Powerlifting as Therapy

Today’s PRs

Wow, it’s been around 10 months since I’ve written. What can I say, it’s been a long pandemic. Somewhere in there I took up powerlifting as a way to be more body positive. I told myself maybe when I had something big to celebrate, it could be my next blog. Well kids, today I deadlifted 200 lbs! It feels amazing to be able to lift most humans. But the benefits of this sport go far beyond bragging rights. I thought I’d share the mental health benefits, because they’ve been considerable.

What exactly is powerlifting? It’s really simple. There are just 3 lifts: the deadlift, squat, and benchpress. Most people know what a squat and benchpress are, but don’t quite understand the morbidly named deadlift. Deadlifting is just picking up a heavy object off the floor. These three are all compound (involving multiple muscles/groups), and represent the best picture of overall strength. In the official sport, you need to be able to do three reps of the given lift at a qualifying weight to compete. It takes lots of other training to do those three lifts well.

Why did I get into this historically bro-ey sport? I always found weightlifting fairly boring. In retrospect it’s because I didn’t find doing a billion reps of low weights exciting. And I still don’t. I had dabbled in heavier lifts in college as part of my non-illustrious D1 rugby career. Then I spent the rest of my adult life only doing cardio and swimming. I wasn’t thrilled with my body, chubby despite any amount of restrictive eating and exercise. I also saw my parents aging. They moved slower and struggled sometimes even to get in and out of a car. Plus I turned 40 (cue the midlife crisis speculation, but I had that a few years earlier). All the literature talks about this as the cliff age for women to lose strength and I wanted to push back against that fate.

Getting to here: I got a personal trainer to make sure I learned proper form and how to minimize the risk of injury through stretching and cross-training. I recognize I was fortunate to be able to invest in this. For those who can’t, Youtube and social media are flourishing with helpful tips and support. I found barbells very intimidating and felt like I’d get laughed out of the gym full of primping dudes and the occasional bad-ass lady. It was helpful to start out with just me and a trainer showing me the ropes. Six months on, what I like most about the gym is seeing women of all weights lifting heavy shit. The guys are like background noise- they don’t even register.

Building Mental Muscle: I have PTSD secondary to a sexual assault in childhood, along with a good helping of anxiety due to simply being a human in today’s world. I was in pretty good order when I started lifting thanks to an amazing therapist and some other mind-body interventions. I told my therapist in one of our periodic “maintenance sessions” about lifting. She is trained specifically in somatic therapy (body work) and found this news delightful. In somatic body work, you actually health through body movements, sometimes reproducing what you would have liked to have done to respond to the trauma in the moment. In the case of sexual assault, rather than the freeze response I had as a teen, I can now use my body to push the weight of most adult males off my body. I don’t visualize this every time, and I don’t need to. I simply smile at myself about my newfound capacity to protect myself.

In the Body: Lifting ridiculously heavy weights has another benefit from trauma survivors- it supports embodiment. Many of us with PTSD become very cerebral/disembodied. We spend all of our times in our heads. Learning to re-occupy your body is crucial for healing. Did you know that PTSD survivors have a higher risk for injury due to accidents? It’s because we actually often lose proprioception, or the ability to perceive where our bodies are in space. I had this happen in the most absurd way- I was walking my recycling out to the bin in flip flops and tripped on literally nothing. This minor sounding trip led to a pop and a total ligament tear in my ankle. The orthopedist said he could operate, but he suggested physical therapy instead. He said my ligament would never grow back together, but I could train up my other tissues around there and learn to live without.

When I am lifting heavy, it takes 100% attention to my body to not hurt myself. I have to check in with each joint and muscle, each small center of balance, or it could all go to hell. One has to know when you could add a bit more, when to stop (even if you hoped to do more reps that day), when to take more rest. In short, one has to listen to the body. I now whisper to that phantom ligament and all the tendon/bone friends around her as I grip the bar preparing for a new PR. And when skinnier voices around me talk about how they hate their body, I do my best to tell mine thank you for getting me to this day (Shehecheyanu, for those who feel me).

Anxiety side benefit: my general anxiety has also never been lower, because when you’ve willfully moved a few hundred pounds around before sunrise, you don’t actually have a lot of energy left for caring about other minor work drama and the like.

But about that body: So, still chubby. Any weight loss will be welcome but not the focus. I do have some anxiety around gaining more, but I wouldn’t care if it’s muscle. My gym offers body composition testing which helps me see muscle gains as a relative share of weight. Some women (e.g. my worried mother) ask if I’m trying to bulk up. Truth is, for women to really bulk up you’d need to get into the roids and that’s not what this is about. It is about a more intimate, loving relationship with this vehicle I’ve been given to take on this early voyage. Co-pilots welcome!

Today’s PRs for those who care: Deadlift 200×3, Squat 175x3x3, Bench 100×3!


Somatic Therapy for Trauma Recovery

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