This post was originally published on my personal blog; considertheend.com, but since this week is mental health awareness week and the theme this year is body image we thought it might be a good idea to share it again. I wrote it last year to try and explain the reasons behind my love of weightlifting and how getting stronger has taught me to love my body. I’d love to know what you think!
A few people have asked me recently why I go to the gym as much as I do. I currently train 4-5 times a week; generally lifting heavy weights and then dragging my butt round a 5k/5mile run or doing a HIIT or circuits session. Am I training for a competition? Will I get bulky?
The honest and simple answer is that I enjoy it. I never really understood what people meant when they talked about exercise endorphins. I’d go for a run and the only reason I felt good when I stopped was because I was glad it was over. Sure, I felt a sense of achievement when I did my first 5k, then 10k, then 10 miles. I was proud when I got a 10k under an hour. When I did my first half marathon I almost felt like a runner. Except, without a run to train for I’d lose my motivation to do it. ‘Real’ runners get the buzz from pounding the pavement, but for me it was always a chore, something I had to do because I’d signed up for another bloomin’ race. But I kept signing up because without it I wouldn’t run. Instead I’d stay at home eating Nutella straight from the jar and wonder why I’d put on weight.
In 2015 I enlisted the help of a personal trainer. I told him I was a runner and so he devised a program to support my running. That’s when I first learned to deadlift and my love of lifting heavy weights began. I think I got up to 70kg, which back then was about my body weight. I still look back at 2015 Gemma and think that I was probably in the best shape of my life. It was the year I turned 30, the year I did my first half marathon, the year I was comfortably kicking around town in my super skinny size 10s. I ate healthy food and only treated myself if I was going to exercise. I concentrated on getting protein in and cutting out the crap; I put down the Nutella.
As soon as the half marathon was over though I stopped running. I was so excited about the prospect of ‘not having to run’ post half marathon that I didn’t. My week off turned into two, then a month, then another. I also quit PT. His name was Ally and he moved to Cardiff so gave me to Steve. Steve was great, but the rapport I’d built with Ally just wasn’t there. And it was expensive. So I stopped.
My gym membership became akin to me throwing money down the loo. A very expensive waste. So when the annual renewal came round I cancelled. Throughout 2016 I still thought I was fit, but I wasn’t. By the end of the year I was in a new relationship and that meant eating out a lot, drinking more than usual, making time to see him rather than going to the gym or running (ironic considering he worked out all the time!). I’d joined a budget gym with my friend and I remember going with her and just lying on the floor saying how much I couldn’t be bothered. The year before, in the fit days of 2015, I’d taken her to the gym and put her through her paces and now here she was trying to persuade me to just lift a dumbbell for God’s sake.
I look at pictures of myself that Christmas and New Year and I really don’t like what I see. I look a lot rounder, shall we say. It doesn’t help that I had a fairly bad experience at the hairdresser where my highlights effectively became a full head of bleach. I was bright, white blonde and I hated it. So 2016 Gem, I don’t really like to look at. It’s a weird feeling. I don’t think I ever had issues with my body image, I was never unhappy with the way I looked. I’d always been a size 10 and was under the illusion that I was naturally slim. Then hitting 31 and no longer liking pictures of myself was weird. It didn’t help that I was still insisting on wearing size 10s when clearly I was no longer a size 10. Day to day I still felt slim. Only looking at pictures did I start to think I was big. I don’t want to say the word ‘fat’, because that’s a horrible word and honestly I was never that big, but if left unchecked then I might have got there.
I flirted a bit with getting my weight down in 2017. The new year saw me back at my old expensive gym. If I’m paying for it, I‘ll use it, right? I was swimming a lot and the number on the scales came down. Only I didn’t keep it up. My motivation didn’t last. The number on the scales crept back up. So I tackled it the only way I knew how; I signed up for another half marathon. The half marathon training Gem of 2015 was my goal. I’d done it once that way, so surely I could do it again. And yes, to an extent I did. I was running 3-4 times a week, but that’s all I was doing so while I was fitter than I’d been the previous Christmas, I wasn’t 2015 fit.
So back at the budget gym (I really had to stop paying for the expensive one I never used!) and one of the PTs emailed me to ask if I was looking for a trainer. I needed help again and the last PT got me to the place I was holding as a benchmark. I had a bit more money and there’s a lot worse things I could be spending it on… so yes, I wanted a PT again. Initially my training was based around getting me stronger for my third half marathon. I was back deadlifting and doing pull ups (or at least trying to). But as much as I was loving the gym sessions I was still running and running, even after all this time, was still a chore. So after the half I spoke to my PT about shifting my focus to weightlifting and he kindly wrote me a program focusing on building strength.
So where am I now? I’m going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week; I do a deadlift day, front squat day, bench press and pull ups. The last session of the week is some kind of cardio; a run or a circuit/HIIT day. And my body? Well, I finally gave in and started buying size 12 jeans and stopped trying to squeeze my butt into size 10s. It doesn’t make you feel good about yourself and it’s quite frankly painful. I have finally accepted that my butt is quite big and for the first time in my life I feel strangely proud of it. So who cares if it takes more than a size 10 to cover it? Am I 2015 fit? I don’t know. I’m stronger, for sure, but probably because I have dedicated time (and sweat) to building that strength.
My diet? Well, it’s not perfect, in the sense that it’s not all lean protein and veg for every meal. You might still find me jar of Nutella in hand and a spoon in my mouth. I still eat macaroni cheese and pizza and won’t deprive myself of the chocolate brownie if I want it. I feel as though I’ve got the best of both worlds at the moment. I can eat the food I like and I am motivated to exercise because I finally understand what those post-exercise endorphins are all about. I walk out of the gym buzzing, because I feel strong.
Since I’ve been following this training plan I’ve lost weight; around 10lbs and 3% body fat. But that weight loss has come as a bi-product of strength training, it was never the goal. My goals are 100kg deadlift (currently on 87.5kg), 50kg bench press (currently 42.5kg), body weight squat (as in the weight of my body, but I’m not giving that number away) and the ability to do a pull up unassisted. What happens when I reach those goals? I’m not sure. But that’s not something I have to worry about now, because annoyingly, this is quite a long journey. Results don’t happen over-night. But I hope I’ll keep going.
So why do I do this? Because it’s allowed me to like me again. It’s allowed me to accept my body. And I know I’m not perfect and I don’t know how comparable I am to 2015 Gem. I don’t think I can compare and I’m no longer sure I should. All that matters is that I’m happier in my body now than I have been in a long time and the gym and learning to lift has done that for me. Through getting stronger I’ve started to develop a more positive relationship with my body. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?