Having the Confidence to be Confident

Yes, it has been a minute since my last post.  Big thanks (and apologies) to anyone who sent me emails or left comments asking about when I’m going to post again.  I just needed a minute.

Fitness blogs started to kind of scared me.  More accurately, my participation in the Age of Fitness Blogging scared me. Everyone and their mom has a blog.   Many of them are just like mine.  The more time I spent reading them, the more I had to wonder if I was really contributing anything new to the world or if I was just being redundant.  After all, fitness experts and personal trainers are crammed in at about 1,000 per square foot of blogosphere.  And we are all so damn presumptuous.

Blogging is all about voice and audience.  Who am I talking to?  Recently, when I started to picture my audience, it was all over.  Am I talking down to someone?  Who do I think I am?  The whole premise of the blog was to send the message—hey, I’m not an expert.  I’m just this chick who got fit and learned to like herself.  Come get fit and like yourself with me!  But lately I am forced to remember that I’ve been doing this so long that I just make people feel bad when I swear that I relate to being overweight.  A friend politely pointed this out (thank you, Friend!!), and I haven’t been able to get my voice back since.

As you may be able to tell, I had started to picture the haters in my audience.  Oh yes, I have haters.  And I got a little freaked out by them. They are actually reading this right now—because that’s what haters do.  This is a very personal blog—all the best fitness blogs really are—and that leaves me wide open and vulnerable to critics and weirdos.  Which straight up creeped me the hell out.

I began to see myself through the eyes of the haters—who does she think she is?  Who decided that she was an expert?  She’s not even that great.  God, what a selfish mom.  I’d have time to get fit too if I had [fill in something, it could be anything].  Is fitness really even that important in the grand scheme of things?  And on and on.  Total existential crisis.  It’s never my peers in the industry, either.  It’s never the people I look up to whose opinions I really value.  It’s always the insecure ones who hate their bodies and take it out on me.  My existence makes their day bad.  These haters find each other and are comforted by other overweight self-haters and motivate each other on Pinterest using images of women who look much like me, but aren’t me, because the anonymity makes it ok.  Sometimes they even go out of their way to NOT do what I do.  If this makes you giggle, good.  Because once I got over the hurt of it, I couldn’t stop laughing.  I now giggle from time to time when I walk in the room and see that I’ve just ruined some woman’s day by living.  This might make me a bad person, but I tried to be nice.  And I’m not without fault—I have feelings too.

I ran away for a bit, into the safety of silence.  I closed myself off and away from vulnerability.  I stopped blogging.  I stopped actively marketing myself and my business on social media.  I made myself less so that other women wouldn’t be insecure.  But who does that benefit?  I went into the fitness industry with a specific goal—first, it was to stop hating myself.  And then, it was to help other women stop hating themselves too.  I want to affect change in body image and self esteem.  If one person reads my blog and is affected positively, then I’ve reached my goal.   So I’m going to keep writing, because I’m presumptuous enough to believe that I have something important to say.

Interestingly enough, my change of heart was inspired by a teenager.  Well, a conversation I have been having with this teenager.  She is a volleyball player on the team I coach for.  At 14, she was putting in more work than some professional athletes I know.  She is intense, she is driven, and she is not afraid to call her shots. She will work tirelessly for every claim she makes.  And she is misunderstood.  People mistake her determination for cockiness, her focus for snobbiness, and because many of them never see the long hours she puts in at the track or in the gym, they just don’t understand that she is backing it all up.   They just don’t understand her.  They don’t get where she is coming from.  And they are incredibly jealous of her unapologetic confidence.  So few people have the confidence to be confident—and when people meet the ones who do, it highlights their insecurities.

This would be upsetting to anyone, but at age 15 this is a lot to deal with.  Of course, as an adult, it’s plain as day.  Keep working, I told her—no one will be laughing when you make it to the Olympics.  People don’t understand intense people, but don’t let that stop you, I told her.  I even shared with her my favorite quote:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

Well.  Some lessons are a lot easier taught than learned, aren’t they?  And a lot easier spoken than lived.  It was easy to see why she has haters, and it was easy to recommend that she just push on and do her thing.  They’re just jealous.  But for me to accept that someone is jealous and keep pushing forward?  Well, I feel cocky and awful just typing it.  More advice to my young athlete:  accept the jealousy for what it is (it’s ok to get a few giggles in from time to time when you start to see how transparent their behavior is), let it humble you, and move on.

So here I am, back to my blog.  Humbled (and maybe a little entertained…) by my haters, forced to accept my own advice, inspired by a young athlete, and unapologetically determined to affect positive change in women around issues of body image and self esteem.

Women Should Run if They Like it: My Response

 

http://wildopenheart.com/2013/04/19/why-women-should-run-they-just-need-to-have-more-fun-doing-it/

 

http://www.dangerouslyhardcore.com/5343/why-women-should-not-run/

 

It started with a link I saw on my Facebook feed.  “Why Women Should Not Run.”  This title certainly necessitated my undivided attention!  How can anyone ignore such a bold title?  However, I read the article and moved on, giving it very little thought afterward, because like most of them, it said some stuff I agreed with as well as a bunch of stuff I didn’t agree with.  I read dozens of articles like it every day.  No big deal.  But then, the link popped up on my feed again and again.  Someone tagged me in it.  Someone else sent me a link via private message.  Several times, I started to comment but then decided against it.  After all, I don’t want to be “that person” who disagrees with everything.  So I kept my opinion to myself, resolving neither to approve nor disapprove of the opinions stated in the article.

But then, I started receiving concerned messages from clients, friends, and general acquaintances asking me for advice.  Can I not run? Should I stop?  How much is “too much?”  Someone heard five miles or less was ok, but someone else heard anything over two was bad.  People wanted to me to give them a number!  Oh dear.  After putting out several small fires, I began to realize that we now have a much larger fire on our hands.  It seems that, in an attempt to clear up some myths and point out some very destructive habits that we see often in women who are trying to lose weight, the message may not have been received as intended.  I believe the writer had a good intention, but with full respect for the author I believe it was miscommunicated slightly.

