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Life Lessons Learned From Weightlifting

My favourite is that all things are possible. Yes, that is what weightlifting has taught me. Things you may think are unimaginable now, are in fact, possible.

I am a dreamer and a die-hard romantic. Some will say I have my head in the clouds (or shoved somewhere else!), but I say, those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. That’s a Roald Dahl-ism for you. What does this have to do with weightlifting? Well, I also used to be an extremely negative person. I have done a lot of work on myself over the years to change that mindset and change how I think about myself and the world. Weightlifting has been intrinsic to that.

I started lifting with my ex-husband who was a US Marine, on a military base in Southern Maryland. It was 2002. Before that I had done random BodyPump classes and lots and lots of cardio. As much as I could stand, really! I just didn’t know any better. Lifting with my ex-husband was the turning point. The gym on base was easily 95% male and I used to just follow him around the weight room like a scared little mouse, and he would hand me weights and say “do this!” and I would do it, sometimes asking “whats this for?”… truthfully we used to squabble a lot because i thought he made me do too much upperbody, hehe. I just wanted to “tone up” my legs! We did lots of isolation work and machines and we did squats on the Smith Machine. Which I absolutely do not recommend at all. But again, it’s a progression and a learning process and neither one of us knew any better back then. He’s the one that put the idea in my head in those very first lifting sessions that I needed to be able to squat my bodyweight at a bare minimum. And I would like to thank him for that! So that was always a clear goal for me from day dot. Squatting my own body weight seemed like a lot, but I figured if that was just considered “good” and not “awesome”, I could probably get there with a bit of work.

I very clearly remember ending a lifting session with him with tons of dumb bells strewn all over the floor. We had to pick them up, which we did. The ones left over were his “big” ones. He would do overhead presses with 40lbs dumb bells (about 20kg), he asked me if that was too big for me to help put back in the rack. I decided to give it a go.

I could barely pick the damn thing up with both hands! My back was all bent out of shape trying to haul this thing to the rack and there was no way in hell I could get it high enough to actually stick in the rack! My husband came to save me and took it off my hands and re-racked it.

In my head, since that day, 40lbs was the beginning of the “off-limits” dumb bells. In the States anyway, everything smaller than 40lbs is also physically a lot smaller. The 40-pounders are the first set of “really big” heavy weights. The ones that for a long time I just thought I would never, ever have a use for. Not for upperbody work, anyway. The ones that are exclusively the domain of the boys.

Fast forward to 2009 and I have been divorced for 2 years and lifting on my own for 5, working as a personal trainer full time in San Francisco for about a year and a half. I discovered lifting purely for strength in 2007 and I LOVED IT! I read the training log of an IFBB Pro, and saw a video where she did dumb bell chest presses with 80lb in each hand. Yes, I fully understood that this woman was almost certainly using male hormones which will greatly increase your strength, but it still blew my mind. It never occurred to me that anything like that was even possible. I decided to focus on my chest presses to see what I could do.

I was so impressed with myself when I graduated to the 30lb dumb bells. I almost never even saw other girls using 15’s. Even more ecstatic when I got to the 35’s. I stayed with those for a long, long time, the barrier in my mind unquestioned. When I got to 10 reps and realized I could definitely do one or two more… I realized there was nowhere to go but the big, bad, manly 40’s!!!

One dude in the gym that day stopped dead in his tracks to see what the hell I was gonna do with those 40’s (because girls don’t use 40’s for anything! duh!) and when he saw me press them, he looked stone-cold flabbergasted. One of the regulars applauded me and called me a bad ass. I felt like a bad ass! I felt indescribably fucking awesome! To this day, definitely one of my favourite and most profound moments in the gym, ever.

Those same weights where once had almost pinned me to the floor in an upside down U-shape… I was gonna press one in each hand, for at least 5 or 6 reps! I cannot emphasise enough how much, for so many years, the 40lbs dumb bells were a marker of my physical limits for me. This was a really big deal.

And that my friends is just the beginning of how weightlifting proved to me that anything is possible.

I love how when you learn a new movement, sometimes you can’t even remotely do it correctly, and then you slowly coax your body into optimal flexibility and motor control until you can execute it with competence, and hey, maybe even textbook precision. This process can take as little as a week, or maybe it takes many months or even years. But you chip away at it, with discipline and consistency and passion then, over time, you get there and you can do this cool feat of physical excellence that once upon a time WAS impossible for you.

