Performers Minor Gains
“You have to require an effort of your muscles that pushes them to the edges of their power.”
Recently, at a house party, I was standing near a full-length mirror talking with a friend. In spite of the festive Saturday night atmosphere—I was sipping on wine and she held a tumbler of tequila—our conversation steered toward fitness, and I found myself, doubled in the mirror, earnestly telling her that I loved weightlifting. Soon after, I ran out of words to describe how and why. There are obvious rewards to weightlifting (body changes; weight loss) but I’m resistant to talk about these transformations because they seem to skip past the process itself. Weightlifting is not bodybuilding; the point is not to sculpt a vessel from the outside in. The process, the maintenance, and the steady growth of it seems to me the important part.
After the party, I went in search of an essay to explain how I felt. But when I Googled “love” and “weightlifting,” I found triumphant, picture-heavy blog posts that showed off physical transformations while skipping over the process itself—exactly the thing I was bristling against. I found technical descriptions of the mechanics of the body that go deep into the hows of weightlifting, but do not begin to touch on the whys. Both kinds of writing serve a purpose, but neither elucidates the feelings I feel. Neither explains the muscular pull I feel to the weight room of the run-down chain gym where I’m a member. Neither helps me understand why I go back even though I fail all the damn time.
I’d never been a team player, or even someone who stuck with a physical practice. Growing up, I was impressively unathletic, preferring to stroll around the track in gym class, one scowling friend in tow, over making any visible attempts to try. In college I went to a gym to reduce stress, but hung out mostly on the ellipticals, doing cardio that only resulted in more body anxiety. After I moved to New York, I floundered: I rode endless trains between part-time jobs, ate most of my meals from Duane Reade, drank too much, and stressed every month as I paid to maintain the always-almost-collapsing Jenga tower that was my life. I wanted at the time to think I took up yoga in search of something beautiful and life-elevating, but I just wanted a path out of whatever it was I’d gotten myself into. Somehow, incredibly, getting certified to teach yoga seemed like a good idea, and I threw myself into it. But the social comfort that being a career yoga teacher required put me off of teaching regularly.
Then I hit the gym again, and along with the obsessive, heart-pounding intensity of the cardio machines, I began to incorporate free weights. Three things about weightlifting drew me in: its relative solitude; the tangible results (mostly pain) that followed; and the slightly transgressive way it felt to be a woman near the free weights. (Though numbers of non-male lifters seem to be on the rise, we’re still far from the majority.) In the beginning, I researched proper form for each exercise before I tried it in public so I would not be an amusing curiosity or tacitly solicit “friendly” suggestions for adjustment to my body positioning. From the start, I wanted to claim space and maintain it as I maintained my painstaking progress.
When I was looking for my explanatory essay, I realized that many narratives around weightlifting as a physical activity seem aggressively masculine; a lot of muscle-building is based on toughening up and being a man. Weightlifting apps (at least ones that aren’t specifically geared toward women) feature tough-guy narrators who tell you what to do. Women go to the gym to do cardio, or classes, or something else social—this is the stereotype—so when I want to lift, it’s a branded man space that I’m entering. In life, I dwell often in women’s spaces: I mostly gravitate to signifiers of my gender, like hair and clothes. I may feel strange about exhibiting certain feminine visual cues, such as my now-long hair, which, in the two years it’s been growing out, has never stopped feeling like a wig, but I continue to cultivate them despite minor discomfort. And nobody would describe me as masculine. At the gym, I feel even more acutely non-masculine, but though I’m entering a masculine space as a non-male lifter, I somehow find myself at ease. I do stereotypically masculine lifts like squats and bench presses, and I feel something that I never felt on cardio machines, or in yoga: I feel grounded and powerful.
