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You’re a Real Woman & Why Strong is NOT the New Skinny

I’m not sure when exactly it was that I realized that instead of inspiring and motivating me, so called “fitspo” or “fitspiration” was mostly making me feel really bad about myself.

At first, I was so excited that strength was finally cool! When I started lifting weights, being strong was not cool. In fact, I would say most people thought it was a weird and obscure goal to have and even more weird that I was a woman. It was like, “that chick is strange and intense”… (I’m not sure that the assessment is actually wrong, ha). Like, it was okay that I was working out to be hot, but it was strange that I liked and cared about being strong. For me, I couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to be strong! I went through a phase where I thought once I explained myself, everyone would see the light and join my bandwagon, but they didn’t. They still thought it was a weird and obscure obsession, and questionably worthwhile. So when all this “strong is the new skinny” stuff started trending, I was so happy! Everyone was finally “getting it” and I was really excited… at first.

From the sea of headless ab shots, sexualized, sweaty women with heaving cleavage and perfect round butts, the unrelenting captions telling me to not to stop and that pain was my fat cells dying or whatever BS… somewhere along the way, it became all about being sexy, objectification and defining another narrow and rigid aesthetic for us all to scramble to fit into.

This is also why “strong is the new skinny” is really just another crock of shit being spoonfed to us. Same old wolf, new disguise. The message really seems to be “strong is awesome only if you are small and ripped and, of course, sexy“… after all girls, we have to be sexy! We are nothing and nobody if we are not sexy, are we? And God forbid strong means you have big, powerful muscles. Strong is not sexy if it’s “too bulky” or “too much”… girls, you can only be strong if you stay small and cute, preferably in a push up sports bra with your boobs hiked up to your chin.

The sarcasm is oozing from pretty much the entire above paragraph, in case you missed it!

And that’s never what strength is or should be about. You get strong to be strong. Because strong is awesome. Thats the only reason and justification you need. Being strong literally makes you better at everything else in life that you do. It’ll make you a better runner, a better dancer, better and more powerful in any sport that you play. Better at your household chores and activities, better at just being. No lie. I mean, if you train right, training will improve and correct your posture. So literally, just standing there and “being” you are better. Your strong muscles hold up your bones and spine and pin your shoulders back more efficiently. Hence, you are better “just being”, get it?

You don’t get strong because its sexy, or because its the new cool thing and not because its going to help you fit into a new, oppressive paradigm for how you are supposed to look.

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I’ve said before and I’ll say it again, I think all bodies are beautiful when they’re fit and strong, within a healthy weight range and the individual is happy and enjoying their life. And whatever that looks like for each person, pretty much always looks some shade of great!

Short limbs, long limbs, boxy torso, long torso, naturally lean, naturally curvy, naturally thin… we ALL have our strengths and weaknesses, we don’t have to look exactly alike to look beautiful; and in order to be inspiring, it doesn’t matter how you look. To be inspiring in fitness, athletics and sport you have to have a great attitude, perseverance and the ability to do cool shit, like maybe squat 100kg, or run a marathon in under 3 hours, or do the splits or a backflip! All that stuff is pretty damn cool, but I admire anyone who is healthy and works hard to excel in a particular skill, overcome physical and mental limitations and takes care of their body and mind. People like that are cool. People like that are the real fitspo. Not some headless, nameless chick with abs wearing co-ordinated workout gear. What’s cool about that?

And, another thing: we’re ALL “real” women! Do you have a vagina? Well guess what? You’re a real woman. THE END.

Just because “thin is in” doesn’t mean we get to trash and degrade women who are thin by saying stupid crap like “real women have curves”… Do you know how dumb you sound? Stop saying that. Some women really struggle to gain weight and certainly covet fuller hips and thighs and bums, and it’s no easier for them to attain those than it is for someone significantly overweight to lose fat. Can you imagine how heartbreaking and hurtful it is to be someone who is naturally very thin and doesn’t want to be, to have the message thrown in her face that she is fundamentally inadequate as a woman because of her shape? The bold is wrong no matter what body type we’re talking about. That is a harsh and unkind message to put out there to people, lacking in compassion or understanding. You can’t expect to come out smelling like roses when you’re down in the dirt slinging mud at everyone else.

What inspires you towards your fitness goals every day? What is that you most like about your body? I’d love to hear about it n the comments!

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Fit Glam Weekly Reading

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Tried to go chestnut brown with highlights around the face… my hairdresser clearly got a little overexcited with the highlighting. Follow me on Instagram!

There have been a lot of good articles on the web this week, well… new and just “new to me”. I’ve got a few new pieces just about ready to go myself. How has my week been? KICK ASS. Well, training-wise it’s been great. Very focused, eating right, knocking out workouts, my deadlift is coming back. I had a hair disaster! See above. Next week, the Christmas parties start, so it’s going to be a good test of my “1 or 2 glasses of wine*” only policy on social drinking. No more cocktails! I think cocktails are a fat loss (and wallet!) killer. BOO.

