fitness · Guest Post · strength training · weight lifting

Do not disturb, or on not having ‘hungry eyes’ for men at the gym (Guest Post)

By Brett

This past month has presented me with plenty of inspiration for a blog post. It was, as per usual, incredibly difficult for me to narrow down what to share. However, despite the volume of vulnerable, queer, fitness-related experiences I’ve found myself in there is one moment that feels heavier than the rest. As most of my uncomfortable gym situations begin, this moment was initiated by a male person approaching me mid-workout.

Allow me to paint this picture more clearly. By ‘mid-workout’, I mean a headphones-on-full-blast-sweating-through-my-tank-top-unaware-of-the-rest-of-the-world state of mind.

Now, I have very few objections to interacting with others at the gym. Developing an open, positive community within the gym environment can remove social barriers that hinder the enthusiastic participation of everyone wishing to pursue an active lifestyle. However, this was not one of those interactions. I retrieved my dumbbells from the ground, stood upright, and proceeded to perform my bicep curls.

Simultaneously, this male person positioned himself about 4 feet behind me, and continued to dance his eyes between the back of my legs and making direct eye contact with me via the mirror that stood in-front of both of us. I have a horrible tendency to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, regardless of how clearly their behavior should be reprimanded. Therefore, using said mirror, I quizzically raised my eyebrows at the male person, hoping he may just be looking for someone to spot him on a lift, or perhaps was wondering which direction the washrooms may be. It must be at this point that you are wondering if I moonlight as a comedian…because, yes, these innocent wishes about his intentions were dead wrong.

His response to my quizzical eyebrow raise was to begin speaking, despite the music blasting from my headphones. I set my weights back down, turned to face him, and slid a headphone back.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”

“Uh, I was just like wondering if you like compete, or like yeah.”

“Compete?”

“Yeah, in like physique stuff.”

“No, I do not. I’m just a gym rat.”

It was at this point that he began this disturbing soliloquy:

“That’s cool. You should do physique competitions; you have great definition. I was like worried to ask you because so many girls get so offended when I try to chat with them. But, I could just like tell from your form that you know how to work out, and like I knew your vibe was different. Honestly, you’re just so focused, most girls like look at me with like ‘hungry eyes’, but you just are doing your thing. It’s cool, you know?”

When I tell you that I have heard this well-rehearsed chaos on hundreds of occasions, I say so with little exaggeration. Now, a piece of unsolicited advice, if you redirect the topic of conversation onto them, you quickly fade into the background of a wonderfully self-centered dialogue regarding their macro-intake or something equally as unimportant. Which is exactly what I did, and exactly what he did. Fortunately, this led to a perfect opportunity for a swift ending to the conversation, and my ability to slip my headphones back on (my gym version of a “Do Not Disturb” sign).

It is not my intention that this post comes across as scathing, rant-ish, or a generalization of male people in fitness. Rather, I’m hoping that we can let out a big collective chuckle at the absurdity of this moment.

First, the mental image of me participating in the hyper-feminine culture of physique modelling is absolutely comical for anyone who knows me well.

Second, the fact that this person had the audacity to paint himself as a victim when approaching women at the gym and them being “offended” shows so little self-awareness it made me question how this individual managed to think so highly of himself… while clearly having no idea of who he truly is.

Third, and my personal favourite part of all of this, my lack of “hungry eyes” played no role in him recognizing that I truly, sincerely have little to no interest in gazing at men.

Finally, bold of him to refer to me as a ‘girl’.

Regardless of all the technical issues of his little plan, the most curious part was that he could not recognize the hypocritical nature of his actions. My feminist training began running wild. The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy, suffering under a male gaze, r*pe culture and the idealization of ‘the chase’, etc. Luckily, I snapped out of my trance just in time to realize that “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was playing through my headphones. I picked up my dumbbells, mentally wished all non-conformists a ‘Happy Pride Month’, and purposefully moved those weights with horrible form.

30 lb dumbbells

Bio: Hi! I’m Bret and I hail from Guelph, ON, where I completed my undergraduate degree in Philosophy. I am currently working towards an MA in Philosophy at Western University, and enjoy engaging in feminist theory, ethics, as well as gender and sexuality studies. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to be taught by both Sam and Tracy, and I am excited to join the Fit is a Feminist Issue community! When my nose isn’t in a book, I can be found in coffee shops, at the gym, or taking on car repairs that are far beyond my capabilities.

