When I signed up with Jay as my personal trainer, I wondered whether a 30-something competitive weightlifter was the right choice for a post-menopausal empty nester. My doctor had urged me to take up strength training for heart and bone health, and that, combined with recollections of my grandma’s stooped fragility, propelled me past my misgivings.
As a kid, I avoided organized sports, so I never felt an endorphin high until my 20s when a friend inspired me to take up running. Newfound body confidence led me to try tennis and water skiing and later powered me through childbearing. Now, at 52, my activity consisted of strolls with the dog and irregular, non-rigorous workouts at the gym.
“At this stage, you have to start doing more, or going forward, your health will decline,” my doctor had said. Her words stirred uneasiness. I wanted to be that hip, active older woman, able to travel anywhere and play with grandchildren, not someone limited by infirmity.
As Jay and I got started, I appreciated that he brought the same enthusiasm to my training as he did for sessions with high school athletes. Touting the benefits of core strength, Jay insisted that I learn to deadlift, a mainstay of serious lifters. You raise a loaded barbell off the ground to the level of your hips, with your torso perpendicular to the floor, then place it back on the ground.
At our gym, men and a few younger women performed this exercise, often with audible grunts. My flabby gut fluttered with anxiety, but I had hired Jay for his expertise, so I figured I’d better try. Little did I know the process would sculpt a whole new way of being in my body.
We began with a light kettlebell so I could master the technique before attempting a challenging weight. Over several months, I advanced to heavier kettle bells, then to a weight bar alone until I was ready to step onto the special platform in the corner of the gym. Positioning myself behind the weight bar with added plates at either end, a thrill of excitement and fear pulsed through me. Could I do this? How silly would I look?
Jay reminded me to apply our prior lessons to this heavier apparatus. “Plant your feet about shoulder width apart . . . that’s right, now bend your knees and lean over to position your hands on the bar.”
I placed my hands just wide of shoulder width apart, left palm facing forward and right palm toward the back, as he continued, “Hinge from the hips so your back stays flat. Take a few short breaths, in and out. Now dig your heels into the mat.”
Then, I did it! That day and many more. Nearly five years and hundreds of deadlifts later, my focus turns inward as soon as I’m at the weight bar, attuned to an inner voice that speaks with surprising authority.
INHALE a big breath into your lower abdomen. SQUEEZE the big muscles in the front and back of your thighs, your glutes, and TIGHTEN your core. KEEP DIGGING those heels into the mat. That’s right – Stand tall (STAY TIGHT!) and EXHALE as you bring the bar to hip height . . . HOLD . . .now set it down.
Progressing over time from deadlifting 50 pounds to 150, I stopped looking to Jay for the number of repetitions to attempt. Now I listen within. Let’s go for one more. Or, better hold here, if I sense lower back strain. It’s the same voice that organizes my mind, muscles, and breath for the exertion. No longer doubting my ability or worrying about who is watching, I relish the challenge and sometimes even detect admiring glances from other patrons.
Deadlifting shifted my mindset toward other physical activities too, at the gym and in life. Squats and lunges do not only work the legs. Anchoring my feet to the ground and filling my lungs at the start stabilizes me and engages abdominals in the movement as well. It’s the same for weeding the garden or carrying luggage. I consciously perform actions as a single, fluid entity. Such inner awareness differs from the expansive endorphin high of my younger years that spurred me to new activities.
A few months ago, I became a grandma, and I’m proud to say that I can safely rise from the floor while holding my granddaughter. I also grew my hair out to its natural silvery gray. Now I resemble that vibrant older woman I envisioned five years ago when I began deadlifting. In this elder stage of life, deep core strength grounds me in myself, fully present to the here and now, which is where I want to be.