A barbell with plates on the floor
A barbell with plates on the floor
I’ll probably never lift as much ever again, lol.

How Lifting 205 Kg Helps Me Become a Better Designer

Nguyen Tran-Ngo
Oct 1, 2020 · 5 min read

It was Saturday, January 6, 2018. I walked into the gym unlike any other day before. Today I will have deadlifted more than I ever did. Or I might also (be) dead (during the) lift.

I walk up to the bar on the floor. Somewhere in the distance, I can hear the faint murmurs of people around. My brain instantly ignores this. I spread my arms and take a big deep breath then swallow it down to my stomach. My lifting belt is wrapped so tight against my inflated abdominals, I can’t breathe. My face starts to turn red. To a passer-by, I must look like a balloon that is about to burst.

Right before I pass out, I grab the barbell and pull it to my shins. Lowering my hips, I pushed my whole weight down against the mat, ready to explode. In one motion, I look up to the ceiling and jerk my whole body up. A shockwave is sent upwards my spine. Everything goes black. My mind goes blank.

The weight quickly rises past my knees but this is where it makes or breaks the lift. I extend my hips as far as I could and labour the bar up millimeter by millimeter whilst every muscle in my body protests. My legs are shaking as if there was an earthquake under me. The weight is almost unbearable. The cheers from the audience are quickly muffled as gushes of blood reverberate in my eardrums.

You learn a lot about yourself when you’re literally holding almost three times your body weight in your hands. Strength sports has a way of exposing your vulnerability whilst building your vision and work ethics. In the spirit of focusing on the latter, here’s how Powerlifting makes me a better designer.

Progress through trials and errors

Every powerlifter starts with the (empty) bar. It is through progressive overloading that one’s able to advance and lift heavier. Every small improvement contributes to a bigger achievement. Through Powerlifting, I have learned to make small adjustments whether it’s foot placement, hand placement, etc. to make that big lift. When you lift heavy, every little extra bit helps. And if it doesn’t work? We note it down and figure out as to why. Then we make adjustments to the adjustments. The cycle repeats.

In product design, it’s a series of research, design decisions, implementation, testing, and iteration that completes the cycle and churn out good products. Sounds familiar?

Sweat the details but set the vision

As little details have such a big impact on a lift, lifters often obsess over minutiae. But without a goal in mind, the details won’t serve as much. Before setting foot in the gym, we ought to already know how much we have to lift for the day. Same for the week, how much am I going to be able to progress? Same the month, year, decade.

Similarly, the exact decimal number padding of a CTA is irrelevant if we don’t know why the CTA is there in the first place.

It is critical to always keep an eye on the bigger picture throughout the process. Designers should understand how our work impacts the users and the business. Without a clear vision of the business objective, a pretty interface won’t matter much. Set the vision first, then can we move forward in a holistic and effective way.

Conversely, think about the big picture but have a keen eye on the smallest details. We all know how that pesky misaligned CTA makes all the difference.

Leave your ego out the door

In Powerlifting, the main goal is to do better than you did last time. That’s why getting compliments is nice, but lifting more than the last session is even better. Focus on the results, not the fanfare.

Applied to product design, this allows me to separate the ego from the work, and to separate the ‘u’ from the ‘users’. I can’t remember how many times my assumptions have been busted during User Interviews and Weekly meetings. Does my ego get a little bruised? Of course, I’m only human. But the resilience in the gym pushes me to dust myself off and pick up the bar (pencil in this case) again.

Set a goal, stay consistent

Powerlifting is a long-term commitment. Commitment is showing up after a long day at work or when you’re tired and don’t feel like it. Commitment is to keep yourself motivated even when it’s raining outside. Achievement is directly linked to everything you’re doing even when no one is watching.

Likewise, design commitments will keep you in the game:

  • How do I keep improving my craft? Which source do I use for inspiration? How do I keep up with the latest tech and best practices out there?
  • Do I have the stomach to keep showing up, long after the novelty and fun of a project have worn off?
  • Can I give and receive design critiques as effectively at Round 20 as I did at Round 2?

Powerlifting has taught me to not give up, to keep going, and to keep my eyes on the goal. The pressure is real, but the rewards are unreal!

Lift alone and you’ll lift faster, lift together and you’ll lift heavier

As individualistic as a sport can get, lifting with people gives you a kind of progress booster that you would never have doing it alone. You may or may not need a spotter — someone who catches the bar in case you fail to lift it. But having them there in the first place prepares your mental enormously. It isn’t uncommon that friendship develops from those precarious moments. Some of my very good friends would be happy to tell you how they ‘saved’ my life more than once, don’t you Harry? ;)

Designers on the other end of the spectrum, aren’t as much of an anti-social species as we’d like to think we are. I for one, love showing my designs to others and see what they can build on it. It always fascinates me to see people catching the little details that I missed. In the end, we don’t claim credits for a product individually, it’s a team sport.

No more back pains :)

Last but not least, did I mention the benefits of deadlifts over your overall health, especially your lower back pains? Don’t just take my words for it, let the scientists tell you why.

Happy lifting and designing!

Also, check out my other article on how Design can be explained with Art here.

I’d be chuffed to connect on LinkedIn. You can find me at https://www.linkedin.com/in/nguyentran-ngo/. In the meantime, have a good one!

The Startup

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Nguyen Tran-Ngo

Written by

Product Designer • Art Director • Occasional Writer • www.nguyentran-ngo.design

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

Nguyen Tran-Ngo

Written by

Product Designer • Art Director • Occasional Writer • www.nguyentran-ngo.design

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

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