By: Abby Resek
Before the big shut down in March, I was feeling pretty strong: like, capital ‘P’, capital ‘S’ Pretty Strong. I wasn’t setting any weightlifting world records, but I had a routine – I was exercising at the gym four times a week, and I was pretty frequently bumping my head against the same old (perfectly respectable) PRs. I enjoyed weightlifting: before the shutdown it was an enjoyable, fulfilling part of my life. I felt good about what I could lift, about the effort I could put in, about the habits I had formed around my own health. My physical and mental health had begun to overlap and positively interact with one another over the last months of 2019. As I started learning about intuitive eating and letting go of the shame around food and our bodies, strength training became more of a purely positive part of my life. I was enjoying food, I was enjoying exercise, and I was enjoying less stress and shame around food and exercise.
Then came months of quarantine stress and closed gyms and upheaval and everything else that 2020 dropped on our collective shoulders and – major shocker – we’re not doing quite as hot in the gym as we once were. Even if we were able to escape the fears of quarantine weight gain (news flash: weight gain is okay, and weight gain during a pandemic is….also okay), we all felt the effects of changed routines, less exercise, adapting bodies. But! This is not a story about being motivated enough to get your old “gym body” (whatever the heck that means) back. This is about what we learn from our bodies when we witness them do the inevitable: change without our consent.
I started strength training about five years ago. At first, I started strength training because I thought it would make me a better runner. Flash forward to today and I am…still not fast. But that’s all very okay, because it turned out I liked strength training in and of itself. When I realized it wasn’t going to work as a stepping stone to achieving running goals, I began to appreciate setting goals and achieving them within the gym. A lot of the movements came to me intuitively, and then ones that didn’t felt like a satisfying challenge, because I felt confident I would get them in the end. I started making friends, and it felt like entering a new world that I used to think was too cool for me.
Since then, my life has changed in phases. I graduated school, started school again, moved, abandoned diet culture, got engaged, made friends, lost friends, started jobs and changed jobs – the why and when and how of strength training has changed for me many times over. Sometimes it’s been a source of comfort, sometimes a source of frustration and anxiety, sometimes just a habit, sometimes a great joy. However, as this practice grew more familiar, I learned to think about what it meant to be a beginner in terms of my progress from where I started. Which is why I felt so frustrated at being forced to start over.
It was humbling to step back into the gym after a couple of months away. There’s a difference between knowing something will feel different and then actually experiencing how different it is: how much heavier and more unwieldy and just more difficult. Dropping down in weight on an exercise is never a good feeling for me personally, and even on a drastically simplified program, I was still doing it for almost everything: lighter deadlifts, lighter squats, lighter pressing. Pull-ups were not so much pull-ups anymore as they were dangling with my elbows sort of bent, cursing the bar for being too far away.
But if being a beginner is largely defined by progress, then that’s something I get to experience again that I haven’t felt in the gym in a long time. Yes, I’m not lifting as heavy as I used to, and I’m certainly doing some more huffing and puffing on the cardio machines.
But now there’s the incremental progress over time. The feeling of something getting smoother, lighter, easier. Of five to ten-pound jumps on some major lifts. I get to pick up something a little heavier almost every time I walk into the gym. I get to remember that my body can adapt and recover and get stronger.
In many ways, being a beginner again is a gift. It reminds me that it’s okay not to be doing so hot – that not doing hot is normal. That change is frustrating, but it throws everything into a new light, too. It makes me think that maybe I can own my Pretty Strong-ness a little more next time. That picking up lighter dumbbells is okay and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with me. That pulling yourself up is very, very hard but it can get easier (and I’m not apologizing for that pun). That life doesn’t move in any kind of linear way, and maybe losing “progress” is just a different way of moving forward.