Surely, no one would mean tell women not to run.  Surely, no one would mean to suggest that no woman should ever run a marathon, under any condition?

And then the second article came out, I’m sure among many responses to the original.  So now my friends are more confused than ever.  One says women shouldn’t run, the other says they should.  Now what?  I feel the need to respond on my own blog, for my own clients and readers, because both of these articles contradict what many of my clients know to be my own belief regarding fitness.  And because there should always be a compromise.  One-size-fits-all fitness is not my style.  I’ll be the Iceland of fitness advice.

Here goes: The problem is not running.  The problem, if we should refer to it in the singular, is the combination of calorie restriction, running for the sake of burning calories, and the belief that the simple “calories in/calories out” equation will result in the lean bodies that so many are striving for.

For some, running is entirely counterintuitive to fitness goals, especially if the goals include a lean, muscular physique.  As the original article pointed out, excessive cardio is catabolic—meaning, essentially, you burn your own muscle for fuel.  And, as the article pointed out, it can lean to imbalances in cortisol and thyroid function.  Hello skinnyfat.

For others, running is a release.  I know many women who run for the love of running.  Guess what?  I’m one of them.  I love a good run.  That’s my mediation time, my release.  In fact (and I have no research to back this claim I am about to make…), I find that running really helps me loosen up through my shoulders, which are chronically tight from heavy lifting.  I’m no marathoner, nor do I care to necessarily become competitive with it, but I certainly love it.

However, I have many friends who are very healthy marathon runners—and I feel that the original article failed to discuss the ways in which running could be approached healthfully.   For instance, my runner friends eat to support their runs, cross train with some pretty heavy lifting to maintain their strength and muscle, and are not even concerned with weight loss.  I’m pretty sure they don’t even care if they are skinnyfat, just like many powerlifters don’t care about being perceived as “too big.”  As hard as we work to fight articles that claim lifting makes women “bulky,” how could we be so quick to embrace an article that claims the opposite?  One size and shape does not fit all.

To summarize, in case you do what I do and skip to the end of the blog to catch the bullet points:

  • If you like running, keep doing it.  If you don’t like running, don’t force yourself through it just to lose weight—there are more effective methods!
  • If you are going to run, your nutrition needs to support it
  • Don’t skip the crosstraining  days (included in most smart running programs)—it’s critical to your success in terms of physical health and in terms of running!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unwrapping Motivation: Not All Who are Fit are Healthy

It’s been a minute since I last wrote.  Honestly, I’ve had a lot on my mind!  Between the recent inclusion of women in the UFC, mainstream acceptance of female muscle, and emphasis on body image I’ve been seeing in the media, there has been a lot to take in.  Sometimes it’s nice just to be quiet and observe. After a pause, here is my major observation: there are two conversations happening around women and fitness.  One is taking place within the sports and fitness industry, and the other is taking place outside of it—and each affects the other.

Let me sum up these conversations quickly with some tags and key ideas:

Fitness industry: metabolic disorder, too much cardio and dieting, becoming unhealthy, reaching goals, body image issues

Outside the industry:  motivational photos, muscle, too much muscle, body as work in progress, striving to get fit, reaching goals, body image issues

Did anyone spot the overlap?  While competitors inside the industry are coming forward with stories of metabolic damage, eating disorders, and ruined lives, people outside of the industry are being motivated by images of them.  And, in both circles, more and more women are blogging about body image and self esteem, while striving like hell to reach fitness and body goals.  You may also have noticed a little more optimism in the second set than in the first—I believe that the fitness industry is reaching a dangerous point of negativity and frustration, while still providing hope to outsiders who have still never heard of metabolic disorder.  So how can we be so focused on self-acceptance while still being so willing to abuse our own bodies?  Because goal attainment is extremely important to a person’s self worth; and, as has always been the case for women, deprivation, sacrifice, and self-improvement are the key motivating forces behind most fitness goals. And it can’t be ignored that somewhere, someone is making a lot of money off women who will buy anything to feel better.

This new ideal of the fit woman is being used against us and few even realize it. In fact, the conditions by which most eating disorders develop exist in extremely high concentrations within women’s sports, and it’s starting to show.  Despite messages of health and self-empowerment, we really are back where we started when Kate Moss was the reigning ideal.

What do I mean?  Well, to sum it up, I’ll use the most popular answer from a recent poll on Sioux Country which asked competitors to name one thing they wish they’d have known before they started competing:  “That I would never see my body or food the same way again.”  Many can never feel “good enough.”  Once you’ve seen yourself at single digit body fat, it’s quite difficult to feel comfortable at 18-20%.  Suddenly everyone comments on how great you look, and with all of that reinforcement, it’s difficult to go back to maintaining a normal and healthy body.  But, a woman generally cannot comfortably maintain low bodyfat for longer than is necessary to peak for her sport, and that can be really difficult to wrap her mind around.  This affects female athletes across many sports, including MMA, gymnastics, and even volleyball. The more the mainstream adopts these ideals, the more women outside of sports will be affected.

Many of you may be wondering what I mean by “metabolic damage.”  Basically, hours of cardio and extreme calorie deficits have caused hormonal imbalances that result in thyroids that become sluggish or completely shut down, reproductive hormones that cause their bodies and moods to go haywire, and adrenals that fail to function properly, among other complications. Eventually, not only can they no longer lose weight, but many gain more weight than they had to begin with, causing body images and relationships with food to deteriorate.   Somewhere floating around in that nightmare are psychological problems including but not limited to disordered eating and over-exercising.

This is increasingly common in the fitness/bodybuilding industry, but certainly not limited to it.  As acceptance of female muscle leads to new ideals in mainstream culture (which is GREAT!), unrealistic goals and misunderstandings about how to get there are making these problems more common outside of the fitness industry.  I’m already seeing them show up in my non-competitive clients in alarming numbers.

