Do you even lift, Ladybro? How lifting weights taught me to love my body

May 14 2014 | the_kellbot
Being a bro is not about smiling, it's about looking hard. Like my biceps.
Being a bro is not about smiling, it's about looking hard. Like my biceps.

"How much can you bench?"

This is the question I get almost unfailingly when I tell people I lift weights. I started lifting three months ago, when I hit a wall with my workout routine and was just generally feeling shitty about myself. In that time I've gotten a lot stronger but along the way something surprising happened: my relationship with my body totally changed even though my appearance stayed pretty much the same.

Ok, it's not completely the same, because look at these guns. That's right, if the lighting is just so and I flex really hard, you can see that I have something resembling a bicep. And on the topic of epic gains: I think you should know that I have moved up to bench pressing the heavier of the two empty bars available to me. I am, in a word, crushing it.

I didn't expect to love lifting weights. When I was preparing for my first aerial silks performance I quickly realized I didn't have the stamina to survive five minutes in the air. On the recommendation of a friend I booked an appointment with a personal trainer who has biceps the size of my head. At our first session he asked "OK, what are you currently doing for triceps?" and I stood there blinking at him in silence before asking where my triceps were.

Having located my triceps, we came up with a weight lifting routine to dovetail my silks training. I learned how to bench, squat, deadlift, and just generally manhandle lumps of iron. Admittedly small lumps of iron. I felt silly picking up the five pound dumbbells at my gym. Do you even lift, ladybro? And as I eyed around the room looking for people snickering at me I realized that no one cared. Most people at the gym are too busy with their own workout, or taking gym selfies, to care what I'm doing.

A manual of free gymnastic and dumb-bell exercises; for the school-room and the parlor (1864)
The girl in this this 1864 illustration knows where it's at.

When I pick up a dumbbell I'm battling one of the greatest forces on earth: gravity. As I get stronger I get so excited about what my body can do that I've stopped agonizing over what it looks like. My thunder thighs are home to the biggest and strongest muscles in my body. Does my post-baby gut stick out a bit? Must be because of all these big damned muscles in the way. My relationship with food improved; I no longer see food as the enemy or something I must vanquish in an effort to make myself take up less space. Food is fuel for this incredible machine I will use to lift all the things.

I didn't expect to end up here, but I'm so glad I did. I make fun of brotastic gym culture, but I also understand it now. Squeezing out one more rep or adding 5 more pounds to a lift is so immensely and immediately satisfying. My body is capable of so much more than just looking pretty, and I love all the stuff I can do more easily now that I'm stronger. Pull ups? Check. Push ups? Check. Opening my own jars? Oh hell yeah.

Want to try it yourself? Here are some good places to start:

  • NerdFitness.com: I love this site because it is extremely positive towards women who want to lift, and quickly dispenses with garbage ideas like "lifting heavy will make you bulky." It also has one of the least-awful exercise forums on the 'net.
  • Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe: If you want to get your nerd on, this book has a practical approach to the science of lifting and plenty of diagrams. The website also has some great resources.
  • Jefit Exercise Database: This is the most comprehensive exercise database I've found, and is great for finding things that work with the equipment you've got (or don't got).

Finding a personal trainer
Some people feel more comfortable having someone show them the ropes. Many gyms offer personal training, but make sure you check out the trainer's credentials before signing up for an appointment. A trainer should support you in reaching your goals, not make you feel stupid, weak, or bully you in any way. The two largest professional associations, ACE and IDEA both offer databases of certified trainers in your area.

Do we have any other weight lifting Homies in the house? What have you gained from lifting? How much can you bench?

  1. "I think you should know that I have moved up to bench pressing the heavier of the two empty bars available to me. I am, in a word, crushing it."

    This made me laugh out loud for real. Congrats on the new routine, and on lovin' your body even more!

    51 agree
  2. Yesterday I did 3 minutes of sit ups with a 10 lb medicine ball. I feel like a BEAST. I'm pretty jazzed about that. 5 weeks ago I had a hard time doing 30 seconds of sit ups. (These are with a special little pad that goes in the small of your back.)

    But seriously, intense exercise is the absolute best thing to manage anxiety.

