Friday, January 27, 2006

A Woman's Strength

But I Don’t Want Big Muscles!
I know many of you have certain misgivings about working out with weights and/or exercising in a gym, and rather than try to convince you other wise myself, I will rely on one of your own to explain things in your own terms. I don't propose to understand your feelings or where you’re coming from and it would be pretentious of me to think I could. So here it is, straight from your very own, Karen Andes

Excerpted and paraphrased from, A Woman’s Book of Strength By: Karen Andes

(Great book by the way, you should read it sometime.)

Finding our way
Everyday in the gym I see more of them. They seem to wash in with the tide, shy newcomers in baggy t-shirts, clutching a workout card as if it were a map to a foreign country. They wander among the machinery trying to look inconspicuous and figure out what to do. By the looks on their faces, I can see they don’t know a dumbbell from a barbell or a set from a rep. I want to give suggestions and encouragement. However, I’ve learned from experience not to offer my services unsolicited. So Instead I watch and sometimes cringe at the way they tackle the exercises without much sensitivity, inward connection or obvious enjoyment. And I know chances are good that when the next tide washes out, they’ll float out with it and I’ll never see them again.

I’ve often wondered what it would take to change this. Ideally, I’d like to sit each woman down and find out what brought her here. I want to know what she wants for herself. I want to know what she does for a living, how much time she doesn’t have, if she’s got kids, a mate, a history of athleticism, any old injuries to be aware of, what she ate for dinner last night, lunch, breakfast, how she feels when she looks in the mirror, and how many voices run the show inside her head. If she’d let me, I’d study her posture to see where she’ rigid, collapsed or off-center, a clue to where she carries her pain. I’d like to show her how to make changes without feeling burdened by an impossible ideal, or pushed into exercise by guilt and fear. Ultimately, I'd like to present this experience as pleasure, a sanctuary from outside cares and her chance to take up the chisel and reshape both her body and mind.

Yet nine times out of ten, I know she’s going to say, ”But I don’t want big muscles. I just want to get rid of this.” (I note the phrase “get rid of” as if it were garbage.) I could give her the standard “ don’t worry” speech:
“Most women can’t grow big muscles, because they don’t have enough male hormones. Most of the big women you see in muscle magazines took steroids to get that way. But natural women’s muscles grow very slowly. In fact, even after years of training, our muscles don’t increase much in size, although they get stronger, shapelier and, when body fat is low, more defined.”

This journey into strength is not just about sculpting the body but how we can use the pathway of our bodies as a way to mine the strength in ourselves. For when external and internal strength are blended and balanced, the wires connect, the whole person wakes up, and that union of flesh and spirit is magnificent, radiant, a cause to rejoice!

For so many women, this pursuit of strength is new, awkward, controversial, even frightening. Many of us are still afraid of who we might alienate if we get too strong, and simultaneously afraid of the dark, dangerous fates that wait us if we don’t get strong enough. Or we may think that, in order to be strong, we have to sacrifice our fragile natures, become more like men, change the fundamental structure of who we are. Yet we can’t just put on the cloak of male strength and strut around. It doesn’t feel right because we didn’t create it, we might as well wear their shoes. We need to approach this on our own terms, using our own vocabulary if we need to, and taking our own time.

It would help if we had more role s. But there aren’t many, maybe an ancient goddess or two, a professional athlete, a movie star, Wonder Woman, few real women with lives like ours, who juggle responsibilities yet make time for a physical discipline, and spark in others the thought, “well, if she can do it, so can I.”

Starting this journey takes courage. It’s not easy to be a beginner and embark on something that could take a while. It requires keen vision to see beyond all the conflicting information out there, the jumble of various body ideals, and pierce through to the truth of what we want and how to get it. And it takes time invested to understand that the real trophies of strength aren’t found in strong muscles or winning competitions, but in the discipline of practice.

