline when it comes to diet – while a football player or a powerlifter can certainly succeed with a few extra pounds, someone competing in the world of aesthetics needs to be as lean as possible.
These are some possible goals that you could set. There are many, many more in the world of fitness, such as being able to run a marathon, being extremely flexible, or becoming an amazing dancer. However, all of them require mental focus. You must be locked in to whatever you’re doing to succeed, to think about it when you’re away from the gym and work hard at it when you’re working out.
At this point, some of you might be wondering what goals I have set for myself through the years and what worked for me. When I started working out, I certainly lifted for aesthetics. I wanted to impress people with my body and have nice abs and round shoulders. However, I personally found this unsatisfying because, as I stated in my last blog, appearance goals seemed too temporary. If I woke up and drank a glass of water, I looked different than I did before (even though I was actually healthier). If I had bad lighting, I’d be unhappy with my appearance. I mean, it could even change depending on what kind of mood I was in or what muscle group I had worked out that day. Plus, these goals were always external to me. I was working out for others instead of learning to love and value myself.
A huge shift in my fitness journey happened when I started lifting with my friend Ben. We started working on a couple main lifts and celebrated PR’s. My mindset shifted from focusing on my body image to my abilities, and that completely changed how I saw the gym. I got excited about what I could do, and every time I got a new 1RM on bench or 8 rep PR on shoulder press, I’d feel ecstatic. I found that personally, strength goals were the most tangible. As I detailed in my first blog, you can either deadlift 405…or you can’t. And here’s the thing – even if you can’t today, you know that you’ve gone up steadily since you started, adding 5 pounds every other week since you began at 185, so you know that new PR is only a week or two of hard training away. Having those small victories really motivated me – as nice as a shiny new plate on a bench PR is, 275 feels just as good as 315. Ultimately, all of this gives you confidence in what you can do and you’ll surprise yourself. You’ll set goals so high you’re not sure if you can reach them and then surpass them, keep going, and keep believing in yourself. You keep having little victories and little reasons to celebrate, all the while knowing that you ARE able to dream bigger and reach higher.
Again – this is what worked for me. If appearance goals are your thing, I take absolutely nothing away from that and I encourage you. If you want to qualify to your state title in cross country, you keep crushing those PR’s. But no matter where you’re going, you have to have a destination in mind.
Ultimately, we need goals – they give us something to work towards and motivate us. They keep us going when things get rough. If we don’t even know what we’re working towards, then what does that work mean? Goals keep us on the right path, we know we can’t get to them if we don’t put in the work, and it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning to drive to the gym and do deadlifts even when I just want to sit around browsing reddit.
So get out there and make some goals. You’ll amaze yourself!
“Little Buddha.” Cute, endearing, and pretty correct. My family’s nickname for me was spot on – as a young child, I was happy, always smiling, but also overweight. I struggled with sports, fitting into shirts, wanting to go swimming, and most of all, self-confidence. That endearing nickname, said with love and not the slightest hint of malice, felt like just another hit on my already low body image.
Why did I have to be the fat one? It was tough – unlike many other shortcomings, weight and body image is right there for the world to see. You can’t hide it, as much as you try – no amount of fidgeting with my tucked in shirt so it wouldn’t show my stomach or extending my chin up higher for photos so my double-chin wouldn’t sneak out would help. It’s something the world often judges you for, but more importantly, it’s something you judge yourself for. Even if nobody says it to your face, you constantly think, “I’m fat, lazy, and undisciplined. What’s wrong with me?”
Body image is something I’ve struggled with for a long time. It’s something I still struggle with today. In a world where millions tune into Lebron James soaring over defenders, then watch a Youtube video of Saquon Barkley power cleaning 405lbs like it’s nothing, and finish their night by revisiting Usain Bolt flying down a track, it’s really easy to feel inadequate about yourself. Even shows like “The Biggest Loser”, which are meant to promote exercise and healthy lifestyles perpetuate the idea that fat is undesirable. And don’t get me wrong – as someone whose family history includes such maladies as high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and heart problems, I KNOW that it’s healthy to be…well, healthy. We certainly should encourage fitness. However, that does not mean we need to shame those struggling with their weight, but all too often society does exactly this. It’s what makes people who are overweight afraid to go running or those who struggle to keep muscle on scared to go to the gym. Body shaming is so real that even professional athletes feel the heat, from the public ridicule of NFL runningback Eddie Lacy’s weight issue to the heckling of Serena Williams for having a well-developed musculature. It comes from anonymous online comments, it comes from our friends, and often it comes from our well-meaning family. When you’re out of shape…you know.
So my fitness journey began with the feeling that I was lazy. That I was incapable. That I was slow, disgusting, and weak. It began with insecurity and at first, I trained to keep the insecurity away. My first year of high school, I joined our cross country team. I lost a significant amount of weight and became much better at running. For the first time in my life, I saw fitness as not a “punishment for what I ate, but a celebration of what my body could do” (not my quote, it’s one of my all-time favorites I’ve seen online). I went from being unable to run a half mile without stopping to running 8 miles straight (albeit slowly). Then, I got shin splints.
