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 .

fitness · motivation · strength training

Where you workout: In your face or a separate space?

Where do you put your workout equipment?  Do you need it in the middle of the living room to gently remind you to do a little movement, or do you tuck it away to a separate space?  

I’ve been thinking about the advice I hear sometimes to keep some resistance bands, a kettle bell or a yoga mat in our living spaces so that we can “do a few reps” in between the rest of our lives.  During the pandemic, by necessity my lifting became a part of my everyday space.  I created a “workout” space in our guest bedroom, which is also the room with my clothes closet, where my little TV is, where I tuck myself away when I need some quiet time, and in other words, spend a fair amount of my time day to day.

And over the winter break, my husband and I finally got to finishing the garage, and we were able to install a folding squat rack on one side.  Suddenly, once again I have a separate space where I only go to do my lifts. 

And I love it.

I love heading out to the garage and going to “the gym,” getting to be inside my own head and focusing on the work without distractions.  I’m enjoying my lifting like I haven’t in months.  Don’t get me wrong; I had moments of joy these last eight months before I got the rack set up–figuring out how to MacGyver lifts, to keep it challenging with fewer options, and had some successes getting stronger.  But it was hard to stay motivated.  I’d get distracted, cut workouts short, be grateful that I’d checked the boxes, but not really feel that post-lifting glow. And I think at least a part of that was missing the “escape” of lifting in a separate space.

I acknowledge that there are times in our lives when we simply can’t carve out 45 minutes or more several times a week to do some exercises by ourselves. And of course, having space and equipment has a huge element of privilege to it.  But when we are able to prioritize it a bit more, and when our spaces allow for it, I wonder if advising people to do a few squats as they brush their teeth prevents them from enjoying some of the most satisfying, and therefore motivating, elements of regular exercise?

I suspect that for some folks who don’t find that they love exercising, this sort of approach–carving out a special location and quiet time to do it in–might give them new avenues of enjoyment.  They might find, like I do, that this time alone focusing on myself and my lifts, can become a kind of moving meditation, an act of mindfulness and self care not just for the “exercise,” but for the rest it brings to the mind.  It is a chance to monotask and to be truly grounded in our bodies.

Now, of course this need not be an all or nothing situation.  Maybe right now someone can only get away one day a week for an extended workout and the rest of the time, it’s wall push-ups while they’re heating up dinner.  Maybe it’s simply an experiment we run from time to time, to see if we like a particular actively more when we do it alone.  As our lives change, our needs adjust also.  

I like the idea of cultivating these moments of quiet contemplation as a form of self-care, to encourage some of the intrinsic rewards to exercise; to make it more worthwhile to us in the moment and therefore more likely to be something we regularly create space for in our lives.  I love lifting weights, but it is so much more than the effort and the progress.  I love spending time with myself without distractions, focusing on the feedback my body is giving me, and enjoying being present in the moment.  If you’re struggling to find joy and motivation for your fitness routine, it may be worthwhile to run the experiment, to find out if what you’re missing is taking time away while you take care of yourself.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher.  She can be found joyfully and mindfully picking up heavy things and putting them down again, in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .

Photo description: Image of the author’s garage gym, with folding squat rack, weight bench, and toolboxes and lawn mower in the background.

Feature photo credit: Simon Migaj, via Unsplash.

accessibility · aging · fitness · inclusiveness · strength training

Sam wonders about balance: How to applaud aging and weight training for functional fitness without shame and blame for those who can’t

There’s a very moving ad making the rounds about a grandfather strength training for Christmas so that he can lift his granddaughter up to put a star on top of the tree. I got teary watching it and likely you will too. You’ve been warned.

I love his grit and determination. I also love his smiles.

It’s called Take Care of Yourself and it’s the Doc Morris Christmas Advert for 2020.

I also love its message of functional fitness and strength training as we age for all sorts of very practical reasons.

I share a lot of ‘keep strength training as you age’ motivational material on the blog’s Twitter and Facebook page.

See, for example, 5 key steps to build muscle and its many science-backed health benefits.

“A small 2013 study of people between the ages of 88 and 96 years old found that those who performed strength-training exercises for two days a week over a 12-week period showed improvements in balance and a lower incidence of falls when compared to those who didn’t exercise. “It’s safe and important for older people to include strength training,” Jackson says. “Even simple bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, and dips can help with strength and muscle building.”

