fitness · kids and exercise · strength training · weight lifting

“How much do you bench?” and other signs of ignorance

I am a middle school teacher, and therefore spend my days surrounded by sweet, well-intentioned, and deeply ignorant little humans. I love my students, and I am often amazed at their unique perspectives, their senses of humor, and their boundless energy. I am also often amazed at how deeply entrenched in the public zeitgeist they are already. Their mental sponges have soaked up popular opinions without skepticism or discernment. As a result, they can be a challenging combination of opinionated and without practical experience. Their assumptions around personal fitness, nutrition, and body size are especially illustrative of this reality.

I choose to teach with a very open style. I believe that the best learning comes about when we share stories and make personal connections with the material, and so I freely share much of my life with my students. Beyond being my philosophy of education, it is also just very authentic for me to be open and transparent. I have never been very good at masking my emotions or filtering my responses.

Woman in a black sports bra and leggings holding a dumbbell over her head during a lift
(Photo from Unsplash)

In any case, this penchant for sharing myself means that it is not uncommon for me to mention my workouts with a class—maybe I’m discussing Newton’s laws and drawing an example from a recent lifting session at the gym. And usually, after the first incredulous question, “You lift weights?” the immediate follow-up question will be, “oh yeah, how much do you bench?”

And I get stumped. I imagine my more skeptical students taking the inevitable pause as proof that I’m deceiving them about my weightlifting (I clearly do not fit their mental image of someone who strength trains regularly). But what I am actually stopped by is how overwhelmingly difficult it is to retrace their misconceptions back far enough to answer their question. Where do I begin?

Firstly, I want to explain, it takes years of lifting to build any sort of visible muscle for most of us, and how visible it is is highly dependent on how much body fat you have. And, as a cis-female, I don’t have the necessary hormones to encourage huge muscle growth, even with years in the gym.

Secondly, you can lift for strength without significantly increasing the size of your muscles.

Thirdly, you can lift for strength or muscle growth without ever maxing out your lifts or learning what your “one rep maxes” are.

Fourthly, barbell bench pressing is not the best exercise if your goals are functional strength of the pectoral and supporting muscles of the chest, shoulders and back—dumbbells will actually require further stabilizing and therefore may be a better exercise for overall fitness.

Fifthly, strength athletes who are not powerlifters aim for balanced training, which means they don’t usually specialize in a few moves like the bench press (unless they’re specifically training for a powerlifting meet).

And finally and far most-importantly, there is value in strength training even if you cannot lift an impressive amount of weight at any given time, since the point is working at the edge of your limits, wherever they may be. The skill and discipline of lifting is the point of the work, and our goals are always a moving target. So what you lift this week doesn’t matter, the real strength comes from lifting more, with better quality, consistently, over time.

Usually, I skip to the end of this diatribe in class, but I can feel my students tuning me out, hearing it as an excuse to not divulge what they assume will be an unimpressive number. I know that I am leaving the conversation without impressing them, without changing their minds, and without furthering their understanding of the nature of weightlifting as a lifelong endeavor.

Woman in a grey tank top and camo leggings using a hex bar to squat
(Photo from Unsplash)

I get a similar look from my students when we talk about running. Although there is the practical difference that most of them have, at least, done some running. But again, they have the mindset that speed is what matters and seem completely focused on the goal of being “faster than” rather than any interest in the intrinsic value of running for its own sake.

I try to encourage more open-minded appreciation for the achievement of doing the running, even if it isn’t fast or far, by sharing that I am slow and that it is a challenge for me. I also talk about how I just don’t think I’m a natural runner, but I enjoy it anyway, and I like that I’m slowly improving, even if my current reality isn’t impressive. I want to impress upon them the consistency, the effort, and my willingness to push through the discomfort. But I don’t know how to help them switch their mindsets away from prioritizing being better than others in order for the effort to be worthwhile.

In fact, at this age, asking them what they enjoy doing is synonymous with asking them what they are good at. They enjoy most what they find easy to do, and what they receive the most positive support and praise for. If you ask a kid why they don’t like doing something, they will likely tell you because it is hard. This is a deeply held and completely natural response, and yet I find it frustrating both as a teacher and as a fitness enthusiast trying to spread my love of an active lifestyle. How do we teach kids to be open to the process, not just the destination?