My countenance at the gym isn’t gender-ambiguous either. Before I lift, I tie my hair up in a knot on the top of my head. I brush the flyaway hairs away from my sweat-covered face when they escape the elastic. I smile at myself in the mirror—like an encouraging friend—in between sets and as I wait my turn in between the jocks. Maybe I’m just looking for some feelings-based narrative in weightlifting because my gender dictates that I’m an emotional creature who falls in love with everything. Maybe love isn’t why all the bros flock to the weight room in their work T-shirts with the cutoff sleeves. But they do the same lifts that I do, and week after week, we all get stronger. So calling weightlifting masculine is likely a one-sided narrative.
Emotional arcs and storytelling exist in writing about other physical activities—running is the best example. Runners who write seem gifted at linking motion with writing. The process of putting distance behind you with just your own two feet lends itself easily to an essay about strong dedication. The one-two pattern of feet on the ground mimics both the heartbeat and the iambic structure of English speech, which makes running easy enough to relate to craft. (Haruki Murakami wrote an entire book about it.) Running, particularly as a practice for writers, has gathered for itself a nobly meditative reputation. But what if what I love is something other than endurance, than distance? I’m a poet, I tell myself. I don’t deal in distance.
I don’t think I was wrong when I used the word “love” to my friend at the party—there is something loving about coaxing your body to become progressively more powerful. I don’t mean erotic love, although in my research, the erotic undertones of weightlifting often emerged. In an essay for Details , Henry Rollins describes days at the gym with the obsessive, single-minded fervor of someone deep in the throes of infatuation. In between the motivational quotes and progress pictures that show up under Tumblr’s #weightlifting tag, there are pictures of muscled bodies in all stages of undress. And to no one’s surprise, weightlifting erotica exists.
But the satisfaction I get out of the action of lifting weight is a different kind. It’s the same kind of joy that I get out of following a calm, caring routine week after week with the partner who shares my space with me. The transformative power of love is that it builds over time. When it works, love is comprised of the mutual interwoven patterns of its participants. Here are some of my own weekly patterns, which I love: Monday nights are for cooking big, colorful dinners with my husband; Saturday mornings are for lounging and doing crossword puzzles with a cup of milk-blond coffee; and three mornings a week are reserved for the gym.
I head out two hours before I’m supposed to be at my office. I ride the train in silence with the early birds, park my bag in a locker, and heave my body up two stairs at a time to the second-floor power racks. It’s a crammed old gym; there are only two power racks, not enough Olympic bars, and far too many machines. Despite the ceaseless vacuuming, the air smells like bodies in proximity, and the paint splatter-patterned floor is often flecked with sweat. But it’s inexpensive and on my way to work, so I go. When the rack is free, I hang my towel on the safety bar and claim it for myself. Here’s another notion I think is related to gender: It took me a long time to get used to the idea of claiming space. I’d think to myself, “What if someone else, someone more experienced, wants to use the racks?” But by now I know that my effort and presence are visible. I also know that I have a right to be present. I acknowledge my gaze in the mirror and begin.
Squats are my first lift. I do my warm-up sets—two with an empty bar, and one with some weight—and then I continue to my full weight sets. I’ve advanced enough that on any given day, the full weight consists of multiple cold iron plates of various sizes, which I bring up to the rack, thread onto the bar, and secure with a spring collar. I wait three minutes after my warm-ups, feeling the sweat already beginning to bead at my brow. Then I position my body under the rack and lift the bar onto my shoulders. The diamond-shaped trapezius muscles of my upper back activate to hold the bar steady; my feet are slightly wider than hip width apart, stable against the floor. With the aid of a full breath, I bend my knees and lower my hips down below the line of my knees, careful to center my weight. Then I push up and return back to standing tall.
If I succeed in all sets, I will need to add more weight onto the bar next time. If I fail, I will need to repeat the sets with the same weight. I fail at least once a week as I try to come up on the last or second-to-last repetition; my legs simply will not push back to standing. On occasion, I have to let my burden clang loudly onto the safety bars of the power rack. The sound is loud—metal on metal—and it makes people look over at me. I signal that I’m okay, and then unload each side of the bar. This may sound monotonous, but like love, it is a routine I feel good about following. I pursue it because it feels like growth. Any transformations, if they happen at all, are slow.
