Calories Burned is Not a Training Measure

After finishing their work with me on an off-season strength training program, three of my kids decided to try out the various cardio machines at the gym.  For them, it was big fun propelling themselves quickly through space on an elliptical and discovering that they could play solitaire on the screen of the treadmill while walking or running … or skipping.  They were having a blast and were asking to come back again the next day.

After a few minutes, they excitedly reported back to me about their progress on the machines: “Mom!  I’ve burned 50 calories!”  Little internal groan and a feeling of deflation on my part.  I knew they were proud of their efforts and I wanted them to be, but seriously?  12 year old kids talking calories burned?  “OK, … ” I said, nodding, “but I don’t care about the calories.  How fast are you going?  How much distance have you covered?  How much fun are you having?”

I talk to my kids about moving more weight and doing more reps and sets, about gaining strength.  I talk to them about moving more quickly, setting a faster pace, and going a further distance.  I talk to them about giving a solid effort and becoming a little more capable each time they work.  I talk to them about training.

But that’s not what a big piece of our exercise culture is teaching them.  The most easily accessible feedback for them from the machines was a calorie measure, a measure of what they had lost through exercise, not what they had gained through training.  Yes, weight management and creating a calorie deficit is an important piece for many people, but it should not be the centerpiece.  By establishing a focus on training gains, rather than calorie losses, we recalibrate the exercise experience and our relationship with food.  Doing so encourages long-term participation in a process and fosters a greater sense of confidence, accomplishment, and joy.  We owe it to our kids to help them reframe exercise as training and to think of nutritious food as more than just calories that need burning.  We owe it to ourselves too.

“Why do you train like that?”

A good friend casually commented to me the other day, “I often look at people who lift heavy and wonder why they do that.  Why do you work that hard?”  Unlike many who wonder this sort of thing, there was no judgement, just genuine curiosity.  I felt like my friend’s sincerity in asking the question deserved a thoughtful answer, so I gave it a shot.

The most obvious first response to me was that in order for any training to be effective, to elicit change, a trainee needs to encounter significant resistance, to “work that hard”.  The notion that someone can come into the gym and repeatedly do what’s comfortable and still see progress runs counter to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) and the Principle of Progressive Overload.  If the work feels easy, our bodies have adapted and no further progress is being made.  In order to see improvement or change, one needs to work on the edge of one’s comfort zone.  But even as I responded with this, I realized that the purpose of exercise is not the same for all people.  My initial response probably applies more to individuals with an athletic or competitive mindset, to people who are looking to improve their performance either in relation to the performance of others or in relation to their own previous bests.  For many people and under many circumstances, this is not the point of going to the gym.  Many people exercise because it allows them to decompress and handle stress.  Many people want to maintain a certain level of fitness and overall health and are not concerned with adding more weight to the bar or with change.  Totally valid reasons for exercise and ones that were more in line with the way I had been working out for the past ten years anyway.  So while my initial answer might hold true for people focused on change and progressive training goals, for me, the answer felt incomplete.

Another answer to the question that might come to mind for many people is that women train with weights to achieve a certain look.  But this is a different type of lifting, a different mindset, a whole other animal called bodybuilding.  When people lift weights to build a particular appearance, the focus is located externally.  For many women that look is based on an image of beauty that is promoted by media, “sorta strong but mostly sexy”.  That’s how you end up with photos of lean women, shiny and tan, tosselled hair, in tiny shorts and sports bras, lifting a weight in some kind of bent over position designed to draw attention to their booties and boobs.  Achieving this appearance can take on a competitive dimension for many women.  For some women it’s subtle and interpersonal; for others it translates into participation in bikini and physique competitions.  Either way, the measure of success is based on a subjective image of “perfection” generated by an outside source.