People often look at photos of competitors for inspiration and motivation.  At least, this is what they say.  But really, the motivating force behind these photos is the hope of one day looking like them.  Or maybe even half way—but even then, these photos become a measuring post.  And this is where the danger lies.  Many of these photos involve chemical enhancement, strict dieting, and more cardio than anyone should do.  Even the healthy ones have made sacrifices to their social lives, lifestyles, and careers that would be unrealistic for most people. I would invite anyone to look closely at my lifestyle and see how, exactly, I make it work—most of you would turn away immediately and readjust your goals and expectations.  If you want to be an elite athlete, you need to train and eat like one, definitely.  You might even look like one.  But not everyone needs to be a competitive athlete, and it’s ok to accept this.

And that brings me to my point: I promote health and fitness, yes, but I do not promote spending one’s entire life in the pursuit of looking better or different.   And, as much as I advocate for family fitness and women in strength sports, it’s just not realistic for most people’s households to revolve around fitness 100% of the time.  Yes, for most people fitness involves some level of sacrifice.  Like, sacrificing pancakes for oatmeal, and sacrificing Big Macs for home cooking.  But not like sacrificing all carbs, avoiding all social situations,  or depriving yourself all day every day in the name of glory.  There is no glory in that.

Fitness inspiration photos capture one of two things: someone who took drastic measures to look like that for a very short time, or someone whose life revolves around fitness.  Both are fine—I do both, and I know firsthand that both can be done in a healthy way.  However, it is not for everyone, and therefore the apperance is not for everyone. Strive for something else!  The question you have to ask yourself is, “what are these photos motivating me to DO?”  Diet harder?  Lose more weight?  Even the photos that show women working hard often depict THIN women working hard.  Or they focus on the [often temporary] end result, instead of the process.  Not to say that thin women can’t work hard, or can’t be motivating—the photos often focus on the reward of thinness, and not the work it took to get there.

To be clear, a large majority of what you see from the fitness industry is unhealthy.  Diets with no variety, two hours of cardio per day, demolished families, budgets, social lives, and even metabolisms are all heavily prevalent.  More and more women are coming forward with stories of eating disorders and metabolic disorders—many of whom will never compete again, nor ever get back even to the weight they started at!  And, sadly, many started in the same place: simply wanting to reach a body ideal.

I have been in that place.  During preparation for my first show, I was doing over two hours of cardio a day, while lifting and eating only 1000 calories.  After the show, when it was time to go back to looking normal, suddenly “normal” was no longer good enough.  I felt like everyone expected me to look like I did for the show, and I soon developed a very unhealthy relationship with food and my body that has taken me years to correct.  The second show was better, but afterward I took two years off with no plans of ever competing again.  I had a new goal: to let a cookie just be a cookie.  To eat a damned bowl of cereal from time to time.  To ban food guilt from my life forever.  And, honestly, I won the battle and went on to compete again.  In fact, this blog was created in the hope of reaching people with a new idea of what it means to be fit and healthy.

So what does this mean for my non-competitor readers?  First, it is so important to have a clear understanding of the entire process—before, during, and after.  Here are some tips to help you stay in the safe zone with your fitness lifestyle:

  • Set appropriate and realistic goals
  • understand fully what it will take to reach and maintain them
  • be able to picture life “after” you’ve reached your goal
  • Single digit bodyfat will not happen year round for women; for most women, bodyfat in the low to mid teens will require ridiculous sacrifices—if this is your goal, be prepared to make them
  • Unless you are competing, I do not recommend setting goals that you have no intention of maintaining
  • HALF OF YOUR FITNESS GOAL SHOULD INVOLVE ACCEPTANCE OF YOUR BODY AS-IS.  If you can’t accept yourself now, how will you accept yourself after you’ve lost weight?
  • DO NOT divide food into black and white categories; once you view food as “good” or “bad,” it’s difficult to undo.  (It is ok, however, to recognize “fuel” and “not fuel,” such as McDonald’s)
  • Eat a cookie every now and then, and don’t you dare feel bad about it

If you are looking for healthy inspiration, I strongly recommend getting plugged into these two places:

http://www.siouxcountry.com/

http://www.sweatybettiesfitness.com/

Embracing In-Betweenness

As many have noticed (and have gracefully pointed out), I have been slowing down on my blog in these past couple of months.  I have been in the process of finishing up my Master’s thesis, which I successfully defended at the beginning of this month.  If you would have asked me a few months ago what I thought of my thesis, I’d have told you that it was the worst thing I have ever written and I just wanted it to be over with.  In fact, on the day I defended I knew I hadn’t said all of the things I really wanted to say; luckily, my amazing committee knew this and gave me a chance to get it all out there. To date, my thesis defense was the BEST experience of my academic career, and I could not be more proud of the finished product that is taking shape as a result.

What I do when I'm not blogging or in the gym...

What I do when I’m not blogging or in the gym…

And what is this thesis about?  Short answer: bodybuilding.  My stuffy elevator pitch involves such keywords as gender, transgression, subversion, normativity, categories, femininity, masculinity, and opposing binaries.  But really, my thesis is about in-betweenness.  Stuckness.  That feeling of never quite fitting, despite pressure to fit.  Sound familiar? You don’t have to be a fitness competitor to understand this theme.

My research points out that, no matter how hard we try, we will never fit neatly into a category.  But we already knew this, right?  The question we are left with, however, is what to do with all of the people who don’t fit.  As the sport of bodybuilding demonstrates, but which happens all the time, the tendency is to simply create new categories.  But what do we get when we make new categories?  New spaces between categories.  The more categories we come up with, the more gutter space we create.  My research zooms in on these gutter spaces, examining how they can be useful to the people who inhabit them.

My daughter defines a rainbow as being a perfect mix of sun and rain.  In-betweenness at its best!

My daughter defines a rainbow as “a perfect mix of sun and rain.” In-betweenness at its best!

