It took me a while to come around to the way of the barbell. Back in the day, I was a long-form cardio, aerobic workout queen. Triathlons, half marathons, 100-mile bike rides: these were the things that made me feel challenged and invigorated. Then I became the person who was happiest when my workout was filled with an insane list of scary exercises: Box jumps and pullups and renegade rows and sumo deadlift high-pull as fast as possible? OK!
Although I really did enjoy the exertion, if I’m being completely honest, the primary reason I put myself through grueling cardio workouts is because I wanted to be lean and fit. I wanted to see dramatic changes in how my body looked. But no matter how many miles I ran or Filthy Fifties I completed, my body appeared to be remarkably the same.
Then I started paying attention to advice that I’d been ignoring. I listened to the experts who advised that once or twice a week, I should forget the sexy-fun workouts and lift heavy things. I needed to build more muscle. Work my core. Overcome my fear of the heavy barbell.
I joined an old-school gym with intimidating metal plates — and a singular smell of sweat and testosterone — and started doing what I considered to be un-sexy things like 5X5 deadlifts and 5X5 front squats. I got comfortable being uncomfortable. I adapted to feeling fatigued in that “I just wrestled a saber-toothed tiger” way. In short, I got down with the barbell.
It’s been four years of lifting weights regularly, and now more than ever, I know that lifting heavy things is important for me — and quite probably for you, too. Here’s why.
1. Build your confidence.
Nothing can compare to that “I can take on the world” feeling when something intimidates me, but I do it anyway. I’m anxious – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – every time I approach the barbell. There are times when it really does feel like I’ve never done a snatch, a clean, or a deadlift before. And the weight is always a little scary. It seems silly, but I’m surprised by how heavy heavy lifting is. (When I start a lift, I almost always say to myself, “This is heavy.” like that’s news, or something.) Plus, there’s so much to remember: core tight, knees pressed out, shoulder blades down, heels down, chest up. The ability to commit to that bar — even when it seems like all the cells in my body are screaming, “Run away!” — makes me feel like the most beautiful, accomplished woman around.
2. Enjoy the ritual and superstition.
I love that the weight plates are supposed to face in… that I always wear my red Converse on heavy lifting days… that I’m superstitious about “addressing the bar” and how long my hands are on it before I actually lift. I like using my thumbs to measure how far apart my hands should be, inhaling to completely fill my lungs, and thinking, “Tight, tight, tight.” There’s a mythos built up around lifting heavy things, and it’s easy for me to feel a connection to all the faceless others who’ve walked up to a scary-heavy bar and done their best to get the damn thing off the ground.
3. Find the freedom in focus.
There is so much to think about in executing a lift — and so much danger in over-thinking it. If I let my mind wonder during a deadlift or clean, it’s all over, and if I worry too much about one part of a move, things that were previously instinctual go wonky-donk. In that magical, in-between space of thinking/not thinking, there is freedom. A focus that’s pure. As my core tenses, my mind relaxes. And when it’s really going right, I can’t think about anything else, and I’m not really thinking about anything at all. I just am.
4. Get lean and mean.
I’m not gonna lie: I want to look Good. Not just “good for a 46-year-old” or better than the people in my high school graduating class. Objectively, unequivocally, make-myself-feel-proud good. Everyone I trust and respect informs me that the way to get the lean, shapely, strong, efficient body I want is to lift heavy things. Leaner arms? Tighter thighs? Flatter abs? Chiseled jaw? Those are the result of heavy lifting, clean eating, and righteous rest.
5. Be a tough old broad.
The thing about lifting heavy stuff with our muscles is that it also makes our bones, tendons, and ligaments better equipped to handle whatever we dish out. No osteoporosis or joint troubles for me! I fully intend to carry my own groceries, move furniture myself, haul suitcases around the globe, and sprint for the bus from now until the end of my days.
Now my workouts are a balance of get-sweaty barnburners — I still have a deep affection for box jumps — and plenty of quality time with the barbell. It would be dishonest to say that I always look forward to throwing around the iron, but I have never regretted a heavy lifting session. I always feel better after than I did before. And sometimes, on that special kind of day where everything clicks into place, the bar just floats free — and I’m free with it.
*Melissa Joulwan is the author of the paleo cookbooks Well Fed and Well Fed 2, and the blog The Clothes Make The Girl, where she shares healthy recipes and writes about her triumphs and failures in the gym, in the kitchen, and in life. These days, her workouts are just as likely to include yoga and meditation as lifting heavy things and sprinting to stay ahead of the stopwatch.