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Posts Tagged ‘Women’

Raise the Bar

In Rhetoric, Training on October 27, 2012 at 3:23 pm

I know this has been floating around the blogosphere for a couple of days now, but I still must respond to it–even if I’m late on the bandwagon. I must reply to this post that appeared on Yahoo. Primarily, it was a reaction to a study published in the New York Times about why “women can’t do pull-ups.” A group of exercise researchers selected 17 “normal weight” women who couldn’t perform a pull-up, trained them (bi’s and lats, it seems) for three months, and found that at the end of those three months, only four could do a pull up. An exercise physiologist then chimes in about how it’s biologically more difficult for a woman to do a pull up. I’m not too bothered by any of this– it is significantly more difficult for a woman to do a pull up, and I was just remarking to Jefe the other day how it’s fascinating that we have female members who join in peak physical condition, unable to perform a pull-up, and men who’ve been out of shape for years who can still hoist themselves up to the bar. There’s a significant gender divide in terms of upper-body strength– it’s how we’re biologically built. What bothers me, is that Susan B. Weir from Yahoo! took this as an opportunity to tell women to “lower the bar.” In her short article, she explains that we’re at a biological disadvantage when it comes to pull-ups, so perhaps we can just accept that this is something we can’t achieve.

Bull. Shit.

I’m pretty sure it took me more than three months to get my first pull-up. In fact, if we start from before my CrossFit days, way back when I was fumbling along to P90x dvds, it probably took me years to achieve my first pull-up. But it’s not impossible. If this formerly overweight, out-of-shape, wheezy nerdkid could work her way up to 10 dead hangs (got my first set of 10 strict perhaps two weeks ago), than I’m pretty sure Susan B. Weir has no excuse– if she wants a pull-up. It’s fine if she doesn’t, but she also shouldn’t be out there telling women “well you’re naturally disinclined, so don’t bother trying!” What drives me even crazier is the comments at the bottom of this post. One girl even wrote:

“Men you can test your strenght while we women go shopping.” (yes, she misspelled strength all on her own there)


I work out alongside a whole host of women who can do pull-ups. I’ve watched almost all of them earn that first pull-up with months of assisted pull-ups and negatives and jumping pull-ups. I know a delightful lady in her 50s who, four times a week, dutifully puts a step stool next to the pull-up rig, loops her legs into a resistance band, and works on her daily reps while chattering about how she looks forward to getting her first unassisted pull-up someday.

Overcoming genetic difference isn’t just a matter for women, either. One of our gym’s most gifted athletes (often referenced here as “Zebrapants”) stands at about 5’3″. For him, wall-balls, box jumps, and rowing understandably suck. The first time he did Karen (150 wall-balls), he barely finished within the time cap. A month later, he finished in under 6 minutes. Just to reach the pull-up bar, he has to do a vertical leap, but that hasn’t kept him from a two-minute Fran.

Yeah… there are inequities in life that sometimes makes things harder– but that’s never a reason to lie down and accept your condition if you’re unhappy with it. Weir’s message is one of defeat; if it’s hard, it’s okay to stop trying. I refuse to accept that, and I find it offensive that she thinks women would prefer that– would want the easy way out. Yeah… sometimes life sucks. Don’t lower the bar. Raise it– and pull yourself up.

Built for Nothing

In Training on September 28, 2012 at 11:22 pm

It is my delight to respond to a recent article¬†penned by a friend of a friend and fantastic blogger, Caitlin from Fit and Feminist. The piece is entitled “Should Women Run? You’re Damn Right They Should” in response to what sounds like an outrageous blog post discouraging women from running. Here are Caitlin’s opening paragraphs:

I’m a runner who doesn’t look like a runner. I am a six-foot-tall woman who has hips and broad shoulders. In fact, I look more like a basketball player or a swimmer. Yet I happen to be a pretty good runner. I regularly finish in the top 10 percent of local races, and I’ve even come close to winning a couple of 5Ks. I love running, and I can’t imagine my life without it.

So when I read a blog post entitled “Why Most Women Shouldn’t Run,” in which the author wrote that only women with narrow hips and flat chests should run, I was confused, because clearly she couldn’t be talking about me. And when she went on to say that the rest of us should just stick to the StairMaster, my confusion turned into unadulterated rage. I would rather strangle myself with the laces on my running shoes that step foot on a StairMaster.

