feminism · fitness · men · sexism · strength training · weight lifting

Women are ‘Someone,’ Too

“Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.” (1)

“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.” (2)

I love lifting weights. I enjoy the exertion, the challenge, and the self-confidence that it brings. I’m not alone–women are a growing number of the competitive lifters around the world. Women participate in competitive physique, strong”man”, weightlifting and powerlifting. And this reflects a boom in interest amongst us non-competitive folks, too, likely at least in part fueled by the popularity and accessibility of crossfit in the last decade.

And yet, the mostly male-dominated media space has not caught up. When lifters are discussed, there is an overwhelming tendency to treat “lifters” as synonymous with “men.”

And to be perfectly frank, it’s starting to piss me off. Every time a guy says “someone” and what they really mean is “men,” I want to yell, “HEY, I’m SOMEONE, too!”

I want to see myself in the programs put out there. I want trainers to give me potential solutions to the challenges I face in reaching my goals. I want to know that my needs and concerns have answers. I want realistic metrics to which I can compare myself and help with goal setting. In short, I want representation.

Instead, there’s an endless parade of articles and other media around men’s insecurities and challenges–how to get 6-pack abs! Build your squat to 3x bodyweight! How to get to 12% body fat and stay there!

The physiology of someone born with female parts is different than the physiologies of people born with male parts. We have more essential levels of fat–requiring higher body fat levels in order to function healthfully. Our hormone profile changes how we respond to lifting, with only 5-10% of the testosterone of a typical adult man making building muscle a potentially slower process. Our smaller joints and bone structures change the size of our muscular potentials. Estrogen is protective in many ways, making women and other people who produce more of it, more resilient to higher-rep lifting, possibly meaning we require shorter rest periods. Some research on Olympic level athletes suggests that our abilities to recover even changes throughout our menstrual cycles. And none of this gets into the nuances of lifting around pregnancy, childbirth, menopause, hysterectomies, mastectomies and so many other experiences shared by so many people with a uterus.

But I’m not asking that every article, interview, podcast and blog post dig into all of these caveats every time they want to offer me 5 new ways to do push-ups. No, I just want the language used to be inclusive. I want pictures of strong people of all genders doing the work. I want it to be clear that I am a potential member of the target audience. So many trainers complain about how women are afraid of lifting weights, that we’re afraid of the barbell, that we’re afraid of the results we might get. But if 90% of the images we see are men on gear working on showing off that 6-pack, why should we expect a majority of women would be drawn to that? (To be clear, I have no problem with lean, muscular women with six-pack abs, I just recognize that they are a subset of the population.) We need to be represented in order to imagine it as a real possibility.

So in absence of another solution, I propose a simple test to determine if women are being acknowledged as people who do serious strength training. Blog post, podcast, article or interview, let’s call it the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test (3) which asks that fitness experts:

one. Directly mention women and/or include them in images.
two. And ensure that any goals and/or metrics referenced include those appropriate for women and other people born with a uterus.

So, back to the quotes at the top: “Let’s say someone wants to squat 500 pounds. It’s a big goal, but not unachievable. Lots of people get to 500 pounds these days.”

This may be true for men who lift seriously over time. It is not ever true for women. I just checked the current raw powerlifting records for women, and the drug-tested, open world record for squat for women is 502 pounds. So women are excluded by the speaker and he fails the Hundtoft-Bechdel Test.

“If you keep your bodyfat percentage too low, you’re not going to build as much muscle. If someone is trying to stay around 8% bodyfat, your body is going to want to partition more of that energy towards fat storage.”

The second speaker also fails the test, since an 8% bodyfat is nearly unattainable even by the most competitive female bodybuilders. It is certainly not a “walking around” level of leanness for most women, when it might be for an especially disciplined, genetically gifted, and/or possibly just highly neurotic man.

In comparison, a recent article on Nerd Fitness (on the Star Wars workout) passed the test easily. Images of women. No metrics of success that are gendered at all. Steve Kamb did a great job of using entirely neutral language so that any reader can see themselves in the article.