I’m not sure how to convince a student that a physical activity is worthwhile, even if the numbers are not impressive. But, I am certain that however we do it, it needs to begin before I meet them in middle school. By the age of 12, most kids are ready to judge an effort based on the final score.

And this is a problematic point of view, if we want to raise kids into adults who can enjoy active, healthy lives. Not only will they be terribly limited in their own activities if they only enjoy them when they are “good” at them, but it constrains their perceptions of other people. Exercise is worthwhile and healthful for everybody and every body. Old, young, fat, thin, strong, weak, healthy, sick, we all benefit from being physically active. No population hasn’t been shown to be able to improve with regular physical activity. Even people in their eighties, lifting weights seated in a chair, have improved muscle strength, bone density, and prevented falls, when following a consistent program. But you won’t become that old person lifting weights if you think that you shouldn’t bother because you’re not any good at it.

And so I try to model doing the work and enjoying it, even though there’s plenty room for growth.

If we fail to teach them otherwise, what happens to these kids as they grow up and learn that it is more complicated than they assumed? What happens when their bodies prove to be imperfect, messy, complicated things that reflect all sorts of life experiences, genetic predispositions, and random chance? Will they learn to be more forgiving, more open-minded about success, and more tolerant of diversity? Or will they grow up to be forever dissatisfied, or filled with self-loathing at their seeming failures, or give up before they ever really try because it wasn’t as easy as it “should” be? I hope not. I hope I can help them find the joy in the everyday, in the journey and the process.

Woman in gloves holding the ropes of a boxing ring, facing the camera straight on
(Photo from Unsplash)

What do you do to ensure that you are teaching a love of movement to the next generation? How do you measure success?

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found asking kids hard questions, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

fat · fitness · health

Today in Not News, “Fatter people not taken as seriously by their doctors as less fat people”

Sometimes, when you see a repeated injustice, you get cynical or resigned and roll your eyes. And sometimes, you get teed off. I’m guessing you can guess which one I’m more predisposed to.

Sam shared this twitter story (here and here) from Jen Curran, who had elevated protein levels in her urine during her pregnancy, and she was told to “lose 40 pounds” and come back. Weeks, and a second opinion, later, she learned that she had blood cancer. Her regular doctor ignored what she was saying, and focused on her size instead (as she was pregnant, no less). This is not news.

And it pisses me off.

How is this STILL happening to larger bodied people? How is it that doctors are looking at our sizes, our weights, and our BMIs as if they are useful pieces of data unto themselves?! Do fatter people get cancer? Broken vertebrae? Appendicitis?

We are far past critical mass here–it is long past time for doctors to take a long hard look at their biases. Because make no mistake, that is exactly what this is. In their core, many doctors believe that fatness is of bigger importance to their patients’ health than almost any other factor. The proof of this supremacy is in their persistent focus on weight, above the narratives provided to them by the patients. Every fat person has a story about how their needs and concerns were ignored as their doctor asked them about trying to lose weight.

And this bias is causing life and death decisions to be made, and fatter people are dying.

As an example, people with more body fat are more likely to die after a cancer diagnosis. Is this because of something intrinsic about body fat, or is it because fat people go longer before they reach a diagnosis? Are doctors more reticent to be aggressive with treatments because they are distracted by the “elephant” in the room, possibly assuming that the fat person doesn’t do their part to take care of themselves? Obviously, doctors are not listening to their fat patients as openly–does that mean they miss critical complications until they are too difficult to treat? How much of the “fat is bad for you when you have cancer” conversation is colored by these unconfronted fat biases?

When I was a fat teenager, I dreaded going to the doctor. No conversation at the doctor did not also include a conversation about my weight. I had nearly disabling low back pain from carrying a heavy book bag for years, including on the couple miles walk home from school each day. Did they offer me exercises to strengthen my core muscles? No. I needed to lose weight.

Depression? Have you tried to lose weight?
Irritable bowel syndrome? What have you done to try to lose weight?
Broken bones in your hand after punching a kid in the hallway for calling you a “freak?” Well, you get the idea. I’m pretty sure my weight came up in that conversation, too.

And, I’m sorry to say it doesn’t get a ton better when you go from being a medically fat person to a merely, nearly fat person.

