body image · fitness · inclusiveness · strength training · weight lifting

Inclusion in Bodybuilding and Gym Culture: An Interview with Michael Collins

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?

Photo provided by Michael Collins

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?

Photo provided by Michael Collins

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.

Interview with Michael Collins [19:04]
aging · athletes · boxing · fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Want to try powerlifting or boxing? Let Quill inspire you (Interview)

The AARP got in touch with us recently with an awesome video of Quill Kukla talking about the way powerlifting and boxing, both of which they took up in their mid-forties, transformed them. I had the pleasure of connecting with Quill recently to talk about the short video, called “Tiny Teacher Transforms into Badass Boxer.” Before I get to our chat, here’s the video:

Don’t you absolutely love it? Quill has blogged for us before about their boxing career, about discovering that they excel at powerlifting, and also their running. Over the years, their posts reveal a common theme of being amazed at what their body can do and of doing activities that they feel good about. And that’s just the sort of message about movement that we promote, endorse, and celebrate here at Fit Is a Feminist Issue.

Here’s the interview, more or less verbatim with streamlining (but no misrepresenting!):

TI: I know you had some reservations about watching the video. How did you feel when you watched the video and saw yourself doing these amazing things?

Quill: It’s complicated because the pandemic has been a really rough time. I’ve continued training in both boxing and lifting throughout the pandemic. But it’s not the same kind of training that I was able to do or the same level of intensity that I was able to do before the pandemic. And because my background life has become so much more sedentary, even aside from my training I feel as if I’m not in the same fighting shape or competitive shape as I was a year and a half ago, and it’s daunting to think about getting that back, so it’s a little bit bittersweet to see myself at my peak. But at the same time, they did a fantastic job editing it. So I really do look awesome!

TI: You said when you first went to the gym you were “undermotivated.” Why did you feel undermotivated?

Quill: I think there are really two separate reasons. One is that very early in my life I was a serious ballet dancer. That was central to my identity. And when I quit dancing I really just quit the life of the body cold turkey. My way of separating myself from the dancing was just to say “okay, I’m not a person who does physical activity anymore.” I was never in bad shape. I always walked a lot and biked and walked my dog, so I had background fitness, but I wasn’t somebody who had structured exercise as part of my life. So it felt like a part of my identity that I had cut off from myself and put into my past.

But the more interesting reason is that when I first went to the gym I went because I felt like I had a responsibility to “get fit.” Fitness was just the goal. I wasn’t trying to learn any particular skill or get better at any particular activity or take anything as an artistic practice or techné. I was just trying to increase my fitness. And for me that’s a very boring goal. It was an amorphous goal that I resented and it didn’t have any shape for me. And so when I started lifting and boxing and not “trying to get fit” but trying to get good at lifting and good at boxing, then that was my motivation because I loved those activities and the fitness came along for free. Fitness in and of itself is not a good motivator for me. In fact I kind of find it depressing. When you find something that you inherently love. If you happen also to get fit, then fantastic. But you’re doing it because you love that thing.

Ti: You talk about the “empowering thrill” of boxing. Can you say a bit more about that?

Quill: Part of that is literally chemical or hormonal. There’s a jolt of hormones that goes through your body as you punch something full speed [here Quill punched their left fist into their right palm to demonstrate] or as you lift something really heavy and make that max effort. It’s invigorating and good for your brain to feel those hormones coursing through. But also, it does feel empowering. I don’t think of boxing as self-defence at all. If I ever ran into someone in a dark ally who wanted to hurt me and I were to say “okay, punch me between here and here” [gestures to forehead and torso] boxing is not a useful skill in that circumstance. Being able to run away is a much better skill than being able to box.

So it’s not empowering in the sense that I’m going to use it for self-defence. However, it is very empowering to know that my body can take a hit and be fine, and that my body can deliver force if necessary. There is something thrilling in that feeling that my body has force behind it; it is active, not passive. It can impact the world. And moreover, the world can impact me and I’ll be fine. Someone can hit me and I’ll be fine. My body is not fragile.

Plus it’s just really fun punching things [smiles, then laughs, and then tells me they’ll show me how to punch some day].

TI: In the video you express the intention of continuing with powerlifting and boxing for many years to come. How has the pandemic changed affected your training? How (if at all) has it affected how you think about yourself as a powerlifter and boxer?

Quill: At the beginning of the pandemic, when we were in lockdown I couldn’t lift at all for months when gyms were closed. Even at the worst of the pandemic, except for a couple of weeks I have continued my boxing training, meeting people outside. I am back to both now. But taking months off of my lifting at my age was a huge hit to my ability. I lost a lot and even though I have been back lifting for months I’m still not lifting as much as I was before the pandemic. And so part of me wonders if the pandemic just did me in in terms of competition. But I’ll still keep lifting because I like having a strong body.

With respect to boxing, I’m not in the same fighting shape as I was before the pandemic, even though I’ve been training. But that I feel I can get back more easily because I’ve kept my skills up. I do intend to go back to competing in boxing as soon as possible. But my plan is to have a fight in six months or so and to keep going for as long as I can. I’ve watched people fight in their eighties. In fact, I watched a fight between an 88 year-old man and a 91 year-old man — an actual sanctioned amateur fight — and they went through to the end and they were really doing it. And so I have no intention of stopping at any point really [laughs again].

