“How do I tone my arms, not bulk up too much, I’m 62, women?”

Sometimes I get search terms that inspire me instead of killing my hopes for the human race, and this is one of them! How do you tone your arms and not bulk up too much, 62-year-old woman? Or any woman, for that matter? Here are The Simple And Easy Ten-Step Directions:

1. Strike the word “tone” from your vocabulary. There is no “tone.” There is only muscle gain and fat loss. You cannot “tone” a muscle without increasing its size, e.g., adding bulk. Lose your fear of size by recognizing that this fear is culturally created by a jillion dollars’ worth of advertising dedicated to ensmallening women in every possible way.

2. Understand that muscle is hard to build. The biggest men you see at the gym have to fight for every ounce of muscle they gain; the biggest women you see fight twice as hard. After the age of 30, the average woman loses a half-pound of muscle per year. See where this is headed?

3. Realize that the kind of female “bulk” you’re probably thinking of — eye-popping, striated mass — is the result of anabolic steroids.

4. Do not take anabolic steroids.

5. Invite your muscles to increase in size by eating at least one gram of lean protein per pound of body weight per day, in addition to piles of colorful vegetables and a judicious amount of complex carbohydrates.

6. Processed foods and things in crinkly bags must not be chewed, but eschewed. Dumping the junk, combined with exercise and sufficient rest/recovery, will result in fat loss, thereby making your muscles more visible.

7. Accept your genetics. You know how, say, Siamese cats tend to have parents who were themselves Siamese cats? We’re no different. Look at your parents. These are your physical ingredients. Bake with these ingredients what you can. If you are a lemon bar, stop wishing you were an oatmeal cookie or whatever. Be the best lemon bar you can be.

8. Un-invest the word “bulk” with negativity. De-program yourself. Say the word “bulk” out loud to yourself 100 times; more if needed, until it loses all meaning and becomes a mere dull thud of a sound. Bulk bulk bulk bulk bulk bulk bulk bulk bulk bulk. See?

9. Lift something heavy. Put it down.

10. Lift it again.

Breaking up with CrossFit

CrossFit is like a beautiful, crazy woman I can’t stop loving, no matter how many times she sets fire to my house. So this could be a weenie “breakup” wherein I go back later with fresh hopes, or a weenie “taking a break” wherein I never do.

I’ve done CrossFit for three years. Four days a week, I lace up my Ivov-8’s, check the whiteboard, and get after whatever’s on tap for the day. I’m strong, fast, and agile — likely in the top fittest 10% of any random group of 38-year-old women as long as we keep the Eastern Europeans out of the mix. CrossFit has helped get me there, and it’s been exhilarating — the timer goes off and my heart starts to pound before I even move because the challenge is to be the fastest, strongest, and most agile version of myself for the next 8 or 12 or 20 minutes.

I love throwing heavy weights over my head; I love jumping 35 inches into the air. CF has given me physical confidence that transfers into other areas of my life — if I can do this, I can face down 140 teenagers every day at work; I can say no to toxic relationships; I can trust myself.

CrossFit has gotten more hands around more barbells than anything else in the history of weight training. It asks women to lift seriously; to sweat; to build muscular strength and power – and for this, in a sea of candy-colored 2- and 3-pound dumbbells and Tracy Anderson tone-up shysters, I am grateful. But. Here are my problems with CrossFit (hat tip to Beth French at Lift Big, Make It Beautiful):

