My fitness story
When I graduated from University in the Class of 2003, it was with a cigarette in one hand and a can of lager in the other.
At a glance I look healthy enough, but I didn’t feel too hot. I’d spent the previous few years in higher education, studying and partying. My time was divided pretty evenly between libraries, lecture halls and rowdy student union bars; where, back then, beer was a quid and pizza was 241. And I over-indulged in both with wild and wanton abandon.
I’d gone from having an incredibly active childhood; always on my roller boots, skateboard or bike; in a dancing class or up a tree, to being an adult who barely broke a sweat. During my first year of uni I went from a (UK) size 6/8 to a size 12. Now, I’m not saying that a size 12 is all that big, but going up 3 dress sizes within a few months was alarming and I wasn’t going to let that trajectory continue. 1. Because it just didn’t feel comfortable for me in any way and 2. Because I hated clothes shopping and wasn’t about to start making clothes out of my curtains.
The fact that I piled on the pud so quickly was a bonus because I felt the effects of excess body fat so acutely as a result. I swiftly switched from beer to spirits and started going two’s on pizza and that did the trick in terms of reversing the weight gain. But maintaining a healthy weight is only one aspect of fitness and I didn’t address anything else at that point. I was still binge drinking and smoking a lot. I was too sedentary for too much of the time. I didn’t get any fresh air and I just wasn’t taking care of myself that well. I’d stopped practicing yoga and I didn’t go to dance classes anymore. My new hobbies were basically: going out, getting smashed, avoiding STD’s. I was tired and run down and low-level depressed in that way you don’t even realise at the time because it creeps up on you so slowly and sneakily and disguised as fun.
So anyway, it was around that time, fifteen years ago, when I realised that I’d let my fitness levels slide mightily, and that was enough of that thank you very much. I got a media degree, embarked on my career and joined a gym. I’ve been a gym member wherever I’ve lived ever since.
To start with, and for the best part of a decade, I plodded along doing steady state cardio. I ran, rowed, cycled and cross-trained my way to good health. And I mostly fucking hated it. There were times (there still are) when I enjoyed switching off and going at it, endurance style, but mainly I found that sort of repetitive activity too monotonous and couldn’t shake the gnawing suspicion that it was only a matter of time before I stopped going to the gym altogether because I just wasn’t enjoying it enough. (Btw, good for you if you love long-distance running and stuff like that. I know loads of people who do, I’m just not one of them.) I wanted to be fit and healthy but I didn’t really know what else to do, so I just kept on doing what I was doing.
Then one day, about five years ago, I was idly scrolling through fitness hashtags on instagram when I came across a whole community of #womenwholift and that’s when I became one of them.
I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before then, to venture into the weights section at my gym. Probably because at my gym at that time, that section was solely occupied by huge, stinky, red-faced, jacked-up men who grunted loudly and sweated profusely. (If you want the number for that gym, ladies, just let me know.)
I didn’t let that put me off though. I started lifting weights. I’ve never looked back and here are a few reasons why I love it so damn much:
Since I started lifting weights I am the strongest I’ve ever been and it feels amazing. When you are physically capable of doing hard things and you are full of energy it empowers you, both physically and mentally. Cardio takes care of your cardio-vascular health and helps to keep you lean, but it doesn’t build muscle to anywhere near the same degree as weight training does. I grew visibly stronger week by week once I got into weights and I’m still smashing my PB’s all the time.
Lifting weights has made me curvier than ever too. That’s why it’s also called Body Building. You can literally build the type of body you want. If you want shapely legs – you train your quads, hammies and calves. If you want a bigger butt – you train your glutes. If you want your abs to pop – you train those muscles and do constant reps of Stop-Eating-So-Much-Crap. The results don’t appear overnight but if you train hard, stick to it and sort your nutrition out, you will start seeing amazing results within a few short weeks. You will not get ‘too bulky’. Certainly not accidentally or suddenly. The amount of discipline it takes for anyone to achieve levels of extreme muscularity and vascularity do not happen by chance.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. It hurts so much but in the best way. I now live for that satisfying Call-Me-An-Ambulance-I-Can’t-Move discomfort. It’s proof that you’re smashing your workouts and your muscles are growing. It does make me smile to think that when I’m struggling to walk, stand up and sit down after a heavy workout, this is what optimum health feels like! But a bit of soreness won’t kill you, it’s only temporary and when you see the gains you can make when you’re consistent, it’s worth it.