Why do we want strength anyway? It’s not for physical perfection; thank god many of us have let that one go. No, we are women of action, ability and substance and simply want a physical body that reflects how we feel inside. We have healthy appetites, sensual flesh. We don’t relate to the timid, anorexic-looking waifs that flood the fashion pages, and we certainly don’t want to be the She-Hulk either. We want a body that will see us through the decades of activity and still looks good at sixty, seventy, eighty, and beyond. And if it jiggles in certain places, so be it. We celebrate ourselves, regardless. However, the longer we keep up this discipline, the greater the chance we’ll get what might have gotten us started in the first place, tight buttocks, chiseled abdominals, strong upper bodies, muscle that ripple when we move.

Strong muscles aren’t just cosmetic. The truth is we need strength, perhaps even more than men do since it helps us fight some of our more difficult, feminine based struggles with ourselves. When our muscles are stronger, our metabolisms speed up, which helps keep body fat down. Without even moderate muscle strength, our skeletons sag, our posture crumples and therefore our stature tumbles as well. Over time, as muscles get weak, our bones weaken too. After menopause, when our calcium producing ability drops off sharply, we find ourselves at risk for osteoporosis, which becomes more severe if we haven’t kept our bones strong all along. Why settle for this when we can do something about it? Weakness takes a psychological toll as well, compounding feelings of helplessness, fear, flagging self esteem.

There are three key elements to getting and staying strong and lean: Muscular Strength, Aerobic Exercise, and Steady Eating Habits. Of the three, creating strength is the most complex, requiring the most detailed attention to posture, form, amount of weight and reps, and so forth. It’s also the most misunderstood. But it won’t work alone, and neither will any one or two of the three elements. It has to be all three. Therefore, it may call for a gradual shift in habits or creative scheduling. Obsession is not necessary. The time required isn’t impossible, just an hour a day of exercise, sometimes less, sometimes more.

The type of strength I present here certainly isn’t the stereotypical, ball-breaking, emasculating force conjured up by Amazon fearing warriors or by centuries of men after that. It doesn’t intend to threaten or intimidate. In fact, its purpose is just the opposite. It’s a compassionate, life-sustaining concept, a blend of warmth, kindness and security, for we are mothers, nurturers, lovers, creators, supple creatures who bend with the wind, defenders of the weak, feelers of deep emotion, seekers of truth, even the uncomfortable truth in ourselves. We also have boundaries; ethics, justified rages and we know when to say no. Strong, we inspire change, justice, and enlightenment. Weak, the flame inside us dies. Our generation is lucky to have a good picture of “health” and “self-reliance” and to know how to put it into practice. We can truly take the evolution of women forward a notch and pass on the benefits to other women, children and men.

Too many of us have been victims. We can recite in exquisite detail all the dramas and traumas that flattened us in the past, and we know every horrible little thing that’s ”wrong” with our bodies. But we aren’t so eloquent about out ordinary and extraordinary powers, the beauty and magic we already possess. Deep inside, we may sense its presence but we don’t know how to bring it out and use it. We’re shy about it, and schooled not to be boastful. But this “magic power” is a secret we possess, a bit of whimsy, a flair, our uniqueness, and the very thing that makes us know we’re special. It’s also the root of our strength, the key to our creativity and our best tool for making ourselves strong. This quality is like a muscle. With practice and attention, it too, can be strong.
The type of strength addressed here cuts to all levels, heart, mind, spirit, and body, and can be exercised in any area of life where resistance is met. But the work begins in the physical and remains firmly rooted there because in the world of matter and flesh, there is proof. The laws of cause and effect are visible, reflecting who and how we are on any given day. We need physical proof because our faith is often weak. Intangibles don’t always reassure us. We need something tangible. The results that show up in our bodies reveal the power of our thoughts and actions.

I have written this book for women (as well as men) because most weight training books simply advise readers how to put on muscle mass. Here, it’s safe to say that size is not the Holy Grail we seek. (Overall health profile and a low fat to lean mass ratio is more important on the outside and a strong spirit and will on the inside.) Honestly, I don’t see a difference between women’s and men’s exercises because we’re all dealing with the same laws of physics and most everyone is working with two arms, two legs and a torso. Although women have a slightly different body composition from men, the mechanics of motion are much the same. So, actually, the training information (and much of the internal information) can be just as valuable to men as women.

