Round Pegs, Square Holes, and Finding Your Space in the Gym

“I just feel…like I don’t belong at the gym.”

Let’s think about this for a minute—first of all, how many of us are guilty of this?!  For many, this is a total setback from reaching goals and making progress!  And then, let’s talk for a minute about what the hell it even means to look like we belong in a gym?  Why are we still so inclined to believe that fit people belong in gyms and unfit people don’t?  How backward is that?  But how about the general assumption that fit has a look, and that it’s usually slender?  Why are people so inclined to notice  a thin woman, who may or may not work out at all, and assume she’s fit, while overlooking the fact that plenty of bigger girls are way more fit?  Hell, when I’m not dieted down I am not sure how fit I appear, but I have rarely met a thin woman who can outlift me.  I actually want to write “I have never…” but to avoid argument I’ll say rarely.

So it’s time for another post about what fit looks like, what it means to be fit, how our minds have been so unfortunately adulterated by the media, and how we can rethink our bodies.

Nobody—not even the most fit person you’ve ever met in your LIFE—goes to the gym BECAUSE she’s fit.  People go to the gym to GET fit.  To get MORE fit.  To improve, to reach goals, to affect some new change.  Some people think they go to STAY fit, but to be honest, it usually doesn’t go well for people without goals.  So half the people I know who go to stay fit are really just there because they feel like they should be, and they’re just taking up space that would be way more useful to someone trying to GET fit or get MORE fit.

When I was new to lifting and trying to explore the possibilities for my body, I met a coach who had been around bodybuilding and powerlifting for two decades.  This old man was seriously what we’d call old school, but after years of observing athletes of all sorts, the guy knew a thing or two about them.  He approached me while I was deadlifting at the University of Maine gym, and we became friends.  The next day, he caught me running on a treadmill and asked me what the hell I was doing.  Shocked and frankly a little scared, I told him I was trying to get lean.  He told me that runners run, and lifters lift, and stopped my treadmill for me.  Bastard.  I was not yet a “lifter,” I was just a girl in a gym trying to figure it out!  But he gave me some great advice—he told me that runners are not thin because they run, they run because they are thin and their bodies are made for it.  He explained to me about body types and genetic inclinations, and pointed out athletes in a variety of sports that had certain characteristics.   He told me that I could fight my genetics or work with them, but my life would be a lot better and I’d love my body much more if I figured out what my body was meant for.

His advice not only stuck with me, but has been proven over and over for the past several years.  I do not train abs.  Ever.  And yet at high body fat I still have them.  What use would this genetic freakery be to a runner?  I have short, huge legs that build easily—I still have yet to realize my full potential in powerlifting, but I can promise I’ll be a much more successful power lifter than hurdler.  Now, I run because I like it, but I have no hopes of hitting crazy marathon times.

There are days, oh god are there, that I feel too big.  I feel bulky, unfeminine, out of place, and sometimes just plain awkward.  I have a hard time shopping or getting dressed, and my entire “look” is always affected by my build.  Certain hair cuts, clothing, and too much jewelry just look weird with my build!  I love fashion, but I understand what works on my body, and it rarely involves patterns, ruffles, a-line tops, skinny jeans, or capped sleeves.  But I can’t change this.  At my leanest, I still look hard and vascular and kind of masculine.  When I get softer (read: more body fat) I don’t actually get more feminine, I just get bigger all over!  Damned if I’m lean, damned if I’m fat.  I can change my body fat, I can change the size of my muscles (a little), but I can’t change my body type or general shape.

I recently competed in Women’s Physique instead of Women’s Bodybuilding.  I did this for several reasons, but mostly because I’m a little small for a bodybuilder.  But I love exactly how my body comes in when I’m lean.  It’s unique, and I think one could identify my physique in a lineup because it’s very different than a lot of others.  I have big round muscle bellies so my biceps and triceps are beautiful!  I love my huge legs, my big traps, and my abs.  I love the parts that are “too soft,” and I love the lines of my frame.  I also have a very feminine face and a striking complexion, and I love how that pairs with my physique.  But those things I love don’t win shows!  So I decided to try Women’s Physique, knowing the judging hasn’t been streamlined and it would be hit or miss.  I made an effort to show up a little softer than I would for bodybuilding, but it wasn’t enough–I have been analyzing photos of my most recent show as well as photos from dozens of others, and I realize that there is an unmistakable look that is being favored by Physique judges–they are looking for longer lines and a more slender frame.

I’m in the post-show regrouping phase, where I decide what I want to do next and how I’m going to do it.  I had to decide if I like my physique as is, what improvements I’m willing to make, and what changes would win shows but aren’t improvements in my opinion.  I can try to get smaller–no more squatting or super heavy lifting–to try to fit into Physique a little better, or I can get bigger and keep at it in bodybuilding.  That decision is harder than I’m making it sound–it comes with tears and frustrations, and it involves my self esteem.  But, returning to the advice of the old school coach from Umaine, I chose to deal with this by focusing on what my body is made to do–my “thing.”

