“Leah, 5 years ago, would you have ever imagined doing what you are now?”
Never. And this question isn’t about my weight loss, it’s about my strength training. Losing over 100 lbs was something I had doubted I could do, but I was determined to make it finally happen. And I did. Strength training and eventually competing was never, ever part of that plan to “get healthy,” but back then I clearly had little to no substantive understanding of what being “healthy” would mean. I just thought it meant to lose weight, get to a smaller size, and finally be “not overweight.”
I needed to lose those pounds, but what I really needed to do was get stronger, become more active, find something I loved doing to push myself physically, and become more confident in myself and my body. Even when I first started going to the gym, I never would have imagined that I would be heading off to the IPF Classic Raw Worlds. But next week, I’ll be in Belarus to lift for the US National Team as the 72kg Masters 1 female.
As crazy as it sounds, here I am and now this seems like the most reasonable thing for me to be doing. But why this? How did this happen?
I wanted to be healthier and in the process of getting to the gym and trying out a lot of different things, I quickly discovered that barbell movements were fun and something that I could see progress with. I started out with CrossFit, so I was exposed to many different things, some very good and some that caused me some trouble along the way, but without question, the introduction to barbell training changed my life.
Ten years ago I was morbidly obese, doing plenty to hide my body, and not only felt embarrassed and awkward over my physical appearance, I felt that way about my physical ability as well. Ice skating? Yeah, I loved that as a kid, but now? The shoes were painful, my ankles hurt, and I was mortified at the thought of falling over and over. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my own balance. Skiing? Same thing. Biking? I could handle it for a little while, but my coordination, balance, and general embarrassment at being conspicuous on the bike were always on my mind. Hiking? I loved it, but it was really hard. It was great to get outside, but I struggled to go too far, to get to anywhere that required much effort, and scrambling over trees, rocks, or uneven terrain always made me nervous. Anything with a bathing suit? Most certainly not – 10 years ago, I wouldn’t even wear shorts. Ever. I was simply too self-conscious.
If my only focus had been the scale and some nebulous goal to “get fit,” I don’t think I would have made it. I needed something to push me outside of myself, out of my comfort-zone, and challenge me to make changes in my life. It’s easy to get lost in the attitude of “poor me, I’m suffering now because I’m trying to lose weight. This is harder than anyone else can imagine.” With this negative attitude, everything seems more overwhelming, and progress is soon slim to none, as it were. I had to learn to stop feeling sorry for myself, to become stronger in every way.
I had to learn to get over myself and move forward, and when I finally committed to doing something to change my life, I found something I enjoyed that made a profound difference in how I felt physically and mentally – barbell training. How could I get better at this? Should someone like me even spend my time doing it? Everyone, including me, seemed to think that cardio and running was the answer. But I couldn’t run 400m, and that wasn’t fun, motivating, or very helpful since it hurt so much.
So I lifted. I also did some cardio, I changed my diet, and I became both more active and more aware of my nutrition than I ever had before. But strength training became the focus of my training.
When I finally focused my gym time and decided to set some goals, the strength goals became one of the most important, motivating, and consistent drivers of my progress. I say “one of” because when you’re obese and trying to lose weight, your bodyweight is also a big number, and that scale movement is very important and motivating. However, after my initial loss of about 30–40 lbs, the scale change became less linear, and I wasn’t always seeing the weekly progress I wanted. My body weight needed to go down, for my own health and my own goals, but thankfully I found some other numbers to track and improve. With barbell training, I was getting stronger – measurably, undeniably stronger, and that’s immensely satisfying. Going back to the gym for my next session and lifting more weight than the last time was exciting. Seeing my body composition change as I got stronger, that was exciting. When I then started to see that I could move better and with more confidence in every area of life, I was thrilled.
I loved the plan, the confidence I built to walk into the gym, push myself, and to know, especially after all my failed attempts at “getting healthy” or becoming more active, that this is what I need to do, that it is working and it is good enough. Gone are the constant questions – what else, what more, is this enough? When you move from simply exercising, which is a good thing, to training, then the goal is clearer, the plan can be made, and you can move forward in confidence.
But I had to get stronger physically and mentally. My self-consciousness and anxiety about the gym meant I was too worried about what people thought of me and worried about injury, since everyone has a pretty uninformed yet nonetheless firm opinion on how risky lifting weights really is. I had to learn that when you train hard, things will hurt. That doesn’t mean you must expect lots of injury, but you will hurt. You will be sore. You will tweak things. When you push yourself physically, it’s a risk. But it’s a risk with a reward. Do you want to play it safe and stay in your chair, in your kitchen, or safely on the couch? Or do you want to get out, test yourself, endure some ups and downs, and learn to push through it all because of something good?
I had to learn this the hard way. One of the most important roles of barbell training in my life has been the one it played in learned to train after my complete rotator cuff tear and surgical repair. I had dealt with shoulder pain for months, and although CrossFit was very important in getting me into the gym initially, doing too many random, ballistic movements that I wasn’t physically prepared for came with a cost – my shoulder got worse and worse.
