On Weight Training
I have never been what you might call a graceful person.
I love running, cycling, dancing, and yoga, but it takes some amount of effort for me to not fall on my ass when doing these things. (Also, there seems to be a direct correlation between how much I run and how often I’m injured. Anyone want to help me with that? SURE YOU DO.)
Despite spending years exercising until there wasn’t a single ounce of joy left in my workouts, I chronically hated my body. Some days, I donned my 24 Hour Fitness steed and thought “Am I going to have to do this every day for the rest of my life?” and the thought made me bawl. My body wasn’t “improving” the way I wanted it to, and I wasn’t getting that excited mental rush either. It seemed to me that I was the one person immune to the effects of exercise.
Luckily, my friend Ramsey started talking about CrossFit and I started Googling strength training. Before I ever lifted a barbell, I had something I hadn’t had in a long time: hope.
Strength training was the key to unlocking a lot for me. It unlocked a tangible way to measure my improvement as an athlete. (No matter how much I ran, I never really got any faster, so the mile PR was more of a mockery than a goal in my case.) It unlocked a new way to think about food and how it fueled me. It unlocked my body’s potential, both physically and aesthetically, and it unlocked something I had never had with other forms of exercise: natural talent. My big booty is built to lift.
A year into my weight training journey my body had drastically changed, and not in a way that I enjoyed. It grew and grew and grew and grew until I barely recognized myself anymore and it both startled and embarrassed me. I wanted to quit because I hated what seemed to be happening to my body as a result of weight training, but for whatever reason I decided I would wait another year. “If two years into doing this I still hate my CrossFit body, I’ll quit” I told myself, and then I kept lifting.
I am just now approaching that two-year mark and God, am I glad I waited. I love my body these days, like 96% of the time, and for a person that literally wanted to die at the thought of weight gain five years ago, I would say that is a tremendous and miraculous change. I know that this is from the result of a perspective shift (this work to reclaim a positive body image and raise my self esteem has been relentless and it has paid off) but also there’s science there. Let me explain.
I came to weight training from a background of exercise, but I actually had very little muscle (except in my calves, which have always been tremendously ripped for no apparent reason) and a fair amount of body fat. Once I started putting on muscle mass, I kind of just grew, without seeing any more definition for quite some time.
When I started lifting I was also in a process of repairing a deeply damaged relationship with food. I had consistently under eaten for many years, and when I started lifting that didn’t feel like an option any more. Once I was eating a reasonable amount for a person of my height and activity level, my body clung to calories like my life depended on it- probably because it did.
After about sixteen months of eating the food and lifting the weights things began to shift for me physically. My body seemed to trust that I would give it enough food and stopped holding onto weight in the same clingy way. (For a freaked-out former anorexic, let’s just say it was a really difficult 16 months). My metabolism started to run more efficiently, and the constant digestive troubles that I had experienced began to fade.
They say that the more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns on a regular basis. My experience is that this is true, but that it doesn’t happen instantaneously. Initially, I was building muscle without necessarily diminishing body fat. As I ate consistently and continued to lift heavy my metabolic engine revved and I started to burn more body fat throughout the day. Now, when I look in the mirror, I can see that. It feels great.
Weight training has taught me a lot about patience and a lot about trust.
I no longer feel like exercise doesn’t work for my body, and I no longer believe that my body is trying to betray me in some way. I have learned that I cannot lift heavier until I get my form correct. I have learned that I need to work hard, but that I don’t need to feel like I am going to die after every workout.
I learned that exercise should be about using my body for joy. I don’t do anything because I “have” to anymore. I do it because I want to, and that’s a gift to my body. The natural motivation that springs from that is my body’s gift to me.
When I started writing this article I wanted it to be a guide to strength training for beginners. The more I thought about this, the more I realized that my journey was very specific, with trainers that I trust 100% and who I go to for advice time and time and time again, even after two years. I think it’s a great idea to have a coach, or at least someone to check your form now and again (a trainer, a friend who also lifts, etc.) BUT! I understand that is not everyone’s style or within the realm of everyone’s financial scope. In the absence of trainers I highly recommend that beginners check out Nia Shanks’ website. She has workout plans, instructional videos, and LOTS of advice for people who want to start weight training. She is body positive, and super thorough. Beyond that, my trainers suggest Starting Strength by Mark Rippletoe, Stronglifts, and for Olympic lifting help (my favorite!) Catalyst Athletics has some good resources online. Get to it and good luck!