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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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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june’s links worth reading

Physicians should avoid attribution bias, or blaming a health condition on a patient’s weight because it is low-hanging fruit. Patients across the weight continuum develop a variety of diseases. Obesity does not make patients immune to conditions smaller patients develop and vice versa, and this fallacy can be fatal to patients. Weight-based stigma shouldn’t be allowed to stand in the way of doctors giving care and patients seeking it.

I have a lot of terrible things to say about how doctors “treat” patients and how many terrible experiences I’ve had with them (I go to nurse practitioners whenever possible, and I will evangelize forever and suggest you go to them too), but at least this is not something I’ve experienced. Doctors need to stop this shit.

It saddens me that my gorgeous friends wish my body upon themselves and that they’ve been so conditioned to think of themselves as not good enough unless they’re an unattainable weight.

I have an idea. Let’s stop using the phrase “thinspo” at all, but also listen to this girl and think about how troubling it is to say that bodies suffering through illness are something to aspire to.

I do love lifting. I love it with a strength and dedication I didn’t know I was capable of. I love how much of what I learn in training is applicable to real life. The only deadlift advice I can ever remember is “it is always hard.”

Alyssa and I became friends on Twitter, and while we have many feminist and activist interests in common, I think it was when I posted that I wanted friends on MyFitnessPal that we really started interacting regularly. Her entries inspire me every day, because I feel I still have a long way to go to be a really fit person, but I can identify a lot with her sentiments here and can see how maybe in the future I will feel them even more strongly.

Why is “summer” the goal, a reason to get fit? Is there some magical countdown to Memorial Day, where I’m shamed into wearing a sweatsuit on the beach unless my arms are perfectly sculpted and my thighs no longer lovingly rub together?

I’m nowhere near perfect at this, but I try in every class not to use shaming, problematic language like this, and then I hope to transfer it to my self-shaming.

fitness for bibliophiles: the elya yelnats

Every day Elya carried the little piglet up the mountain and sang to it as it drank from the stream. As the pig grew fatter, Elya grew stronger.

Holes, by Louis Sachar

One of the classes I teach is a strength training class. You choose dumbbells, and unless you want to leave the fitness room and go dig something up on the main floor, your choices are 2.5-, 5-, and 7-lb weights. Not all that heavy. That’s because the class is a low weight, high rep class where I make you do the same movement 20-40 times. What that does is work your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which give you muscular endurance.

That’s awesome. It teaches your body and muscles not to get fatigued too easily.

It’s not a strength building class, though. You’re not really working your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are the ones that kick in if all of a sudden you’re hit with a huge load of weight. So you need to do both. And even with the low weight, high rep class, at some point you’re probably going to want to go up a weight, or at least have a slightly heavier one for when we do lower body work and you’re just letting your weights hang out on your trapezius. (I only ever use 2.5-pounders, but that’s because if I did something heavier, I’d be paying attention to my workout, and it’s the class I’m supposed to be giving my attention to. I do other strength work on my own time.)

So, to build muscular strength you need to find weight that you can only hold for a maximum of about five times before you reach failure. If you’re at a gym, this will take you a little while to look around and test things out, and it’s likely that with whatever type of lifestyle you have or activities you already do, you will find that you need much heavier weights when working some muscles than others. Just make sure you test them out, and as you get stronger, don’t get complacent. Keep using gradually heavier weights and then you’ll always have a challenge, rather than a plateau.

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