Another win goes out to a great podcast, Stronger by Science. In their recent discussion on gut health and training nutrition, they interviewed a female expert and used gender-neutral language throughout. When it was appropriate to specify male vs. female metrics, both were included.

A quick search of recent Bodybuilding.com training articles finds some sort-of wins and some straight up losses. For example, this article on shoulder exercises does a good job of using gender-neutral language, but fails due to exclusively using men in the images.

T-Nation fairs not even as well as that. There are many examples to pull from, but here’s a training article that even the title (“The V-Taper Workout and Diet Plan”) excludes women as a target. The “V-Taper” is a shape of shoulders and waist that is specifically identified as a desirable male attribute (think comic book Superman with his wide shoulders and impossibly narrow waist). Notably, the author never acknowledges that he’s writing for a male audience. Major fail.

Not surprisingly, women lifters and authors consistently do a better job including women. Some female trainers are directing their business at other women as their primary market, and so they explicitly include women in their media. However, there are also female trainers and bloggers who do a good job of inclusive, but not female-centric language. A standout example is Meghan Callaway.

Women lift weights. We like to track our progress and gauge our success against other lifters. We want to know reasonable goals for goal setting and to see ourselves represented in media aimed at folks who strength train. Representation matters, and it’s well-past time for fitness authors, podcast hosts, and trainers to make a more consistent effort to represent women equally in their spaces.

Photo description: The torso, arms and legs of a woman holding a weight plate in a gym. She is wearing a black t-shirt and shorts, and she has defined forearm and quad muscles.

(1) Maybe not an exact quote, but definitely the gist from a recent interview with Dr. Mike Zourdos on the Iron Culture podcast, which incidentally, is an awesome podcast! But I know they can do better with representation.

(2) Not going to link to this one, as the podcast I was trying out became so fat-phobic in a rant that I don’t want to encourage others to listen to it.

(3) Named in homage of and to give credit to the Bechdel Test which gives a simple way of identifying if women are present in film.

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

dogs · fitness · training · weight lifting

The missing puzzle piece of Sam’s pandemic home workout plan

You know that I left the gym early. I don’t remember when I last went but I posted about my decision to leave on March 9th. It’s been awhile since I’ve set foot inside the gym, the yoga studio, or the Bike Shed.

So I’ve been working out at home for awhile now. Mostly it’s all fit together pretty well.

Piece one of the puzzle is that I’ve been riding and racing my bike virtually. Hello Zwift! Piece two is that I’m back together with Yoga with Adriene, enjoying her Yoga for Uncertain Times series quite a lot. Piece three is everyday exercise walking Cheddar the dog.

Cheddar, napping post walk

But the fourth piece is not working out quite so well. It’s there but it’s a work in progress.

That’s at home strength training. I’ll confess we weren’t as well-prepared. We have a motley, somewhat random collection of tools. The one great thing is Sarah’s TRX which we mounted in the living room which is now combo home office for two and home gym for three. We also pandemic panic purchased a 25 lb kettlebell the day before the shops all closed. Sarah also has a lone 8 lb dumbbell from her injured shoulder physio days. And we own some resistance tubing with handles, one is not very much resistance and the other one a bit too much. You read about that purchase here.

My son is home from university and he’s regular gym goer. He usually lifts pretty serious weights most days of the week. I think at first he thought he’d wait it out but now he’s planning home workouts for us, scouring Instagram for ideas. I’m really glad he’s here.

It feels a bit like the cooking challenge where you’re given random oddball ingredients and asked to construct a meal. But he’s doing a great job.

How to make chest and triceps day out of this?

Sam’s random home gym bits and pieces

We’re making do but I miss the gym. How about you?

Once it warms up we’re going to hang the heavy punching bag in the backyard. Will report back!

Sat with Nat · weight lifting

The Power of Positive Peer Pressure

I’m very lucky to have a workplace gym. I haven’t always made good use of it. Last fall when my regular workout buddy was no longer able to join me I made a new weight lifting routine. It sat on my workstation until a week into January.

