fitness for bibliophiles: the downstairs girl

At least we have a home. It’s dry, warm, and rent-free, one of the perks of living secretly in someone else’s basement. As long as you have a home, you have a place to plan and dream.

The Downstairs Girl, by Stacey Lee

Can you go up and down undetected? Can you keep your upper body still while moving your lower body? Can you lift yourself out of a lunge without needing assistance from a barre or yanking on your hip?

You should be able to. Or you should want to be able to.

The Downstairs Girl is one of my favorite reads from 2019, which should not have surprised me, because it’s rare that I don’t love a Stacey Lee book. It’s feminist historical fiction about someone who’s not just a white girl, and it’s also about secret identities and murky family secrets. I’m not someone who reads a lot of adventure or survival novels, as that’s something I prefer in my movies, but I’m always down for a Stacey Lee survival adventure. This isn’t a survival novel in the desert island sense, but it is a bit thrilling and deals with social survival when you’re part of a disenfranchised class of people. Jo Kuan, the protagonist, has to constantly traverse Atlanta’s social and metropolitan systems, and she’s pretty much always at a disadvantage. She is adept at slipping out of sight when she needs to, but she also finds strength and learns to stand tall.

Ballet lunges, or elevator lunges, or scooters, or any other name you know them by, are a great exercise because you can work on your stability and control, and even if they are a quad-centric exercise, you have to do a lot of stabilization with the abs, and if your hips aren’t in good shape, your form will be off and then your hips will hurt more as a result. Hooray! I love it when an exercise uses more than a single muscle group.

If you have access to a ballet barre at home or at your gym, where you are MOST DEFINITELY WEARING A MASK, RIGHT?, use it. Otherwise, you’ve got a counter or a high-back chair at home. If all of those are inaccessible, you’ll have to do it without, which actually makes it harder-easier, by which I mean harder to perform but easier in the sense that you won’t be able to cheat, so your body will learn proper form right away.

You’ll see in the video that I’m using a home ballet barre and sliders, but if sliders/gliders are something you don’t have available at home, small towels or washcloths work fine on tile/wood/cement, and paper plates work fine on carpet. Now, here’s how you do the thing:

Feet on sliders, facing your “barre,” with about four feet of space behind you. Underhanded, light grip on your support. Raise the heel on your right foot so just the toes are on the slider. Now begin to bend your left knee, and as you do so, push the right slider back behind you as you lengthen your right leg. Your left thigh is what’s initiating the movement, so it’s what’s responsible for your right leg sliding back. Your upper body should be still and straight, so if someone couldn’t see below your waist, they would think you were going straight up and down like in an elevator. You’re going as low as you can, but what determines the “as you can” is not literally how deeply you can bend your knee but how deeply you can bend it without needing tons of assistance to stand up again. As you bring your right leg back in, you should be driving your weight into your left thigh as you slowly straighten it back up to stand tall. Repeat on the other side. Do each side 2-8 times, depending on your fitness level and comfort.

What not to do: Many people hold onto the barre for dear life as they bring the moving leg in and use it to help them pull themselves up. When you strangle the barre, you’re forcing your back into an uncomfortable position and yanking your hips, which is terrible because then you’ll be in pain, and it’s also terrible because you’re supposed to be working on your legs, not your hips or lumbar region. This is not something that should or even can be done quickly if it’s going to be correct. Try aiming for a 4-count in each direction.

Bonus burn: keep the left leg bent as you rapidly (1- or 2-count) scoot the right knee in and out, 4-12 reps. Again, no yanking on your support system, and think about holding your abs in as a way to keep your balance, not forcing your hips to do it. The point is increased strength, not pain.

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not literally me

7 > 5 > 7

Contrary to what you learned in first grade, you do not have five senses.

You have seven.

Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, yes. But there are two others. It makes a fair bit of sense not to teach them formally as concepts to elementary schoolers (though a good PreK-12 education system really should tacitly engage them), but if you’re an adult and you still don’t know, it’s time to learn a bit more about how your body actually works. I promise you’ll thank me.

Your remaining two senses are proprioception–your sense of where you are in space–and balance (I really hope you know what that one is, even if you didn’t know it’s a Sense just like the five you’ve always known). If you see dead people, that’s eight.

Unlike, say, hearing impairment, which you can’t cure even if you can treat it, senses six and seven are well within your grasp as far as honing and improving them. *I realize there are disabilities that may make that untrue, but for argument’s sake, we’ll assume I’m speaking about people who don’t have physical impairments or Meniere’s disease

Techniques for balance are simple: just work on your balance. Stand on one leg, then stand on the other. Repeat. Play around with uneven surfaces, like BOSU trainers. Hop. You get the idea.

Proprioception? Time for a personal story.

Around midnight between March 17 and March 18, my life lowkey began to break down, like lighting the string of a stick of dynamite. Fast forward 16 hours later. It was just drizzling and trying to rain, and I was t-boned by an SUV. I spun around once or twice, who knows, and goodbye to my beloved late grandfather’s car. I was disoriented, terrified, and full disclosure, based on the awful evening before and the fact that I have chronic depression and bipolar disorder II, my first thought when I stopped spinning was please, can I just be dead so I won’t have to deal with any of this shit, and when I was dismayed to find that I still inhabited this mortal coil (*swoons dramatically*), I realized that my knee was on fire because it had smashed into the dashboard or steering column. A random woman from an office nearby came out, and she was the one who calmly talked to me and called 911, and when this pandemic comes to an end in 2035, I fully intend to bring flowers or chocolate to that entire office complex and walk into every suite and ask for Tammy until I find her so I can say thanks.

