Editor’s note: So you might have noticed that it’s been like a month since I updated my blog. I certainly noticed because not a day went by where I wasn’t like “okay, time to update your blog now!” I had actually told myself that I was going to take a short break from blogging because I was having all of these overly sensitive and emotional reactions to things and I was putting all of this pressure on myself to write amazing things all the time – but things that would not garner critical comments or emails! – and my mind was just like NOPE NOT GONNA DO IT and instead made me watch endless episodes of “Game of Thrones,” “The Killing” and now “True Blood.”
And then what happened is that after a certain amount of time had passed, I started feeling embarrassed about how long it had been since I updated, sort of like how after you are out of contact with someone for so long and you really want to get back in touch with them but you are so embarrassed about your delinquency as a friend and loved one that even more time passes before you reach out because you just don’t want to deal with the initial awkwardness. (Or is this just me? Come on, this can’t just be me.) I was having all of these issues despite the fact that there is a lot of shit I really, really want to write about! Things like race photos, women-only fitness spaces, the hidden work of femininity! Isn’t it weird how our brains can totally take these things we want to do and then build them up until they become these huge, impassable obstacles? This seems to be particularly true when it comes to writing, and I know that I’m not the only writer out there who struggles with this on a daily – no, an hourly basis.
But because it feels weird to just jump in to serious writing, I’m instead going to re-immerse myself in the world of feminist blogging with a quick post about some things that have been going on with me. Thanks for your patience, and also for hanging around while I did battle with myself.
In the event that you are not a fan of the Fit and Feminist Facebook page – in which case, you can fix that right now – you might have missed my big piece of news, which is that on Monday night, I finally managed to do a complete chin-up. After several years of chin-up and pull-up attempts in which I looked less like an aspiring badass athlete and more like a sloth dying of old age, I had resigned myself to the belief that such feats of strength were still far off in the future for me. Like so far off, I needed a reflector telescope to see them.
And then I met Alicia. Alicia was getting ready to do deadlifts in the squat rack when she was generous enough to let me work my sets in with hers. She gave me some advice about my deadlift form, we talked a bit about the programs each one of us is working – I am doing New Rules of Lifting for Women, she is doing Stronglifts 5×5 – and we laughed about all of the people who say we shouldn’t lift too heavy because we might *gasp!* bulk up. Later, we ran into each other again and we got to talking about pull-ups and chin-ups. (Because what else do women talk about in the weight room?) Alicia demonstrated one for me on the TRX frame, and then she encouraged me to give it a try myself.
So I reached up, wrapped my hands around the bar and pulled. I felt my arms, my core and my back tense up as they always have in the past, but this time, my body was actually moving upward. I kept pulling and pulling until finally, my entire head was over the bar, and I had a clear elevated view of all of the people chugging away on the rows of cardio machines. I stayed up there for a few seconds, shocked that I had actually done it! I dropped to the ground and started laughing, I was so happy.
A few minutes later, I tried again, just to prove to myself that I could do it. I did it, but that wasn’t enough to assuage my insecurity, so today on my lunch break, just before I hopped on the bike for an interval session, I did another chin-up. And then finally, when Brian showed up at the gym, I did another one (just because I am a show-off who likes to impress her husband). Of course, I paid for my pride when I strained my left shoulder and had to cut my swim short later that day. *insert gif of Antoine Dodson saying “YOU ARE SO DUMB” here* But still – chin-ups! Plural, even!
My little triumph came on the heels of a conversation Brian and I had while sitting at the beach this weekend, in which he told me that I seem as though I’ve reached another level with my fitness. Hearing him say that confirmed what I’d been noticing privately over the past couple of months. My arms and shoulders have gotten quite a bit larger, to the point that a lot of my shirts now pull awkwardly across my shoulders. My quads have more definition. My front abs are still not visible but my obliques are poking out all over the place. I noticed that the scale had climbed a few pounds, but that my pants and shorts are looser around the waist – a sure sign that I’m increasing my lean muscle mass.
Best of all, I am able to do things like throw down full pushups and burpees, I’ve broken through long-standing plateaus with rows and lat pulldowns, and I feel comfortable squatting to way below parallel. Plus I’m capable of sustaining a pretty serious clip when I’m out running, even when the humidity levels have passed the point of discomfort and gone straight into the “holy fuck how do millions of people live in this state?!” territory. It’s not just that I’m looking more buff; it’s that I’m actually feeling a lot stronger, too.