That first week of January a laughing group of my colleagues passed by me on the way to the gym late in the afternoon. I smiled and chatted then was delighted when they invited me to join them.

It took a couple tries until I had all my gear at work and my calendar cleared. Six weeks later it’s a habit. Not everyone can make it every day but we block the time in our calendars and check in. It’s very positive.

Our goals are as diverse as our ages. I think we span 4 decades with the youngest in her thirties and at least one of us is 60. We are all women in leadership roles. Our workout styles & preferences are varied. Some of us prefer virtual classes. Others, like me, a weight lifting routine.

I really appreciate being part of the group, the camaraderie, sharing tips & tricks and seeing the skills and competences we have in the gym.

I find going to the gym very challenging. I don’t like the mirrors everywhere. I struggle to be a beginner…AGAIN. What I love is how this opt-in-supportive and positive peer pressure has helped me get to the gym 4-5 times a week. It’s feeling really good.

A picture of a red and white puppy with half dropping ears and her tongue sticking out

This photo is in no way related to the post but my new dogpanion Lucy is just too dang cute not to share.

fitness · illness · weight lifting

Fitness in the time of pandemics: Working out alone or together, at home or at the gym?

It feels selfish to be writing about fitness from the perspective of staring down a possible pandemic, but I confess when I think about home quarantine from my self-interested point of view, exercise is one of things I think about. It’s not just keeping my fitness I’m worried about, though there is that. Working out and movement feel like they’re central to my emotional health and mental well-being.

That’s not all I think about of course when it comes to the possible coronavirus pandemic.

Over on Twitter, I think about covid-19 from the perspective of an academic administrator.

I worry about it a lot as a humanitarian crisis.

I worry about it as a problem for society when I have friends tweeting about cheap airfares. I think there’s an obligation to do all that we can do to slow down transmission of the virus. Likely that means staying home.

As a feminist philosopher, and as a human being, I worry about how quickly people move to say that covid-19 isn’t that dangerous because it’s only really a threat to the elderly and those with underlying conditions. What does that say about which lives we value?

I like this reframing.

I worry about political systems, especially south of the border, and the need for affordable health care, paid sick leave, and testing.

Lots to worry about but I like it that’s there’s some practical things we can all do to prepare.

Again, I like the framing this piece on preparing for pandemics as a pro-social action offers us.

“Be ready? But how? It seems to me that some people may be holding back from preparing because of their understandable dislike of associating such preparation with doomsday or “prepper” subcultures. Another possibility is that people may have learned that for many people the disease is mild, which is certainly true, so they don’t think it’s a big risk to them. Also, many doomsday scenarios advise extensive preparation for increasingly outlandish scenarios, and this may seem daunting and pointless (and it is). Others may not feel like contributing to a panic or appearing to be selfish.

Forget all that. Preparing for the almost inevitable global spread of this virus, now dubbed COVID-19, is one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind.”

But back to fitness. And back to just thinking about why I might do if I had to spend stretches of time isolated from others.

I take it there’s no reason not to ride my bike out alone in the world. I can carry my own snacks. While big races are being cancelled, there is no reason not to ride outside of big crowds, assuming I’m not actually quarantined.

There’s also Yoga with Adriene and walks in the woods with Cheddar. Both will be just fine even if I’m staying at home more to avoid public gatherings.

I’m not sure what I think about working out at the gym, especially the student gym though. And I’m not sure what I think about yoga in the close quarters of the studio.

Lots of photos of walking in the snow with Cheddar and a bonus friend’s dog. Hi Emilie!

I also belong to a 24 hour discount fitness club. Maybe I could go there and take disinfectant wet wipes, wash my hands often, and work out there in the wee hours? I’m not sure. I’m considering buying a set of dumbbells for home use.

A gym, Photo by Mark Bertulfo on Unsplash

Certainly we’ll set up our home TRX.

Here’s the fitness routine of quarantined racing cyclists!