I changed doctors last year after a frustrating conversation along these lines. I am no longer medically “overweight,” but I am just barely so. Over about six years, I changed from a BMI of about 32 to about 24, just under the “normal” threshold. I have also reduced my health risk factors in innumerable ways–I eat more produce, less processed food, and less added sugar and salt. I do some kind of intentional exercise most days of the week. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol. I have been working hard on managing stress (still a work in progress), and I try to get enough quality sleep. I see a therapist regularly to help me manage my depression and trauma.

And when I went in to get a referral for a physical therapist, what did he say? “Your BMI is ok, it’s in the normal zone, but just barely. You might want to do some work to bring that down.” This had NOTHING to do with my current medical concerns. In fact, the opposite. As I have increased my activity levels over the years, underlying imbalances I’ve lived with for nearly two decades have become problematic. It may not have mattered that my muscles and nerves were out of whack when I wasn’t pushing them. But the more physically fit I’ve become, the more I’ve become aware of how my surgical history has permanently impacted how my body works. I was there to see him so I could continue to be physically active, something I’m sure he would recommend as a part of “fixing” my BMI to a lower end of “normal.”

I challenged him on this and reminded him that I was a weightlifter. That maybe some of the “extra” weight I was carrying might be muscle. He said most people overestimate how much that is a factor. I don’t disagree with him, but I kinda wanted him to lie down on the floor, so I could prove I could deadlift him up off of it.

But of course, my BMI in that moment, or any, wasn’t really relevant. BMI is a poor tool for estimating body fat. And body fat is a poor tool for estimating health. What we’re really seeing time and again, people like Jen and me, and so many others, is the biases of our doctors, who see fat and can’t see anything else.

Fat bias is a habit, and habits are hard to break. Doctors who are serious about improving the health of their patients need to begin the hard work of challenging their own assumptions in these moments. To stop themselves before they bring up their patient’s size and ask themselves, “If this patient were smaller and came to me with these concerns, what would I suggest to them?” Fat people know they’re fat. Most of them have tried, and failed repeatedly, to be less fat. Ask them what they are doing to take care of themselves. Ask them what they are hoping to get from the appointment. Ask them what they think is going on. And for goodness sake, treat them like people, not just bodies.

Standing woman helping with a blood pressure reading for a seated woman.
Photo from Unsplash.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

advice · Guest Post · strength training · weight lifting

“Just trying to be helpful?” How to know it’s ok to offer me advice at the gym

If you see me doing something at the gym that I could maybe be doing better, I would like you to hold your tongue unless at least a few of the following criteria are met:

*You know my name. This isn’t the first time we’ve spoken to each other.

*You know my goals. How we lift changes outcomes. Do you know if I’m lifting for absolute strength, power, or hypertrophy (increasing muscle mass)? Do you know if there’s an imbalance I’m working around or trying to bring up?

*Related to the previous bullet point, you should probably know my injury history before offering advice. I have a long one, and it impacts the work I do and the pace I do it in. For example, I have internal scar tissue on my right side after the removal of the middle lobe of my right lung. This impacts my range of motion, how efficiently I use the impacted muscles, and proprioception (how I perceive where my right arm is in space).

*You are genuinely motivated by MY best interests. You aren’t trying to sell me something or some service. You aren’t flirting or finding an excuse to make conversation with me. You aren’t trying to impress me with your thick and rippling . . . knowledge.

*You recognize that there are few absolutes in fitness. If your suggestion is about to include the word NEVER or ALWAYS, I’m not interested. The more we know, the more nuanced our advice necessarily becomes.

*You’ve asked ME for advice in the past. This shows that you recognize that I know some of what I’m doing, and you respect it. I would LOVE to have someone with whom to talk about lifting at the gym; but I don’t want a mentor, I want a collaborator. I want someone who sees when I know something and can honestly evaluate when they have something to share. This kind of co-teaching is built on mutual respect, rather than the paternalistic mindset that assumes one person has all the answers.

*Your routine includes more than the bro standards of bench press, bicep curls and crunches.

*You’re not wearing ‘80’s short shorts and a headband non-ironically. Ok, I know this one is petty, but I’m kinda serious.

