From “exercise as punishment” to “exercise as self-care”

(content warning: references to disordered eating and self-punishment)

I am often asked, “How do you find the time to exercise?” I think this question comes from folks who are busy, just like me, but who also maybe expect exercise to be a bummer and uncomfortable, something they “should” do rather than something they want to do. It’s easy for these cultural messages, like fat-shaming messages and obesity concern-trolling (“I’m just worried about your health!”) to turn something that could be fun and enjoyable into something punishing.

If we go beyond these critical cultural messages about “diet and exercise” being the gateway to a moral and worthy existence, we can find that there are so many ways to have a body and so many ways to move it. To me, choosing something that is enjoyable, gives me positive feedback, offers a community, shows me growth over time, and that I can commit to consistently has been the best way for me to “find the time” to exercise.

It took me several years to find a kind of movement that I enjoyed doing. In that process, I also began learning a practice of self-care through developing protective boundaries that support me doing what I choose to do with my body. One of those boundaries is to make a sincere commitment to myself to show up for myself. For me, that means committing to my gym schedule unless I am overtrained, overstressed, or need to compromise for work or family.

My ideal gym schedule is somewhere between 3-5 days per week depending on what the rest of my life requires from me and what I feel I can commit to, and so that is what is programmed for me. I’ve tried anywhere from 3-7 days per week, and I’m at my happiest when I commit to four days a week and give myself bonus days if I feel up to it. I will adjust this frequency depending on what else is happening in my life, such as stress, travel, or work and home obligations, but unless I am severely ill/injured or on vacation, I have a commitment to myself that I trust my program and show up as planned.

IMPORTANT MESSAGE HERE: I do this not because I think I’m “bad” if I don’t go to the gym. I do this because of how much of my self I have invested in my lifting. My community is there. I can see proof of my work making me stronger. Lifting gives me consistent feedback only when I consistently show up and put in the work. I need this feedback in my life, and over time I have benefitted from it.

My history with exercise is complicated. As a young person, I enjoyed moving my body.  As an adult, going to the gym turned into a form of punishment. It became a painful experience of taking out all my hatred of myself onto my body. I would also use exercise to punish myself for eating too much. Yes- I have a history of disordered eating and body dysmorphia. While I won’t get into the details of that, I will say that weightlifting and CrossFit coupled with intuitive eating and psychoanalysis have transformed my punitive and self-destructive mind by helping me understand my relationship with myself, and opening up new options for interacting with my body besides self-hatred and self-punishment.

Eating, exercise, and training can actually be containing, supportive, encouraging experiences, and can offer me positive feedback and a sense of wellness and goodness. I’m so fortunate to have discovered this! But I did not stumble upon it by accident. I realized over the course of a couple of years of exercise-as-punishment that how I was approaching my body was unsustainable, and only served to reinforce my self-loathing.

Psychoanalysis gave me the freedom and psychic space to heal, and I could begin to give myself permission to make different choices about how I approached exercise. Now, lifting has become a space where I have committed to taking care of myself. It has given me an opportunity to trust the process. I have seen amazing strength and skill gains through my programming, but the programming only works if I stick with it.

My commitment to training is different from my commitment to exercise. When there is a competition coming up, I train for that. I made certain trade-offs in the rest of my life to prioritize training. But when there is not a competition on the horizon, my goals and commitments are different. For example, at the moment I am on summer break from my doctoral program, so I have a lot more time to commit to training. Once school begins again after my contest, I know my priorities will shift. At that time, I expect that my focus in the gym will be continue increasing my strength, but at a slower pace since I will have much less time to train and to recover than I do now. During the school year, I will focus more on exercise to support my life as a therapist and student rather than on the intensity of training and competition, which sucks up a lot of psychic and emotional space (not to mention 12-15 hours a week of actual gym time).

In my next post, I’ll share with you some things that have worked for me to keep myself consistent and accountable. Until then, I hope if there’s one thing you remember is that this is all a process. This is your life. Life itself is a process, one which unfolds and shifts and grows and evolves. There is only one final outcome, and that’s death, so everything else is simply a part of being an alive human being. You are always learning! You will make mistakes as you learn! And if you pay attention to your wins and your errors, and don’t let the shame monster gobble you up, I believe you can learn how to live your life in the best way that works for you.

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My cat srsly knows how to self-care. We can all learn a lot from hanging out with my cat.

That feeling when you “get it”

My hip extension is the WORST.

I mean, it’s no coincidence that when I dance I look like a robotic amoeba. I have no hip flexibility!

A lot of that is due to over-active hip flexor issues from an under-active glute and hamstring duo, which I’m working on with my physical therapist. But I can’t get a stone or a sandbag to platform if my life depended on it. My hips are just like, “Not today honey! How about some ice cream?”

