I took up a New Thing in the past six months: a feminist version of cross-fit style workouts, which I’ve written about here and here. It’s literally the first thing I’ve ever been willing to get up to do at 7 am. I’m a wee bit obsessed — because it’s given me a whole new, unexpected fitness identity. Despite a 25 year history with running, yoga, cycling, spinning and a healthy acquaintance with the gym, until I turned 54, I’d never lifted heavy things.
We had a “summer of strong” program at my gym (a woman-only, small class space called Move whose philosophy I love). At the end of six weeks, we spent two weeks testing our heavy lifts.
Over those test days, in deep concentration on alignment and form, I danced with higher and higher weights. I partnered with a tiny blonde woman young enough to be my daughter to encourage each other to deadlift way more than we ever imagined (10 lbs more than my body weight), back squatted and benchpressed higher and higher numbers, and most memorably, tangoed with Kelly, the founder of our studio, who is just returning from having a baby — to keep adding increments to our strictpress as the community around us cheered us on.
Strict press means lifting a barbell up above your head with just your upper body strength — no force or movement from your lower body. It’s hard. Numbers don’t build quickly. It’s the nemesis move for many people in their lifting. (You can see from my face in this oh-so-flattering pic how hard it is).
The purity of strict press appeals to me, even though I’m not “good at it.” And that moment where Kelly and I were poking each other gently forward, each of us reaching the height of 3 x 65 lbs — it was emotional. For me, because it made me feel stronger than I ever have in my life. For her, because she really felt her strength for the first time after pregnancy, birth, post-partum hormones, sleepless nights. This little video where you can hear our community encouraging us tells you something about that feeling.
The video also ends with me slamming the bar against the rack, as my coach is encouraging me to do — “like a teenage boy, not a dainty lady.”
I was chuffed to add my numbers over the two weeks of testing to the community chalkboard — and I also started querying *why* this newfound strength feels so very important to me. Even though I like watching the numbers add up, like that little stretch for more, it’s about a lot more than my predilection for counting things.
There is something that feels… renegade… being a 54 year old (who’s still menstruating, by the way) becoming stronger than I’ve ever been in my life. It’s like I’m strutting up to all of the things that are changing in my body and life because of aging (insert long list here) and saying yup, I get that, no problem, I’m with ya, but hey, I still have some magic to unfold here.
My body has changed. I don’t think anyone would look at my lined face and not recognize I’m in my 50s. I’ve gained weight in the past couple of years in the predictable middle-50s way, the thickening of the middle — and since I’ve started working out at this gym, gained a few more pounds in muscle. My jeans don’t fit. That number on the scale is significantly higher than it’s been since I first embarked on being a fit person when I was 30.
I don’t look like I did when I was 40 — heck, I don’t look like I did when I was 52 — but I am finding I am starting to love the way I look. (I don’t like my clothes not fitting, but I solved that problem a month ago). I like looking in the mirror at the gym and knowing that I feel comfortable knotting my top up even though I’m thicker through the middle. I love the fact that I can see muscle in my shoulders and my arms. I love the ripples in my legs. I feel like I have a trunk, like I have roots, like my branches can hold anything I hang off them.
Lizzie O’Shea wrote a piece for the Guardian last year exploring the relationship between feminism and the small victories and empowerment of weight training. I particularly liked her description of what happens as we become stronger and more muscular:
“[Strength from lifting heavy weights] is about expanding out. A large butt is an achievement; thick thighs are not a source of shame; arms that strain the seams are an accomplishment. Rather than seeing your body through the lens of others, you feel it swell and harden under the quixotic influence of your own agency. When I started to lift heavy, my clothing began to feel tight – less because I was using it to keep my embarrassing bits in, and more because my muscly parts were busting out.”
That “quixotic influence of your own agency” is what I’m feeling. I’m in my 50s, but I’m really in my body, owning it. Not fighting time — riding it. Finding out what’s true now, today. And how I can play with that truth.
And what’s true? I can learn a whole new way of relating to my body. I can lift more than my body weight. I can almost benchpress my youngest sister. I can hold my own body upside down on my hands for more than a minute.
It’s a new kind of honesty. When I’m standing in front of a barbell with 135 lbs I’ve just deadlifted and I’m trying to decide if I can add another 10 lbs, I have to be brutally honest with myself. I know if I overreach, I could hurt myself. I have to know what I’m truly capable of, what’s a good stretch and what’s ego or stupidity. I have to walk that line between wanting to know — really KNOW — the limits of my physical strength — and the tempting narrative of “wouldn’t 150 lbs be a freaking awesome number to write on that board?”
It feels like a pure kind of honesty about what’s at the essence of my strength. As Sam wrote about last week, at this point in our lives, there are some things that just are behind us, regardless of willpower or training or effort. I’m never going to run fast or far again, and my metabolism is just plain slower, and my skin is only going to get more lined and weathered, and I wonder if I’m ever going to sleep well — really sleep — ever again. I’m slower, I’m heavier, I’m tired. But my body is showing me something from the inside out — I have roots, I have branches, I have a strong powerful trunk.
As O’Shea wrote in her piece, this confidence expands outward. On Tuesday, I also cut off my hair and coloured it grey. Yes, a trendy, expensive, chrome version of grey, but grey nonetheless. I wanted to see how it felt. Turns out, it makes me feel even stronger.
I’ll keep playing.
Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives and lifts heavy things in Toronto.