Crossfit · running · weight lifting · yoga

Tracy is taking suggestions…bring ’em on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sat with Nat · weight lifting

The humbling moment when you go back to lifting weights

I used to love lifting free weights in college and over the many years since dabbled from time to time with various strength training regimes.

The past two weeks my colleague Michelle and I have been warming up with cardio then doing a circuit of the weight machines at our workplace gym.

It’s humbling to not recognize the exercise the machine is intended to be used for and Michelle has been graciously guiding me through the equipment.

We laugh and fastidiously clean each bench before moving on. I remember using most of the stack of weights many years ago so sliding the pin into that second plate feels, well, humbling. I know I need to get used to aligning my body for each set, that I need to find the seat height and configurations that get the most out of each set.

I’m a plodding person who moves slowly and under control as I try to maximize the range of motion for each move. It’s not interesting or cinematic.

Michelle and I chat briefly between sets without wasting time.

It’s nice to connect outside of our work and support our wellbeing.

My upper body has been giving me grief now that I’m treating my sleep apnea. My chiropractor wisely noted I’m likely not moving as much in my sleep.

My lower body gets lots of exercise with my walking commute, the upcoming soccer season and riding my bike. Yoga has been great for stretching and keeping me flexible but I’ve realized I need some engagement of my upper body to feel well.

So here is to humble beginnings and not letting my ego get in the way of a good workout.

Selfie of Nat smiling at the camera wearing a purple shirt with white stripes

competition · femalestrength · weight lifting

CFP: **Strong A(s) F(eminist): Power in Strength Sports**

**Strong A(s) F(eminist): Power in Strength Sports** 
Noelle Brigden, Melissa M. Forbis, and Katie Rose Hajtmanek are seeking contributors to an edited volume on strength sports.

“Despite sports being a powerful site of social control and resistance in most parts of the globe throughout modern history, they have too often been ignored by scholars. Situated within this context of ongoing political struggles, and building on a literature that explores the intersectional politics of embodied practice and physical culture, this edited volume takes up the importance of sport, and analyzes the unique potential of strength sports as a site of gender contestation to the existing order.

Recognizing the importance of this radical understanding of empowerment for the future of strength sports and its potential to disrupt white supremacist patriarchy, we welcome intersectional feminist analyses of gender in strength sports, beyond a singular focus on women’s participation. This volume defines strength sports as activities in which the competition outcomes depend exclusively on the individual capacity to move weight, including but not limited to: functional fitness training, powerlifting, weightlifting, kettlebells, strongman/woman, highland games, and historic feats of strength.”

Guest Post · weight lifting

A Deadlift of the Will (Guest Post)

The deadlift is my least favourite exercise. I know it’s good for me. It hits every major muscle, and yet…

Part of it is physical. I have really small hands, and this makes for a weak grip. My hands fail me long before my legs and back. Part of it is psychological. It is hard to muster all those useful emotions that help with other lifts, such as anger and fear.  There is no adrenalin that the barbell will crush you on the bench or that you will be trapped in the hole with the squat. In the deadlift, the barbell is just on the floor, minding its own business until you upset it. Why not let dead barbells lie?

This year I have been training for my first strong woman competition which involves a “last man standing” deadlift event, where competitors will have to perform a 90 kilogram deadlift every 30 seconds until they can’t. In order to train for that, I have recently been lifting 100 kilogram deadlifts every 20 seconds. I’m sure I’ve done more deadlifts this year then I have in my entire training life.  And it has changed my attitude to deadlifts.

When I am asked by people who do not do so much weight training about the events, many puzzle on the word “deadlift”. Why is it called that? Yes, of course, because you are lifting a dead weight off the ground. But is there more to it than that?

I have read on many fitness blogs that the history of the deadlift goes back to ancient Rome from soldiers lifting their dead from the battlefields. But no sources are ever cited and I am a bit dubious. It’s also not a universal term. In Swedish, the deadlift is sensibly called marklyft or floor lift and in French soulevé de terre, elevated from the ground. These words reflect the English meaning of picking up dead weight without assistance of any kind. While the deadlift as a particular kind of weightlifting exercise does not have such a long history, the concept of picking up a dead weight from the ground and lifting it, surely does not need an origin story.

Yet the deadlift has a rich history of more figurative meanings. I am very sympathetic to an earlier meaning of deadlift recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary that was apparently common in the 17th Century: “A position or juncture in which one can do no more, an extremity, ‘a hopeless exigence’.

