Over a month ago my friend and colleague Freda offered to be my gym accountability buddy. She asked if I was a morning person. I think I forgot to answer “no”!
I agreed to meeting at 6:15 am Tuesdays and Wednesdays at our office gym. It’s marvelously compact, clean and, at that time of day, sparsely populated.
No, I haven’t magically “become a morning person”. I have, when needed, done 5:30 am triathlon workouts in college. Ew! I’ve had physical training for the military at 6 am. Ya. Done with that. No voluntary boot camp classes for this retired Captain. I get paid to be yelled at, not the other way around!
I am trying to say “yes” more to new things to get out of a serious rut/funk that I have been settling into.
Couple things though. It’s year end at work. That’s writing and delivering performance assessments. My work involves supporting teams to place as much business as possible before the end of the calendar year. Hectic!
Plus that one little thing, buying and moving into a house. VERY HECTIC.
I decided that I would stick to my workouts, even on my days off work for moving. I needed to know that in the middle of all the chaos I had something I could 100% do.
It worked wonders for my anxiety. Knowing there was one thing I absolutely could do was a touchstone to my day, my week…my last month really. Knowing I can make plans, follow through and see gains proves to my anxiety I actually can do many things and handle busy time quite well, thank you very much!
So for me the tired adage of “when you are too busy to workout you definitely should workout” is true. Does that work for you?
It’s been 11 weeks since knee replacement surgery. There’s a lot of rehab focused movement and physio under the bridge. So much hard physio.
Some things are going very well. But at this stage the gains are slow and it can feel pretty frustrating. It’s a lot of hard work for what feels like not very much improvement. At the same time, I can still easily overdo it and then need to take some time to recover. Three steps forward, one step back, as they say.
But the good news is that it’s not all rehab, all the time now. Starting this week I am going to try to get my cycling fitness back for its own sake, not just because cycling helps my knee. Up until now, when riding my bike, I’ve turned Zwift on but I haven’t watched. I haven’t paid much attention at all to the metrics. Watts per kilo? Who knows? Speed? Ditto. I note the distance when I hit save but I’ve been trying not to look really. Instead, I’ve been running Zwift but watching Netflix. (That’s not entirely true. Since I have the companion app open on my phone I have noted and appreciated all of your ride-ons!)
From the “count the workouts” group here’s what my Zwift entries have looked like:
This week I’ve decided to Zwift for real again, paying attention to numbers, as I begin my climb back to bike fitness. Obviously I’ll need to change my FTP to something closer to my current reality.
What’s FTP? “FTP, or Functional Threshold Power, is the wattage you can stay below and sustain for longer durations, while going above it causes fatigue to occur very quickly. It is one of the key training metrics used in cycling, and Zwift has built-in tests to measure it.” See here for more.
I’ve also changed my weekly distance goal from 150 km a week on Zwift to 50 km. Gradually I will build back up.
Here’s one of the tiny rides that will be my starting point. So tiny! So slow! But lots of room to build and grow.
I’m also doing this in the gym with strength training. Yes, there’s some rehab there too. But not all and my focus isn’t just recovery, it’s rebuilding for its own sake. Meg, the world’s best personal trainer, is there to help once a week.
What’s my overall movement plan right now?
I’m doing physio every day, twice a week in the clinic at Defy Physiotherapy with the wonderful knee fixer upper Estee.
On the weekends, once or twice I’m doing Aquafit at Movati.
I do strength training at the gym twice a week, once with Meg and once solo.
I’m back to walking Cheddar the dog, the yellow blur in all the cycling photos above.
And I’m Zwifting three or four times a week.
It’s not quite from scratch but I do have a long way to climb back to where I was, both on the strength side and the bike fitness side. Everyone reassures me that having been there before my return will be easier than if I’d never done it.
It’s work but it’s also nice to have not everything, all the time be about knee rehab.
So I’m back from a long weekend at a resort in the Dominican Republic. (I blogged this morning about doing an aquaspin class there.) I was originally worried about traveling so soon after surgery but I got the medical clearance and was just told to make sure I kept up with my physio.
On a rainy afternoon that meant a visit to the resort’s fitness centre.
It had a cardio side–spinning bikes, treadmills, etc–and a strength training side–cable machines, free weights, and benches.
There were 16 people in fitness centre and the gender break down probably won’t surprise you. Eight men lifting weights and eight women doing cardio.