It is male dominated, but so what?
Even after five years of lifting weights, five days a week on average, I am still one of the only women working out in that section of the gym, but I don’t let it stop me. And you shouldn’t either. I know it can feel a little intimidating at first but I’ve never had any real problems apart from the odd unwanted lingering look. (It’s as if some people don’t realise that you can see them ogling your bottom in the mirror, the numpties.) Generally though, most people are lovely and polite and too focused on their own workouts to pay much attention to what you’re doing – I know that’s certainly true for me. My 90 year old Nan could be working out next to me, trussed up to the megamax in dayglo spandex and I wouldn’t notice.
You get lean
Lifting weights burns more calories than cardio. This is because in the process of building muscle, your metabolism tends to stay elevated for much longer after you’ve finished working out. Ideally, you should still incorporate some cardio into your fitness routine, HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is regarded as the best accompaniment, but lifting weights is unparalleled in terms of concurrently building muscle and reducing body fat.
It’s super interesting
The more I’ve learnt about weight lifting and the more gains I’ve made, the more I love it. There is always more to learn. There are always personal bests to beat. And there are always more gains to be had. There honestly isn’t a downside. I’ve had a couple minor injuries over the years, but nothing serious and I’ve learnt lessons from them. Technique is paramount in weight lifting. Form is so much more important than how heavy you can lift. When I get tired or frustrated with working out I change up my programme. I book in with a personal trainer. I buddy up with a spotter for a while. I might have a short break and do some steady-state cardio for a change, but before long I can’t wait to get back to the squat rack.
Food, glorious food
It should go without saying that you can’t out-train a bad diet and that is true whether you prefer cardio based fitness or weight training programmes. You won’t see much in the way of gains if you workout for one hour a day and then eat rubbish for the remainder. Nutrition is absolutely essential to good health. Protein is especially important for building muscle, and it’s a myth that you can’t achieve that on a plant based diet – I do. I have done for a couple of years now and haven’t found it to be a problem at all. (Check out #veganbodybuilders or #plantbasedweightlifters for fitspo.) I am, and have always been, a massive foodie. I absolutely love my food. I cook a lot and I eat a lot but it’s predominately good healthy nutritional wholesome stuff. You can’t withstand the sort of workouts I do if you don’t fuel your body properly. Deprivation and starvation is completely unnecessary. Also, do invest in a good protein powder. I use an all-natural vegan one that is absolutely delicious. The chocolate and vanilla flavours are my favourites.
It levels you out
I’ve walked into the gym in all kinds of moods over the years; happy, angry, upset, depressed, anxious, excited, ecstatic, hormonal, heartbroken, grief-stricken, furious and frustrated. And yet, whenever I’ve walked back out again, after a workout, my mood is always better. Always. Always. Always. No exceptions. When I’m working out, I’m in the zone. I’m counting out my reps and my sets and my rest times. I’m concentrating completely on making sure my form is right. That I’m using the correct range of motion. That I’m contracting my muscles properly. I’m pushing myself to do a little bit better than the day before, or the week before, or the year before. I never compare myself to the person next to me. I only ever compare who I am today to who I was in the past. I focus on progress not perfection; that’s the only logical thing to do. I’m not in competition with anyone else. I can admire other people without doubting myself. Nothing else matters during a workout, except for that workout. Everything else fades away. Lifting weights forces you to be present. It makes you mindful. To only focus on the rep you’re doing and the breath you’re taking at that moment. As long as you’re doing that properly, you don’t have time to do anything else.
That’s enough for now. See you at the squat rack. Happy lifting!