But, today, I got it. That bag flew over that bar, and my hips and glutes worked together. Hips, glutes- you really showed up for me, friends. Thank you. It feels good to have you on my team.

When showing up for civil liberties and human rights takes priority over training

As you can probably tell, getting to Nationals well-prepared is super important to me. I consider my training a part-time job and am as committed to my work in the gym as I am to my work as a therapist. Inside me, they take up the same quality of space and energy, and I am equally as dedicated to being a good therapist as I am to being a good lifter.

But sometimes, the rights of the greater community take precedence. I recognize that I work, lift, love, play, and persevere in a society that is unjust and commodified, where the prison industrial complex profits off the mass incarceration of primarily black and brown people, and where borders and nations are increasingly rigid and punitive, while body sovereignty is eroding. When families seeking refuge are being torn apart, I will speak up.

On Saturdays, I usually train Strongman events with my team and during open gym. It’s the one time of the week when I see my community and can get support with the lifts and implements that are more challenging to set up. I benefit from the experience of the group, and our diverse ways of approaching challenging experiences. And because I work full-time while pursuing a doctorate degree in psychoanalysis, I have limited hours during which I can practice some of these more uncommon lifts.

However, this past Saturday, I chose to skip my Strongman class even though it meant I would have to modify my training program for the week and potentially skip some of the programming. It’s a small tradeoff, really, to exercise my privilege to attend the Families Belong Together demonstration outside the West County Detention Center in Richmond, CA. It is my civil right to demonstrate, and when someone organizes against oppression and injustice, I will do my best to show up.

Around five thousand of us positioned ourselves in the parking lot of the detention center, sandwiched between manzanita bushes, the sparkling bay waters, and the two-story cement jail. Dozens of police officers stood in the shade of the beige building while thousands of us chanted, “Families Belong Together!” Music, posters, revolutionary messages, personal stories of immigration detention and the appellate process, and protest speeches moved my heart.

Boundaries between people keep us healthy. Borders between nations are fictional and arbitrary. We are all shaped by where we are born, and that is no fault of our own. To seek out a better life is part of the “American Dream,” and if this opportunity was open to my ancestors, it should be open to all. Speaking of my white ancestors: I have a lot of ancestral repair to do and part of that is to become someone who can see things differently from them. Unlike my ancestors, who believed that only some should be considered human and therefore some lives were more valuable than others, I believe that what is open to some, should be open to all.

Part of that belief has me calling into question, was America ever really open to me and my ancestors? In fact, I think we just took what we wanted and started making decisions about who gets what.

America is not mine to take; it is not mine to own; and it is not mine to say who gets to come and who must leave.

No Ban. No Wall. Sanctuary for All. Decolonize NOW. I have a lot of work to do on myself as a colonizer- and that work is just as important as anything else I do in my life. In fact, I doubt I could do any of this (psychotherapy, weightlifting, life) without simultaneously working on my own historical status as a colonizer and beneficiary of slavery.

Lifting weights helps me get stronger to hold all the truths I must uncover. Being a therapist helps me navigate complex emotional territory. Staying awake means staying aware of how I am always in a position of structural power- and that I must learn to let that go, no matter the “inconvenience” or if it jeopardizes my plans for myself. I’ve benefitted for much too long from other people’s pain, whether I know it or not. Better to know so I can start to un-do.

I’m training for more than just making the lift. I’m training so that I can own my shit and stop myself and my lineage from perpetuating harm on susceptible and marginalized communities. I’m training so that others can have a chance to be better, and be more themselves, just like I can.

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Me holding a sign that reads, “No Ban! No Wall! Sanctuary for All! Families Belong Together”

A peek inside my training, part 2: Peaking for Strongman!

Peek, peaking…um… yay for homophones!

In part one of my “peek inside” training posts, I described my program leading up to California’s Strongest Woman. It mainly involved a lot of CrossFit and metabolic conditioning, since at the time that’s what I wanted to be focusing on. Once I felt the fervor, the energy, the femme RAGE of Strongman and saw how fucking awesome these women are, I knew I was ready to get bigger, badasser, and stronger.

I was ready to join the Big Back Ranks!

For about six weeks after qualifying for Master’s Nationals, I had four days per week to train (and sometimes only three) due to my life schedule. At that point, I was doing hypertrophy sets of safety squat bar, deadlift, incline bench, front squat, and press, all of which hovered in the 4×12 rep range at around 60-70% of a maximal effort lift. Plus, because I am an old lady who has been doing kipping pull ups and handstand push ups before she was strong enough do them strictly, I needed to do a lot of shoulder rehabilitation. I would (and still) do lots of sets of banded work, including external rotations and pulls and such. My coach also programmed bodybuilding movements for my back, shoulders, hamstrings and glutes. Strongman is a very back-centric sport, so if you look at people who compete, you’ll probably see their lats and delts before you know what color their eyes are.

