#22 – Use “normal” to your advantage

In this episode, we talk about how to trick your brain and body into accepting new norms so you can achieve what you’re trying to achieve.​


Hey, everybody! It’s Matt Hsu from Upright Health and welcome to Episode 22 of the Upright Health podcast. Today, I’m actually recording from my hotel room in beautiful St. Louis, Missouri. I am actually stretching, so you might hear a little bit of movement going on while I’m talking. Hopefully, it doesn’t get too distracting. But I do want to set a good example, so I wanna let you know that I am, in fact, stretching this morning.

Today’s episode is about normalcy and redefining normal for yourself. This idea kind of hit me a couple weeks ago and it’s come up multiple times actually since. And even being in here in Missouri actually makes me think about it even more. So a couple weeks ago, I was scrolling through Instagram and I came across a female bodybuilder’s, I know what you call it, feed. Anyway, I saw a couple of her photos. And I thought, “Oh, look at this body. Look at what she’s achieved.” And I’ve seen this woman’s pictures on my feed before. I have her on my feed because somebody else I know actually really admires her, so I figured, “Okay, I’ll follow this person.” So now I’ve seen this person’s photo multiple times — this bodybuilder’s photo multiple times. And I realized, as I was looking at her picture, I realized, “My god, I’ve actually started to think that this is actually a fairly normal body type.” And for background, this woman is probably at like eight percent body fat. Meaning she is very, very lean. Her abdominals look extremely defined. I’m sure you’ve probably seen it where ladies abs started looking like they’re so lean, that they have the abs of a very strong man, which that’s fine, I’m not saying that’s bad. It’s just, I don’t particularly find it attractive, honestly. But the reason I bring this up because to achieve that for a woman, you’d have to be in an extremely low body fat and actually have a body fat percentage that is generally considered not healthy for a woman.

So on top of these amazing abs, she has probably size, I would say D, if not bigger, obviously fake breasts. So what my brain is starting to see is this extraordinarily rare body over and over and over again. And it’s starting to become normal to my. And I realized this. I was looking at it and I realized that there was no sense of like “Oh, this is shocking. This is something that is total outlier in my human experience.” Instead, my brain was saying, “Yeah, all women are supposed to look like this.” To me, it’s number one, it’s a little perverse because obviously, that is not a normal body type or certainly not common. But the number of exposures my brain has now had to it, has turned into something that could be considered normal and common, if I didn’t have consciousness and awareness of what was going on.

So the idea of defining “normal” for yourself I think is actually extremely important. This comes up for people who… there are a lot of people who talk about this concept of not watching the news or not reading newspapers because it starts to make your brain think things about the world that are just not true. For example, you see enough news reports about killing, death, war, racism, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, you start to think that everything in the world is nothing but killing and death and murder and pillaging and all these horrible things simply because you’re being exposed to it over and over again. When really, if you would just go outside and walk the street – unless you’re in a particularly bad neighborhood — you’re not going to run into that same stressful level of high frequency violence and death and destruction. So I want to talk about how to use this phenomenon to your advantage. So, in terms of your own physical fitness, in terms of your own habits, in terms of the things that you are trying to accomplish, you have to redefine what you consider to be normal. And the way you do that is the same way you are unconsciously — without any effort — programming yourself to define your daily normals.

So for clients that I work with who are, I would say probably forty years old and up, what this looks like for most of them is a battle to redefine what normal aging is. So for a lot of clients who just start with me or start with Josh here at Upright Health, one of the biggest challenges is getting people to redefine what they consider normal. So, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had somebody who’s forty years old and above, sometimes even thirty, and this happens but basically, someone will come in and say, “You know, I’m fifty five, so I know that a lot of these aches and pains are just from getting older but I’d like to try to like slow my decline.” So when they say this, the thing that should go off in your head, the alarm bell that should go off in your head is that this is somebody who believes that with aging, you are going to decline at a certain rate and there is barely anything you can do about it. Like, just in the statement, “Well, I know this is from getting older. I just wanna see if I can slow it down a little bit,” is a belief that there’s no ability to improve your situation; there’s just the ability to kind of slow your decline.

