“I Am Not Afraid to Lift”

The first truly transformative strength workshop I went to was Artemis Scantalides’ “I Am Not Afraid to Lift” workshop for women.  It was held in only the second real strength training facility I had been in. No treadmills or bikes. Squat racks, pull up bars, kettlebells, iron.  Nothing the 18-year old, endurance-runner version of me would have recognized.  I met women of all ages (early 20s up through 70s); all of them were working on getting stronger. Talk about an inspiring community.

Artemis began as an accomplished ballet dancer who believed she was never thin enough, became a martial artist who was astounded to find a group of people who cared more about how tough and strong she was than how small she was, and went on to train with kettlebells and become a StrongFirst Level 2, Russian Kettlebell Certified level 2, and StrongFirst Team Leader. Along the way, she was inspired to attempt the Iron Maiden Challenge in the world of hardstyle kettlebell training, consisting of three lifts: an overhand grip dead-hang pull-up, a strict overhead press, and a pistol squat – all with a 53 pound (24kg) kettlebell. She trained for several years and missed her first attempt at the Iron Maiden, but ultimately became the ninth woman to earn the title of StrongFirst Iron Maiden and the only woman of her size: 5’1/2″ and approximately 115 pounds. Just about my size. Hum…..

Artemis does a great job of deconstructing a lot of myths about women and strength training. Myths about women and bulking, toning, spot reducing. (None of that is real, people. It just sells magazines). Her presentation is full of information that would be helpful for all women to know, not just those interested in strength training.

I walked away from that workshop smarter, but also with a few more crazy ideas: what if I could be an Iron Maiden by the age of 50?  OK, maybe back that up. What if I could do one unassisted pull-up?  What if I could do a pistol squat to depth?  What if I could train my brain to appreciate what my body could do and not criticize how it looked?  I walked away with specific goals. Something my training had lacked over the past 15 years since I stopped running races. I walked away with a new project, a purpose, and a clear direction – and not only is that fun, it feels good!

“I am ….”

As I was studying for my personal training exam, I also was working with a friend, Alex, on a church-based exercise program that he designed (“wHoly FiTt” – you can see, he’s got a sense of humor).  He had recently lost a hundred and sixty pounds with the help of a personal trainer.  One of the defining moments for him in the process was when his trainer encouraged him to create a new “I am…” statement – to redefine himself.  At over 300 pounds, Alex made the seemingly unlikely claim “I am a gym rat.”  That statement allowed him to see the gym as a place where he belonged.  From there, he was able to continue redefining himself until he was competing in Ironman Triathalons.  Pretty amazing!

The more Alex and I talked about his experience, the more he became convinced that his trainer, Louise, and I had a lot in common. He introduced me to her; we hit it off, and as luck would have it, as soon as I was certified she asked me to start working in her studio subbing for another trainer on maternity leave.  Louise introduced me to a lot of fabulous resources and workshops, and in the same spirit of redefinition that had helped Alex recreate himself, I started to head down a strength training rabbit hole. I spent hours reading articles on T-nation – that’s short for Testosterone nation. Yeah, me!  A middle-aged mother of four following strength training gurus like Tony Gentlecore, Mark Rippetoe, Artemis Scantaledes, Dan John, and Brett Contraras. Watching youtubes of Olympic lifters and studying form.

Along the way Louise and I have had a lot of interesting conversations about the art of coaching, about habit, and about change.  She has told me that words are like drugs; they are powerful.  She pays attention to how I word what I say, because she believes that words matter. As a result, I am more aware of the way that words help shape our reality by first carving out a verbal space in our imaginations; once envisioned, we can then act to make those words real.  Creating an “I am” statement, no matter how unlikely or tentative that statement may be, helps us to connect the next steps together into a path forward.

I’m frequently impatient (and so is Alex), so when I first heard his retelling of the “I am” phrase, I understood it to be a statement of what we planned to become, rather than a statement allowing us to perceive our present selves as something different or unexpected.  For me, the “I am” statement felt like a bold declaration, something I’m often reluctant to do.  So initially, I began by silently giving myself permission to pursue an interest in something seemingly uncharacteristic.  From there, I began using the wording “I am training to be….”  Somehow, for me, that phrasing created an extra step that slowed me down, took the pressure off of actually reaching the goal, and allowed me to focus more on the process.

Whatever the wording, the intent is similar.  Rewriting our current life script, even in the quietest places of our imagination, allows us to envision ourselves differently – to see a different image, to experience a different vision of our reality.  Once imagined, we can begin to see our next steps forward, to prepare a path for change, and to begin a process of recreation.  “I am …” or “I am training to be …” What would happen if you finished the sentence?

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?