In the sport of bodybuilding, we navigate these in-between spaces constantly—it can mean being too big for Figure but too small for Women’s Bodybuilding, or having a perfect physique but not having the right hairstyle (really!).  For my non-bodybuilding friends out there, however, we can look at much more practical examples.  How many of you find that jeans never fit your waist and your butt at the same time?  Or that you are healthy and fit but still not thin?  Or very thin but not fit?  Has anyone noticed the pressure to be thin and fit, but also a social drinker/eater?  Or that to be successful in sports, women must un-learn how to be ladylike?  We are surrounded by labels, categories, classifications, and contradicting expectations—and we can never fit perfectly.

The way I see it, we have two choices: we can live in the pursuit of molding ourselves to fit a category, or we stand firmly in the gutter.  Which you choose depends on how hard you want to fight, and what you consider “winning.”  Some people go to unhealthy extremes to be thin, just to look good in a picture.  Bikini competitors often get breast implants because it will help them win a trophy.  They can have that.  Personally, I suggest we willfully inhabit the gutter!  Embrace not fitting.  By doing so—by remaining in the gutter space ON PURPOSE—we face frustrations, but we don’t sell ourselves out for a trophy, or a compliment, or some other meaningless recognition.  We stick it to the man.  We own that gutter.

I am learning to love being muscular and feminine at the same time.  I love embodying multiple dualisms (translation: being two opposites at once): feminine and strong, physical and intellectual,  small and big.  It makes me feel sneaky…

Embrace your in-betweenness!

Speaking of things that are in-between, this recipe for pumpkin pie is perfectly situated between “sweet” and “healthy.”  That is, it satisfies the sweet tooth and is a healthier alternative to traditional recipes.  I am especially happy about the quinoa flour, which was an excellent way to increase the protein content.   And, best of all, it passes the kid-test!

Filling:

  • 1 can pumpkin puree
  • ½ cup splenda
  • ½ cup almond milk
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • pumpkin pie spice
  • cinnamon

Crust:

  • ½ c oat flour
  • ½ c quinoa flour
  • ½ c oats
  • ¼  cup honey
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • ¼ cup almond milk
  • pinch of salt

For crust:

Mix dry ingredients in bowl; stir in honey, oil, and milk.  Mix well with a fork or your fingers, until the mixture begins to stick together.  Press into a greased pie pan.  Bake for 10 minutes at 350.

To make the pie:

Mix all ingredients until smooth.  Add to pie crust and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.  Cover with foil and bake for an additional 15-20 minutes.

Children are the Greatest Inspiration!

 

Last week, I watched my daughter become aware of her body for the first time.

“Mommy,” she asked, “how come I’m not skinny like you?” I’m pretty sure I felt my heart stop at that moment.  There really are no words for what I felt at that moment. I asked her what she meant, and she said, “my tummy pokes out.  I can suck it in and make it like yours but I can’t keep it like that. Is that what other people do all the time?”  I felt like I had just been dropped off the side of a cliff.  At an age where “beautiful” means a long dress, and “rich” means ten dollars, it makes sense that “fat” means a big belly—including her beautiful child’s tummy.  I was crushed.

I wanted to scoop her up and run with her all the way to the North Pole, where I could find a cabin and hide her away from the world.  But I realized that the world isn’t the problem yet—she is human, and she is simply understanding her Self in comparison to Others.  Isn’t this one of the natural stages of development?

Instead of panicking (ok, maybe in addition to panicking…), I took a deep breath and listened.  Really listened.  Now, if you haven’t experienced a deep conversation with a seven year old, then let me tell you—it’s harder than it sounds.  But you don’t know what you’re missing.  We talked about our plants, friends, shiny things, tummies, TV shows…and luckily, I began to understand that the crisis I was prepared to face really wasn’t a crisis at all.  She was just genuinely curious.  It still has not crossed her mind that different equals bad, or that her body might be somehow flawed.  She had simply observed a difference and was trying to make sense of it.  But how amazing to be present for and aware of this critical moment in her life!  Now it is my job to introduce her to the different ways of appreciating her body, and to make sure she grows up plugged into things that make her body make sense to her.

As a personal trainer and coach, this is very similar to the situation I’m in with my clients–only they’ve had years to make sense of things in their own ways. I have become the confidant of all things body related, the listener to the rambling thoughts of the body conscious, and the answerer of all questions health-related.  I am often the first person to explain body types, to help them understand why they have fought with their bodies for so much of their lives, or to introduce even the concept of non-aesthetic body goals.  Often, I find myself wishing I could go back in time and catch everyone at age seven and present a greater variety of body ideals.  The body best suited for sprinting, for instance, may not do so well in volleyball.  The body best suited for gymnastics may not excel as well in ballet.  If someone could have told us these things early, how differently might we perceive our bodies now?

 

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

― Albert Einstein

 

It is not enough to simply put people on a cookie cutter workout plan or meal plan that will help them burn a few calories and lose a few pounds —I must instead attempt to plug each one into a style of training that best suits his or her body and interests, and help to re-program his or her understanding of body ideals, health, and fitness.  “Fit” for an endomorph is quite different than “fit” for an ectomorph—and without that understanding, we will get absolutely nowhere in setting, defining, and reaching goals.  And I think this is the step where many people get lost and give up.  They resign to being “too skinny,” or “too fat,” or “too muscular” and simply give up—or worse, fall into unhealthy habits that set them further back in the long run.  We could prevent this simply by setting performance goals that are appropriate for our bodies.

So how do we quantify non-aesthetic goals? Can we conceptualize a fitness goal that has nothing to do with pounds or inches lost? In some cases, these are critical goals that can mean the difference between health or a future with life-threatening illnesses.  But for many, these could really be seen as peripheral goals.  I promise that with good nutrition and training programs in place, we can make inches and pounds disappear.  Why focus so much of our attention on how our bodies look? Why run for the sake of weight loss but hate running?  Why not focus more on what we can do when we apply ourselves at something we enjoy?  What kind of life will you lead if every day is spent in misery over the pursuit of an image in the mirror?

