I have been into powerlifting for about five years now. Most of the stuff I want to say about strength training has been said better by other people (usually Henry Rollins), but I’m going to say a few things anyway. Most of all, this:

The amount of discipline, time, and effort that a person has put into their physical training does not always show.

When you see someone whose efforts show, it’s easy to respect the amount of work that went into it. But here’s the thing: the exact same amount of work may have been done by the fat girl on the bench to the left of that person, or by the scrawny guy in the squat rack to the right. The exact same amount. We see only the body a person has today. Do we know where they started from? Do we know how long it’s taken them to get where they are now, and what it took to do that?

There is no absolute success in lifting and fitness. It is a progression. Success means continuing to move toward a continually moving target.

Even though most of us in the lifting community know this from personal experience, there seems to be less tendency to apply it to others. It doesn’t help that motivation comes easiest through visual success stories. That’s natural. A picture of a stunning physique goes straight from our bugged-out eyes to the most primitive part of our yearning brain. The non-visual success stories also inspire us, but they don’t have the same impact. There’s a reason why ads for the latest stupid fitness scam don’t show two identical pictures of the same pasty dude with the slogan “Find out how Nigel got back a full range of motion in his knee while still looking exactly the same!”

We’re programmed to believe we know what hard work and inevitable glorious victory look like, and that ain’t it.

I saw a picture on Facebook recently: a smoking hot woman, all abs and skintight shorts and straining bra, deadlifting multiple plates over the slogan “STRONG IS SEXY.” And inspiring as that visual might be, I couldn’t help asking myself … okay, if strong is sexy, why do all the people making “strong is sexy” images make sure to only show people who look like that? Why not, say, Sarah Robles? Holley Mangold? I’m pretty sure either of them could put any 20 randomly chosen Facebook commenters into a basket together and overhead-press them. Or getting away from international-class strength, there’s the ordinary schmuck like me who is certainly much stronger than the average woman who doesn’t lift, but also knows damn well what I’d get from the caring folks of the Internet if I put up a picture of my middle-aged ass deadlifting in spandex panties. No, Internet, we know what you mean when you tell us strong is sexy. You mean “looking like this is sexy.” And we’ve heard that one before, for any given value of “this.”

I have been lucky with my lifting. I never had to overcome the cultural or psychological problems a lot of women have with just picking up a weight at all. All my lifter friends completely accept and expect that women train pretty much exactly like men, and we all laugh at the magazines showing a woman doing curls with a tiny pink dumbbell that weighs approximately a tenth of the handbag she carries every day, or a hundredth of the child she picks up without a second thought. Too often, though, experienced lifters forget that the challenge is not intrinsic to the weight, but to the person using it. One person’s tiny pink dumbbell is another person’s Atlas stone.

Smells like victory.

Smells like victory.

I’ve been the fat chick at the gym who doesn’t look like she’s making any effort. I lifted through years of chemotherapy. I lifted after radiation treatments. I lifted after surgery that came as close to sawing a person in half as modern medicine is willing to get. I have one scar that cuts right through my lats on one side and up the middle of my back, which even now, years later, sometimes rubs raw against my clothing and has a troublesome section that sometimes splits if I pull too hard on a lift. I’ve stuffed wads of toilet paper into it and gone back for another set. I lifted at times when just driving to the gym wiped me out so bad that I had to rest for 15 minutes before I was physically able to walk the 25 feet from my car to the gym door. I’ve gone to the gym straight from chemo when I’d have to go sit in the changing room for half an hour between each exercise, and other times when I’d go home after an hour, having completed no more than two sets of the first exercise on my list. I’ve sat on a recumbent exercise bike pedaling so slowly, on the lowest setting, that it barely looked like I was moving at all. I certainly wasn’t raising a sweat. Every time I see somebody make fun of the fatty they saw doing that the other night at their gym, I want to tell them exactly what it feels like to be that person, knowing the amount of effort it took just to stay upright and moving those pedals for half an hour, knowing nobody else could see that effort.

