Looking to shake up your workout routine, but are too intimidated by free weights? Sprout co-editor Nako Kobayashi explains how she went from hating exercise to loving lifting heavy things.
Heavy weights slamming into the ground. Someone grunting and swearing as they struggle to complete their last rep. Biceps bursting out of muscle tees. Gallon jugs of water and protein shakes lying around. The sea of testosterone that is the free weights section of a gym can be an intimidating place for many women. However, over the past two years, I have developed a love, bordering on an obsession, for strength training. Cardio used to be the only form of exercise I endured, but now I frequent this male-dominated section of the gym, deadlifting, squatting, and benching to my heart’s content.
After running cross country for four years in high school, I swore I’d never run again. College was the first time in my life I didn’t have to participate in sports. No P.E. No sports requirement. No way was I going to voluntarily exercise. I ate junk food all the time, developed poor habits typical of many U.S. college students, and I never exercised. I was perfectly happy. I didn’t feel all that out of shape, despite one of my roommates, the captain of the track team and a decathlete, making fun of me for being “skinny fat.” By the time graduation was around the corner, I found myself a bit heavier and much unhealthier than when I arrived. Determined to develop healthier habits that would help me succeed as a “real adult”, I let my friend drag me to our school’s gym.
The two-story athletic center at Connecticut College is a place that both serious collegiate athletes and more casual exercisers conglomerate. The first floor has an extensive free weight section that I happily walked past to get to the second floor, where the cardio equipment and exercise machines are located. Although many women worked out on the first floor, I subconsciously decided that they probably had to lift heavy for the specific sports they were involved in. Surely, someone just trying to be a bit healthier doesn’t need to lift. Still oblivious to the other reasons why women might want to lift, I spent many hours of the spring semester of my senior year on the second floor, running on the treadmill in an attempt to reach my health and fitness goals.
After a while, I got bored so I decided to research other exercise options. I quickly found that there are many benefits to strength training other than just building a lot of visible muscle. Strength training, I discovered, can also help with your metabolism, bone density, and overall health. I decided to slowly incorporate strength training into my routine, starting with bodyweight exercises like squats and pushups (on my knees). Eventually I even used some of the exercise machines. I joined a gym on my own for the first time when I moved to Boston to attend graduate school at Tufts University. By this point, I had mastered many at-home workouts with light dumbbells and even started to enjoy it. I actually felt comfortable with the idea of lifting. I could even do 15 full pushups – not on my knees! It was time for me to get serious and challenge my limits.
The gym can be an intimidating place. Everyone seems to know exactly what they’re doing. If you’re a broke grad student like me, you likely don’t have the funds to hire a trainer who can set you on the right course. My advise? Do your research ahead of time. I personally found Instagram to be a great resource, since you can see exactly how exercises should be performed. Just make sure the person you’re getting advice from has proper credentials to ensure that you’re getting safe, effective tips. Once you get to the gym, just plug in your headphones, play some music you enjoy, and tune the rest of the gym out. Trust me, everyone is too busy looking at themselves in the mirror to notice what you’re doing.
Once I started incorporating strength training into my exercise routine, my mother warned me that I would become “too bulky” and less feminine because of my new habit. I, too, was worried about this before I did my research. In reality, it is physiologically very difficult for women to become extremely “bulky” without a considerable amount of effort and the aid of various supplements. Now, I can squat much more than my own bodyweight. I’m also working on increasing the weight I can bench. Although I am definitely more muscular than I was before, I don’t feel that I look manly or overly bulky in any way.
Because I work out by myself, people often ask me how I’m able to motivate myself. Honestly, I never have a problem with motivation – these days, it’s harder to keep myself from going to the gym when I know I should take a rest day. Weightlifting is so fun. Every time I go to the gym, I’m excited to try lifting a bit heavier or getting in a few more reps than my last workout. I always make ambitious goals for myself – it’s so satisfying when I finally accomplish them. Even though no one was watching, I had the biggest smile on my face when I was finally able to perform a full pull-up for the first time a few weeks ago. Having always been that tiny, weak Asian girl, I have to admit it’s fun to see guys looking in amazement as I bench or squat a weight not too much lighter than them.
Nako Kobayashi is a co-editor of the Sprout and an AFE student interested in sustainable and diversified food systems. Studying at Friedman has made her more aware of and interested in nutrition, especially with regards to policy and linking agricultural production to public health outcomes.