  • The sexualization of women’s fitness. I’m sick of the “snatch” jokes; the Lulu booty shorts; and the Reebok sponsorship tie-in tagline: “Turning Sevens into Tens” (CF makes average-looking women into knockouts, as measured by the time-honored frat-boy rating system) No pressure on male athletes to be sexxxay AND badass; just the women. One popular CF T-shirt reads, “Cheat On Your Girlfriend, Not Your Workout.” Another reads, “Strong Is The New Skinny,” which translates to “CrossFit: Exchanging One Form Of Miserable Body Dysmorphia For Another.”
  • The injury trap. Do most CrossFit workouts the way they’re written, and you will get hurt. For example: Heavy high-rep snatches for time. The snatch is a highly technical Olympic  lift; a lift which, if you fuck it up, has the potential to rip your shoulders out of their sockets. The best way to fuck up an Oly lift is to do it lots and lots of times, with heavy weight, against a clock. This is a recipe for sloppiness.  Sloppiness means injury.  I was once laid up for three weeks after giving myself snatch-related whiplash (insert joke here).
  • The emphasis on making the numbers. Got an obsessive element to your personality, or a history of eating disorders? CF can act as gasoline on that fire. Never mind that whoever wrote the workout doesn’t know you, your body, or your fitness level — by God, the whiteboard says 30 clean-and-jerks for time; you’re gonna clean and jerk as fast as possible — even when your form degrades. That’s how I did something to my back three months ago that still hurts.
  • The disingenuous way some CF coaches/gyms tell you to “know your limits” while simultaneously pushing pushing pushing you past them. Then, when you get hurt? You’re the asshole who didn’t know your limits, so your injury is your fault. Have fun waiting two weeks to get in to see an orthopedist, and I hope you’ve set aside $500 for that MRI.
  • The false correlation between injury and being a badass. It’s part of CrossFit’s bravado  culture to insist that pain is mental; to get that last…rep…no…matter…what. Grinding pain in your knee/shoulder/elbow? Sharp agony in your lower back? Push past it! Too many people at my gym have suffered moderate-to-severe injuries — cervical disc damage; elbow fractures; torn ligaments. Can you imagine how painful and disabling those injuries are going to be in 10,15, 30 years? The point of exercise is to feel better, not worse — to age with strength, not worsen the inevitable aches and pains. I mean, we’re not at war here, OK? There’s, like, some nice Kombucha in the gym fridge just across from the racks. No reason to be a hero.
  • Inadequate training for CF coaches. Want to get certified? It’ll cost you about $1,000 for a two-day course and a 50-question multiple-choice test. Then you’re qualified to hold a stopwatch and scream, “GO GO GO, YOU GOT THIS!” Some coaches are excellent; some are clueless, and there’s no real quality control. The onus is on you to make sure your coach is skilled — difficult to discern if you’re not already an expert yourself.
  • The expense. CF’s $150/month price point tends to attract only upper-middle-class people. The CF Games are, fundamentally, a selection process to identify the world’s whitest person with the most disposable income.
  • The competitive trap. Ostensibly, you only compete with yourself, but it’s near-impossible not to look at the athlete next to you, powering through those high-rep snatches, and not try to surpass her/him. Unfortunately, the athlete next to you may be 60 pounds heavier and 8 inches taller; or 20 years younger; or independently wealthy with nothing else to do but CF and shop for cool Lululemon shit online.
  • The competitions themselves, and problematic emphasis on same. CF is not a sport, mkay? It’s a competitive activity, but it’s generalist, not a sport. Four frantic minutes of 65/100 pound thrusters and chest-to-bar-pullups? Not a sport, especially when you have athletes of wildly disparate size and weight competing against one another. But the energy funneled into competition makes some coaches neglect regular members — the ones scrimping and pinching $150 a month to belong to the gym.
  • The refusal to take aging into consideration. CrossFit considers athletes “masters” at the age of 45 or 40, depending. Ages 18 and 39? No difference. There’s nothing quite like being coached by a 22-year-old woman who yells, “Your mind will give out LONG before your body does!” I’m pushing 39, and it’s the reverse: My body turns in its notice WAY before my mind. For example, I’d LOVE to dance and drink and sex all night and still feel OK when it’s time to go to work at 7 a.m. — my mind is up for that! — but my body can no longer handle it. I won’t put my trust in a coach who’s never experienced that reality; who’s never felt her body refuse to do anything she told it to. She gets hurt? A little ice; good to go. I get hurt? I’m out of the gym for weeks.  Exercise is integral to my mental health, so I can’t afford weeks. My age is not some excuse I’m pulling out of my ass to avoid working hard.
  • Calling it “training” instead of “exercising” or “working out.” Training is something you do for a specific event or accomplishment – say, running a marathon or making the CrossFit Games. Very few people legitimately “train.” The rest of us just exercise.
  • The Paleo diet is mostly bullshit pseudoscience. Grains aren’t poison, humans can metabolize soy, and “the cavemen” lived to be 35 years old and were kind of dumb. Experts in evolutionary physiology work at universities, not your local CF box. I’m not eating goddamn bone marrow and organ meats for breakfast. Colon cancer is bad. One time I saw a guy sit on a plyo box and drink a pineapple juice/calf’s liver smoothie, and it grossed me out forever.

So, for now, I’ve dusted off my P90X DVD’s and the barbell in my garage. No yelling or clocks for awhile. I miss my CF friends already, but I’m going to enjoy working on my technique; improving my focus; and hitting the pause button once in a while. In sweatpants.

Women Can’t Win: Rinse and Repeat

I see what they did here, and it’s well-meant…

…but ignorant.

“She thought skinnier people were happier?” No. The anorexic mindset has nothing to do with happiness. It has to do with with the high of self-mortification; the power of control; and the considerable social rewards that come with being the thinnest girl in the room.

So, an anorexic is going to linger over the photo on the left. That woman’s emaciation isn’t scary, it’s THINSPIRATIONAL. It’s the goal. It’s what she uses to muffle hunger pangs; to spur on her Sisyphean stairmaster trudge.

The photo on the right is what the anorexic fears. She doesn’t see strength, just bulk –nonessential flesh that needs to be burned away. These photos aren’t going to help her decide in favor of healthy eating and training; they’re going to trigger her illness further.

Also — and file this under Tiresome Irony — these photos serve as yet another way to judge women’s bodies against one another, without considering how cultural realities affect those bodies. Without sparing a thought to how women’s choices are skewed by race, class, and the ubiquitous Western media monster.

The only sort-of unusual thing is that these photos, currently making the rounds on Facebook weightlifting/CrossFit circles, depict the same woman. Otherwise, this is an old, tired routine in the guise of something edgy. Like burlesque, but with extra protein and judgement.

strong.

