fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Breasts and the Myth of Perfect Form

There’s a lot of unnecessary anxiety out there regarding weightlifting and “perfect form.” While technique may be important to avoid injury and to maximize the benefits of a lift, I would encourage you to consider letting go of this particular worry.

There is no perfect form. There are a plurality of good forms, and they are dependent on the micro (and macro) differences in each of our unique physiologies. To illustrate this point, I would like you to consider breasts.

The presence, shape and size of breasts can change the pathway of motion for innumerable lifts, although I feel that they are most noticeable in how they impact back exercises. Take a seated, cable row–you are sitting on a bench (or perhaps kneeling on the floor), and your hands are extended straight out in front of you, gripping a cable attachment. If the distance between your hands is shorter than the width of your shoulders, it is possible for your upper arms to come in contact with your breasts. If your breasts are smaller and closer together, you may only notice a slight brushing against the inner arm; however, the larger and further out your breasts spread beyond your ribcage, the more likely you will find yourself adjusting your hand position to reduce mashing your breasts as you pull the cable towards your body. Or, another option is to adjust the pathway of your elbows so that they open “out,” away from your body instead of straight back. This is less desirable, but may be necessary, especially if you have a larger upper body in general. The “perfect” form for you is the one you can achieve consistently while targeting the desired muscles of your back and without causing undue breast squishing! If your breasts are larger and getting in the way, I would suggest a wider grip on the cable row so that you can pull back as straight as possible, aiming for a pathway of motion that allows you to squeeze your back muscles tightly without straining your elbows.

Some other examples of breasts changing a lift:
Anything “chest supported”: These exercises are performed lying forward on an incline bench. Regardless of the size of your chest, you will have to guide your elbows around the bench as you pull up. Find a cushioned bench, and pull dumbbells wide enough to get around squished breast tissue. For barbell variations, you may need to hold your hands wider than lifters without breasts.

Dumbbell chest press: Bench pressing with dumbbells gives you more freedom of movement than barbell. As a result, it is great for shoulders, elbows and other cranky joints. If your breasts extend beyond your ribcage when you are lying down, however, you will need to also move dumbbell weights a little further from your body than someone who does not have that physiology. I use a hybrid grip for these, with my hands about 45 degrees from my chest (rather than pronated, the more traditional hand position with palms facing the direction of my toes). This gives me more room (and therefore more power) to push up and also helps me avoid smooshing my breasts on the release downwards again.

Bicep curls: Two possible workarounds for these that I like–the first is to use dumbbells or single-hand grip on a cable and angle the lift slightly to the side of the body instead of to the front. The second option is to hinge your hips forward from a standing position, so that when the weight (dumbbells or barbell) is pulled all the way up, there’s about 30 degrees space between your upper arm and your chest.

These adjustments sometimes vary from what folks will claim is perfect form. However, chances are very good that the folks who make these claims are not people who have had to problem-solve lifting around one’s breasts. These variations do allow more diverse body shapes to access lifting and to make it a more comfortable experience. They also are only specific to one physiological difference–breasts!

Again, I want to stress that there is no one perfect form. I am using breasts as an exemplar of how each of our unique bodies will do lifts with good form differently, but they are hardly the only physiological difference that matters. The width and angle of your hips changes how you lift. The ratio of arm length to leg length changes how you lift. The proportion of your upper body strength to your lower body strength changes how you lift. ALL of these differences will lead to differences in your form, and none of them make you wrong. The goal is to lift in a way that does not cause you harm, does not cause you lasting pain, and helps you target and train the muscles that you are aiming to improve. Do these things, and you are using perfect form, for you!

I don’t have a good video of someone negotiating a great lift around their breasts (sorry!), but here’s one for your consideration. Watch Lamar Gant deadlift and tell me he isn’t using perfect (for him) form!

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

fitness · strength training · weight lifting

This is My “Why”

“Why do you do that?”

The tone of incredulity was hard to miss. My mother, who I love very much and is, and has always been, very different from me, clearly could not fathom why I would want to learn to lift heavier weights. You see, I’ve recently hired a personal trainer to teach me the big barbell lifts, and while I am thrilled about it, my mother is clearly concerned.

I don’t share her fears. And I LOVE lifting weights. Why?

Lifting gives me a sense of mastery of a skill–a skill that few have pursued with seriousness, male or female, but especially us females. We aren’t encouraged, of course, but there is something wonderful about feeling really and truly capable at lifting heavy things. Or perhaps in part, it is because it is not encouraged? There is definitely something subversive about the pursuit of strength for a woman–a willingness to stand out, to stand up proud, and to possibly pursue taking up MORE space in a world that encourages us to achieve endless smallness instead.