Now, when I started I was one of the eight women doing cardio, rehabbing my knee on the spin bike. But after a half hour of that I wanted to move over to the weights. But all those men. So many men. I felt pretty uncomfortable with the idea of trying to work in and around them. I’m a woman, older than most of the people in the gym, there with my cane. So I kept spinning and kept stewing. I thought about the blog and the story I would tell. And then something clicked. I didn’t want to tell the story where I sat and stewed about the gender imbalance. Also, I don’t know any of those guys. Who cares what they think? I want to lift weights. They’ve all been there awhile. So I got off my bike and walked over and claimed one of the pieces of equipment.
A very wonderful thing happened almost immediately. First, one woman joined me. And then another. Some of the guys left.
The next thing you know it’s a mixed group using the weights and the strength training equipment.
I don’t know if there was a causal connection between my move and the other women joining me. Maybe? I do know it felt a bit like there was. That’s the story I’m telling anyway. We did smile at one another.
It does show you that the idea that women just naturally somehow prefer the cardio equipment, that’s that what they want to do, is false.
This past month has presented me with plenty of inspiration for a blog post. It was, as per usual, incredibly difficult for me to narrow down what to share. However, despite the volume of vulnerable, queer, fitness-related experiences I’ve found myself in there is one moment that feels heavier than the rest. As most of my uncomfortable gym situations begin, this moment was initiated by a male person approaching me mid-workout.
Allow me to paint this picture more clearly. By ‘mid-workout’, I mean a headphones-on-full-blast-sweating-through-my-tank-top-unaware-of-the-rest-of-the-world state of mind.
Now, I have very few objections to interacting with others at the gym. Developing an open, positive community within the gym environment can remove social barriers that hinder the enthusiastic participation of everyone wishing to pursue an active lifestyle. However, this was not one of those interactions. I retrieved my dumbbells from the ground, stood upright, and proceeded to perform my bicep curls.
Simultaneously, this male person positioned himself about 4 feet behind me, and continued to dance his eyes between the back of my legs and making direct eye contact with me via the mirror that stood in-front of both of us. I have a horrible tendency to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, regardless of how clearly their behavior should be reprimanded. Therefore, using said mirror, I quizzically raised my eyebrows at the male person, hoping he may just be looking for someone to spot him on a lift, or perhaps was wondering which direction the washrooms may be. It must be at this point that you are wondering if I moonlight as a comedian…because, yes, these innocent wishes about his intentions were dead wrong.
His response to my quizzical eyebrow raise was to begin speaking, despite the music blasting from my headphones. I set my weights back down, turned to face him, and slid a headphone back.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
“Uh, I was just like wondering if you like compete, or like yeah.”
“Yeah, in like physique stuff.”
“No, I do not. I’m just a gym rat.”
It was at this point that he began this disturbing soliloquy:
“That’s cool. You should do physique competitions; you have great definition. I was like worried to ask you because so many girls get so offended when I try to chat with them. But, I could just like tell from your form that you know how to work out, and like I knew your vibe was different. Honestly, you’re just so focused, most girls like look at me with like ‘hungry eyes’, but you just are doing your thing. It’s cool, you know?”
When I tell you that I have heard this well-rehearsed chaos on hundreds of occasions, I say so with little exaggeration. Now, a piece of unsolicited advice, if you redirect the topic of conversation onto them, you quickly fade into the background of a wonderfully self-centered dialogue regarding their macro-intake or something equally as unimportant. Which is exactly what I did, and exactly what he did. Fortunately, this led to a perfect opportunity for a swift ending to the conversation, and my ability to slip my headphones back on (my gym version of a “Do Not Disturb” sign).
It is not my intention that this post comes across as scathing, rant-ish, or a generalization of male people in fitness. Rather, I’m hoping that we can let out a big collective chuckle at the absurdity of this moment.
First, the mental image of me participating in the hyper-feminine culture of physique modelling is absolutely comical for anyone who knows me well.
Second, the fact that this person had the audacity to paint himself as a victim when approaching women at the gym and them being “offended” shows so little self-awareness it made me question how this individual managed to think so highly of himself… while clearly having no idea of who he truly is.
Third, and my personal favourite part of all of this, my lack of “hungry eyes” played no role in him recognizing that I truly, sincerely have little to no interest in gazing at men.
Finally, bold of him to refer to me as a ‘girl’.
Regardless of all the technical issues of his little plan, the most curious part was that he could not recognize the hypocritical nature of his actions. My feminist training began running wild. The Madonna-Whore Dichotomy, suffering under a male gaze, r*pe culture and the idealization of ‘the chase’, etc. Luckily, I snapped out of my trance just in time to realize that “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor was playing through my headphones. I picked up my dumbbells, mentally wished all non-conformists a ‘Happy Pride Month’, and purposefully moved those weights with horrible form.
