Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My gym life needed a lift

There are some people who, when they reach that restless midlife stage, have an affair or buy a sports car. Me? I decided to learn how to perform a deadlift. (Full Disclosure: At 50, I suppose I'm technically past midlife, and I'm also happily married and don't like to drive fast.)

I became intrigued with the deadlift several weeks ago after stumbling upon a video of a woman named Nia Shanks, at 122 pounds, deadlifting 300 pounds in her first powerlifting competition, where she ended up setting a national push/pull record in her division by also bench-pressing 145 pounds. You can see for yourselves here.

I love watching as Nia steps up to the bar and casually and confidently hoists that 300 pounds with barely a grimace. Nia, by the way, also happens to be a fat-loss expert who posts some very insightful information on strength training and nutrition over at The Fat Solutions.

After watching that video and thinking, "How can she do that?" (no disrespect intended, Nia), I became curious about the deadlift, and as I often do when I'm curious about something, I started reading about it — a lot. What an eye-opener!

It turns out that the deadlift is THE core exercise, along with squats, for building overall strength. Where have I been for the last 20 years? Oh right, working out with dumbbells and machines of questionable value.

So I set out to learn how to do a deadlift, and to do it properly. That's very important when it comes to strength training: that old saying "fake it till you make it" might work in self-help circles, but in the weight room it can too easily turn into "fake it till you break it."

I headed to my friendly neighborhood gym, Anytime Fitness in Richmond, and had Joe Penrose, one of the gym's owners, demonstrate the deadlift for me. That's Joe at left, deadlifting 225 pounds just to humor me (Joe's the modest sort, and I'm pretty sure that was just a warm-up load for him).

A word of caution: I'm not intending here to show you or tell you how to do a deadlift, or even encourage you to try (all right, my internal lie-detector just went off on that last one). This is simply an account of my introduction to the deadlift.

I've always liked the idea of strength, and the deadlift is one of three events that form the sport of powerlifting, along with the squat and the bench press.

While I have no intention of getting into powerlifting, I think building strength is a good idea, regardless of one's age or gender, and I've never understood why so many women seem to fear it. To me, strength is freedom, and I don't mean that in the way a military recruiter might utter the phrase. What I mean is that strength can help you accomplish whatever it is you want to do.

Oh, I understand that many women don't want to get big and bulky, but our lack of the necessary levels of testosterone pretty much makes that a false worry. As Nia ably demonstrates, it's entirely possible for a woman to be exceptionally strong without the bulk.

So what's not to like about strength? It's a very relative term, when you think about it.

Strength to an elderly man might mean being able to pick up his grandchild without back pain. To a teenager, it might mean being able to safely and comfortably hike a 14,000-foot peak. To a middle-age woman, it might mean being able to pull that 40-pound bag of decorative stone from the shelf at Home Depot without asking for assistance.

Strength is freedom — freedom from limitation, freedom from unnecessary injury. Strength gives us the freedom to get into situations we want to be in, and the freedom to get out of situations we don't want to be in.

My first couple of deadlift sessions were challenging and interesting. I started with a mere 65 pounds, just to get the technique right. The move felt awkward at first, and I was a little self-conscious, since I've rarely seen anyone — man or woman — doing deadlifts at any gym I've ever belonged to. But soon the deadlift felt just plain good.

I'm now lifting 105 pounds, and will keep you posted on my progress. Maybe someday I'll even post a video of me deadlifting when I get to what I consider a "respectable" weight. Not that there's any shame in starting light. Egos have led to an awful lot of injuries, in the gym and elsewhere.

So thanks Nia and Joe, for giving me a much-needed lift.

And as for midlife? What's with all that "crisis" stuff anyway? Midlife is only halftime, and I plan to be a strong second-half finisher.


  1. I too am now deadlifting for the first time in almost 25 years. I feel great and am getting stronger each session

  2. Yeah, Sandy, it's an amazing exercise, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by.