Post #3197: Bodies are weird experiments

I’ve been wanting to write a post about weight lifting and yoga for awhile now – but everytime I start working on it I think “who am I to write about fitness?”. It’s not like I have any expertise in this field. But what I do have is a body, and at 47 I now have a long off-and-on-relationship with different types of exercise. Whether or not I always use it, I have had a gym membership for most of the last twenty years. I have taken classes of all kinds, used cardio machines, been a regular bicycle commuter riding 12-20 km per day, done a lot of long-distance backpacking and hiking, and am a pretty regular walker – but I have also gone through fallow periods where I do very little at all which means that rebuilding my fitness is also a regular occurrence in my life. Each time I refashion my fitness regime, and as my body ages, I learn new things about how I *work*, what my physical and mental being responds to, what fits into my life at a given time and is sustainable and so on. It’s from the perspective of my own journey I have expertise, which might square with yours or might not.

Since moving to Gabriola four years ago, my activity has been up and down. When I first came here I had been cycle-commuting in the city every day and in pretty good shape. I told myself that I didn’t need to join the gym even though I was transitioning to working from home almost-full-time, because I would get a lot of outdoor activity now that I lived in a rural area.

Ha! Nope. After a few months of very little activity, I had an incident where my bad shoulder was so creaky that I could barely do up my bra one morning. Hie thee to a regular yoga class!

I had always loathed yoga (being naturally unbendy) but the class fit into my work schedule and as someone with perpetual joint stiffness I knew I needed to work on joint mobility as I moved through middle age. Fortunately I encountered an excellent teacher this time around and since then, yoga has been a constant part of my fitness journey. I’ve done as little as one class per week, and as much as yoga every day stretches of several months at a time.

Yoga has really helped me repair my joint mobility, improve my posture, though my flexibility still leaves a lot to be desired (I still can’t get my heels down in Downward Dog). But even when I am practicing daily, I am not able to get enough time in to develop the strength needed for inverted poses or arm balances. My yoga teacher is a woman of incredible physicality and she claims that all we need is yoga to develop in this way, but from what I can tell, to get as buff (and agile) as her, it would require hours per day of dedicated practice.

I joined the gym on Gabriola just over two years ago now, dipping my toe in regular gym workouts for the first eight months of that and then falling off again until last fall when I signed up for a dedicated group training session once a week. In that class the trainer introduced me to power lifting and that has been a game changer! For close to a year now I’ve been at the gym three or more times per week, rarely missing a heavy lifting session. My husband started lifting in January and has been equally dedicated since then. During the time of quarantine, we made a gym in our garage and kept meeting with a trainer (physically distanced) to get coaching on our form and progress – which was a nice distraction for us and the trainer!

Even though I have strength-trained before – free weights/machines/body weight – power lifting has been quite possibly the single most physically transformative thing I have done in my life. In the very first weeks of deadlifts, weighted squats, and bench presses – I noticed a new alignment in my body, even as I was struggling to put any additional weight on the 45-pound bar. Although my deadlifts progressed quickly at the outset (I went from from the 45 pound bar to 115 pounds in the first month as I figured out my maximum load at the time), my bench presses stayed at the low end for weeks, my weighted squats were not much better. But even so, it seemed to me that I was standing taller, seeing muscles develop more rapidly than I expected, and had more power in all the other exercise I was doing.

At the same time, I noticed that my yoga practice started to accelerate. While training at the gym did little to improve my flexibility, my mobility and strength were supercharged with the addition of heavy lifting into my weeks. Improvements to leg and shoulder strength have given me more ability to attempt poses (that are still) challenging to me like crow and upward bow and improved my abilities in all other poses. Suddenly I could do several salutations with full chaturanga in a row!

It’s not only that weight lifting improved my yoga, either! I am convinced after slowing down to one class per week of yoga in July (from 4+ times per week in the spring), that yoga improves my weight lifting. When I slacked off on the yoga I noticed several things within about three weeks:

  • my joints were stiffer all the time, especially my hips and lower back, so everytime I went to the gym the warm-up seemed more arduous
  • looking in the mirror I started to believe that my muscles were looking bulky, especially in the upper arms, which I was not keen on at all – whether they looked that way, or just felt more contracted and I internalized that, it wasn’t what I wanted to feel about my upper body development
  • I felt shorter and more squat throughout my body – again, this must be a perceptual difference but I started to feel unhappy about how I looked even though my weight and physique stayed basically the same.

I reintroduced just thirty minutes of daily yoga practice in early August and within five days of that, all the above feelings dissipated. I believe that yoga supports my weight lifting through helping keep my muscles lean and long, creating space in my joints, and loosening up the lower back with regular spinal twisting. This gives me a greater range of motion to bring to the lifting. Yoga also supports the use of the muscular development through a range of motion. Lifting introduces a limited motion to the muscle – mostly up down, sometimes across the body – whereas yoga flows into and through movements which utilizes the large muscles but also supports the development of the stabilizing smaller muscles in addition to stretching everything out. Core development in both strength training and yoga are mutually reinforced through both types of activity which I also notice.

Right now my ideal workout week is structured this way:

  • yoga 6 x per week (30 minutes 5 days, 2 hours on Saturday)
  • weight training 3-4 x per week split into sessions focused on
    • upper body push
    • upper body pull
    • core and agility
    • lower body
  • walking (8-10 km) or another outdoor activity like kayaking 2 x per week

I’m not sure I have ever gotten all that into a single week since other things (like work) get in the way – but it’s my aspirational schedule I do manage to fit most of it in. I would like to get more cardio in during my strength days but that is hit and miss depending on how I feel. I do throw some treadmill, elliptical, or rowing machine into my gym days, but feel like I should get a HIIT class or two in as well.

But – whatever! Ten months after coming to powerlifting, four years after coming to yoga, I can see fundamental shifts in the way my body looks and operates and I’m at the point where I notice each time I tweak something. It continues to motivate me, and even on days when I really don’t feel like exerting myself I am rewarded during a workout by noticing something new about myself. This week it was the fact that I suddenly noticed forearm definition, coupled by accidentally loading the barbell up twenty pounds heavier than I meant to and going from 197 to 217 on my dead lift! (That just goes to show how much lifting is in the head, not the arms/back/legs).

At this middle age I didn’t think I would be writing about a transforming body except to lament the loss of skin elasticity, but instead I’ve used the stats for women in peri-menopause as a kind of spur to nudge myself with. During the quarantine and pandemic weirdness it went from feeling like a good thing to do, to downright essential in order to keep my equilibrium. It’s my hope now to keep it up and keep experimenting with my body to keep it healthy and limber.

One Comment on “Post #3197: Bodies are weird experiments

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