September is the new January.
I’ve always been active. Soccer, basketball, hiking, yoga—you name it. But, when it came to my workouts, I felt like something was missing. I wasn’t getting the results I was working so hard for, and my competitive nature was starting to waver in my late twenties. I needed a new challenge. That’s when I pushed myself to lift weights.
Don’t get me wrong; it was easier said than done. I believed every negative stigma about strength training making you bulky (cue big biceps) and I felt extremely nervous about casually strolling into my gym’s weight room. From the first time I had the courage to pick up that barbell, I uncovered my new passion and discovered a world of body positive benefits.
Looking back now, I was totally out of my comfort zone. I had no clue what I was doing. But, I wouldn’t let that empty barbell defeat me. After reevaluating my workout routine and reading some female-focused weightlifting success stories, I knew that I wanted to lift, and lift heavy. That was over two years ago.
There was, and continues to be, something motivating about adding weight to the barbell. Each plate, each additional rep shows how far I’ve come, how confident I have become, and how strong I really am—both mentally and physically. Plus, I’m finally embracing my curves (woo!). I began as the nervous girl who couldn’t squat weight, and now I’m not afraid to load up those 45 lb plates.
If you’re ready to take on a new challenge and try weightlifting, here are five real-life lessons I learned when I started lifting:
That first time you try to squat, bench, row, press, etc. with an empty barbell, it might not be easy. It wasn’t for me. Don’t feel defeated and don’t be afraid. You might not look badass, but you’re not going to pack on the plates right away. Hey, if an unloaded barbell is 45 lbs, it will take a few gym sessions to feel comfortable moving correctly with it. Have patience; you’ll get there. If the empty barbell is heavy and you’re struggling, that’s okay, too. Ask your gym or instructor if they have a practice bar you can borrow. It’s so important that you get your movements down and feel comfortable doing them first. Weight will come. No matter what you’re trying to accomplish, everyone needs to start somewhere.
Just like it’s essential to have proper form when it comes to your yoga poses, moving the right way is crucial to lifting weights and avoiding injury. Before you start adding plates, get the patterns down. You can’t start squatting weight if you’re not squatting correctly, right? When it comes to squats, for example, I had to focus on my form—like keeping my chest up and my weight in my heels—before I even considered adding plates. Bad form can cause a world of pain. For a move like deadlifts, I had to work hard on my technique, practicing with dumbbells before I attempted the barbell. I found it helpful to lean on friends who have been lifting for a while to help me in real-time with my form. Having a trustworthy buddy who can correct (and spot) you is an added bonus.
I lift right, and I lift heavy when I am in the zone. Once I put on my headphones, turn up the tunes and wrap my hands around the bar, nothing else matters. Finding something to help me focus on is important to my method, too. If the squat rack I am using faces a mirror, I draw an “X” with my finger a little lower than eye-level. That’s what I stare at during each rep, helping me keep my form and posture. If I am about to bench press, I find something directly above me on the ceiling that catches my eye. You get my drift. When it comes to me lifting weights, it’s also all about my playlist. My current song choice is indicative of my “get after it” mood. You can usually find me skipping between EDM, rock and, hip-hop (thanks Spotify and wireless headphones!). Having an object and a beat to focus on helps me grip the bar tighter and forget about the weight I am about to lift.
Once you start lifting, you tend to find a favorite move. For me, it’s squats. Though you might feel more confident performing a few of your go-to weightlifting poses, you must have a plan so your muscles don’t get exhausted. Keeping track of my progress helps me beat burnout and get after my goals. I like using the StrongLifts 5X5 app. Simple and straightforward (five sets of five, hence the name), I can add plates, deload when necessary and accurately time myself between sets—letting my muscles rest. While squats are always part of the routine, the app also segments out complementary exercises, like overhead presses with a set of deadlifts and bench presses with barbell rows. Tracking progress and targeting certain muscle groups has helped me set long-term expectations of what I want to achieve.
Three words: Take rest days. No matter your weight training routine, giving your muscles the recovery time they (and you) need is essential. Remember, you are lifting weights, and after a good sweat session, your muscles get tired. You don’t want to get injured. Wait about 48 hours before hitting a specific muscle group again. I like to lift three days per week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) and on my rest days, I spend time with my foam roller or at a yoga class. Yoga benefits my weightlifting routine, helping me gain flexibility and loosen up my tight hip flexors so I can squat deeper. It’s also good to remember that a day of rest can mean a walk, quick stretch session or doing absolutely nothing—you worked hard for it!
My last piece of advice for strength training? Don’t give up. Seriously. It might sound cliche, but even on the difficult days when you feel stuck on your reps or have been lifting the same amount weight for a few sessions, remember you can do it. You’ve already won by stepping out of your comfort zone and under the barbell.
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