Lifting gives me a space to focus purely upon myself and my own goals. I do it for myself, because I like it, and I enjoy the results. I know not everyone here supports aesthetic goals associated with exercise, but I admit, I like the definition in my arms when I flex. I like the subtle ripple of muscles on my back when I move. I celebrate these changes in my physique as evidence that my body, at least to some extent, is something I can mold to my desires. I grew up bigger and softer than most of my peers, and I falsely believed it was my fate to remain that way. Redefining my goals with lifting has shown me that I have more control than that over my appearance–they aren’t always dramatic these changes, and I’ll likely never look like a fitness model, but they are real, and measurable proof that I can have some impact on my appearance, to look more on the outside like the strong person I know I am on the inside. Lifting helps my appearance more closely mirror an authentic sense of myself.

Truly though, the goal for me is so much more than the pursuit of an aesthetic; I enjoy feeling strong. Feeling and truly being strong helps me feel safe and in control. I like how it allows me to move with confidence through the world, literally changing how I show up. Because of my lifting, I hold my shoulders and head up a bit higher, walk a bit more confidently, move with more self-assurance. Lifting also reduces my pain so I move a bit less like the “old lady” I can feel like some days, and it gives me agency to improve upon challenges that otherwise I’d have no venue to improve. I am strong enough to dig my own holes, open my own jars, and assemble my own Ikea cupboards. Lifting gives me the confidence to do these physical tasks and to believe I can be competent at them.

Lifting builds my mental toughness. Learning that what I thought were my limits were in fact surmountable feats has helped me to challenge other assumptions I’ve had about myself. Pushing the boundaries of strength in a climate that does not encourage me to do so has helped me to ignore naysayers who would try to hold me back in other aspects of my life. It is easier (although still not always easy) for me to speak up when I have had many opportunities to stand up for my space at the gym. It is easier for me to speak my truth when I have had to listen to myself and acknowledge my truth as an athlete.

Lifting challenges my own belief that I am a sickly person, who will always suffer poor health, bad luck, and the chronic pain that comes with it. I can be proactive in this way, when so much of my health is so out of my control. In this one element of my life, I can choose to increase the odds in my favor. It won’t grow back missing organs or wipe away the scars of surgeries. It doesn’t allow me to quit all my medications, although maybe it helps me manage with lower doses. It doesn’t end all my pain, although maybe it reduces the severity. It doesn’t mean I can suddenly ignore troublesome symptoms, although it may help me notice important changes sooner. I am not a genuinely healthy person, but lifting certainly makes me healthier.

Lifting for me is a celebration of life and abundance. I recognize my ability to lift is a gift and a privilege. Not everyone can do what I am doing. I have not always been able to do what I am doing. I may, some day, no longer get to do what I am doing today. I am so grateful for this time, for this opportunity to push myself and to have the health and strength and resources to lift like I do, as often as I get to do it. I love lifting weights because it brings me joy and gratitude for this moment. That is why I do it.

Image description: A woman in black and purple workout clothes, kneeling on a bench while rowing with a kettle bell.

Now it’s your turn–do you have a powerful reason why you move the way you do? Please share your thoughts below!

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

Sat with Nat · strength training

Nat goes back to her exercise basics

I tried to think of the first exercise I ever learned. I can’t put my finger on it but I bet it was skipping, running, push ups, summersaults or sit ups.

For me body weight exercises are the basics, the foundation of where I build my fitness. From walking to cycling to yoga, moving my body starts first with getting the moves right.

The past month I’ve had a lot of hip and lower back pain. It was so bad I had to stop my activities, including walking to work, and rest my body.

Now that the acute pain has passed I’m going back to basics with a beginner body weight workout. I like this one by Nerd fitness. It’s customizable and I can draw on my previous knowledge to pick the variations on each exercise that work.

For example toe push-ups are not accessible to me right now and knee push-ups are painful from varicose veins across my knees so I started with wall push-ups. You get parallel to a wall with your arms extended, step back on your tippy-toes and do your push-ups. It allows me to dial in my form and check in with my body. After 3 circuits I can feel the burn in my chest & triceps.

My partner and I joked our little 20 minute routine was just a warm up until the aches set in two days later. It might be the squats, the lunges or the giant bag of rice we used as a weight but whatever it was we were both humbled by how much the routine asked of our bodies.

I want to slowly ramp back up to weights. I also know if I do a body weight routine for a few months my core, flexibility and form will support my future fitness goals and reduce my chances of injury.

