Michael “Merk” Smith, is a 22-year-old Gymshark ambassador from Akron, Ohio who impressively transformed his physique in just 3 years. In this, the first issue of our new and exclusive article series, ‘Beyond the Man’ we delve into Michael’s mind and explore the psychological foundations of a dedicated athlete.
Having trained consistently for the last 5 years to achieve the aesthetic physique his 350 thousand followers dream of, Michael reveals that things weren’t always so easy for him, fitness-wise. “I used to be the smaller kid in terms of when it came to teams and sports but I still loved being athletic…movement. My favourite sport was football growing up, I just had such a passion for it.” Sitting in his room, repping a sleek, Gymshark crewneck sweater, Merk reminisces how his passion for football was benched, as he got to high school. Even back then he understood the potential ramifications of competing in a contact sport at a lighter weight and size than his peers, “I know it would have been tough on me and I know I would have gotten beat up, so I made the decision to focus on school and became less active when it came to athletics.”
In his senior year Michael decided to commit to an engineering school in his hometown of Ohio. He let on that this was around the same time that he properly discovered the gym for himself. He admits that initially, training was intimidating: not having expanded much beyond his general knowledge of fitness, this new world frightened him. Now widely recognised fitness athlete and Insta-celeb, Merk’s vulnerability in early memories of the gym humanises him and makes him a realistic role model for others earlier on in their fitness journeys.
He himself had others to look up to. Guided by a fellow classmate, Michael began to find his rhythm with lifting throughout his senior year and into his first year at university: “it was nice with him because he taught me the fundamentals. How to set up a split, how to do the basic exercises and how to really push in the gym.” Other than the due credit to his old gym buddy, Michael struggles to pinpoint exactly what had motivated him to compete in a physique show during the summer after his Freshman year. He recalls the prep work for the competition with a traumatised air. Long weeks on a low carb diet, in the middle of his exams, a highly incompatible combination which most of us would faint at thought of.
He reflects on it as an enriching experience, which gave him the opportunity to learn more about his body’s limits but admits that he didn’t enjoy the competition enough to do it again: “I learned more in those couple months than you typically learn through a whole year because you wouldn’t normally have that same pressure to really look your best. That was cool because I really learnt a lot about myself…”
He continued through a timeline of his journey, from engineering student to fitness guru. Slowly phasing himself out of school, becoming a certified personal trainer and then deciding that that wasn’t for him. Now working with sponsors such as Gymshark and EHP and now focusing on content creation, he is no stranger to switching things up. It’s impossible not to remark on how put together Michael appears, especially during a global pandemic. His thick, curly hair sits neatly atop his head, he is clean shaven, apart from a simple goatee and has flawless skin. Michael looks like a man who has taken these unprecedented times as an opportunity for self-care.
My Primary Motivation is That Mental Release That Training Gives Me Every Day
His personal philosophy revolves heavily around self-awareness: “It’s really key but it’s kind of a double-edged sword because the more self-aware you are, I think you can be more grounded in who you are but knowing yourself too well can make you maybe a little more anxious or just too focused on yourself, so you can’t enjoy the outside world as much.” Without even knowing it, Michael touches on the foundations of well-established attentional focus theories where researchers have argued that focusing too much attention inward, or away from your goals during a task, can induce a nervous state and leads to underperformance. He adds “there’s a level of awareness that connects to training too. A lot of people might have some emotion and think that fitness is an outlet for it, but if you’re more self-aware you can understand where that emotion stems from which, is pretty powerful so pull from it when you need it but keep it in perspective.”
Michael himself, knows that many things can disturb a mindset when training. Stress, he says, often propels his training sessions. He goes on to explain that the intensity of a set or session is controlled by the individual and that stress, whilst often a distraction to most peoples training, can also be used to one’s advantage. The intensity of the mind muscle connection, the intensity of the squeeze is optimised when he draws on the stresses in life to fuel his strength and push his body. “Two people can do the same workout but not have the same workout. So, with that stress and frustration I know I’m typically at the maximum level I can push.” Using negative emotions to charge your training is a great example of a healthy stress management practice, something we can all learn to do a little bit better.
Michael continues on this concept of emotion-fuelled training when asked how he might get himself in the desired mindset, often referred to as “the zone”, for a training session. He responded that music normally got him there but he explained what he does when it didn’t: “I’ll just sit there for a sec, five, ten seconds and flashback to something that brings anger or frustration and remember how I felt in that situation. That could be small, recent things or bigger things in my past that I know I can always reflect on. It’s nice for the small things like if someone said something that got me the wrong way, for me I use it as energy and a way to process it. A lot of times after the session I don’t think about it nearly as much”. A Kanye West lyric springs to mind: “they hating again that’s music to my ears, what you think my fuel was for all of these years. I’m inspired when people don’t like me, they keep me writing.” Evidently, its common practice to intentionally draw on emotions to feed performances.