I am, perhaps, Caitlin’s opposite. At 5’3″ and flat and narrow all over, I’ve often been asked if I’m a runner. The truth is, I rarely log distances longer than 400m at a time. Most of my cardio is confined to 100m-200m sprints or 250m rowing repeats. My hours at the gym are spent primarily with barbells and pullup bars. Ironically, I like lifting heavy. My favorite CrossFit movements are the explosive ones– power cleans, kettlebell work, etc… and I also enjoy the slow satisfaction of my max effort days–sets of one to three with long rests, the feel of triumph when the once-impossible heap of iron and rubber clears the ground.

Again, 5’3″ and flat and narrow, I’m not build for heavy loads. And with my aforementioned brain/body coordination issues, I’ve certainly struggled with “explosive.” It took me months to conquer box jumps, and my cleans stalled for just as long because I could not drive the bar with my hips. In fact, if I chose my physical activity based on what I were “built” to do, I’d be confined to a chair… for the safety of world and myself. Actually, because I allowed myself to be limited by my body– to be discouraged by my asthma, frustrated by my lack of coordination and endurance– I spent most of my life avoiding physical activity. One of the many things for which I owe CrossFit: it taught me that it’s okay to suck. I learned to accept coming through the door last, having the lightest weight on the bar, and flailing awkwardly from the rig. I learned to just enjoy it for me, regardless of times or rounds or numbers.

I know that, a year ago, when I started telling people that I wanted to be a CrossFit coach someday, I sounded ridiculous. I was 88lbs; I couldn’t do a box jump or a pull-up. I couldn’t clean 45 lbs. It’s been a little more than a year. I’m 27 lbs heavier, and almost all my lifts have doubled (or more). I can do pull-ups– strict, kipping, and butterfly. I can do chest-to-bars. I can do handstand pushups and rope climbs and pistols… things I never imagined would ever be in my realm of possibility. I have a long, long way to go still I know. And I’m greedy about it. I want a heavier squat. I want a muscle up. I want a faster 400m time, and I want better endurance… but I’ll keep working on it– not because I expect to be the best or even particularly “good,” but because I enjoy it. I find it fulfilling, and it’s good for me– physically, emotionally, mentally (I’m really not fit for human company when I haven’t been allowed outdoors or physical activity for more than 24 hours). I’m grateful for the progress I’ve made these past 15 months… and grateful even more for the patient coaches that have worked with me even when it seemed impossible– when I spent months falling off the same box and dropping the same 50lbs. Sometimes I get frustrated with my training because it feels like I’m fighting my body. I am small, which means my stride is shorter and my pull on the rower is shorter, and the amount of mass I’m throwing against the barbell is… sometimes laughable. I don’t put on muscle easily and I lose it even faster. As I’ve discovered in the past months, if I neglect a lift for two weeks, my numbers plummet. If I engage in endurance-based activities, all my lifts stall. There are many moments when I feel as if my brain is screaming at my body, but my limbs won’t obey, my joints can’t coordinate, and I lose all dexterity. But you’ll still find me at the gym the next day, falling off the rings just before the muscle-up transition.

Caitlin says that running has made her more confident, braver, tougher, and I maintain that CrossFit has done the same for me. My build does make things tougher… I still find myself envying girls that come in and throw 95lbs onto their shoulders like it’s weightless when that same achievement was a long, yearlong slog for me. But I’m not going to let that stop me… because I’ll strangle myself with the laces of Caitlin’s running shoes before I trade CrossFit for half-marathons ūüėČ

Scars, Pride, and Gratitude

In Rhetoric, Training on September 2, 2012 at 5:56 pm

Buckle down. It’s time for some more Jomad-oversharing again. Ready? Good.

For the past week, I’ve had a misguided fling of no real consequence with a very sweet guy from whom I think I differ too greatly to actually continue seeing. That’s not really the important part. But at some point, he was frowning at the callouses on my hands, and when I asked him if they bothered him, he hesitantly said, “Not really.” And then added: “But if I could snap my fingers and change it, I would.”

Here’s the thing, I know a lot of the “strong women of CrossFit” rhetoric is silly. It glosses over and simplifies a lot of more complicated issues about strength, body image, and gender. I’ve posted about the CrossFit Women’s Creed before and you can read more on my opinions here and here. But when he made that remark, I was reminded of the line “I am as proud of my muscles as I am of my scars. ¬†They are the evidence of my hard work and dedication.”

