6 Career Lessons I Learned In The Weight Room


Mark D was the ultimate strength coach.

He was also every athlete’s worst nightmare.

Six feet tall and built like a refrigerator, his goatee accentuated the stern look that he wore all year long and as far as I could tell he didn’t seem to own a shirt with sleeves.

Even in the winter.

On my very first day in the weight room he handed out t-shirts with a single quote written across the back.

“Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

He was just what I needed.

I learned a lot about strength training during my time with Mark D.

I learned even more about life.

Lesson 1: You have no idea what you’re capable of

Mark D’s weight room wasn’t a democracy.

It was a Markocracy.

That meant that he decided for you both what exercises and how much weight you would be lifting every day.

One day, I recall struggling to complete a single squat at 200 pounds. When I came in the following week Mark told me that I was to squat 225 pounds.

Was he nuts?

I’m a tall, skinny white boy from rural Maryland. Squatting 200 lbs already felt like an unprecedented victory against physics.

“Mark, I barely squatted a single rep at 200 last week. How the hell am I supposed to suddenly squat 225?”

“Paugh, you’re gonna put 225 on that bar and you’re going to lift it.”

He stood next to the squat rack, arms folded, stern look glaring right through me as my knees trembled trying to get the bar off the rack and onto my shoulders.

After reaching 90 degrees I pushed to start coming back up but couldn’t budge an inch.

I was stuck.

If that wasn’t bad enough Mark’s face was now an inch from mine, screaming at me loud enough for everyone in the gym to hear.

“Paugh, don’t you quit on me now, Paugh. ”


Miraculously, on that one day in November, I did what I truly believed to be impossible: I squatted one rep at 225 pounds.

I had no idea what I was capable of, and neither do you.

You may think you’re operating at full capacity but chances are you’re closer to 50%, maybe less.

I thought I was operating at 100% at work until I met a colleague who arrived every morning at 430am to study Chinese for 3 hours before starting work at 730am.

I thought I was operating at 100% running 15km on the treadmill every week until I watched my brother run 250km across the Sahara Desert (which was later turned into the documentary Desert Runners).

What are you really capable of?

Lesson 2: You have to tear muscles in order for them to grow back stronger

Want to grow?

Something has to tear.

That’s a biological fact of life.

In the weight room, this means lifting weights so that your muscles tear and then resting so that they can grow back stronger.

If the weight’s too easy to lift then nothing tears, and nothing grows.

You must lift weight that’s heavier than what you’re comfortable with. That’s the key.

What does this mean in your career?

If you want to grow stronger then you need to lift something heavy.

There has to be pain.


You need to be sore the next day.

If that’s not happening, you’re not growing.

Put something heavy on your bar at work, and lift.

Start a new project that’s outside your comfort zone, lead a meeting that scares you, speak up when you’d normally stay quiet, commit to something you think is impossible.

Tear, recover, grow.

Lesson 3: It’s about intensity, not duration

I see a lot of the same people in the gym every day.

They’re there before I arrive and they’re there when I leave.

And yet they are often the same people that don’t get any stronger over time.

What’s going on?

When I observe closer I notice that these people are usually the ones walking slowly on the treadmill while texting with friends, taking 20 minute water breaks in between exercises, stopping to post selfies on Instagram so that the world knows they’re “working out.”

They spend more time in the gym than most, yet they see the poorest results.


Because they wrongly associate duration with results: the longer I’m here, the longer I’ve worked out, the more fit I will be…right?


The same phenomenon is at play in corporate offices around the world: the longer I’m here in the office, the longer I’ve worked, the more successful I will be.

Mark D taught me that getting fit has nothing to do with duration, and everything to do with intensity.

Was I sweating? Out of breath?

Was I sore the next day?

2-minute sprint interval sessions done 3 times a week elicit the same fat burning effects as a session of 30 minutes of endurance exercise.

In Switzerland, if they see someone in the office past 6pm they see it as a sign of inefficiency, or worse, a sign that someone is not good at their job.

Don’t confuse hours with output.

Lesson 4: How you workout matters

Mark D taught me that strength comes not just from visiting the weight room consistently but with intensity, and in the right way.

The right way means lifting with the correct form: slow, controlled movements that engage and isolate the specific muscle you are trying to develop.

Many gym-goers have never learned the proper techniques to weight lifting and unfortunately this means that they continue visiting the gym, day in and day out for hours at a time, without seeing results.

What’s more, they risk irreparable damage as a result of their poor form.

The same is true in business.

You might be doing the right things, but are you doing them in the right way?

You might be coaching, you might be managing conflict, you might be trying to collaborate.

But are you doing it in the right way?

If not, you could be doing irreparable damage to yourself, your team, and your business.

Lesson 5: What you do outside the weight room is just as important as what you do inside the weight room

If the first thing you do once you exit the gym is smoke a cigarette on the way to McDonald’s then you’re never going to see results.

The gym does not exist in isolation. It’s one piece of a larger puzzle.

You need the right nutrition.

You need proper sleep.

If even one of these pieces is out of place then the whole puzzle falls apart.

Growth requires total well-being.

To be successful in the corporate world it’s necessary to foster wellness inside and outside the office.

On and off the job.

When coaching sales leaders one question I like to ask is, “What’s going on outside the office?”

You may be working with high intensity and in the right way, but without things like rest, nutrition, and fitness, your ability to fly high will hit a ceiling…and fast.

Lesson 6: You need a coach

I never could have squatted 225 lbs without Mark D there as my coach.

I never would have even tried to squat 225 lbs without Mark D there as my coach.

I had already written it off as impossible, outside my range of capability.

Self-limiting beliefs are real, and we all need a way to break through those beliefs if we hope to achieve our full potential.

That’s what coaches are for.

Find a good one, and don’t let them go.

By Ryan Paugh

Hi there!

With decades spent exploring the outer world and the inner world, I share some of the insights I have learned along the way.

Topics include mindfulness, spirituality, growth, perspective, and career.

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