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Coming off the end of our Zarya series, I figured it would be fitting to follow one badass weightlifting woman with another! Elizabeth Dorothy is a reader of the blog, and a fitness enthusiast herself! She reached out to me a little while ago about doing a guest post, and I told her it would be great to have a writeup on weightlifting from a female perspective! I LOVE her story, and the positive effect that fitness has had on her life, and I think you will as well!
To be frank with you: weightlifting changed my life, and my relationship with my body and food.
I have something to admit, before I start exalting lifting: I used to have an eating disorder. Not specifically anorexia or bulimia, but somewhere in between – some days I’d eat close to nothing, some days I’d binge and purge. Many of those close to me expressed concern, but I didn’t listen to them, because this obsession was, strangely enough, a way for me to relax. The focus on numbers and something concrete served as a way to take control of some part of my life, as I felt like my thoughts were racing a million miles per hour and my behavior could be described as unorganised at best, erratic at worst. To exacerbate all this, I was never happy with my body, and I refused to talk to a therapist or even my family about my problems. Instead of solving them, this method of coping was making new ones, physically and mentally. Eventually, it got to a point where my friends and family became too worried to let me continue as I was, and implored me to talk to them about it and seek help.
After a long struggle and support from my family and a healthcare professional, I started to eat more. It wasn’t always easy, and there were setbacks. However, as I read up on nutrition and healthy ways to gain weight, I stumbled across many women declaring that weightlifting was one of the best things ever, claiming that it boosted their confidence, made them stronger, and made them more content with their bodies. All the things I needed, basically!
I didn’t want to bulk up! Or look like a man!
Despite these – very common – fears flying around in my head, I swallowed my pride and decided to dedicate myself to lifting. After all, it gave me a number I could be control by that was much healthier than counting calories – the weight I could bench press, squat, or deadlift. And hey, as it turns out, these women are right. I have more confidence and think of food as not objectively good or bad, but as fuel for my workout and the building blocks for my sweet guns and/or buns – and hey, even if I have a burger today, I know I eat healthy otherwise. One “unhealthy” meal won’t make you unhealthy, just like one workout won’t make you healthy, and this freedom has given me the self-assurance that no amount of therapy or compliments could have, in all areas of my life. Also, my biceps are either bigger than or the same size as those of some men I know, which gives me at least a little boost as well.
So, ladies! Are you ready to feel like a strong, unstoppable force to be reckoned with? Are you ready to be able to move heavy things by yourself? Are you ready to put certain men to shame with your sick biceps?
First, I know what you’re thinking: I don’t want to look manly, I’ll lose all my feminine curves and gain so much muscle that I won’t be hot anymore.
Well, fun fact: you’ll only gain substantial, insane amounts of muscle (as in Duke Nukem or Kratos levels of muscle) if you either eat insane amounts of protein or take some kind of performance-altering drug. The hormone testosterone largely contributes to building muscle, which is, as is well-known, found in larger amounts in men than women. Us ladies have so little that we aren’t able to build huge size unless we really try, so don’t worry. To sum it up: “To build huge amounts of muscle, one has to eat huge amounts of food.”
Also, the muscle we do build is lean, fat-burning, curve-friendly muscle anyways, so more muscle will never hurt; it’ll end up making you look like all those strong female characters you admire, like Samus Aran, Lara Croft, and Xena. You know how fitness magazines love to use the word “toned” when describing their ideal? That’s what happens when a woman strength trains. I mean, just look at Daisy Ridley deadlifting 80kg while training for The Force Awakens, or Vanessa Hudgens deadlifting about the same amount while training for Sucker Punch.
Next, you may be wondering: What do I even do?
It’s intimidating to enter the weight room, I know. Even more so when you’ve no idea what lifts to be doing! Well, I’ll introduce you to the three which, in my opinion, form the basis of any good lifting routine: squats, deadlifts, and bench press. These are three compound lifts to transform your whole body – while isolation exercises like bicep curls and glute raises have their place, they simply can’t work as much of your body as efficiently as these.
Everyone knows the squat by now. It’s been made famous by Instagram stars and Kardashians a thousand times over, as it effectively works the glutes and legs while also activating the core to keep you stabilised. However, not everyone knows the form. First, the barbell goes over your shoulders, behind your head, with your hands holding the bar. Standing with your feet shoulder width apart and keeping your knees behind your toes, bend at the knees until your hips are at or below parallel with your legs. Keep your weight on your heels and your back straight – rounding is an easy way to hurt yourself! Then you just stand up, and that’s a rep.
This lift will directly help you in moving heavy objects as I promised you earlier, as well as hitting major muscle groups in the legs, back, and arms. Its beauty lies in its simplicity: set a barbell on the floor. Stand with your feet under the barbell. Lift it, without letting your back round, keeping it close to your shins and thighs. Stand straight and proud. Put it down. Repeat until you feel like you can lift the world.
Although the bench press has the reputation of being for musclehead bros, it really is a useful lift: it works your chest, triceps, biceps, delts, and generally just any muscle group you can think of on the upper body. Also, you get an excuse to lie down mid-workout. After getting all comfy on the bench, grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and fully extend your arms with the weight over your chest. Lower the weight towards your chest, elbows tucked in, and then lift it to the extended position, ready to repeat it however many times you want.
“But how many reps and sets should I do?”
I find that lifting heavy weights for lower reps has helped the most with increasing my strength and muscle. My recommendation would be 5×5, simply because it’s easy to remember and a very effective amount to be doing – enough to make a big difference, with small enough sets to lift heavy.
Once you become more advanced and confident in the weight room, moves like the overhead press and the clean are very effective as well, but these three are really the building blocks to any kickass woman’s weightlifting routine. They work the whole body, and, honestly, being able to lift more than you could last week is one of the biggest moments of pride ever.
Another thing that I’ve noticed far too many women doing, although they’re at a healthy weight and body composition, is continuing to eat at either maintenance or a deficit. Judging one’s food as “good” or “bad” – as well as using exercise to “atone” for the bad food that’s been eaten – has been far too entrenched in the female psyche nowadays, thanks in part to popular media. There’s healthy living, and there’s this behavior. I’ve heard jokes about having to stop eating to fit into a dress for an event. I’ve heard women insult themselves and their eating in front of their friends, with the rest following suit – exemplified in Mean Girls, when Karen starts by commenting on how “huge” her hips are, encouraging the rest to join in. This scene seems ridiculous, as Cady points out, saying that she “used to think there was just fat and skinny” but that “apparently, there’s lots of things that can be wrong with your body”. Despite the absurdity of this scene, I could identify with it, and I assume that many women could as well.
Even if this is done as an act to fit in, it can be harmful to many girls who start to seriously believe these things. I think that one should eat to live, and work out so one can appreciate the amazing things one’s body can do. To paraphrase Socrates, it is a shame for a woman to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which her body is capable. When one lifts weights, the focus isn’t on burning calories, but instead on something concrete and amazing: how much you can move against the gravity of the earth with nothing but your body and an iron will. If that isn’t inspirational, I don’t know what is.
For me, lifting turned working out from a way to atone for my “calorie sins” to a way to level up, eating from a fear to a way to build sick muscles, and my body from something to despise to something to say “Hey, that can bench press my friend” about.
Try it. If you don’t like it, you’ll have lost nothing, since trying weightlifting once won’t make you muscular. If you do like it – as I’m sure you will – recruit your friends into it, so every woman you know can feel how amazing it is.
Side note: Pretty sure Xena would lift weights, and hey, who doesn’t wanna be Xena?