Saturday, February 16, 2013

Thoughts on Strength

On Thursday, I set a new personal strength record. I pressed a 35lb kettlebell five times on my right side, and three times on the left. This was a "test" workout, geared to assess my limits and see if I've gotten strong enough to progress from the 26lb bell I've been using for my regular workout to the 35.

To move up I had to be able to press the 35lb bell at least three times on each side. I did my right side first, which is my stronger side. I was hoping I'd manage the 3 but, honestly, wasn't sure. I'd only pressed the 35 a handful of times before, and never multiple times in a row. When I got 5 before failing while trying for a 6th, I couldn't believe it. I was giddy with a sense of accomplishment.

Since September, I've been doing a workout with the somewhat ridiculous name of the Rite of Passage (or ROP, for short) from this book. It's sort of an entry program into developing real strength using the kettlebell. It's an interesting program, and I've enjoyed it a lot, mainly because the results are so unbelievably tangible. The first day I did the workout, I pressed the 26lb bell 3 times on each side. The last time (the workout before my test) I did 150 presses.

I never would have thought I'd get "into" weights, but starting to get strong has been an unbelievably positive experience for me. The kettlebell I now regularly clean and press (meaning pick up from the ground with one hand and push it up over my head) weighs more than my saddle. I have been in several situations in the past few months where it becomes abundantly clear that I am stronger than a man who has gallantly came over to "help" me move something large or carry something heavy. My posture has straightened. It is now easy for me to walk and run, even though these are both things that have been difficult for me for years (partly due to a joint condition I was born with). I have better posture on horseback, more coordination, and more ability to use my body effectively. And all this is just a side effect. The workouts themselves are fun, and also short, and easy to fit into even a busy life.

One fascinating component to my strength increase is a corresponding weight gain. I am a solid ten pounds heavier than I was six months ago, but I am the same size (slightly smaller, actually). At first the weight gain bothered me. A lot, if I'm being honest. Putting on weight runs entirely against our cultural perception of how a woman should get healthy, and plenty of well-meaning people have warned me that if I do too much work with weights (particularly heavy weights) I will "get bulky." This flawed advice drives me crazy whenever I hear it, because it is just entirely wrong. Woman literally have to be on steroids to get bulky, and the more I explore weights, the more I realize how much misinformation women are fed about what their bodies will do if they get strong.

When I was first feeling bad about the weight gain, Brian showed me this article about a girl who is 5'4" and weighs 140lbs, but looks like a movie star and can dead-lift 315lbs. That helped.

But obviously, ten pounds is a lot of weight, and I'm not saying my body hasn't changed. It's just not bigger. I have measurements of my waist, upper arms, thighs and hips that I check myself against every few weeks, and most of the time I'm right about where I was when I started the ROP. A couple of times I've been considerably smaller, once I was rather larger (but I'd been off the workout and on vacation for the holidays).

I do have more muscle definition in my arms and legs and abs, but I am not bulky. No one would look at me and think, "Wow that girl must lift." This is actually one of the things I love about these changes. The ROP is a combination of compound movements that work the whole body. The result is a type of useful, full-body strength that is invisible unless you're in a swimsuit.

Now that I've passed my "test" with the 35, I am going to start the ROP over with the heavier weight. For a woman, to complete the ROP with a 35lb bell is hard, so it will be a real milestone for me if I can get there. My goal is to finish it some time this year.


  1. That's awesome. I have been looking at the kettlebell that I got (on your recommendation) the last few weeks, and keep thinking I should start using it. (I'm paranoid because we have wood floors, and WHAT IF I DROP IT??)

    I can tell a difference just from the pictures, even though you're wearing a jacket in your most recent ones.

  2. Thanks Liz! It's nice to know there are some visible payoffs.

    And as far as using the wood floors, we have them too and I usually work out on a rug. I've used a yoga mat too. But really, kettlebells are a bit hard to drop, so I wouldn't worry about that too much. :)


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