The smell hit me like a wall – masculine, testosterone-filled sweat in an unairconditioned gym. I looked around – guys lifting weights, muscles flexing, grunting and exhaling as they pushed their bodies to finish that last, seemingly excruciating set. I nearly turned heel and left, it was all so alien and a long way from the sanitised national gym chain that I had last used a decade ago. But, with my vow to ‘do new stuff’ ringing in my ears, I ventured further in and found Joe, the PT that I had nervously agreed to meet. I couldn’t have known that taking those few steps would change my life.
You see, I’d noticed that, since my mid-thirties, whilst not overweight or unhealthy, I just didn’t feel strong. You know, that proper ‘I’ve got this’ kind of strong – capable of swinging the kids round the garden or lugging the supermarket shop home. It’s a cliché but bingo wings were making an appearance and my stomach/abs didn’t just ‘snap back’ after two pregnancies (like, seriously, whose do? All these ‘celebs’ with their teeny-weeny waists twenty minutes after giving birth – yeah, right). I ran regularly but, whilst that burnt the calories, it didn’t do much for my tone; I was slim, but not lean and certainly not strong. And so someone recommended meeting up with Joe to lift weights, which is why I found myself in that unfamiliar boxing/weights gym. And what a revelation. It exposed me to a whole new world of competitive weight-lifters, boxers, men and women who are, without exception, warm, welcoming and ultra-dedicated to their goals.
To start with, I met Joe once a week to weight-train for an hour. We probably wouldn’t in ‘ordinary’ life cross paths, but crikey, what a tonic it was to exercise, chat about our week and have banter with him and the other gym users. Joe pushed me further each session, using both free-weights and cable machines as well as old-school squats and lunges. I soon began to notice physical changes. I bought a weights machine for home and ramped up training to three times a week. Slowly, slowly my arms, shoulders and back got some definition, my abs and stomach toned up, I lost inches from my hips. It was completely changing my body shape, for the better. Bingo wings? Pah – replaced by ‘guns’ (slight artistic licence there, but the picture is my arm…)
But aside from the aesthetic benefits, I became stronger. I mean really strong, in every sense of the word.
I’m now physically strong – I can lift weights I never dreamed of when I started. I can hold a wall squat, with dumbells, for an age (at least it feels like it!). I can lug that shopping from the car, no sweat. I’m quite the Geoff Capes (without the beard, obvs).
But I haven’t just found physical strength. I’m talking mental strength too. Lifting weights is ‘zone out’ time – focussing on mind and body, taking both to the limit, pushing myself mentally when my muscles are screaming to stop but my brain says ‘come on, five more’. The sense of achievement when that last set is complete is immense. I can do it, I am strong, I won’t be beaten! And that has transferred in to day-to-day life: I’m more confident, determined, positive, happier. Had a bad day? An hour flexing those muscles certainly clears the mind.
So, what’s the message? Well, I guess it’s about choices and goals. I hit forty and chose not to slide in to a sedentary middle-aged lifestyle with all the health issues that lack of exercise, drinking too much, stress and bad diet bring. Instead, in lifting weights, I’m building a physically strong body, losing fat, gaining muscle and minimising the risk of osteoporosis, heart disease and stress.
But perhaps as importantly, I’ve discovered it’s so much more than exercise – it’s a pathway to feeling strong. I’d have never foreseen such a profound effect on my general sense of self and well-being. There’s mental discipline needed in committing to three sessions a week in a busy work and family life to train and then to push, push, push and not give in before really, truly being at that last rep. But boy, those endorphins are a damn sight more satisfying than a bar of chocolate!
Throughout life I’ve often joked about having (or needing) mental fortitude. You know something? I reckon weights are a pretty good way of getting closer to it, especially for women of a certain age. So, please, don’t walk past a gym and judge all the muscle-men and think it’s not for you. Guess what? They weren’t born like that. Go in and talk to them (they’re usually mega-keen to extol the virtues of weights over cardio!). It’ll change your life – because getting strong doesn’t start in the gym, it starts in your head.