I actually know a lot of CrossFit women who are bothered by the roughness of their palms– and I don’t fault them that. But personally? I don’t give a shit. Actually, I am proud of them. I earned these callouses through hours on the bar. I rubbed skin away into rawness and blood into scabs and callouses so that I could progress from ring-ups to pull-ups to butterflies… so that I could double my clean and deadlift in five months.

With all the new members at the box (part and parcel of the start of a new school year), I’ve witnessed again how quickly many new members will pick up skills that took me months (or a year) to learn (or not yet learn). I see lifelong athletes adapt quickly to new movements, already attuned to the nuances of their bodies, accustomed to soreness and strain and heavy burdens. I’ve written of it before– for a long time, I found this a bit discouraging… struggling so hard for things that came naturally to many others. But I think I’ve accepted it now– or perhaps embraced it. I PR’d my power clean today (and snatch as well, actually). At 90lbs, it’s not that impressive… the two women with whom I started CrossFit (athletes I admire, whose strength and adroitness I aspire to one day emulate) have been power cleaning above 85 since our second month. I’ve also seen many new members exceed that number when they first test their PR. But in a little over 5 months ago, 90 lbs was my body weight. The first time I tried Grace (30 clean and jerks, for time), I tried it at 50lbs and spent the entire 20 minutes choking on tears because I could not get the bar to my shoulders. Today, 90lbs felt light. To many women, it is. But to me, it’s a year’s worth of labor. Of compiling articles and videos on O-lift technique, of badgering coaches here and in Phoenix with my incessant questions, of so many mornings of the Burgener complex, of figuring out how to eat and train to put on weight and keep it on, of reclaiming strength my body had entirely forgotten after years of fragility.

So… I don’t hold my nameless fellow’s remark against him, but… I’m afraid it’s not his right (especially not within a week of knowing me) to want to change my hands. If I could snap my fingers and have baby-smooth palms… I wouldn’t. For one, I’m pretty sure they’d tear open the next time I did a 2x+ bodyweight deadlift. But for two, they’re the memory of how I got here.

This is probably a belated revelation. I doubt my story is particularly unique. The lifelong athletes of whom I’ve been jealous might have struggled just as hard, just as long– simply earlier in their lives… not as twenty-something grad students trying to figure out how to not fail at this whole life thing. But, nevertheless, I’ll keep my callouses and be proud of my scars.

So… speaking of progress. I achieved my first monthly goal (over 2x bodyweight deadlift), and then my next monthly goal (sub 4:00min baseline), so now I’m tasked with conjuring new ones. I’m not sure about an end of the month goal, but with this morning’s 90lb clean, I’ve decided on a couple end-of-the-year goals. So… before 2013, I will:

Do Grace prescribed (3o 95lb clean and jerks for time), under 15 min. I still don’t really approve of high-volume, heavy Olympic lifts for time, but Grace has been my CrossFit nemesis for so long that I just need to do this.

Sub 7:00min Fran. I’m pretty sure I could do Fran prescribed now, but it would be a long slog. My shoulder strength isn’t quite there for the thrusters, and my grip would give too quickly on the pull-ups.

I’d also like a muscle-up… but again, because it’s a weird skill that some seem to achieve naturally and that other, perfectly adept athletes struggle with for years… I can’t gauge how far off I am from this. But with this in mind, I should remember to bring ring dips back into my rotation of exercises. I’m also doing the Armstrong Pull-up Program. I only do four days a week– I skip the repeat day because I figure pull-ups will show up in one of the WODs. Right now, I’m doing work sets of 5 and rather enjoying it…. we’ll see how it goes. In order to improve my times on the “girl” workouts, I know I need to work on my power production, and my intensity… for some reason, I feel like my ability to push through “the suck” has decreased over time. Or… as I’ve gotten stronger, the feel of bearing that weight brings significantly more “suck.” Either way, I’m trying to push harder through my workouts– 5 more pounds, one more rep, one more step before I let myself take a break.

Anyway, it’s been a rather lovely Labor Day weekend– plenty of time with good friends, who remind me that life outside the office (and *gasp* outside the gym) is worth enjoying. I’m thankful for that too.