    6 agree
    • "But seriously, intense exercise is the absolute best thing to manage anxiety."

      YES! I have worked out on and off my whole life, but started running and seriously incorporating weights and yoga with it a year ago. My doctor told me that serious exercise does the same thing in your brain that my Lexapro was doing–and I was not enjoying some of the bedroom side effects that came with my meds. I stopped taking them about 8 months ago, and am doing great. (Not to say taking something for anxiety is bad–personal choice for me to not be on them anymore)

      Exercise has done more to help me conquer my anxiety than anything else could. I have a set of free weights and mostly do P90X for my weight training stuff. And, yes, much like being able to add some distance to a run, adding weight or reps to anything is such a self-esteem booster!

      8 agree
      • Oh, yes I should have added that it's not a replacement for drugs if you need them. I think there was a study that showed the most effective anxiety treatment was drugs plus exercise, but I can't remember where I saw that. Even with all this exercise recently, I'm still having anxiety issues, so it's back on the meds for me. Exercise really does have the same effect as the drugs, but it can only go so far.

        *mental health transparency high five*

        6 agree
        • *high fives too*

          I only just got some 5 lb weights and started going to the gym for walking again, but I've already noticed the same thing. (Also on drugs, but they're for insomnia on top of the anxiety, so there ya go.)

          3 agree
  3. I'm a general workout junkie (I run and yoga compulsively) but lifting offers a satisfaction that few other exercises do!

    I love the feeling of being strong enough to do things I may have previously asked my spouse to do. He still has the bigger biceps, but I can do more pushups :).

    I would recommend checking out New Rules of Lifting for Women. It's fantastic and the advice is (in my experience) sound. I love it and it got me hooked on *real* lifting.

    4 agree
  4. Oooh I love this post! I definitely recommend NerdFitness wholeheartedly. It is amazing and Stacey is my role model. I've been going to the gym regularly for awhile now, and also rehab for my back, and I love being able to pick up heavier stuff and not feeling pain anymore. It's definitely true that no one cares what you're lifting, they're doing their own thing, but wearing headphones can totally help you just zone out and get going if you feel self conscious. Okay, maybe a few people care, but don't give them a second thought, you are there for you and you're going to kick ass.

    3 agree
  5. I love the term ladybro and will definately be adding it to my vocabulary! I am glad you've found a routine you love as well as a love for your body!

    I have found a similar relationship with running. Knowing I am able to run for 10 miles had made me respect and appreciation for my body. Hopefully soon, that will be expanded to lifting.

    3 agree
    • Running strength does a lot for me mentally as well. I've always been pretty self-concious about my GIANT THUNDER thighs….they remain huge no matter how much I try to fight it.

      But I recently ran my first ultra race. Now I look at my legs and I'm like "Y'all, you may be big and unsightly in short shorts, but you can run 42 miles straight…you go on bein big!"

      12 agree
      • Holy shit, dude. That's amazing. I was all pumped that I ran 10 miles this weekend. The idea that you ran 42 is crazy impressive!

        3 agree
        • I suffer from what my MBA friends call "scope creep"….It started with 10 miles, then a half marathon, then full marathon…ain't no doin' like over doin'!

          But getting yourself out for 10 miles is just as impressive! I feel pretty ecstatic on days I do that as well and pretty much any time I carve out some space to take care of my physical health which automatically lifts my mental health!

          3 agree
          • Haha totally this, I've just ran a half, and already thinking of ultra races… Slow down brainy!

            1 agrees
      • 42 miles?! That is an awesome accomplishment! Bravo! I feel the same about my thighs. They may be big and chaff in shorts, but damnitt, they can run forever. If they can do 10, they should kick my half marathon butt in September.

        • Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚ I'm prepping for my first 50 mile race in Feb '15.

          I LOVE the HM distance! and yes, if you knocked out 10, 13 is in your reach! I'll take my big legs over perfectly shaped ones that couldn't carry me over mile after mile any day!