Bio: Hi! I’m Bret and I hail from Guelph, ON, where I completed my undergraduate degree in Philosophy. I am currently working towards an MA in Philosophy at Western University, and enjoy engaging in feminist theory, ethics, as well as gender and sexuality studies. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to be taught by both Sam and Tracy, and I am excited to join the Fit is a Feminist Issue community! When my nose isn’t in a book, I can be found in coffee shops, at the gym, or taking on car repairs that are far beyond my capabilities.
In this interview (part 1 of 2), Michael Collins compares bodybuilding competitions to Kiwanis music festivals, and describes his desire to be the “Julia Child of weightlifting.” Find Michael on Twitter: https://twitter.com/erlking.
How did you get into bodybuilding and gym culture?
I formerly worked in the academic field, but I left because of a combination of burnout, poor career prospects, and a feeling that my passions had shifted. I have always had a passion for bodybuilding and muscular physiques, which I felt I had to hide when I was in academia. I actually felt more shame and anxiety about being into muscles in the university setting than I felt about being gay!
I’m 38, and I only became serious about bodybuilding when I was 31. Today I am a personal trainer and bodybuilding coach, but in terms of my own physique I am an amateur / passionate bodybuilding hobbyist. Like most sports, professional success requires a blend of genetic predisposition and starting young; what slim hopes I might have had of becoming a pro, or even a prominent amateur competitor, would have required me to start a dozen years sooner than I did. However, there are many reasons why someone would pursue bodybuilding beyond professional success!
Is bodybuilding culture welcoming of gay folks like yourself?
Unfortunately, professional bodybuilding can still be a homophobic space, but at the amateur level this has never been an issue for me, and in fact I’m a member of a large, robust, and mutually supportive community of gay and queer amateur bodybuilders. I definitely feel more comfortable being myself where I am right now than I did previously.
Can you explain what training and being a trainer in a gym is like?
I consider bodybuilding competitions to be an artistic practice and a form of body modification, less a professional sport and more like the Kiwanus Music Festivals I would compete in as a youth. You labour in solitude for months to produce an aesthetic object that exists in time, then you produce that aesthetic object for a panel of judges alongside peers who have done the same, and then you are ranked according to a fairly strict and narrow sense of what determines worth in this specific arena. I think bodybuilders have more in common with concert pianists than they do with football players.
Before the pandemic, I wanted to be the Julia Child of lifting weights, helping people who are anxious about it and ignorant of it because of that anxiety, showing them this is their space too, and they have a right to learn how their body works and how to make it stronger.
I trained in-person, mostly people I would call “beginners.” In the gym I taught basic fundamentals like how to deadlift and squat properly, how to make it so your back hurts less and you don’t get winded going up three flights of stairs, and so on. I had prediabetic clients who used weight training as a way of managing that condition.
How did your training practice change once the pandemic took hold?
Gyms in Toronto were closed for almost nine months straight. It’s important to tutor beginners in basic physical movements to avoid injury, so it was difficult to train my clients virtually. Also, beginners don’t have access to their own power rack, olympic barbells, and collection of plates!
So, during the pandemic, I shifted more to coaching people who are already well-versed in lifting and who want to further a physical transformation, often who want to compete as amateur bodybuilders (something I’m thankful I got to do myself for the first time in 2019). I shifted to work that can be done virtually, like programming people’s workout plans, diet plans, etc.
What is the best part of your craft?
Some of my clients tell me they have had very troubled or even hateful relationships with their bodies. I find it very fulfilling when someone has discovered the pleasure of how strong their body actually can be, of how good it can feel to regularly test your limits and feel them gradually expand. It’s lovely to help someone transform in a way they long desired but felt was impossible. The sense of pride and pleasure that can awaken is very rewarding to see.
What advice do you have for folks who want to get more involved with bodybuilding and gym culture?
Find your people. They’re unlikely to be the influencers on Instagram who dominate the field (although I know of a few who really warm my heart with good, well-considered, intelligent feminist or generally progressive insights). Instead, find people who are working for a similar goal and who have similar values as you. People who are on a similar path, but who may be a step or two ahead. They’ll be a great resource for learning (and there’s so much to learn if you’re new) and for mutual support. For me, Twitter has been good for this.
