When A Man Asks You Why You Lift

Image: Daniel Oines

My question is not a technical one, but something that kinda nags at me. Every time I join a new gym, I am inevitably approached by a fellow powerlifter (guy) in the weight room who usually says something nice, either complimenting my form or the amount of weight I’m putting up. Some have also said that it’s great to see women lifting in general. I have come to realize that women powerlifters are still a bit of a novelty in a lot of gyms.

Anyway, some of these guys pointedly asked me, “so what are you lifting for?” It made me feel like I needed to say I was training for some sort of contest — like I couldn’t enjoy lifting for lifting’s sake and its benefits. I just feel like no one asks other women, oh what are you doing yoga/barre/spin class for? And probably very few guys get asked why they lift or have their reasons for lifting questioned if they aren’t doing contest prep or something…

What’s a swole woman to say to that line of questioning? — Jennifer

Men will look at you like you have two heads for doing literally anything. You can do something as simple as make a joke and a man will get a look on his face like an infant figuring out how to poop in its own diaper and before you know it, sounds like “mmm beguiling creature” come tumbling out of their mouth and they start peppering you with questions about Comedy Things, like whether you know who Mitch Hedberg is, to find your soft spot. Men are so embarrassing and a woman can’t just fucking live in the world without someone swooping in to scrutinize her.

Many men don’t even know how to converse with you like a normal human being once you present any kind of threat, they just start quizzing you as like… a weird intimidation and/or coping tactic? They literally don’t know what to do. I’m sure plenty of men would defend this as “just asking questions,” but they are deeply lacking in self-awareness, because they don’t realize how uncomfortable they are being or how hostile they are coming off. Asking someone “what they are lifting for” is like asking “so, what are you at work for?” or “so, what are you eating for?” You obviously do these things with intention, and you may certainly have broader goals in your career, or your diet, but… this is a weird way of starting that conversation!

The reason no one quizzes women on “why” they are doing barre, yoga, or spin is because those are the things women are “supposed” to do, obviously. Everyone thinks you are out of line for doing something other than those things. Everyone is wrong about this, and the longer I’m involved with this stuff, the more I realize everyone is wrong about almost everything they think they know about strength training. And that is their problem, not yours. Strength training is actually perfect for women, in my opinion, better at helping them achieve their goals and making their daily lives better than any of that other stuff that is marketed to them, because it does all the stuff that all exercise does, plus it works quickly.

To actually answer your question, I would probably give some kind of retort to this man — “for my health, duh?” “it’s fun?” “I don’t know, what are YOU lifting for?” Per above, it’s not really an answerable question, especially if you sense he is just being a prick, so I think you should feel free to be sort of rude and dubious back at him. “I’m lifting so people will eventually be too scared to talk to me” is another one I suggest.

For the men reading this, because I know they are out there, because they will never let me forget it — but also for anyone who wants to start a conversation with anyone! — there are less weird ways of talking to someone about their hobby that doesn’t making them feel out of place. Starting conversations about exercise is a bad road to go down. People who love to talk about it will go on forever (hi) and many people who do a specific kind of lifting (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, bodybuilding) do tend to be goal-oriented. But it’s also like, a deeply boring subject for people who don’t care, and many aspects of it are sort of personal. It’s a hard topic to lead off with. Perhaps try instead:

“Do you come here a lot? Me too, I just got off work. I’m a [whatever], what do you do?”

I’ve also had people I’ve seen regularly at the gym for months or years comment that I’ve gotten stronger and I actually… don’t mind that. So if you insist:

“I see you here a lot. You’re so strong! Have you ever thought about competing?”

“You’re so strong! Can you spot me on this lift?”

“Your form is so good! How did you learn? You taught yourself? Wow, so smart! I wish I had the patience!”

Note these questions do not test knowledge, competency, or faith to the noble cause. “What’s your bench PR? What is your program? How long have you been lifting for? Do you have a coach? Should people squat at or below parallel? Trick question, it depends on the federation lol!” These are all dick-measuring questions. Maybe some people, mostly other men, will respond well to it, but for the rest, try to compose yourself and act like an interested party without trying to ASSESS them.

I started lifting about a week before your first column, and I don’t know if I could have kept at it with all of your clear and wonderful timely advice. I’m really struggling with how to eat. I’ve never counted calories, I’ve never planned meals, I’m a single working mother with very little time or income. All the resources I find seem to hinge on adopting some specific diet, like paleo, or assume that I have the time and income and headspace to do intense meal planning and prep. Can you recommend some good basics, or a meal planning resource that is easy to use? Is there a Starting Strength for eating right? — Sarah

Bleh, don’t do paleo. But yes, the food part of lifting is tough. You want to eat enough calories first and foremost in order to build muscle, but you also want to hit your macros right — at the very least, you want make sure you’re getting a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight and not overdoing it too much on either carbs or fat. And then, you have to figure out how the foods you will eat fit into this picture.

This can become a fun puzzle, especially when you are bulking and have an embarrassment of carbs to eat every day, and you are like, hmm, ten Oreos, don’t mind if I do. But if you are new to it, it can be a nightmare of riddles. What has carbs but no fiber? What has fat, but only unsaturated fat? What has only protein and carbs, but no fat? Eventually you realize you spend most of your time eating the same, like, 20 foods, and you will also develop a set of of go-to foods that you know you like to eat and can fill specific macro gaps — some edamame here, a tin of smoked trout there, a cup of yogurt here, a spoon of peanut butter there.

In the meantime, there is a cool site called Eat This Much where you can plug in your desired calories and macro ratios and how many meals you want to consume them in, and it will spit out a meal plan. This takes a lot of the legwork out of figuring out how everything fits together and gives you balanced meals, so you aren’t for instance, trying to cram 100g of protein in at the end of the day. Sometimes it will do kind of weird things like tell you to eat two cups of cottage cheese at once, but you can reshuffle the meals easily.

Other than that, try spending some time playing around in MyFitnessPal or the food-tracking app of your choice and search foods you eat; use the next calendar day to try putting meals together yourself by searching the things you eat and seeing what there is left to fill in, or what you can change around or swap out.

Like I said, tracking and organizing meals can feel daunting at first, but it’s something you get the hang of. The results you get from Eating Right, even on a day-to-day basis, can feel extremely good! Especially when you make gains. And if you’re worried about feeling trapped in a cycle of scrutinizing every gram and calorie — it should definitely not be a fixation, but also, it’s not something you have to be totally rigid about. Once you get a sense of what you eat, you can stop tracking for a while, and that’s fine. If you get to a point where you feel tired all the time, or you’re gaining or losing weight when you don’t want to be, you might pick it up again. I tend to undereat even when I’m trying to maintain weight, so tracking can be just as important for making sure you’re eating enough. A day or a week or even a month of eating freely is not going to be your undoing, ultimately, and like everything else about fitness, it shouldn’t be a prison.

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