I am, admittedly, a bit of a nerd when it comes to weightlifting and personal health. I’m a biologist by education and a science and health teacher by profession. I like doing research; I’m not intimidated by primary sources and big words. Most of all, I enjoy reading and exploring these topics. I spend hours a week reading and researching programming, musculoskeletal anatomy, and optimizing nutrition for one’s goals.

This does not make me equivalent to a personal trainer or a physical therapist, and I readily acknowledge that I don’t have those skills. It does make me very good at identifying bullshit, and over the years I’ve honed my ability for identifying which sources to trust on these topics. So the lifts I do, the frequency and volume, are based on professional programs, adapted to my individual needs. And that adaptation is educated by professionals, too, honed by literal years of physical therapy, learning what my unique body needs to be successful in this hobby that I pursue with seriousness.

I welcome conversation and camaraderie, built on mutual respect for each other’s unique goals and experiences. But if you can’t see yourself in at least a few of the criteria above, please keep your thoughts and “advice” to yourself. It isn’t helpful, and it isn’t welcome.

Are you open to advice in your athletic pursuits? What are your rules and requirements in order to be receptive?

Image description: A rack of dumbbells in the near view. Further away a white woman in black clothes using some of the dumbbells. Photo from Unsplash.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

fitness · Guest Post · running

Keeping Fit While Healing from Hysterectomy Part 2(b): The “Running” Edition

(Part 1 and Part 2(a) here.)

Returning to jogging after a hysterectomy is proving to be a longer process than returning to lifting–or maybe it just seems that way? When you need to regress a lift, it’s pretty straightforward–you use lighter weights, you do fewer reps, or you do an easier version of a movement. But how do you regress jogging, especially when you (I) are (am) not starting from a place of much strength to begin with?

When I was in “really good” jogging condition, I could go about 5 miles at about an 11-min mile pace. (I was in a good place with my jogging when I first wrote this piece about calling myself a “runner.”) I achieved that feat of jogging mediocrity by going out once a week to run pretty much every weekend for a handful of years. It was slow, plodding progress that suited my slow, plodding movements.

That ended over a year ago, when pain made it less feasible. First my hip, and then later, my uterus, made any kind of plyometric movement too painful to let it be enjoyable. So, enter today, post-hysterectomy, and with over a year of physical therapy attempting to address the imbalances and mobility challenges that made jogging a problem.

And I really want to run again.

In fact, about 5 weeks after my surgery, I found myself practically jumping out of my skin with energy–I needed to move, to really exert myself after weeks and weeks of being careful and modulating my movements. Do you know that feeling? Maybe you’re out walking and your feet are just skipping ahead, seemingly without a conscious decision on your part? That’s where I was at. I NEEDED to move.

So, I did. I went out on my daily walk, and while I was at the park, I did a slow, shuffling jog from one light post to the next. Then I walked a while to catch my breath (3 light posts?), and I jogged again. I had to keep my feet very close to the ground, as bouncing felt unpleasant, and I found myself sort of holding my abdomen with my hands, as if I could support my insides by holding my outsides. I did this lightpost-based interval training for the rest of the walk and crossed my fingers that I hadn’t hurt myself unknowingly. But I seemed ok.

The next day, I was achier than usual. My abdominal muscles were telling me that I had used them, and I felt swollen around my vagina. But otherwise, it really seemed to be ok.

So, when I was released to return to normal activities a week later (I cowardly didn’t tell my doctor about my little jogging experiment . . .), I added these little walk-jogs after my lifting sessions sometimes. And I have to say, even if just for brief moments, it feels amazing to move and break a sweat. It’s helping with muscle soreness from returning to lifting, too–I feel so much more mobile afterwards.

I’m monitoring my hip, but so far, it seems to be going along with it ok, too. Someone I’ve read online (Tony Gentilcore, perhaps?) wrote about pain and how to monitor if an exercise is helping or hindering. Whoever it was talked about measuring your pain beforehand on a scale, say you’re a 3 on a scale of 1-10, and then afterwards. If your pain is the same or one notch higher than before, a 3 or 4 in my example, then keep doing what you’re doing. Only if it increases the pain more than that do you pull back on the activity, since it might be doing more harm than good. I like this model, as it acknowledges that I don’t have to expect to be pain free. Many of us do not live like that, and fear of the pain makes it worse than accepting it does.