Guest Post · strength training

Lifting weights for strength (cw: brief discussion of weight, guest post)

Last week the Fit is a Feminist Issue Facebook page posted this article from Today.com: Strength Training 101: Is it better to lift heavier weights or do more reps?, written by a personal trainer and weight-loss coach, suggesting there are ways to get “sleek and toned” muscles and ways to “bulk up”. (Sam’s Note to Self: When postings for discussion, make that clear!) Almost immediately, Jennifer F. responded with “Wow, was that written in the 90s? There are a couple of valid points in there, but I thought all that was debunked years ago?” then linked to an article from Stumptuous.com: Lies in the gym.

Thanks Jennifer, you saved me a few steps! I was about to hunt down a debunking article myself.

The author does not lift weights heavier than 7 pounds to avoid bulking up her shoulders, back and chest. Now I’m all for lifting appropriately and I’ll never say 7 pounds isn’t enough if that’s what your body allows but avoiding more than that to prevent bulky muscles seems like a strange limitation to put on one’s self. Most of the coaches I have spoken to over the years have laughed at the idea of women accidentally becoming bulky from weightlifting, because that has just never happened. The women I know who have competed in body building competitions have worked extremely hard, strictly monitored food intake in the days leading up to competition and have looked amazingly muscular, but not what I’d call “bulky”.

COVID closed down the gym for a while and I’m still trying to get my groove back, but at the height of my sportzing career, I was lifting 5 days a week, and was going for strength. My bench press was 160lbs shortly before we went into lock down and my partial deadlifts were 275lb. My traps were well defined, and still mostly are, as were my biceps and triceps. No matter how much I lifted though, I couldn’t get really big muscles.

I have been lifting weights for 10+ years now. I’m strong enough to open my own jars, help my husband lift heavy appliances off the back of the truck, and I broke up a significant share of concrete after tearing down my barn, using only a sledgehammer and my own power. I lift heavy bee boxes because my husband made it clear he had no intention of becoming a beekeeper, and if I was going to become one, I needed to figure it out.

I have put on weight over the last few years, surprisingly not during lockdown, but from so much work travel in the few years before that. You can’t eat in restaurants every night with at least one glass of wine or beer at dinner, without adding to the waistline, and it’s been hard to remove it. That is my “bulk” and it seems to be very attached to me. I call that my protective cover, but under all that, my muscles are solid and capable and I’ll lift as heavy as I can for as long as I can.

Sandi in a T-Shirt and sweatpants, swinging a 10lb hammer over a large piece of concrete foundation.
goals · strength training

Always wanted to do pull-ups? Why?

The article getting the most attention right now on our Facebook page is this one, Hold on: Why do we want to do pull-ups?

I had to scroll through a lot of dudes doing shirtless pull-ups on Unsplash before I found this image of a woman. It’s a rear view. She’s got long blonde curly hair. She’s thin and white and wearing grey leggings and a black tank.

In the article Casey Johnston, a personal trainer, interrogates everyone’s favorite fitness goal. She’s got a lot to say but here’s part of it.

“Why did it have to be pull-ups? The world of strength is so big, with so many things to do. Why and how did the zeitgeist land on pull-ups as the number one glossy, sexy fitness goal? Of all the “strong” things to do with one’s body, a pull-up is… about the hardest one. This makes them difficult as someone’s strength training entree. I don’t want to discourage, but I also want to appropriately couch. This ultimately does not really matter, because by the time I can get out “Wow, that’s cool, although pull-ups are harder than you might think—” people’s eyes are already understandably glazing over.”

I love the reaction on our Facebook page. Here’s a sample of the comments:

“When I watch a movie and someone is being chased and they come across a wall that they have to pull themselves over, I think ‘that’s where they’ll get me’ 😆”

“Pull-ups were the one thing we were consistently tested on in elementary school and I have no idea why. They never actually worked with us on HOW to do them, or how to get better at them. What a strange measure of strength for seven-year-olds.”

“I try them on a semi regular basis as though this workout will be the one where I can suddenly do a pull up. I do not train to be able to do them. Apparently I’m hoping for magic.”

Image search for magic and you get a woman in the dark looking into sparkles cupped in her hands.

What do you think about pull-ups? Do you train for them? Are they a goal? Why? Why do you think they’re everyone’s favorite fitness goal?

