For many years – i.e. for approximately 96.5% of my life, or 20 out of 21 years – I was a committed exercise-phobe. I’d never been ‘sporty’, never been particularly fit, had always managed to maintain a minute frame without breaking a sweat. My coordination is as close to non-existent as it gets. I can’t catch, kick, bounce, dribble, or hit a ball with a bat, racquet, or a stick. I detest running. And none of those things has changed, because I never really had any great desire to change them. I was quite happily ambling through life pretending that walking in heels was all the exercise I needed.
But they do say that there’s a sport for everyone, and these days I definitely agree. Just like meeting ‘the one’, you can’t tell when (or if) it’s going to happen, but when it does, it changes your life a little bit—for the better. It was sport that turned me, a hot contender for the title of “laziest woman in Britain,” from an image-conscious self-hater into a woman with confidence, a woman with a purpose. And I found “my” sport on a sunny day in California, when I simply accompanied my boyfriend to the gym.
My boyfriend is a marine (aptly enough, his name is Killian), and we went to a gym on the Marine Corps base where he lives. Now, I just want you to imagine, for a second, a great hall full of beautiful, muscular, chiseled men—grunting, sweating, lifting heavy objects, climbing ropes, grunting some more. Now, I’ll fly the flag for feminism all day, err’day, but c’mon, ladies: There’s always that stir of primitive attraction in watching men act like cavemen. So I’m there, looking all scrawny and bewildered in this giant man cave, and that’s where it all began. On that first day, Killian taught me how to lift, and I saw that it was good.
I trained with Killian for a week, and when I packed up my bags and went home to England, I went to the little gym around the corner from me. It was a very disappointing experience. It was small and cramped, with very few weights and a wrinkly old man-to-Amy ratio of 20:1 at any given moment. Undeterred, I continued with the little training schedule I had picked up from Killian. I booked appointments with a trainer. I felt the burn in muscles I didn’t even know I had. I learnt never to plan anything too strenuous the day after leg day. I gained a lot of strange looks from men. And I gave zero fucks, because I felt good.
Since then, I’ve come a long way. I’ve had periods of intense training and slacker periods. I’ve helped others—encouraging them to start, correcting techniques, showing people (even Killian) new exercises that target specific muscles. I’ve learnt more about anatomy than I ever did in school. I can squat more than my body weight, curl more than twice as much as I could when I started, and I can shift nearly 400 lbs. on the leg press. In fact, I’ve seen huge increases in the amount of weight I train with across all muscle groups.
I also weigh a stone more than I did at the beginning. That’s fourteen pounds, to all you Americans who don’t use our strange British measurement system. I think, universally, everyone would agree that’s a lot of weight to gain in a short space of time.
That weight gain, I think, has been the real obstacle. Finding a sport that gives me power and pride has been rewarding and motivating—but my body has changed with it. I don’t go to the gym to burn calories and get thin. In fact, for several months my goal was actually to pack on more weight so I could gain the physical strength before “leaning up.” Trying to gain weight is a difficult thing to get your head around when you grow up in a society where skinny is beautiful, and women aren’t expected to do little more for exercise than a bit of pilates and a few sessions on the elliptical every week. I can’t lie to you—it took me quite a while to become accustomed to the idea that in order to better my technique and keep pushing my personal bests, I was going to have to stop fretting about the fact my legs were bigger, my biceps more pronounced, my ass ever-ballooning. Ultimately, the positives outweighed the negatives (pun intended), so I decided to continue pushing myself to train harder and lift heavier, and learned to love my slightly different physique.
Henry Rollins said it best: “There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength.” That’s the other thing. I struggled with depression for a long time, which gradually manifested itself as an eating disorder. I feel comfortable discussing this now, because my progression with weight training has given me a focus, a drive, a hunger to be completely in control of my body that is productive, not destructive.
That’s why I love lifting, and I want to encourage more women to give it a go. There are so many benefits to building muscle, but above all, the discipline gives you a fresh perspective on your own limitations and on the beauty of others around you. There is nothing quite as refreshing and liberating as breaking out of that weight-obsession cycle. I started looking at other women differently—I found a whole host of women online who were praised for their strong, muscular bodies, and realised I, too, would rather have earned every pound of weight than starved myself to become an unnatural, thin version of myself. That just wasn’t “me.” But when I’ve just pounded out a pyramid set of squats and my legs are on fire, I feel incredible. Some women talk about “runner’s high”—I never quite understood that until I realised it must be like that buzz I get when I reach a new personal best.
If I could encourage more women to try strength training, I’d be a very happy lady. I don’t see why the weight room should be an exclusively male-dominated zone, nor do I understand why pictures of women who train with weights only ever depict them with tiny little dumbbells that are barely heavier than a baby’s rattle. A lot of women (like me) seem to be scared of gaining weight and immediately shy away from the heavy weights without giving it a go and pushing themselves. Women’s magazines seem to be chocabloc with articles like “5 steps to a bikini body” and “10 minute abs!” but nowhere in Cosmo will you see any mention of deadlifting. I’ve seen condescending personal trainers automatically assume that their female clients will want to do cardio with, perhaps, a few body weight exercises thrown in to tone up. Every woman needs a Killian in their life—a nudge towards the squat rack, a gesture to the bench, a chance to experience how awesome it is to feel powerful and strong and sexy.
So make me a promise, darlings: give it a go and raise the bar for womankind. Try it once and see if you, too, have been missing out by fixating yourself on the calories burned on the elliptical rather than the amount of reps in a set of weighted lunges. Push yourself and see why so many people swear that the Iron is the best antidepressant. PS: Your ass will thank you later