Falling in love with being strong
Look at my amazing abs!* And now that I have your attention, let me tell you why you should start to lift weights. Heavy ones. Especially as a women. Or at least why or how well it works for me.
If I could go back ten years in time and transport one idea to my former self, I would have a hard time to decide what words to pass through. What would have the biggest impact on my well-being, life satisfaction or personal development if I had known it earlier? First, a lot of abstract concepts come to mind: “rationality” or “philosophy of science” or “effective altruism”. They changed my perception of the world drastically. But in terms of happiness and self mastery I definitely would say “quit cardio, start lifting heavy” or even simpler “fall in love with getting strong”. (Thanks to Valentin Tambosi for the phrase)
Before: Losing weight
For years I was running, cycling, worrying about calories, massively reducing my food intake (alternating with extreme cravings) and was going through periods of quick weight loss and gain. Not only didn’t I reach my goals long-term: it also was unhealthy, took big parts of my attention and time as well as caused self-doubt and suffering. Because despite following harsh plans I was not able to realise my goals. Neither in terms of appearance, nor in terms of subjective fitness and physical well-being. In theory it is so easy: Lose weight by burning more calories than you eat. But, well, it wasn’t.
Heuristic for success: strength
After a year of more or less constant working out with (for me) heavy weights and being happy with the results like never before, I can summarise what made the difference for me:
- Weight loss isn’t the goal that works for me, getting strong is.
- Body weight is not the best heuristic to measure fitness successes, weight lifted (increasing objective strength!) is.
The attempt to make the answer short has two parts, a mental and a physical one:
1. Mentally to focus on strength changes my mindset rigorously.
When I define weight loss and reducing body weight as my goal, the thoughts that will pop up on this path focus on how to reduce and burn body fat and therefore prioritise reducing calories and food intake. The framing is more negative, it focuses on what I want to get rid of instead of what I want to reach.
Strength mentally puts muscle growth in the center. This implies to healthily nourish the body to allow the muscles to grow and it is more positive. Even if there are still things you would want to change or get rid of, there is something getting bigger and better that you can be proud of. Also it is more long-term, because muscles only grow slowly with constant stimulus, but also need breaks and the right circumstances like nutrition and sleep. The goal of getting strong does not tempt you to do extreme things (like starting a crash diet), because it is more apparent, that it will not work and takes time.
2. Physically a focus on strength also makes sense. Gaining muscle mass will (more or less independent from body weight) make you look slimmer (the same kg of muscles have way less volume than body fat) and on a daily basis add to your basic metabolic rate (calories burned). Without (at least in my case!) increasing hunger or leading to cravings.
- Regularly use free weight compound exercises and learn the correct execution. (A popular and good guide is Stronglift 5x5. Consider getting a coach for starting or find someone with experience to join you in the gym.)
- Prioritise correct execution, weight lifted should be your second priority, though. Regularly increase the weights. (For me this also meant to overcome mental challenges, like assuming I never could e.g. squat over 70kg and therefore not trying for months. In general, while valuing safety, don’t be afraid of lifting heavy. Especially as a woman: You will not get bulky unless you take steroids.)
- Take enough breaks between workouts which train the same muscle groups. Sleep enough.
- Eat enough protein and as a rough heuristic also eat fruits and vegetables and other nourishing things that are low in calories. Mostly focus on what your body needs to get strong, eat enough in general.
- While my story might inspire you, always seek out professionals to answer your questions and to learn from.
I can not tell this myself ten years ago, but I share this out of hope that I will spare or shorten someone else the long process of learning these lessons!
*The photo was edited with Snapseed. HDR effect, focus effect and reduction of saturation were used.