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.

#deanslife · cycling · fitness · monthly check in · weight lifting

Sam’s monthly check-in: What’s up, what’s down, the June/July version (CW: discussion of weight loss)

What’s up?

I’m riding lots. Newfoundland was challenging and beautiful. I’ve got a summer of biking and boating activity planned. I feel like a cyclist again and I’m going to write about what that feeling is and why it matters to me in another post, later. I’ve been strength training lots and I’m feeling strong. It’s also summer. The sun is out. I started a new blog, #deaning.

Sarah and I have been learning to race the Snipe.

What’s not to like?

See below!

What’s down?

I saw the knee surgery guys at Fowler Kennedy last month and was told that I shouldn’t have any more synvisc shots since I’m on the countdown to surgery.

They didn’t have positive things to say about physio or physical activity either. Long term neither will fix my knee. Now that I’m on track for surgery they want me to focus on weight loss which is the single most important thing I can do to aid surgery and recovery.

And the thing is this is a team I trust. They refer me to studies. They treat my larger body respectfully. They’re giving the same advice to the aging male athletes there. There’s no judgement and no body shaming. It’s all very neutral and evidence based.

But still it feels shitty. I’ve worked super hard to love my body at this size. I do. I cheer on Fuck fat loss! but now, having thrown those looks-related reasons for dieting away, I’m dieting anyway?

These are lots of reasons for wanting a smaller body that aren’t my reasons.

I’m trying to be clear in my own mind about my motivation but in this fatphobic world that’s hard.

I’ve lost some weight but I need to lose more

I’m rereading Ann Cahill’s work on weight loss. I really like the compassion she retains for her larger body.

“I don’t look back at photos of myself from a year ago and shudder. That was a different body that I lived, with its own set of possibilities, practices, and abilities. And there are certainly cultural contexts where that body would be more useful and conducive to my survival than the one I’m living now. Come the apocalypse, those extra pounds would come in handy.”

It’s important for me to keep the positive attitude about larger bodied me because weight loss might not work. It’s not any easier when it’s for health reasons. Your body doesn’t care about your motives. So in my bag of weight loss tools I can’t have dislike of the way I look now. It’s more that a larger body isn’t such a good match for my injured joints. The best motivaton is that even now, just a few pounds smaller, it hurts less.

What am I doing? Nothing dramatic. I’m trying to maintain a calorie deficit through exercise and tracking food. I’m eating lots of vegetables and protein, the usual thing.

Luckily there’s good food on campus. Lunch today is kale and beet salad, lentils, assorted veggies and hummus, and sunflower seeds.

Speaking of joints, my knee hurts a lot and I’m getting grumpy about the things I can’t do. Yes, I said goodbye to soccer and to running, but staying back at the tent when everyone else was off hiking on our activity day at Gros Morne was really hard. Sitting around and reading a book while others are hiking isn’t me, I think. But also, I think being grumpy isn’t me either. I’m a pretty resilient, ‘happy even in the face of sad, hard things’ person but the pain and lack of mobility is getting to me.

I’m jealous of friends posting step counts and runs and CrossFit classes on social media. For the first time I get why people who can’t do those things might find it tiresome. Grump. It’s so not me. Usually I’m the friend who loves it when you post your travel photos. I have friends who do iron distance triathlons and long long ultra runs. Usually I think it’s great that my friends get to do such fun things. This has clearly taken me off my usual path, my usual way of being in the world.

Oh, also on the “what’s down” front, I broke my bike frame. It’s not repairable. Compared to my knee that seems like small potatoes. I’ve got a second string road bike and maybe a third so I’m shopping, without pressure, for another bike.

Sad face. Broken frame. It’s not just the derailleur hanger sadly.

On the bad side, it happened on our bike trip. On the good side, it happened on day 6. That day was 130 km so Sarah and I split the day and we each rode half the distance on her bike.  We spent the rest of the day in the van. The next day was out and back to L’ Anse aux Meadows. I took the morning ride out there (Yay! Tailwinds!) Sarah got to sleep in but didn’t have as much fun riding back.

It’s such a beautiful place. I’m already scheming to go back. Next time maybe with my mother and a rental car. 

