Pink Weights? (Guest Post)

pigeonsI’m fit, feminist, and almost 50, so naturally I’ve been following Samantha and Tracy with avid interest since this blog began. I’ve always been active, but became more fiercely fit in my 40s. I survived Zuzana’s burpee torture (100 burpees!), I was working up to full chin-ups and benching over 100 pounds. 50 didn’t scare me. OK, it did a little bit, but feeling strong really helped with that.

About a year and a half ago I started experiencing back pain that interfered with pretty much all activities. A visit to the doctor confirmed that the problem wasn’t skeletal, so off to the physiotherapist I went. She put me on a core-strengthening program that quickly made things a lot worse. I lucked out with the second physiotherapist because she happened to also specialize in pelvic floor dysfunction. Her hunch was confirmed by a specialist: I have a mild uterine prolapse, which is like a mild hernia with less reliable surgical options. This condition is quite common, but not talked about very much, perhaps because it involves female bits, or perhaps because it isn’t life threatening. It certainly was news to me. Now that I have it, I am to avoid impact, most core exercises including planks, and weights heavier than 3 pounds. The good news is that this may be temporary and I might be able to reverse it by exercising with care.

It turns out that despite my level of fitness, I hadn’t been exercising properly. I did not know what “activate your core before lifting” actually meant. I thought it meant bracing your abdominal and back muscles. But that’s not enough, and bracing could actually be doing more harm than good. If your waist expands when you brace, you might be doing it wrong. Safely lifting heavy means knowing (feeling) that your pelvic floor is actively supporting your organs the entire time you are lifting. Even if your arms or legs are strong enough, your pelvic floor might not be. I used to laugh at my Mom when she tried to stop me from lifting heavy weights: “That’s for boys, you’ll throw your womb out!” The 70s feminist in me found this weird and objectionable (I am woman!). As I’ve learned, lifting isn’t just for males, but people with uteri do need to take certain precautions (men can also develop prolapse, but it is considerably less common).

Once I learned this, the big challenge for me was to figure out how to regain my fitness level, and to do so in a way that I loved. I love sweating. I love exerting myself. Physio was great for relieving my back pain, but not enough for fitness. It’s quite difficult to exercise with care while exercising intensely. I initially tried doing my old workouts while modifying them. It turns out that the advice to modify and work your way up was spectacularly unhelpful in my case. Bicep curls with 3-pound weights are pretty useless if you are strong (fatigue takes forever!). Jump squats got modified to bodyweight squats, clean and presses became bodyweight squats, burpees became bodyweight squats, etc. Sigh. Well, you get the idea. I was starting to get a bit depressed. It didn’t help that we were having a terrible winter that made walking difficult, and I’ve never been a fan of cardio machines.

I started swimming, which was a joy, but I needed variety and home workouts as well. I also wasn’t sure what to do with the 3-pound pink weights I had purchased (the very ones I used to sneer at). Naturally I googled “3 pound weights exercises” and came across the various “bulk is unappealing” fitness gurus (Tracy Anderson and Ellen Barrett, I’m looking at you!). I tried the workouts anyways and found them surprisingly satisfying. They were different enough from what I usually did that I found them challenging, and they were designed to make the most out of light weights. I’m used to squats with heavy weights, and now I lift my leg in various ballet directions while maintaining my balance, holding my arms in an “elegant” position, and looking graceful. I even sweat. My posture has improved. My muscle tone is returning, which is great news after months of near inactivity. I do wish, however, that these workouts came without the marketing and comments about the ideal female physique.

One thing that has fascinated me about the Tracy Anderson phenomenon is just how angry the fitness world is at her. I agree completely when this anger is directed at her marketing strategies (offensive), her diet (extreme and unhealthy!), and her claim that women should only work out her way (ridiculous). But some people are also surprisingly furious at the very existence of workouts that only use 3 pound weights. They insist that the only way to get fit is to lift heavy. I, on the other hand, am grateful that these light weight workouts exist and are widely available on YouTube. Thankfully I did not accept the insistence on the necessity of heavy weights. That would have been demoralizing given my situation.

There doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between the marketing of lifting light and lifting heavy. During my googling into using light weights I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a site that starts with something like a picture of a sprinter and a marathoner, complete with a discussion of how unappealing the body of the marathoner is (here,  here, and here). They then conclude that their way of exercising, which usually involves heavy weights rather than actually sprinting, is the only way. The philosopher in me is fascinated by how they seem to be creating facts through repetition, and by how little evidence is actually offered other than cherry-picked photos. The feminist in me is deeply bothered by how shaming is used to generate a market.