Here’s where you can call me out.  But Sheena, you may be thinking, aren’t you involved in a purely aesthetic sport?  And yes, I am.  But believe it or not, I am not motivated by an aesthetic goal to train every day. Even the best bodybuilders I know understand that the pursuit of a perfect physique has to come in cycles in order to be effective—that is, to look our best for one night on stage, we have to be willing to step away from that as an immediate goal and focus on strength, rebuilding, and repair.  And we all set goals during that time—a bigger bench, a stronger squat, a faster sprint—that keep us motivated even when we’re taking time off from the immediate aesthetic reward.  I am not saying that we shouldn’t care about our aesthetic outcome—I am suggesting that we consider our bodies in other ways as well.

This week, don’t look at your tummy (yes, tummy…) and wonder why it doesn’t look like someone else’s.  Don’t envision what your body will look like when you grow up…er, I mean, reach your goal.  Don’t look in the mirror and wonder if it could be different—not today.  Don’t skip breakfast because your jeans were tight this morning.  Look at the bigger picture—learn to understand your body in a greater sense.  It would have been great to have started at age 7, but it is not too late to start now.

I am challenging everyone to set (and achieve!) a non-aesthetic fitness goal.  Push yourself in a way you normally might not.  Get stronger, get faster, get moving when you often wouldn’t, or achieve consistency when you think you can’t.  Get started, or get re-started.  Get through one training session without being motivated or shamed by an aesthetic outlook.  Test yourself and fall in love with what you can do. 

Example: that’s my daughter in the photo at the top.  She hiked Blood Mountain at age 6.  In the dark. On New Year’s Eve, in the cold.  The second time, just a month ago, she looked up and wasn’t sure she could do it.  That photo was taken at the top.  Now, she defines herself as a good hiker who set a goal and achieved it.  🙂

…And the Only Prescription is More Barbell

In a previous post, I suggested that barbell training is absolutely foundational to a good lifting program.  Many people have told me that they are trying to “work up to” barbell training, or that they want to “start out with” other exercises.  Now, don’t get me wrong—there are important uses for dumbbell training, cable exercises, and even stability ball exercises.  But knowing how to use them correctly is absolutely critical to avoid injury and achieve results—and barbell training is the absolute best way to learn the proper form that is necessary in order to correctly perform all other exercises.  Additionally, many beginners who start with barbells and cables are not training  effectively for any significant muscle gain–so basically they are doing cardio.  This post will explain why weight training–specifically compound exercises with barbells–is an effective way to reach fitness goals.

As I pointed out in my last post, many resistance exercises require a basic posture: shoulders back, chest out, hips slightly back (<—otherwise known as a nice arch in the lower back), and feet shoulder width apart.  You also need to know how to properly recruit your lats and delts, how to recognize and avoid overcompensating with your traps, and have at least enough core strength to stabilize yourself against resistance.  Barbell training accomplishes all of these things more efficiently than any other kind of training.

A solid lifting program should include some variation of the following compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and standing barbell rows.   Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups and more than one joint, allowing for more muscle breakdown and subsequent repair (translation: growth!).  While using dumbbells for these exercises has benefits and there is a place in every program for them, I strongly recommend that beginners first learn these exercises with barbells.  For starters, they streamline coordination—they require that your feet remain flat on the floor, and your hands are both doing the same thing at the same time! They also simplify the exercises by keeping everything symmetrical and eliminating extra movements: you move it one way, and then you bring it back.

In my best Arnold voice: “I lift things up, and I put them down.” 

Barbell training is also a means to just about every end—no matter your goal, barbell training can get you there.  For instance, if your goal is to get “toned,” lose weight, and feel more confident, then let me translate that for you: you want to get stronger, lose bodyfat, and tighten up all over by building a little more muscle.  You want to walk in a gym and feel like you belong, and you don’t want to feel weak and awkward.  Maybe you want to change a specific area of your body.

I recently posted the following quote as my Facebook status:
“Squatting—the difference between having a butt and owning an ass!”

One of the very first comments I received was something like, “ok, now tell me how to tighten my tummy and thighs!”  Great news: in a roundabout way, squatting can make those things happen too.  Remember: you can’t spot-treat a specific area of your body, so to “tone the belly” and see changes in the thighs, it is necessary to lose body fat and train the muscles.  So let’s talk about how barbell training is an effective way to achieve just about any fitness goal.

Let’s start with fat loss.  This is not the post where I talk about the importance of diet, nor the post where I weigh the benefits and drawbacks of HIIT vs fasted cardio.  This is more basic than that: to lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you store.  While diet is a key player, guess what your diet will be based on?  Your basal metabolic rate. That is, how many calories your body burns while you sit at your computer and write a blog post.  And your basal metabolic rate (BMR) is influenced by the amount of lean mass you have.  My BMR was much lower five years ago than it is right now, because I have spent these years increasing my lean mass (muscle).

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “muscle burns fat”?  Well, it’s not quite as simple as that but it gets the point across.  Your body requires more energy (read: kcals) to maintain lean mass (muscles) than fat.  So a body that weight 150lbs at 18% bodyfat will naturally burn more calories while doing absolutely nothing than a body at 150lbs and 30% bodyfat.  A lot more.

When I create a nutrition plan, I first estimate to the best of my ability the BMR so that I can then create a deficit—that is, how many fewer calories need to be consumed than burned.  If your BMR is 2000, then to lose one pound each week on diet alone, your diet would consist of 1500 calories a day.  1500 calories is not a lot of calories, especially for someone who wants to lead a normal life that doesn’t focus on fat loss 24 hours a day.  My calories don’t drop that low until I’m half way through my contest prep diet (and at that point my life IS focused on fat loss 24 hours a day).  So when I work with someone whose BMR is in the 2000 calorie range, I don’t like to suggest creating the deficit from food alone.  You can decrease your calories, increase your activity, and…wait for it…increase your BMR by increasing your lean mass!