Deadlifts also crop up frequently in the 19th century. Artist William Morris describes the neglect of art appreciation as requiring a “deadlift”, the historian Thomas Carlyle explores various “deadlift efforts” in history, and novelist F. Anstey talks about “the burden of a conversational deadlift”. And then, I came across this gem from the Transactions of the Michigan State Teachers Association of 1877:

“It is not true that mental exercise is useful only when it is repulsive and distasteful, needing a deadlift of the will; but it is true that a good many ‘lifts’ have to be made, and the child must be got ready for them by lifting. It is true that no subject is good for the training of a child in which the child is not capable of achieving something, and of enjoying the achievement; but it is not true that a subject is always good for him in the long run, in proportion to his present capacity and liking for it. Sometimes it is the case that a child, or older pupil, who has small capacity for a subject, and finds little pleasure in its pursuit, develops, through application and study, great capacity and pleasure.” (my emphasis)

I am going to take that as sage advice from a 19th century writer who would likely be shocked to learn of its application to a strong woman competition in the 21st century. When it comes to deadlifts, I am that child, but slowly through increased application and study, the deadlift is growing in capacity and pleasure.

Weights at a gym. Photo by Evan Wise. Unsplash.

Virginia is an associate professor of literature and a powerlifter.

Guest Post · weight lifting

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barbell (Guest Post)

Catherine of Siena

I am a bit obsessed with bodies. Sinful bodies, holy bodies, compassionate bodies, sick bodies, extraordinary bodies, ordinary bodies. I wrote my dissertation about medieval regimes designed to stretch the body to its uttermost limit while maintaining mental and moral clarity. This spanned from the male desert ascetics to the mostly female late medieval mystics. Yet somehow in the course of this research, I neglected my own body. 

So, shortly after submitting, I decided to redirect my focus and in typical all or nothing fashion, I entered a bodybuilding contest to the outright horror and curious amusement of my academic friends.

It was a difficult and wonderful experience. It made me fall in love with my research again in that vulnerable time after you finish your PhD and nothing makes sense anymore. Whether or not female mystics saw God or not, the shared sensations of physical rigor – little sleep, extreme mortification (okay, we may be comparing lifting barbells with bathing lepers, but for the sake of argument), controlled nutrition – connected me to these women in both material and non-material ways. For myself, I experienced an unexpected pleasure and relief in being my own sadist and masochist. 

I started writing my bodybuilding story many years ago, reshaping it in various narrative voices: empowered, desperate, confused, arch. I’m still not satisfied, but it something about grief, friendship, guilt, self-image, transcendence, being a body and a soul. 

My powerlifting story is simpler. It is a story about my ass.

One of the goals of bodybuilding is symmetry and I am not naturally symmetrical. I have and always will be bottom-heavy, which meant I couldn’t really develop my lower body, which was always the most fun for me. 

So I decided to try powerlifting a few years ago. 

And I love it. Powerlifting is not an act of feminism or bravery that I perform for anyone else. It is a regime of self care. (Although some would say that wearing a Lycra singlet after the age of 30 is pretty damn courageous.) 

When I say it is a regime of self care, I don’t mean that it is healthy. I mean a psychological regime of self care. For me, powerlifting is the perfect antidote for academic anxiety. You slowly progress, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year. There are some set-backs but you largely get out of it what you put in to it. 

Powerlifting consists in three lifts: bench press, dead lift and squat. You lift a certain weight and that is that. There is no unclear basis of comparison, uncertain benchmarks, luck of the draw. The weight I lift is the weight that I lift. Sure, I have strong days and I have not so strong days. But I can be fairly confident in my numbers, that it is not a fluke. It is not so clear cut with an academic career. 

And to get back to my ass, I love to squat. There is something really awesome and invigorating about packing on twice your body weight (and for some people, much, much more) onto a bar and then lowering it down without a clear idea of whether you will be able to bring it back up. Most of the time, you do, but sometimes you don’t. And the rack or someone else will catch it. Failure is part of getting stronger. That is just is not the case outside the gym. 

Bodybuilding was an academic exercise. But with powerlifting, I am no longer pumping irony. It is all much more earnest than that. You are there to do something specific. And if you want to be ironic about that, lose your focus, you might miss your lift. And not only would that look tragically ridiculous, but it might hurt.

Virginia is an associate professor of literature and a powerlifter.

Blue, yellow, and green plates
eating disorders · Guest Post · weight lifting

The Meditation of Weightlifting (Guest Post)

This is me at the Minnesota Open.  I am doing a clean and jerk.  

To talk about all the beneficial and amazing things weightlifting has given to me, it is necessary to talk about the not so great things that brought me there.  A bit of a perfect storm in my late 20s landed me in the dark and very scary depths of an eating disorder.  I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know how to get it.  I was very lucky to find and be admitted to a new intensive out-patient program in my area.  I was officially diagnosed with a binge eating disorder.  Unofficially I was diagnosed with exercise anorexia and orthorexia, which are not diagnoses recognized by the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM); therefore they are not “official” diagnoses. 