There are a few more resources out there for people returning to running after a hysterectomy than there are for returning to lifting, but most of the advice boils down to “take it slowly and feel it out before you do too much,” usually paired with the seemingly obligatory, “everyone is different.” Decades ago, they told women not to run afterwards, ever. But advice back then was to never run while pregnant, too, and as more people have researched this, the more we’ve learned that activity does not have to be as restricted as once feared. In fact, for many people, increased activity makes the healing go more smoothly. Thankfully, my surgeon seems to agree with this perspective, and I don’t have to feel like I’m going against doctor’s orders (because, let’s be honest, I’d be doing all this stuff anyway).

And so, I am doing these walk-jogs two or three days a week. I can’t state enough how good it feels to push myself and work up a sweat, although I have to stay very mindful of how I’m moving–keeping my steps short and low to the ground to avoid jostling my insides too much. It is getting less uncomfortable each week, and I am slowly increasing the length of the jogging intervals. One unexpected positive outcome of this surgery may be that I have found a new way to build jogging into my routine–doing short bouts after lifting sessions instead of one longer one on the weekends. Although it’s too soon to know if it will stick as a routine once the school year is back in session.

Thus, I continue to push forwards as I heal. I can still feel uncomfortable at times, but that does seem to be slowly getting less common. Sitting for too many hours can be just as problematic as “overdoing it” on a jog or at the gym. Either way, I have five weeks before I have to be back to my full work/life routine. I feel very fortunate to have the luxury of this time, and I plan on taking advantage of it to build my strength and endurance at my own pace.

Can you relate to the impulse to just GO after a long period away from movement? Do you have experience returning to running (or lifting) after a hysterectomy? I’d love to hear from you!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again (and occasionally jogging from light post to light post) in Portland, Oregon.

fitness · Guest Post · health · illness · injury

Keeping Fit While Healing from Hysterectomy, Part 2 (The Lifting Edition)

It is now nearly 10 weeks after my complete, laparoscopic hysterectomy, and I figure it’s about time for an update on my progress! When I last wrote, it had been about a month, and I was working on following my own fitness plan. (If you haven’t read that post, you can find it here.) My goals at that time were to do what I could to maintain healthy habits and to preserve as much strength as I could without compromising healing. The plan was to do a bands-based resistance program and daily walking. Today, I’ll discuss some overall impressions and get into the weeds a bit about where I’m at with lifting. I’ll do a separate post about my ongoing efforts to return to running.

So, how did the plan go?

During that first month of exercises (post-op weeks 3-6), my strength and endurance varied quite a bit from day to day. Some days I felt great and had to force myself to keep things easy, other days, all I could handle was lifting up and washing the dishes in the sink. I did my best to honor the time I needed to rest. There was one week when I seemed tired all the time, and I wasn’t sure if that meant I’d been overdoing it or if it was something else going on. I rested a few days, and then I returned to my resistance bands and walking but with reduced volume. For several days there, I was tired before I got started but found that a little movement helped my mood and energized me, which reinforced that those were the right decisions.

For the most part, pain continued to not be a major concern. I had some discomfort for sure, but it was most often a generalized achiness, especially on the right side of my abdomen, rather than sharp pains. Bending over at the waist and pushing/pulling heavy objects were the most-limited movements, giving me the immediate feedback that I was still healing inside. Sometimes I thought some activity I’d done had exacerbated the aches, but plenty of times I couldn’t correlate the pain to any particular increase in activity.

The only time I had severe pain, it was while I was out wandering through a neighborhood garage sale with my husband. I hadn’t done anything strenuous in the previous 24 hours or so, and suddenly, every step resulted in a tearing feeling in my side. It completely stopped me in my tracks and brought tears to my eyes. We very gingerly walked home, with shallow, baby steps so I wouldn’t jostle my insides any further, and I laid down on the sofa for the rest of the day. This happened to be only a couple days before the 6-week post-op appointment with my surgeon, so I mentioned it to her at that time. Her hypothesis was that it was “scar tissue disease” that had formed and was being pulled and separated again, causing the tearing feeling I had. Her response to this surprised me–she advised me to stay as active as possible. She didn’t want scar tissue to limit my activities down the road, so the more I can prevent these tissues from sticking and forming together, the better off I’ll be long term.