What are your thoughts about the gym in times of avoiding crowds and germ-y surfaces? I’m still thinking this through. I’d appreciate your thoughts.

If you’re still thinking about what all of this means for you, I recommend following Helen Branswell on Twitter and following STAT news on coronovirus. Normally that’s behind a paywall but it’s free now for that topic only. Also give The Coronavirus isn’t going away a listen.

fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Women, Are You Ready to be Weird?

Are you ok with not fitting in, or would you rather blend in with the crowd? If you are watched, noticed, and possibly commented upon by your community, would that derail you from your pursuits? If these discomforts don’t deter you, ladies may I suggest you take up weightlifting?

Early stage weirdness requires being willing to wander around the weights portion of your gym not sure what to do. You’re going to have to guess how much weight you can lift and you’re going to have to wonder how to do the lifts correctly. You will mess up. You will stand out. Not because you are new, because there’s always someone new, but likely that someone is male and many males have an armor of “fake it ‘til you make it.” So, I suggest you do the same. Strut in there, fake some competence, and walk out knowing you started on your journey.

As you develop some competence and confidence, those who are sincere in their pursuit of weirdness will likely need to begin to log their work at the gym. You will be less weird if you do this on your phone, but those who are aiming for purity will begin to carry a workout log book. The log book will allow you to switch up your workouts day to day and week to week and see your progress as you go. There can be real celebration in this form of weirdness, because you will have concrete evidence of your growth. As you move up in weights, away from smaller dumbbells towards larger ones, or begin using the barbell and adding weight on the bar, you can see that you are getting stronger. This is wonderful! It will also make you different, as only a small percentage of those around you will be working out with such a sense of purpose and focus. Expect people to ask you what you are writing down in that little book.

This intermediate stage of weirdness also includes some changes you may choose outside of the gym. You might find that you want more protein at each of your meals, which can require feeling different from the other ladies when you go out for brunch. No longer are you splurging on the pancake plate and hashbrowns. No, you need to get your protein in, so how many eggs does that omelette contain? And can you add some smoked salmon to it?

You may decide you like wearing tank tops, even though the women around you are always talking down about their own arms, shoulders and bust. You know you don’t look like a model, but you’ve become proud of what your body can do and it’s fun to show off a little bit. That pride is wonderful, but it isn’t normal. You will stand out. Dig in deep to this weirdness!

You may try new things that you’ve only seen online or learned from a trainer. Maybe you do dynamic tension, wrapping huge rubber bands around the bar before you squat or bench press. Maybe you begin lifting in minimalist shoes or even just in specially designed lifting socks. You take the risk of trying all the rep ranges–you don’t let your ego force you to go heavy every time nor allow your fears keep you with lighter weights and high rep ranges.

Standing out in the crowd really takes on a whole lifestyle change somewhere along the way. At this point, when you walk into the gym, you are going to walk with confidence to the heavy weights and then begin to do things few around you are willing to do. You will stand out as you set up your bar with weight plates. Your confidence and sense of space–that you own that place in the gym at least as much as the next guy, and maybe more so because you’ve earned it from dedication and hard work over a long period of time–this will make you different from the people around you. They will notice. Some of them will find you inspiring. Others will feel challenged by your existence and may try to cut you down. This can be a real test to your ongoing pursuit of weirdness. How will you respond if a man, through his actions or words, suggests that your work is less valid than his? Are you ready to be really weird and stand up for yourself, loudly and where all can witness it?

You may need to stand up for your weirdness with family and friends, too. Are you ready to defend your choices to your mother who is worried you’ll hurt yourself? If it applies to you, are you ready to answer the question, “How does your husband feel about you getting so strong?” to a well-intentioned but totally off-base friend? These challenges are real, but they are worth it. In exchange for standing out in these ways, for being labeled and harassed, you will have the confidence of knowing you are living a life in tandem with your values. You can feel mentally and emotionally stronger by persisting to explore the limits of your physical strength.

