I caught my image the mirror in hip hop dance class today and froze for a beat as I hit a “retraction” pose. All the little muscles in my right shoulder rose visibly under my skin. Maybe it’s a good thing after all that I didn’t decide to take up ballet with its graceful, long, lean lines. Instead, I picked hip hop with its strong vibe as one of my prescribed “get out of your house and socialize; you’ll feel better” activities.
I wondered briefly what my classmates (all women) thought; maybe that’s a little too much definition? I laughed aloud and said “Yikes, I’m looking kind of tough with all my weight training!” A surge of pride swept through my entire body. I work for those muscles.
“Four sets, eight reps,” I said recently to the well-muscled stranger who agreed to spot me on the bench press. This regimen was decidedly not what he expected from a woman, since it’s a recipe for muscle building. I see many women do endless reps of light weights because they are afraid of muscles. Not me.
“Really? Why would you want to bulk up?” he asked, amused.
“I want to be strong,” I said, grinning back, and leaving no room for argument.
Truth be told, getting strong for its own sake had definitely not been my original plan. When I started working with a personal trainer several months before, I just wanted to wedge a little strength training into my all-cardio exercise program. I figured I ought to do some weights since it’s supposed to be good for us as we “get older.”
The training plan, however, quickly morphed. I remember the day—it might have been the first day after fitness evaluation day—when my trainer slid giant plates on the bench press bar. I looked at him skeptically. I decided to trust his judgment and my own dormant strength, and positioned myself on the bench below a whole lot of pounds. Without assistance I pushed the bar off the rest and hoisted it into the air above my torso. I slowly lowered the weight towards my chest. It was heavy, but tensing my abs I found I could hoist it again, smoothly to the top of my reach. And then repeated, six times. Grrrrrrr! Something other than muscles shifted inside my chest. I felt powerful, and, here is the important part: not only physically so.
Much to my surprise, pushing weights around has been one of the best things I’ve done for my mental health lately. Maybe it’s a counterpoint to the powerlessness I feel against the weight of depression. (Maybe it’s also endorphins.) The complements I get at the gym don’t hurt either—I like the way I look when I am thin and muscled.
But more importantly, the feeling of my own physical power translates, even if fleetingly, to my sense of my own capability. Sometimes I tell myself if that I could hammer out those sets, surely I can hammer out the minor daily tasks that threaten to crush me. Laundry—grrrr! Open mail, make dinner—-grrrr, grrrr! At these moments I tap into my alter ego, Super-Me. Sometimes I need to call on Super-Me just to make it through the day.