We’re lucky that many of us are novices with weights. This makes us better students, blank slates, free from the burden of pride or past performance. We don’t bring with us crusty old training methods and long-ingrained bad form or egos that need reassurance from hurling around heavy iron.

We don’t need to have had an athletic background, and it doesn’t even matter if we d school gym class or all types of sports. There’s no ball to put in a hoop, no opponent to fight (except oneself.) No one wins, loses, or even keeps score. We don’t even need to be strong since effective weight lifting requires less strength than sensitivity. And since muscles respond the same way throughout out lives, we can start this sport and benefit from it at any age.

To understand and master the practice of weight training, we must learn slowly. If, in fact, we could get the results we wanted tomorrow, we would have learned nothing and would take no satisfaction in our work. In our “gotta have it now” culture, I’d get much richer if I sold fat-melting cream or pills that build muscle while you sleep. But weight training is the only way I know and trust that creates both dramatic and short-term lasting changes, and can also help make us wise.

Finding our way isn’t done quickly or easily. It takes some searching and discomfort. And some days, perhaps for weeks at a time, we may see nothing at all. Off days, inconsistency and low energy are part of the formula and have to be figured in. Yet if we can return to our practice, especially on those days, and find our sense of play, then we feed our souls as well. Boredom, in fact, should be seen not as an adversary but a call to creativity, a message from the imagination saying, “look, you’ve got to make this interesting for me or I quit.” Some of the best discoveries are made on off days.

Woman’s Strength
Women who were once obese and have lost a lot of weight often claim that when they look in the mirror, they still see themselves as fat. In this same way, many of us still see ourselves as weak and dependent, even if on the outside we’re self-made and secure. So many times I’ve heard women yearn to be strong and lean and make a plan to get that way then let something, anything knock them off course. Why does this happen so often? Could it be we have an unconscious belief that if we’re strong, we might not be rescued? If it looks as if we’re stronger than that man over there, will he be afraid to ask us out to dinner? If we show too much capability, perhaps others won’t see our vulnerability and will assume we don’t need anyone to love (not true, of course.) Perhaps some of us associate being strong with ending up alone.

If we’ve always associated love with protection, then if we appear strong, who will love us? Yet when we’re weak in spirit, we’re more likely to fall into obsessive, dependent relationships, not mutually supportive ones. Of course, it’s possible to be strong in body and weak emotionally, and weak in body and strong emotionally. But when we are weak in both body and heart, we’re more likely to look for rescue and confuse it with love, because in times of desperation, it’s hard to see the truth. Yet when we set about to find the strength within ourselves first, whether in our bodies, emotions or both, then we can love from a place of strength and fulfillment, as a choice, rather than a need. This way we increase our chances of creating an equal partnership, not to mention the fact that in a gym or health club, we increase or chances of finding someone on a similar, healthy path.

Physical strength helps during times of weak emotional strength because it is tangible, measurable, and there to return to on bleak days when our doubts run high. Physical strength also informs the heart and mind how to handle a rough situation, if we can sit with the discomfort of a weight on our chest, we can also learn to sit with the times of desperation, loneliness, or crises. If we throw the weights away just as we get slightly uncomfortable, how does this mirror our behavior in other aspects of life, when times get tough? Here, we can actually see our behavior and learn not to whine, kick, scream, look away, and make excuses. We can transfer some of those some methods to dealing with the petty insults that occur in our lives and the great challenges to our health when we’re tested to the core.

One of the greatest lessons about weight lifting is the relationship with failure. I can think of no other place where failure is success, where the desired outcome is to go until we truly can’t go anymore. If taught well, we’re encouraged to march right up to the wall of failure, confront it, sit with it and absorb the sensation. We get to observe ourselves, either how we dance around in rebellion or remain silent, sit still and fail with “integrity intact.” When we learn to be unafraid this way, we alter our definition of failure, welcome it rather than fear or avoid it, make it part of the ingredients of success.


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