The behaviors I experienced (and sometimes still do) as part of disordered included assigning judgement to food, difficulties with body image, eating large amounts of food, exercising as a form of punishment, eliminating entire food groups, obsession with “good foods”, and a fear of not having food available.  This last one is fairly unique and part of the perfect storm I previously referenced.  I experienced extreme food insecurity for quite a few years, which can later lead to disordered eating. 

As I was working my way towards recovery I spent a lot of time in group and individual therapy.  There were certain patterns etched into my brain that needed to be broken.  On some days it was an all-out internal war, trying to create new healthier thoughts and behaviors.  Even now, in my late 40s, I still struggle and have little relapses that need to be righted.  I can recognize them more quickly and my tool box is much larger and much more easily accessed. 

Part of changing behaviors meant changing my relationship with food.  Nothing is off limits.  No food is a “bad” food and no food is a “good” food.  Food is fuel.  Food is fun.  Food is social.  I am a person who really likes food.  There isn’t anything wrong with that.  For years I felt guilt about enjoying and eating food.  On the same note, exercise is not punishment.  It is not something I have to do because I ate food.  I don’t earn food by exercising.  I don’t do exercise activities I personally dislike. 

For years, therapists suggested yoga as a way for me to increase mindfulness.  I did yoga for years.  Guess what.  I don’t like yoga!  I finally figured that out and I don’t do it.  I do enjoy lots of sports.  I’ve been a runner, a cross-country skier, a martial artist, a swimmer, a biker…  The list could go on.  Recently I’ve found my sporting true love.  I am in love with Olympic weight lifting.  It is a release mentally and physically.  For me, it is meditative.  When I am lifting weights I rarely think of anything else.  I love to focus on all the nuances of the lift and the tiny adjustments I need to make in order to complete the best lift possible.  When the movement clicks, it is like magic.  The endorphins flow and I feel amazing.

There is a saying in lifting, “If the weight doesn’t scare you, it isn’t heavy enough.”  Honestly, the weight I am focusing on these days is how much weight is on the bar, not the weight on the scale.  I’ve learned to fuel my body so that I feel good.  This means having enough energy throughout the day and making sure I have good sources of fuel to keep me feeling healthy.  I know what works for me.  It may not work for others. 

In addition to finding weight lifting meditative and empowering I’ve also discovered a phenomenal group of supportive, body positive people.  When competing in Olympic Weightlifting one must wear a spandex weight lifting singlet, much like the ones wrestlers wear to compete.  I remember my first meet.  I had the singlet and it was under a lot of clothes.  I did my warmup.  I was standing in the line-up area feeling very anxious about getting down to the singlet.  All around me people of all sizes were shedding warm-up clothing and getting down to the business of singlet wearing.  I took a deep breath and off the clothes went.  Guess what?  No one said a word or raised an eyebrow.  As a matter of fact, after lifting I got nothing but a round of congratulations on my lifts.  As I have continued lifting I’ve meet men and women of all sizes who are nothing but supportive, uplifting and kind. 

I’ve used to be a person who literally hid at home eating food and didn’t go outside to exercise due to shame.  Now I go to the gym 5 days a week, but without feeling obligation or like it is punishment.  I go for the pure joy of it.  I’ve found my fitness love and I’ve found my fitness home.  Thanks to an amazing group of supportive athletes, a phenomenal coach (who took the time to learn about eating disorders) and gym mates I am free to be myself and be my best.   

Amy Lesher is a small business owner. She has owned a developmental/behavioral pediatric clinic for 10 years. When she is not running a business she spends her time lifting weights and attending CrossFit classes. She competes in Olympic weightlifting and holds the Minnesota state record for the Olympic lifting total in her division.

Guest Post · weight lifting

Doin’ My Part to Keep the Gym a Safe Space for Men (Guest Post)

I strength train in a small community center gym. It is filled with the full range of humanity who live in my diverse community. When I started working out there four or five years ago, as far as I could tell I was the only woman who regularly lifted weights. Only in the last year or so have I begun to see a shift where there are other women who lift, at least a little bit, with some regularity. Nevertheless, it is still very much a man’s domain. And perhaps because weightlifting is so deeply connected in our psyches with manliness, machoness, and physical dominance, I find that I encounter a larger-than-usual population of the toxically masculine. From aging athletes who feel that it is their rightful territory, to arrogant and ignorant newbies puffing up to attempt to appear competent, I must interact with men who at best don’t seem to recognize that I may belong there, too, and at worst, those who seem to resent my presence.