Have I convinced you to grow your muscles yet?  Now you’re in my world, speaking my language, and you didn’t even know it!  You might have thought you just wanted to lose a little belly fat and now here we are talking about how we’re going to put muscle on you.  Ha.  Now, let’s go down that road.  Curls and front raises with ten pound dumbbells are not going to get you there.  How often do you see someone with HUGE arms, but no back muscles and tiny legs?  If you have, you were looking at a bad combination of chemical enhancement and crappy training—and those guys get laughed at DAILY.  The truth is, the people with the most muscle have that much muscle because they know how to get it: they are squatting, pressing, rowing, and deadlifting. These four exercises work just about everything.

Wait wait wait!  Don’t get scared and run away—I’m not suggesting that you need THAT much muscle, nor am I suggesting that it’s possible to get that big by training alone.  I’m just pointing out that the people with big muscles are clearly on to something and we can learn from them.  Long story short:  You need more barbell in your life if you want to gain muscle.  You need more muscle in your life if you want any significant change in your body composition.  So now what’s holding you back?

Stop Throwing Like a Girl!

 

“You play ball…like a GIRL!”

Does anyone remember that quote from The Sandlot?  That moment really hurt my feelings when I was ten years old.  It’s not just what he said–it was the reaction it elicited.  The horror on the faces of those boys made me realize what a shameful thing it is to be compared to a girl.  Maybe that’s when my Women’s Studies career was born.  The worst insult someone could possibly come up with was to compare them to…me?  So please recognize that I am not quick to use that phrase—and yet, if you’ve ever trained with me you may recall that I’ve told you, “hey you’re throwing like a girl again—focus on your big muscles.”  What do I mean by this?

I borrow this phrase not from the insult but from an essay by Iris Marion Young (1977) in which she breaks down what it really means to throw like a girl and why women often have trouble with things like opening jars.  Young points out that because we are taught to sit with our legs together, keep our arms close to our bodies (how many women drive with their arm extended over the passenger seats?), and not take full advantage of our lateral space, we confine ourselves to using only our small muscles.  Men, on the other hand, have not been taught to limit their movements in this way and therefore take up as much space as they please; the result is that they learn to use their larger muscles.  Essentially, men “put their backs into it,” while women tend to use only our wrists when opening jars or throwing a ball.

I have built on this idea in my own occupation to explain why women struggle with squatting, pull-ups, rows, and other compound movements.  I have observed over and over that male clients jump up on a pull-up bar and naturally recognize it as a back exercise and do pull-ups easily, while women try to curl themselves up and fail.  This same observation applies to rows, pulldowns, etc.  I see so many personal trainers whose clients aren’t anywhere near proper form, and I suspect that it’s not because the trainers suck and failed to teach the proper form.  I think it’s that they tried and eventually gave up because they never understood what was holding the client back in the first place.

Women who are uncomfortable in a gym but decide to give weight training a try naturally gravitate toward dumbbells.  And my gosh do they do some ridiculous stuff with those dumbbells.  I am not judging, so don’t take offense!  But I am observing which exercises seem to feel comfortable for women and which don’t, and sometimes it just blows my mind!  How is balancing on a bosu ball and doing half squats while curling more comfortable than an actual squat?!

Is it a coincidence that dumbbells are easy to keep close to the body, or that “comfortable” arm exercises simulate womens’ habitual use of small muscles, instead of  taking full advantage of the larger, stronger back and leg muscles as the compound exercises would?  I think not.

By sticking with dumbbells and shying away from barbell training, you are holding yourself back on many levels.  Not only will you most likely not come anywhere close to your fitness goals, but you will also never fully develop the confidence that you deserve.  You will never know how strong you are, how capable you are, or what kind of person you’d have been if you hadn’t been forced to keep your knees together in a skirt.  Forgive me, but that is some profound @#$%.

If you look at my client training programs, you’ll probably notice a trend: there is almost always some variation of the squat, bench press, military press, and deadlift.  My plans almost always involve barbells.  Why is this?  Well, I’m trying to brainwash all women into getting bigger, stronger, and more masculine so that I can start a converse-wearing, feminist army and take over the world.  Duh! Or, maybe it’s because I believe very strongly in the MANY benefits of training with compound exercises, and I feel that barbell training should form the foundation of anyone’s understanding of weight training.  Too many people think the barbell is step 2 and for more advanced lifters, but I believe the opposite is true.

Simply put: before we talk about squatting on a bosu ball and adding in a dumbbell curl, we should break that down and learn proper form.  And the best way to do that, in my opinion, is with a bar on your back.  It naturally draws the shoulders back, brings the chest out, and allows you to form the beautiful arch you’ll need for almost every exercise thereafter.

If you know darn good and well you should be training with bigger weights, or that you should be incorporating barbells and compound exercises (squats, bench, deadlift, rows) into your training, but you’re shy, intimidated, or just plain lost, HIRE A PERSONAL TRAINER.  And look, that’s expensive–I understand and it’s the bane of my existence.  Ideally, you’d hire someone for at least the duration of a program (anywhere from 4-8 weeks), but if you can’t afford it then do what you can!  A couple of sessions to teach you how to do the exercises may be all you need.  I’m not recommending that you make a long-term commitment to paying an arm and a leg for someone to stand next to you with a clip board.  The truth is, even as a trainer I see way too many people sticking on with a personal trainer for way too long.   On the other hand, there are plenty of people in the gym who clearly should have let someone help them but never did, and now they have big egos and crappy workouts.  Let us help you get on your feet, get past a hurdle, or achieve a goal, but then go on about your business of kicking ass on your own!

Stop throwing like a girl.  Use your big muscles.  You CAN do pullups, I swear.  The barbells aren’t going to crush you, and you won’t “bulk up” unless you want to.   Trust me, there are plenty of men who ask me for advice on how to do this—for women, it’s much more difficult and can’t be done accidentally. Whether you think I’m “too big” or “just right,” remember that it has taken me five years, tons of HEAVY training, and a lot of eating just to get what I have now—and I’m still growing.  If you need help, hire a trainer even if only for a few sessions.  I can recommend some great ones who live all over the country, so don’t hestitate to ask!

