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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.