As I push open the door, gym bag on my back, and trot down the cement steps, I’m comforted by the familiar smell of rubber and sweat, indicative of all the effort that has happened under the yellow lights of this basement. The next hour is mine to push myself.
Today, we’re doing snatches. I get changed, tape my thumbs so they won’t chafe, and grab a barbell. This begins my warm up. I break the movement down, piece by piece, with the empty bar, giving my body time to acclimate to these strange postures and precarious transitions. Then I will start to add weight.
But before lifting, I must imagine it: I walk up to the barbell, gently touching it with my shins. My feet are just a little wider than my hips. I place my hands wide, just a few inches from the plates, being sure to tuck my thumb under my fingers. I feel the cold bar quickly warming under my grip. I bend my knees a little more, press my knees out, fire up my abs, and look up. I find the point at which I start to feel the weight of the bar pulling against my arms, then I inhale and keep that breath. Then I lift, skimming the front of my legs with the bar as I shrug my shoulders up, elbows lifting out to the sides, like a scarecrow. As the bar passes my hips, I pop it up, momentarily on my toes, before I hop my feet out into a squat and get under the weight. I squeeze my shoulder blades together like crazy and lock out my arms. Now, all I need to do is stand up, keeping it over my head. Keep looking forward and a little up, lifting the chest. Press, press, press my knees out to the side as I straighten my heavy legs, cemented to the floor. Once I’m standing, weight over my head, I’m stable, I’m powerful. I’m not done yet — I’ve got to put the bar down. I release my grip and step back, awaiting the slam of the bell against the floor.
Now it’s in my mind, and I do it. Smooth and controlled. I notice that I hesitate in dropping the bell, a little nervous about dropping something so heavy. The crash on the rubbery gym surface still jars me, and I feel apologetic for the noise. But I know there’s no need — this is how it’s done.
My heart is surprisingly alive after that, and my eyes are wide. I take my ritual walk to the chalk bucket to let my body calm down. I look at my hands, the white powder sitting in the cracks of my palm like I had been baking. But I’m proud that this isn’t flour. I’m proud to have a hint of calluses where my middle and fourth finger meet my palm — it’s an indication of the work I’ve been doing and the strength I have earned.
Pride is an emotion that I find difficult to reconcile with my usual humility. But I can’t seem to get over the amazing transformation I am seeing in myself. The physical strength has coincided with watching myself do things I didn’t think I would ever do. What’s particularly interesting is that, even just six months ago, I had no desire to touch a barbell. I wasn’t even too interested in being able to do a pushup. What do these skills translate to in reality, anyway?
My strength training began due to a hip injury that muted my yoga practice. It became clear that building muscle was the only thing I could do to shore up my wobbly hip. I started with body weight exercises and kettle bells (which I still use and love), but the idea of lifting a barbell seemed weird and unnecessary. I had tried it a few years earlier and attributed my negative reaction to the seemingly competitive environment. But, I was getting excited about my progress as I moved up to heavier kettle bells and it seemed more weight was within my reach. My husband had been working on weightlifting and invited me to try it. I still didn’t really like it very much.
It took me a little while to realize that my initial aversion to the barbell came from some sense of fear about not being able to do it. That, combined with my perception of the weightlifting community as being kind of rude and egotistical. Making big loud noises by dropping the bar just seemed peacockish and unnecessary.
But I now understand. It’s the only way you can put down the bar sometimes. And the egotistical aspect? Well, there’s something very exciting about seeing yourself grow.
I shake out my arms and go back to my bar to challenge myself. It’s still a little surprising to me that I can snatch up any weight at all. But I’m here to grow. I’ve now got 5lbs more than my maximum weight on the bar. This would be a very nice achievement, but it’s really not that much more weight than I’ve seen myself do in the past.
I’ve having trouble imagining the process, and I notice something in my chest is clenching a little bit. I’m scared. It’s so many pounds of weight, and it will be over my head. What if I can’t do it? And for a moment, that’s where my mind stops. The sounds of the rest of the gym enter my awareness — barbells slamming against the ground and bouncing a couple of times. I’ll just drop the bar in front of me. I know it will be loud, but it won’t hurt me. That’s the worst case. No big deal.
My fear is still there, though. Okay, bar. It’s you and me and this weight, and I’ve got you figured out, now. That extra weight is about that of a newborn Labrador. So, I’m lifting weight I know I can do, plus a puppy.
I take a deep breath and close my eyes, one more time thinking through it all: My shins against the bar. My grip wide, thumbs under. Abs. Breathe. Lift. I’ve got that part under control. The part that isn’t so clear is where the bar hits my hips and I pop it up, immediately dropping into my squat to get under it. How am I going to move it quickly enough? Wait, I forgot about my shoulders. My shoulders shrug and I lift so much I’m on my toes as the weight is skimming the front of me. Then I drop under it and lock my arms straight, and use my legs to lift it up. I’ve got that tricky part in my mind, now.
This movement takes under a second to perform, but if there’s any fear in the way, I won’t trust myself to complete it. The times when my fear has stopped me are the times when I’ve disappointed myself. It’s not about the weight itself. It’s about not letting my fear drive me.
At some heavy weight, my muscles legitimately won’t be able to lift. But long before that happens, my fear stops me. I know that my fear is there to protect me — to keep me from dropping a heavy weight on my head or injuring something else. But if I listen closely, I can also sense when it’s being overprotective, coming across as doubt. This lift is about putting my fear a little further out on the perimeter.
I get the sense that there’s something special about the confidence that comes from knowing that your physical being can do something you once thought improbable. Maybe it’s because those hindering fears manifest in the body — as tightness in the chest or a cinching of the forehead, even a sensation of fatigue. When I’m doing something physical, my body seems hypersensitive to these experiences, so there’s a very raw, visceral sense of overcoming them. I now leave the gym with a body that conquers fears, regardless of what it looks like, and an expanded belief in myself. That’s what I’m there to do. It is a primitive and fundamental sense of assurance, and it seems to be spilling into all the domains of my life. If I can do this, what else can I do?
This might sound like ego, but I think it’s this foundational belief in myself that allows me to set aside my defenses and be vulnerable. There’s nothing to protect once I’ve settled my self-doubt. That settling comes from this practice of noticing. The visualization process that lifting requires gives me an opportunity to notice where I’m unsure. It takes a concentration to think through it all, but at the same time, an open awareness to catch the little sensations of tightness and insecurity. Acknowledging these feelings and exploring them with curiosity is where the insight comes from. Weightlifting has become a practice of mindfulness for me.