Real Strength

Over the last year I have met some incredibly strong people; people who can pull and push a lot of weight.  The majority of them are oddly reluctant to talk about how much weight they can move.  They definitely strive for PRs and are excited when they reach them, but they seem to take more pride in how much progress others have made than in what they can do.  They are humble in their success, encouraging to those who are just starting, and seem to have a clear realization that real strength is more than just moving iron.

A perfect example of this is Emily, who looks around her gym and explains, “This?  This is nothing.  This is just weightlifting.  Real strength is the way my sister lived every day as normally as possible for her children while she was fighting cancer.”

And that’s the truth.  Real strength doesn’t look anything like what we might first imagine.  It is not the superhero battling villains with superpowers. It is quiet and often goes unnoticed.  It’s the new mother trying to keep her calm on three hours of sleep.  It’s the soldier who has been on multiple deployments readjusting to civilian life.  It’s the kid struggling to believe in herself in the face of bullying.  It’s the family desperately hanging on after the death of a child.  It’s the parent who works everyday at an unsatisfying job to make a better future for the family.  Real strength is more like Clark Kent living an ordinary life, not mentioning a thing about being Superman, but continuing to watch out for the little guy.  Real strength is being secure enough in ourselves to treat everyone with respect and encouragement, instead of reacting to others out of insecurity and fear.  It is being able to put our own ego and concerns on hold to help others along.

Let’s celebrate the everyday examples of strength.  Please send them to me so we can share them under the “Stories of Strength in the Real World” heading.

A Prayer and An Imperfect Trust

My experience with strength training has been one of empowerment and a desire to connect and encourage like-minded people.  If that’s the part of my story that you relate to and you’ve connected with other people like you, then I’m psyched.  However, there is another layer to this story, and that is a different connection to my faith life.  I know not everyone wants to talk about faith; somehow faith has become divisive in our country and in our time.  That’s why I’ve made this part of the story a separate tab.  If you’re also interested in this aspect of the story you can take it.  If not, you can leave it.  Up to you.  It will be here later if you change your mind.

That initial conversation that I had with myself on the spin bike, the one that got me started in this direction, the one where I walked away possessing a little of my husband’s faith in me, wasn’t a conversation.  It was a prayer.  I was slogged down with all those feelings I described of being “not enough”, but the new questions I asked were based on a lesson I had recently taught my 5th & 6th grade Sunday School class.  The questions were phrased like this: “God, what gifts and talents have you given me?  What have you made special in me that I’m supposed to be using better?”

Initially, the answers I came up with did not seem particularly compelling.  In fact, they seemed somewhat lame: I love to workout and that’s when I’m happiest; I’m am bothered by injustice and poverty and exploitation and war; I’m a decent writer.  Big whoop.  The only one of those items I’d consistently acted on was the exercise piece, and if you’ve read around on this blog, you know it wasn’t always like that was coming from a good place in my mind.  In fact, what I had done in comparison to what I hadn’t done made me feel selfish.  I had exercised because I liked it; I did it for me.  Maybe, I thought, there was a way I could use exercise to help other people.  Maybe I could get my personal trainers certification and run boot camps or classes as fundraisers to support organizations that did a better job of addressing the big issues like injustice.  The idea seemed impractical, illogical, weird.

But then, louder than the self-criticism, uncertainty, and second guessing, I heard a different thought – bold and confident. “Faith is acting even when you can’t see the outcome.”  The voice was so authoritative and commanding, definitely not my usual way of thinking.  It caught my attention.  The result was that I walked out of the spin room that day, fairly confident that my next step was to pursue certification as a personal trainer, a step that seemed relatively manageable and frankly pretty fun, but beyond that … not much.