Back to the gym
At that 6-week appointment, my doctor released me to “gradually return to regular activities.” She made it clear that she didn’t want me holding back too much, as that would slow down my progress. “You can’t hurt anything now,” she said after examining my vaginal sutures, which were apparently healing as expected. So, I left the appointment with her blessing to get back to the gym, to do all the stretching, twisting and bending that I felt ready to do.

I have been back to lifting for a little over 2 weeks now. I decided to go with a 4-day upper/lower split program that I’ve done before. I’ve modified the lifts to avoid undue abdominal pressure (no push-ups, planks, or similar poses). I wasn’t a great squatter before the surgery, but now I’ve gone back to light goblet squats just to parallel. I’m trying to feel out how my pelvic floor responds to the increased loading. As far as I can tell, it’s going ok, although honestly, there isn’t an obvious way to measure it.* My surgeon informed me that my pelvic floor was “more pliable than predicted,” given that I have never been pregnant. She did not know if this was due to my being a lifter or to my history of obesity. It’s not clear to me how careful I need to continue to be to protect my pelvic floor health going forward. And as discussed in the first post, there’s very few evidence-based resources out there to help people navigate this situation.

I’m lifting about 60% (in terms of both weight and volume) of what I was doing before surgery. My preferred programming is usually pretty high volume, and I hope to keep working on increasing it over the next few weeks. I started with 2-3 sets, and I plan on adding a set every couple of weeks until I’m back to doing 5 sets of the major lifts. Only after I get the volume up do I expect to progress the weights heavier again. I’ve dropped out almost all accessory lifts other than those I do to maintain mobility, and I’m focussing on the big, multijoint movements. Here’s how that looks:

Lower 1:
Goblet Squat, 1×6-8, lower weight by 10%, 2xAMRAP (as many reps as possible)
Leg Curl (Machine), 3×12-15
Offset Split Squat, 3×12-15
Monster Walks and lower body mobility work

Upper 1:
Upright Dumbbell Press, 1×6-8, lower weight by 10%, 2xAMRAP
Assisted Chin-up, 2×6-8, 1×10-12
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press, 3×12-15
Cable Row, 3×15-20
shoulder mobility work

Lower 2:
Deadlift, 2×5-6, 1×8-10
Goblet Squat, 3×15-20
Pallof Press, 2×12-15
Alternating Reverse Lunge, 2×15-20
Monster walks and lower body mobility work

Upper 2:
Bench Press, 1×6-8, lower weight by 10%, 2xAMRAP
1-arm Dumbbell Row, 2×8-10, 1×12-15
Arnold Press, 3×15
Palms Down Cable Pulldown, 3×15
Dumbbell Lat Raise, 2xAMRAP (up to 20)
Dumbbell Reverse Fly, 2xAMRAP (up to 25)
shoulder mobility work

The mobility work is feeling especially important right now, as it seems like I’m stiff any time I’m not warmed up. I’m hoping that feeling will decrease as I get back to the rest of my usual routines and is not a new normal. I’m aware that I’m recovering from this surgery in my forties, and older lifters are frequently discussing the increased need for mobility work to keep lifting. I’ve never been sure how true that would be for me, since these folks are usually lifelong athletes, and I’m a relative noob. I have neither the benefit of a foundation of strength, nor the detriment of a lifetime of activity-related aches and pains.

So as far as the lifting part of my recovery plan goes, I’m feeling pretty good about it. The old advice to “lift nothing over 10 pounds,” clearly wasn’t the right advice for me. I was able to do more than that after the first two weeks of total rest, and I didn’t injure myself or create problems for my healing. Even still, my muscles are acting like I haven’t lifted in two months, and I was especially sore with lactic acid burn the first week back. It’s a bit disappointing to be so stiff and sore, given I was continuing to train in some fashion for most of the last couple months. However, I’m pleased that I kept it part of my routine, so that it usually does not feel hard to get myself to the gym–that moment of “ugh, do I really have the energy to do this?!” is less common than it might have been. It’s too early to know how the hysterectomy might impact my lifting options long term. I’m considering going back to the physical therapist to have her evaluate where I’m at, to see if there’s anything I’m missing as I continue to recover. Regardless, it’s clear to me from my experience that the typical lifting advice is more conservative than necessary, at least for some of us.