Real Growth Comes From Recovery
Michaels’ success, in part, is due to the extent to which he actively engages in self-regulation. High level skills such as emotional intelligence are based on the lower order skills such as awareness and motivation. The core of these skills is rooted in processes like self-regulation where an individual sets goals, executes and monitors them, then evaluates their strategy use and considers how they can adapt to perform better next time. Without this cyclical refinement, how can we expect to improve if we are unaware of what needs improving in the first place? Michael described his evaluating process as, not deliberating what might have gone wrong inside the gym to result in a bad session, but what and where did he go wrong outside of the gym: “If I feel weak through the session then I’ll re-evaluate and it’s less that that was a bad session but more ok what did I do in the last day or two that led to poor recovery? Was it not getting enough sleep or enough carbs? That would usually take my attention rather than well that was just a bad session”. Whilst it may seem basic, this mentality is everything necessary to excel in any repetitive task.
For a stranger looking at Michael and his Hercules statue-esque physique, it would be easy to assume that he must spend all of his time in the gym. Otherwise how can one achieve such a build? Although he admits that a significant proportion of his time revolves around fitness or its components, surprisingly, the physical side of performance only lasts about two and a half hours a day, including filming. The rest of his day however, is spent ensuring consistency throughout the week: “trying to stay on my natural circadian rhythms, same sleep patterns night after night. I don’t stress out over it but eating the same meals at the same time of day or learning something new, things on that level are pretty structured.”
Michaels strict regime is proof that muscles are built in the kitchen and that there’s a lot more mental effort to fitness than just doing the reps. As irrelevant as it may seem it’s important to note the other activities that fill his time such as responding to emails, editing a YouTube video or working on the launch of his new website. These everyday tasks remind us that Michaels’ fitness achievements are attainable for us, too. And just like the rest of us, Michael experiences his own challenges. One of which he disclosed was keeping the right people around him and putting time into those relationships; “Bodybuilding is a very isolated thing. I mostly train alone, and I work from home. There’s definitely a challenge in reaching out and interacting with people. It’s definitely a challenge in terms of the lifestyle and not many people have this lifestyle in Ohio. The majority of the population probably has a 9-5, and there’s nothing wrong with that but I’m outside of that general lifestyle, so that’s definitely a challenge yeah.” With Covid-19 sweeping the globe, Michael has managed to resume a somewhat normal social and professional life without the gym, a testament to his fortitude.
Disciplined Beyond Measure
With these challenges, personal or professional, Michael understands the mentality they need to be met with. He describes the optimal mindset as “disciplined beyond measure.” He refers to British bodybuilder Dorian Yates who he admires for his unshakeable drive: “He did whatever he had to do. That’s incredible to have that level of determination and discipline to not let outside things affect his journey. It’s tough at the same time, it can be hard to have relationships with people but in order to have a healthy balanced life, you need those things in there.” Michael possibly sees a bit of himself in Dorian, referring to the previous idea of maintaining relationships in a line of work that is so often solitary. “To commit to something 100% you have to make sacrifices so it’s like, you know…what are you willing to sacrifice to get your goal?” An introvert at heart, Michaels’ ideal evening would consist of drinking a protein shake in his apartment, accompanied by a fury friend.
With a natural inclination toward tranquillity, it is understandable why achieving that work-life balance may seem difficult. However, Michael is fully abreast of these difficulties and puts purposeful effort into maintaining relationships. The Akron native acknowledges that to reach his optimal mindset he needs to distance himself from distractions. Pulling a classic thinking face, he adds “continuing to have a mindset where you’re hungry to learn and applying what you learn is what I think it’s about. It’s overwhelming to think what you could do in a perfect world if you were to adhere to everything. I know there will be plenty more mistakes I make but that’s how you learn.” This type of growth mindset is prevalent in athletes and business(wo)men around the world. Influential athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo or Kobe Bryant are famous for their growth mindset and enthusiasm to convert mistakes into a learning curve.
The Value of Who You Are Doesn’t Come From What You’ve Done. It’s About Your Attitude
Michael mentions a few times that comfort in who you are is a staple deep rooted in his training and content that he shares. For example, his YouTube channel ‘Just Merk’ which has accumulated over 300 thousand subscribers, showcases him as an ordinary kid from Ohio who is in love with fitness and human performance. Being in a social media spotlight, I questioned Michael on the dichotomy of being comfortable in your skin, but also presenting yourself in a way that attracts followers and interest. “I would say that’s actually where I’ve had a lot of growth. If I had to pick a time where I was least myself, there was a good 6 months or so [at the beginning] where I felt like I needed to be somebody, make my mark in the industry, pressure to do certain things or be at a certain level in terms of lifestyle, I definitely felt that pressure.” He admits that expectations got to him, most notably as he wasn’t enjoying the work side of content creation. He adds, “I wanted to be perceived a certain way, compared to now where I’m more comfortable in myself, knowing I don’t need to be anybody. If somebody has more followers or makes more money, that’s their journey. But it took some time. It was part of my journey. I’m in a much better space with it now.”
