It is a common saying that women are delicate creatures, flowers, eggs, anything that may be crushed in a moment’s carelessness. If I had ever believed it, I no longer did.
–Circe, by Madeline Miller
My usual retort to any cis woman when she tells me that she doesn’t want to lift heavy weights because she doesn’t want to bulk up goes something like this: “Are you eating 200 grams of protein a day and taking testosterone supplements? Cause if you’re not, lifting some weights is not going to bulk you up.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. Generally speaking, if you are genetically female, you are not designed to get substantially bulky without outside help. Lifting twenty pounds instead of two will not change that, though it will make you stronger.
There are two important things in fitness, and you don’t exactly get them at the same time: muscular strength and muscular endurance. Strength is what you can lift, right? Endurance is how often or for how long you can lift it. Want to increase your strength? Go high weight, low rep. Want to increase your endurance? Go low weight, high rep. Want to be fit? Do both.
Low weight, high rep is how many workouts marketed to women are designed: LA Fitness’ Body Works Plus Abs program, barre classes, and Pound are some examples. They trade on the fear that women have about bulking up, which is too bad, because they could just market themselves as muscular endurance classes without the fear-mongering. They are fantastic for that! But at some point you also have to work on more sustained and heavier exercises if you want to get stronger. Lifting heavy weight to failure in, say, six reps will do wonders for your overall strength, while lifting light weights to failure in, say, 32 reps, will help you with your stamina.
Please do both. Please.
There’s nothing new or interesting about saying that women are shamed a lot when it comes to fitness. We are told not to do things that will make us bulk up, even though that’s not how science works anyway, and we’re told we’re always inadequate but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying to “improve” every day, and and and. But if there’s one thing I can impart to you (and assume about you), it’s that you should not be afraid of lifting heavier weights (and you probably aren’t doing a lot of it). That doesn’t literally mean you have to go bench press 200 pounds, though feel free if you want to. It could also mean doing slow bodyweight exercises, throwing some pushups into your routine, strapping on or setting up some resistance bands to push and pull. But don’t speed through everything with two pounds.
The goddess Circe doesn’t give any fucks about society’s wishes for her, though in our human defense, we don’t have centuries upon centuries to unlearn harmful body messages, and she did. Though this book starts out kind of boring, essentially just giving us summaries of all the major Greek myths, it gradually turns into this really fantastic feminist tale, and I’m so glad I stuck with the initial boring bits to get to the amazing rest of it all. Highly recommend.
Earlier this year, I saw an ad for a really interesting piece of workout equipment. It was your average squeezy ball, it seemed, but it also had a band around it, so it was both a resistance loop and a ball in one! It looked awesome, I meant to bookmark it, I forgot, end of story.
Then I came across it again, and this time I actually followed it back to the website. I thought about buying it, then remembered I had other bills to pay, and I gave up on the idea. But I kept on thinking about it, and while I really, really do not have extra money right now, I realized that if you think about a potential impulse buy for days afterward, it’s not an impulse buy, it’s something you really want. So I figured I could cut costs elsewhere and buy this thing, which I learned is called the p.ball, and it is genius for precisely the reasons I mentioned: it’s both a ball to squeeze and a band to press, so you can get an adductor and abductor workout without constantly switching equipment.
I happened to purchase it on a day when they had a pretty good deal going on–I could get a free two months of streaming workouts, plus for essentially the price of shipping, I could also get another piece of equipment called the p.band, and then shipping was free! Also, they have student and educator discounts, which says something about what the company values, even if there are some problematic things they value as well (more on that later). #allidoiswin
So you could totally just buy the equipment and be done with it, but the streaming was free, so I figured why not learn the actual method, since it’s touted as the workout for Victoria’s Secret Angels. I’m really glad I watched the introductory videos, and honestly, even though I started this back in May and it’s August now, I would still like to go back and watch those videos again, because it’s rather complex, even if it seems simple. The basis of it all is the p.sit, which is less than a squat and allows you to keep the exercise in your glutes, not your quads. I’m very quad-dominant from all my indoor cycling, and my glutes and hamstrings are weak no matter how much I try to work them out, so this was great for me. The theory goes that if you sit back just a little bit, you can keep the emphasis in your glutes. Since we are a sitting culture, we all tend to have weak glutes and hamstrings even if we aren’t cyclists, and our hips tend to be pretty closed, so this method is designed to counteract all that. The idea is “pre-hab,” not exercise to the point of pain. While they would never say so, it’s kind of the same principle as Pilates in that way: let’s learn to move and use our body in a way that keeps it injury-free and less injury-prone. It’s amazing how quickly you feel the difference between the sit and the squat. Already I’m noticing a difference in both the appearance and feel of my glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
Here’s the bad: while the website will tout (for good reason) the benefit to all bodies as far as activating often-forgotten muscles and keeping you free from injury, the images and phrasing are what you’d expect from lots of trendy workouts: thigh gaps, slim white women, gender essentialism, and nonsense terminology like “toning.”