Some people love uncertainty and adventure.  They dive straight into the deep end in a bikini.  Me?  Maybe not so much.  I like to test the water, and be a little more sure of what to expect.  I like to know where I’m going.  Somehow, that day though, it didn’t matter that the final destination was uncertain.  Somehow that day, my husband’s faith in me allowed me to put a little more trust in God.  A baby step, … but that’s ok.  Pastor Earl tells us that initially God asks us just to take those small, tentative steps: “The way out of the darkness that fills our lives is not to have the perfect love, the absolute confidence, the great and powerful faith. It starts with hesitation but trusting enough to follow the instruction to care for those who are easiest.” Start with what’s easy, what we’re good at, by using the gifts God has given us.  Just a baby step, an “imperfect trust”.  The next steps will follow.

That Flippin’ Tire

jenn TireIn my lifts I focus a lot of my attention on bracing and breath to protect my low back and my “not hernia.” This is important.  I am also always amazed by the number of compensations my body uses, all of which become apparent under heavy loads.  Craig would say I’m distracted by the idea of compensations and being balanced.  I’m sure he says that because I talk about it … a lot.  And of course, if you are talking when you are lifting heavy weights, you lose the breath that fills your diaphragm, supports your low back, braces you. If you talk, you are at risk for injury.

The day Craig and his client Jenn let me join her for conditioning work, I was talking … a lot.  I had never flipped giant tires, pushed a weighted-up prowler, swung a sledgehammer, played wall ball with a med ball.  I was in heaven!  I talked out of excitement, and I also talked out of one of my usual place of insecurity, my concern about my compensations leading to imbalances.

That tire was heavy.  I noticed that every time I flipped it, after I squatted and lifted it as high as I could, I instinctively shoved my left shoulder under it to move my hands higher, and then balanced it on my left leg for a second to get a big push from my right leg so I could shove that thing over.  I started chattering about all that.  About how I always used my right side to push.  About how unbalanced I was going to be.  I was like Spiderman in the Marvel comics “Civil War” Movie.  The one the experienced superheros look at funny and say, “Uh … I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fight before, but  …. there’s usually NOT this much talking!”  Craig essentially told me the same thing, “Quit your talking and flip the damn tire!”

There are different schools of thought on balance, compensation, and corrective exercises.  Sometimes imbalances cause pain or discomfort and compromised movement patterns.  Sometimes imbalances make someone great.  What would a MLB pitcher be if he were balanced?  This is a big topic of discussion in training circles, and one I’m still reading about.

As I debated this topic in my head, I decided to split the difference and flip the tire back pushing from my left leg.  I looked at the tire.  Craig and Jenn looked at me.  I mentally and physically rehearsed how I would flip it from my left leg.  Craig and Jenn were down hill from me and the tire was between us.  It probably looked to them like I had quit.

Craig yelled up the hill, “Look if you can flip it from the other leg, great. But it doesn’t matter!  Stop overthinking it!  And STOP TALKING or you’ll get hurt!”

Jenn followed up, “It doesn’t matter how you flip it!  It matters that you CAN flip it!”

And that’s when it sort of clicked for me that the other purpose of this work, aside from anaerobic conditioning, was mental.  It mattered that Jenn and I knew we were strong and that we had experiences that validated that.  It mattered that we could train the mental chatter, the voices that whisper “not enough,” so that we could be strong in the moment and get the job done.  It mattered that we trained to work from that place of quiet confidence that would keep us safe.

Body Types and Body Image

In college one time, my boyfriend, who was on the football team, brought me to his gym. I had envisioned rows of treadmills and cardio machines when he asked if I wanted to come along.  Being a cross country runner at the time, I thought, “Perfect!  I’ll get a double run today.” Only I didn’t; it was a lifting gym. Small, gritty, non-commercial. Nothing like I expected. I was a little annoyed, because I didn’t see anything there that I thought I could do. The connection between strength and running was totally lost on me.  In fact the opposite seemed more true, that by building muscle I would “bulk up” and become less aerodynamic.  The idea that building muscle would make me better, not necessarily bigger, did not register. I’m sure I lifted some tiny weights to pass the time, but I did not go back again.