I hoped the pain would go away, and I did every mobility exercise I could find. But no amount of rehab work made it possible for me to lift my arm and write on the whiteboard, or put on my own sweater, or dry my own hair. When I realized that I couldn’t hold my friend’s 5 lb newborn, I knew I had to get this taken care of. Hearing that I had a complete tear in my rotator cuff and that surgery was necessary was terrifying. CrossFit was all I really knew about the gym and it had been what worked to help get my weight under control and get me more active. What was I going to do after surgery?
The pain before my surgery was constant, but that didn’t compare to the pain I had after surgery. With more damage found than expected, my post-surgery rehab was incredibly painful, with very little sleep and increased pain with almost everything I tried in the gym. I would go anyway and try to modify the workouts to come up with something to do. But you can only do so many sit ups before you start to realize that you’re not making any progress. Long ago, my CrossFit gym had tried to incorporate the Starting Strength Linear Progression into classes, so although it had been a choppy and abbreviated run at strength training, I was vaguely familiar with the ideas of this program. I decided I had to learn more.
It was exactly what I needed. Starting Strength and thoughtful barbell training moved me from just being more active and putting in endless hours of work, often for very little return, to training and seeing consistent progress. It was not easy or painless – it was quite the opposite. Although I jumped onto the forum, bought Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, and tried to learn all I could about lifting and training around my shoulder, it was slow and painful. I could not bench at all, I could not get the bar racked on my back in any position, and I certainly couldn’t press. I did start to deadlift again, and I had a safety squat bar, so I used that.
Then I used Rip’s shoulder press with the rings movement, pushing the PVC pipe up a bit more each session. It all hurt. I had the assurance from my surgeon that the repair was secure, although he argued with me that 5# dumbbells was all a woman ever needed to lift, and my physical therapist knew that I would never consider this successful unless I could get a barbell on my back again. So he worked on my range of motion and that was tearfully painful. But at that point, I decided I had two options: give up and then do…what? Nothing? Or keep pushing through and find something that works.
When I started working with Jordan Feigenbaum in January 2013, I was squatting 150x5x3 with a safety squat bar, bench nothing, deadlifting 123x5x1, and pressing a PVC pipe. April 2013 was marked by my switch to high-bar squats and finally benching the women’s bar.
I knew exactly what I needed to do: go in and move just a little more weight, then rest, go back, and do it again with more. Again, very little of this was pain-free, but knowing that I was making gradual improvements kept me going. Was it discouraging to struggle to squat again? Of course, but again my options were to either give up because it was too painful, hard, slow, or boring, or sticking with the linear progress. Thankfully I had someone to remind me of those clear options when I’d get down, but it really was that simple. The planned progression gave me the confidence I needed to fight for this and keep going. I wanted to be strong and healthy, and my strength training continued to improve my physical strength and my mental strength.
Remember that person embarrassed about her body? So sure that she stood out like someone ready to keel over and die at any moment when in the gym? That person too embarrassed to wear shorts, a tank top, and certainly never a bathing suit? Well, imagine the struggle of squatting down with your hips back or bending over to deadlift, with other people purposefully watching you? I had to constantly push out my feelings of self-consciousness to lift.
And then something happened. The weight become heavy enough that I could only think about the bar. I couldn’t worry about what my butt looked like or if my fat jiggled. I had to think about the bar, the weight, and making my body work the way I had been training it to. I had to focus my attention on my body, something I had spent so much time trying to ignore and hide, and I had to make this lift. Suddenly that was what mattered.
A linear progression doesn’t put you in this place overnight, but it comes. We all reach that point when there’s a bit of dread about the weight. We have all kinds of feelings, but we walk in and set our mind to lifting that weight, just a little more than last time, one rep at a time until the work is done. And then when I saw over and over again that I could do it, even when I was nervous or self-conscious, my mental strength grew as well. I never imagined the difference that strength training would make physically, and even more especially mentally, as I become more and more confident in myself.
That confidence is now part of my life, and it certainly makes this trip to the IPF Classic Worlds in Belarus possible and exciting. Do I get nervous about a heavy weight? For sure. Is competing at this level nerve-wracking? Yes. But I am going into this meet tougher and stronger than I’ve ever been, largely because of this on-going, consistent strength training that continues to push me physically and mentally. In this, I get to keep seeing progress, keep facing that heavy, slightly scary weight, and keep seeing that I am getting stronger.
Remember that the Leah 10 years ago was not only much weaker, she was also too self-conscious and worried to ever fly half-way around the world, walk out onto the stage in a singlet, and lift heavy weight in front of the crowd. The focus now isn’t on what I am too afraid to do or on what people might be thinking about me – it’s now on what I am going to do, to accomplish, and to earn something I have worked hard for.
I have found that I can thrive on the competition, but I didn’t start lifting to compete, and I plan to lift even when I’m not entering meets. Strength is an important part of all my life because it’s changed so much about how I function and see myself. Competition is fun, and I love it, but it’s the training that really makes a difference in anyone’s life. So now I coach others, and it’s a privilege to help them become stronger than they are now, wherever they start from.
Becoming strong takes time and hard work. We are conditioned to think that once we decide we want something, we can get it quickly, but that’s not how strength works. It must be improved over time, with consistency and patience. That can be tough to face when you’re ready for things to be different, I know. But if you have a well-thought out training plan, you will see progress. All along the way it will be worth more than you ever could have imagined. All those training days add up quickly, and you will look back amazed at what you’ve accomplished.