Ask A Swole Woman: Getting Started

Embracing free weights and rest days

People have been saying strong is the new sexy, skinny, adkfj;las for decades now. Yet women are still aggressively and overwhelmingly marketed workouts and lifestyles where they never have to sweat too much or make ugly effort faces. The best fitness stuff is so unavailable to women, it’s sickening.

Let these three muscles stand as my resumé. Instagram/caseyjohnston

So A Swole Woman is here now to answer your questions on your path away from the plates of perfectly arranged fruit and unblemished Nikes and #morningabs on Instagram. I’ve been doing strength training with heavy weights, focused on the core powerlifting movements (squat, bench, deadlift) for a little more than two years, and before that, I was a runner for several years. I don’t plan on going back to the latter as my main form of exercise so long as I can do the former.

I’m not a personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, lawyer, nutritionist, dietician, CEO, gym owner, Pokemon gym owner, or anything. I do not have a line of vegan granola bars or a juice cleanse subscription service or workout videos on YouTube. But I like working out, and think it’d be cool if other people liked working out, too. If we all make sick gains and get stronger (musculoskeletally, emotionally) in the process, good. In the wider world of strength training, I barely lift (among people who lift, this is a way of saying that you are not terribly strong), but I’m working on getting stronger all the time.

In the meantime, I’m here for all your questions about the pursuit of fitness and health.

So I’ve decided I really, really want to get started lifting weights, but the part of the gym with the free weights is intimidating, and crawling with massive dudes. I feel like it will be obvious I don’t know what I’m doing and every time I resolve to go in there, I end up on the treadmills and weight machines again 🙁 What do I do?

You are a rare and unusual person if you aren’t intimidated by this situation in some way. Even the massive dudes crawling around your weights section right now were once young noobs in want of gains. It’s normal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not tough. There are a few strategies and things you should know that can help you overcome it.

Photo: Jeff Blackler/Flickr

Know, at least intellectually, what you’re doing. We’ve all resolved to do Weight Things only to end up standing at the dumbbell rack nervously doing curls, because that’s the only exercise we know. There is so much more in the world! Get a personal trainer or a friend to help you get started. Practice your squats with a broomstick. Read up on some exercises and/or a program at home (this is a whole rabbit hole unto itself, but there are a lot of resources online).

Create a persona. Your mileage may vary on this one, but it works for me. When you enter that section at the gym, even if you’ve been going to that gym for a while, it can be like your first day at a new school: no one knows your past life, and you have a chance to start over. You may have been the baddest bitch at another gym, and no one, and I mean no one, should fuck with you. Get into that headspace. You are the child of a valkyrie and Kanye West (unlike Kanye West, do not skip leg day). Be inspired by Kimberly Walford, national treasure, deadlifting 530 pounds:

But what if you have no muscles and it’s obvious you don’t know what you’re doing? Many extremely strong people do not look it, especially women. Or you may be like, “Duh, as soon people see I’m only lifting really light weights, and doing it badly, they will know I’m a humble nooblet and they’ll come over and start showing me things and great I’m embarrassed already.” Not really! You could be recovering from an injury, or cross-training. I’ve watched other people who’ve gone to my gym as long as I have or longer doing the dumbest shit, putting themselves at risk of injury (so many bad deadlifts). No one knows your story but you, and your story can be completely fake — you’ll never need to explain it to anyone.

No one is looking at you. One of the great things about lifting heavy weights, in my correct opinion, is that the workouts actually involve a lot of resting — a minute and often more between sets. A workout can easily be MORE resting than anything else, so one does quite a bit of standing around in the free weights section. It’s a great time to be on Twitter or Instagram, attending to your clan in Clash of Clans, etc. However, that also means that there is a feeling of A Lot of People (men) Hanging Around and Potentially Leering in there. While I’m not about to absolve men of generally terrible behavior, what you should know about rest time between sets is: if you’re doing it right, you should be exhausted.

When you finish a set, it should have been so hard that all you’re doing for most of that rest time is catching your breath and being stunned and a little impressed with yourself (the gym is high Me Time). After you’re done recovering, you’re gearing up for the next set. The last thing on anyone’s mind should be what other people are up to. Even if someone is throwing you a thousand-yard stare, they are probably looking right through you, because they’re trying to visualize not failing the next set. It’s not about you.