I think that what’s going on is that I’ve sailed into the Perfect Storm of Caitlin Awesomeness, where I’ve put together a regular training routine that is so varied (and also so fun!) that my all-around fitness level has skyrocketed without me even realizing it. I still run quite a bit, and I ride my bike too, but these three activities put so much emphasis on my upper body that I really have no choice but to develop more strength in my arms, back and shoulders if I was going to keep doing these things.
1. Swimming: Most weeks, I swim between 2-3 times a week. I cycle between swims aimed getting faster and increasing my endurance, and then I also swim in the open water. At first I was just psyched to swim 1,000 yards or whatever, but over time I’ve started doing drills, working with the kickboard and the pull buoy, and more recently, I’m incorporating swim fins into my workout. (BTW, if you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be a dolphin, strap on a pair of swim fins and swim a lap or two. I slide through the water like a nuclear submarine with those things on.) I have to drive kind of far out of my way to get to the only pool with hours that are not totally screwy, but I have gotten to the point where I don’t mind the traffic because I know I’m going to get to spend an hour in a state of total bliss.
2. Strength training: On the advice of many of this blog’s readers, I started working my way through the “New Rules of Lifting for Women” and I. Love. It. While it may lack some of the more hardcore cachet of Starting Strength or Olympic lifting or strongwoman programs, it works really well for me, as strength training is meant to be conditioning for my other sports and isn’t my main show, so to speak. Having a plan that lets me strength train two days a week lets me keep my legs fresh enough to keep working on running and cycling, and it shows, because I find my legs are way less likely to become fatigued when doing hills or speedwork.
Plus, the program has made me more focused and consistent when it comes to record-keeping, which has made it easier for me to see my gains and to also know when it’s time to go increase and when it’s time to maintain. NROL4W is making me more serious about weight training and less of a dilettante about it. The end result is that I have made some pretty substantial strength gains in a short period of time, and I only expect that to continue as I make my way through the stages.
3. Pole: I wrote about my first experience with pole dancing but then kind of went quiet about it after getting a bunch of reactions that made me not really want to talk about it anymore. The truth is that I’ve kept it up because I really, really enjoy it and it’s teaching me to use my body in ways I’ve never even though possible. Right now I am taking a class that is called Tricks Foundations, which is basically an hour a week dedicated to learning how to hold my body in a variety of positions around a vertical pole. We use our arms, our inner thighs, the backs of our knees, our tummies and even our shins and feet to hold ourselves in the air.
I do a lot of really physically demanding things on a regular basis, and none of those things can compare to pole in terms of sheer difficulty. (I’m always nursing a new set of random bruises after I leave the studio, and it’s kind of awesome.) One of the things that pole has taught me to do is to use my arms and core to pull my body into the air, which is what doing a chin-up is, except on a socially-acceptable horizontal bar instead of a vertical pole. Once you become aware of what that sensation feels like, your body knows how to replicate it elsewhere, which is probably why I was able to get the chin-up on my first try.
That’s a lot of upper-body strength work! No wonder my shirts don’t fit me anymore. (And by the way, I know this is a common complaint among women with muscles, that clothing manufacturers don’t seem to think we exist. So that means I fall into two categories of non-existent women: muscular women and tall women. Basically I’m a unicorn in the eyes of the clothing world, and it’s a miracle I haven’t been reduced to walking around butt naked for want of a pair of pants that fits.)
So that’s all of the physical nuts-and-bolts stuff going on behind my little accomplishment. What’s also interesting to me is the emotional and psychological stuff going on, too. I wrote a few weeks ago about how my self-image had shifted so that I was no longer “working to become strong” but that I was now “strong” and “capable.” It’s a transition that struggles to take hold, simply because I had so deeply internalized this idea of myself as “weak,” but it is slowly happening. It started the first time I ran a 5K without stopping – I was so excited, I can’t even put it into words – and it has continued on through half-marathons and marathons and triathlons and open-water swims and hours spent in the weight room and in the pool and in the pole studio.
It’s a thrilling sensation, to know that I am reshaping the way I look at myself through time and sweat and effort. The muscles and all that, they’re nice and fun to look at while flexing in the mirror, but they’re all secondary to the changes in the way I see myself, that ineffable essence of who I am as a person. I think those are the changes that really count, and I’m so excited to know they are happening for me.