Me, I do assisted pull-ups sometimes either on the gravitron machine or with bands. So if a monster is chasing me and I have to get up and over a wall, they’ll need to be some help available if I’m going to make it.

cycling · Sat with Nat · strength training · stretching

Nat Shares Her Meaningful Measures of Progress

Well here we are, somehow 6 weeks after I hopped on my partner’s Peloton. Where did the time go?

Somewhere along the journey I hit 1,000 minutes of working out. Cool!

I’m rediscovering my comfort and confidence on the bike. While I still often cry at the end of a ride it’s not a bad thing. It’s often tears of relief that I completed a ride. So thankful!

I have been alternating cycling and weight training with 1 rest day a week. My butt needs the time out of the saddle and my legs need time to recuperate.

What has changed in 6 weeks?

**remember your mileage may vary. If you start a new training regime you may have different gains or meaningful measures of success**

First, I’m able to ride longer. I started out with 5 minute warm up, 20 minute beginner rides, 5 minute cool down. After a month I felt good trying an advanced beginner ride of 30 minutes. I now regularly do a 5 or 10 minute warmup, a 30 minute ride, 10 minute cool down and a 5 minute stretch. Yay!

Second, I’m not as sore after my workouts. Thank goodness because the first two weeks I was limping through my neighborhood on my daily walks.

Third, I have better form on the bike and can sit up without holding the handle bars, find a relaxed upper body during max effort and even standing up out of the saddle during rides. It’s very different from on my road bike but I’m learning. Yay!

Fourth, I’m feeling good in the strength classes. Lots of moves I’m still learning. My upper body workouts have felt particularly awesome. Best part, I’m lifting more weight with better form and control. Wahoo!

Fifth, my heart rate and blood pressure have dropped by a whopping 20 points. Talk about a satisfying and meaningful measure. My motivation for adding higher intensity cardio and weight training to my life was to address a disturbing upward trend in these metrics. My moving about my day heart rate is 64 bpm and my blood pressure is back to 124/75. That’s right where I want them to be.

Sixth, my stress management and resilience are feeling good. I’m having less anxiety and sleeping well. So good!

Seventh, I now have different things in common with my partner and our other friends who use Peloton. We share favourite classes and instructors as well as equipment tips and tricks. That means less shop talk about our paid work. AMAZING!

Selfie of Nat smiling in her super cute pink sports top with her hair pulled back. She is super happy and grateful.

What are meaningful measures in your fitness journey? I want to hear all about it!

body image · fitness · inclusiveness · strength training · weight lifting

Inclusion in Bodybuilding and Gym Culture: An Interview with Michael Collins

In this interview (part 1 of 2), Michael Collins compares bodybuilding competitions to Kiwanis music festivals, and describes his desire to be the “Julia Child of weightlifting.” Find Michael on Twitter: https://twitter.com/erlking.

How did you get into bodybuilding and gym culture?

I formerly worked in the academic field, but I left because of a combination of burnout, poor career prospects, and a feeling that my passions had shifted. I have always had a passion for bodybuilding and muscular physiques, which I felt I had to hide when I was in academia. I actually felt more shame and anxiety about being into muscles in the university setting than I felt about being gay! 

I’m 38, and I only became serious about bodybuilding when I was 31. Today I am a personal trainer and bodybuilding coach, but in terms of my own physique I am an amateur / passionate bodybuilding hobbyist. Like most sports, professional success requires a blend of genetic predisposition and starting young; what slim hopes I might have had of becoming a pro, or even a prominent amateur competitor, would have required me to start a dozen years sooner than I did. However, there are many reasons why someone would pursue bodybuilding beyond professional success!

Is bodybuilding culture welcoming of gay folks like yourself?

Unfortunately, professional bodybuilding can still be a homophobic space, but at the amateur level this has never been an issue for me, and in fact I’m a member of a large, robust, and mutually supportive community of gay and queer amateur bodybuilders. I definitely feel more comfortable being myself where I am right now than I did previously.

Can you explain what training and being a trainer in a gym is like?

Photo provided by Michael Collins

I consider bodybuilding competitions to be an artistic practice and a form of body modification, less a professional sport and more like the Kiwanus Music Festivals I would compete in as a youth. You labour in solitude for months to produce an aesthetic object that exists in time, then you produce that aesthetic object for a panel of judges alongside peers who have done the same, and then you are ranked according to a fairly strict and narrow sense of what determines worth in this specific arena. I think bodybuilders have more in common with concert pianists than they do with football players.

Before the pandemic, I wanted to be the Julia Child of lifting weights, helping people who are anxious about it and ignorant of it because of that anxiety, showing them this is their space too, and they have a right to learn how their body works and how to make it stronger. 