Now, one of the pieces I’m working on is about role models. It’ll likely be a multipart series. One of the fitness models I’ll include is Ava Cowan. I absolutely love this woman! What is cool about Ava Cowan is that she’s real. I think she’s the first, and maybe only big name fitness model I ever heard say in any real way that dieting for competition is hard and she isn’t perfect. Unfortunately, she had an accident earlier this year which resulted in a serious neck injury. During her recovery, she gained a lot of weight and she’s documenting her Journey Back to Strength. I’ve loved reading every instalment! I wish Ava all the very best and look forward to seeing her back on the pro figure stage.

I’ve always instilled in my clients how important it is to be strong, that it’s one of the most important indicators of physical resilience and longevity. This article by Dr Michael Joyner, puts together a lot of the research (and there is tons) – Why You Need To Be Doing Burpees.

And if you haven’t seen this yet, then you really should, because it never gets old, Howard Schatz’s images of female athletes. Throw away your scales. Fit, strong & awesome really comes in all shapes and sizes.

Lastly, an oldie, but a goodie – Nia Shanks on how to start lifting singles and triples if you have never done so before.

What have you been reading on the web this week?

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Fit & Glam Training Update #2

Today is exactly 2 weeks til I fly out to Paris, and I’m on track with my fitness goals, though to be honest, while I am “getting it done”, I am struggling a bit mentally. I guess I go through what I jokingly refer to as a “fitness existential crisis” every few months and I’m having a mini one of those now!

So what do I mean by a “fitness existential crisis”? I mean I get into this mood where I question the WHY of everything. WHY should I do what I do? WHY do I care about my fitness? WHY can’t I be like other girls and just do yoga and jump on the elliptical and call it a day? WHY do I care about my strength? Why is this important to me? What’s the freaking meaning of life?

WHY WHY WHY?!!!

And the answers are always the same. Because I love lifting. Because I know better. Because I can. Because pushing myself exhilarates me and makes me feel alive. Because I want to be better. Because it’s awesome. Because I’m awesome.

And because why not?

So, this week I am hitting 100kg deads for reps, but struggling with my crappy attitude and wondering WHY. Why why why. Although, I think from time to time, it’s important to ask yourself why you do the things you do and to assess your motivations. What’s that old adage about an unexamined life is not worth living? Yeah, that. Plus I already feel better having answered myself above. I feel like ‘yeah man! that is why!!!”…

Some pics of me in my beautiful home city from the last week or so. And "that" quote from Socrates :)

Some pics of me in my beautiful home city from the last week or so. And “that” quote from Socrates 🙂

A note on cardio. I am up to an hour a day which is my self-imposed maximum. I started about 2 weeks ago with 40 minutes, 6 days a week, bumped it up to 45 minutes last week and now I’m doing 60 minutes until I leave (exactly 2 weeks from today).

My usual level of cardio activity is 2 – 3 HIIT sessions and 1 – 2 run/jogs for x amount of time. Meaning, if I’m enjoying my run that day, I might stay out for an hour. If it’s really sucking and I’m hating it, I’ll stick it out for 20 miinutes. I don’t torture myself with any of it. My main tool for maintaining or changing my appearance is my diet. The cardio is always, whether I’m doing more or less of it, incidental.

My thought process behind an hour of cardio per day is that it’s a shock to my body, it’s a lot of activity that I don’t usually partake in for a short period of time (one month). So results and little to no adaptation. When your body adapts to your current activity, it means you’ve gotten fitter. If your goal is, for example to become a better runner, that’s great! Bazinga! But if your goal is to burn calories and trim down, then adaptation is not what you want. To overcome adaptation, you have to increase either time or intensity to get the same bang for your buck.

You should read my post about how you get more bang for your buck lifting weights from a few weeks back to get a better understanding of how and why steady state cardio is far from the most efficient tool for changing your body. But it is a tool, and an effective one if used thoughtfully.

Why do you do what you do? Why do you lift?

How much cardio do you do every week?

Tell me in the comments!

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Using Good Mornings in your training

No, it’s not just a cheerful salutation for the start of your day! It’s also a highly valuable and under-utilized lift! I love Good Mornings. They’re a hip-hinging, fundamental movement in the family of the squat and the deadlift that strengthens and works the entire posterior chain (more or less all the muscles in your back, bottom and back of legs in layman’s terms).

I love getting my newest clients to do Good Mornings with either no weight or just a wooden stick – it’s great for teaching the hip hinge, popping out the butt, keeping the natural curve of the lower back with your head up, shoulders pinned back. Lessons transferable to all free weight exercises. Plus, it’s a great dynamic warm-up stretch of the hamstrings. You don’t need any weight to feel the stretch.

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The Good Morning from start to finish – Source: Wikipedia.

I’ve recently incorporated heavy Good Mornings into my routine to help with my squat. When I hit my maxes, my upper back has been giving out first on failed lifts. Hinging your torso with a heavy weight on your shoulders can help you develop the strength to keep your torso aligned under a heavy load. I’ve been doing them after my deadlifts or on separate day (never too close to squat day). At Westside Barbell, they do heavy Good Mornings week in, week out and I probably will do so too.