TI: Both powerlifting and boxing are really intimidating prospects for lots of people. What advice would you give to someone who wants to give it a try later in life?

Quill: For lifting–the great thing is the frustrating thing: when you start doing it you make gains unbelievably fast. Your numbers will shoot up really fast in terms of how much you can lift and your body will change almost immediately. There’s almost nothing else you can do where you’ll see such quick changes. The sad part is that that plateaus out fairly quickly. When you start you think “wow I’m lifting 20 more pounds each time I go to the gym! In no time I’ll be lifting thousands of pounds!” Everybody has that feeling. If you can even go once or twice or three times that will be enough that you will see enormous gains. All the intimidation will be gone. So my advice for lifting is “just start.” And it’s one of the absolute best sports for older people to do. There’s nothing blocking older people from excelling at it and it’s also incredibly good for your joints and your bone density. It’s a gift to yourself to do it. Do it a few times and you’ll be amazed at how fast you start getting strong.

Boxing is not like that at all. When you start boxing you’re terrible and it takes a very long time to be anything other than terrible. But people are intimidated by it because their vision of boxing is being in the ring fighting. But there are so many stages between doing nothing and actually fighting. And you can get off and stop at any stage you want.

There’s going to the gym and learning how to punch properly, and punching the bags, working on the bags to get a good workout. Some people just do that forever and that’s what boxing is for them. Past that, you can start doing partner work and partner drills, where you’re not actually fighting with anybody but you’re working with a partner and trading punches. That’s a little more intense than working on the bags, but only one step. So you can do that and stop there. Then some people go from there to sparring, and that’s where you’re actually in real time trying to land punches on a person and avoid getting punched. That’s a whole other level of intense than partner drills, but most of the people who spar never actually fight. And then there’s fighting. So you don’t have to have a vision of yourself as on a trajectory from nothing to fighting. At each stage you can decide if it’s enough for you. That makes it feel less intimidating.

TI: What about just the idea of going into a boxing gym as, in my case, a 56 year-old woman?

Quill: You do have to find the right gym. There are a lot of inclusive wonderful gyms. There are also a lot of toxic crappy gyms. Trial and error could be traumatic, but using word of mouth to find out which gyms are supportive and inclusive is important. But you’d be surprised at how many boxing gyms really are super inclusive and supportive environments.

Boxing tends to be a very intellectual sport that requires a lot of critical thinking, so people who are boxers tend to be very thoughtful. They sort of have to be. Compared to a lot of other sports I find that boxing gyms tend to be very thoughtful spaces. In 2021 most of them have had to think at some point about what it means to welcome older people into the gym, to welcome queer people into the gym, to welcome non-binary people into the gym.

We all learned about boxing gym culture from watching Rocky but the reality of boxing gym culture tends to be pretty different from that. Again, it varies. There are certainly gyms that are nothing but young, toxicly masculine men, but there is a lot of variety, including a lot that have a minority of men as members. It’s a popular sport among women, so most gyms have a lot of women.

Just in the years that I’ve been doing it it’s gone from a male-dominated sport to a not-at-all male-dominated sport. I’ve been boxing with eight women and five men, and I think that’s typical for boxing gyms.

TI: That’s encouraging! Anything else you’d like to add?

Quill: I’m a high-energy, high-emotion, high-intensity person and the difference that boxing made for me in terms of my ability to productively channel and regulate all of that energy and those emotions was absolutely transformative. I’m a calmer person. A lot of people might not realize the mental health benefits as well as the physical health benefits that you can get from doing a sport like this. That might not be true for everyone, but I think it’s not just me.

TI: That’s so great. Thank you!

I’m sure we will hear from Quill again, especially when they get back into the ring. Meanwhile, thanks, Quill! Congratulations on an amazing video. You absolutely do look awesome and fierce. Thanks for the chat and best wishes getting back into fighting form!

cycling · fall · habits · weight lifting · yoga

Fall weather and Sam’s five part fitness plan!

image

What are your fall fitness plans?

I’ve got a few–five in fact–and the first two are new. I’ve never done them before.

First, fall is time to get the gravel bike out and explore. The lovely folks at Speed River Bicycle, my LBS, shared this list of multi-surface rides with me when I took to Twitter with my autumn cycling plans. Sarah and I have a weekend away planned on the newly finished Guelph to Goderich rail trail.

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.

Fourth, there’s Yoga With Adriene. She’s a bit of a fitness fixture around here.

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.

What’s your plan for the fall? Anything new?

Photos from Unsplash. This one is a white hand holding up a bright red maple leaf against a dark background.
fitness · strength training · weight lifting

How Much Weight Should I Lift?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get it Done with Myo Reps

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

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

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

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

Enter myo reps.

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

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

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

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

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

covid19 · fitness · weight lifting

Shifting Priorities During Troubled Times

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 .

Image description: The Portland “Justice Center,” boarded up and heavily graffitied from weeks of protests. Photo from the author, Marjorie Hundtoft
athletes · body image · fitness · strength training · weight lifting · weight stigma

Where are the muscular, larger women’s bodies?

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

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

Sidebar: There have been attempts to reclaim this language.

See CampaignBrawny women wear iconic plaid in #StrengthHasNoGender campaign

Brawny women wear iconic plaid in #StrengthHasNoGender campaign
#StrengthHasNoGender

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

Okay, Nat did in this post.

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

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

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

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

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

*************************

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

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

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

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

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.

(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. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .

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.
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.