They definitely have work to do in that respect. I spend a lot of time in their Facebook group, so I know I’m not the only person who doesn’t like that messaging and who wishes there were more “real” people (bigger bodies, people of color, nonbinary people). It’s a pretty young company; not all the workouts on the streaming site are equally good as far as instructional and video quality; and there are 100% without a doubt a lot of women promoting it who were skinny and thigh gappy af long before they met P., the creator of the method. But there are other people like me who haven’t even been doing it that long but already feel the difference and, in my flattering experience (currently in the honeymoon stage of my, like, third real relationship ever? in almost 31 years?), gets your boyfriend slapping your ass and going, “you been working out, baby?”
But if you can look through and past the crappy parts of the message, the workout really is dope.
I often talk about how the thing that kept me doing Pilates was how cerebral it is. I’m quirky and brainy, not spiritual in the slightest, and not white, granola, evangelical, or “Buddhist” enough to be about iNsPiRaTiOnAl shit. With Pilates, you have to think about a hundred things at once and be really, really in tune with your body. It’s super hard, and you can’t half-ass it or you’ll hurt. That’s true of p.volve, too. No matter how in shape you are, you absolutely have to watch some of the beginner videos (even if they are frustratingly slow) so that you can get an idea of what you’re supposed to do and feel. I can always tell if I’m tired or half-assing it, because then I hurt immediately while doing it and have to reset before I continue. That sounds scary, but I think it’s good, because I’m often multitasking, and it’s a good reminder that our brains really aren’t as good as that as we think they are. If you don’t stay engaged with what you’re doing in p.volve, you’re not doing p.volve correctly. My brain is firing just as much as my muscle fibers. While I technically started in May, I then went to Italy for three weeks and didn’t work out at all aside from taking a bazillion steps a day, so I’m considering my real start date to be mid-June. That’s only 14 workouts (because I was also teaching at that time and doing lots of other stuff), and it took only like four to start to see some muscle definition that I haven’t seen before, even though I’ve been working out for years. Do I think I will only do p.volve? Nah. For one thing, Pilates has given me core strength that surpasses what p.volve has offered me thus far. But p.volve has given me tiny muscle activation that other workouts haven’t provided, so I like it for that–and for aesthetics, tbh. I’m still only human and only a cis woman in the western world, so it’s hard to fully turn off my ingrained drive to lose weight and look “better,” no matter how much I know that’s ridiculous.
The reason I’m posting this review today is because it’s the last day to sign up for their August Transform Challenge. Challenges are silly, I know, but gameifying and metrics are the things I’ve found are most likely to keep me on task with whatever task I’m trying to accomplish. And since at the moment I’m not teaching Pilates in any regularly scheduled classes, I’m mostly working out at home and using my own equipment. Thankfully, for all that the marketing is problematic, this challenge is not marketed as having to do with weight loss or even body measurements, though I am personally doing both of those things. You have the option of submitting a before/after photo, but you don’t have to submit any numbers of any kind if you’re uncomfortable doing so. The challenge is consistency: you complete 18 workouts in 30 days (even though August hath 31…). Any workout on the site, any length you choose (20 minutes or more), any days of the week you wish. If you do that, you get a free month of streaming plus discounted equipment. And bragging rights.