Using lighter loads can also help target the hamstrings more – with heavier loads on this exercise, the glutes get called in to “help” with the load and take the focus away from the hammies. I find few things make my hamstrings ache as much as 3 x 10+ “light” Good Mornings! I’d choose a light Good Morning in my program over a machine hamstring isolation exercise any day of the week.

The Posterior Chain

The Posterior Chain

If you’ve never done a Good Morning before, I would strongly recommend you start out with just a broomstick or no load at all – just practice the movement, focus on keeping your torso as straight as possible, bottom slightly tucked out and moving/hinging forward only at the hip. Then move up to the lightest barbell you can find and always, only use loads where you can complete every rep with good form, namely in this exercise, where you can maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine (i.e: your low back), chest up, shoulders back and blades tightly packed. There is such a thing as a rounded back Good Morning, but it isn’t something I ever utilize or recommend.

The muscles worked in the Good Morning are the full length of the erector spinae, the glutes and hamstrings, amongst other “core” musculature. The Good Morning is probably the most underrated “core” exercise – you show me someone who can demonstrate a heavy Good Morning with a full range-of-motion and I’ll show you a trainee with a rock solid “core”.

  • Start with your feet about shoulder width apart.
  • Place the barbell on your back. You may need a rack to help you get it into place if the load is too heavy for you to lift up and over onto your back. For the love of God! Set up the safety rails! Especially on heavier sets. They should be set up at the lowest point of your range of motion, about an inch/few cm’s below, so you can easily bail if needed.
  • Stick your butt out, keep your torso straight, chest up, shoulders back and bend at the hips. Your knees should be slightly bent, not locked out or straight.
  • The “correct” range of motion is as far as your flexibility allows with good form. So it’s different for everyone. As soon as you start rounding your back, you should stop. A wider range of motion comes with practicing the movement and working on your mobility consistently.

Have you done Good Mornings before?

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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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One day, we’re going to weightlift in Paris… or not?

I’m going to Paris for the first time this July!

I’m spending one week there and while my priority is definitely seeing and experiencing Paris, I did want to get in at least one workout so I could maintain my lifts. Training breaks in the past have slowed down my progress tremendously – essentially you do a lot of hard work for many months, building up your lifts and then you move countries like I did (1st training break, February – March 2012)  or travel for several months (2nd training break, July – September 2012) and… you have to start all over again.

I have conservatively worked out that I should be squatting 100kg and deadlifting about 110kg by the time I leave for Europe in early July. Hopefully 5kg more on each, but I will be satisfied with those numbers. I have not been bench pressing since Christmas due to a shoulder injury (my shoulder is better now, thanks for asking). Those numbers are not too bad, but without the training breaks, I’d likely have 25 – 50kg more on each lift by now. It’s not just the time off that you’re missing, its also the time you’re using to get back to your old PR/PB levels that you could have been using to push through old personal bests.  Frankly, I have worked really hard and consistently and it makes me want to cry and kick rocks if I consider having to “start again” and build back up.  Hence, I wanted to get a workout in while in Paris! It is imperative.

It turns out the gyms that do exist in Paris are ultra luxe, super expensive and kinda goofy, with old guys in jumpsuits walking on treadmills and smoking.

There is a Crossfit Louvre, but the site is all in French! I’d love to squat and deadlift and then do the WOD! I wonder if they’d go for that? 🙂

The worst case scenario is that I will plan a deload week with no strength training, and just wait to train when I get to Split, Croatia. According to a fellow Aussie on Tour, they have cool gyms there. A search of “gym split croatia” in Google concurs. I may also check out Le Meridien in Split!

I am still optimistic about a workout in Paris.  There must be some serious lifters in jolie Paris? Oui? Non? Aidez-moi s’il vous plaît!

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My Love Letter To The Deadlift

Deadlift, oh how I love you. Let me count the ways!

Never was there an exercise so singularly simple, brutish and ever so effective.

Few things in life feel as profoundly primal as loading as much weight as possible onto an Olympic barbell, locking your hands around it  and lifting the sum total until you’re standing completely upright.

Lather, rinse, repeat. (Optional)

I Love Deadlifts!

If I had to pick one and only one exercise I was allowed to do forever more, I would always choose you, my darling Deadlift. All others pale in comparison.

It hurts my heart to think that for my first 3 years of lifting, I sorely overlooked and neglected you. I fooled around, dilly dallying with your Romanian cousin at lighter loads and I thought that was satisfying all my needs, but it wasn’t! It wasn’t!

Don’t get me wrong, the Romanian is cool, and all, but we just never had that chemistry, that kismet that you and I have together from the moment we met. You know what I’m talking about.

I love how you make me stronger all over.

I love what you do for my posterior chain, you back me up baby!

I love how through you, I’m better and stronger at all other physical activities that I do. You’re like the pair of shoes that match with everything!

In short Deadlift, I love you. You’re the greatest.

Love, Zvez.