See also What Older People May Be Missing in Their Exercise Workouts

Answer, “As people age, they often focus on cardio. They shouldn’t forget strength training.”

I’m not here to criticize the beautiful and moving strength training grandad commercial. Don’t worry. But I do worry that the focus on strength training for independent living buys into the message that physical dependence is a necessarily a bad thing. I hope to put off the time when I need assistance with everyday household tasks and personal care as long as possible. But I also hope when I need help that I and others can accept it without thinking I ought to have done more kettlebell swings or that it was a moral failing of mine to not care enough about my own health and strength.

I worry that our affection for the weightlifting grandfather is connected to a kind of ableism that celebrates movement and blames those who move less, even when we have no choice. In my own case I’ve talked about that in the context of becoming a non-runner and slower walker.

Regular long time readers will know that it’s hard to hold these two thoughts in balance. You’ll know that it’s something I struggle with.

After all, I wrote both Is Aging a Lifestyle Choice? and What does 74 look like? And how much choice do we have really?

Balance

Thought 1 is that older people are encouraged to slow down. It used to be that when people retired we bought them reclining chairs and told them to ‘relax.’ After all, they’d worked hard their whole lives. Not so much now as times are changing but it’s still true that gyms and fitness culture generally are geared towards young, fit, able bodied people. Older women worry they’ll look foolish exercising. If all of our fitness culture is geared towards aesthetics and maintaining beautiful youthful bodies, no wonder older people feel like they don’t belong.

We see this in the ad above when his neighbour looks to be judgemental of his fitness efforts. She seems puzzled about what he’s doing and why.

And yet, there is a huge cost in losing muscle, losing mobility, and increasing our risk of falling if we don’t continue to exercise–including weight training–as we age.

Older people have far more at stake than the young. The young can get away with a lot. They recover quickly if they are injured. And they bounce back from time off fitness efforts pretty speedily too. All of this gets more difficult as we get older. Indeed, if gyms should be there for anyone, it’s for the elderly.

Thought 2 worries that some of our dislike of old age is a tangled mess of ageism and ableism.

The thought here is that we engage in blame about the failure to age successfully when lots of people encounter the kinds of illness and injury in old age that can’t be overcome with kettlebells and powerwalking. In my post about what 74 looks like I talked about my very fit and physically active mother-in-law who used a wheelchair for mobility in the time after her diagnosis with ALS.

If you’re an academic reading the blog have a look at Christine Overall’s Old Age and Ageism, Impairment and Ableism: Exploring the Conceptual and Material Connections in the National Women’s Studies Association Journal.

See Valuing Old Age Without Leveraging Ableism by Clara W. Berridge and Marty Martinson. They argue that our medical model of “successful aging” without disability sets up the majority of the population, especially women, for failure. Berridge and Martinson write, “Phrases such as “70 is the new 50” reflect a “positive aging” discourse, which suggests that the preferred way of being old is to not be old at all, but rather to maintain some image of middle-age functionality and appearance.”

We want to encourage ourselves to keep moving and to stay strong. At the same time we need respect and compassion for those who can’t move and lift in the same way. It’s a battle I feel personally as I struggle to accept my physical limits without self-blame and still push myself in those areas of physical fitness where I can push. Wish me luck!

I’d appreciate your thoughts about keeping these two thoughts in balance, the push to stay fit and strong and mobile, on the one hand, and the understanding and acceptance when it’s not.

One thing I would say, going back to the video that began this post, is that I wish he wasn’t lifting alone. I wanted a community centre for him to go too. I wanted peers for him to lift with and walk with and drink tea after. We need to do better as fitness communities making inclusive spaces for those who are aging, those who move in different ways, and those for whom both these things are true.

Sam’s biitmoji lifting weights

Often when I start thinking about inclusion and fitness I search for an older blog post by Krista Scott Dixon that always makes me smile, All are welcome in this house that strength built.

“So give me your poor, your tired, your weak of spine and crumbling of bone. Give me your mushy of muscle and burbly of digestion and bored of treadmill-hamstering.