What about a comparison on quality and safety? I think you already know that I think the advice to activate your core (common advice given by strength trainers) is insufficiently informative and can have potentially devastating consequences. Ellen Barrett, on the other hand, gives very good instruction and her programs are very safe. My only complaint about her is that I have to listen to her comments on the female physique while I’m working out. Tracy Anderson rarely says anything, which is a mixed blessing. She gives very few notes on form and expects you to play follow the leader and just get what she is doing. I have a background in various dance forms, so for the most part I can do that. Her routines have some creativity in them and have some use for me, especially since I don’t take her seriously when she claims that you must do her complete program and nothing but. But her routines range from useless to dangerous for those who don’t have a dance background. For example, in the unweighted arms section, the fact that I’ve taken flamenco dance helps a lot. I took flamenco after several years of cabaret and tribal belly dance, and was struck by how even though the arm patterns were very similar, the way the arms were held gave the moves a completely different look and feel. You put a lot of power and energy into your arms when you dance flamenco. My arms would burn and exhaust during flamenco arm drills in a way they never did during belly dance. So when Tracy talks about using your arms with a lot of power I know exactly what she means. I have done drills for this. They’d be pretty pointless otherwise and I can see why personal trainers find her arm routine baffling. But for me, the idea of using dance arm drills hadn’t occurred to me and was a revelation. It was something I could safely do to use my arms when I wasn’t in the pool. For another example, her standing abs routine contains a series of staccato belly dance moves. This is something you work up to in belly dance. You’d never start with these moves in a beginner class because the students would lack the control to execute the moves safely (if at all). I can do them, but I warm up first with the smoother belly dance moves.

 

My takeaway lessons from this experience are these. 1) We need a variety of permissible fitness philosophies. Fitness activities that would have been silly or pointless for one stage of life might be very beneficial for another. 2) Uniform fitness recommendations open the door for people like Tracy Anderson. She spotted a gap and marched through. But she isn’t a good fitness instructor. I’m guessing that if there were more competition and creativity in the light weights arena, Tracy wouldn’t be as popular as she is. 3) I found it depressing and boring to do modified versions of my usual workouts. Injuries can hold you back, or they can be an opportunity to focus on a different area and excel there. I’ve been working on perfecting my form rather than increasing my speed in the pool and on the ski trails. I’ve also been working on moving smoothly and with grace, rather than with explosive power.

I now feel quite good, and have learned to be active and fit again. I’m even a little grateful for this experience because I have learned enough from my physiotherapist to know how to exercise in a way that nurtures my body, and will probably age better for it. I was inspired to write this post in the hopes that some women will be able to avoid following in my footsteps. And if you are already, feel free to email me at wesleypresley1@live.com and I’ll tell you what has and hasn’t worked for me. It is also important that more fitness experts become aware of this common condition so that they can offer the appropriate cautions. A good resource on this topic can be found here.

 

Rhonda Martens is a philosopher who lives in Winnipeg with her husband and cat. She loves dancing and refuses to stop wearing mini skirts.

21 thoughts on “Pink Weights? (Guest Post)

  1. I love the fact that you’ve become more active in your 40s. I am more active now in my 30s than I was in my 20s, and am finding one of the beauties of getting older is becoming more aware and conscious of your health. I feel better now than I did in my early 20s when I partied every weekend and only cared about exercise/diet before going on a beach vacation. :-P

    I get irritated by all of the “one track” fitness minds who believe their way is the only way of achieving health and fitness. I think the important thing is finding exercise you enjoy and will stick to, and introducing as much variety as possible is key! I used to use light 1-3 lb weights in boxing class…after 5-10 minutes of “air punching” holding those “cute 3 pounders” (pink or not) will have your shoulders screaming for mercy!

    Thank you for this! It’s such a great post! Have a fantastic weekend!!

    • Rhonda Martens says:

      Thanks Running Betty! Air punching with light weights, what a great idea. That would be fun! I’m off to find some great music to go with that.

  2. Sam B says:

    Thanks for sharing your story with our blog and its readers. Tough stuff. It’s an important corrective to the story that says the only reason women lift light weights is fear of getting big. I hope your recovery from injury continues apace and I’m glad you’re finding things to do that don’t aggravate it.

    • Rhonda Martens says:

      Sam, thanks for posting my story. I confess to feeling some anxiety about being “out there” online like this, but I do think the caution is an important one. I also think it is important that we be careful without being fearful (which is its own type of injury). A difficult balance to strike at times.

