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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.