Puffins guarding my latte at the Dark Tickle cafe and gift shop.
fitness · fitness classes · training · weight lifting

Fitness on the cheap: Sam joins a discount gym

Our group of regular bloggers is pretty privileged. Between us we pay for spin classes, CrossFit style studio memberships, rock climbing, coaches of all sorts, yoga classes, monthly access to indoor bike trainer facilities, Zwift memberships, personal training, and more. We try new things, like Orange Theory. I tell people I don’t have other hobbies and it’s my my form of recreation. But still, it’s costly.

(We’re not even going to talk about gear or clothing or bikes or boats, just the places we work out.)

Does fitness have to be expensive?

Recently I joined a discount gym. It’s not a chain fitness studio and it’s not $10 a month. But it’s close. It’s $20 a month and it’s open all the time, 24/7. I joined because I like to work out with my son sometimes and he’s got an all hours kind of schedule. It’s my personal trainer’s home gym and also the gym my physiotherapist goes to so I figured it must be okay.

What’s the price contrast? Let’s see, an hour of personal training costs twice as much as one month at the discount gym. A month at the gym costs the same as one session at the bike studio. Zwift is $15/month and that’s just a virtual world. You still need a bike and a trainer.

What I love so far:

  • When it’s staffed (regular hours) I can bring a friend anytime. It can be the same friend every time. And there is no pressure on them to join. After hours, there’s no staff and you use your card to get in. If you’re nervous, there are emergency call buttons on lanyards you can keep with you. 
  • It’s got every piece of workout equipment possible. It’s enormous. There are three big rooms and one is set up CrossFit style with room for ropes, tires, etc. There’s a sled to push and pull. There’s also a fitness studio with an app and workout videos to choose from to display on a big screen.
  • The other customers are an incredibly diverse bunch. I love the range of clothes people wear to workout. There are Italian grandmothers in cardigans, elastic waist pants, and flat dress shoes. There are serious powerlifters in all the gear. And everything in between. I love the high school students who come in after school in pretty much what they are wearing. Ditto the guys in construction boots and nurses still partly in uniform. There’s zero pressure to look all matchy-matchy in nice workout outfits. People are doing lots of different kinds of work outs and it’s all good.

What’s not so great?

  • Unlike classes and personal training and coached cycling/rowing workouts and boutique fitness studios like Cate’s feminist CrossFit or Tracy’s body-positive boot camp, or Orange Theory, you need to have a plan. It’s on you. You need to have a plan for what you are going to do when you get there. I cheat. I follow my son’s workout at about half the weight. But on my own I’m sometimes stuck and go back to old favourites. Lat pull down and bench press and deadlift, anyone? You also need to get there. When there isn’t a group and things start whenever you get there, I sometimes have a harder time getting myself out the door. Without a person whose expectations I want to live up to, sometimes it’s challenging to push yourself. 
  • Also because you can go anytime–24/7!–I can tend to put off going to the gym until later. I sometimes think what I need is a series of workouts on my phone that I can follow along with at the gym but my bad knee means I have to pick and choose. I manage. But I could be more thoughtful and deliberate about it.

Okay, now about you? Are your fitness activities all planned by you or by a trainer or by the agenda of group fitness? Do you go to pricey boutique studios or the generic discount gym? How much do finances and cost play a role in your choices?

people in gym exercising
A photo of a gym, lots of free weights, by Mark Bertulfo, Unsplash.

 

body image · femalestrength · training · weight lifting

Tracy’s first day at a body-positive gym

Image description: Block letters on dark background that say: “BODY-POSITIVE FITNESS & PERSONAL TRAINING GYM” (from the BPM website: http://bpmfitness.ca

I’ve just started in on one of the most wonderful privileges of an academic year: sabbatical and admin/study leave. This time around, I have accumulated 8 months of administrative leave (from my four years as Associate Dean Academic) and another 6 months of sabbatical leave that I postponed from four years ago when I took up that admin position. That means I have the next 14 months to focus on my research.