Womyn, please permit me a Sunday-morning brag: I just walked by a full-length mirror, naked,* and realized that people might actually buy a workout DVD** if I was on the cover. All I need is a spray tan.

Here’s what I’ve spent the last three years developing: Thick, powerful quadriceps muscles. Veins running upwards from my pelvis, fanning out towards my obliques. Matching veins in my biceps. Fourteen-inch calves that can raise over 300 pounds. Knotty forearms.

Here’s what that requires: Good genetics. Five to eight focused hours a week in the gym. Four to five small meals a day, all of which include high-quality protein. Never having given birth.

Here’s what that requires: A sizable dollop of socioeconomic privilege.

I don’t make much money. But I do have an education (partly underwritten by my family) and a racial/class background that lets me go into Whole Foods or CrossFit and feel I belong. Even if I have to use a credit card to cover my organic salmon or my $120/month membership fee, those things are still accessible. I don’t live in a food desert, and things will improve financially if I can keep working hard. I don’t share the lifestyle of the lawyers and dentists I do flying burpees and toes-to-bar with, but I feel equal to them because I had opportunities to go to school; to read; to travel.

And, as for never having given birth? That’s the result of good sex education; access to safe, affordable birth control back when I was having sex with men; and the fact that I never had to rely on a man for financial support. No one was able to coercively impregnate me, or force me to bear a child against my will. When I didn’t want to be married any longer, I could get out.

Privilege. Luck. So much luck.

If my life had been different, my body wouldn’t look this way. And my body is a constant visual message from me, to me, that I’m strong. That — barring an accident or illness — I can take care of myself and the womyn I love. I don’t need to be afraid of any man unless he’s got a gun. I can bring in my own groceries in from the car and yours, too. My stepmother doesn’t have to worry about making it up a flight of stairs, because I can carry her. And, if I keep up this level of fitness and luck, I won’t have to depend on anyone in my old age. Dependency frightens me much more than death. And, for now, I get to walk through the world taking up muscular, confident space, thankful that my body can do what it needs to do.

I’m starting to turn a career possibility over in my mind: What if I were to get personal training certification and open up a womyn-only practice? What if I focused on womyn over 40 — the clients most trainers ignore, or simply put up with, because they’re not hawt enough to really invest in? What if I helped create a powerful, strong, Older Womyn’s Army, so that fewer of us have to face dependency and vulnerability as the years go by?

 

*Don’t worry, the mirror is in my house. Not at the mall or anything.

**But not a beauty magazine. Measured against that particular slender aesthetic standard, I look like a monster. Good.

I Can Put My Toes in My Ears

I love CrossFit. It’s the anti-Curves: No 2-pound pink dumbbells; no scales; no mirrors; no money funneled into right-wing politics. Just weight platforms; weight vests; long skinny weights; fat round weights; weights strung from ropes. Some chin-up bars. Tractor tires.

I don’t hear much dysmorphic body talk among female CrossFitters at my gym. Not a lot of noise re: thigh circumference*.  We focus more on what our bodies can do, and although there is a CrossFit body ideal (defined; sinewy) few women are trying to ensmallen. They do the workouts; lift the weights; and let everything fall where it may. Very good.

But I do notice a different kind of obsessive self-abegnation dressed up to look like passion, e.g. pushing until you get hurt. Injury somehow makes you a serious CF athlete. Many trainers (mostly young men) encourage lifters to push more and more weight — even after they lose their form — while the rest of the class yells “GO YEAH YOU GOT THIS YOU GOT THIS” from the sidelines. (I hate yelling at people as much as I hate being yelled at).

Ostensibly, you’re only supposed to compete against yourself, but each workout is timed — and everyone’s time goes up on the whiteboard for easy comparison. Everyone — big guys/small women; young/old; beginner/veteran — does the same workout. CrossFit gyms love to put up photos of members’ kinesthetic suffering: palms blistered and bleeding from the pull-up bars; shins bruised and scraped from the barbell. Showing weakness or discomfort merits only-sort-of-kidding scorn. Sometimes I hear the word “pussy,” and not like I like to hear it.

Guys brag about hurting their backs while deadlifting 450 pounds, as though it were something to be proud of rather than evidence of a personality disorder and/or a childhood spent licking lead paint.

Lifting too much + Lifting too quickly + Sloppy form = Injury.

Injury = Pain, debilitation, and sidelining yourself for weeks or months.

Even worser: These doods often feel free to comment on women’s bodies via athletic negging: “Your legs look great…but your shoulders are underdeveloped. Work them harder, and you can create a V-taper to make your waist look smaller.” Women new to fitness, or over 40, get tokenized to prove that CF caters to all ages and fitness levels — but the zeitgeist of the place runs them off if an injury doesn’t. To them, I say: Life is sadistic and masochistic enough outside the gym, so pick a place and a trainer that trust you to know your own body.  And: admitting your limitations doesn’t mean a bad or fearful attitude.

And don’t do headstands. What are you, six? Just…don’t.

*Shopping for pants makes me cry, for reals. Size 0’s fit my waist and rear, but my thighs are just not having it.