And you’re fundamentally BETTER for it. Your body is stronger, you’re more controlled, co-ordinated, you’re more flexible, focused. There is a beautiful zen to weightlifting that I have not found anywhere else. It feels powerful and peaceful all at once.

The weights also never lie to you. You can either lift them, or you cannot. The deadlift is probably the best example of this, because you cannot fake it in any way. You either got the bar off the floor that day, or you did not. No bullshit. I love it. .

I love working on a lift over many, many months and some days, the only progress you can count is just ONE EXTRA REP in the entire set for that week, or maybe you didn’t progress at all and you had a really shit session and only did the same or LESS than what you managed last week, and you gotta suck it up and eat humble pie and kick rocks til next week… and you persevere. You come back the next week, humbled, but ready to give it another go. weightlifting also teaches you to think outside the box. Because what serious weightlifter hasn’t hit a plateau at some point when following a tried and true program and had to think of a new plan of action, or maybe even take the weight back down for a week or two, work in a different rep range, choose a different strategy and bounce back? Yep, there’s that humble pie again. It’s character building. It’s taught me to be methodical. It’s taught me to try, try and try again. It’s taught me not to care what other people think. I don’t give a flying fuck if you don’t know what I’m doing or you think I don’t know what I’m doing. I certainly do know what I’m doing, and even if I’m lam at it today, I’ll be awesome at it tomorrow! And I definitely don’t give two shits if you think it’s “weird” that a girl lifts or cares about her strength. I care so little that I am not even going to formulate a response to it. Hows that?

Weightlifting has taught me all the best lessons I’ve learnt in life. It certainly isn’t just picking up heavy things, putting them down and counting the reps. Nope. No. Not at all.

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My Love/Hate Relationship With Running

OK, OK… it’s been more of a just hate-hate relationship. But I do it anyway and… *whispers*… sometimes I even like it!

Do you have to run to be fit? No.

You can jump rope for cardio, you can ride a bike, you can rollerblade, you can do metcons, you can walk. You don’t have to run if you really don’t want to. Running is not the holy grail of fitness like some people make it out to be.

Then why do I run? Well, endurance running or even jogging, has been a mental and physical challenge for me of epic proprortions for me throughout my life. I would call it a battle. I have battled with running all my life.  And when I wage a battle, I want to win.

if-you-see-me-running-call-the-police

I think it’s important to push the boundaries of your comfort zone and challenge yourself in as many ways as possible and practicable. I always feel like jogging or running kicks my butt. Even now when I feel that I’m reasonably good at it, I’m always puffed out and sweating heavily at the end. That feels good. I like that feeling. That feeling makes me feel alive!

In addition to that, every successful running session I complete is a win against a personal childhood bogeyman of sorts, and you just can’t beat that for making you feel great, each and every time.

As a child, I was diagnosed with asthma and given a puffer. Then the puffer was mysteriously taken away, but I always struggled with any running based activity. I developed a huge aversion to doing it – it was associated with extreme physical struggle, shame, embarrassment. The teachers would always make us run around the school and I would always fall behnd and my lungs would burn and I’d get an unbearable stitch and struggle to catch my breath and inevitably have to stop and… I’d be last again. I grew up thinking it was just something I couldn’t do. I grew up thinking I wasn’t sporty, that I was terrible at sport. Pretty much everyone I know these days would be astonished to hear anything like that being said about me, because its so contradictory to everything I am and everything I’m about, but yes. I really believed that and so did most people around me, until I got to high school and dabbled in soccer and basketball… and found I was actually REALLY GOOD at sport. I was a natural at both those sports and always one of the most valuable players on any team I played with.

FML Running! ARGH!

But I still hated running if it wasn’t up and down the soccer field or basketball court, and I did realise at this point it was more of a mental block than a real physical incapability. Or so I thought. I just didn’t know what to do about it, because every time I tried to “just run”, my lungs would burn, I would huff and puff, my legs felt like lead and sooner or later, I would have to stop, no matter how “determined” I was to just push through. I never lasted more than a few minutes at best. It was disheartening, to say the least.