Through it all, I’ve had to restrain myself from either telling strangers my entire life story or simply punching them to the ground when they ask if I’ve ever considered working out, because I’d look SO GOOD if I just had a little bit of self-discipline.

And then a few years later, when I had beaten my theoretically terminal cancer and was finally getting some decent strength gains again, a completely unrelated injury put me in hospital for three months and left me so far below my original starting point it scared the hell out of me when I thought about the road back. I had to relearn to walk. I now had a chronic heart condition, induced by my time in a coma, to add to the list of things to try and fix. I couldn’t move any of the fingers of my left hand, grip a tiny pink dumbbell (or even a pencil), extend my left arm or rotate the shoulder more than a tiny bit. I was in my late 30s, I’d been incredibly proud of my bench, squat, and deadlift PRs, and now here I was. It had just taken me a year of physical therapy to claw my way back up to the point where I had the equivalent strength and functionality of a non-physically-active elderly person.

I’ll never forget going back into the gym with my two new long-term goals in mind: one, to be able to extend my left arm above my head again, and two, to be able to bench the empty bar. I did negatives on the lat pulldown machine for months, setting it to the very first plate, pulling the bar all the way down with my good hand, then sitting down and slowly, ever so slowly and carefully, letting the bar drift upward again pulling my left arm with it. Actually pulling weight down with that arm was so far from being possible that I was not actually sure at this time whether I would ever be able to do it.

The day I could sit at the lat pulldown machine with both arms over my head in the “ready to begin” position was the end of a six-month road of blood, sweat, and tears I cannot even describe.

Relearning to bench press was worse. I started with a half-pound dumbbell. I didn’t have enough strength in my fingers to grip it tightly enough to stop it falling out of my hand. My method was to lie down on my back, put my left arm up, and put the little thing into my left hand with the other hand. Then I had to try and bring the elbow down, then up again. I was happy if I managed to do five reps. It hurt so much I wanted to cry. When I progressed to a one-pound dumbbell, it was so hard to keep it extended above me I had to keep holding one end of the dumbbell with the other hand for the first few workouts.

The day I benched an empty bar again for the first time since my injury, I asked a guy at the gym to spot me. I explained to him that I had been rehabbing from an injury and was not sure if I would be able to get the bar up off my chest again, but was aiming to at least hold it in the start position and lower it as far as possible. I have to bench with a narrow grip now, because some of the bones in my wrist and thumb are permanently damaged and I can’t get a good grip if my hands are further out along the bar. When he let go of the bar and I realized I was holding it all by myself, a 45lb empty bar, out at arm’s length above my chest, I felt like I had just set a goddamn Olympic world record. I couldn’t lower it, not even a quarter of an inch, let alone raise it again. I couldn’t move it at all. I couldn’t do a damn thing except hold that bar, and I was so happy I think the guy thought I was drunk or insane. I lay there laughing like a psycho, holding my beautiful, beautiful, empty bar, reveling in a feeling of physical power that was better than anything back in the old days when I wouldn’t even ask for a spot unless I had more than 140 pounds up. I held it there for a while, then asked the guy to take it again. I told him that was all I was going to do that day, thanked him, and went home.

That is success. It isn’t the kind you can see by looking at me.

Other people have their own stories. You don’t know. You can’t tell by looking. You can’t see the effort, the past, the obstacles. Maybe they’re overjoyed to be 150lbs overweight because two years ago they were 300lbs overweight. Maybe they’ve looked exactly the same in the year they’ve been at your gym because their hard work is keeping them on top of a condition that’s working overtime to make them even skinnier or fatter; for a lot of people, staying right where they are is success beyond your wildest dreams. Maybe they’re achieving different results than the ones you think they’re going for. Maybe it took them six months to steel themselves to walk into a gym at all; you have no idea what led to that fear or what it took to overcome it, or maybe what it still takes to overcome it on a daily basis.

Your own definition of effort is not everybody’s.

Your own definition of success is not everybody’s.

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