On Being Strong

So, I’ve been getting back to the gym now, after four or five months off. I was never an athletic person, and I always thought of myself as the resident Fat Girl at school (this wasn’t so true once I hit high school, but my self-image was already set by then), so when I go to the gym, I’m still pretty self conscious. I try not to look at the women around me and compare myself, but shit like that happens. I mean, when everybody’s (OK, when all of the *women*) are skinnier and hence more “socially acceptable” than you are, you tend to get a little ancy.

I do about forty minutes of cardio, and I don’t kill myself doing it. There are Super Women who run full tilt for an hour on the treadmill or beat themselves up on the elliptical machine like it’s a torture device, but I like to pace myself. I don’t want to fall off the elliptical when I’m done.

So if you were to see me and one of these thin racer-women side-by-side on the elliptical, I’d look like I was behind, not as tough, not as healthy, not as strong. I mean, after all, look at her go!

That is, until you get us both to the weights.

It’s something I noticed at the martial arts school as well when we’d do free weight and punching bag rounds. I took dumbbells in equal or greater weight to the ones the women who’d been there for years took. I thought it was interesting.

Then I started here on these weight machines, and you can use the pin to select what weight you want, so you can track what the person ahead of you was lifting, and I started to clock what everybody else was lifting. There were women who left the pin at 5 or 15 pounds for the upper body exercises. The heaviest weight I saw a woman clock in was 35 lbs.

I was doing a minimum of 45, and that was when I was doing the lift-over-your-head stuff. For the rest, it was 55-65. And for the legs? 90 lbs minimum, up to 115/120. the only other woman I saw do over 100 lbs for the leg weights was bigger than me set everything on a really high weight and only did 5-10 reps, one set.

And I’m thinking, what the hell is up with the lifting weights thing?

I don’t think women in general can only lift 15-35 lbs. I just don’t buy it. So what gives? Is it just a matter of doing it for years without increasing the weight? Why?

I know there are a lot of women who fear “bulking up” like a guy. The thing is, unless you’ve got a big dose of above-average testoserone, you likely won’t do this unless you’re expressly training for it and taking supplements. Instead, you’ll likely condense. Muscles get denser, not bigger, if you don’t have a ton of testoserone. That’s what happened to me after six months or so of martial arts classes. My biceps got to a certain size, and then just stared getting denser and harder.

So, lifting more than 15 lbs isn’t going to turn you into Arnold Swartzenegger.

What gives? Are women afraid of being strong? Or are the weights really not the priority, since we’re all *really* just at the gym to get *thin*? And is there really such a push to be thin that we’ll give up being strong to get it?

Because let me tell you, being strong is really fucking useful when your roommate and her SO are out of town and you have to move your entire household (including the goddamn fucking air conditioner) up two flights of stairs. It’s also really useful when you’re getting harrassed on the train or on the street. It gives you a confidence you didn’t have before, and in fact, you’ll likely get harrassed *less* because of that newfound confidence (yes, I’ve been harrassed far, far, less since I took up the MA classes and learned the boxer’s walk).

So why keep lifting 15 pounds? Cause you think you can’t lift any more? Cause you’re thinking, “What’s the point?”

At work, I sit in a cubicle immediately behind the receptionist. It took her almost a year to realize that she didn’t need to call one of the guys from the back to haul around boxes for her. The sad part was when she brought me over to haul a box that weighed less than 20 lbs.

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