Attempt 1: failure.
The weight I lost in cross country came back. So did the feelings of laziness and inadequacy. I tried going to the YMCA and half-heartedly got on a lifting program. I went maybe 2-3 times a week and worked out a bit. I looked in the mirror every day, trying so hard to feel good about my body. I didn’t. I kept thinking my stomach looked gross. My chin looked terrible. It was negativity that was fueling me, but that only lasts so long. Just like cross country, that early foray into lifting ended. I quickly lost any muscle I had gained and re-gained the fat I lost.
Attempt 2: failure.
Senior year of high school. Eager to go into college in shape and to redefine myself as NOT an unathletic speech and debate nerd but maybe a respectable lifter with a four-pack, I started lifting with one of my best friends, Kevin Arifin. I learned about bent over dumbbell rows and chest flyes. Our personal trainer at my high school, Michelle Toy, took an overweight, uninspiring debater under her wing and helped me whenever she was free with improving my form. Kevin and Michelle were the first two mentors I ever had in fitness and they empowered me. Finally, I felt like I was actually getting stronger, but my focus was still on college – I still wanted to look good for others. I wanted to rock out in tanks and show up to beach themed parties shirtless. And so, when college came around and I got a bit busy, I dropped fitness. I didn’t love it. It’s easy to give something up when you’re only doing it for other people and it’s not your passion. You need to care about it for yourself. It needs to be a passion. And for me at that point, fitness just wasn’t.
Attempt 3: failure.
The summer before junior year of college. I’m 5’9”. 194 pounds. Damn. I stopped lifting and kept eating like I did. The self-confidence was at an all-time low, and my body image was shot. I kept jumping in and out of fitness and I needed to commit. That summer, I decided I’d start going to the gym no matter what. Unless I was throwing up, I’d go to the gym. Some days, I was so tired I’d just walk on the treadmill for 15 minutes. But I was there. Still though – I looked at the other guys in Duke’s Wilson gym and I’d immediately feel inadequate. I felt good when I finally hit 225 on bench, and right behind me someone just benched it for 8. As his warmup. Look to your left after you finish a set of pull-ups and there was someone deadlifting 5 plates. Compared to those guys, I was still weak and out of shape. But I kept going even into the schoolyear. Every day. No matter what. I found a gym buddy (swolemate) in a buddy from IM football and we started going to the gym every day. Previously, I had been doing the same few lifts – pretty much exclusively upper body, not really pushing myself to my full potential, and not working on the isos I needed to do. Ben brought the science. Together, we designed a better routine based on hours of online research, started training for strength, and pushed each other. We started tracking every single one of our lifts – every rep, every set, down to the burnout pushups and pullups we did. We were getting fitter and stronger, and chasing PR’s became a huge motivator. But even better, I had the biggest revelation of my fitness journey so far.
It was not about other people.
For the first time, I didn’t lift because I didn’t like myself. With every single PR I hit, my self-confidence slowly came back. I started focusing on my own abilities – fitness became a celebration of what I had put into it. Whether it was a 135 pound shoulder press or 200 pound cable row, PR’ing felt awesome, because I could put a number on what I could do. Beyond that, nobody else really knew my PR’s, so I literally couldn’t do it for others. People can see your body, but it wasn’t like I was sharing my lifting logs with someone every day. So, the weights I lifted were my own. The personal records I broke were my own. Fitness became about what I could do, and I stopped hating my own body. To an extent, I even got away from caring so much about appearance – I was okay with bulking or gaining some fat as long as it meant I was adding strength. If my legs got bigger because my squats got better, that was okay too. I was excited that I could move 700 pounds on a leg press or a 45 pound dumbbell on a curl. Seeing myself improve was awesome, and progress quickly became addictive.
This is why today, I believe that as great as appearance/weight goals are, they can be misleading. I’m currently 188 pounds at 5’9” – my BMI would tell you I’m dangerously close to being obese. But I don’t think I’d be considered out of shape. Regarding appearance, it changes whether you’re sitting or standing. Whether you’ve drank a glass of water or are dehydrated. Subjectively, it changes if you’re in a good mood or a bad one.
But strength – you can either do 10 push-ups or you can’t. And here’s the thing – once you start on this journey, you realizes the things you can’t do today will become the things you can tomorrow, if you set your mind to it.
This blog will be about my fitness journey, things I’ve learned from other people, and developing a healthier mindset that celebrates bodies instead of shaming them. Thanks for reading my first entry, I hope it meant something to you and maybe helps you see your own body in a more positive light. Remember, it’s not about feeling bad about where you are today. It’s about where you’re going, the journey, and the hard work you’re going to put in achieving your goals. You CAN do this. You ARE capable – and it takes time and it’ll be tough, but I guarantee you once you start believing in yourself, it’ll be worth it.
Let’s get fit together! :)