So we’re going to put up a video soon of an interview with Steve (one of my clients), who came to start training in his early fifties. And you know, we had a very similar conversation where he said, “I’d like to be able to move better. I just kind of want to be better than I’m now-ish. But I know age is kind of a factor. I’d like to be able to move, be able to squat and run a little bit.” And I told him, “Hey, it’s not enough, your ambitions here of just moving a little bit better and not hurting as much are unacceptable goals. You really need to be thinking about what you intend to achieve that is seemingly unreasonable.” Basically, I was telling him that he had to redefine what was an acceptable range of performance, right? The way our current medical system is set up and the way I find many doctors tend to look at human beings is with very, very, very low expectations. And that’s based on pretty crappy science and pretty crappy studies. But overall, the belief is that if you’re over forty, all that happens is your muscle mass declines, declines, declines until you die.  And while that may be true in the studies that were done looking at people who never really properly exercised, never were doing resistance training, never doing anything to actually do anything to develop muscle, that’s probably true, right? It may be true for those people, right? And a vast majority of people don’t exercise regularly in a targeted, intentional, intelligent way, and so they do lose muscle mass at apparently a very predictable rate. But that doesn’t mean that just because it’s common, just because you’re seeing it all the time, that that is the norm and that is the norm that you should attempt to adjust to.

So when I’m talking with a client like Steve or if I’m talking with any other client, the first thing you have to do is re-define what you think is normal, what you think is acceptable and what you think is common. And so to reprogram that in your head, you need to start exposing yourself to things that remind you of your goal, that look like the thing you’re trying to achieve, that constantly reinforce in your mind that this is something that is achievable and that reflects back to you a realistic outcome. I say “realistic outcome”, but you could actually try to get, you know, reflect back on something that’s unrealistic. So for example, this female bodybuilder, unless you’re willing to put in a whole lot of time and energy and attention into your nutrition — and possibly also get breast implants — you’ll never achieve her body type, if you’re a woman trying to achieve that body type. But if you are to do maybe half of what this woman does, you would definitely achieve a body that would be pretty darn gorgeous. The same thing goes for guys; you’re trying to get super strong, you’re trying to get super fit, you want to try to get yourself in the mindset of, you know, it’s normal to be exercising four or five days a week. It’s normal for me to try to eat food that provides exactly the fuel I need to do what I’m trying to do.

Personally for me, when I was trying to get my body to function better, and even now, this is still a habit of mine, but when I was really in the crapper, when my body was really just not working well, I would constantly watch videos of people doing exercise that I couldn’t currently do. And then from there, kind of try to figure out why I couldn’t do those exercises and what I needed to do to be able to do them. So I still remember watching CrossFit marketing videos. So whatever you think about CrossFit, I think everyone can agree that they have really, really, really put out a lot of inspiring views and seeing people move heavyweight the way they do in CrossFit workouts does provide a lot of inspiration for people to do barbell training which I think is great. And yet it did definitely provide me with inspiration to figure out why I couldn’t do a freakin’ front squat? Why couldn’t I even squat the depth? You know, what was it about these people who were able to do it, that I couldn’t do it? What was the problem? So I started to see, “Okay, here’s another human being who can do this. Here is another human being who can do this. Here’s another human being who can do this. And these are all generally normal people, so I should probably be able to do this as well.” And that spurred me into thinking if that is a normal, achievable thing, how am I going to get myself to achieve that now?

Now, of course you need to be a little bit careful, right? You need to have some perspective. Like I’ve mentioned previously, if you are looking at a role model, you’re looking at a goal that is actually a little bit deceiving, like you know with body builders, I will say again there is such an amazing amount of discipline and amazing amount of hard work that goes into bodybuilding. You probably need to recognize that unless you are really truly dedicated to it, you’re not going to look like a bodybuilder, right? But you can get part of the way there for sure if you start normalizing certain things in your mind.

So with people who are older (going back to Steve and that whole idea) people who are older need to normalize this idea that muscle loss is not an unavoidable decline, right? I have a female client in her mid-fifties who just said her first chin ups, unassisted. Able to pull her whole body weight up on a bar — chin up over the bar — three times now. And she’s actually never been able to do chin ups in her life. So you know, in about six or seven months took her to be able to do the chin ups. I mean, there’s strength development, there’s muscle development. And that’s past the age of forty. You know, Steve can pick up well over two hundred pounds off the floor now and that’s something he’s never done in his life. And it feels good, it feels safe, it makes him feel awesome.

So when you’re trying to achieve something, really, really look at the underlying beliefs that you have about whatever this goal is and then start to reprogram yourself. Figure out which believes are screwing you up, figure out if there are role models you can look at, figure out if there are images that you can constantly bombard yourself with (either on YouTube or Instagram) and get your brain used to a new normal, so that you can achieve something that is extraordinary for yourself. And don’t hate yourself on the way. Don’t let images of completely unrealistic things work your mind. Keep some perspective but start reprogramming yourself. See what happens. Start believing in something that seems a little bit impossible and you will be amazed at what happens.

So I hope that gives you some insight, gives you a little inspiration to try to get your brain work in the way you want it to work. Try to get yourself to see the extraordinary as maybe normal, in healthy ways. And I hope that you remember that in pain sucks, life shouldn’t. This is Matt Hsu from St. Louis, Missouri signing off. Take care!


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