          1 agrees
      • Woohoo for thunder thighs! We used to have a sign on the mirror in the bathroom at my workplace that said, "My thighs carry me up mountains." (We're in Colorado.) I loved it and don't know where it went! Maybe the cleaning crew took it down…

        It definitely made me examine my body differently: not for how it looked, but for what it could DO. Like dance. And run. And bike. And hike. And shake unsteadily in yoga poses. And do the occasional cartwheel. Given the choice, I would rather be able to do all of those things than look magazine perfect.

  6. I'm not a lifter myself, though I'm taking small steps to get stronger (I can do a push up again! Just one or two, but still). However, one of my college roommates was on our school's weightlifting team, and what she could do was amazing! I had a good 3 inches on her and at least 20 pounds and she could bench around my weight! She really inspired me to take better care of my body.

    And while I agree a trainer shouldn't bully you, for me, an instructor being tough has helped, at least with videos. I use Jillian Michaels' workout videos and part of what I like is I don't feel bad yelling at her during the workout (not in person of course). Afterwards I feel great, but that helps me get through the workout.

    1 agrees
    • I have a personal trainer I've had for 4+ years and he's pretty tough on me in a good way, but I totally yell at him in person. And whine and complain. And he still pushes me to go further. It's awesome.

    • There's definitely a place for toughness in a coach or trainer. But I've seen some trainers use bullying to make someone feel weak or stupid (and I guess therefore in need of more training?) and that's not OK. I think most people can feel out the difference between the two, but for me it's between "come on, I know you can do better than this, stop phoning it in" and "ugh, you suck, you're terrible at this, you need all the help you can get."

      I'm also not a huge fan of "tough love" training for beginners, because it can be a recipe for injury. The flip side of pushing yourself is knowing when you need to stop. A good instructor should help you find that balance.

      6 agree
      • I'm not a fan of this style either. And it's just flat out not enjoying the style. I am cool with encouragement, high expectations, all that, but yelling at me? No thanks, dude. That was part of what turned me off the boxercise class I signed up for (the rest was that I was the most out of shape person in that entire room, even with splitting into various fitness levels, and that was not a setting of everyone doing their own thing). So it's really about finding someone whose training style matches yours.

      • I like to say that most people fall into either the Bob or the Jillian category (Problems with Biggest Loser aside). If you want tough love and if boot camp sounds like your idea of fun, I'm not the trainer for you. If you want to have heart to hearts in between your sets and have someone tell you're a rock star while you sweat for an hour, I'm your girl. I have a friend that runs a boot camp and spends a lot of time telling me to come to it and I just can't bring myself to go. I shut down when I'm yelled at, even if it comes from a place of tough love. Meanwhile many of my friends LOVE boot camps and swear by them and would hate a super friendly and bubblegum trainer.

        3 agree
        • In defense of the Biggest Loser, I have learned my most-recent favorite workout move from watching the show. I've noticed marked improvement in my biceps since starting that move, and have moved from 5lb dumbbells to 10lb. It's also really amazing watching people get healthier and healthier through the season.

          1 agrees
        • I had no idea trainers like you existed! I would definitely prefer your style, firstly I have a few health challenges which make pushing too hard a bad idea, and secondly I'm hard enough on myself without someone else doing it too!

          1 agrees
  7. Yay! So much yes! I crossfit with includes a lot of Olympic lifting as well as bodyweight movements and it has completely changed how I feel about my body. I live what it can do and I was secretly proud when I had to buy all bigger pants to accommodate my new booty and quads. The progressions I'm able to make lifting heavier and heavier are so motivating and thetes really no limit to how far you can take it. Rippetoe is a great resource and if you want some inspiring footage of ladies kicking ass check out games.crossfit.com the worldwide regional competitions are going on right now.

    8 agree
  8. This is amazing..thanks so much for sharing this.
    I too started taking aerial classes and working out to take my abilities to new heights. … (hur hur..) but what I did not expect was the loss of a lot of body image troubles….amazing.

    2 agree
    • It's weird, right? You'd think that being surrounded by in-shape people wearing spandex would make me feel terrible about myself. But after a few months of "everyone here wears spandex always" it felt more normal to see a variety of body shapes in skin-tight pants. I stopped worrying about it so much.

      I used to wear shorts over my leggings, but as I did more complicated stuff they became sort of a hazard and I ditched them. Now I don't even change before picking up my daughter from daycare. Pretty sure everyone there thinks I'm a nutso who wears nothing but tank tops and running tights.

