The Cage

Keith Mueller


Bite off more that you can chew. Swallow it anyway. Eventually, learn not to think before biting. Feast. 

Bite off more that you can chew. Swallow it anyway. Eventually, learn not to think before biting. Feast. 

Whatever our goal, we all enter a gym because we recognize a gap between our ability and our potential. This gap only exists because of our tendency to measure things. Weight on the scale, weight on the bar, the face of the stopwatch. We measure them against our past selves, against each other, against who we think ourselves to be. The Fitbit teaches us that data is our friend; that “what gets measured gets managed”. This is of course true, to an extent. Soon however, we can’t do without the numbers; measuring and analyzing only in that context. We know too well what we are capable of on a given day. We decide what sort of effort is out of reach without a strict and thorough plan of attack. We treat our PRs as a line in the sand, to be crossed almost on accident whenever we “feel good” that day. Slaves to our inner expectation of the effort required for certain weights and paces, we never notice the cage of our own perception being built around us, until self-limitation, hesitation, and caution are our first instincts in the face of risk.  


I make it a habit to tell the athletes and individuals I train that the only currency we deal in is attention and effort. At first, this seems to be a concession, an admission that unfortunately this is “all” we’re in control of. The work reveals the cost of this standard, and the burden of paying attention becomes heavier and heavier. What I’m really trying to do is show how much we are able to control. I’m trying to trigger a shift in values from Quantity in movement to Quality in awareness. A shift from seeing the improvements in movement and fitness as ends, to understanding them as tools, as means.  


I’m trying to slip you the keys to the cage.


Here’s an experiment. Test your 1, 3, 5, or 10-rep max for a movement like the front/back squat or deadlift. Have a friend or coach change your weights for you, with a random assortment of plates each time, so long as you progressively lift heavier and heavier. Just ignore the load. If you catch yourself doing the math, stop. Pay attention to your thoughts, before, during, and after the bar travels its path, and see where you end up. PR or not, you WILL learn about your relationship with heavy weight.


Imagine a training session executed perfectly. What comes to mind? Hitting your lifts. Nailing a PR. Feeling the burn. Satisfaction in your forward trajectory towards MORE. A consistent athlete knows these days can be rare. A beginner needs them to feel progress. If you’ve been on your fitness journey long enough to know the muck and mire of a plateau, consider expanding your definition of progress. Strive for a workout defined by intent; successful not in it’s ease, but in its struggle. Sweat the details. Learn to see the >90% lift not simply as “heavy”, but as demanding full presence and focus. Conversely, learn to see past the patience required for 60 min recovery paced row, instead recognizing its potential for accepting the very same full presence of mind you pour into the heavy barbell or the quick-time trial. If you log your workouts (you should), strive to tell a story with your entries, building a journal rather than just an accountant’s ledger. Look tirelessly for patterns, then break them or reinforce them as necessary. Reap the rewards of choosing grit and failure and learning over easy victories and shallow, untested confidence. I can say confidently that every major leap forward in my physical capacity resulted not from work and consistency alone, but from a decision supported by that framework. A formerly rare and usually caffeine-fueled choice to stop waiting and find out if something is truly as hard or heavy as I thought it might be then and there. It never was. Armed with the truth; that I’m a born pessimist, that how I feel is a lie, that I’m always wrong, the numbers now have context. Progress now has more weight to it. Courage is easier to find, and the world is so much bigger outside of the cage.