It also means I will rarely be going to campus. I’ll set myself up mostly to work at home. This is a long way around to saying why I decided to join a gym again. I have been doing personal training for my weight training workouts for almost four years now. It’s been great and I’ve definitely gotten stronger. But as much as I enjoy spending time with my trainer, Paul, I feel that on my leave I would prefer to have some community. I already have a bit of that with yoga and running. But yoga is only once a week (maybe I will increase it during my leave) and other than my Sunday mornings, I usually run by myself.

My friend Tara has had a great experience at a small gym that does personal training and group fitness. BPM claims itself as a body-positive gym. Tara started going to classes there in January and she has really committed to regular training since then. So it made sense for me to consider BPM, based on her recommendation and also that I already know (and really like) one of the owners, Chelsea. Added bonus, I can walk there from home in under ten minutes.

Yesterday was my first class, day one of my two week free trial. They have at least six classes a day, starting at 6 a.m. Then 7, 9:30. 12:15, 4:30, 5:30 and some days also 6:30. They are 45 minute workouts where you do a series of timed sets of various exercises. Each set is 35 seconds with a 10 second rest before moving on to the next exercise for 35 seconds, then the next and the next. After three rounds of those, you switch to another group of exercises that you work through the same way — timed sets for three sets.

Finally, we ended on a brutal set where we built from one, then two, then three, up to a sequence of eight different exercises, then pyramided down again until we were back to where we started. We followed that with a cool down.

At personal training I’m used to taking a bit more rest between sets and also lifting heavier. But the endurance and strength required for today’s workout really surprised me. I don’t know why it surprised me as much as it did — maybe because I consider myself to be strong. But the repetitions with little rest in between forced me to push hard to keep up. Sometimes I couldn’t keep up at all and needed to take a time out for a few seconds before resuming.

It was a humbling experience and I felt kind of weak, actually, In personal training I’ve been doing 3×13 pull-ups. Today we did something similar (she called them chin-ups) and I could hardly even do 6, with a band for support. I think it’s because of coming in the second part, after I’d already done three taxing sets that involved push-ups and burpees, among other things (lunges and some shoulder presses). Anyway, it was tough. I worked up a sweat and I am sure that I will be feeling it.

There were only 8-10 people in the class, all women. It’s not the kind of gym I’ve ever attended before. It’s very basic. You turn left at the top of the stairs and boom: you’re in the studio.

Besides being a tough workout, which I like, the body positive message felt good. Honestly, it’s been awhile since I’ve been to a gym class, but my memory is that there is a lot of talk about losing weight and “getting in shape” and looking good. This class wasn’t like that at all. It was focused entirely on doing the exercises at your own pace and strength. I felt encouraged and challengged the entire time.

I’ve already signed up for three more classes this week, as well as one dedicated strength training session for next week. The strength training classes are smaller than the “fitness bootcamp” that I attended. Strength sessions max out at eight people and I couldn’t find one with space in it until next Tuesday.

It feels good to work out with a group again. And it’s nice to be going to a gym where I can sometimes go workout with Tara. I’m attracted to working out with my peeps — I’ve got my running crew, my yoga crew, and may potentially get a little gym crew going. In any case, I appreciate the free two-week trial — that seems a rare thing these days, but it’s a great way to get to know a new gym. And knowing that all the classes I do over the next couple of weeks are free, I feel motivated to do as many as I can. I’m excited and hopeful that this is a going to be a nice element of routine in my leave, helping me add a bit of structure along with the benefits of a fitness community.

Are gyms with an explicit body-positive message showing up in your area these days? Have you tried one?

aging · fitness · training · weight lifting

An Old Woman and Her Weights (Guest Post)

by Mavis Fenn

I joined a mainstream gym in August of 2006. I had been a gym member before but not for a long time. I was a ‘cardio’ woman. Faithfully, I mounted the treadmill and ran: warm-up, steady, peak, and cool down. That was me. Walking around on my way to and from the change room I would see these women lifting free weights. I didn’t know how to do that. I tried the machines. They were ok, a nice addition to my running. But, it seemed to me at the time, that they weren’t quite ‘it.’