      5 agree
  9. I first fell in love with lifting when we moved to Germany, but I was terrified of the weight room and would only go with my spouse. When we moved to Turkey, I got shy again and thanks to conflicting work schedules rarely made it there. But at the beginning of this year, I delved my way into the free weights section of our gym and started learning some basic moves. A new neighbor took me under her wing and taught me some nifty things with dumbbells. I, too, struggled with feeling silly working hard to move 5lb weights around. Yet progress has happened. And I feel so much better about myself when I lift. When we moved back to the US, one of my main goals was finding a gym where I could go lift on a regular basis as I see it as my lifeline to sanity.

  10. Love this. I've been a Certified Personal Trainer for 5+ years now and I love when my female friends are able to not only understand how awesome weight lifting is but how awesome it can make you feel too.

    I <3 picking things up and putting them back down again.

    FWIW: I read this article as I ate my Chocolate Protein Brownie (thanks bodybuilding.com!).

    4 agree
    • "…how awesome it can make you feel…"

      Everyone always talks about running endorphins, but I get strength-training endorphins! And nothing wakes me up in the morning like a few tricep dips, push-ups, squats, and plank. I feel invincible and ready to take on the day!

      1 agrees
  11. Awesome!

    I've considered doing weight lifting but my problem is that I'll do a series of machines* and after, say, the second machine I'm bored. "One, two, three …. what am I making for dinner tonight? I don't remember. Oh um, five? I think I'm on five? Well six now. Whatever. Seven, eight, nine … I think I was going to make that chicken dish …" And about halfway through the next set I've officially reached the whiny "ZOMG am I done yet?!?" stage. Because apparently I have the attention span of a goldfish. Does anyone have any tips to get around this?

    *I want to get comfortable with weight lifting "properly" on a machine before I do free weights. But I'll definitely have to check out those links in the post!

    3 agree
    • 1) Maybe you should work with a trainer to get into free weights, even just to get comfortable with them because machines ARE boredom-inducing. Not just for your brain, but your muscles too. And the form you have on a machine does not mirror form when you are using free weights – you'll engage many more muscles when you hit the free weights and your form will adjust accordingly. Machines are a great starter tool for getting your body used to working out, maybe you're ready to move on?

      2) Are you jamming? I get SO MANY BOREDS without music when I'm working out but if I have my phone and I put it on the right Spotify or IHeartRadio station, I'm bopping my head along in between sets and having a good ol' time. Even a timed exercise like the plank goes by quicker because OMGTHISISMYJAM.

      Keep in mind that if you find you're still not able to focus when lifting free weights you should stop until you can conquer your focus. Not putting all of your focus into strength training not only means you're exerting less effort, but also makes you much more prone to injury.

      5 agree
    • You're not alone, machines are super boring.

      The thing about machines is they don't really teach you to lift properly. They have their place; if you are very weak, as in recovering from an injury, they're a good safe way to start. But the motions you do on a machine don't really translate to the real world because of how they restrict your range of motion.

      I don't want to offer any specific training advice, since I'm not qualified to do so, but I find that when I lift the right amount of weight (enough that by the end of my 10-15 rep set it's HARD) my mind doesn't wander so much. You may just need to switch up your routine. Another good book to check out is The New Rules of Lifting for Women.

      4 agree
      • I LOVE LOVE LOVE New Rules of Lifting.

        I'd also agree about machines restricting your range of motion. I don't think they really teach you how to lift. They just help you lift, really….

        A squat or an overhead press takes a lot of stabilizing muscles, core strength, and some coordination that isn't necessarily taught when you are using a machine aid. I would really recommend getting something like NROLW and diving into the free weights. Just start light and learn carefully. There's not a lot of overlap between machine lifts and actual lifts….and no better way to learn than to do!

        Also, it's much easier to focus when you have a 60# bar over your face :).

        2 agree
    • Some people like to lift heavier weights fewer times, but make sure your muscles are adequately warmed up first.