For the women that I’ve encountered who train purely for strength, neither of these explanations provides an adequate answer to the question of why they train like they do.  Their answer often has much less to do with how they rank in comparison to another’s performance or in comparison to a desired appearance, and much more to do with what strength training adds to their sense of themselves; it has to do with the positive impact that strength training has on the way they view themselves and their abilities.  While our culture is more supportive of strong women now than it was in the past, many people still have the notion that while strength in a woman is ok, a woman shouldn’t be “too strong,” and often these people feel perfectly entitled to express that opinion.  Sometimes they make comments that are blunt and direct: “Her/your muscles are almost TOO big.  I don’t like the way that looks.”  Sometimes their comments are subtle, indirect, and whispered: “What does she think she needs all those muscles for anyway?”  The assumption in these cases is that the woman training strength should be concerned about the other person’s opinion of the appearance of her body.  However, women who train for the primary goal of strength or athleticism rather than aesthetics have already taken a step outside of cultural expectations for female appearance.  Rather than focusing on their looks in relation to others or on others’ opinions of what “looks good”, most of the strong women I’ve met or read about have found that training strength allows them to focus on something internal, essential, and personal.  Training physical strength allows them to develop a deeper sense of personal strength, of confidence, and of self-worth that transcends their training sessions.  Training heavy lifts has the potential to teach patience, humility, resilience, perseverance, determination, and a myriad of other useful character traits.  While these lessons can be learned through a variety of other mediums, because powerlifting and strongwoman competitions are still somewhat outside of the cultural expectation for women, these types of events allow women to develop a sense of physical and personal strength that is unique to the individual, that doesn’t necessarily conform to a pre-packaged image that others have bought into.  The question of why women train for strength often can’t quite be answered to the satisfaction of others, because the answer in many ways defies the opinions of outsiders.  The answer boils down to something as simple and personal as “I do it for me.”  When I first started training at Fivex3, Emily told me she thought I’d enjoy strength training because I seemed to be someone who appreciated being different and unique.  That appears to be a common current in women who train for strength.  They don’t mind standing a little bit outside of expectations.  It seems to me that if you meet a woman who is training for strength, not “working out” or training for appearance, you can be fairly sure to have met someone who is engaged in the process of finding her own answers and who is not trying to measure herself by someone else’s standards.

The Grateful Deadlift

I am in love with the deadlift.  There are multiple reasons for this; some reasons are practical and some go a little deeper.  The deadlift is a highly functional and fundamental movement that many have forgotten how to perform in our modern context.  We routinely abuse our backs, slouching in the sofa, rounding over a steering wheel, slumping over the computer, then we use it improperly to lift heavy crap off the floor.  Deadlifts help to correct all of this.  They help to strengthen and preserve the back from the stress of daily living.  People often tell me  things like, “I don’t deadlift; I have a bad back’ – a form of logic that doesn’t make much sense to me.  Training a weak area to be stronger and move efficiently makes much more sense to me than allowing a weak area to go untrained so it is vulnerable in real world activities.  On the other end of the spectrum, I have had several older clients, some with a history of back pain, comment on how having trained this movement pattern properly has allowed them to garden for extended periods of time without feeling it in their backs and has allowed them to move through life with less discomfort.  A deadlift done properly, with awareness and good form, is one of the most beautiful and beneficial things I know.

A deadlift is also, in my experience, a hugely empowering lift for women.  Done properly, a deadlift is one of the easiest lifts to load to a weight that seems to blow most women’s minds.  Within a relatively short amount of time, a client can safely move from never having done a deadlift to pulling more than body weight.  I remember the first time I realized I could pull more than I weighed, and I experience that same excitement each time a client reaches that point too.  For a woman to have that tangible realization that the pink 5# dumbbells are not for her is a joyous moment; realizing that she is capable of literally pulling her own weight in life is a massive confidence booster.

But for me personally my love of the deadlift goes to an even deeper level.  This is the first lift that taught me how to see myself differently.  Not just as a strong woman who could pull her own weight and then some, but it taught me the value of seeing myself from the inside out and not the reverse.  When you set up properly for a deadlift, your line of vision is on the floor approximately two feet ahead.  img_1152Even if you are lifting in a facility that has mirrors (don’t), there is no way to set up properly and see yourself through your eyes.  You have to learn to translate a visual understanding of yourself into something sensory, learn how the proper set up feels and then trust that.  Training myself to trust in my inner vision was kinda revolutionary for me.

