It all started when I was 18. At the time, I was slowly recovering from an eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa, and my dad was trying to help me get healthy again.
"You know, there's a way you can eat a lot more and still be skinny!" he said. "Come to the gym and workout with me."
It's funny how different my ideal body was back then, 13 years ago. I was judging myself by what I saw online and in magazines. I wanted to be emaciated-looking. I wanted to be small and petite. I wanted to be "less."
My first trip to the gym was immensely unproductive. My "hardcore workout" consisted of some abdominal machine work, some crunches, and…wait for it…sleeping on the mat. Yup, I fell asleep on a mat about 15 minutes after walking into a gym for the first time in my life.
Despite what happened during that first visit, I've been steadily going to the gym for more than 13 years now. In that time, I've completed countless numbers of lifting sessions. But it didn't take long for me to fall in love with the process of strength training and how it made me feel. I soon became passionate, determined, and dedicated to making gains, both physically and mentally.
Today, I'd like to share with you 13 lessons I've learned along the road to becoming a stronger, more fit, and more confident me.
Lesson 1: Women, You Will Not Look Like Men
No matter how hard you work out at the gym, you will not—I repeat—not look like a man. Women simply do not have enough testosterone in their bodies to increase their muscle mass to the point where they look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. The women you see pictured online with huge muscles use steroids.
Without these dangerous drugs, you can still see amazing changes in your body shape and tone. You get there by following a healthy diet and by lifting weights—real weights. Don't be afraid to go beyond the colored-plastic 5-pounders and grab some iron. It won't make you bulky, but it will make you strong and lean.
Lesson 2: Strength Training Shapes Your Body Much More Than Cardio Does
There are two components to physique: muscle and the visibility of that muscle. We increase muscle mass when we strength train. We increase muscle visibility when we lower our body fat percentage. To increase muscle visibility, you must strength train. In other words, in order to display your muscles, you have to have them! In contrast, cardio is great for heart and overall health, but won't do anything for your muscle tone.
Lesson 3: Strength Train the Major Muscle Groups
When most people decide they want to change their physique and improve their health, they tend to focus on the body parts that bother them the most. For women, often this means lower body and stomach. For their part, men often focus on biceps and chest. To improve muscular balance, prevent injuries, improve overall appearance and strength, and increase caloric burn, you must train all the major muscle groups—the ones you see in the mirror and the ones you don't.
Focus on compound exercises that use large muscle groups—exercises such as squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and rows. Then add accessory, or isolation, exercises that target smaller muscle groups. Such exercises include leg curls, triceps extensions, and rear-delt raises.
Lesson 4: Going for Spot Reduction? If Only!
Newsflash: There is no such thing as spot reduction, meaning no exercise can burn fat in a specific area. Your genetics, not your workouts, determine the areas where you can gain and lose fat. A good diet combined with intensive strength training is what creates an aesthetically pleasing physique.
Lesson 5: Continuous Progress Requires Progressive Overload
The SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) is simple: Your body adapts to stress (in the form of exercise) by gaining muscle mass and strength. To continue building your physique, you must constantly increase what you demand of your body through a concept called progressive overload. One way to achieve this is by adding more weight to the bar. But you can also do it through any combination of increasing your reps per set, increasing your range of motion for a certain exercise, improving your technique, or reducing the rest time between sets. All these techniques give you the freedom to change, monitor, and adjust your program so you can keep challenging yourself.
Lesson 6: Diet Schmiet—Mind Your Calories!
I've attempted all kinds of diets—low fat, high fat, zero sugar, only "specific foods" diet, and on and on. None of them worked. About three years into my weight-lifting career, I decided to dive deeper into the science behind body composition changes. I hoped to answer several questions: Why do we get fat? How do we lose fat? Are certain foods fattening? Do some foods burn calories just by digesting them?
Along the way, I realized there are three possible scenarios for an individual's body weight and caloric intake:
- The number of calories you consume each day is equivalent to the number of calories your body burns per day. In this scenario, you maintain your weight.
- The number of calories you consume per day is greater than the number of calories your body burns. In this scenario, you gain weight.
- The number of calories you consume daily is less than the number of calories your body burns per day. In this scenario, you lose weight.
Simply put, we gain fat when we eat too many damn calories, not because we eat or avoid specific foods. I'm a big proponent of the 80/20 rule, whereby 80 percent of your diet consists of highly nutritious, minimally processed foods, and 20 percent consists of low-nutrient, processed foods. The good news is you can still eat those foods you love. Just eat less of them. Maybe a lot less.