I truly believe we all have a “thing,” and I can’t explain the feeling of total joy and relief I experienced when I realized what mine was.  Even now, when I feel bulky, strange, unfeminine, and out of place, I return to the thing that makes me feel amazing—strength sports.  A side effect of this for me is the ability to build muscle relatively easily, but even in physique sports I’m caught between categories.  I always come back from a bodybuilding show revved up and ready to get back to heavy lifting—and I realize that this is because the subjective nature of bodybuilding always causes me to feel like I’ve fallen short and don’t belong, so I turn back to where I feel good.

So while I’m sorting out how I feel about competing, how I feel about my body, and what I’m going to do next, I’m flipping 400+ pound tires, looking forward to hitting awesome PRs, and pressing more weight than I have in years.  I am also forced to eat appropriately for recovery from these workouts–so I will probably get bigger.  And there we have it, folks–and answer: watch out Bodybuilding, I’m coming back for you!  Who the hell wants to do all that work to gain muscle, just to turn around and lose it again to fit into a category?  Not this girl!  And I love everything that comes with building my muscles up and leaning back out to see what I have.  So I will be back.

Where do you feel good?  What’s your “thing”?  It’s time to figure out what your body is meant for.  I believe you’ll know it when you find it.  And it doesn’t have to be some extreme sport or anything competitive–it could be a cardio class that you rock at.  It could be cycling, or maybe you’re a badass rower!  Have you ever played a sport or done something that just…clicked?  Are you aware that you’re incredibly strong but too afraid to push?  Are you really good at box jumps?  Do you ever wonder if you’d be a good runner?  Maybe you’re athletic all-around and need to be pushed in a cross-training environment?  And now, the shameless plug: If you live within a reasonable driving distance of Marietta, GA, ask me how I can help you find your “thing!”

Too often we think of our bodies in terms of how they look, and we base all of our effort in the gym on an aesthetic goal.  This leads to a lot of round peg/square hole issues.  A lot of people tell me that they don’t want to be thin, they just want to feel good.  I get that.  But until you put your body to use in a way that feels good, you will continue to judge how you feel by how you look.

In my experience, changing how you look is not always enough to change how you feel.  In fact, I find that they go hand in hand but require separate components of a long process.  If you want to transform how you LOOK, it’s time to talk about what you’re eating.  But if you truly want to change how you FEEL, it’s time to talk about what you’re DOING.  And it’s totally possible to do both at the same time!

I mentioned “eating for recovery,” and if you’re lifting heavy and not sure what I mean by this, don’t be afraid to ask!  For now, here’s one of my new favorite post-workout meals.

Pina Colada Pudding:

1 cup fat free Greek Yogurt
2 tbsp coconut flakes (unsweetened if you can find them!)
banana, sliced
1/4 c kashi cereal flakes (I love the crunch…but you can do without or sub for basically any cereal!)

Mix and enjoy!  🙂

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3 thoughts on “Round Pegs, Square Holes, and Finding Your Space in the Gym

  1. Your coach was definitely right – it is so much easier when you make the best of what you have instead of trying to turn yourself into something you could (and probably should) never be. I can relate to being, as I say “built for power, not speed” – I could run for days, but I would never have stick legs. Yet I can focus on leg workouts for a week and I’ll see a difference in the muscle.
    And you nailed it – the people who “look like they belong” in a gym made a commitment to be there. But they had to start somewhere. I’ve had people tell me I don’t look like a Pilates instructor (I’m guessing because I look like a weight lifter, not a waif?), but I still am…

  2. Well put! I’m still trying to figure out what my “thing” is — I avoided everything athletic until my 20s. I’m more slender than I am stocky, but I’m far from the frame of my cross country roommate in college and I loathe running. 🙂 I’ve started doing crossfit in the past several months, though, and I’m loving that — but I still struggle with heavy lifting and I don’t know if I have the “right” build for that, either! All I know is that I LOVE crossfit way more than I ever loved that brief “I’m going to the gym and using an elliptical for half an hour because that’s what those skinny girls are doing” phase. Hopefully crossfit will help me figure out what it is my body “wants” to do most. 🙂

    (Also — cheers to flipping tires!! :D)

  3. It’s funny how perfectly timed this blog was for me to read. I finally joined a gym yesterday and must say I’m intimidated beyond words. James keeps encouraging me to have fitness goals and go in with an idea of what I want to look like in the end (“the end” strictly being a a figure of speech bc working out and being healthy should never truly end).
    I’ve a pretty good idea of what my body can do and what it can look like. I’m no runner and I love my muscles. I want more and having been sent to the weight room for gym class in high school (remember those days?) I know that I can build pretty quickly. I’ve just got to get out there and do it.
    With all that said, great blog! Very encouraging and I feel a little better now. 😉

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