Monday, July 9, 2007

Weight Lifting Shapes the Mind and the Body

Rachel Kramer Bussel
The Huffington Post

What I'm about to write I would've found obnoxious and pretentious mere months ago but lately seem to tell everyone who so much as asks me how I'm doing: I have a personal trainer. Even now, it sounds like saying I have a chauffeur or money manager or lawyer; there's something haughty-sounding about the term that doesn't sit well with me.

However, the gym I joined, Crossfit NYC (an affiliate of the national gym Crossfit), couldn't be less haughty, and I've quickly become a devotee. The main reason I started going is because I wanted to lose weight, and though I'm a member of my local Y, I wasn't motivating myself to go as often as I'd like. I'd let any and every excuse worm its way into my consciousness, putting off exercise for last, until I had to admit that I simply wasn't going to do it that day, or week, or sometimes even month.

By committing to pay someone several times a week, I was making a commitment that I knew I couldn't flake out on. And my trainer is not just "someone," but a friend, Allison Bojarski (and, perhaps ironically, a fellow cupcake blogger). This is our tenth week working together, and I've learned so much -- about weight lifting, but also about myself. So while she was my introduction to the gym, what's kept me there is that I keep wanting to get better, to push myself farther.

"Do you have a goal?" my great-uncle asked me when I told him about my gym routine. He was asking if once I reach a certain point, I plan to stop, and I realized that I don't. While I'm trying to shed some pounds and go from a size 8 (or occasionally 10) to a size 6, my immediate goals have shifted. Don't get me wrong, I still want to drop a size or two and lose the flab under my arms and on my stomach, but that's no longer my only motivation. Now, it's about doing just a bit better than I did the day before. It's about pushing myself to my limits -- and figuring out what those limits are.

My first few weeks, I probably said, "I can't" with every other breath. Practically every exercise Allison had me do seemed like a struggle, if not impossible. When I'd say it, I really meant it; I thought I couldn't do the things being asked of me. I've had to train myself to visualize me succeeding at these exercises, and have been amazed at how much my mindset affects my abilities. Allison and the other trainers have given me many tips on how to think about what I'm doing, and while things like "push the earth away" didn't make sense at first, I'm starting to get the hang of it. These visualization techniques combined with using the proper form and breathing at the right moments can make the difference between a successful squat and an unsuccessful one. My former combativeness reminds me of the famous Lewis Carroll quote from Alice in Wonderland:

"There is no use trying," said Alice; "one can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

I have another friend who sends me greeting cards; they arrive in random batches that I sift through, picking out the ones I want and giving the others to friends. One she sent recently reads: "Life does not put things in front of you that you are unable to handle." This could well be a mantra for my time at the gym (or, alternately, I could steal Allison's blog's motto: "it doesn't have to be fun to be fun.")

The skills I'm learning benefit me far beyond my physical health. They've forced me to confront many of my own phobias, superstitions, and overall stubbornness. I'm a perfectionist, and if I can't do something to the letter, I often figure I may as well not even try. This is a self-defeating attitude that has gotten me into plenty of trouble before, and yet it keeps me safe and secure if I never have to take risks. I had an "a-ha" moment when, during one weightlifting session, Allison told me that even if I'm not sure I'll be able to come up out of a squat, I should try, because doing half of the exercise and making the attempt is better than giving up too early. Yet to me, it seemed obvious that doing four perfect squats, versus four and a half, was the preferable outcome. I'd still rather end on a high note than have "failed," but I'm learning to let go of my perfectionist tendencies. Seeing people who can lift double the weight I can who are still pushing themselves to go further, to beat their own personal records, even if this means they increase the weight their using by one pound (or less) inspires me. The goal is, perhaps, not to have a goal; the goal is perseverance, stamina, and confidence.

Two weeks ago, I got on the scale for the first time in possibly a year (I honestly don't remember the last time I'd weighed myself -- perhaps during a doctor's visit). I've deliberately avoided scales because I can all too easily become obsessed with their output. The number I saw reflected back at me simply made me feel like the past two months of intense work had been for naught. I'll even tell you what it said, even though revealing one's weight seems as treacherous as revealing one's salary or number of sexual partners: 156. "You don't really weight that much!" a friend said when I complained about the number.

The reason I weighed myself was to find out if I was squatting the equivalent of my own weight. The point is now moot, because I'm now able to squat with 165 pounds on my back, and don't plan to weigh myself again for a good long while, but those red, glowing numbers still haunt me, making me even more determined to lower them (and to not set foot on a scale for a few months).

While I've been given some nutritional advice, the focus at Crossfit is not about looks per se, but strength and endurance. I hadn't realized just how proud I would feel of being able to do even simple things, like situps, which were virtually impossible for my lazy ass two months ago, and now have been enhanced with machinery and a medicine ball.

I've been introduced to a whole new vocabulary and community, and whatever self-consciousness I may have had (and still have) about my weight, they pretty much vanish during the time I'm actually at the gym. I sweat, I scream, I pant, I complain, I have to ask for help. One trainer said that during my recently deadlift I "looked like [I was] having an existential crises." It's not pretty, and it's not meant to be. I'm forced to take note of my self-consciousness, how often I apologize, and especially how my own fears play into my ability or inability to perform certain tasks.

I still care about what the scale says, and would like it to read, oh, about 30 pounds less. But the fact is, when I weighed 116 pounds in college, I could easily fit into size 6 jeans, but I weighed so little because I was literally starving myself. I don't want to go that route again, and I find myself eating now both out of hunger and from a sense of wanting to prepare myself for the physical challenges ahead.

Seeing the numbers on the weights I'm lifting increase, feeling the exercises get easier (at least until Allison finds a way to make them more challenging!), and knowing that I'm pushing myself beyond my comfort level, are all satisfying in ways that stepping on a scale can never convey. As Allison writes of her own marathon training, "Crossing that finish line gave me a unique sense of accomplishment, one that I couldn't compare to any other thing I'd ever done."

In the past two months, I've come full circle and now toss the words "trainer," "gym," "squat," and "deadlift" around like I've been using them my whole life, and I don't plan on stopping any time soon. Who knows what new vocabulary -- and personal records -- await me?

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