One day at Fivex3, I overheard someone jokingly describe setting their line of sight during a lift as staring into infinity.  And that is a pretty accurate description of what happens to me when I deadlift well.  I set up my pull, see myself from the inside out, and then to focus on that vision with such intensity that the rest of everything seems to melt away.  When I deadlift well, I find what some people describe as “flow”.  That feeling where the barriers between mind and body and the barriers between internal and external seem to dissolve, that feeling of being wholly (holy?) and completely present in the moment.  Some people experience this feeling in other athletic endeavors or hobbies about which they are passionate, where mind and body become one through their activity.  Some people experience this feeling when they are falling in love, where they feel they have connected with someone across the bounds of space and time and individual personhood.  The deadlift does not have exclusive rights to this feeling, and slowly I’m learning to find that same level of intensity and focus in my other lifts.  The deadlift just has a greater claim on my psychic space, because it provided me my first glimpse of the “infinite” in the context of the weight room.  And that is a pretty amazing thing, not to be underappreciated. To my mind, the deadlift is a thing of beauty and power, and this is why, in my vocabulary, the deadlift has become the grateful deadlift.

Body Weight: It’s Just a Number

Body weight is a funny, shifty thing.  There are so many factors (food and water intake, type of food consumed, hormones, bathroom usage) causing our weight to slide up or down during the course of any given day, that it really makes more sense to talk about our body weight in terms of a weight range, yet most of us have a single number in mind as our perfect weight.  Often that ideal weight is based on some chart we’ve seen at a doctor’s office or in a magazine.  Sometimes that ideal is based in our own experience, a weight at which we felt happy and satisfied with our lives.  For some of us, the number the we designate as our perfect weight is a lower number, one that we’re trying to regain.  For some of us it’s a higher number, one that we believe will reflect desired muscle growth.  For a handful of us, that number is the one we see reflected back to us on our scales.  Whatever the number, for many of us body weight is a number to which we become emotionally attached, and whether or not we achieve or maintain that number becomes another way for us to judge ourselves.

scale5In reality, our weight is just an indication of the force with which gravity holds us to the earth; and there are very few instances where the number on the scale actually matters outside of our own ideas of what that number says about us.  Like many, I have kept an eye on the number on my scale, but as I become more involved in strength training, my relationship with this number is changing.  During my teen years, I was overly and unhealthfully concerned about body weight; the number on the scale in the morning largely determined what I ate or did throughout the day and also how I felt about my body and myself.  I spent most of my twenties intentionally avoiding scales, refusing to purchase one or even keep one in the house.  I realized that knowledge of this number had informed my opinion of myself too much, so I looked for other ways to shape those views.  Early on those measures were external, the number of miles I logged on a long run or during a week or the size on the clothes I bought.  As I got older, I learned to use more elusive, internal measures, like how much energy I had throughout the day or how comfortable I felt in my own skin.

When I started strength training, my interest in knowing my body weight more exactly increased, but my attitude toward that number has shifted.  Rather than body weight serving as a straight-up measure of self-worth, as it did when I was younger, I want to know how much I weigh so I can calculate percent body weight on my lifts.  One way of understanding an individual’s strength is to look at the total amount of weight on her bar, but to understand that more accurately in relation to the strength of another individual, you need to account for body weight.  Mass moves mass.  So if two lifters both squat 200#, but one weighs 200# and the other weighs 120#, that’s not an equivalent lift.  The 200# individual has squatted her body weight, but the 120# individual has squatted 1.67 times her body weight.  This is why the frequent follow up question to a report of how much an individual has lifted is how much the individual weighs.

Percent body weight calculations are interesting and help us to understand lifts in a different way; they provide a way to compare apples and oranges.  Just as with actual body weight though, it is easy to get emotionally attached to percent body weight of a lift or to use that number to judge our value.  When we get right down to it, in most cases our attitude towards ourselves matters more than any body weight related measurement.  More than any number or percentage, what we allow ourselves to believe about ourselves, our ability, and our worth ultimately is far more important.

The Image of Fitness

One of the things I find exciting about strength training, is the lesson that strength comes in many different shaped packages.  While media seems to promote a very narrow, subjective image of “beauty” with a sprinkling of projects featuring people of varied body types tossed in almost as an afterthought, “strong” is measured more objectively, by the weight on the bar.  In advocating for the importance of strength training, Coach Dan John states in his book Intervention, “My good friend and mentor, Brett Jones, once told me this: Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of “everything else” you can do.”  So the stronger we are, the more we can do, but no one ever said anything about the shape of the glass!

