Should I Get Someone to Teach Me to Lift?

Image: Joint Task Force — Bravo Soto Cano Air Force Base, Honduras

I want to learn powerlifting, and to do it properly/safely. I’m wondering if you can give this newbie some advice on the very basics of starting out.

I can think of two ways to do it, both of which scare me for Reasons.

1) teach myself. Scary because I am afraid to injure myself — I had a herniated disc brought on by running too hard and not having a strong enough core last year, and that led to all kinds of pain and badness. One of the reason I want to learn to lift (deadlift especially) is so I can have a stronger core; I feel like I’ve hit a plateau on things like planks, mostly just because I find them pretty boring.

I’m also worried about walking into the bro-ey basement at my gym as a fat young woman who has no idea WTF I’m doing, but injury is more scary. (And also, how do you get someone you’re not paying to spot you on bench press when you are shy and female and like to pretend other people don’t exist in the gym?)

2) hire a trainer. There are two trainers at the gym my work pays for, I haven’t talked to either of them. I’m scared because I’ve heard horror stories of trainers who try to impose some kind of clean-eating weirdness on people, and also because I need to be able to set my own limits not do things that will exacerbate my back injury. I just want to learn how to safely do deadlifts, squats, and bench press. I guess I’m scared if I hire someone they’ll pressure me to either keep giving them money forever (instead of just a couple sessions) or to do stuff I’m not able to do safely.

And what is the etiquette around trainers anyway? You’re not supposed to tip them, are you? Would it be weird to have a session with each one and see who I prefer? Any pitfalls to avoid or tips to not be a jerk to trainers? I know I’m overthinking this, but I just have no idea.

So! How do I follow the Way of Swoleness without spending all my money on a trainer or even more of my money on medical bills?


Interested but confused

I’m so glad you want to get into lifting! Anecdotally, a lot of people think heavy lifting is bad for a previously injured back. I mean, yes, running up to 300 pounds and trying to pick it up would be bad. But strength training where you build up supporting muscles to keep you steady, can be very good for an injured back and help protect it from future injury. Hence, I extremely approve of your brave decision.

You sound worried about doing something wrong, which is warranted in the case of injury. But at some point you do just have to like, do something.

I do not mean to be dismissive of your concerns, but I think it bears examining why you’re asking what you’re asking. Doing anything new is intimidating. But you also sound to me like you know what you want, and you’re just afraid of executing it for fear of I guess putting yourself first. Girl, you have my full permission to do exactly what you think sounds right. The important thing to keep in mind when you do something is that at any point you can change your mind and do something else. Free will exists, I am here to say. You can throw the brakes or pull the rip cord on literally any situation at any time.

This is to not say there aren’t costs to doing this — there often are — and the reasons we do or don’t do things are almost never just about what we want (women also habitually feel like all of their decisions have to be about everyone else because people demand it and call us rude when we don’t put everyone before ourselves). There are a lot of cases where we do have to compromise. But in much of what you’re describing here, what you want and your happiness should be the very core, the guiding force, to every decision you make.

Exercise is essential for your health, but at the level of having a trainer, it’s also more or less a leisure pursuit. If you have a personal trainer whom you hate but you keep going to them and giving them business and money to make the personal trainer happy, well, that doesn’t make any damn sense at all. Would you keep going to a store and buying their clothes if you hated them and the employees were mean to you?

I do not mean this in a rude way, but as a thought experiment, let’s replace “learning to lift” with a less fraught thing. Let’s say knitting. The questions you are asking me are not so different from “What hobby should I have? Should it be knitting? If I do knitting, should someone teach me knitting, or should I learn to knit myself? What if the knitting teacher will ONLY teach me to knit mittens, but I want to knit scarves and sweaters? Would it be weird to have a single session with the knitting teacher to see if she’s a militant mittens-only person?” I hope even you at this point are like, “Dude just like DO it and then do WHATEVER you want. Go to the knitting teacher! Never go back if she is a mitten nazi!”

I say this like it’s easy and as if I don’t OFTEN feel like I too am living some sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm nightmare where, by the will of others, I’ve somehow ended up down some bonkers path determined by everyone else’s ids and egos but my own. But man, I do love talking about workout stuff because it’s such a great vector for working out that which is probably holding you back from life in general.

Would you really keep giving money to a personal trainer you hated, who did not listen to you, who doesn’t help you with your goals? I am fainting at this thought. It seems to me a lot of people go through life like this because it’s just the kind of person they “are” to not “make a fuss.” Per above, you can be whatever you want. Even if you’ve been that person all your life, you can be not that person tomorrow. The world will not end.

I was not always someone who was comfortable with conflict, and frankly, it used to scare the shit out of me until all the lifting raised my testosterone and I developed a thirst for blood and began idolizing the T-rex in Jurassic Park (a strong and beautiful woman). But it helps me to think about it this way, and maybe this will help you down the path of becoming someone who can say no to other people: the personal trainer wants you to only eat flavorless chicken breasts? That just means you guys want different things. This guy’s approach is for *someone,* but it’s not for you. Maybe you thought his approach was for you, but now that you have more information and see that it is not, it no longer makes sense for you both to continue. It simply wouldn’t do! The end. It doesn’t have to be about legislating who is right and wrong (for the record, that guy is wrong, but it is neither your job to tell him so or convince him of it). You can just say it’s not for you and go on living your life.

You don’t tip trainers. Just go and try it! The trainer is just a person, and like all people, they may or may not be for you. You don’t have to accept their lifestyle tips or workouts or even their workout style; asking someone to just teach you the basic lifts and maybe supervise you periodically for a while and help you monitor your back is something they should be happy to accommodate.

More technically speaking, I am obviously not a medical expert and you should consider visiting a sports medicine doctor. They are typically not like GPs in that they will not tell you to just not do whatever it is that potentially risks your health. This doctor should be able to guide you to either a physical therapist who can work with you to make sure you’re strong enough in the right places, or, they may have recommendations for trainers who are good at working with your injury. Everyone in this chain should be willing to work with you on getting to a place where you can do things yourself, if that’s what you want (do not be afraid of the weight room!).

Regarding spotting — non-professional people spot each other in the gym all the time. It’s just a common courtesy, the theory being that if you are there to ask for spots, you are there to provide them, too. You may be like, “ahhh I can’t!” but unless the person is crazy or going for a world record, it’s not that demanding of a job; generally what you are doing is bridging the small gap between what they person can definitely lift and what they’re trying to lift, which should be an amount you can handle with like, two fingers. Many situations can arise here, so I don’t want to pretend it’s just all good all the time; things can go sideways, but probably no one will blame the spotter. Usually you can get by on people being sexist and assuming a woman can’t spot a lift, so you get to do all of the receiving and none of the giving 😎

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