How to Learn to Lift (and Which Shoes to Wear)
In praise of Chuck Taylors, and Daisy Ridley’s form.
I read your annotation of the BuzzFeed piece where a guy claimed to gain 20 pounds of muscle in 3 months, and I didn’t even know that you’re not supposed to squat in running shoes! I’m worried I’m doing everything wrong now. What is the right way to lift weights? How do I learn? — M.
There are a lot of little things like that, and they are tough to learn without some dedicated effort and time (by the way: squat in flat, stable shoes, like Chuck Taylors)*. Women actually have a bit of advantage here because they are generally coming to lifting fresh, and don’t have to unlearn bad habits from information passed around between friends and bros in a gym. But I can’t teach you everything here, there are many books about this stuff and The Hairpin is only paying me so much money.
There are a few different ways to learn the correct way to lift. This isn’t the same as doing everything perfectly, or never, ever getting injured. But lifting weights is a technical thing, like all sports, and just because a resource makes it look easy doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it. The average workout article in a women’s magazine isn’t going to tell you, for instance, all the nuances of correct dip form, or that doing dips with a chair or bench is kind of bad for your shoulders. And yet, I defy you to find a magazine workout that doesn’t tell you to do chair dips. They all do. Magazines love chair dips.
Once you get past the beginning levels, there are right and wrong ways of doing things, and investing the time in learning the right way to them from the start will pay off many times over. The time I’ve spent learning to lift weights correctly pales in comparison to the time I’ve spent studying workouts in the backs of magazines, and I know which one I regret.
There are 3 basic ways to learn to lift correctly:
- Get a personal trainer. Trainers can be a little bit of a mixed bag and not all of them specialize in heavy lifting or will teach you to do it correctly (see: the trainer in the aforementioned BuzzFeed piece who instructed the writer to eat a psychotic 440 grams of protein per day). But there are many great trainers, and some people work best with someone motivating them. Unless you have some sort of medical condition or injury, don’t listen to any trainer who tells you you’re not “ready” to learn how to lift heavy weights; don’t stand for anyone who pushes you through several rounds of football shuffles and burpees instead of just learning to do a squat. Try going to a gym equipped for heavy lifting (with barbells, plates, and racks) and ask the front desk if they have a list of personal trainers, either on staff or not, who could help you learn “to lift heavy weights” or “powerlifting (squat, bench, deadlift) or “weightlifting” (snatch, clean and jerk). Focus on finding someone who is willing to teach you the skill of lifting weights, the idea being that eventually they can set you free to work out on your own, if you’d prefer, with maybe occasional check-ins. If you aren’t sure the personal trainer you’ve engaged knows what they’re talking about, here is a test I completely made up and would be very interested to know if it works: ask the trainer to warm up to a “work weight” of a squat. If they do not break parallel when they squat, or squat in squishy running shoes, or pad the bar with a foam roll, run away.
- Go to a seminar/take a class. These are little bit harder to find, but many gyms hold seminars (either for individuals or groups) to teach people to do the core lifts. Again, this is a good one to ask your local gym about. For instance, the South Brooklyn Weightlifting Club offers a four-week, eight-session class on powerlifting (they also used to offer individual sessions but I can’t find what happened to those).
- Read, take video, make friends. Perhaps you are like, Swole Woman, those first two options sound great but they are mad expensive! True, but one, they are an investment not just in your health but in your knowledge. You are learning to do a thing that eventually, you will mostly be able to do by yourself for free! (Or for the cost of a gym membership). But if you can’t swing that, there are a lot of cheap or free resources for learning about lifting. Stronglifts is a popular website/app/resource where you read about doing the core lifts correctly. The bible of starting strength training is, erm, Starting Strength, which has all the tips on things like not lifting in running shoes and much more. There are videos from the author of that book, Mark Rippetoe, and from people like Alan Thrall and Omar Isuf, and Johnny Candito. Once you start lifting yourself, you can record yourself with your phone (prop it up against other gym equipment) and post the video to forums like bodybuilding.com or the r/Fitness and r/xxfitness subreddits for other people to critique you and help you with problems. Nothing will be as good as a skilled and knowledgeable person form-checking you in reality, but many people subsist this way.
However you get started, it’s worth knowing that, like running or yoga or anything else, you can jump in with relatively little knowledge, but you almost certainly can’t do it in a vacuum in isolation forever (if you do actually want to get stronger, and building muscles does require progressing your weights). Your form will drift as you add more weight, and you may learn bad habits without even realizing. Just like you may have to learn to correct your stride once you start running longer distances, or spend extra time maintaining hip flexibility to get your pigeon pose, lifting is a fight toward good form as much as it is toward strength. Getting started in a way that gives you an infrastructure for maintaining good habits, and therefore your health, is the safest and best way to approach.
*you can also squat/deadlift barefoot or in socks, but some gyms won’t let you for safety reasons. Dropping weights on your shod feet hurts, but it hurts even more barefoot.
Hi — I’m Lindsey, co-host of beloved podcast Who? Weekly, where we have accidentally(?) started a meme(?) where we get our listeners to say (and comment) “Good Form, Bella Thorne” on the Instagram of a Disney ‘Who’ who constantly posts Instagrams of herself working out. It’s fun to say, honestly. Try it! But what I’m writing to ask you, Dear Swole Woman, is if this Disney Who actually HAS good form? I would hate to think that we’re not only spreading false information that this woman has “good form,” but also that we are encouraging her via Instagram comments, to keep up this Actually Bad form.
Hi friend of the column Lindsey Weber of Who Weekly! What a fantastic and enlightening podcast you have that everyone should listen to. I hope Bella Thorne is not taking fitness advice from Instagram comments; indeed no one should.
Bella Thorne represents a thing I love, which is the cult of personality as it relates to fitness. What is the magic of celebrities that you just look at their Instagram and before you know it, you’re wearing several waist trainers on top of each other and drinking Fit Tea? Mysteries for another column.
I personally did not find that Bella Thorne constantly talks about working out; her photos are 99 percent selfies. However, I looked through and found some posts about working out, and I’m sorry to say Bella Thorne’s form is Actually Pretty Bad.
Here is Bella Thorne using a Smith machine to do squats, which is bad because it often encourages bad form and prevents you from developing stabilizing muscles (which includes your core; odd for someone who talks about her core so much). She also has the bar padded with a towel, which is usually bad because it destabilizes the weight on your shoulders. It’s like a running shoe, but for your traps, i.e., bad.
Here is Bella Thorne doing incline pushdowns, pausing to look at the camera. Always keep your neck neutral when possible, Bella Thorne, or you risk injury.
Here Bella Thorne says she is doing something called a “viper wood chop,” which either is not a thing or is something her trainer made up. The only Google results for “viper wood chop” are her video.
Lastly, here she is in the cable cross doing…definitely not what she should be doing. Even her followers are not fooled and many of the comments express confusion and concern.
If you are looking for a celebrity with good form, I recommend Daisy Ridley. Here she is deadlifting 176 pounds with pretty great form, though she too is wearing the wrong shoes (seriously, everyone, get Chucks or do it barefoot):
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