      I am also terrible at counting, so as long as you can push yourself, you can time it. And it should be difficult by the end of the time (30s, 1 min, whatever your fitness level is). I have to do this with cardio machines- run until the commercial break. Or run until that sweaty dude is done wiping off that machine, then walk for a bit, then run until this song is over, etc.

    • I feel the same boredom over weight machines. It helps me to focus on being present when I'm using them. I do this by saying that what I'm really doing is breath work training, whatever machine I'm on. So I focus on my breath coordination, which will ultimately make my workouts more competent.

  12. Nerd Fitness is an awesome site with incredible resources for anyone and everyone who wants to get themselves moving. Their resources are also wonderful for motivation and for creating realistic, tangible goals. It's geared mostly towards the lifting aide of things, but the forums run the gamut from parkour to yoga. Highly recommend it, especially their videos of proper form for a variety of exercises, even the basic but oft misdone push up.

    1 agrees
  13. Love this! As part of a recent lifestyle revamp, my husband and I started doing the "clean and press" regularly. I love how one exercise can work so many different muscles and be cardio all at once. My progress is slow, but I agree, every little accomplishment is so satisfying and makes me love my body more!

  14. Duuuude I so need to get my ass in gear and start lifting. I want to, but studying eats gym time so all I get to do is run.

    Cheers for this article, it reminds me of post exam plans, haha and gives some good site options.

  15. Sitting over here with thunder thighs -and lightning feet! Knowing you have power in your body is the sexiest thing – I'm a kettlebell girl with massive upper arms, but the strength for acrobatics and power tools. I hated my body forever until I realized that I was built like a draft horse instead of a race horse. ๐Ÿ™‚
    Besides, even if you deviate from the marketed standards when you're in a cocktail dress, it's a great chance to strike up a convo on the the joys of weight lifting at the party and join the badass club.

    3 agree
  16. I've been lifting for almost 4 years now, first competing in powerlifting and now learning the Olympic lifts. Lifting has changed my life in ways I never could have imagined before. I'm stronger and more confident than I ever thought I could be. Pushing my physical limits every day makes me feel like no problem is insurmountable.

    The secret is to always keep pushing yourself: never be satisfied with your current limitations. I train at Iron Sport Gym, a strength sports mecca here in Southeastern Pennsylvania where I'm lucky enough to train alongside elite athletes on almost a daily basis. I've learned and improved so much from training with people who are stronger, faster, and generally more skilled than myself. If you can find a "black iron" gym near you, I'd highly recommend joining it. Nothing will improve your technique more than training with experienced athletes, and all the strength athletes I've met are some of the friendliest, most helpful people around. They always want to help newbies improve!

    2 agree
  17. I had abdominal surgery about 7 weeks ago, and the thing I miss most is being able to exercise intensely. Right now, I am just sticking to walking, because that's what my body can take, but I'm really, really looking forward to being able to run and shoot archery again. I'll need to start lifting weights again too before I can shootโ€” I doubt I could handle the almost 40 lb draw weight of my recurve bow right now. ๐Ÿ™ Recovering from surgery is tough, both physically and mentally. It's been especially hard trying to recover and finish school at the same time, but I'm graduating with my second bachelor's on Sunday, so that's a bright spot!

    5 agree
  18. Great article – lifting is so empowering! I'd just like to recommend a fantastic website called stumptuous.com (http://www.stumptuous.com/) that's run by an awesome lady named Krista Scott-Dixon. It's targeted at women and is great for anyone who's into lifting, from beginners to those who are more experienced. There's also tons of great info on nutrition (her book called 'Fuck Calories' is a free download).

    1 agrees
    • YES to stumptuous.com !! Super awesome site – funny and empowering, too.

      Just because I haven't seen it mentioned yet, http://www.exrx.net is a wonderful resource for beginners and advanced lifters alike. It's a bit hard to navigate, but once you get used to it, it's an ENCYCLOPEDIA of lifting information.

      I'm a certified personal trainer myself, and I think that learning to lift was crucial for getting past some serious body image issues in my own life. (AKA, borderline anorexia to 40+ lbs heavier and MUCH happier.) Now I work in a different – still very physical – field (managing a very busy cafe on a college campus), and lifting has made a big difference in how I approach and accomplish my job. I'm proud of what my body can do, and the stamina it has, now that I'm both feeding and exercising it properly.