I have no idea what this woman is doing (pilates?), but it’s the only photo I could find of a woman working out NOT in only a sports bra and short shorts.  🙂

I am not proud to acknowledge it, but I have adjusted to this reality in dozens of subtle ways that allow the status quo to remain in place. The gym at my rec center remains a man’s space. All of these adjustments are done to keep the men there at ease and to avoid conflict. I would like to think that I’m just being considerate, but I am beginning to wonder if it’s really about not entirely feeling like I belong–that I’m still imposing on a space that isn’t equally mine.

Here’s a sampling of what I do:

–I work hard to be efficient with whatever equipment I’m using. Old-school gym culture suggests that folks can “cut in” and share equipment, but this is not something I see at my gym. Instead, folks stay where they are until all their sets are done and then the next person takes over. If I’m doing several long sets, I am always aware of who is around me who might be waiting for whatever I’m using. I feel self-conscious and uncomfortable if I can tell that they’re waiting for me, although I do not usually see the same consideration in reverse.

–I make it very clear which equipment I’m using. I put my workout log onto the bench before I get up to get a drink of water from the fountain. Or, sometimes when it’s really busy, I don’t get up at all. This avoids the awkward “I’m still using that” conversation. I’ve had men start to roll away a bench I had put a barbell or dumbbells next to as I was setting up a lift, and I had to ask them to please leave it there. Two-thirds of the guys just don’t seem to have processed that I was using it. Perhaps the other third of the time, they shoot me a look that suggests their needs are greater than mine.

A guy staring at his phone, leaning on a bar and bench

–When I’m doing lifts like rows in which my decolletage might show, I do them towards the wall. For that matter, any exercise that might seem “risqué” is done with as little audience as possible. I’ve caught the eyes of men who were noticing me, and it can become uncomfortable quickly. For about a year, there was a guy who I found myself making sure always left before I did, so there wasn’t any chance that he’d follow me out. He stared at me with unabashed focus every time we were both in the gym. It scared me, and I never confronted him about it.

–I wear earbuds to listen to music and to signal I don’t want to have a conversation. On a related note, I don’t make eye contact except to check on if someone is done with a piece of equipment. I rarely smile, so I won’t be misunderstood to be flirting, and I avoid looking too stern (RBF), so I don’t look too mean. I aim to be neutral.

–I wear a t-shirt or loose tank top over my sports bra all year long, even when it’s blazing hot and the AC goes out at the community center. I wear no-show panties to avoid any pantyline and high-rise leggings that keep my backside covered. I don’t want my appearance to be misconstrued as attention-seeking. The handful of times I’ve felt it necessary to inform someone that I was married, the responses I got back were less-than-respectful. As a result of these, I have also started wearing a silicone “wedding” ring when I lift.

–I avoid correcting or giving feedback to someone, even if their gym faux-pas are problematic for me. If they are sitting for half an hour on a bench I need, I don’t ask them how long they’ll be. If they’re staring at their phone next to where I need to go, I wait patiently for them to move along. If they walk between me and the mirror, I keep my annoyance to myself, even if I need to spot my form on that lift.

Despite these considerations, I have had equipment picked up and walked away without being asked if I was using it. I am yelled at about once a year. Last year, a guy started screaming at me for “wasting time” while I was resting between sets. Only last month, another guy started yelling at me (“Don’t YOU tell me what to do!”), aggressively leaning in, when I asked him if he could “please walk around” so I could do an overhead press without him directly in front of me. I’ve had benches taken over while I was standing next to them. Backhanded compliments like “I know it seems weird to be asking you, but could you show me that lift,” are common. I act flattered instead of wondering aloud why they shouldn’t ask me.

I am ok with the idea that the way I lift weights it outside of normative femininity. However, I question the “rules” I have set out for myself to share space at the gym. I’m conflicted about it–I genuinely don’t want to be in conflict with guys while I’m there; however, there’s been frequent enough issues that my rules have been adapted in response to them. Many of those conflicts were due to the man in question seemingly having his own sets of rules that aren’t based on any mutual community mindset but rather things that work best for himself as an individual. His individual needs take precedence over mine. And how do I speak up for myself, when the act of saying anything at all is often met with aggression, intimidation, and posturing? Or on the flip side of things, when they are attempting to be accommodating, they are actually condescending and belittling–how do I say, thank you but no, I don’t need you to rack my weights for me or carry that dumbbell back? I can lift it myself, and that’s the whole point of being there.

And so I’m stuck. Do I go about standing up for myself and my needs and thereby continue to have conflicts, or do I adjust my behaviors to reduce conflict so I can have as pleasant a session as possible, but perpetuate and enable a gym culture that is not accommodating to women?

Someone in pink wrist wraps, shoes and socks moving a collar for a bar with weight plates on it.

What say you? Do you stand up for your needs and risk conflict and confrontation? Are you open to feedback at the gym or does it feel like an imposition while you’re “in the zone?”

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