*Fun fact–in research, apparently they measure internal abdominal pressure by inserting a balloon up the rectum of test subjects. Then, when they do particular lifts, researchers can measure changes in the pressure upon the balloon. For the record, I will not be signing up for this, even in the interest of science!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon.

fitness · Guest Post

Even World-Record Breaking Strongwomen Feel Pressured to be Smaller (Guest Post)

IPF World Champion Natalie Hanson was recently interviewed by Greg Nuckols and Eric Trexler on their podcast, Stronger By Science. (Skip ahead 1h 48m, if you want to hear the section I’m referencing.) In the interview, she said that one of the biggest barriers to women reaching their strength goals is the persistent desire to be smaller.

Hanson, who recently broke a world record for bench press and also works as a powerlifting coach, says that a common barrier to the sport for women is that they have to deal with social pressures around body image and aesthetic appearance. “Don’t get too bulky,” is a message that might get joked about “but it still carries through. It’s a component we shouldn’t overlook.” She says it’s less common with women who are fully bought into the sport, and more likely an issue for “general population” women who have an interest in starting powerlifting. They hear from men “that they are going to get big and buff, and that’s a problem.” She points out that “A guy is never going to hear that.” “That discrepancy when women begin a strength journey and men is stark, and alarming to [her] that it’s still a thing.” So, when women reach out to her for coaching, “they are interested in powerlifting and joining the sport, and they want to drop a weight class.” She describes this challenge as “interesting and concerning.”

It is important to point out, and Eric and Greg comment on this, that amongst strength athletes, it is universally understood that folks are stronger when they are larger. This is easier for men to accept than it is for women, and they have seen the impact of this pressure on women when they choose to at least remain in their current weight class, if not drop one, even though it reduces their success in their chosen sport.

Hanson also mentions incidences where she’s had to deal with comments from men about her body size, even in the gym where she trains regularly. “I’d been powerlifting for about a year and I was just going up a weight class. . . I had put on a lot of weight, muscle and fat, and generally got bigger, and that’s fine. And I looked a lot stronger. And I was training at the gym . . . and some older guy walked up to me and said, ‘Wow, you’re a thoroughbred.’” She expresses her confusion in the moment and how it changed her feeling about working out at that gym. She thinks he meant it as a compliment, but she was clearly baffled that he felt that it was ok to comment on her body at all.

Her advice to men, “If you wouldn’t say this to a friend that’s a male, don’t say it to a friend that’s a female.” She clarifies that she knows that guys who are really close will “give each other shit,” but she’s talking about how men talk with acquaintances.

I find it startling to learn that a woman at the top of her game has to deal with these pressures, and that the women she trains are still focusing on their size over performance goals, even when they are there ostensibly to become a world class lifter. Hanson acknowledges that she is happy to work on aesthetic goals with her clients, if that is what women would rather work on, but that the two goals–to be a competitive lifter and to be smaller–work at cross-purposes. Having a larger body makes you a stronger lifter. And women who are faced with this choice–to be the best lifter they can be, but have a larger body, or to be less of a lifter but comply more closely with society’s expectations–many of the women she works with choose the latter.

And it makes me sad to learn this, as I like imagining when I watch an amazing lift pulled from an incredible female athlete, that she has broken through the barriers the rest of us must wrestle with. Somehow, it seems, she’s accepted that she’s going to stand out, and she chooses her personal goals over bullshit pressures from outside of herself. Apparently, however, she’s likely dealing with the bullshit, too.

It occurs to me that this means we really don’t know how strong women can be. Because as long as women are battling pressures to be less-than at the same time that they are competing, they are hobbling themselves. In order to really test women’s strength, women need to feel equally safe as men pursuing the sport to its limits. And at that time, maybe we can comment on a woman’s body and lifting without it being an issue. As Hanson says, “it would be great if we got to a point where we were all so comfortable and proud of our bodies and what our bodies are capable of that we could freely talk about things like that, say ‘you’re looking jacked’ or ‘you’re looking huge,’ without it being a potential trigger or offensive comment.” Until that time, we should “stop making comments on how women look.”