Are you willing at this point to dig in deep to your weirdness and pursue real strength? You could choose an elite level of weirdness and possibly try to even GAIN weight and get BIGGER? Would you eat more food than you need so that you can pack on some muscle? Those who get to this level of weirdness are pushing the boundaries of what is expected of women, and as they show up in their bodies every day, they are making a statement about who they are and what place they are creating for themselves in the world. It is not easy to buck expectations for femininity at every meal. Few will understand your goals. Even fewer will be sympathetic if you find it challenging. “Poor you, you can’t gain weight. I feel really bad for you.”

Are you willing to stand out even within the strength-pursuing crowd and avoid the quick fixes and half-baked solutions? Go evidence-based and feed yourself the fuel you need, do the work, and trust the process? It’s a long game, and there will be folks who seem to be your peers suggesting things that you need not do to reach your goals, things that are potentially harmful and are certainly unsustainable. Again, you can find inner strength as you gain in knowledge and confidence.

Succeeding at being consistently weird is a lifelong journey. At not all stages of your life will you be willing to push being different from others to the same degree. It’s ok to let your weirdness ebb and flow with other priorities in your life, but know that this is a goal that can really change who you are and how you interact with others in powerful ways. And it’s worth it. Taking up more space and owning it, having confidence and competence, will improve your life. So ladies, are you ready to be weird?

Image description: A photograph of a workout log, with the names of exercises and the weights, sets and reps recorded below them.

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

aging · flexibility · health · illness · injury · nutrition · planning · schedule · self care · training · weight lifting

Sam gets frustrated with midlife precision and the complications of fitting it all in

There’s a story we tell here on the blog. Do the things you love, whatever movement fits into your day is good movement, eat what your body feels like eating.

Regular readers, you know our drill. It’s a relaxed, forgiving tune we sing around here most of the time.

Regular readers know too that I’ve been struggling a bit with that tune. These things are all true, I still sing that song, but at the same time things are getting more complicated with age and with injury. I’ve written before about doing things that aren’t fun (so much painful knee physio!) and about rest. Tl;dr: It’s complicated and sometimes I get frustrated.

Bitmoji Sam pointing at the word “lies”

It’s especially more complicated as we age. It’s especially more complicated for those of us with performance oriented fitness goals. Martha and Marjorie Rose are serious about their lifting. Kim and I have cycling goals. Others run and race. Cate is often preparing for her next big solo adventure. Christine is training for her next martial arts test.

As a group we’ve got a lot going on. We all do some strength work, some aerobic activity for endurance, some aerobic activity for intensity, and some activities for flexibility and mobility. For me, right now, it’s physio, weights, cycling and yoga.

I don’t mean to sound whiney. I’m not really complaining. It is what it is. But what it is is not simple or easy.

Sam’s bitmoji lifting weights.

So we’re busy but what do I mean by “more complicated”?

Do you remember when if you had a big project due for work or school you could just stay up all night, maybe even for a couple of nights, and push through? If you were working late you could skip meals, no problem. Aging takes away that ability for most of us. We need to be more organized and scheduled with our work and with our lives.

There are new rules for everyday eating too. For example, there’s a whole list of foods I don’t eat late in the day not because I’m concerned about my weight but because of heartburn. Oh, midlife. Lots of my friends are pretty scientific about their caffeine consumption. Luckily, I can still drink regular coffee after dinner but I think I’m the last in my friend group who is able.

All of these changes are present as we age as athletes too.

Here’s Abigail Barronian talking about the aging athlete, “It’s no secret that our bodies change as we age. Muscle mass and strength decline, it takes longer to recover from hard efforts, and our capacity to handle high training volumes can diminish. On top of that, mobility decreases and we become more prone to certain injuries. When an older athlete stops training, their fitness deteriorates significantly quicker than it did when they were young—and building it back is much harder.”

So given all the constraints it’s hard to be relaxed about things. Fitness in midlife and beyond requires more structure and thoughtful planning. If it used to be the fun, intuitive, freewheeling part of your life, that’s a tough psychological change too. Mostly it’s still a lot of fun for me but these days I’m finding the planning and organizing a bit stressful.

