What strength training has taught me.
Listen, there is no “right” reason to start strength training. Of course, I would be elated if everyone who approached me about training said they were getting into it to feel stronger as a person, to learn to inhabit their body and their power so that they could affect positive change in their life, their community and the world around them.
Over everything else, I believe in absolute ownership, that your body and your life are yours. You get to decide the shape your body takes. You get to make all the choices about how you show up in your body and what you do to and with that body. This means if you want to train for strength and size and your goal is to get huge and muscular, especially if you are a woman, I support you. And this means if you just want to feel like you can keep up with your kids or grandkids and don’t have any strength goals outside of longevity, I support you. And finally, if you couldn’t care less about any of these things and physical exercise is not your jam and you never enter a gym in your life, I support you.
Especially if any of these choices come from a place of self-love and self-acceptance and are made because they are a celebration of who you are and what makes you happy, I support you.
But let’s be honest, most folks don’t approach the gym, or training, because they are happy with who they are. I know that’s not why I first started.
When I first started training, I wanted what most people want: to look “better.” For me that amorphous word came with a lot (a lot) of baggage about how I looked then and what that meant about my self worth.
For most of my life, I treated my body like my enemy. I hated it. I would stand in front of a mirror angrily pointing out all of my “flaws” to myself, cursing myself for all my bad qualities that had contributed to them: I was lazy, ugly, worthless. It feels terrible to type those words. It felt terrible to say them to myself. Looking back, I feel so sorry that I wasted so much time and energy believing those words.
I didn’t suddenly change one day. I didn’t just start strength training with a new focus, using it as a way of building myself up instead of constantly berating myself and tearing myself down. Instead, my journey was long and gradual. Which is the truth of things, it’s the way that humans make changes, no matter how frustrating and confusing that can feel.
When things did start to change it was because I found things to do, using my body, that had to do with how I felt, not how I looked.
I started to choose things because they allowed me to feel in my body and they helped me feel good, as opposed to avoiding feeling. Instead of trying to change my body, I was engaging with my body. And because these activities weren’t focused on what was “wrong” with my body but what my body could do, my body was willing to meet me halfway. That might sound kind of “hippy” to you, so a few things: 1) Welcome to my blog! 2) Imagine being screamed at by a coworker for years. Everytime they see you they start yelling about how much you suck. You, rightly, start avoiding them. Who wants to work with that kind of asshole? But, if in a dramatic turn of events, they start showing up and being kind to you, doing nice things for you, and gently asking you what you need, well then you’re a lot more inclined to meet them halfway on the next project, right?
Ironically, because I started focusing on how my body felt, as opposed to how it looked, my body did actually begin to change. The better care I took of my body, giving it what it actually wanted (movement, time outside, a diet that wasn’t 90% gummy worms), the better my body felt and the more I wanted to live in my body.
And because I was really starting to live in my body, I started exploring it; what exactly was this thing capable of? It was like an explosion. The more I did, the more I could do, which pushed me to do more. I just kept getting stronger and stronger, able to do more and try more.
Like I said, this process took time, it took years. (If you want to read allllll about my journey, check out this blog and this blog.) And it is an ongoing process! Creating a healthy relationship is not something you do and then are done with. Relationships are ongoing, they are living things that evolve and continue to evolve over time.
Forming a healthy relationship with my body was in many ways exactly like a person-to-person relationship. There are days I don’t love my body. But that doesn’t mean I hate it. There are days I’m angry at it, or frustrated with it, or still say mean things to my body. If you’ve ever really loved someone, you’ve had those days too. But the difference is now that I am committed, I keep showing up and I know that no matter what I might feel in a moment that doesn’t dictate the whole of the relationship.
The difference for me now, as opposed to when I started, is that when I hear a self-hating thought in my head I can see it as just a thought. I know that I am not defined by my appearance, that it isn’t what decides my worth. I can tell that thought to go fuck itself and remember that I am a whole human being and that ideas about how I “should” look have zero impact on what I am capable of or how happy I can be.
And just like a time-tested relationship, while I do my best to practice gratitude and not take my body for granted, there are many days where I don’t think that much about my body at all. Which means I’m not obsessed with worrying about my appearance and instead I am busy living in my body, existing with it, being a part of it.
So, while I recognize that not everyone is as fascinated with strength training as I am, I encourage everyone to give it a try. You don’t have to have a big goal, your goal can be just to try it, just to see what your body can do and what it can learn to do.
I encourage everyone to try strength training because the process will teach you things. It will give you a new perspective on your body. It will allow you to let go of approaching your body as only a shrine to appearance and start to see it as somewhere you live, as the very thing that allows you to be alive and experience life.
Strength training creates both an entry point to a lived experience in your body and a way of exploring your body. And these are both growth-promoting because they are not about changing or shrinking or being different from how you are now. These are about being who you are, learning about yourself and showing up even more powerfully in your body and your life.
The more I have trained for strength, the greater my appreciation of my body has become. And that appreciation has spread to include my appearance. I like how I look, and this is possible because how I look means something now. When I look at my arms I see what they can do, when I look at my legs I am looking at my capacity, my strength. My body is a representation of who I am and what is important to me.
This is the difference between trying to look different in order to fit in and feeling that you belong with and to your body, that it is the right body for you. Because your body carries you through life, your body is the matrix through which you experience and learn. And there can be absolutely nothing wrong with that, it is unique and special. It is a gift.
The greatest thing I’ve learned from strength training is that it wasn’t the shape of my body that needed to change, it was the shape of my relationship to it that needed to evolve.