You can sign up now and do the equipment-free workouts until whatever equipment you order arrives….or just do them equipment-free for whatever time until you’re convinced, then buy it. Whatever. I will say that the p.ball and p.band are unlike anything you can buy anywhere else. I’m still not fully over a sprained wrist, and the thing I like about the band is that it has resistance but doesn’t require wrist flexion or extension–the tube is attached to the glove in such a way that you don’t have to grip it at all. Like, I said, this guy’s a genius even if he is a little too obsessed with thigh gaps. Ankle and hand weights are easy to find anywhere, ankle bands with cuffs slightly harder to find but not impossible, and there are inexpensive plastic slantboards in the world–however, I have learned that my cheap slantboard is a lot slipperier than a heavy wooden one would be, so if you have the budget (don’t forget the student/educator discount!), that is a purchase I would recommend making from them or from Amazon. But the p.ball and p.band are definitely the most unique items. With those and my Pilates wheel, I feel really happy with my at-home workouts, and I have always hated working out at home. I think I’ll be sticking with this for awhile.
So. Feel like joining me in the August Transform Challenge? Click here.
You are clicking affiliate links to the p.volve site. That means you pay the same price that you would if you found the site on your own, but I receive a small commission if you buy items or purchase a membership. Thank you for helping me survive on a grad student income!
“I can see you change,” he told us, his eyes narrowed in interest. “Your body language. How you talk. Your eyes. You’re not always the same person, are you?”
—Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi
It took a really long time for me to get into a workout routine. My entire life, all the physical activity I did was dictated by others–PE in elementary school and eighth grade, ballet folklórico because my sister did it, swim team because Tucson is hot and what else are you going to do, riding my bike because it gave me independence and it’s how I met up with my friends around the neighborhood. I did not like team sports because I was afraid of the ball and uncoordinated. (As opposed to now, when I am still afraid of the ball but slightly more coordinated.) And given I was being treated for a condition I didn’t have (asthma) instead of a breathing condition I did have (vocal cord dysfunction), it was difficult and embarrassing to engage in physical activity.
It wasn’t until I was about 26 that I liked exercise, and it was even longer before I developed a solid routine and regimen–a diet, so to speak, of exercise. And just because I have one doesn’t mean it’s never going to change. I’m a librarian by training, even though I don’t work in a library anymore, and one of our guiding philosophies is that if you don’t like to read, you just haven’t found the right book yet. If you don’t like exercise yet, buy a bunch of Groupons, join classpass, find studios and gyms in your area that offer a free first class, or sign up for free trials of streaming fitness services and go wild! Just as the best book to read is the book you want to read, the best type of workout is the one you actually want to do. So with trial and error, you’ll find something.
But don’t stop there. The theory of muscle confusion is pretty much debunked at this point, but variance does lead to better fitness outcomes. It can be something as simple as increasing the weight you’re lifting, adding more reps, or doing interval training. For me, though, I’m less and less interested in traditional cardio machines, and I can’t do a lot of traditional weightlifting after multiple arm and wrist injuries, so that’s not going to work for me. What does work for me is keeping about four different modalities going. Right now that’s Pilates, indoor cycling, p.volve, and aqua fitness. That allows me to use different muscles in different ways, accommodate my injuries and limitations, and not overtrain. I’ve done overtraining and it was the worst. For the most part, I’m doing these things two, one, two, and one time a week, and I feel the best I’ve felt in a long time.
Ada is a protagonist whose selves are splintered. She is more than one person, and those different people process different events, happy and sad, exhilarating and traumatic, at different times. This book is heart-shattering and vindicating to read, from the college angst to the meditations on mental illness. As someone who lives with mental illness, though not those that Ada has (and are they just illnesses? Magic realism complicates that notion), I totally loved this book.
I’m not always the same person. I’m not always in the same mood. I don’t always have the same physical, mental, or emotional needs. So how could I always need the same workout?
I mean, yeah, of course. That is a true thing that Ron Swanson has said there. If I took that advice more often, I would already have about five novels published and be in much better shape in my career. But sometimes you don’t have the energy to whole-ass anything, and so you may as well half-ass at least a thing or two. If it’s a question of half-assing two things or doing nothing at all, pick the former.
You’ve heard that “sitting is the new smoking“? Research is showing that even if you are an active person, you’re probably still going to die young. I bought a Jawbone tracker a few months ago and have definitely noticed that even if I exercise 60-120 minutes a day, which I generally do, I still have trouble remembering to get up and walk around. Last year, when I worked in a library, I was at least standing up and sitting down pretty regularly. Now, though? I have my step counter set to an 8000-step-a-day goal (I figure that with the amount of exercise I do on machines like stationary bikes, that’s a sufficient goal rather than the usual 10,000), and I only meet it about half the time. Sure, the thing is not perfect–it regularly tells me I’m being idle if I’m standing and walking around my kitchen cooking, just because I’m not swinging my arms enough, I guess, but it’s a decent approximation.
I would like to not die young. One of my biggest exercise motivators, besides needing to make rent, is not wanting to die ever. Also, because group fitness is my main area of activity, even if I’m not always the teacher, sometimes I just need me time. Off the couch. I get a lot of me time because I live alone. But it’s not the same, you know? Anyway.
When I was in grad school, I always had a ton of reading to do. I have more to do now, given that it’s my main area of employment and I’m on a literary award committee. And I’m going back to grad school in August, so that will add even more. Reading is necessarily a stationary activity…
…or is it?
When I came to the realization that my $19 a month Boston gym membership was still costing me real money, I realized that if I took my reading to the gym, I could at least give my body a slight boost. So I hopped on the T (or walked, when the weather was nice) and went to GymIt, parked myself on a recumbent bike or elliptical, turned up the resistance a little, and read my book.
Was I working super hard? No. Was I increasing my cardiovascular fitness? Probably not. I wasn’t trying to do anything but make my legs move and get my reading done. I’m going to say that a recumbent bike serves the same purpose as standing and walking around when you’re just trying to counteract the stationary nature of your life. Not that I have a degree in physiology, but it seems logical.
I’m prone to vertigo, so I was not going to sprint on the elliptical. I was not, for many reasons, going to run on the elliptical. However, so long as I took the occasional break to look around the room and take a sip of water, I was able to read without any problem while still making my legs work and burning a few calories. It’s easy to hold a paperback while on a recumbent bike, but I recommend magazines or Kindles when you’re standing, as taking one hand off an elliptical handle to turn a page can make you dizzy.
This is a good way to start a fitness regime, too, especially if you’ve previously been doing nothing at all.
So now if it’s a day I’m not teaching and that I have low energy, I try to force myself to do exercise of this ilk, nothing else. It gets me out of the house, it keeps me from the distractions of Netflix that keep me from reading at home sometimes, it will likely not contribute to the overuse injuries that fitness instructors are prone to, and it makes me think that maybe I won’t die young.
“I won’t ever leave you,” she says. “Even though you’re always leaving me.”
—The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The driving tension of The Time Traveler’s Wife is the alternating POV chapters – which don’t just alternate POV but also times. Henry and Clare, destined to be soulmates, are always meeting when she’s too young, then Henry is disappearing whenever they’re trying to work on their marriage, and then the babies Clare is pregnant with time travel out of her body and she miscarries, and now I’m just making you sad, but you see my point? They’re always in each other’s lives, but they’re never in the right place at the right time.
So. Let’s say you are the type of person who needs accountability and companionship to commit to going to the gym. Or, alternatively, you have already committed but you also happen to like having a gym buddy. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you want to get ideas for workouts, so here is how you’re going to get your fitness on, Henry and Clare-style.
Scope out the floor of your gym and identify some machines or free items that you want, like kettlebells or various weight machines, as well as a little bit of space for body weight exercises. Discuss ahead of time what specific activities you’re going to do, and pick at least four (so, for example, bicep-curl-to-press with dumbbells, the adductor/abductor machines, wall sit, kettlebell deadlift – and we’re going to call them “stations”). Have your eye on the clock or get a watch or use your fancy pocket telephone computer, whatever. Just be able to regularly see 60 seconds passing.
Now (you already warmed up in this scenario). One of you starts at a station, and the other stays near enough that you can converse and encourage each other. At the start of the minute, one of you does the station, the other does a cardio interval. If it’s convenient to you, you might try hopping on an elliptical or treadmill, but otherwise you can run in place or do jumping jacks. Grab a jumprope, maybe. Just get your heart rate up.
At the end of the minute, switch places. No break.
Then you switch again, but on station 2. One minute, one minute. Move on, no break.
Lather, rinse, repeat until you’ve gotten through each of your stations (that is, each person has done each station and each corresponding cardio interval). With four stations, that’s eight minutes. After you’ve finished, get a sip of water, towel off, and then do it again. Another sip of water, wipe the sweat off your brow, and then do it one more time. That will take you to around 30 minutes, including your warmup and cooldown/stretches, obviously more if you’ve worked in more stations. Even if you only do it twice, it’s high intensity interval training, which means you’re working hard, improving your cardiovascular function, and getting stronger. Congratulations: you win! Henry and Clare did not, but that’s their problem, not yours.