An 8 kilogram bag of jasmine rice sits on a slightly dirty floor

This rice seemed, at just under 8kg, a good rowing weight.

What exercises do you go back to time & again? What is the first exercises you remember learning?

feminism · fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Is Grunting While I Lift Contributing to Patriarchy?

Over the last couple months, I have returned to the gym after nearly 2 months away. I have been healing from a hysterectomy, and it is time to get back into my pre-surgical routines. In addition to being “newly back,” I am also trying out a new gym. I had problems with the culture of my last gym, and we moved a couple weeks prior to my hysterectomy, so I had an easy excuse to break things off and try some place new.

The new gym is mostly unmonitored, so the ownership uses a board to communicate policies, recent equipment repairs and such. And, somewhat surprisingly to me, the members seem to feel free to add their own two cents.

The board recently stated the reminder from the male gym owner, “Fellow Men, Please be aware of the energetic physical space we take up. For example, grunts are for homes, not gyms.”

What followed were comments from the community, including, “PATRIARCHY = men get to take up more space than other genders. . . stop ignoring power dynamics,” alongside requests that someone stop erasing the word “men” and changing it to “human,” and a note from the gym owner that “if you dislike the word ‘man’ you are likely the reason it was written in the first place.”

Image description: A portion of the whiteboard at my gym. It reads “Fellow men: please be aware of the energetic physical space we take up. For example, grunts are for homes, not gyms. Wear shoes at all times. Yes, please. Please leave laptop on Pandora only,” and more.

And all this back and forth leaves me wondering, IS grunting contributing to the patriarchy?

There are definitely guys who take up more “energetic physical space” than I would like them to do. These men grunt, growl or yelp with every repetition, from the first set to the last. Often, they are also whipping from one exercise to the next in a manner that feels frenetic to me. My totally judgmental opinion of these guys is that they are deeply insecure, and they are making up for their lack of confidence as a lifter by supplementing their strength with vocalizations and momentum (swinging a dumbbell up rather than doing a strict lift, for example).

On the other hand, I, too, sometimes grunt during a difficult session! Especially now, as I’m taking extra care to ensure that I’m not holding my breath while I’m lifting (and thus increasing the internal downward pressure in my abdomen and pelvic floor), I intentionally expel air during the toughest part of the movement. Sometimes, that just means I make a “puf” sound. But sometimes it’s more!

When I’m lifting heavily, there can be something wonderful and freeing about pushing out a breath during a hard lift. Think about the incredible, strong and powerful movements of Bruce Lee and all his accompanying vocalizations! The man’s movements were a work of art, and he used his breathing to help power them. Now, I’m no Bruce Lee, but I feel like I tap into something powerful nonetheless when I let out an involuntary “whoff” as I stand strong in a lift. It makes the lift less arduous. I feel stronger and more capable. I feel more prepared to do it again for another rep.

Am I buying into patriarchy by making these noises? Am I somehow collaborating or contributing to the oppression of others by “conforming” to men’s norms in this way? No, I don’t think so.

Grunting and other vocalizations while lifting is, technically, something I can control, but only as much as we can control how we sneeze. Yes, I can hold in my breath, cover my nose, and try to make a “cute” sneeze that seems more feminine. Or, I can relax, exhale, and let it out loud and proud. Either way, I’m going to sneeze. Likewise, to some extent, grunting is unavoidable. I have some control over the volume and nature of it, but sometimes, as I’m straining all the way up, tension riding up into my neck and shoulders, I’m releasing air through tightened vocal cords to fuel that final contraction, and “UGHHH.” The noise is part of the effort.

The possibly insecure men whose noises annoy me are grunting because they are often lifting too much for them to control properly. They can control their vocalizations most readily by being realistic about their current fitness level and starting with more appropriate weights for their present strength. I don’t think they’re being patriarchal, they’re just being human. My advice to them isn’t “never grunt at the gym,” it’s to be mindful of how your lifting impacts others (and maybe get a trainer to help you set realistic goals).

I don’t deny that there is more pressure for women to be quiet, out of the way, and more conscientious of how their behaviors may impact others. I feel that pressure, too, as I set up my lifts off to one side, out of the line of sight of folks who might need the mirror, the dumbbell rack or some mat space. And as such, men likely give less thought to how their noises may make some people uncomfortable, or may intrude upon their gym experiences. I have no problem with reminding people to be thoughtful of others’ needs and to remember that those needs are diverse and varied. But I can’t help but wonder, if there were more women who lifted, would there be more understanding of the occasional need to grunt?

Feel free to leave me a comment below and let me know what YOU think!

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

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.

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.