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6 September 2019updated 26 Jul 2021 6:41am

I never liked exercise – so how did I end up religiously lifting my body weight every Thursday?

By Pippa Bailey

It’s 7:30pm on a Thursday and 15 women are shouting at me to push. I’m in a borderline grimy rugby-club gym in east London. Above me, a barbell is stacked with 40kg, before me is my third rep. This, give or take a few kilos, is how I’ve spent every Thursday night (OK, I’ve skived a few) for two years.

On discovering this, people ask at least one of three questions. First: “Won’t you get bulky?” This is almost always asked by a woman: women are conditioned to value slim over strong; to aim take up less space, not more. The second is: “Do you do that one where you throw it over your head?” No, that’s Olympic weightlifting; I do powerlifting: bench press, squat and deadlift. Finally: “Could you lift me?” To which I invariably answer: “Probably – if you were shaped like a barbell.” With those boxes checked, people – especially those who know me well – want to find out how on earth I ended up here.

Weightlifting, classically a male-dominated sport, is an atypical choice for a woman, but it is even more so for me. Whatever fledgling talents as an athlete I might once have had were crushed somewhere between afternoons staring into a pint of Coke at the pub while my dad and brother shouted “WHAT A PASS” at the TV, and my PE teacher telling me to run anyway, despite my having failed to hit the ball in rounders. I settled without much of a fight into my role as “the academic one”, while my brother took “the sporty one”. My brain I could believe in, my body less so.

And so exercise became a form of torture, inflicted by the cruellest teachers, and later, a way to pay penance for the junk that shouldn’t have been eaten or the dress that no longer fitted or the boy who would like me, if only… It was certainly never edifying or fun. Occasionally, a well-meaning peer would tell me that I just hadn’t found my thing yet. By the time I found it, aged 25, I’d abandoned hope that it existed at all.

As to how I ended up here, the answer is simple: I googled it. One afternoon in my stale local gym, pedalling a fixed bike at a noncommittal pace, I watched as a group of steroid-inflated men chucked around a few dumbbells and checked themselves out in the mirror. And then – a rare sight in the free-weights section of any gym – a woman; a woman who, tuning out the posturing, completed a strange and stunted-looking exercise that I now know to be a Romanian deadlift. I want to be like her, I thought. And so I did as any well-trained millennial would, and reached for my phone.

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A few weeks later, I was nervously eyeing the accoutrement of a women-only weightlifting class – the racks and plates, chalk and belts – and trying to squash down lurching memories of bleep-test humiliation. Ahead of my first Ladies Who Lift session (strengthambassadors.com – see you Thursday), I had filled in the instructor’s questionnaire and, asked what I wanted to get out of the classes, I wrote that I would like to be able to lift my own body weight. I almost deleted it, it felt so improbable – but then I deadlifted 40kg within my first few classes, and suddenly it didn’t seem quite as laughable.

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Finally, here was exercise that felt intuitive, where my body wasn’t fighting me over every movement. Weightlifting doesn’t require natural speed, coordination or any of the other skills that had me relegated to banner-making at sports day. It asks only for muscle, grit and your undivided attention (and I was confident I could give it at least two out of three). There is no one waiting for you to fail, or comparing your performance to theirs. We compete only against ourselves, assiduously noting our numbers, marking every half kilo of progress.

I have experienced many more physically noteworthy moments since those early weeks – such as the first time I deadlifted 100kg – but the most powerful happened in that first class: I discovered how strong I was already, and with it, the extent to which I’d been underestimating myself. Lifting weights is exercise that is about what my body can do, not what it looks like. Laid bare on the page, that feels simple and obvious, but after years of exercise as self-flagellation, it was revelatory – and maybe a little sad. 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

This article appears in the 04 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want