  3. dbeeming says:

    Very interesting post. I appreciate you’re open minded/philosophical ;) approach to the issue. It’s funny how we see things differently when we stop and look below the surface, figuratively, and literally in this case, for you. I’m only vaguely aware of uterine prolapse. And now I know what all the fuss was over Tracy, I had no clue. So now I’m off to google “how to activate your core before lifting”, make sure I’m doing it right!

  4. Rhonda Martens says:

    Thanks dbeeming. One of the best pieces of advice I got from my physio was to make sure that I relaxed after the lift. Too tense isn’t good either.

  5. Tracy I says:

    What a great post! Thank you so much for writing for the blog. Your story is importantly informative (I’d never heard of uterine prolapse, either mild or not). It’s also a great example of how to adapt to changing abilities. We all need to change things up at some point, whether because of age, illness, or injury, and many people get really discouraged. I’m so happy to hear about your experience with the lighter weights — it’s encouraging to know that they can actually provide a good workout. I also appreciated the balanced review of the Tracy Anderson series. Thanks again. It’s hard to put yourself out there like you have and I’m sure lots of people will benefit from this excellent post!

    • Sam B says:

      Have you read Fit and Feminist on this issue? Curious to know what you think Rhonda.

      • Rhonda Martens says:

        Sam, that’s a terrific post. I’m glad to see such a balanced, non-hysterical (sorry, couldn’t help myself) approach. I agree that a general prohibition on heavy lifting would be counterproductive, and that proper lifting is beneficial. As far as I know, she is absolutely right about the lack of good, empirically-based information. The guidelines I’ve been given are conservative precisely because of this lack of information, and based on the physiotherapist’s experience in treating other women. Her philosophy is to strengthen from the inside out, and her goal is to get me able to handle anything, including heavy weights. By the way, I don’t want the takeaway message of my post to be one of fear and limitation, but rather to underscore the importance of proper form (which may be still poorly understood), as well as to tell a story of victory.

  6. blissfulavocado says:

    This is a great post- thanks!

  7. Rhonda Martens says:

    Thanks Tracy! I was inspired to try light weights partly on the advice of the physiotherapist, and partly because of swimming. Swimming is great exercise, and is essentially light resistance cardio training. But there isn’t always time to get there.

  8. This is spot on – so many trainers throw phrases around like “engage your core” without adequately describing the motion and sensation, and without knowing how to monitor posture in their clients or athletes. I couldn’t agree more with, well, everything you’ve written and it has been truly heartening to see someone else express these ideas as sometimes I feel like maybe I am the crazy one in this world of “get ripped or die” trainers. Thanks for sharing and good luck with your training!

  9. […] new to me in terms of the thoughts and opinions expressed, but I want to highlight a guest post on Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty. Rhonda Martens talks about her experience with uterine prolapse, explaining how she got very fit […]

  10. Rhonda Martens says:

    blissfulavocado and greatveganexpectations, those are great names! The “get ripped or die” trend is so interesting and problematic from many different angles. For me, that’s part of what I had in mind for my fittest by fifty project. For a while it meant “best-looking body by fifty,” which in retrospect seems like an anti-fitness and anti-aging rather than pro attitude. I also think of a friend of mine who is a personal trainer in her mid-50s (who now incorporates pelvic floor discussions with her clients, so she might now be the best in town). She is extremely fit and strong, can take on her son in the boxing ring, can do full chin-ups, but carries a reasonable amount of body fat (she has a great physique, but isn’t “fitspo” lean). She hides it because she worries about scaring away clients. I think it’s horrible that she’s under that kind of pressure, especially given what she can do.

  11. […] Pink Weights? (Guest Post) | Fit, Feminist, and (almost) Fifty (April 19): A little outside the usual topics, however, it is a feminist viewpoint on what can be a geeky topic. “I have a mild uterine prolapse, which is like a mild hernia with less reliable surgical options. This condition is quite common, but not talked about very much, perhaps because it involves female bits, or perhaps because it isn’t life threatening. It certainly was news to me. […] It turns out that despite my level of fitness, I hadn’t been exercising properly. I did not know what “activate your core before lifting” actually meant. I thought it meant bracing your abdominal and back muscles. But that’s not enough, and bracing could actually be doing more harm than good.” […]

  12. You know what I think of when I hear “pink weights?” Boobs.

    We’ve been lifting ‘em for years, ladies, no membership fee. I personally do almost a hundred reps a day. Major gazangas = good back muscles. Suck on that, Nautilus.

  13. […] achei fantástico. Estava mesmo precisando ouvir, bem, ler sobre isso. E daí parti para um outro ótimo texto, sobre como não existe fórmula que funcione para todos em matéria de exercícios e, apesar das […]

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