There were a couple of women who were as regular with weights as I was with running. I was afraid, afraid I would injure myself or, in the case of kettle bells, others. Finally, I decided I wanted to try free weights and would ‘spring’ for some sessions with a trainer so I could learn how to use them properly and safely. My first trainer was nice but not happy where she was; most trainers don’t realize there are sales involved and there is always pressure to sell. She left for work in a factory.

They asked me to choose with whom I would like to work. I had seen a petite, well-muscled woman who always looked so serious and focused (at least to me). I pointed and said, “her.” The woman looked slightly puzzled, perhaps wondering why a mature woman like myself would choose an obviously serious trainer. “Alison, why?” she said. “Because I want to make her laugh,” I replied. For over a decade now, there has been lots of laughter along with lots of hard work. I learned that I was in control of the weights and the only limits were either genetic or self-imposed. Alison taught me how to overcome those self-imposed limits. When my, “no, I can’t” was based in fear, she pushed me to go outside of my comfort zone. I did because I trusted her to know me, emotionally, intellectually, and physically, aside from my insecurities. For me, training is a team sport.

Nothing has empowered me more than lifting weights. It has enhanced my self-esteem, made me more independent and adventurous, and in control. I have a sense of pride in my ability to manipulate heavy objects and my body to lift them. Make no mistake, I am not good at it but I am a certified “gym rat.” Others recognize my determination and acknowledge my efforts. I belong. I have learned through experience at several gyms Alison and I have trained in that it isn’t really about the size or shape of your body, it’s about your dedication.

A few years have passed since I began training, thirteen as a matter of fact. I am old now or older if you prefer. My training has changed too. It is still about challenging myself and doing the best and most I can. The focus though has shifted to building muscles to protect my arthritic knees, to allow me to get out of a chair gracefully, to be strong enough to stand upright and firm (and throttle a fantasy purse snatcher). I may be old but I refuse to be vulnerable.

I will continue to do as much as I can, as hard as I can, for as long as I can. And Alison will be right there beside me to keep me from toppling over. And occasionally, there will be Queen (We are the Champions) and 200 pound deadlifts.

Thanks to Alison for allowing me to use her name. If you are looking for her, she’s at https://www.facebook.com/pg/alison.push/posts/?ref=page_internal

Image description: blue kettlebell in the green grass

Mavis Fenn is an independent scholar (retired). She loves lifting weights, Yin yoga, and Zumba Gold. She is mediocre at all of them.

Crossfit · running · weight lifting · yoga

Tracy is taking suggestions…bring ’em on

mage description: Tracy's shadow on sidewalk, dry mud beside, running shoes and lower legs visible in bottom left corner.
Image description: Tracy’s shadow on sidewalk, dry mud beside, running shoes and lower legs visible in bottom left corner.

I’m bored with my workout routine. It’s not that I don’t like the things I’m doing. I’m getting stronger in personal training. I love yoga and feel as if I don’t do enough of it these days. And I’m itching to get back to running after my back injury took me out of it for more than a month and I’ve only just dipped my toe back into it since then.

But I feel as if a change is in the air. As much as I’m enjoying personal training, there have been quite a few developments in resistance-training these days, with more small gyms popping up offering different kinds of weight training in more of a group-class setting. One example, that I’ve not yet tried but has been recommended to me is Revkor. We have a studio here in London, and the idea of resistance band training intrigues me.

Another option, which I also have never tried, is something along the lines of CrossFit. My friend Tara has been going to a gym downtown where they do that sort of group workout and she is loving it.

I’m kind of old school and worry that if I’m not hitting heavy free weights in a gym setting I won’t actually get stronger. But at the same time, with my 14-month leave coming up, I feel as if I might need some more opportunities to be around people, and that these group workouts at specialty gyms might be just the thing. And though not cheap, they’re cheaper than personal training.

I’m also planning to spend the summer doing 10K training, 3-4 times a week. And I want to up my yoga classes from once a week to 2-3 times a week. At least that’s what I’ve got in mind.

But I’m open to suggestions. Have you tried anything lately that’s different and that you’re so jazzed about that you want to encourage others to give it a go? If so, please tell me about it and why you’re attracted to it.