I trained in-person, mostly people I would call “beginners.” In the gym I taught basic fundamentals like how to deadlift and squat properly, how to make it so your back hurts less and you don’t get winded going up three flights of stairs, and so on. I had prediabetic clients who used weight training as a way of managing that condition.

How did your training practice change once the pandemic took hold?

Gyms in Toronto were closed for almost nine months straight. It’s important to tutor beginners in basic physical movements to avoid injury, so it was difficult to train my clients virtually. Also, beginners don’t have access to their own power rack, olympic barbells, and collection of plates! 

So, during the pandemic, I shifted more to coaching people who are already well-versed in lifting and who want to further a physical transformation, often who want to compete as amateur bodybuilders (something I’m thankful I got to do myself for the first time in 2019). I shifted to work that can be done virtually, like programming people’s workout plans, diet plans, etc.

What is the best part of your craft?

Photo provided by Michael Collins

Some of my clients tell me they have had very troubled or even hateful relationships with their bodies. I find it very fulfilling when someone has discovered the pleasure of how strong their body actually can be, of how good it can feel to regularly test your limits and feel them gradually expand. It’s lovely to help someone transform in a way they long desired but felt was impossible. The sense of pride and pleasure that can awaken is very rewarding to see.

What advice do you have for folks who want to get more involved with bodybuilding and gym culture?

Find your people. They’re unlikely to be the influencers on Instagram who dominate the field (although I know of a few who really warm my heart with good, well-considered, intelligent feminist or generally progressive insights). Instead, find people who are working for a similar goal and who have similar values as you. People who are on a similar path, but who may be a step or two ahead. They’ll be a great resource for learning (and there’s so much to learn if you’re new) and for mutual support. For me, Twitter has been good for this.

Also, think about what kind of gym that’s available to you and what kind of community there is. The communities in smaller, independent gyms are normally male-dominated, but they are often supportive and focused on teaching, learning, and mutual support. And, if you have the money and you know someone who is a good fit for you, hiring a knowledgeable trainer is my best advice. 

Additional video interview

Hear personal trainer Michael Collins describe more about his journey to bodybuilding, his vision of the inclusiveness of gym culture, and how gym communities are shifting to support all types of bodybuilding enthusiasts.

Interview with Michael Collins [19:04]
cycling · online exercise · Sat with Nat · strength training · stretching

Nat tries Peloton for 7 days and is surprised!

My partner is walking away from the camera in a toque, aviator style wool shearling jacket and boots. Our dog Lucy trails behind on her leash giving the camera her patent pending side eye. Her look of derision sums up how I’ve been feeling lately.

It’s February! I usually joke February is Latin for “shit” as I don’t usually love winter and, wowsers, is it ever winter now eh? This year though winter isn’t bumming me out. It’s everything else. I had a mild case of COVID 19 over Christmas but the symptoms lasted roughly 4 weeks. It really drained me at a time when the holidays super charge me.

I love food, friends and having a good time. This year though even my most modest plans were canceled. Nothing tasted good. I was tired. BORING. Totally thankful everyone in my household recovered and life is back to normal. But I’ve noticed lately my usual self care and mental health strategies were not enough.

I get to lead people in my paid work. One piece about leadership that has stayed with me since my military days is “don’t tell people what to do, show them”. So I talk about what I do to be well both for staying effective at work AND to enjoy all that other life stuff that work funds.

I do a lot of things to fill my emotional and creative tanks. But lately even my self-care decathlon isn’t enough. I decided I needed to kick things up a notch. A big notch.

So I’ve jumped on my partner’s Peloton. He was awarded it last November for his performance at work. He loves it. We have very different rhythms when it comes to working out but after seeing his joy for 3 months I was starting to think about joining him.

It wasn’t until our friends, who are our neighbours too, shared what they were enjoying about their Peloton that I moved from thinking about it to trying it. Thank you Nina & Al!

The first ride, Ouaf, so humbling. It’s been more than 2 years since I’ve done any cycling of note. I’ve been focusing on walking as the logistics of anything else was really doing my head in. So I picked a 20 minute beginner ride with Ally Love. It was a great class to understand the features of the bike and how the classes are structured.

I cried a lot though while spinning. I didn’t have the fit dialed in quite right and I was so uncomfortable. It was hard to truly be a beginner again. I did find Ally’s instruction helpful and distracting. The class flew by.