On average, most people go to the gym to work out and don’t have time to fuck around. Resting is a necessary part of the process; just because someone is standing around doesn’t mean they’re trying to scope out the scene (likewise, just because you’re standing around doesn’t mean you’re in want of a conversation — MOST people in a gym will know that and won’t bother you).

Ok but what if someone is looking at you? Yes, there are creepers. But there are creepers everywhere in life! I’ve been far more creeped on walking the two blocks to my subway stop than at my gym, and my gym is no Equinox. If we get in the position of avoiding things to cut down on incidences of creeping, who is winning in that scenario? Not you. That is not the path of swoleness. Wouldn’t you rather have some muscles to scare catcallers with? Same.

If someone is creeping on you at the gym, you don’t owe them a damn thing. I wear headphones and if someone insists on trying to speak to me, I make a very big and annoyed show of pulling an earbud out to hear them. Feel free to cold-shoulder them: “Well, gotta do this set now, good talk.” If anyone is making you uncomfortable — lingering, leering, Lord forbid taking photos or videos of you — tell the gym staff. They should help you (it’s a reportable offense!). Don’t be afraid; working at a gym’s front desk is very boring and most gym attendants should leap at the chance to do something other than idle, and they should want to know if someone is driving away customers.

Ultimately, you will get over the uncertainty and fear. The only way out is through. Everyone feels uncomfortable, out of place, and awkward the first time they lift, or do anything, really; the next time, they feel it a little bit less, then a little bit less, and then even less. Going with a friend or engaging a personal trainer can smooth the grooves a little, but ultimately your motivation to work out should come from within, and you should not be afraid to go by yourself. There is so much personal accomplishment and strength and capability waiting in that free weights section for you! It is not my way to be touchy-feely about matters of raw psychic and/or physical power, but this is completely true. Let your new valkyrie persona flex upon your normal self; if your normal self won’t let you fulfill your swole destiny, it’s not worth listening to.

I want to know how often I’m actually supposed to work out. There is literally no good answer to this? It angers me.

Harness that anger and set a deadlift personal record. Haha *flexes traps* but seriously folks, the answer to this is, it depends! It depends what you are trying to do and why.

Doing anything is better than doing nothing, so there’s not a minimum, per se. If you can only work out once per week, great! Probably your goal should be to slowly increase from there, if only because your adaptation to a weekly workout will be so slow or even nonexistent that you’re going to struggle with the same stuff every week and won’t get much of a health impact, and that will be frustrating. Everyone’s gotta start somewhere, but you don’t want to stay where you start.

Photo: J m/Flickr

Some people will tell you to work out every single day, but I will not, and here is why: for one, rest is important, not just within workout, but between them as well. Your muscles do not actually get stronger when you’re working them. They get stronger when you are recovering and building back the torn fibers on your rest days by eating and sleeping (I know, it is a beautiful world to live in — JOIN ME!). Strenuous workouts every day are a dumb idea, not just because you’re not getting enough rest , but because it would take so much willpower to sustain that schedule, you’d be deeply unhappy, and the point of working out is not to punish yourself. Working out when you are either very tired or pushing your body too hard, especially without enough rest and care, puts you at risk of injuries.

If you have the time and can manage it, three days a week seems to be a sweet spot, particularly for lifting programs, which I think everyone should try at least for a little while (three months is a good time frame). This is the beauty of lifting, especially in the beginning: you can work out fewer than half the days in the week, for 30–40 minutes at a time, get stronger, and notice a difference in both how your body looks and works.

More is not always better and incremental, sustainable changes are better than trying to overhaul everything at once. Think of yourself like a plant. Would you ever show your friend a dead plant and go, “I kicked it from my kitchen shelf to my backyard where there is full all-day sunlight with zero shade, plus I put grower lights on it at night, and gave it only a few sprinklings of water once a month; I’m not sure what happened”? Not if you didn’t want your friend to think you were vaguely threatening them.

Some people do work out every day because they’re worried even one rest day will break their routine. For those people, there is such a thing as “active recovery” using lighter, low-intensity forms of exercise like walking, swimming, stretching, the less impressive types of yoga. If it will settle your mind to go for a 20-minute walk on your off days, fine; it will not interfere with your gains and it may even help. If all you can do is walk, that is also great! You don’t so much need rest days from walking, unless you are for some reason walking a half-marathon every day. Come lift with me though, I bet you would have more fun.

Got a question for A Swole Woman? Email swole@thehairpin.com