Today’s post comes from a place of…uncertainty. Doubt. Acceptance. I’m writing it because I am not above the very mindset about which I’m railing against. Because I’m not immune to marketing messages, and I’m a lifelong perfectionist. Because I still feel like I have something to prove. At the same time, I know how powerful it is to speak or write the truth–to put words into the universe and make them real. To do the mental heavy lifting so I don’t just jump from deconditioned and atrophied back into the the literal heavy lifting I wish I could do. Today’s post is an insurance policy against my own potential folly in the future.
So there’s that.
The very first time I walked into the weight room with the intention to do anything more than 20 quick reps of a bicep curl with a 5 lb weight–the very first time I walked into a weight room and headed for the squat rack–I experienced a serious mindset shift that was both wonderful and catastrophic.
After flailing about for a few sessions, doing poor imitations of the exercises in the circuit I had printed off of bodybuilding.com, I got the hang of it. And suddenly, I was no longer that woman in the weight room. I was simply in the weight room.
Reading Oxygen Magazine, I fully embraced the concept of “Sisters in Iron,” except when a woman actually wandered into the weight room and flailed about, doing poor imitations of circuits from Shape magazine. No, this woman wasn’t my sister–she was the reason I imagined men sneered when I walked into the weight room for the first time–she was the reason I had to prove myself by lifting heavy.
Here’s the thing. I strongly believe that women can and should lift weights. If I could, I’d probably still be doing deadlifts “on the reg.” But I think there are a couple of points when the “real women lift heavy” message goes to far:
- Lifting heavy at the expense of progression and good form:
The next time you go to the gym, be the creepy person who stands around and watches other people lift.
I guarantee you, without fail, you will ALWAYS spot someone who is lifting too heavy and compensating like hell. Weightlifting is not something to take lightly (pun intended)–if you’re lifting too heavy and lifting improperly, you can seriously injure yourself or cause structural damage that can follow you long after the delayed onset muscle soreness wears off.
Quick story: Back when I lived in NYC, I was lucky enough to spend two months working out at an Equinox gym for free. They had a fantastic amount of weights in just about every configuration you could need or imagine. I had progressed to 12.5 lb lateral raises,* and I was pretty proud of myself. But when my free membership was abruptly revoked,** I returned to the Columbia University gym, which wasn’t as well-stocked.
Too proud to go back to 10 lb lateral raises, I tried my hand at 15 lb weights. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), it’s been three years and my shoulder still clicks when I do any exercise that involves abduction.
2. Lifting heavy to prove something:
Look, I get it. Walking into the gym, picking up the 40s and doing an overhead press without flinching–and then looking into the eyes of the guy doing the same thing with 35s feels damn good. But risking permanent injury isn’t worth it–and it isn’t necessary.
Doing awesome body weight squats can be just as meritorious as camping out in the squat rack. And if you’re ready for the squat rack, have at it. But don’t head there if you’re only doing it because you want to show up the lady in the matchy-matchy lululemon outfit who is doing 5 lb bicep curls on the Bosu ball. (Or worse, if you’re just trying to prove something to yourself. It will only end in heartache and a potentially tweaked back.)
3. Lifting heavy because fitspiration made me do it:
I think this one should go without saying, but sadly, this is still a huge source of “motivation” for a lot of women who first decide to make a commitment to fitness and health.
Before Pinterest, I found myself making vision boards with fitspo-type images clipped from Oxygen, Muscle and Fitness Hers, and the like. I told myself it was because I wanted inspiration to become the best version of myself I could. In reality, the pictures of Jamie Eason that were taped to my closet door were punishment–a constant reminder of what I wasn’t, of what I still had yet to become.
Lift heavy if it makes you feel good. Grow muscle so you can move your own boxes, open your own pickle jars, and save a life if you have to carry someone out of a burning building or drag them out of the middle of the street after they’ve been hit by a car. But don’t do it because someone in a magazine or on Pinterest threw some words on a picture of someone who ate nothing but tuna and egg whites for a month and then took a diuretic to look good for a 10 minute photoshoot.
Anyway. Sorry for the gym-rant, but every so often, Twitter reminds me that there are still too many disordered messages being exchanged about who should lift heavy when–and why. And every time I set foot back into a gym, the same old anxieties–I’m not good enough, strong enough, thin enough–kick back in.
Here’s what I think:
Women can and should lift heavy–if they want to. Muscles are beautiful. Strength is a blessing. Power is sexy. But don’t let that become an obsession that turns a fun workout into a punishment (whether physical or mental).
Are any of you out there weightlifters/gym rats/bodybuilders/etc? Why did you start lifting weights? Have you ever injured yourself at the gym?
PS I think you can scale this message to also include doing things like starting a P90X type workout when you’re deconditioned or doing a couch to 5K when you don’t have knowledge of proper running form. Whatever form your “lifting heavy” takes, make sure that you’re progressing slowly and with intention. Whenever possible, enlist the help of a trainer or coach who can provide guidance, feedback, and help you regress and progress exercises at a pace that you can handle.
PPS Have you listened to the Finding Our Hunger podcast yet? Go subscribe in iTunes so you won’t miss another episode!
*I know. 12.5 lbs isn’t “heavy”–but it was for me, when I was 100 lbs and starving to death.
**The sales guy who had given me an extra month free got fired…