The next day I tried a warm up spin with Ben and a beginner whole body strength class with Chase. The whole body strength class reminded me of CXworks so felt familiar and accessible. Chase provided clear instructions and just the right amount of direction.

Day 3 I joined a 20 minute beginner spin class with Tunde. It was challenging without being overwhelming. I really enjoyed her instruction, which balanced technique and encouragement perfectly. I had the bike fit dialed in and I started to feel more at home in the saddle.

Day 4 was a Sunday so I took the time to stack 4 workouts. Stacking allows you to build a workout in advance combining different classes to get to the length you want.

I chose a beginner whole body strength training with Adrian. He has a 10 minute warm up, a 20 minute class, and a 10 minute stretching class. All were challenging and the moves were achieve-able for me. I ended with a 10 minute guided meditation with Aditi focusing on breath.

I was pleasantly surprised that planks were not only available to me but pretty easy. That’s a big change for me and I credit my daily dog walks for my newfound core strength.

Day 5 I stacked Christine’s 5 minute spinning warm up with a 20 minute beginner class followed by a 5 minute cool down. I really like her straightforward delivery.

Day 6 was a repeat of strength training with Adrian. Day 7 a revisit of Tunde’s beginner spin. I’m balancing trying different instructors with keeping some familiarity.

I was SO SKEPTICAL of the entertainment aspect of online classes. I tend to grim, grunt and bare it exercises. The music and the strengths based approach really works for me. No one is more surprised than me!

I’m so thankful my folks gifted us dumbbell sets for Christmas. That I had clipless shoes, cycling shorts, water bottles, yoga mats and belts. It really removed all the barriers for me to get over my embarrassment of not restarting my workouts sooner.

A Peloton bike is a very expensive bit of kit. It’s not something I would have sprung for of my own accord. I’m so surprised how much I enjoy it. I hope you are finding joy in your workouts too!

Nat and Michel are looking happy in snow covered grey toques. They are bundled up for the chilly weather and it’s snowing quite a bit. Behind them is a red brick 2 story house covered in snow.
fitness · health · strength training

YouTube Rabbitholes and Squatting Advice

Usually I set up a playlist of YouTube videos to watch while I zip back and forth on the rowing machine but one day last week I forgot and just clicked a single video.

The resulting rabbithole of videos brought me to this useful video about deep squats.

I haven’t given much thought to squats because I’m pretty good at them. I usually only overthink exercises that I struggle with (Ha!) and I wouldn’t have searched for a video on squatting.

So, except for YouTube’s algorithm I wouldn’t have seen this video and then I would have missed out on some intriguing advice.

Taro Iwamoto has solid incremental progressions for getting into a deep squat which are useful but the real gem for me here was his advice about when to use squats.

He says not to think about squats as an exercise but to think about how to make them part of your daily routine. In particular, he suggests reading or watching TV or eating a meal while squatting, starting with short periods and increasing when you’re ready.

I have often thought about my fitness in a functional sort of way, considering how my efforts could help make my daily activities easier. But I don’t think I have connected my exercises and my activities the way he is suggesting.

I’ve already started squatting for a few minutes while reading (and I’ve written part of this post while squatting on my yoga mat) and I am intrigued by the idea of incorporating more stretching/strength training type movements into other parts of my day.

I’m not thinking of this in a multitasking sort of fashion and I’m not trying to ‘sneak in’ some extra exercise.

It’s more like exploring what ELSE I could be doing instead of sitting or standing in one spot for routine tasks.

I think it will be interesting for both my body and for my busy brain.

Image description:  a GIF  from the animated series ‘Pinky and the Brain’ in which The Brain, a large-headed, white cartoon mouse with pink eyes and ears is asking Pinky, a skinny white mouse with blue eyes and pink ears, one of his regular questions “Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering?”
Image description: a GIF from the animated series ‘Pinky and the Brain’ in which The Brain, a large-headed, white cartoon mouse with pink eyes and ears is asking Pinky, a skinny white mouse with blue eyes and pink ears, one of his trademark questions “Pinky, are you pondering what I’m pondering?”

So, if you drop by my place and I’m reading a novel while in downward dog or I am washing dishes while standing on one foot, you’ll know what’s up…or down, I guess. 😉

What aspects of your exercise routine could you incorporate into the rest of your daily life?

fitness · strength training

Christine and the Dead Bug Plan

One of my goals this summer is to increase my core strength.