In the next post, I’ll discuss the benefits of compound exercises, how they actually help with fat loss, and why women really really need them.

Time For Change

I don’t do this often, but I stumbled upon a friend’s blog post and felt compelled to share this with my readers!  Some of you may know her, but most of you won’t.  She has recently made a choice to change her lifestyle, and the amount of motivation and commitment emanating from her is so inspiring!  I can talk all day long about how to get started, but my point of true change happened several years ago, and maybe for some of you it would be helpful to hear from someone who is just starting out.  Much in the same way a couple might fall in love again at the memory of a first date, I am completely inspired by the memory of what it was like in the first moments of what is now my lifestyle.  Sandra captures this moment so beautifully that it took my breath away and I had to share it!  

Maybe some of you want to make a change but you’re afraid, or there’s something holding you back from moving forward–read what Sandra has to say about that!  

You can follow her here.     

 

Beautiful on the inside and out!

TIME FOR CHANGE

Ok so here comes some hardcore truth.  I’m spilling the beans and it won’t be pretty but it’s ok b/c I’m going to change that now and that is the beauty of it all.  It is never too late to change.  Thank Goodness!

So first some history and let me start by saying I had a great childhood so the following is more on the history of my knowledge of fitness and nutrition.  I grew up in a Latin household eating all the rice, beans, maduros, and meat my heart desired.  I had soda for breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, and yep even before bed.  Cookies, chips, Swiss rolls, cakes, sweet cereals were all easily accessible.  Fruits and vegetables? Yeah, what are those again?  It was bad but I don’t blame them.  Food was a source of enjoyment, family time, reward, and success.  Yes success.  A full belly meant you had enough money to splurge on all the food you’d like and when the country you were born in has a low food supply the idea of limiting foods is unheard of, but abundance is a dream.  So we live and learn and it’s time for change.

Fitness.  Thank goodness for P.E. or I’d have never exercised a day in my life.  I lived in a big city with lots of “bad” people, going out to ride bike was a big no no.  My parents, God love them, didn’t care much for fitness.  Going to the park, or riding bike, or even tossing the ball with me, was not a high priority and let’s face it it’s not like I asked either.  So I watched TV, played with dolls, talked to friends, but  there was very very minimal physical movement going on.  In fact it was not till I was 16 and met the love of my life that I found out regular people go the gym.  Gasp!!!  Hysterical, or a bit sad, but true none the less.  My husband (Alex) was a gym rat, well still is.  I thought it was cute. “Awe look how cute he looks in jeans.”, “He’s so health conscious.”  So we dated for a minute and soon after got married.  That is where I met my first gym in Aventura, FL, Olympia Gym.  Awkward? Yes, very.  We went together and I got on most of the machines and did what I thought I was supposed to do.  I realized I was pretty strong but my body didn’t really change.   Since then I’ve been a member of at least 7+ gyms and I’ve learned nothing.   Well I’ve learned a lot but not how to implement it or use it for MY benefit.  I’ve lost 40-50 lbs and then gained them, then lost them again.  I’ve lost biggest loser contests and I’ve won them.  Yet here I am and I’m so tired of not knowing.  Again, Time for Change!!!

Now comes the part so many don’t talk about.  Recently some T.V. shows are bringing to light another incredibly important factor in your health.  Emotion!!  The psychology of why you are where you are and why you can’t get out of that vicious cycle.  This is the hard part.  I believe I actually enjoy working out.  No, I know I do.  Once I start there is a sense of accomplishment and instant gratification unlike so many aspects in life beyond your control.  However there is this damn voice in my head that tells me now and then “Wonder what they think of me?”  Wish she’d shut the hell up but no she’s there loud and clear and it makes me doubt myself, plays havoc with my self-esteem, and sadly makes me walk away.  My constant wondering of how people view me and what I want people to view me as, has been my downfall in so many ways.  It has stopped me from going where I’ve never been, reach new limits, and take certain risks.  But worst of all it has stopped me from believing in myself.  I valued others more than myself and let me tell you that is in most cases a fail fail situation.  Instead of seeing myself as a possible inspiration to someone, I saw myself as the “fat” one at the gym.  Instead of being proud of my workout, I criticized my form and performance.  And before too long I had talked myself out of all the progress b/c for heaven’s sake someone in that gym may be laughing at ME!
It is not a good place to be and I’m still struggling with it.  However I guess age teaches you a thing or two or you finally just stop giving a damn about a lot of things.  I truly believe out of all 3 aspects in my life the psychological one has been the absolute hardest and most straining.  Honestly I don’t even know why it is there.  I can’t say I’ve had a lot of negative influences in my life.  My parents love me unconditionally and I have a husband who adores me in ways I didn’t think truly existed.   As for everyone else their views of me, or should I say the views I forced upon them of me, has built walls so high I can’t even measure them.  So if I ever feel an instructor thinks I’m slacking (when I know I’m not) it has hurt me.  Disappointing someone that I feel I need to gain the respect of is just not something I deal with well.  I’ve never done well with people not liking me simply just because, however add the fact that I may care about that person and it’s just a blow to my ego that I have not been strong enough to overcome. Well it’s time for some real f’n change!!!!

I have, I think come to terms with who I am (it’s a work in progress).  It happens a little bit more each day, month, and year.  Now I’m truly ready to make the changes for me. It’s not just about changing my body anymore.  It’s not about what society says I should be or look like.  It’s about valuing myself and giving myself some damn credit. Dang it I am good enough and if you don’t agree with my effort well screw you because at least I’m putting effort.  I’m doing this for me so your view is no longer my concern. So what if I don’t look the way I’d like in my workout cloths, so what if I shake as I push that weight, so what if my hair is all over the place, so what if I need a break or if I have to call it a day sooner than later sometimes.  I’m giving it my best and I’m making this my life not a hobby.  I have different goals so your generalizations do not include me. As for criticism, go ahead and offer it, but be constructive with it.  I may do something b/c I’m injured or have limitations or am getting older (lol) however I will come up with alternatives and I will keep going.  I’ve had a lot of positive influences in my life.  A lot of support!  However it is not till your mindset changes.  Till you make the decision for yourself and no one else that you can finally succeed.   This Change is for me because I’m ready and you can either guide me or get the hell out of my way.