At that point in my life, I believed that if I ran more, I’d get thinner, that I would look like the marathoners I admired or like the models in popular magazines.  Essentially I believed that I would be able to change the solid, medium build, muscular body I have into something considerably different by running more.  I never believed that I would be able to run myself taller, but I firmly believed I’d run myself thin and willowy.

My belief in the power of cardio had a lot to do with the fitness and fashion magazines I had seen, all of which featured light boned, lean muscled models.  The articles paired those pictures with articles promoting exercise and eating programs that implied I might look the same if I followed the articles’ directions.  No one ever told me that there are different body types, and that magazines tended to feature only one type.  So I was left with a feeling of inadequacy and a desire to change – fertile soil for marketing.

I’m betting that most women have a similar story.  I see this as a trainer, when I tell my clients about the different body types: endomorph, mesomorph, ectomorph.  I’m honest with them that we can’t change our body type with exercise any more than we can change our height.  We talk about the fact that bodies lose fat first in the places they gained it last, and that we don’t get to pick and choose where that happens.  We bust open the myth of spot reduction and toning.  For many women this is an “ah-ha moment” that is coupled with an element of frustration that no one had shared this information before.  Often there is an accompanying sense of relief that comes with an understanding of why they haven’t been able to force their body to change, a realization that they haven’t been doing anything wrong, but that this is who they are.

Image courtesy Precision Nutrition



If I had had this information in college, I would like to believe that I would have been able to move past the pipe dream of changing my body type and that I would have been open to the opportunity to build strength in that lift gym.  I could have been a stronger, faster, more durable runner. I might have been able to preserve my knees better than I did. In reality though, with the media at the time defining beauty so narrowly, I probably still would have struggled to see my build as a positive.  In any case, knowing what we can and cannot change is important.  That’s the first step in accepting ourselves, identifying our positive traits, and building on them.  It’s a much easier and more rewarding ride, when we go with the flow instead of fighting the current – stop stressing about body weight and pick up the big weights.



When Less is More

When I started working with Emily at Fivex3Training, I had to relearn some of the form that I had been using. I had been doing high bar back squats, and Emily was teaching me low bar back squat. In general, that doesn’t really make much difference. I had started barbell squatting with light weight, high rep squats in a group fitness setting that coached the high bar squat. I was comfortable with that bar position and took it with me when I went to the squat rack to lift heavier weight. During this transition though, a small kernel of an idea was beginning to sprout in my mind, the idea that I might want to look into powerlifting competitions.  For that possibility or at the very least for my own personal reasons, I knew I wanted to lift more weight, and learning the low bar back squat the way Rippetoe’s Starting Strength program coached it would allow me to do so.

Since I was still learning a new form, obviously I hadn’t earned the right to weight up the bar much, especially on squat and overhead press. I knew I also had to train my breath and bracing. Stay tight but still breathe. Super important with a post-pregnancy history of hernias. Emily was helping me train this too. My instructions on leaving my first session at Fivex3Training were not to do any other lifting that would interfere with her work with me and mostly to rest. Having just lifted about 40% less weight than I was used to, I resisted that a bit. That old feeling of “not being something enough” was trying to insist that I had not lifted heavy enough, and I knew following her directions would be a struggle for me mentally.

“Emily, I need specific directions so I don’t get stupid. Can I still train my pull up? Can I swing a kettlebell? Tell me what I CAN do, so I don’t do something I shouldn’t do.”

She helped me break that down. I still had my group fitness classes to teach – use minimum weights. I could still train my pull up, do some light cardio, yoga. OK – there was something I could work with to keep that edgy feeling I get when I don’t work out at bay.

So I did what I could, and Craig helped me with the mental piece. He sent me links to articles on the importance of planned de-loads, about training smarter for more gains. Harder work and more work does not necessarily mean better work or better results. One of the differences between training and working out is the recognition of the need for rest and recovery, having an off-season, not constantly moving to move.