First, as we age rest becomes more important and it’s harder scheduling workouts and scheduling rest days, not to mention getting enough sleep. Aging athletes need more rest between tough workouts. I love rest but even for me sometimes the recommended amount of rest feels like too much. In recent years we’ve discovered that aging athletes can still work out hard. There’s no need to dial back workout intensity but there is a real need to rest more between workouts. We don’t recover and bounce back the way we used to.

See Recovery and aging athletes: A guide to train smart and stay strong

A colleague of mine, and former bicycle racer, who is now 59 years old, put it something like this: “In my twenties I recall being able to do five or six hard workouts a week and race back-to-back days without any trouble.

In my thirties this changed to three or four hard workouts a week and it was more difficult to race back-to-back days. In my forties, two or three hard workouts a week were more than enough, and racing back-to-back days was a bit of a challenge. In my fifties, one or two hard workouts a week were enough and recovering from a race took me about a week. Now, approaching 60…don’t even ask.”

The rest and recovery time of a 20 year old athlete is significantly different than that of a 45 year old athlete. It’s different again at 55 and so on. But this means that taking training plans off the internet won’t work. Often they don’t allow enough rest.

From Here’s how to get stronger after fifty: “As you age, your body bounces back more slowly from intense exercise. Successful older athletes should take their recovery as seriously as their training. “Younger athletes can get away with a poor lifestyle and still perform, but older athletes cannot,” Swift says.”

When I was younger it was just a matter of juggling, fitting in the activities I wanted to fit in, amid kids and a busy work schedule. But as we age there’s also the matter of resting between workouts which becomes more and more important. I’ve long been a fan of deliberate rest days and every coach I’ve had has talked about their importance. Except now they’re more important and I don’t have a coach to make sure I take them.

Likewise for lifting, as we age there’s more need for rest. I read a study recently that claimed for midlife women lifters the right ratio for strength training is two hard workouts followed by one easier workout with lighter weights. I’m not sure if that’s right or not but the main point stands, it’s complicated.

I’ve read too that after 50 you should move to two rest days a week of which one can be active recovery, gentle cardio or yoga maybe.

What am I trying to fit in? The big and important thing is knee physio and strength training. Say three days a week. Next up is cycling, also three days a week. I would like to do hot yoga twice a week. And I also want to take a complete rest day. Oh and also I have to be flexible and fit things in around a very demanding work schedule.

Wish me luck!

(Update: I see Catherine just purchased a training program that works in all the elements including rest. That’s one solution to fitting it all in. Go Catherine!)

Bitmoji Sam is holding a pillow. The text reads “rest up.”

Second, food is more complicated too. For me, there’s some planning involved. I have medication I have to take each morning on an empty stomach and then wait an hour before breakfast. That’s tricky. I also have medicine I have to take after breakfast because it can’t be taken on an empty stomach. Oh, and I need to get to work sometime.

There’s also this whole thing about aging athletes and muscle loss. Our bodies use protein less effectively so we are supposed to eat more of it, some with each meal. I also need fewer calories to get through the day–thanks also to aging– so protein takes up a good chunk of the calories. Add vegetables. Where’s the room for other food? That’s not easy to organize either.

See Muscle loss is in the news again for more details.

Bitmoji Sam ponders her lunch options

Thirdly, for pretty much all of us there are complications related to injury. My knee is an ongoing thing and recently Tracy injured her Achilles. When that happens you’re doing workouts but also physio and in my case massage therapy too. It can feel like a lot to manage.

Now maybe you might think that one doesn’t need to take it all so seriously. You can walk to work, stretch once in awhile, and do work around the house. And that’s true. You can. But if your goals are more about maintaining fitness as you age and not losing muscle, it’s complicated. Mostly I’m good with that. But I confess that some days I just want to not think about what I’m eating or when I’m next riding or lifting and curl up on the sofa with a mug of hot tea and a book.

Bitmoji Sam on a purple bean bag chair with a red book and a mug.

How about you? How do you fit it all in?

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.

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.