Am I Doing Enough?

Photo: Greg Westfall

Hey Casey! I’ve been lifting semi-seriously for about a year. I started at basically negative strength and have seen all my lifts more than double since I began, and my body has changed a lot, but I don’t have a great frame of reference for how I’m doing. Most of the women I see talking about lifting in any public realm are already pretty accomplished and it’s unrealistic to compare myself to them. I also find that most people post their 1RM while I’m more interested in the weight you regularly work out with. I know that’s a less easy number to pin down but I’d love to see a round up of “normal” women who lift weights and their stats — a variety would be lovely. Since it’s not fair to ask without volunteering, I’m 5’4″, about 140 lbs. I squat 85, dl 135, curl 40. Haven’t benched in a while but I imagine it’s around 55, maybe 65 for low reps? These are all assuming 3+ sets at 8–15 reps. I can do 20 push-ups in a row but I still can’t do a pull-up.

Id love to see where other women in similar circumstances are so I can figure out for real whether or not I need to be ashamed that my squat is still under 100 (jk, but also not). — Alice

This is not an easy question to answer, but let’s start by covering a couple of recent times I cried at the gym.

I’m on a strength training program where, basically, you progress by working through a four-week cycle that goes from higher reps at lower weights to fewer reps at higher weights, with the idea that on the last week you are able to move more weight for more reps, or at least the same weight for more reps, than the last time you peaked four weeks ago. If you progressed, you increase how much you lift in the next cycle. If not, you stay at the same weights and try again.

In this most recent cycle, I’d felt like I was deteriorating a bit; I missed some reps and failed on a last set in an earlier week but chalked it up to not getting enough rest or eating correctly, and hoped that everything would be fine. Then my last cycle week rolled around, and I was supposed to hit my heaviest squat weight for three single reps. I failed on the second one and had to drop the bar (extremely loudly) onto the safety arms. I was fighting back tears as I unloaded the bar, because what were the last four weeks for if I had nothing to show for it by being able to do three simple squats? I reloaded the bar, tried again hoping my form was just off, and failed again. I couldn’t do it.

The next day, I was set to bench the max weight for the cycle. Benching had actually been going greater than ever, considering I have arms like noodles and hated benching for so long. I worked up again to the weight that I was supposed to lift for three heavy singles. I eked out one, but my form was wobbly. On the second, I had to let the bar drop to my chest and then fight my way out from under it (I should have had a spotter but didn’t) (either way the weight I was working with could never hurt anyone). This time I was really crying, sitting there on a bench in the middle of the room. I felt like I had fucked up and set myself back an entire month, and I had no one to blame but me.

I realize it is a particular kind of nuts to be crying while working out. But I have the same problem in the gym that I have in life, which is that I put too much pressure on myself, I feel competitive, and my expectations are so high as to be unrealistic, and then when I don’t meet them I get upset. I cry! I love to cry about a lot of things but especially all the things I’m not doing.

I realized after sitting there a while that it wasn’t like I’d done nothing. Six months ago my form was all over the place. I’d tightened up a lot, I’d definitely gotten stronger. I could now bench a weight for many reps that I previously couldn’t bench for 3. My muscles had done as much as they could with the resources they had. Crying about it was like crying about a novel I’d written in my free time over the last month that didn’t turn out to be God’s gift to the Pulitzer committee.

I used to struggle with the same question you’re asking, but the truth is it doesn’t matter what anyone’s numbers are. There are women of your height and build who can lift a collective 600 pounds more than you across the three lifts, but they’ve also been seriously dedicated to lifting for a few years. There are women who can’t handle 10-pound dumbbells (yet!!!!!!). Even accounting for time spent pursuing lifting, some women who have never touched a bar can walk up to one and squat well over 100 pounds; some can’t even do a bodyweight squat below parallel the first time because of poor flexibility. The only point of comparison that makes sense is your own self.

The only point of comparison that makes sense is your own self.

The point of lifting weights is to slowly increase the amount of work you’re doing, however you have to do that — more weight, more reps, more sets, variations on form, different accessory exercises. But for people like you and me, the point is also to know yourself, what you need, and what you can do, and not beat yourself up all the time worrying about what other people are doing or not living up to some unrealistic standard. If you are making progress compared to yourself, that is all you can ask. If someone is squatting more than you (and someone always will be), or indeed doing anything more than you, what can you do about it except try to get better within the limits of your resources and genetic potential? (And by that I mostly mean being a woman lifting weights.)

Sometimes even if you’re trying to get better at something, and you feel like you’re doing everything right, it will turn out you didn’t. And that’s fine! Like, goddamn, you still did something today, have all the gold medals. But you will be miserable if you go through working out like this, and indeed if you go through life like this, rather than taking advantage of your errors for the opportunity they are to learn some things about yourself and what you can do.

Where you started and how long you’ve been lifting are big factors in how much you might be able to lift currently. Some women take a few months to hit a squat weight equivalent to their body weight (for you, 140lbs on the bar); some take a year; some take longer. If you’re not progressing at all, definitely ask why — are you eating enough of the right things? Sleeping enough? Does your form need work? If these building blocks aren’t in place, it’s not going to matter whether other women are squatting more than you, because you won’t be able to push yourself. If they are, just keep going. You’re doing great just by lifting at all! But if you want to be stronger, you definitely could be, and I personally fully endorse you being as strong as humanly possible.

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