Give me your old and young and everything between early bipedalism and death. And while you’re at it give me your non-bipedal: your limps and gimps and wimps and wheeled and caned and casted and bandaged. Untangle your sweaty hospital sheets and IV tubes and tentacles of fear and shame and move whatever isn’t strapped down. A finger, a leg, an eyelid. Whatever you can move, keep moving it. Next week, add some weight to that.

Give me your saggy, your baggy, your faggy, your haggy. Give me your freaks and geeks; steers and queers; sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, preppies, jocks, stoners, poindexters, punkers, rockers, hicks, drama dorks, superstars, homebodies, farmers, New Wavers and socs.

Give me your bodies wracked with life’s whims; your hormonally challenged; your rattling bottles of pills like morbid maracas; your diseases of disuse. Your old knee injury from when you tried drunken trampolining.

Give me your your shit-talkers and funk-walkers; the voices in your head who sing the Rocky training montage; your sniveling inner toddler who stamps and says “No!”. Leave your inner critic at the door, or do five pushups every time you speak to yourself seriously in her voice.

Give me your clueless big-eyed newbies and grizzled gray-prickly veterans. Give me your squashy and scrawny. Give me your chickenshits; you people hunting for your fighting spirit and tending the tiny flame of Yes we can inside your ribcage.

It doesn’t matter who kicked the sand in your face. Spit it out and let’s get to work.”

There’s more…go read it. And I love how it ends, “Wherever you are in your journey of strength, you are welcome here. This place is for you.”

fitness · strength training · weight lifting

How Much Weight Should I Lift?

I have a confession to make–I had a crush on Susan Powter in the early 2000’s. Do you remember her and Stop the Insanity!? I was a little late to the party, I admit, but I became a real believer for a while there. If you missed out on the fun, Powter was big in the low fat craze during the nineties, but don’t worry, that’s not what I’m here to write about today. She also made a whole series of exercise videos in classic nineties style–including yards of Spandex, step aerobics, interval training, simple weightlifting routines, and the like, and refreshingly, with people of all sorts of body types. And the real magic was that in all of her videos she offered modifications for movements, constantly encouraging people to “work within their fitness level.” “Only by working within your fitness level will you be able to advance to the next one.” And she was right.

A friend recently asked if it was ok she was doing her weightlifting with “just 8 pound dumbbells,” because that’s all she could do. My answer? Yes of course it was ok, and in fact, it’s necessary in order for her to build strength. I could hear Susan Powter in my head, telling us that my friend needs to work at her current strength level in order to build to the next one.

What Powter was pushing against, and what I’m going to push back on today, is this myth in fitness that we have to “go hard” for it to count. Or maybe more accurately, it’s to acknowledge that “hard” is a relative term. It just needs to be hard enough FOR YOU.

Here’s an analogy. My therapy sessions frequently focus on managing my trauma. Trauma can narrow your “emotional window of tolerance.” In other words, the range of emotional experiences you can handle before you are either hyperaroused (go into fight/flight/freeze) or hypoaroused (numb, emotionally disconnected) narrows. The goal of trauma therapy is to slowly increase the range of emotional experiences I can tolerate without going into either a heightened or collapsed state. My therapist and I work just inside my window of tolerance, we attempt to get close but not go over what I can handle. Becoming triggered is counter-productive; no one can learn when their nervous system is trying to flee. And by working within this window over time, the range of experiences I can tolerate gets broader.

That’s what I’m doing when I lift weights successfully, too. I need to find the level of strength that is challenging enough to push myself, without “traumatizing” my muscles. And just like emotional experiences, muscles will have a range of experiences that will promote growth–it’s not a single, set weight or number of reps but a moving target. It will vary depending on how much sleep I’ve had, how well fed I am, what exercises I did yesterday, how strong I currently am, and so much more. Therefore, each of us has to learn to feel our way into the right weights each day. And the right weight is almost never a weight we can’t control. It’s not a cop-out to reduce the weight to the level at which you can control it; it’s actually necessary in order to keep getting stronger.

Each of us must continually work to find the right level of challenge for where we’re at today. There is both freedom and responsibility in acknowledging this. You don’t have to lift what someone else is lifting; you’re free to find your own way. However, you also have to stay present enough to listen to your body, both to make sure you’re continuing to challenge yourself but also to ensure that you’re being responsive to your limits. Susan Powter was right. You’ve got to work within your fitness level to get to the next one. It isn’t a race; there’s no finish line. Give yourself permission to work at the right level for yourself, and you’ll be rewarded with increased strength over time, Spandex optional.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found working within her fitness level, picking up heavy things and putting them down again, in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .

Image description: Three White women in form-fitting workout clothes, doing some kind of leg lift that might be donkey kicks on pink mats.
fitness · inclusiveness · stereotypes · strength training

It’s 2020 York Dumbbells. Get with it!

It’s here!

They finally arrived!

My York 50 lb. Adjustable / Spinlock Dumbbell Set is in the house, “The versatility of the York 50 lb. Adjustable / Spinlock Dumbbell Set works for all your arm and shoulder exercises. The specially-designed threaded collars allow quick and simple changes of weight up to 22.6 kg, so you can squeeze the most reps out of a limited time.”

There are two bars and 8 x 2.5lb., 4 x 5lb. cast iron plates. Lots of flexibility.

York 50 lb. Adjustable / Spinlock Dumbbell Set | Sport Chek
Weights

I recently decided not to return to my discount gym. It’s reopening but I am not going. They were very understanding about allowing me to pause my memberships. I have warm fuzzy feeling about the nice letter they sent me and I’m definitely going back there when I am ready to go back.

Read When will you feel okay about going back to the gym? and COVID-19 and the Gym: Building Engineers Weigh In about some of the views here on the blog about working out at home or in the gym.

But that’s not what I am here to write about. Decisions about returning to the gym are hard and complicated and the gym plays different roles in our overall mental health. I get that reasonable people will make different decisions. I miss deadlifting!

You know what’s not complicated? Understanding that not only men lift weights!

Here’s the instructions that came with my dumbbell system.


Nevermind the muscle-y stereotypical shirtless guy thing . I would have been okay a muscle-y woman beside him. I wasn’t hoping for body diversity or racial diversity or even gender diversity. Yes, there could have been a person using a wheelchair also lifting but that was too much to hope for.

Scream with me now. NOT ONLY MEN LIFT WEIGHTS!

And you know when companies do get it right, I’m so happy it’s ridiculous.

Dear York, Please do better. It’s 2020! Thanks, Sam and the other bloggers at Fit is a Feminist Issue.

fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Get it Done with Myo Reps

Not loving your lifting workout and just want to get it over with? Myo reps.
Have less time, but want to feel like you’re not cheating your progress when shortening your workout? Myo reps.
Only have a 10lb dumbbell but you need 25 lbs to fatigue a lift in 10 reps? Myo reps.

During the pandemic, myo reps have become my favorite way to get it done. If you aren’t familiar with them, they’re pretty easy to perform. Take a lift and do it to near failure. Count about 4 breaths and then immediately do your next set, this time all the way to failure. Count 4 breaths, and repeat. Do this until you’ve done 3-5 sets, when your muscles will likely be telling you they can’t take it anymore.

I’ve been lifting at home since March. I have dumbbells–1, 3, 5, 7, and 20 pound pairs. I have some sturdy exercise bands, including a set that can be anchored into a door. I have some adjustable ankle weights that can give me 0.5-9 pounds of resistance per leg (or arm, if I’m desperate). And of course, I have my body and whatever I can jerryrig from the dining room table, the bench in the entrance, off the futon and on the floor.

I began my workouts as an extension of the work I’d been doing with a trainer. I substituted in moves and lowered weights when necessitated by my limited equipment and just did as many reps as necessary to fatigue my muscles. However, 5 sets of 30-40 reps became commonplace, and my mental stamina was beginning to give out sooner than my muscular stamina! I needed to find a way to do the work without feeling so exhausted from it; life during the pandemic was exhausting enough.

Enter myo reps.

In the months since I began using them, myo reps have become a flexible tool in my lifting toolbox. I’m pretty good at remaining consistent doing the work, but as the months have dragged on, no question I’m loving my home lifting less and less. Sometimes I just want to check off the box and move on with my day. With myo reps, I can perform my workout in far less time and still feel like I’ve given my muscles a meaningful stimulus.