Anyway, the next week was when the dynamite exploded, and as I hobbled around my parents’ house–which, unlike the house I was living in, does not have stairs–I went through a romantic breakup that wasn’t just violently (figuratively, not physically) traumatic but also humiliating, and it was compounded by the fact that I then had to hobble up and down the stairs, packing and carrying boxes and moving out of the house.

Honestly, even though that was mid-March and it’s now mid-July, I just cannot even with retelling the whole story, plus it’s none of your business and you don’t care, and it’s not the point of this blog post, which I swear will circle back to proprioception in a hot second.

So my knee. Fucking destroyed, even though according to imaging, it was just fine aside from hella bruising, and externally it was literally hot to the touch for at least 10 weeks, which ???? who knew that was a thing!? Time for physical therapy, which has thus been my twice weekly social engagement during a period that has otherwise been responsibly socially distant.

Even though Hannah means “graceful,” I was not active as a child or particularly beautiful to watch at dance performances, so it was not until my late twenties that I gave a fuck about proprioception beyond pedantic, Jeopardy-style teaching moments and pop science books about neurology. And I have worked so. Damn. Hard. on it since then. Pilates was a big part of it, because it’s incredibly cerebral (and different from yoga; please stop assuming they are the same), but this is work I’ve done by paying attention to where my left leg is while I drive, what my posture is like when I use my computer, etc.

My fucked knee totally fucked me over in the proprioception department, and it’s not only an assault on my sense of self but just shitty because of how it has set me back in my fitness (career-wise and personally), which is unbearably, excruciatingly humbling.

I’m supposed to graduate from physical therapy this week, which will make it about three and a half months of rehabilitation for an injury that felt absolutely destroying but involved no casts, wheelchairs, hospital stays, or the like, which just makes it worse because I feel like a failure at being forcibly but temporarily disabled.

The perpetual pain, which had me pondering what a future might look like if I became a PhD version of Dr. House, has subsided. I’m allowed to progress to workouts that resemble the ones I was doing before (the low-impact ones; it feels like it’ll be ten thousand years before I can teach a cycling class or go to a boxing class again), but there’s a set of problems here:

First, my cardiovascular stamina is kaput. Even low-impact workouts, if you do them right, should amp up your heartrate, but given four months of very little engagement of my heart and veins (though I suppose crying jags and screaming at the emotionally abusive narcissist I no longer plan on marrying counts as raising my blood pressure), I can’t do those low-impact workouts for anywhere near as long as I used to.

Second, balance? lmaoooo You’d expect the injured leg (my left) to be awful at it, but it turns out, injury to one knee impacts even the “good” side! I’ve gotten a bit better since, say, week 9 of therapy, but holy shit, man. Even as a high schooler who did basically nothing in the way of exercise, I had great ankles and balance and once stood on tiptoe for about fifteen minutes straight for an aggressively obnoxious team building exercise that involved cramming a bunch of high school juniors onto one tiny rug because that teaches you how to get along or some shit. Miss me with those. When one side of your body is shit, both sides of your body are shit.

Third (I told you I’d circle back!), I feel as if I have no proprioception anymore. I have had seven senses since my mom taught me about them in primary school, and all of a sudden, I had five again.

Rehabilitative exercises at the physical therapist’s or “workouts” at home; it doesn’t matter. After years and years of putting in the work, I can no longer feel where my spine is or where my hips are or what position my neck is in. To be clear, I do not mean that in a neuropathy sense. I mean that in the proprioceptive sense. I cannot mechanically set myself up for exercises and movements. Everything feels wonky, so I’m not able to tell what is properly wonky and what is bad form wonky. I don’t know where I am physically, and with the pandemic stress and personal life stress, it’s not just humbling but terrifying. I’m starting from scratch and I fucking hate it.

A friend who is a physical therapist (but not mine for this injury) calls these people “motor morons,” which is a term I will not adopt when I speak out loud but is really apt–when you don’t have mental awareness of balance and proprioception, your motor skills are not refined. You might think you do a perfect deadlift or be totally at home on the soccer field, but unless you have spent at least some time cognitively connecting with these concepts, not just physically, you are a motor moron. I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that problematic phrase.

You absolutely should not feel ashamed, but you should definitely feel motivated to work on this.

There is something incredibly empowering about knowing how to feel your spine, your hip bones, your shoulders, and your ankles. It seems really granola to tune out your airpods and stop talking to your lifting buddy in order to think about those things while you do a leg press, but once you get over the Lululemon Karen-ness of it all, it’s dope af.

I’ll write another post and do a video about how you can do that, but in the meantime, take a hot minute to lie on the floor, preferably carpet or hardwood with a yoga mat, not uneven tile, and, like, move those body parts one by one and see what it feels like. Then remember that next time you do whatever workout it is that you do.

fitness for bibliophiles: circe

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.

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review: the p.volve method

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!

fitness for bibliophiles: freshwater

“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?

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