What do you think?

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, OR.

fitness

Why I Rarely Discuss My “Weight Loss” (Guest Post)

“Marjorie, I wanted to check in with you. Several of us have noticed that you’ve rather dramatically changed shape lately.”

I was perhaps 20 years old and in college when this was said to me, and up to that point in my life, I’d been generally a larger-than-average person but had recently dropped several dress sizes. The kind, albeit awkward, comment was made by the postmodernist, feminist drama professor I worked for at the time. I remember bristling–changed shape?! What she meant was that I had gotten dramatically smaller rather quickly, and she was worried I had an eating disorder or was doing some other acts of self-harm. I suspected, however, that she would not show the same level of interest in students who had dramatically gotten larger in a short time period, and this struck me as hypocritical and like mincing words. Why not just ask me if I had intentionally lost weight?

Today, you will rarely hear me use that language, although I do technically weigh less than I have much of my life. If we must discuss it, I would prefer to discuss that I’ve changed size, although even that is not a very useful metric.

And a big part of the reason why goes back to that conversation, and what was going on in my life at that time. The thing is, I was losing weight, getting smaller, because I was sick with an illness that nearly claimed my life. I didn’t know it yet, but that “changing shape,” was one of the first symptoms of a major autoimmune disease. What I knew at the time was that I was exhausted, sleeping 12 or 14 hours a day and needing more. I felt sick and nauseous and had no interest in food. I had to force myself to eat, making myself add butter and peanut butter to the half bagel I’d force down, because I knew I needed the calories, but derived no pleasure from it. For more than half a year, I experienced this general malaise and got no answers from the doctors I visited. Did I think maybe I was depressed? No, I didn’t feel sad, just tired. Any chance I could be pregnant? Not unless it was an immaculate conception!

So I got smaller. I wasn’t on a diet, and my changing size was not intentional. It was NOT evidence of living a healthier life. I wasn’t taking better care of myself, and I certainly didn’t feel better in my skin. And the hypocrisy of our usual language around weight loss really began to dawn on me. When people say “weight loss,” it is usually used synonymously with dieting–with intentionally limiting one’s food intake to become a smaller size, usually under the guise of being “healthier.”

And of course, the drama professor wasn’t actually observing my weight in any case–she was observing my size (or my shape, as she put it). I took up less space than I had before. But even if she had seen me jump on a scale, that information would not have been any more useful than my apparent reduction of space. Weight does not equate health. It wouldn’t have told her if I was being safe to get to that size, any more than it told the doctors if I was shrinking due to burgeoning chronic illness, a mental health crisis, or divine intervention!

Today, with my now multiple autoimmune conditions more-or-less under control, my weight is still a pretty useless measure of my health and well-being. Over the past 20 years, I’ve gone up and down in size a few times, most often due to health crises, hospitalizations, medication changes and the like. However, about 8 years ago my health stabilized, and I began a slow, intentional transformation of how I live my life. As a result, over several years, I have changed shape–I have become quite a bit smaller. And, when I felt ready, I started going to the gym and became a dedicated weightlifter. I now lift with the explicit intent of increasing my size, and presumably, my weight will continue to change along the way. But it is not a very useful measure of my progress. I do not lift weights to “burn calories” or become smaller. I am far more interested in how many sets and reps I’ve done for a particular lift. And if I “gain weight” because I’ve become more muscular, I would consider that a win!

I’m not embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about how my body has changed over the years, I just don’t think it’s very useful. The larger-bodied people who are looking to me for advice probably don’t want to be told about how fast I got smaller while potentially dying in the hospital. One month of hospital food interspersed with several major surgeries will do wonders for your waistline! (Truly, I looked awful–all the “weight” I’d lost during that time period was muscle. My body had eaten itself up to rebuild and heal after surgery. I was just as fat, but I’d lost about 20 pounds.)

My weight is simply not meaningful data. My size (and shape) continues to change, but without context, no one can correctly identify if those are healthy or unhealthy changes for me. And so I tend to avoid the whole subject–yes, I’ve changed size and “lost a lot of weight,” but without knowing more about the journey, it really doesn’t tell you anything at all about me.

Image description: A woman’s silhouette, rear view. She’s sitting looking over a city at sunset. Photo from Unsplash.