For example, if I’m doing dumbbell bicep curls, I currently have a choice between using 7 lbs or 20 lbs. Twenty pounds borders on too much for me for a bicep curl. (I can do 6 reps without cheating; I just ran upstairs to check!) With seven pounds, I can go on and on. However, with myo reps, I start with that really long set at 7 lbs–maybe 40? I don’t really count–but the second set is a more reasonable 12, then 8, then 8 again. There’s some research out there that suggests these reps can be as effective as straight sets, and I’m done in about 2 minutes.

I don’t recommend you try these with heavy, complex movements. You don’t want to get too fatigued squatting with a lot of weight on your back or pressed overhead. But for lighter and simpler movements, I have found them to be a welcome source of variation. It’s important to me to continue to be consistent with my workouts. Finding flexible solutions to the challenges of this time allows me to keep doing the work, to get it done and to move on with my day.

How about you, dear reader? Have you tried myo reps? Is there another strategy you’ve found to remain flexible and consistent with your lifts?

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found pre-fatiguing her muscles, picking up heavy things (like her own body), and putting them down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .

athletes · body image · fitness · strength training · weight lifting · weight stigma

Where are the muscular, larger women’s bodies?

There are four blog topics I’ve been thinking about that are all tangled together. Common threads weave through them and they are all part of the same story. Really, it’s a story about strength, gender normativity, and women’s muscular bodies.

First, Catherine wrote about the names we use to describe our bodies. Catherine’s focus is on how complicated that task is when it comes to self-description. I agree but I think it’s partly because the words I want don’t really exist. I lament that there are so many positive words for muscular and heavily built men and no such words for women. Words for larger athletic male bodies? Burly, husky, substantial, strapping, brawny, to name just a few. Note that they are not necessarily gendered but they don’t work so well for women’s bodies.

Sidebar: There have been attempts to reclaim this language.

See CampaignBrawny women wear iconic plaid in #StrengthHasNoGender campaign

Brawny women wear iconic plaid in #StrengthHasNoGender campaign
#StrengthHasNoGender

Second, I wrote about dad bods, asking yet again, where are the muscular-but-gotten-slightly-softer-with-age women’s bodies, the mom bods? Women can be svelte and muscular and desirable but most really strong women are actually large. It’s why there are weight classes in lifting. But no one sings the praises of larger, athletic women’s bodies.

Okay, Nat did in this post.

I think it is important to show that athletes come in all shapes and sizes.

Third, I’ve been wondering if we’ll ever have any idea about women’s true strength potential in sports as long as women athletes are worried about how they look and about gaining weight. I’ve written about this a lot. See, for example, Big women and strength and Bigger, better, stronger? On women and weightlifting. When even women Olympic lifters want to lose weight–see  From the Olympics to the Biggest Loser? Say it ain’t so Holley— you know the forces at work are pretty powerful.

Fourth, and finally, it hit home again with my Zwift avatar. I’m large and she’s medium sized because in Zwift the men’s avatars come in small, medium, and large and the women’s only in small and medium. So even when I am racing with men who weigh the same as me their avatars are much larger! It’s extra odd because your weight is no secret in Zwift. If you’re racing your weight is a matter of public record and it’s easily determined by looking at your watts per kilo and your speed. It’s simple math.

I’ve written about this before saying, “I have one complaint about my Zwift avatar. She’s medium sized person and I’m a large sized person. That’s odd because avatar size is based on your actual kg. It turns out that in Zwift women only come in two sizes regardless of how much we weigh. We’re either small or medium. Men come in three sizes, small medium or large. Here’s an explanation of avatar sizes. So when Sarah and I ride together in Zwift we’re the same medium size. That’s weird because IRL she’s medium and I’m big.”

So like there are no words to describe my body type, there are no avatars either. The message is clear. No woman would want to look like that.

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Here are some images of large, strong women, stronger and more muscular than me.

Vintage Muscle
Image Description: This is a black-and-white photograph of a woman from the 1920’s, posing with her arm flexed. She has visible muscle in her biceps, triceps, forearms and shoulders. This juxtaposed with her vintage pincurl hairstyle makes for a striking image.

This photo is from a guest blog post called What are Women’s Bodies for, Anyway? Thanks Tracy de Boer.

And here’s a modern day image of a strong woman. Jennifer Ferguson is A BC nurse in her 40s who is one of the strongest women in the world. She deadlifts cars for fun.