One of the hardest realities of recovery for an alcoholic or an addict is the concept of complete and utter powerlessness. Most long term sober people call it surrender. Others use terms like acceptance. But understanding and grasping this concept… that is the key to continuous sobriety.

When I get a client fresh off a run using meth or drinking for years, self-acceptance of his physical state is challenging for him. I can’t tell you how many times an emaciated client would say during his first session: “I can bench press 225.”

No. You can’t bench 225, because you haven’t lifted in years and the toxic meth has killed your muscle tissue.

On the one hand, as a trainer you want to be encouraging and inspiring, and on the other, you want to be real and not white wash the situation. I mean muscle wasting, a fatty liver, digestive issues and malnutrition (sometimes for years), this is not the body of someone ready to bench 225 pounds.

These are the physical attributes newly sober addicts bring to me in early sessions. I used an analogy of a Ferrari running on empty in my last column. Now, in the movie “Scent of a Woman,” Al Pacino plays a retired alcoholic military sergeant. He convinces his co-star Chris O’Donnell to get a dealer to allow them to test drive a Ferrari from that dealership. Once on the alleys of downtown New York, Pacino commandeers the car to blindly drive it, ordering the kid to scream when to turn. Pacino is driving insanely fast. It’s a terrifying scene that leaves you on the edge of your seat.

This is how addicts will re-enter the gym environment without supervision. They are insane. They are blindly driving ridiculously fast with their minds. Going from zero to 60 in one second – so they can look perfect – today. Why is this? So they can tolerate the painful reality that their lives are a mess. The gym offers to them what they think will be a quick fix. And this is just a disaster waiting to happen. They are going risk injury or discourage themselves out of the gym in a short time because they can’t achieve their goals or tolerate the unmanageable feelings that have wrecked their lives. They are the blind drivers, here, and it is up to the trainer to get the blind man out of the driver’s seat and thoughtfully guide him to a slower path forward.

I know a rehab counselor who took a briefcase to 12 Step meetings in her first year. The only thing was, she was unemployed and homeless. She couldn’t tolerate the perception others had about her socioeconomic situation. I know another addict who was living in a homeless shelter but spent $1,000 on a new wardrobe in his first month of sobriety. I use these examples to illustrate my point that most addicts want to cling to any semblance of normalcy in their first weeks. That it is a fallacy, and a dangerous one at that.

Fitness is an inside job. And if an alcoholic’s insides are literally a mess – imagine what his perception of his outsides are in swimming in a sea of perfect bodies surrounding him at the gym.

I use what I call the “Seesaw Principle.” It is a great tool to begin with any client, sober or otherwise or just for yourself. This simple diagram of a seesaw illustrates my point. On one side, you have the client, on the other you have the weight of the world.

For the non-addicted clients, usually their perceptions of the outside world are a bit more right-sized. They can easily get to a place where the weight of the world for them is manageable or light. But, for the addict, achieving balance, especially in the early days, is most certainly impossible.

In the diagram – the top of seesaw for the addict is him in his most negative place. Here he is living in the “problem.”  Because the weight of world is heavier than he is, and he is unable to counter that with anything on his own will power.

With an honest and solid fitness regimen and emotional sobriety, over time the alcoholic can change his perceptions and experiences of the outside world and get the seesaw balanced.
Here’s the hard part for the alcoholic. How can he get the seesaw into the position where he sits at the bottom it with the weight of the world at the top? Through spiritual fitness.

Anyone who’s re-entering fitness, or has plateaued in his training (sober or not) can use this principle. Spiritual fitness can be many things. Just replace spiritual fitness with balanced portion eating, meditation, proper training regimens, proper rest, right-sized thinking or tolerance of uncomfortable feelings. These are all attributes that fit within the realm of spiritual fitness. This is how one gets the seesaw to a balanced point.

Half measures get anyone of us nowhere. The addict’s half measure is to say “I got this.” And then he will go on and on thinking that way without working out a program of recovery. Point blank — an addict or alcoholic cannot get the seesaw to the bottom unless he introduces spiritual principles into his workout regimen. Bringing spirituality in to this experience is the most effective way for him to excel and thrive.

So how do I do this with a new client, or newly sober person?

I stay simple in the beginning. I start with a short meditation, focusing on the breath. Breathing in new energy and light, or using a mantra, while breathing out the old ego-based ideas on looking perfect. Then, I use a variety of yoga and Pilates stretching and poses, followed by calisthenics to strengthen the core. In fact, the first half of the early workouts are this type of exercise. Then, I’ll do very light weight lifting with a focus on absolutely perfect form and slow motion lifting. I will have him hold the contractions and vary the tempo to get maximum results with very little weight. This might prompt him to complain that he can do much much heavier weight until he actually feels the muscle contraction using this method. It is the perfect point to reinforce the seesaw principle. It is about feeling the weight not just lifting the weight. It is a radical departure from no pain no gain approaches.

I have the client check in with me. How are you? Where is your thinking? What does that mean?

When checking if he is right sized or not I ask him, why are you choosing to lift this weight versus that one? Are you right-sized or are you trying to impress the person next to you with a weight you can’t possibly lift with precise form? Is it the best weight for you to use at this time?

If a client is able to be honest with himself, his early training will improve. From my experience, he is more likely to choose the appropriate weight for the right reasons if we implement an approach where he is with the seesaw principle before we lift.

This is how the addict that’s sitting at the top of the seesaw begins to gain strength and move the seesaw towards a balanced point in his early sobriety through fitness. He is literally strengthening his insides so he can be right sized with his own gym body while blocking out the perfect bodies that surround them. Then he can tolerate his feelings about the weight of the world and of his problems in life. He will begin to have some sense of manageability at a time when his thinking is unmanageable. We will come back to this Seesaw Principle in coming weeks. Next week we will talk about basic spiritual principles and affirmations.

Boris Schaak

About The Author:

Boris Schaak, a nationally certified fitness recovery coach, was ranked one of L.A.’s 50 “Best Personal Trainers” on the Los Angeles Hotlist and is a regular trainer at Golds Hollywood. “As a professional trainer and fitness coach, seeing the transformation and growth in my clients physically, emotionally and spiritually is my passion and mission in life,” says Schaak. You can reach him at

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