Over the years, I tried taking up running again and again. My ex-husband tried to get me to run with him. His approach was to get all Marine Corp drill instructor on me, which I would resent since it lacked any finesse and did not account for the fact that it was really actually the hardest possible physical activity for me. I really was trying my hardest AND… I didn’t give a flying fuck about being as tough as a Marine. So yeah, FAIL. I tried following the Couch to 5k a few times and while I DID get to a 5k pace within a 30 minute run time (an arbitrary personal goal), every single minute, no… second was HARD and a test of mental and physical grit… and running never really got any easier on that program for me, I was just determined to do the damn thing no matter what – which is’t always the smartest or most awesome or admirable thing, regardless of what many fitness-y douches and pseudo-experts  will try to tell you. Once I got to my 30 minutes of solid, torturous running… I always dropped the program like a hot potato. I can’t impress upon you enough how every second totally SUCKED and physically hurt, and by this time I was reasonably fit and quite used to pushing through things I may not have been very good at initially, but just building my skills and focusing and following a program and get steadily better. I did get steadily better at running, but my progress was slower than outlined and while my endurance improved, every second was still a physical ordeal. You just can’t make yourself continue with something that feels that awful, and in my opinion, if it feels that bad something is wrong and you shouldn’t force it. I am a huge advocate of listening to your body. Always listen to your body.

The real turning point for me was about two years ago when I adopted a gluten-free diet. I was working as a personal trainer in New York City and I got another bug up my ass about being more “well-rounded” in my fitness. I mean, I always lift. Never in my life am I ever not lifting or needing to be motivated to move some heavy ass weights around. Sometimes I might be taking  dance or gymnastics classes, or martial arts classes… but I’m always, always, always lifting weights. So, at this time in 2011, I decided I should be more well-rounded and I somehow decided that meant I was gonna take another stab at “that damn running thing” and this time, I wasn’t going to stop doing it when I got to 30 minutes. I was gonna grit my teeth and go to my happy place and think happy thoughts while I ran week in and week out. Because I needed to be well-rounded and I hated that running was still this bogey-man activity for me. Maybe this time it would be different. Maybe I was just being a whiney bitch before? These are the things I was thinking. I mean, sure there is a lot of ego there too, I just really hate admitting that there is something I’m not god at or cut out for and that maybe I just can’t do it, especially anything physical. In my mind I need to be good at everything and tough enough for anything. It’s a conceit, certainly, but it makes me tenacious too. It’s a mentality that’s helped keep me fit and ever fitter and stronger, year after year.

To my surprise, this time, running, my deep-seated childhood nemesis and bogey-man of all bogey-men… was not that bad. Not even from the first run. I mean, sure, you take up a physical activity that you don’t normally do and its not a piece of cake. You aren’t adapted to it, it’s going to take an effort, but this wasn’t the lung burning, huffing puffing torture that I remembered from my previous attempts at making running a part of my routine. It took a little effort to continue and wasn’t easy, but it didn’t feel terrible like it had in the past. I got to 30 minutes within about 2 weeks instead of 6 – 8 weeks like I had in the past. I was astounded… and pleased. I even kind of liked some of my runs. It was a revelation.

What I believe was the catalyst for the big change in my running abilities was my now gluten-free diet. It’s one of the many profound and fundamental changes i’ve noticed in the way my body works and just one of the break-throughs I’ve made since eliminating wheat from my diet. I believe it’s probably connected with inflammation somehow inhibiting lung capacity, but of course, it’s hard to tell and hard to prove exactly what and how going gluten-free has helped my body to perform better. I’m working on something I’m calling My Gluten-Free Manifesto that I plan to publish on the site in a few weeks. Going gluten-free has been an enormous breakthrough for me in numerous ways.

How I Think I Look When I RunAnd I’ve been running ever since. Happily ever after!

I don’t love it. I love lifting. I love plyometrics. I don’t love running. But sometimes I really enjoy my runs.I find I strangely love running in humidity and I love running up hill – those have usually been my most memorable runs. I’ve always loved sprinting, whether on a track, up a hill or on a treadmill. No ones ever had to twist my arm to get some interval training or HIIT done.

I always get a lot of satisfaction out of completing a run because it was such an achilles heel for me pretty much my entire life – and such a source of embarrassment in childhood, always being puffed out first, always with a painful stitch and searing lungs – and now suddenly, it isn’t hard anymore and I didn’t give up and I conquered it. There is a lot of satisfaction in that.

So now that I run once or twice a week, do I think everyone should run? Nah. Do it if you like it. Do it if you don’t like it, but you get a kick out of it in some way, because you like the way it makes you feel, because you want to build your cardiovascular abilities, because you don’t need anything but your running shoes to get out there and get something physical done and work up a sweat for a few k’s. But this is my running story and this is why this die hard weightlifter does a steady state run once or twice a week.