Craig is always telling me to “get my mind right.” The meaning of that seems to change a bit depending on the circumstance, but I’m learning. I’m learning that the mental aspect of weightlifting is hugely important, just as important as form and technique, and that I need to train that too. Master the feeling of “not enough”.  Face the discomfort, and not “workout” to silence it. Accept that sometimes doing less for a period of time is essential to moving forward. Resist the idea that busyness is better, the idea that we need to do more to be more. Train myself to move away from a feeling of “not enough” and instead work from a place of “strong enough”.

An Invitation for You

This morning a new woman showed up for my 6 AM boot camp. She was fit and muscular and having a great time. After class I saw her in the lobby of the gym reading my page on the wall of personal trainers:

As a former college cross country runner and marathoner, I appreciate the physical and mental benefits of a long run.  However, after having four kids in three years (twins!), I now focus on strength training and healthy eating habits as the most time-efficient way to obtain overall fitness, real-world durability, and healthy movement patterns. I am a certified Personal Trainer with a Functional Training Specialty (ACE), certified group fitness instructor, Mad Dogg Athletics Spinning Instructor.

Philosophy: My goal is to make fitness and healthful living fun and accessible to all ages, regardless of where you are in your journey, for a whole life and a whole lifetime.

Her eyes were lit up with the same kind of smile I had seen in them when she was doing shuttle runs and bear crawls. She turned to me and said excitedly, “That’s my story too!  I used to run all the time. I still do; I just completed the Boston. But now I do a lot more strength training.  I’m having a lot of fun cross-training and it’s making me better runner.”

I think it’s a good world to live in when we can connect to each other through stories of strength, and not insecurities and fear.  Please send me your story of strength.  I’d love to share your story under the “Stories of Strength in the Weight Room” tab.  Let’s celebrate, but not brag.  Let’s build each other up, but not tear each other down.  Add photos, if you want – a picture is worth a thousand words.   Let’s encourage each other.

What if?

I think it’s possible that we are all hiding a secret version of ourselves. The real answer to the question about what we want to be when we grow up. Not the answer that we came to because we were practical or because we started believing our big dreams were impractical. Maybe we hide it from the rest of the world. Maybe we hide it from ourselves too.

In my case I found that even in my fourth decade I was still asking myself what I wanted to be when I grew up. Not coincidentally I began this conversation with myself …again … one day while working on a spin bike. Since my teen years, exercise was one of the few places in my life where I felt fairly confident, but never confident enough to imagine myself as a fitness instructor.

Over the course of several years and with a lot of encouragement from my husband, I got over that fear and become certified in several group fitness formats, some endurance-based and others strength-­based. Then my husband started wondering why I wasn’t a personal trainer, and later he wondered why I wasn’t also blogging. My answers all boiled down to not being something enough. Not strong enough. Not young enough. Not smart enough. Not healthy enough. Not confident enough.

Four children in less than three years had changed my ideas of myself, physically and mentally.  Most obvious to me on that day was the fact that I was on the verge of an umbilical hernia surgery. I knew I needed to get that muscle repaired, but I had ignored it for nearly 10 years, until my husband caught me in a rare moment of crying. (Colds and hernias don’t mix well). So that’s where I was, really feeling like not enough, when I asked myself some different questions. What do I love doing? What am I good at? Could I use that to help other people? Could I turn it into a career? And for some weird reason that day I decided to have a little of my husband’s faith in me and at least use my recovery time to prep for the personal trainer exam.

It’s not like passing that exam is something no one else has ever accomplished. The amazing thing for me though was that I managed a mental shift from “not enough” to “what if”, or at least to “maybe.” From there I started wondering “what if” about a lot of other seemingly crazy ideas.  What if I could lift heavy weights? What if I could do a pull up? What if it was a weighted pull-up? What if I could squat and deadlift two times my bodyweight? What if I could think of my body in terms of what it could do and not how it looked? What if I could help other women find a stronger version of themselves too? What if I have been too focused on the wrong things and hadn’t seen the strength that is all around me? What if you explored the world of strength training with me?