It’s comforting to hear that an athlete of Michael’s stature experienced the same pressure a lot of us do with social media but was able to act within his morals. Michael disclosed that whenever he might feel that pressure rising, whether internally or externally, it’s about returning to your values and asking yourself ‘why am I doing this?’ We could all benefit from staying rooted in our ‘why’, more often. Explaining his motivation, Michael said: “I think I want to communicate to other people, how good it (fitness) can be to them. I don’t get on a video and tell them this. I just share my story and hope that that’s what they pull from it.” A message that resonates with Beyond Better “You can use this in your life to enhance your well-being and your performance” is essentially what we’re saying.
I Don’t Have To Be the Best At Anything At All, I just Want To Be A Better Me
Despite his popularity, which is made clear by the overwhelming volume of engagement his posts receive, Michael deals with distractions as a challenge that he intends to overcome and develop. Like all of us, he has areas of improvement that are necessary to develop to become the most well-rounded performer. He encourages his followers, however, to focus on their strengths, as should we all. It is imperative that as much as we identify our weaknesses, we remind ourselves of which strong skills that propel us forward, too. Michael revealed, rather bashfully, that consistency is perhaps the strongest area of his mental game. After some conscientious thought he added “not even that, creating a lifestyle that matches my goals. I love to train, I’m going to do it regardless. My greatest strength is having identified my passion for it and then being able to build my life around that”.
Discipline Builds Discipline
Many of us dream of such a life; making a living based on your personal goals. Michael is proof that it is not unachievable, but it certainly is no light work; discipline builds discipline and the most common obstacle in any area of performance is to stay disciplined. Some of us are better at it than others. Some of us can’t do it at all. Sticking to a diet, finishing chores, saying no to distractions, staying focused and behaving in a way that aligns with your goals can not only be difficult, it can lead to burnout! When Michael struggles, he consciously draws on reasons to stay disciplined, rather than not: “I’m extremely fortunate to be in the position that I am, that makes me want to push harder and not take advantage of it. If I went out one night, stayed up late and drank, that’s me not taking advantage of an extremely rare opportunity that I have.” In essence, his discipline is grounded in that notion of self-regulation that we mentioned earlier and is aided by the use of self-talk, a stellar psychological technique.
Michael explains how he essentially conducts a cost-benefit analysis by taking a moment to acknowledge his blessings (benefits) and considers that doing a, b, and c that doesn’t align with his goals (cost) is taking it all for granted. Strategically engaging in thoughts and creating emotions that facilitate your own discipline are key. It may not seem like it, but as humans we have the power to change our thoughts and influence our own feelings. Try it right now. Think of something that makes you want to work harder. Something that pushes you, so you’re forced to the edge of your limits. Just by generating these thoughts, you are able to fuel emotions of motivation, encouragement, power etc. and subsequently act accordingly. It’s a mindset employed by many athletes and others in the performance industry. The very ones whose chiselled bodies and seemingly glamorous, jet-set lives we’re privy to online.
It’s A Lifestyle
The discussion turns to a book called High performance Habits (you can download a FREE PDF version here) and Michael gets deeper into the lifestyle aspects of being a fitness athlete. Quite opposite to what is expected and presented on social media, Merk confesses that, for him personally, the lifestyle is just sticking to daily habits and routines. “I have travelled a few times or been on a shoot, but those are few and far between. It’s probably a very few percentage of athletes that are constantly travelling.” Letting us in on what it’s truly like for him, Michael explains that most of the lifestyle is the prosaic processes of eating the same foods, training, trying to learn more and be better. “A mundane reality” as he eloquently put it.
Michael’s ordinary existence might seem shocking to those who are only familiar with his online persona and enormous following. The pursuit of perfection on social media can be all-consuming and while it may appeal to some, Michael adds that it’s enough to get on top of anyone: “once you don’t have that structure, it’s a lot of responsibility. I can wake up when I want, go to sleep when I want and my day is flexible for whatever I want to get done, but I think it’s also easy to get complacent.” Michaels’ description of his personal lifestyle brings lofty perceptions of online influencers right down to earth and is a message to us all that the grass is not always greener.
Michael is committed to his performance/well-being enhancing habits such as reading for at least 30 mins everyday; learning something new every day and keeping strict sleeping patterns. He has no plans of stopping any time soon: “When my body can’t keep up with the lifestyle anymore” is the only point at which he’d quit. Taking this journey down to the wire and preparing for a future outside of fitness at the same time is how Michael intends to spend his upcoming years. As for any words of wisdom, his advice to others trying to make it in the industry is to create and present as genuinely as possible: “Be as fully authentic as you can. Period. Just be you.” Great advice from a great athlete and a humble human. He’s just Merk and he’s just getting started.
Merch Has Arrived
Interviewed and written by Natasha Bains
Edited by Memuna Konteh
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