Push it, push it real good: why you want to get strong (and how to do it)

Sarah lifts some really big weights with Sally Moss of Gubernatrix

Sarah lifts 40kg

A few years ago, I realised I was in a bad way. My body – a steady size 10 since I’d been a teen – had started to slump and spread. I snuck up to a 12, and then a 12 started getting tight. At a health check, the nurse reassured me that I wasn’t very far outside the healthy weight range. In the winter, I started to come down with hideous, racking coughs that lasted for months; in the summer, I wrapped my arms and legs up in the heat. I was pretty miserably.

I decided that something had to change. Perhaps what should have changed was my attitude to myself. Instead, I decided just to change myself. I stopped eating the office doughnuts. I started weighing my portions rather than eating till my tummy hurt. And I started exercising – riding a bike, then running a bit, and then running a lot. The winter coughs and the summer shame stopped.

Initially, I didn’t have a very clear idea what my plan was. If you’d asked me, I’d have said I wanted to look “like me, but less fat”. There’s a problem with that, and it’s not that being less fat is a bad thing: it’s that I consciously didn’t want to get more muscly, because (ew!) muscles are for boys.

Girls get strong

Clearly, that is a pretty dumb way to think. Maybe I thought a nice female body was made of delicate bones and moved by miraculous girly telekinesis. But a couple of friends started to talk to me about how weight training could benefit my running, and after I’d been reassured that touching a dumbbell wouldn’t make me instantly hypertrophy into WWE Diva, I gave it a try.

First of all, I did it on my own with small weights – just a couple of pounds. Then my friends who do weights laughed at me so I moved onto a set of dumbbells and found that I could easily lift 8kg, 12kg, 16kg, and then I was using every plate in the box: 20kg. And it wasn’t just that I could do it. It was that I loved doing it. As for the way I looked? I hadn’t turned into a bulging tangle of sinews, because that doesn’t happen without intensive exercise and *cough* nutrition *cough* plans.

Instead, I looked pretty hot. Not that I’d suddenly turned into Beyonce or anything, but where I wanted to be round, I was round; where I wanted to be firm, I was firm. My muscles were bigger, but I was smaller: a size 8. And my posture was better – I actually measured a half inch taller at my next GP check-up, bringing me up to a mighty 5’2″. This was amazing.

Sally lifts 60kg

So, I was ready to do more. And the next step took me to personal trainer Sally Moss and Jubilee Hall gym in Covent Garden. She started me off by asking some questions about my exercise routine and my aims, then we moved into the gym for some warm-up stretches – including one called “the pissing dog” (see, weightlifting is for girls). Then she got me in the squat rack (that’s a big metal cage that holds a barbell while you load it with weights, allowing you to start the squat with the bar on your shoulders).

Coach me up

With her talking me through the actions, I’d lifted double my personal best within 30 minutes – 40kg. I was pleased with myself, but when I saw Sally lifting 60kg with the wheel-sized plates, I was really impressed. The feeling of accomplishment at shifting that bar was immense; the aches in my thighs, calves, stomach muscles, shoulder and arms say it was a proper workout. Sally also noticed that I was weaker on my left side than my right, and gave me some exercises to help get me balanced – without an experienced spotter, that’s the kind of thing you might unthinkingly compensate for until it caused an injury, so it pays to work with a partner every once in a while.

To finish off, she gave me a ladder and inverse ladder routine. This is a neat trick if you find a constant number of reps (that’s repetitions of an exercise) in a set (that’s the complete number of repetitions on one exercise before you rest or move to something else) to be a bit of a bore, and I do. In a ladder, you start with one rep and increase by one with each set up to the maximum number (in this case, ten). An inverse ladder starts with the maximum, and moves down to one.

For my workout, Sally set me alternating sets of inverted rows and pushups-into-burpees. After ten of the former, one of the latter felt like a lovely rest; when the counts crossed over, I felt a little burst of achievement; and counting down my last set of burpees with Sally cheering me on was triumphant. I ended the session having learnt a lot about both my own body and exercise, and with a hankering to find a squat rack near home to do my stuff in.

Sally runs the Ladies Who Lift course

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I'm a writer, and I live in Bath with my family. My work covers politics, lifestyle, fashion, fitness and culture.
10 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I’ve been hoping to do one of Sally’s classes as I fancy being stronger and more supple and being deceptively muscly…

    But the main reason I want to do the classes is to quieten the residual fears I have about my body after having an eating disorder for years so it was really disheartening to hear some describe my body (same size as Sarah was and same height) in such negative terms here. I don’t know why the numbers couldn’t have been left out so no one felt they were comparing or being compared. It really left feeling flat instead of pumped up…

    • It wasn’t the size per se, it was the fact that I was obviously unfit and getting unfitter. Sorry you found it negative, but I’m talking about my body not yours, and given that I was suffering persistent ill health due to lack of exercise, I don’t think the negativity is misplaced. Do the class – Sally is amazing.

  2. I like the shift in your focus from body image and being thin, to being strong and achieving goals.

    I really wish more gyms and clubs would remember that women don’t all want to be thinner – or at least recognise that they’re contributing to body issues in women by focusing on wanting to be thinner. Lots of women do exercise to feel well, and strong, just like men do.

    Frame in Shoreditch really saddens me. They started out with a great focus on the fun in getting fit – 80′s Jane Fonda-style classes, yoga, pilates, hip-hop and ballet classes. But lately all their marketing has been around losing weight, getting bikini bodies and looking thin. One of the reasons I don’t go there anymore.

    I’ve never tried weights but love how yoga has helped me to feel stronger, especially in my upper body.

    • They started out with a great focus on the fun in getting fit – 80′s Jane Fonda-style classes, yoga, pilates, hip-hop and ballet classes. But lately all their marketing has been around losing weight, getting bikini bodies and looking thin. One of the reasons I don’t go there anymore.

      Urgh! That would put me off. I joined a gym when I lived in Clapham Junction, and realised there were more posters for lap-dancing classes and tanning/beauty treatments than anything to do with cardio/strength. And all the activities seemed weirdly gender-segregated. So I quit, and instead cycle and swim instead.

      • I’m not a member of a gym either – because *time*. I just don’t have enough for getting to a gym, working out, showering and coming home again to be a practical addition to my routine. So I run and do weights and bodyweight exercises at home. I find gyms pretty intimidating a lot of the time, though I loved Jubilee Hall. Might have to rethink my prejudices now I’ve got my eye on the big weights though…

  3. I need to find the motivation to stick with upper body exercises, I just can’t seem to stick with them. Rubbish.

  4. So behind the idea of getting strong. I was always sad when I had to ask men to carry things for me. I started doing weights and I have to say the feeling of grabbing bigger weights than the chaps did give me quite a thrill.

    I will say I also prefer discussions about fitness without the sizes- I actually found the way you talked about being a size 12 (although they were obviously your feelings and no one else’s) quite disappointing. I agree with Sarah on this. If you felt unhealthy, fine- but you can be a size 12 and very fit, or you can be a size 12 and not fit but beautiful and happy and smart all the same. I’m sure you know this, but for other people it can take a lot of regular reenforcement to believe that, and it does suck a bit when you read this stuff on what’s pretty much a feminist website.

    • Clearly what I’ve written is capable of being misunderstood, given that it’s been misunderstood, but I thought it was fairly clear that what mattered wasn’t the dress size, it was the fact that I was obviously getting constantly bigger – to the point where I was outside the “healthy” weight range and suffering other ill effects of a sedentary lifestyle. I weighed up whether to include it or not, and I thought it was appropriate to give some indication of where I started – not least because one of the concerns girls have about weight training is that it’ll make them bulkier.

      • It’s sort of a matter of taste really, and I can see why you did include the measurements, but some people (clearly like me) are sensitive to it. I’m the type that enjoyed the old days of Jezebel where measurements and sizes were not discussed. It can encourage a competitive and comparative sort of feeling, and discussions that leave a bad feeling. I guess I love reading about getting strong (which is why I read your article) but don’t like reading that some people think size 12 is fat.

        Anyway, thanks for responding. You’ve reminded me of how much I enjoyed being strong! I got strong after a relationship ended and I realised I found those funny martial arts combo classes quite the release.

  5. Awesome :3?

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