Also, think about what kind of gym that’s available to you and what kind of community there is. The communities in smaller, independent gyms are normally male-dominated, but they are often supportive and focused on teaching, learning, and mutual support. And, if you have the money and you know someone who is a good fit for you, hiring a knowledgeable trainer is my best advice.
Additional video interview
Hear personal trainer Michael Collins describe more about his journey to bodybuilding, his vision of the inclusiveness of gym culture, and how gym communities are shifting to support all types of bodybuilding enthusiasts.
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!
Second, I’ve signed up for Zwift Academy: “Unlock your untapped power with the program that started it all. World-class coaches bring killer workouts to boost your performance on the bike. New friends bring fun.” That’s October 1-November 25.
Third, my mum, Sarah, and I are going to keep working out outside in the backyard with a personal trainer for as long as weather permits. We’re all cold weather hardy. But rain might put us off. But we have flexible schedules. Let’s see! Maybe I’ll even lure my mum into blogging for us.
And finally, fifth, there’s strength training of various sorts. We’ve got lots of resistance bands, kettlebells, dumbbells, and the trusty TRX. Sometimes I think I need to get organized about it. Other times, I think it’s okay to do random, snack sized fitness-y things when the mood strikes.
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 .
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 .
Greetings from Portland, Oregon, where everything is peaceful and the living is easy.
Ok, maybe not.
For over a week, federal agents have incited violence by attacking peaceful protestors, detaining them, scooping people off the streets in unmarked vehicles and so obviously escalating the situation that the only explanation for their behavior is that it is intentional. Our local police, instead of standing up to protect the citizens of our city, who pay their wages and to whom they are sworn to protect, are collaborating with this invading force. The productive and justifiable outrage of my fellow citizens is palpable.
In addition to being ground zero for Trump’s latest version of fascist cosplay, Oregon is in the midst of grappling with when, if and how we all return to school in the fall. As a middle school teacher, I am working hard to advocate for the health of my students, their families, and my fellow educators. I’ve come to accept, in fact, that this summer is absolutely not a vacation; it’s two months of unpaid work.
Some of that work is also devoted to collaborating with other educators in this moment of racial reckoning to reexamine our own understandings of race, and to begin addressing racial bias implicit in the educational system. I’m reading, discussing and exploring resources to help me better understand what my privilege has allowed me to remain ignorant to. It’s important work, but it requires focus and extended attention, both of which are hard to come by these days.
Oh, and of course there is still a potentially life-threatening virus circulating in our community that holds very real dangers for folks, especially those with complicated health histories like me. As cases have been on the rise again, I am having to hole up more tightly once more. My husband has taken over grocery shopping completely, and I’m limiting my interactions with the outside world almost exclusively to my daily walks and bimonthly visits with my father. The isolation, lack of community, and ever-present anxiety is a constant stressor.
In light of all of this, I’m struggling to keep up energy up for workouts. I am not sleeping well; I’m exhausted even when I do. My daily and weekly routines are a mess, and I rely upon routine to prime myself mentally to push hard. And, honestly, lifting from home is simply getting boring. I like pushing my strength, and there’s only so much I can do without a bench and adjustable weights.
After trying all sorts of things to reinvigorate my lifting, I’ve recently settled into a new mindset around it. What is working best for me right now is to be very permissive and flexible. Like autoregulating my runs, I’m letting how I feel each session dictate how much I do and how I do it. Do I feel good? I push hard, do more sets, make them more challenging. Do I feel shitty? I do the bare minimum I need to in order to feel like I’ve done it. I find it less stressful to have done SOMETHING than to skip it entirely, so on those days, and they’re often right now, I do exactly how much I need to and no more.
It’s hard to feel passionate about my strength when I’m directing so much of my mental energies elsewhere. I know that self-care is necessary for me to maintain my stamina for all the important work that needs to be done, but there’s a continuum of what self-care can look like. I don’t have to push hard on my workouts to be taking care of myself. And for me, skipping them entirely wouldn’t be self-care, either. I’m trying to be ok with this new, lower standard for my lifting. I’m trying to believe that my energy will return in time, and I will have benefited from this relative break from hard physical exertion.
Weightlifting can be a powerful stress reliever for me, but right now, being rigid and pushing hard just isn’t in the cards. My world is going through some serious growing pains. I’ve got other projects that I need to prioritize. It’s all important work, and I’m not going to stop strength training; I just need to change my approach so that I can do the other work that needs to be done.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things, sometimes, when she feels like it, and putting them down again, in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .