Lifting Heavy, Staying Small


After 7 months as a card-carrying gym member, I still don’t know which phenomenon I find to be the most disturbing:

  • The hordes of grunting men of all ages in T-backs, who seem to be collectively going for maximum clank per rep
  • The female flock of 40 somethings that have been dipped in liquid sunshine and are trying too hard to pass for 20 somethings, with their rock hard bodies [implants included] and raspy voices
  • The completely undisguised leering going on, between both the watch-me-swagger-over-to-my-shaker crowd and the throng of single women with glossy blow outs and fully made up faces

Cue generalization alert! I know, I know, and you’re absolutely right – there are just as many people in gyms all over the world who don’t fit into either of those categories.

But when you’re an extremely self-conscious girl used to lifting in the privacy of her own basement, these people somehow aren’t as immediately visible, and those people are the ones who make you want to throw in the towel.

After the first abysmal session of my free 7-day trial, I e-mailed my boyfriend and texted my brothers and tearfully told them I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t work out in public. I’d just have to make do without a squat rack and a leg press after all.

  • The miles of mirrors horrified me;
  • The Lululemon Barbies made me feel unbearably intimidated;
  • The machines were impossible to use;
  • There were practically no other girls lifting anything more their water bottles.

That first day felt like the last straw. In truth, I was already really hesitant to switch my focus from long-distance running to strength training…mainly because I did not want to get big. I I felt positively prickly when friends asked if I thought female body builders were pretty and I was absolutely adamant about staying away from protein powder.


But with my stomach on spin cycle, I signed up for a membership anyway. I started going to the gym three times a week [divided into push, pull, and leg workouts] and I slowly got more confident. A sweet old man took me under his wing and showed me around, and a young personal trainer began to casually correct my form. The receptionist started to smile and say hello, and I began to recognize the regulars.

Over time, I watched and copied how people claimed a machine [or two…] and fiddled with seat heights and miscellaneous settings. I learned how to stop just one set before failure when I didn’t have a spotter, and then I learned to ask for one.


That’s not to say it’s all been easy since then. I’ve still never seen another girl squat, deadlift, or bench press using the Olympic bars, and sometimes I lose all faith that I’m ever going to end up looking “toned” [my boyfriend’s least favorite word].


He’s taken my massive mood swings all in stride…one week, I’ll be thrilled with a PR on the military press, and the next, I’ll be downright distraught in a fitting room with a pile of shirts that feel too tight across the shoulders.

Intellectually, I do believe that women can lift heavy weights without getting bulky. How come? Because there is a steady stream of accredited studies that say so. I refer to Charles Poliquin’s Why Women Should Not Be Afraid of Gaining Muscle Mass [Part Two] whenever I’m convinced my legs are swelling up like sausages…and whenever I start to feel like I might be mistaken for a linebacker from the back. These feelings usually surface after a whole 4-6 week cycle of 5 sets of 5 reps with 2-3 minutes rest. Sidenote: I take the exact same size pants as I did when I was running 7 days a week. 

But emotionally, I still yo-yo back and forth all the time. I think I’ve finally really stopped periodically reverting back to high rep, light load training [which doesn’t “tone” muscles at all, contrary to popular belief] and excessive amounts of cardio…but I still have to re-work my conception of beauty. Throughout high school and college, I envied wafer-thin girls with their collarbones on display and matchsticks for legs. Then I rode the “strong is the new skinny” wave for a while after graduation, with lots of admiration for women with killer abs and curvy legs. Now I’m floundering somewhere in between, mostly because my shape is so different than it was when I was in starvation mode and because it’s so hard not to play the comparison game.

I want to feel tiny & feminine and powerful & athletic all at once. And I do believe there’s a healthy way to feel and be all those things. 

Obviously I haven’t figured it all out yet, but I’m very happy with my almost 3D tricep [compared to the shadow that was there before…in the right light] and my nutrition…which involves eating lots of things like this:


AND occasional things like this:



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