This part of the program was tiring and kind of boring, but I saw results very quickly. My body was putting on mass and putting me out of my pants (yeah pants stopped fitting for a bit). This mass was going to be used as a basis for my strength.

In June, summer hit and I was no longer taking classes, so I could increase my program to five days on and two days off. Thus began my strength cycle and my peaking for Master’s Nationals. I got to play with the implements more, including log twice a week, stones and sandbags once a week, sled pulls, and I finally got strong enough to do legless rope climbs. That kicked ass, actually.

Strength cycles are usually in the 4×6-8 rep range and 70-85 percentile of your max lifts (sometimes up to 90%). For me, it includes a lot of supersets of front squat and press, deadlifts, and working on my grip strength.

I’m just now beginning another part of my peaking phase, which will have me playing with more implements, including yoke and the axle, as a part of my programming. I will still be getting stronger and the weights will be getting heavier. We’re also adding in a sixth day of conditioning with my best friend the assault bike, and sled pushes and drags and whatnot. Now that I’m getting stronger, I need to have the speed and engine to move loads quickly.

I also need to get my mind on board. The mental part of heavy lifting is one of the HEAVIEST elements for me. If I can lift the weight, I need to move quickly with it, rather than my default processing time of “Okey, picked it up, cool, how does it feel, are you okay, do you need anything, like a glass of water, or does it remind you of your childhood,” etc. Therapist brain is hard to shut off sometimes 🙂

I’m told there will be no max effort attempts until contest (though I hope I get to measure at least once beforehand), so I won’t really know how my numbers are doing and whether they’re going up, but it’s safe to say the lifts that felt hard before are feeling easier, I’m recovering better, and I can see my back spreading like moss in the forest. So far, that’s pretty good feedback.

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“The log is trying to kill you. Don’t let it.”

A peek inside my training (part 1)

If you’re wondering what I do on a daily or weekly basis for my training, here’s a general overview of the cycles and lifts I’m working through on my way to Nationals.

Prior to podiuming (yes- like Google, people have turned “podium” into a verb) at California’s Strongest Woman in April, I had been training pretty exclusively for CrossFit. It’s been a dream of mine to compete in NorCal CrossFit Master’s competition in Richmond, CA, ever since I started the sport in 2012. At the time, however, Master’s was 40+, so I patiently waited for years until the magic age of entry arrived.

When I turned 40 a year and a half ago, I had just moved, and my energy level and mental state had me in a position where I was lucky if I got to a CrossFit class three or four times a week. I did not have the spoons to start any kind of training program. So, I skipped that year, and vowed to train for NorCal Master’s the following year.

That was the year they changed the entrance age to 35, go figure. Hashtag ANNOYING.

Anyway, in September 2017, with NorCal Master’s arriving at the end of January 2018, I hired an awesome coach named Patrick Barnes who devised a program for me. We started with a hypertrophy cycle to try and increase muscle mass. Hypertrophy is essentially high reps at moderate weight, and the purpose is to grow the size of your muscles but not necessarily your strength. Then, we did a fast four week strength cycle to try and build strength into that mass. These are your 3×5’s at around 75-85%. Around November we began working on my “engine”- giving me shitloads of cardio and CrossFit movements I abhor like box jumps. (Always do the things you hate! “Chase your goats,” as they say.)

My favorite cardio workout of the whole bunch was a 100cal assault bike where I had to try and stay at a moderately-high level of wattage output for the entire duration. It SUCKED but surviving that feeling came in really handy during the CrossFit Open in Feb/March. I knew it only felt like the cardio was trying to kill me. So I guess it was my favorite only in retrospect, since I could really feel how useful it was.

Leading up to NorCal Masters, I received news at work that I would need to attend a conference which conflicted with the dates of the competition. After a lot of deliberation, tears, frustration, and angst, I decided that the work opportunity was too important. After all, at this point, weightlifting is a hobby. An expensive, time-consuming hobby, and one that I love- but it doesn’t pay the bills.

Ya that’s right- I’m a grown up and I have to make hard choices. I have to come to terms with loss every single day, and my lifting is no exception.

So, instead, Patrick and I decided I would train for the CrossFit Open in February, hoping to use it as a gauge of my fitness level and improvements over time. I did pretty well in the Open this year, coming in in the 90th percentile for my age and sex. I also used my ranking and scores as a comparison for the other folks who I knew were competing at the NorCal Master’s that year, so I felt a little bit like I was still keeping track of my standings and how I might have placed if I had competed in that contest.

I always have to remember: I’m training for the long game, so I can come back and lift another day. I want to have a long and diverse “career” in these sports because there’s still so much I want to do!

(stay tuned for part 2 to find out what my program for Nationals is like!)

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Chest-to-bar pullups during 18.5. This was my second-favorite of this year’s Open workouts. Photo by Kris Bates of Grassroots CrossFit in Berkeley.