Fragile. Tiny. Vulnerable. Weak. I’ll admit it: I liked being those things. For a long time (most of my life?), I enjoyed people grabbing my arm and cooing “Oh, I’ve never seen such a tiny wrist!” I liked that men got things down from high shelves for me without me even having to ask. I liked how boyfriends stood protectively around me, their arms a barrier between me and everything that was scary. I liked how I could punch a male friend on the arm and he’d just laugh. I liked being the damsel in distress, liked being carried over mud puddles and -heaven help me – liked being rescued. (Yes, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this now.)
Muscles did not fit in with that image I held of myself. In fact, muscles made it hard to fit into all the uber-girly dresses that defined my image. I was one of those girls who would look at Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby and think, “I would never want to look like that, she’s way too muscular.” I used to covet the spaghetti-like arms of starlets and catwalk models, arms that are widest at the elbow. Besides, female bodybuilders are widely ridiculed in our society; childish women are still the ideal.
Then something inside me began to change. Maybe it was the realization, courtesy of my abusive ex-boyfriend
, that the same arms that held me up could also be used to hold me down. I learned that my softness could be used against me. Or maybe it was discovering, as a teacher, that people don’t listen to a shrinking violet. Or perhaps it was the epiphany after so many times of falling on my face that there is no one to rescue me. No one but me.
Moreover, now that I’m a mother, I’m the rescuer. I’m the one that has to be strong and steady. I’m the one carrying tiny bodies up six flights of stairs. I’m the one encircling my arms protectively against the harsh realities that fly at my children with alarming force. It’s impossible for me to be needy in the face of their bottomless need.
This shift has caused me considerable consternation. If I am not the princess then who am I? A cross-dressing knight with the wrong genitalia? I’m pretty sure there weren’t any of those at King Arthur’s round table. An Amazon woman in a culture where “amazonian” is generally not a compliment? This ambivalence about being “strong” translated into a strange love-hate relationship with my muscles. I wanted to be strong but I didn’t want to look like it and while there are many ways for women to be strong, having distinct muscles is an obvious way to proclaim your strength.
For years I have lived with this competing notion of always wanting to be ever smaller and yet needing to be ever stronger. I’d bemoan a few pounds gained on the scale but rejoice in the pull-ups that new muscle let me do. (Think pull-ups aren’t a life skill? Once in college I locked myself out of my apartment with the only way in being through a second story balcony. I enlisted the help of the guy next door. He promptly jumped, pulled himself up and climbed over the railing. I’d been locked out for an hour. He was in in 30 seconds. A feat he and his roommates later repeated to relocate all our furniture to their garage but that’s another story. Being able to do a pull-up would have been useful, is all I’m saying.) I’d cry about a dress not fitting
but be ecstatic that I could heft the 50-lb bag of flour into my cart at Costco.
Then kickboxing and karate came into my life and the martial arts showed me that not only are muscles handy, they’re life-saving. There was something so deeply satisfying, healing even, about punching and kicking. Sure it’s not always the strongest one who wins – karate taught me the value of using my weaknesses – but muscles certainly don’t hurt.
And that’s the beauty of and the problem with strong women: we’re immensely powerful. Even more powerful, perhaps, than we know.
All of this is a prelude to telling you about the conclusion of my Great Rachel Cosgrove’s The Female Body Breakthrough
Fitness Experiment. In a nutshell: I put on some serious muscle. And I think I like it. In the past 4 years of doing fitness Experiments, I’ve liked a lot of things. I’ve enjoyed doing the vast majority of the programs I’ve tried but there are only a few I have loved. CrossFit. Karate. And now this one. This program certainly ranks in my top 3 and is possibly number 1! I know!
What I liked
1. It lives up to its promises. I significantly changed my body composition. Dropping nearly all my steady state cardio (I kept 1-2 days/week of TurboKick) and really lifting heavy made a huge difference. Despite the fact that it flaunts the conventional wisdom that cardio is the all-mighty fat burner, over the past two months I’ve dropped 1.5 pants sizes (I know, half of a pants size makes no sense but I’m down at least a whole size and in some brands two whole sizes so I averaged that to 1.5.)
2. Real, measurable results.
I’m down 5% body fat. (Yes, this month the calipers showed a 5% drop although I think that was probably spread across the two months and the trainer who did my body fat last month was off
.) I’ve lost 1.5 inches off of my waist, 1 inch off each thigh and and half an inch off my hips. I didn’t think to measure my shoulders but judging from the way my shirts fit, I’m betting they went up quite a bit. My biceps, chest and calves remained the same. The nice thing about not weighing myself during this Experiment is that I’m pretty sure all this new muscle added up on the scale but seeing as I don’t know, I don’t care! Seriously, people keep stopping the Gym Buddies and I at the gym to ask what we’re doing because we look so different.
3. Nice variety. There are a lot of different weight routines so we didn’t get bored. Often I find myself complaining that workouts aren’t challenging enough but this one with its four phases had routines basic enough for the total beginner and yet also had workouts that kicked our been-there-bought-the-t-shirt butts. (Hello “complexes” – my butt’s been sore for 2 months straight!)
4. The post-workout shakes.
I should clarify: I didn’t like the smoothies themselves. I never could get past the “chew” factor. (All of you that told me to put chia seeds in there to give it texture? I literally dry heaved on the stretching mats. That’s like trying to drink tapioca! Gah, even typing that makes me shudder. Sorry you guys but I detest pudding – even creme brulee reminds me of snot once I get past the sugar shell.) However, I did like the effect the smoothies had. It was so nice to not be all shaky from low blood sugar while trying to collect my children, drive home, and shower before getting time to make myself lunch.
What I Didn’t Like
1. Too easy interval training.
While I adore high intensity interval (HIIT) workouts, Cosgrove’s got boring. We also had a really hard time getting our heart rate up doing them. So after the first month, we switched them out for puketastic Tabata sprints on the treadmill
and some harder intervals from bodyrock.tv
2. The foam rolling
. Maybe I’m just doing it wrong (if I posted a video would you guys critique it for me? Deb Roby??) but despite doing it religiously I never saw a difference from it. Never even felt so much as a twinge doing it. Gym Buddy Megan however liked it so much she bought her own roller for home.
3. Big training jump between phases. Gym Buddy Krista pointed out that the transition from Phase I to Phase II in the workouts was a huge leap and that beginners might need to spend a lot more time than one month in Phase I to be comfortable enough to move on. Of course we skipped Phase I entirely so, yeah.
4. The hilarious warm-up
. (Although I need to clarify: I love that she has a dynamic warm-up. We are totally on board with dynamic warm-ups. We just felt kinda silly doing a maypole dance in the middle of the weight floor.)
I loved this. I want more of it! I’m actually sad to move on from this Experiment because I’ve enjoyed it so much. Plus? I love looking in the mirror when I punch and seeing rippling muscles. Maybe I’m finally coming into my own power. And I think we still look like girls:
PS. I tried to take some pics to show you guys my super duper new muscles up close but apparently I have vampire muscles – they disappear on film. Sigh. I don’t know if it’s because I’m so pale that porcelain gets jealous or if it’s because that while the change is major to me it’s actually pretty minor to everyone else. But, hey, at least you’re spared more grainy pics of my messy bathroom!
How about you guys – I know a lot of you were trying it with us! What did you think? What kind of results have you seen so far? What do you think about muscular women – do you think “manly” or “beautiful”? Anyone else grow up equating femininity with fragility?
Written with love by Charlotte Hilton Andersen for The Great Fitness Experiment (c) 2010. If you enjoyed this, please check out my new book for more of my crazy antics and uncomfortable over-shares!