The paradox of weightlifting is that you have to fail in order to make gains. Failure is not disappointment—it’s the point. Nobody starts out at their maximum power or capability, and if you skip workouts, you don’t get to keep what you achieved. You have to require an effort of your muscles that pushes them to the edges of their power that day, and then you have to do it again, and then again. You ask your body to do something hard, and if it doesn’t cooperate, you fail and then ask once more. You never walk away from the power rack without the intention to return to where you were. Every day, you make an agreement.
A squat is a compound lift, and it functions much the same way as a compound sentence: Multiple parts work together to make the whole thing make sense. The large leg muscles—the quadricep and hamstring groups—are key in making the motion happen, but so are the abdominals, glutes, hip adductors, and the bundle of muscles along the back called the erector spinae. And so is your balance, and the ability of your body parts to work together. So when I fail, as I re-rack my plates, I think about what happened. Was I not activating my abdominals, back, and glutes enough to hold my upper body stable as I rose back to standing position? Was I not aligned over the center line of my body? Did my knees begin to buckle inward? The failure point is always discoverable and adjustable. You cannot go back in time, but you can recall and examine what happened, and then make adjustments. The process is one of affection and respect.
I see a particular couple at my gym a lot. I call them the Deadlifting Duo, although they do lots of different power lifts, because they can each deadlift multiple times their body weight. He is dark-haired and slim and wears a snake-print weight belt; she is tall, with a muscled back and a tiny ponytail. They rarely smile, and they’re quiet, and they wear matching headphones. And they are clearly a couple, though they keep to themselves save for when one of them needs a spotter on the bench press. Then they signal the other over, and quietly, they spot one another.
Historically, when I’ve been bad at something, I’ve had a nasty habit (left over from youth) of doing that thing alone so that nobody sees me failing. Then I’d either craft a palatable narrative around the thing that allows me to only mention what I want to mention, or I’d skip talking about it altogether. It’s just like those gym class days: I’d pretend I didn’t care, because the idea of trying and failing was too mortifying. Weightlifting, though, has slowly taught me to fail in the company of my partner. I get a little practice every week—one of my three lifting days is a Sunday, and on Sundays, we go to the gym together. This means that I can’t lie about any advances that I made that week. On Sundays, I lift my heaviest, so either I fail in front of him and make plans to lift the same weight again, or I succeed and get to be proud. It’s impossible to tell which will happen.
During bench presses, in particular when you’re reaching your maximum weight, you need to take care to have a spotter. Your spotter stands behind your head as you do your reps, there as much for reassurance and confidence as to keep you from dropping a barbell onto your chest or throat when your muscles can no longer push up. Your spotter will keep you safe. When the Deadlifting Duo spots each other at the bench, I see their respect for each other, but also their mutual accountability and care. And I see their trust when they’re pushing themselves to the point of failure. I think about them when I ask my partner—my husband—to spot me. I make minor gains every week, in some way.
Physical power is slow to build, like a practice. There are no rapid transformations; there is no way to cheat to build muscle. You cannot discover “one weird trick” online and use it to shortcut to your fitness goals. Over time, I have increased the weight I’m able to squat, bench, and row, but I’ve done it slowly and (I believe) patiently. Each time I’ve been too eager to move up fast, I’ve done so at the expense of form; I’ve hurt myself, or I’ve hit a plateau because something wasn’t working right. I’ve had to remove weight off my bar and then build back up to where I was before, sometimes over weeks. But this makes the strength that I’ve gained feel honest.
As “Leg Day” memes would have you know, pain lingers with you the day after the gym. If you go regularly enough, some part of you is always in pain. The honesty of pain was one of the initial things I loved about muscle effort. When you push yourself to failure, you are asking your muscles to break and then rebuild. As I write this, it’s the morning after a gym day, and a penumbra of pain spreads across my body: legs, glutes, lower back, mid-back. It will continue to float over me throughout the day, changing in intensity as time passes, reminding me of my effort.