I’m sure you already know the usual benefits of a strong core so I’m not going to drag you through that info.

As a martial artist, however, I have extra reasons to seek a stronger core. Strengthening those muscles will help me have balance for stronger kicks and they will help with the twisting motion that adds power to TKD movements.

I find a lot of core work to be really annoying and I struggle to keep good form. (There’s a whole host of reasons for that, too, but I am really trying to stick to my point!)

However, I have found one core exercise that actually enjoy. It’s detailed enough to hold my attention without being too intricate and it doesn’t cause me any strain in my upper back or neck.*

So, I’m making friends with dead bugs this summer.

(Not literally of course. That just seems counterproductive – the poor bugs wouldn’t even know you had befriended them. Ha ha!)

Two photos of person in exercise clothes lying on a mat and demonstrating different stages of the ‘dead bug’ exercise.
Image description: two photos of a person in exercise clothing lying on their back on a yoga mat and demonstrating different parts of the dead bug exercise. image source.

This exercise, which is demonstrated in the video below, involves raising and lowering your left arm and right leg and then your right arm and left leg. So, it’s got an extra element of brain-twistiness that helps me stay engaged with the process.

Plus, I always end up laughing when I mess up which limb to move when. Laughing during core work definitely has appeal, doesn’t it?

If you’re thinking ‘I’d like to try this but I’d have to work up to it.’ you can find progressive adaptations here.

What kind of core exercises do you do?

Do you include Dead Bugs?

Do you enjoy them?

*I know part of that strain in other exercises comes from poor form, it’s not the specific exercise itself. Still, it’s a deterrent and an extra bit of fussiness.

aging · athletes · boxing · fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Want to try powerlifting or boxing? Let Quill inspire you (Interview)

The AARP got in touch with us recently with an awesome video of Quill Kukla talking about the way powerlifting and boxing, both of which they took up in their mid-forties, transformed them. I had the pleasure of connecting with Quill recently to talk about the short video, called “Tiny Teacher Transforms into Badass Boxer.” Before I get to our chat, here’s the video:

Don’t you absolutely love it? Quill has blogged for us before about their boxing career, about discovering that they excel at powerlifting, and also their running. Over the years, their posts reveal a common theme of being amazed at what their body can do and of doing activities that they feel good about. And that’s just the sort of message about movement that we promote, endorse, and celebrate here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue.

Here’s the interview, more or less verbatim with streamlining (but no misrepresenting!):

TI: I know you had some reservations about watching the video. How did you feel when you watched the video and saw yourself doing these amazing things?

Quill: It’s complicated because the pandemic has been a really rough time. I’ve continued training in both boxing and lifting throughout the pandemic. But it’s not the same kind of training that I was able to do or the same level of intensity that I was able to do before the pandemic. And because my background life has become so much more sedentary, even aside from my training I feel as if I’m not in the same fighting shape or competitive shape as I was a year and a half ago, and it’s daunting to think about getting that back, so it’s a little bit bittersweet to see myself at my peak. But at the same time, they did a fantastic job editing it. So I really do look awesome!

TI: You said when you first went to the gym you were “undermotivated.” Why did you feel undermotivated?

Quill: I think there are really two separate reasons. One is that very early in my life I was a serious ballet dancer. That was central to my identity. And when I quit dancing I really just quit the life of the body cold turkey. My way of separating myself from the dancing was just to say “okay, I’m not a person who does physical activity anymore.” I was never in bad shape. I always walked a lot and biked and walked my dog, so I had background fitness, but I wasn’t somebody who had structured exercise as part of my life. So it felt like a part of my identity that I had cut off from myself and put into my past.

But the more interesting reason is that when I first went to the gym I went because I felt like I had a responsibility to “get fit.” Fitness was just the goal. I wasn’t trying to learn any particular skill or get better at any particular activity or take anything as an artistic practice or techné. I was just trying to increase my fitness. And for me that’s a very boring goal. It was an amorphous goal that I resented and it didn’t have any shape for me. And so when I started lifting and boxing and not “trying to get fit” but trying to get good at lifting and good at boxing, then that was my motivation because I loved those activities and the fitness came along for free. Fitness in and of itself is not a good motivator for me. In fact I kind of find it depressing. When you find something that you inherently love. If you happen also to get fit, then fantastic. But you’re doing it because you love that thing.

Ti: You talk about the “empowering thrill” of boxing. Can you say a bit more about that?