When I show up to lift at Fivex3, I see women of all shapes and sizes moving heavy weights.  Some of these strong women have been judged by others as being “unfit” because they don’t look like the lean models in fashion and fitness magazines.  Shamefully, some of the people doing the judging have been trainers at other gyms, people who ought to know better.  Several conversations have focused around one particular trainer who actually refuses to work with people who don’t already fit his narrow, visual standards.  The great thing in these conversations though is that none of these women buy into that line of thinking. They get frustrated by that point of view, but rather than internalizing it as many women might, they realize the error in that trainer’s thinking.

This gets down to how that particular trainer and we as a culture use, or really misuse, the term “fit”.  Being “fit” is task-specific; it is a measure of our ability to do a certain task.  So for example, at the moment I am training pure strength, not cardiovascular endurance, so my “fitness” in a spin class has been diminished.  Similarly Tim, who trains for physique and at 3.5% body fat appears as “fit” as any fitness model, struggled with his PT timed run on his most recent military weekend, because like me, he’s training strength, not endurance or speed.

Using our misinformed measure of “fitness”, one might have watched the recent Rio Olympics and determined that the lean marathoners were more “fit” than the ultra-heavy weight lifters.  But ask one of those runners to lift 277.8 pounds in a snatch and 352.7 pounds in a clean and jerk like bronze medalist Sarah Robles did, and you will find the limits to their “fitness”.  Or conversely, ask Sarah Robles to run a marathon, and you will find the limits of hers.  The measure of “fitness” is based on performance and is quite specific, by no means can “fitness” be judged by appearance.

My point here is simple.  It is one we all learned as children: we really can’t judge a book by its cover, so maybe we should stop pretending.  In narrowing our definition of “fit” to specific tasks, ironically we will expand the opportunities to recognize “fitness” in a greater variety of shapes and types of people.

“Woohoo” Moments

Oprah talks about “ah-ha” moments, times when a switch in our minds unexpectedly flips and we see things in a different light.  For me when these experiences occur in the gym, when we are suddenly surprised by our bodies’ unexpected abilities, these “ah-ha” moments become something more like “woohoo” moments.  Our understanding of our bodies as strong or weak is shaped by the ways in which we regularly use them.  Thanks to modern technology many of us spend the majority of our days fairly sedentary, seated at the computer, on the sofa, or in the car.  Largely due to time constraints, many of us take the elevator when there are stairs, drive when we could have walked, and park in the closest spot.  By the end of the work day, we notice that our bodies are stiff and sore from lack of use, possibly unbalanced and unstable from awkward movement patterns and relative immobility.  This awareness then factors into our understanding of our bodies, and often rather than view these sensations as our bodies’ requests for movement, we understand our bodies to be weak or failing.  These thoughts, often misperceptions, then shape our opinions of ourselves and define the ways we nourish or abuse our bodies in other contexts.  They become the limits of our reality.

The exhilaration of the “woohoo” moment comes when someone has a completely unexpected experience of breaking through a self-imposed barrier.  It’s not quite the same as working towards and achieving a set goal, although this can be equally exciting.  These “woohoo” moments are more of a surprise, more like being blind-sided by something wonderful.   And surprisingly and wonderfully, this has been the week of the “woohoo”.

As a result of my own strength training, one of my recent projects has been to take my coach up on a challenge she posted a few years back, one that demonstrates the essential usefulness of being functionally strong – being strong enough to lift and carry an “unconscious” person from the floor to safety.  I found a friend willing to volunteer, Tim, who has 11 inches and about 45 pounds on me.  It seemed like a good idea initially over email, but as I stood next to Tim talking through the project, breaking each move down into familiar lifts, I began to wonder if starting with one of my kids would have been a better idea.  He was looking tall enough to be completely unwieldy.  He suggested I first try a human carry, both of us starting from standing.  Probably the result of the culture in which we live (it’s almost always the guy in the movies tossing some chick over his shoulder and bringing her to safety), but the human carry was a skill I had never learned.  For anyone who has ever done this kind of carry, the idea that I would not be able to carry Tim probably seems silly, but that’s sort of my point.  I had no idea.  I was living in a different reality on the other side of what might seem obvious to others, in a reality that was limited by my ideas of my capabilities.  So I gotta say that when I did lift Tim up over my shoulder easily on the first try and realizetim carryd that he felt significantly lighter than I expected, it kinda shook my world up, in a big “woohoo” kind of way.  It might sound trivial, but for me, as a relatively small woman, having that visceral understanding that I could play a hero and not just a victim was profound.

This week I also had the privilege of being witness to “woohoo” moments for several of my clients, instances when they were able to prove themselves wrong, when they had a profound realization that their bodies were stronger than their minds allowed them to believe.  Either from underuse or from illness, two clients in particular had developed limited notions of their bodies’ abilities.  Often there are very real reasons for the initial kernel of these ideas, but equally as often our minds then take that kernel and grow it into something entirely ungrounded.  This is a trick my mind frequently plays on me.  For my clients, in each instance, they were surprised to find abilities they thought they had lost; they were able to tap back into forgotten strength, to move effectively, and to work hard, despite their initial doubts.  Sometimes it’s not so much what happens in our bodies that is significant, but instead what happens within our thought processes.  For someone on the outside of these experiences, the exercises my clients did would not have seemed at all special, but it was the mental shift taking hold in them as a result of their movements that made the ordinary extraordinary.  Moments like these are powerful, sometimes bringing my clients (and me) to tears; moments when they realize the unplumbed abilities of their bodies, moments when they begin to understand it was their perception of themselves that was the limiting factor, not the bodies they half-believed had failed them.

To varying degrees, we all have self-restricting thoughts.  It’s worth it, from time to time, to investigate some of those ideas, to sound them out for accuracy, to test them and determine if they are outdated notions.  In testing them, I’m not talking about anything radical; certainly I’m not talking about pushing ourselves beyond safe or reasonable limits.  I’m really just advocating for something as seemingly ordinary as adding a little more movement back into our lives, something outside of our usual, possibly just outside of our comfort zones.  By allowing our bodies to do what they were designed to do (move) instead of keeping them confined to a desk or the shortest route from A to B, we give ourselves the opportunity to re-establish a sometimes forgotten relationship with our bodies and from there to potentially challenge our ideas of our own abilities.  Perhaps that first, seemingly ordinary step will set you on the path to something extraordinary, to your own “woohoo” moment.

 

Age: It’s Just a Number

I was never really good friends with numbers.  When I was in 10th grade I spent the summer with a fat SAT math prep book, and lugging it to the beach on vacation didn’t improve my number-love much.  My dad used to joke that I could do a math problem 5 different times and come up with 8 different answers, which seems about right to me because numbers have never really done much for me in terms of pinning things down.  I guess for most people numbers offer empirical evidence, something solid and provable.  My understanding of numbers is often more fluid than that.  Rather than providing firm ground on which to stand, numbers often seem to reinforce for me the idea that there is more going on in life than can be easily understood or reduced to a string of digits.

Many of us put a lot of stock in particular numbers (age, weight, body fat percentage); possibly we are even emotionally attached to these numbers.  I know I have been, and as I edge closer to another birthday, I must admit I still am.  Looking back, we probably all have birthdays that we considered to be “big ones”, for whatever reason.  Sometimes they are milestones, rites of passage associated with big changes, like drivers license, drinking age, graduations, collecting social security.  It seems to me though that as we age, more often than seeing birthdays as passageways to new experiences or opportunities, we view birthdays as the closing of a door on something in our past.  Once we do that, we have tacitly given ourselves permission not to dream big; we allow ourselves to use age as an excuse to let ourselves ‘feel old’.

Often our age is a bigger deal in our own minds than it is in the minds of anyone else.  In my experience, I rarely guess anyone else’s age correctly, and I’ve found that other people are equally poor judges of my age.  Routinely people place me at least a decade younger than my actual age.  Maybe that’s just an indication that I’m immature – fine.  But I think it’s also a reflection of mindset.  I can tell you that I felt older when I was in my early thirties; sleep-deprived with small children, eating processed foods, and pounding my body with endurance exercise; than I do now in my forties; still sometimes sleep-deprived with pre-teens, eating whole foods and protein, and strengthening my body through lifting.  Yes, our bodies and our abilities change with time.  And yes, we need to be mindful and respectful of those changes.  But to a large degree, I believe that age is a mindset as much anything.

Just the other day, I had another powerful conversation with a client who said to me, “I really think I could have been a runner, if only I had been encouraged to do that when I was younger.”  That shook me.  “What do you mean could have been?”  I asked her.  “What makes you think you can’t have that in your future?  You might not be able to run as fast or as far as you could have in your twenties, but there’s no reason you can’t train to run your first one-mile race over the next few months.  If you like it, build from there.  That can be in your future, not your past!”   Shift the mindset.

Screen Shot 2016-08-04 at 5.55.47 AMOur culture tends to glorify youth; look to almost any advertisement or movie to soak in this message.  So it’s no surprise that after a certain age, we tend to view birthdays as doors closing us off from something we could have been.  We can’t gain back years, but we can train ourselves to maintain a youthful mindset, an ability to view each stage in life as a continued opportunity to explore our capabilities.  We can, as Taj Mahal says in his song Take a Giant Step, “Remember the feeling as a child / When you woke up and morning smiled!”  The fountain of youth may just lie in our ability to “take a giant step outside our mind” and see each day as an invitation to try something new.

Alternate Vision

We live in a culture that values sight more than any of our other senses.  I’m sure you’ve experienced the power of imagery in advertising; you watch a commercial for some gooey dessert, and suddenly all you want is sweets.  We see the importance of vision reflected in our language too (reread that sentence); we use expressions like “I can see your point” and “I need to see it to believe it.”  However, in order to lift heavy weights, you need to learn to move away from that kind of sight-based vision and learn to “see” without using your eyes.  Real weightlifters never use mirrors; they have learned to see through their bodies.  I’m still developing this skill, and learning to trust that sight has been a fascinating process.

No Mirror, So You Can SEE!
No Mirror, So You Can SEE! Squat Rack at Fivex3Training.

Alternate ways of seeing are not exclusive to weightlifting; weightlifting just made me more aware of the possibility of understanding my place in the world differently.   Both my surgeon and Louise, when she is working as a massage therapist, have an amazing ability to see through their hands.  Having had a hernia repair last year, I went back to check in with my surgeon this past winter when I developed something he’s calling “an abdominal asymmetry”.  One day after a sloppy hanging toes-to-bar, I looked down and saw a small lump on one side that concerned me, so I made an appointment with my guy.  He spent a fair amount of time “looking” at that spot with his fingers, his eyes focused thoughtfully on something indeterminate out in space.  Then he concluded, “I don’t really know what to tell you that is.  It’s not a hernia.  I could send you for imaging, but that wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t just learn.”  How awesome is that?!!  This man has refined his vision through his touch to the degree that the downside of imaging (pumping me up with radiation) outweighs the upside (a slim possibility of seeing more).

Of course at that point in my visit, I totally geeked out on him: “Oh my gosh!  You can see through your fingers!  How cool is that?”  I gushed.  “That is one of the things I love most about weightlifting; it teaches you to see through your muscles,” I said as I backed up to demonstrate a deadlift.  “When you get set up in your deadlift, you need to be looking about 2 feet in front of you.  You can not look into a mirror.  Looking into a mirror interferes with proper form.  So you have to learn to see differently, without your eyes.  I’m still working on that,” I said envying the confidence he had in his “finger vision”.

Louise has a similar, enviable ability to see with her hands, and like my surgeon, she has developed it enough to have a solid confidence in her skill.  She has told me about a massage workshop she attended where the instructor presented a subject whom everyone first looked at.  She stood outside of the conversation of her peers who could visually identify imbalances and bound muscles, but once she laid hands on the subject, she could see.  I asked her what that’s like for her, and she described the feel of bound up fascia as being like a dry sponge, rigid with no movement in the area, whereas unbound muscle has a feel more like that of sinking a hand or finger into wet sand; there is a degree of movement.  Vision through feel and motion.

I think we all have the potential to develop alternate ways of viewing our world, to “see” through different senses or to “visualize” ourselves from the inside out.  The difference for many of us though is the climate in which we live.  If we are lucky enough to surround ourselves with people who value the ability to see things differently, we learn to develop and more importantly trust that skill.  Unfortunately for most of us, we get caught up in the messages of our culture that teach us to see ourselves from the outside first, messages that emphasize external appearances, initial impressions, and sound bites, that discourage us from taking the time to dig below the surface for a deeper and more complete truth.  I wonder what the world would look like if we all did the work of unbinding ourselves from a limited and rigid way of understanding and instead developed alternate ways of “seeing” and then, more significantly, actually trusted ourselves enough to believe in that vision.  Even more, I wonder how living in such a world would feel.

“Body Shaming”: The Whole Does Not Equal the Sum of Its Parts

This may seem like a departure from the expected, but please bear with me.  Several years ago as I sat in feminist literary theory class in graduate school, the conversation rolled around to the way that men and the media objectify women, segmenting their bodies into parts (usually sexualized), some parts gaining approval and others criticism. Everyone in the room had experienced this on some level.  I relayed a particularly blatant example of one fraternity in college where the guys would line up at the door and “rate” women as they walked in, saying things like “She has nice boobs” or “She’s hot except for her face”, and then summing the woman up in a number. The comments were loud enough for the women to hear and feel uncomfortable as they walked past.  Why anyone went there more than once is a topic for another conversation, but I suspect it had something to do with the fact that we had grown used to this sort of objectification through the media. You’ve probably noticed something like this too – that for whatever reason, nearly naked bodies seem to sell merchandise.

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Obviously this sort of objectification of another human being, this reduction of an individual to a collection of body parts or a ranking, can be insulting and demeaning; in some situations this kind of commentary can even be threatening.  What happens literally at a linguistic level, which is of course fascinating to a bunch of aspiring Literature MAs, is that an individual is denied the possibility of being the subject of her own sentence and is reduced to being the object of someone else’s.  (Seriously, go look up your parts of speech).  The result is that she becomes voiceless and powerless to tell her own story; someone else controls her narrative.  Not surprisingly, as the conversation continued, emotions started to rise. And at that point, for some reason, I raised my hand again and said, “You know, guys kind of do that to their own bodies too…. in the weight room.” My professor was quiet, seemingly kind of surprised. She asked me to explain, and I told everyone what I had seen in the weight room along the lines of hypertrophy training and isolation exercise. What I remember next is that some of emotion was diffused, as the women in the room realized that men subjected themselves to this kind of thinking too.

Now you might say that the point of breaking a body down into muscle groups for hypertrophy training is to make a person stronger, and that is definitely not the effect of reducing a woman to a few sexualized parts.  Can’t argue that, but I do think there’s more going on here.  The practice of analytically and critically dividing an individual into parts has become so common in our society that a special brand of this thinking has gained a lot of attention, “body shaming.”  Sometimes body shaming falls along the lines of derision or disgust for parts that are supposedly less than appealing.  Sometimes the part is an athlete’s entire body separated from their amazing performance.  So strong female athletes like Serena Williams or Ronda Rousey have experienced body shaming by being called “huge”, “masculine”, and “built like a man.”  We don’t all respond to this type of commentary in the same healthy, self-accepting way that Rousey was able to: “I think [my body is] femininely badass as f— because there’s not a single muscle on my body that isn’t for a purpose…”

A lot of us don’t have that kind of body confidence, which I suspect is because unlike Rousey, a lot of us still apply a segmented method of thinking to our own bodies.  Whether we train ourselves as isolated parts (hypertrophy) or as a working whole (strength), many of us still pick on various parts of our own bodies and target areas to build more muscle mass or for “spot reduction”.  And even when we think of our bodies as a whole, we tend to focus on the shape of the vehicle rather than the action it produces.  In doing so, we miss a great deal of the value.  This way of conceptualizing our bodies applies equally to men and women.  So while I wrote the previous post “Body Types and Body Image” with women in mind, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve had as many comments from male friends as from female friends about the applicability of that post to their own lives.  I would suggest that when any of us think of ourselves as parts, we are more apt to be critical of how those parts look, and we miss the value they have in contributing to the function of the whole.  Potentially we fool ourselves into thinking that all we are is those parts.

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One of the reasons I love training strength is that it encourages us to value our bodies as whole units, to appreciate how each piece works together and to focus on the action our bodies produce; the focus is on moving weight not on how doing so makes us look to ourselves or to someone else. On a geeky linguistic level, training strength allows us to become again the subject of our own narrative, the one acting and doing, not the object being viewed or acted upon.  Training strength allows us to reclaim some of the power and voice that we lose when we view our bodies as objects or in parts rather than as a whole.  Training strength equips us to respond to to body shaming like Rousey did, from a place of confidence and healthy self-acceptance.

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

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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.