Lesson 7: Food Has No Moral Code
Have these thoughts ever crossed your mind?
- A cookie is bad for you, while a salad is good for you.
- I was bad because I had a piece of chocolate cake. I'd be good if I had broccoli and chicken.
Thinking of foods as "good" and "bad" is called orthorexia, "an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy." Orthorexia sounds great but, in reality, it undermines your long-term success, both physically and emotionally.
Labeling foods as good or bad only encourages a negative relationship with them. In reality, food is neutral; it's meant to be used as fuel for the body—and to be enjoyed! A healthy diet isn't all black or all white—it comes in shades of grey. Yes, it's rich in nutrients, but if you want your diet to last the long haul, it also needs to include foods that give you pleasure.
Lesson 8: Be Realistic About Your Expectations
You've finally decide to start your fitness journey. You're excited. You're motivated. You think to yourself, "I'm going to have my dream body in 3-6 months!"
Good for you—but not so fast. For most mortals, it takes way more than three months to achieve that dream body, whatever it may be. With consistency in your exercise and diet program, you will see measurable and noticeable changes in three months—just maybe not the kind of before/after transformation you see so often on social media. (OK, some rare individuals can see dramatic results in a few months. For the rest of us, though, it usually just takes a lot more time.)
Getting a fit body and adding quality muscle can take years. Get into it for the long term. Be prepared for ups and downs, times when you see the changes in your body—and when you don't. Progress is never linear. You progress, then you regress, plateau, then progress again. Find a program that works for you, then stick with it. The changes you dream of will happen.
Lesson 9: Consistency and Patience Are Keys
Motivation can get you started, but habits keep you going. It won't always be sunshine and rainbows, but putting in a not-so-great workout beats no workout at all every time. Keep at it and don't give up. Being consistent will bring you closer to your goals while also helping you develop the grit and work ethic needed to continue despite obstacles. Treat every day as an opportunity to grow and improve, and rely on your discipline—not your motivation—to get you to the gym. If you miss a workout, don't get down on yourself. Just get right back into it!
Lesson 10: Don't Be Obsessed With Scale Weight
For years I've been attached to a magical number on the scale, a number that would make my life so much easier, fuller, and happier. In reality, there is no such number. Your weight comprises fat mass and fat-free mass (bones, muscles, connective tissue, organs, and water), and it's a dynamic measurement, one that fluctuates in response to stress, hydration, carb intake, fiber intake, types of foods, time of the day, and sleep.
In the course of a week, your weight might fluctuate 5-10 pounds simply because of these variables. Plus, once you start strength training, your weight may actually increase as you lose fat and gain dense muscle. That's a good thing! The number your scale shows is usually an inaccurate gauge of your progress. Measure your progress by how your clothes fit, how you feel, and how you look in the mirror.
Lesson 11: Mental and Emotional Strength Gains are Coming Your Way
Just as muscles grow by repeatedly overcoming resistance, we grow as people the same way. Sometimes life can seem like a daily resistance workout you never signed up for. If you're lucky, strength training can help you learn how to show up and do the work.
I fell in love with strength training because it has better prepared me for life. Strength training tests your will power. It challenges your patience and dedication as you progress, regress, plateau, and progress again. There's something empowering about that, especially for us women.
Lesson 12: You Won't Always Have the Support of Others
Some people—even those closest to you—may not understand your new fit lifestyle. That's OK. Not everyone has to agree with you, because the most important person in your life, you, will understand why you're doing what you're doing. Take care of your own health and well-being first. Focus on getting stronger, healthier, and fitter. The rest will follow.
Lesson 13: Remember, You're Much More Than Your Body
Strength training doesn't guarantee you'll find happiness once you're lean. Or that your life will be any more meaningful than it was before. Or that your friends and family will love you more. It doesn't guarantee you'll get wiser or become a better person. All your troubles and hardships may not vanish into thin air, but you will feel healthier, stronger, and, hopefully, more confident. And that is huge!
Over the years, I've witnessed so many people (mainly women) attaching their self-worth to the number on the scale or the size they wear. Know that you're so much more than that. No matter what your body is up to on any given day, learn to love it all and treat your body well. After 13 years of strength training, today I am healthy, energized, and strong. I am a capable human being, and I'm much more than just my body. And so are you.