Quill: Part of that is literally chemical or hormonal. There’s a jolt of hormones that goes through your body as you punch something full speed [here Quill punched their left fist into their right palm to demonstrate] or as you lift something really heavy and make that max effort. It’s invigorating and good for your brain to feel those hormones coursing through. But also, it does feel empowering. I don’t think of boxing as self-defence at all. If I ever ran into someone in a dark ally who wanted to hurt me and I were to say “okay, punch me between here and here” [gestures to forehead and torso] boxing is not a useful skill in that circumstance. Being able to run away is a much better skill than being able to box.

So it’s not empowering in the sense that I’m going to use it for self-defence. However, it is very empowering to know that my body can take a hit and be fine, and that my body can deliver force if necessary. There is something thrilling in that feeling that my body has force behind it; it is active, not passive. It can impact the world. And moreover, the world can impact me and I’ll be fine. Someone can hit me and I’ll be fine. My body is not fragile.

Plus it’s just really fun punching things [smiles, then laughs, and then tells me they’ll show me how to punch some day].

TI: In the video you express the intention of continuing with powerlifting and boxing for many years to come. How has the pandemic changed affected your training? How (if at all) has it affected how you think about yourself as a powerlifter and boxer?

Quill: At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were in lockdown I couldn’t lift at all for months when gyms were closed. Even at the worst of the pandemic, except for a couple of weeks I have continued my boxing training, meeting people outside. I am back to both now. But taking months off of my lifting at my age was a huge hit to my ability. I lost a lot and even though I have been back lifting for months I’m still not lifting as much as I was before the pandemic. And so part of me wonders if the pandemic just did me in in terms of competition. But I’ll still keep lifting because I like having a strong body.

With respect to boxing, I’m not in the same fighting shape as I was before the pandemic, even though I’ve been training. But that I feel I can get back more easily because I’ve kept my skills up. I do intend to go back to competing in boxing as soon as possible. But my plan is to have a fight in six months or so and to keep going for as long as I can. I’ve watched people fight in their eighties. In fact, I watched a fight between an 88 year-old man and a 91 year-old man — an actual sanctioned amateur fight — and they went through to the end and they were really doing it. And so I have no intention of stopping at any point really [laughs again].

TI: Both powerlifting and boxing are really intimidating prospects for lots of people. What advice would you give to someone who wants to give it a try later in life?

Quill: For lifting–the great thing is the frustrating thing: when you start doing it you make gains unbelievably fast. Your numbers will shoot up really fast in terms of how much you can lift and your body will change almost immediately. There’s almost nothing else you can do where you’ll see such quick changes. The sad part is that that plateaus out fairly quickly. When you start you think “wow I’m lifting 20 more pounds each time I go to the gym! In no time I’ll be lifting thousands of pounds!” Everybody has that feeling. If you can even go once or twice or three times that will be enough that you will see enormous gains. All the intimidation will be gone. So my advice for lifting is “just start.” And it’s one of the absolute best sports for older people to do. There’s nothing blocking older people from excelling at it and it’s also incredibly good for your joints and your bone density. It’s a gift to yourself to do it. Do it a few times and you’ll be amazed at how fast you start getting strong.

Boxing is not like that at all. When you start boxing you’re terrible and it takes a very long time to be anything other than terrible. But people are intimidated by it because their vision of boxing is being in the ring fighting. But there are so many stages between doing nothing and actually fighting. And you can get off and stop at any stage you want.

There’s going to the gym and learning how to punch properly, and punching the bags, working on the bags to get a good workout. Some people just do that forever and that’s what boxing is for them. Past that, you can start doing partner work and partner drills, where you’re not actually fighting with anybody but you’re working with a partner and trading punches. That’s a little more intense than working on the bags, but only one step. So you can do that and stop there. Then some people go from there to sparring, and that’s where you’re actually in real time trying to land punches on a person and avoid getting punched. That’s a whole other level of intense than partner drills, but most of the people who spar never actually fight. And then there’s fighting. So you don’t have to have a vision of yourself as on a trajectory from nothing to fighting. At each stage you can decide if it’s enough for you. That makes it feel less intimidating.

TI: What about just the idea of going into a boxing gym as, in my case, a 56 year-old woman?

Quill: You do have to find the right gym. There are a lot of inclusive wonderful gyms. There are also a lot of toxic crappy gyms. Trial and error could be traumatic, but using word of mouth to find out which gyms are supportive and inclusive is important. But you’d be surprised at how many boxing gyms really are super inclusive and supportive environments.