Ok so maybe I still have to work on emotion a bit or a lot but you get the idea.  Just like me I’m sure there are many.  There are those who are lazy, those who have not committed, and those who are mentally weak.  Help them and realize that all of the above, Nutrition, Exercise, and Mental health are dependent of each other.  We don’t all have the same background, same will, same wants and needs.  There are physical restraints that stop some, don’t roll your eyes, show them an alternative.  I know some need more time than others but we all want to succeed we just need our minds to say,“It’s time!”

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!  🙂

Fitness and Body Image: The Existential Crisis

I have never really known “what I want to be when I grow up.”  At almost 29 years old, this would seem to be a problem, no?  But it has recently dawned on me that I am doing exactly what I have always wanted to be doing.  I basically made up a career out of intersecting interests and talents.  Even as recently as a year ago, I wished on a star that whatever I ended up doing, it would involve helping people.  I was afraid of getting sucked into a career of selfishness.  And secretly, I have hoped since I was a child that whatever I ended up doing, I could be writing.

“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I do not feel I should be doing something else.” –Gloria Steinem 

Well, shit.  This isn’t exactly what I had in mind.  I thought I’d be in Africa volunteering and writing about it.  Turns out, I help people get fit and I write about it.  Fitness?  Really?  God, are you sure—this must be some kind of mistake!? Not exactly earth shattering stuff, and I have a tendency to get discouraged.  How is fitness important in the grand scheme of things?  Why, of all freaking things, would God put me to use in this way?  I have spent the past two years running desperately away from fitness because, as important as it is to me, I haven’t wanted to see its importance to others.  I wanted to employ my mind, not my body.  I wanted to lead people, help people, and write. Once I use the word “bodybuilder” to describe myself, no one remembers or hears anything else I say.  This used to severely frustrate me!  Besides that, I have two degrees in Women’s Studies—if I were supposed to focus on fitness for a career then why didn’t I go for kinesiology or some other health-related degree?

I have recently changed my outlook on things, as I have come to realize what it really is I am supposed to do with this opportunity.  The truth is, my purpose in life is not to push fitness on anyone.  I am not here to send the message that going to the gym is a life priority.  I encourage it, and I love it and want to help others learn to love it, but that is not the end all of what I am called to do.  My degrees in Women’s Studies have been, ultimately, focused on body studies—how we think of the body, how we learn to use our bodies, body image and the influences surrounding it.  Through bodybuilding I have pushed the boundaries and helped to redefine it.  And these things put me in a perfect position to do what it is I really am meant to do: affect change in the way we think of our bodies.

For some people, positive change happens when we employ our bodies in some physical way, pay attention to what we put in our bodies, and find pride in what our bodies can do.  For others, it comes from the realization that “bad” food tastes good and fat is ok.  I am not a mlitant health and fitness evangelist—I am not trying to save the world by forcing everyone into fitness.  If you don’t work out, we can still be friends.  I am, however, attempting to question the norms of what we consider healthy.  I am calling into question what healthy can look like, what bodies should look like, and how we define fitness.  If you define fit as skinny, or use the term “fat” as a slur, then the odds are pretty solid that we are not friends.

There are, truly, people who are content with their bodies and have absolutely no desire to change them; I envy these people.  But there are also a lot of people who have given up on themselves and would rather pretend to be ok with their bodies than to face the public admission (by way of gym membership or any other public act of fitness) that they want to change and don’t know how.  I have met both types, and I have also been surprised at my own mistakes in identifying them.  I am frequently surprised to learn that people I’d have never expected to care are suddenly in the pursuit of fitness.  I have learned that there is no community, no subculture, no type of person, no religious or political subset, that is immune to the desire to be fit.  Fascinating!

Do you ever catch yourself prioritizing fitness in a way that scares you?  Really—in the

This is one guy who could have used some heavy compounds!

grand scheme of things, how important are these miles I’m about to run?  People are starving and here I am counting calories.  I call this my Fitness-Induced Existential Crisis.  But I am reminded that people commit suicide over body image and low self esteem.  They eat themselves to death in self-pity.  They harm others to make themselves feel better.  Maybe Napoleon wouldn’t have been such an asshole if he’d have realized short guys make good squatters.  Maybe Hitler wouldn’t have committed mass genocide if he’d have learned to deal with his own insecurities.  Did I really just suggest that fitness could change the world?  Don’t let me make more of it than it is.  My point is that rather than reaching out for help, people hide their own insecurities and act them out in terrible ways.  My job is to send the message that we all have them, and we need to rethink the sources of those insecurities.

There is no moment more absolutely flattering than when a woman comes to me for help with health and fitness—this moment is so incredibly personal and requires a tremendous amount of trust.  For her to approach me, she has to feel certain that I will not judge or criticize her, and she has to feel comfortable admitting to me that she wants to change.  As a trainer, it is absolutely necessary for me to honor this trust.

To that point, I want to thank every single reader and subscriber to my blog.  If you’ve clicked on my blog EVER, I’ve gotten your attention to the extent that you care what I have to say.  If you’ve made it to this paragraph, then I’ve succeeded as an entertaining writer.  If you’ve visited my blog and read more than one post then I have succeeded as an engaging blogger.  But these things also mean something more—it means that I have earned your trust.  Thank you; my site stats alone are reminders that what I’m doing with my life is not insignificant and unnecessary.

Tell me about you—your experience with body image, your outlook on health and fitness, your struggles and triumphs.  Leave a comment below!