      I say all that to say this – go women lifters!

  19. I got into lifting with Mark Ripptoe's "Starting Strength." If you want to do some serious business bodyweight stuff because you don't have the money or time or access to a gym with free weights, Mark Lauren's "You Are Your Own Gym" is pretty excellent too. He has a female version of the book, too, which is good if you're not coming from a decent fitness level already – it's generally acknowledged that YAYOG is a bit too steep of an incline for women simply because we lack the upper body strength and build upper body strength slower.

    I have found a pretty awesome community on Fitocracy.com for tracking my workouts (MMO! Fitness Social Network! MMOFSN? sort of. You get XP and level up, there are quests, achievements, etc.), and they LOOOOVE weight lifting. There are tons of awesome groups with lots of knowledge to share. Most people are happy to see you improving, regardless of what you look like or where you start with your fitness journey.

    I'm out of lifting for right now and mostly doing bodyweight/yoga (when I'm not crunching hard in grad school… must find balance!), but once I clear up issues with my legs and lack of strength, I'll be happy to get back to that sweet, sweet iron. ๐Ÿ™‚

  20. I really struggle with my "gym expectations" and a rigid frame of mind when I get to the gym. However, having a new job that's stressful and eats up my time means my goals when I go to the gym have also shifted. It wasn't practical to be in the mindset of "activity A meets objective A" – and every time I went to the gym I was in objective A mode.
    Now I'm working to consciously tell myself what my goal(s) is before going to the gym. Am I there for stress relief? Do I need my gym psychiatrist (aka hard pounding the treadmill)? Am I there to train for hiking/camping/bike trip? Or do I just want to feel strong and amazing? Maybe I need a little bit of everything, which leads to a mindset of "activity A meets objectives A and C, but activity B also meets objectives A and C." So my workouts have gotten more flexible, and I feel like there's less of a barrier between me and gym time.

  21. For the past year or so, I've been doing Les Mills' Body Pump class at my gym, which is a weightlifting class. I L-O-V-E it with a passion. I go as often as I can (although admittedly, this past week and a half I haven't been able to make it because of a crazy work schedule–bleh!) and I have a blast. I am a teeny-tiny lady, only 4'10", and I also have a knee replacement, and it is one of the most empowering feelings EVAR to squat 25 kilos. I've put on ten pounds of muscle since I started, and I feel so strong and awesome. I love seeing my muscles become more defined and developed.

    1 agrees
    • I'm recovering from a partially torn ACL and a partially torn MCL in my left knee right now. I've never been a hard core exerciser but I can't be active AT ALL right now so it's nice to hear from someone with a knee replacement who does bad ass things ๐Ÿ˜‰

  22. Don't forget to check out stumptuous.com! Miss Krista is a true heroine for ladyfolks who love to lift heavy things. She is smart and funny and irreverent.

    Good for you for crushing it and loving your body. Wooo!

  23. I want to get into lifting again (I try it off and on) since it's supposed to be good and my muscles seem to have disappeared over the years, but one thing that discourages me (and ultimately leads to me quitting) is that I don't see results when I do try it. Unlike most people, I have never experienced the fun exercise endorphins people talk about – I always just feel miserable after any kind of work out at any level of intensity or speed. So I have to motivate myself by thinking about the end result. How long does it typically take before one can expect results from lifting?

    • It's really different for everyone, depending on where you start from, what else you're doing health/fitnesswise, what your goals are, etc. For me it took about 6 weeks to really notice changes. That's why I try to break down my workout goals into mini-goals. Even if I can't go up in weight yet, I can try to squeeze out one more rep or add another set.

      I also find it helps to switch up exercises and come back to something later. Sometimes I just need a break to get over a mental hurdle.

      I also had luck using GymPact to get my butt into the gym. It's a program that fines you $5 if you don't go (and rewards you with like 50 cents if you do). It's not everyone's cup of tea, but I found that $5 fine VERY motivating. Now that working out has become a habit I don't need it any more.

  24. One of the more gratifying times in my exercise life was when my husband gave ME the jar to open. AND I OPENED IT LIKE A F'IN CHAMP.

    3 agree

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