Boxing tends to be a very intellectual sport that requires a lot of critical thinking, so people who are boxers tend to be very thoughtful. They sort of have to be. Compared to a lot of other sports I find that boxing gyms tend to be very thoughtful spaces. In 2021 most of them have had to think at some point about what it means to welcome older people into the gym, to welcome queer people into the gym, to welcome non-binary people into the gym.

We all learned about boxing gym culture from watching Rocky but the reality of boxing gym culture tends to be pretty different from that. Again, it varies. There are certainly gyms that are nothing but young, toxicly masculine men, but there is a lot of variety, including a lot that have a minority of men as members. It’s a popular sport among women, so most gyms have a lot of women.

Just in the years that I’ve been doing it it’s gone from a male-dominated sport to a not-at-all male-dominated sport. I’ve been boxing with eight women and five men, and I think that’s typical for boxing gyms.

TI: That’s encouraging! Anything else you’d like to add?

Quill: I’m a high-energy, high-emotion, high-intensity person and the difference that boxing made for me in terms of my ability to productively channel and regulate all of that energy and those emotions was absolutely transformative. I’m a calmer person. A lot of people might not realize the mental health benefits as well as the physical health benefits that you can get from doing a sport like this. That might not be true for everyone, but I think it’s not just me.

TI: That’s so great. Thank you!

I’m sure we will hear from Quill again, especially when they get back into the ring. Meanwhile, thanks, Quill! Congratulations on an amazing video. You absolutely do look awesome and fierce. Thanks for the chat and best wishes getting back into fighting form!

diversity · fitness · inclusiveness · strength training

The New Gym Rules

Feature photo credit: Alora Griffiths via Unsplash

As gyms around the world are slowly reopening this year, I welcome them to take this opportunity to restart with some new ground rules and expectations for their patrons in order to make it a more welcoming space.  As they existed pre-COVID, most gym cultures that I experienced were sometimes fine and sometimes extraordinarily problematic. They were deeply gendered spaces with unspoken rules about who belonged where. Uncomfortable exchanges as men stared or leered at me, ignored me and took my equipment, or talked down at me to “explain” something or “help,” were common. I’ve heard stories of men recording women while they lift. Of people with physical disabilities and older people being ignored or belittled. These experiences keep people from returning for the next workout.

So, I ask gym-owners take an active role in creating new, more positive and inclusive environments at their gyms. Post these expectations and then draw a hard line–folks who fail to comply will not be welcome to remain lifting there.  Commit to building a sustainable community for everyone!

  1. Do not give advice or feedback unless requested
  2. Do not stare at or watch others lift for extended periods of time. 
  3. Absolutely no sexualized comments about other people’s bodies or their lifts
  4. Pay attention to who is using the equipment.  Make sure it is actually available before you take it/use it.  Equipment unavailable?  Ask to work in.
  5. Recording other people’s lifts will immediately get you removed.
  6. Racist, homophobic, sexist, ablist or other disparaging comments about groups of people will not be tolerated. 

Post these expectations right alongside the usual “wipe down the equipment” and “rerack your weights.”  Then, follow through.  If a patron tells you they were stared at, given unsolicited advice, or overheard a disparaging comment, take it seriously and address the person who made the unwelcome behavior.  Make it clear that you won’t tolerate behaviors that alienate members of the community.  

I get it that sometimes it’s about education and not willful harm to others.  It’s on you as the gym owner or employee to make clear boundaries and enforce them.  You’re going to need to use your best judgement.  There’s going to be grey areas.  Stating your rules up front will make these ambiguous situations better–everyone will be on the same page about what you expect.  

The rules will probably have to evolve as you learn more about what is problematic and how to reinforce norms that help everyone feel welcome.  That’s ok.  Update your poster every once in a while, keep learning, and show your members that you have their back.  Consistent enforcement of behavior norms will do more for the health of your business than ignoring problematic behaviors, which leave so many of our communities alienated from the gym.

I’m a queer, White woman with some physical limitations looking for a comfortable and accepting place to lift.  I’m less familiar with what other marginalized populations need in order to feel welcome in a space.  If I left something important out, please include it in the comments below!  

I look forward to lifting with all of you again!

Photo description: An adjustable incline bench and a rack of dumbbells. Photo credit: Brett Jordan via Unsplash

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher.  She can be found wondering if her neighborhood gym has survived being closed for over a year, picking up heavy things and putting them down again (in her garage for now) in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .