“It is by acts and not by ideas that people live.”— Anatole France
Transforming myself from a couch potato to an athlete has been the most important, life-changing activity I’ve ever engaged in. Apart from my marriage, there’s been nothing else in my life with such profound consequences.
First I should say that a lot of people wouldn’t consider me an athlete at all. At 47 years old, 5’2″ and 200+ pounds, I hardly look like one. But the thing is–I act like one. Our actions are what define us, more than our thoughts and beliefs, and definitely more than other people’s beliefs about us. The things you really believe in, the things that really matter to you–you do. Accordingly, that makes me an athlete.
“If you’re not scared, it’s because you’re not paying attention.”— Marge Simpson
I started exercising and dieting when I reached a weight and size that alarmed me greatly. I was 260 pounds and a size 26. The thing that really terrified me was that there didn’t seem to be any end in sight–I knew that if I didn’t make some changes, I would soon weigh 280 pounds, then 300, then 400… I was scared.
All the reasons why I got to that weight and why I didn’t do something sooner are too much to go into here. I just want to say that it had to do with fear and self-doubt and despair, and nothing to do with sloth or laziness. Anyone who thinks “fat-and-lazy” are one word is a fool. If nothing else, someone who lives with the hatred displayed to fat people in this society has more character and mental fortitude than you imagine.
“It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little.”— Sydney Smith
At first I approached exercise with much trepidation. I HATED it! It hurt, it was tedious, it was boooooring. And at my weight, almost any kind of exercise was painful and held a real possibility of injury. I built up slowly. I taped those aerobics shows on television like Crunch Fitness, and worked out every single day for 30 to 60 minutes. I bought a Richard Simmons tape (and gained a real respect for that guy). I bought a glider (that thing the pony-tail guy sells) because it was the only home exercise equipment rated for my weight.
The only thing worse than exercise was dieting. I dropped from approximately 3500 calories a day to 1800. I was very resistant to the idea of dieting, because I felt that I wasn’t really eating all that much. And in terms of volume, I wasn’t. I was never someone who ate entire bags of this or whole boxes of that. I mostly just ate too many restaurant meals–the calories add up very quickly.
“I do not believe in a fate that falls on men however they act; but I do believe in a fate that falls on men unless they act.”— G.K. Chesterton
I lost about 60 pounds over 18 months. Then eventually I stopped losing weight entirely, no matter how much I cut my calories or how much I exercised. And somewhere in there I discovered weight lifting.
It started with some shows on FitTV and ESPN, which is where I got all my fitness advice. I watched Body Shaping and Kiana’s Flex Appeal. I really loved the way the women looked–I have no problem with female muscle, up to and including being “bulky.” The people on the shows seemed so NICE. They weren’t intimidating or exclusionary or macho. They showed people with different abilities and different levels of fitness and competency, all participating in the same activities. It began to seem possible that I could do that too.
You don’t become good at something unless you participate, and you don’t have to be good at something to be ‘allowed’ to participate.”— Me
I got a couple of little dumbbells and started doing biceps curls and triceps extensions. Someone gave me a weight bench with plastic sand-filled weights, and I kept it in the dining room and used it a couple times a week.
The transition wasn’t quite complete yet. I liked the weight-lifting, it made me feel very groovy and daring, but I was just playing around with it, and not doing a directed program that brought results. I wasn’t consistent with my efforts. Eventually we sold the bench at a garage sale because it was taking up too much room.
Not long after, I discovered Cathe Friedrich‘s show Cardio Blast. Despite the title, most of the hour-long episodes were centered around weight lifting with dumbbells. This is when I began to take weight-lifting seriously. I need to write Cathe a fan letter telling her how much she changed my life!
“The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.”— Emile Zola
I think it finally clicked with me because her program was a follow-along type. Before, I didn’t really know what to do–I’d end up doing curls because I didn’t have anything else in my repertoire. Watching Cardio Blast, I learned squats, deadlifts, shoulder presses, rows, pushups, oblique twists, flyes… I learned different protocols like pyramiding up and down, slow counts, eccentric emphasis, explosive movement, supersetting and intervals. Knowledge built up rep by rep.
Most significantly, I saw Cathe and the other women using big weights. Instead of the 3-pound pink dumbbells, they did their curls with 15s! They did chest presses with a 20 in each hand! My workout equipment started taking up a lot of space in my bedroom and I started becoming very STRONG. After just a few weeks of a routine, I could see noticeable differences in my arms, my calves, my back. I’ll never forget the day I just whooosh! lifted up a big television when I needed to move it. Raaarrhh!
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds courage”— Dale Carnegie
This was the epiphany for me. I saw that strength training enabled me to DO things. All that cardio exercise, while it has its place, didn’t really have any measurable achievements. Unless you’re a professional dancer, spending hours developing the ability to mambo-step-turn-repeat! doesn’t gain you anything in the rest of your life. It’s an isolated skill with no real application, sort of like getting really good at Pong. And it’s the sort of endless, unmeasurable, non-goal-oriented type of activity that women are frequently nudged into, whether it’s one’s workout or one’s career.
I was so proud when I started to outgrow those 20-lb dumbbells. The limits of my grip strength made heavier dumbbells impractical, so I bought something called a Sensible Gym, an inexpensive version of the Total Gym. It’s a good piece of equipment. Now I could do some of those exotic exercises like lat pulldowns and sitting rows. A whole new world.
“Change is one thing; progress is another.”— Bertram Russell
I started reading Cosgrove, Berardi, Ballantyne, Scott-Dixon, Venuto. I visited websites like T-Nation, Wanna Be Big, Straight to the Bar, Krista’s, ExRx, Crossfit, Mazpik Teruzim. I subscribed to Men’s Health magazine and cut out the workout poster every month. There wasn’t much out there directed at women (that’s changing, and thank goodness for Krista) so most of my information was by and for men. Men don’t obsess about their weight; men don’t want to be skinny. I didn’t start thinking “like a man“, but I believe the lessened exposure to the constant “thin-thin-THIN” propaganda women are bombarded with had an effect on me. Gradually my focus changed, my goals changed. It wasn’t about a number on the scale anymore, it was about the number on the bar.
Last June, my husband* gave me an Olympic bench, bar, and weights for my birthday. I was terrified of it at first. The weights are HUGE. But after one or two sessions I fell in love with it. When I look at my workout notes from two years ago, I was benching and deadlifting 40 pounds and thought I was a bad-ass; now I’m lifting about 100 (That’s multi-rep multi-sets; I have no idea what my one-rep-max is. Maybe a million pounds?).
*Somewhere in here I have to give huge props to my husband, who always loved me at all my weights and sizes, who always encouraged me to accomplish anything I could, and who is not the least bit threatened that I can almost beat him arm-wrestling now. Shocked, but not threatened.
“DLF > DNF > DNS” (Dead Last Finish is greater than Did Not Finish is greater than Did Not Start)— T-shirt
Two workouts that influenced me the most are Alwyn Cosgrove‘s Minimalist routine and Craig Ballantyne‘s Turbulence. They emphasize efficient movements using the big muscles, and a lot of compound exercises–where you get the most bang for your buck. Not coincidentally, both routines gave me the greatest results and motivated me to attempt more. I try different things all the time to stay fresh, but I’ll always come back to the holy trinity of bench press, squat, deadlift.
In December 2006 I bought John Berardi’s Precision Nutrition program. I haven’t lost weight with it, but it definitely improved my diet. I try to stick with the 90/10 rule of eating 90% perfectly and allowing 10% for treats. In reality, I probably achieve an 85/15 split. Martinis are usually my downfall. I don’t count calories anymore, because it just drives me insane. It’s definitely a good tool when you’re starting out, but at some point it becomes counter-productive and crazy-making.
The only supplement I take is fish oil. I used a protein powder for a while but I didn’t see that it did anything for me. I’ve been eating a low-carb diet for years, and honestly it hasn’t caused me to lose any weight–I’ve tried very low carb, like ZERO, without success either. I bought creatine recently, but my workouts have been temporarily interrupted with some back pain, so I can’t judge its effectiveness yet. I think I saw growth in my trapezius muscles in the week or so I was using it.
“I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.”— Jonathan Winters
Here’s why I got hooked on weight-lifting. There are clearly defined goals, and you know when you get there: I lifted 50 pounds last week, I can lift 55 pounds this week. Progress. Results. Success. You see changes in your body within a matter of weeks, sometimes within days, from one workout to the next. Losing weight has never been that way for me. Each pound lost was an epic struggle, and each pound could be jeopardized by the dietary indiscretion of a single meal of a single day of the week. Fitness is never lost; the benefits of working out on Tuesday are not negated if you spend Wednesday on the sofa.
I have to be honest and say that if I was successful with continued weight loss, I’d probably be touting whatever plan I was on and the hell with fitness. I’d be all about showing off my size zero butt and subsisting on fat-free yogurt. There’s a lot of societal reward for that. My inability to lose any more weight after that initial 60 pounds forced me to focus on what IS attainable for me. I might simply be making a virtue of necessity, but in some ways I’m glad my focus has changed this way. Losing weight only made me feel better about the way I look, and that’s a very shaky foundation. Becoming more fit changed my perception of who I am.
“If I had more skill in what I’m attempting, I wouldn’t need so much courage.”— Ashleigh Brilliant
When it comes down to it, that’s what I wanted out of weight loss anyway: the ability to DO things. To walk, to run, to climb, to be able. Of course I also wanted to look good; who doesn’t? I’ve had to accept that I may never look the way I want, but I can acquire the ability to do anything I want. I can develop the ability to surf or dance or do push-ups or hike or run or skate. I may not ever be good at them, but being able to try is what matters.
I will always be conscious of and trying to control my weight–but not at the expense of good nutrition and physical strength. I remember at one point in a very low calorie diet I found I was literally too tired to exercise, and I realized what a very bad trade-off that was. Now I concentrate on eating nutritious, whole foods that fuel my body’s activities. I watch my portions but don’t obsess about it. I eat for function, not for fashion. If weight loss followed, that would be great, but it’s not the measure of my success.
“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”— George Bernard Shaw
The most important thing I gained from weight-lifting, and fitness in general, is confidence and belief in myself, and it’s extended into my career, my relationships, and my other activities. I tend to anticipate eventual success now, rather than failure. I know that showing up is the first step. I know that hard work pays off, that even when it doesn’t achieve the desired goal, there are many, many other benefits to working hard and long at something you love. I know that it can take a long time to achieve a goal–but what else were you doing with your time anyway?
I have so much more courage now–I feel that I have the right to try something regardless of what anyone else thinks. I’m less intimidated by the opinions of others–and no small part of that is mentally muttering “dude, I could kick your ass.” (Yes I know that’s juvenile.) I’ve learned how to deal with failure, to keep trying, and sometimes to rethink the challenge and find a better direction.
Weight lifting has also given me the ability to believe it when I do succeed. I’ve always been so insecure that I questioned whether an accomplishment really “counted,” whether it was worth doing, whether it was so easy anyone could do it, and even whether it happened at all. I can snatch defeat from the jaws of any victory. But when it comes to weight lifting, I know I did it. No one can do it for you, no one can take it away, nothing can make it any easier, there’s no tricks or shortcuts. Doing is believing.
One of my big successes recently was mastering push-ups. I set a goal of 10 push-ups and eventually worked my way from zero to goal. It took two months longer than I thought it would, but now I can do 10-12 reps in a row. Right now one of my big goals is to do a pull-up. It’s clearly impossible, given my body weight, but it makes me happy to be trying.