Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Things I learned while weight training

So I've been lifting consistently (and heavy) for about four months now, ever since finishing up my trail running season. I've lifted weights before, but this has been my first experience with Olympic weight lifting, and the first time I've lifted with friends, consistently, for many weeks. It's been a great experience, and a fun new set of skills to build during a winter that just won't quit.

I learned the basics of weight training way back in high school, when my physical education class sandwiched a shockingly well thought out weight room unit right in between the usual flag football and softball. One of the rare useful things I learned in P.E. was how to track weights, sets, and reps, and how to use machines and free weights.

This time around, though, I've been learning some new, valuable things. Here are six of them.

1. I lift more with friends.

Started with the bare bar.
But then I did them with more weight... and a spotter.

When I'm lifting by myself, I'll choose a manageable weight and go, maybe adding another few pounds for each set. When I'm lifting with friends, I can't get away with staying in my comfort zone like this. "Want to try some more weight? I'll spot you!" said Kathy, the day we were doing thrusters.
This is Kathy. Denise is in the background. They're STRONG.
Another week, I was happily lifting 160 pounds on the leg press when Denise came over. "You know," she said solicitously, "I can do 200 on that. And you have strong legs. You should give it a try." Well, okay. I loaded on a few of those ridiculously huge 45-pound plates and gave it a try. I couldn't do 20 in a row, but I could do four sets of five.

2. Fifteen is more than ten.
Shoot! Was that 13 or 14? Kathy, are you counting?!
Hmm, definitely felt like 14. Or  maybe 15...
Shocking, right? But before now, 90% of my weight training was sets of 10, rest, another set of 10. It sounds funny to say it for something that only takes a few seconds more, but getting to 15 (or, heaven forbid, 20!) takes endurance. Varying the length of my sets has introduced a new dimension into my lifting. It's hard to say which is harder, six sets of 10 (adding weight each set) or three sets of 20... but I can definitely say that they're each hard in a different way.

3. When lifting free weights, good form trumps heavy weight.
Still working on the perfect back squat, at any weight.
Weight machines are very forgiving of wonky form and limited flexibility. Free weights, particularly Olympic weights, not so much. Using the correct form requires a surprising amount of flexibility, balance, and concentration. All those mirrors in the free weight area at the gym suddenly make sense! They're not just for narcissistic hardbodied guys to flex at each other without making eye contact, after all -- they're giving critical feedback!

4. Strong comes in many shapes.
This is Kathy. She is very strong.
She lifts heavier than anyone else I lift with.
She says, "I don't do fast, and I don't do graceful.
But I can do strong."
I'm kind of tall and gangly. (I used to think of myself as awkward, but I don't any more.) And strong. Kathy's solid and strong. Denise (in the first picture background) is compact and very strong. Sally, who's not in these pictures, is taller, like me, and strong. Strong comes in a lot of shapes, and it comes from consistency, and focus, and the drive to keep trying and getting stronger.

5. Stealth core is good, but specific core is even better.
Weights + Whole30 = abs!
Okay, I confess: I'm a plank hater. Yeah, I can do them, but they're not, you know, fun. In fact, when I broke my elbow, I joked that the only upside was that I got a several month break from having to do planks.

So I love any workout that provides me with some "stealth core" -- core work that doesn't feel like doing planks. Yoga, kettlebells, Olympic weights -- all of them are pretty good for this.

Turns out, though, that doing actual core work? Even better. One week in three I do a core circuit: bar sit-ups, incline sit-ups, back and side extensions, leg lifts, cable extensions. I sit around in my office the rest of the day waiting for the DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) to strike, then creak around for the next three days complaining about my aching muscles. And darned if I'm not getting a stronger core.

6. If you lift with a labor coach...
Come on! You can do anything for 30 seconds!
Okay, one more story to finish out. I did inclined sit-ups with Mary one day in January. She's an obstetrician. She coached, cajoled, and cheered me on through my third and fourth sets of 15 sit-ups, adding weight each time, to a point far beyond what I could  have done alone. The last set was an absolute struggle... but I got it done. And promptly collapsed back on the bench while she joked, "Congratulations! It's a girl!"

Normally, my abs are tired after a core circuit day. The muscles ache for a day, maybe three, then get better. After that set of sit-ups? I had sore abs for eight days. If you lift with a labor coach, you might end up with a harder lift that you thought you were capable of doing. Thanks, Mary! (I think?)


  1. SWEET Blog Robin. I'm happy you joined our group of kick-ass women who aren't afraid of weight training! And thank you....it's the first time I've ever ben called tall!!! :) Sally

  2. Wow! You have almost convinced me to start weight training (I'm built more similarly to you - ectomorph has a pic of me next to it in the dictionary ;) Way to get strong!

    Also, you are not helping my craving to #buyalltheinknburn - I never would have thought of the "denim" shorts as something that would look good. (I've already ordered from them so I don't think your discount would work or I'd go wild!)

    Haven't tried Whole30 but I'm somewhere between Paleo & Whole30 in my eating anyway, with the exception of whey protein for recovery and elimination of other things I can't eat.

    Impressive work, and I imagine it's really helping your trail and ultrarunning! Right now I'm <3wks from my goal marathon. At some point after that race (or maybe another marathon), I plan to start ultrarunning, probably on road/track at first since I haven't really ever run on a technical trail (paved trails yes). Gotta start somewhere, right?

    Really enjoy the blog. Best wishes!

    1. Hey, thanks for the great note! Good luck with your goal marathon. I started strength training to avoid injury, and because I noticed how tired my core was by the end of a long run. Maybe you've gotten the tired back or hips after a long run too? I'm hoping this will help.

      #BuyAllTheINKnBURN is a dangerous thing! The "denim" shorts in this post are still in development at the Secret INKnBURN Headquarters (they're closer fitting) but I hope they'll be selling them soon. I love their regular shorts for the gym, though!

  3. Awesome. I love seeing and reading about women lifting heavy. It's something I hope to incorporate - just trying to figure out the scheduling.

    1. I bet you'd have great form from teaching Bodypump!