The Naked Jo: A Confession

In Rhetoric, Training, Writing on July 12, 2012 at 7:47 pm

So, the gloves are coming off, and this blog is about to become way too personal. I actually returned to the gym today, itching to exorcise something angry and resentful in the form of sweat and screaming, but… I didn’t quite. Because I’m trying to take this strength training thing seriously and if I subjected myself to 7 minutes of burpees (which I willingly would), I wouldn’t be able to hit my power cleans tomorrow… so I will expel my demons in the only other way I know how: in writing. I will disburden unto you, my dear readers, my far-too-revealing thoughts. And you can judge me or not. Or stop reading and go back to those reruns of The Walking Dead (speaking of which, if anyone in State College has the second season on DVD to lend me… I’ll be your best friend? Or buy you a beer? Or be your best friend who buys you beer?)

Anyway… let’s start with a story. I’m good with stories.

By the eighth grade, I weighed 136 lbs. The doctors had been telling me to lose weight for years. Between ages 13 to 21, I weighed between 136-139. At my heaviest, I’m pretty sure I went over 140, but I avoided scales like the plague. Not because I cared, but because my parents cared and were constantly (well-intentionedly) urging me to lose weight. In my senior year of college, feeling stir-crazy from the demands of writing my honors thesis (a ~100pged short story collection now left to rot away… I’m a bit ashamed of it now– as we all of early works…), I embarked on my P90x adventure. Over the year, I lost about ten pounds… (and was told to lose more), but after graduating a semester early, I moved to New York City. I’d sent out graduate school applications, but wouldn’t hear back for six months. In that time, I interned for $15/day at a literary agency and waited tables at night. These were 15-18 hour days, and I didn’t really make enough for… anything. Meanwhile, I worried that three and a half diligent years of study had earned me nothing– that my parents were right, my major(s) (English and Theatre) were useless, and I had, in fact, chosen a path with no future.

I got sick. It happened in such a way that I didn’t even really notice. Between these two demanding jobs and the tremendously unhealthy (emotionally, physically… generally) relationship I was in, I learned misery as a way of life. It simply made sense that my body rebelled. I couldn’t keep food down or in. I never slept for more than an hour at a time. I had a persistent cough that lasted for months. I was taking four prescription-strength antacids and two painkillers every morning, though they did nothing. I was always, always cold. I remember dreading the walk to the subway every morning because I was too weak to really climb the stairs. I think the truly lowest point of my life was one evening, running from agency to restaurant, I just collapsed on the subway steps. My legs simply crumpled, and I lay there trying not to recognize what a disaster I’d made of my life. I was terrified to call home– to tell my parents that I couldn’t hack it on my own… Because I was so miserable and so used to being miserable, I didn’t realize how much weight I’d lost– about 30lbs in three months. I knew my clothes had stopped fitting, but I just tied a belt around my waist and didn’t think about it much.

Finally, I heard from the Javits Fellowship– administered by the Department of Education. I’d submitted an application out of blind hope. Every year, the government funds (or, funded, the program has since been disbanded due to budget cuts) exactly one MFA student in the country for all their years of graduate study. I didn’t think I had a shot in hell. I’m still convinced that I only received it by blind luck. Anyway… outside my literary agency, between hours eight and nine of another long day, I cried, overwhelmed by sudden hope. Afterwards, I received a few offers from MFA programs. Bolstered with the idea of a future– a life beyond these dreadful day to days– I finally called home, told my parents I was sick, made doctor’s appointments, and ended a three-year relationship that had become exponentially venomous over time.

Everyone here in State College only knows the post-NYC Jo. Small Jo. Weak Jo. The truth is; my body had collapsed so quickly, it took me a long time to even recognize how small I’d become. I didn’t believe people when they told me I was tiny. I didn’t believe that I was weak. Yeah, I had quite a bit of chub at 136lbs, but I was also “weirdly strong” for my size (not my words). Just this past summer, during my visit to Taiwan, several members of my family remarked that they never knew I had a small skeletal frame since I’d always seemed “big boned” (and in fact had been referred to as such all my life… nicknamed, even, in Chinese). When I started CrossFit, my body was an alien thing. I didn’t know how to inhabit this 93lb, shivering wreck (at my worst point, I think 88). I didn’t know how to walk on legs that could barely hold my weight. I didn’t know how to clothe a frame that didn’t have enough flesh to warm itself.

Now, about 104lbs, I’ve accepted the fact that I’m small. I’ve also gained enough weight that I’m no longer constantly cold (or I’ve adapted to these inhumane Pennsylvanian winters…). But… lately, really culminating in today, I was just overwhelmed by how fed up I am of being small. Of being weak. It’s funny… now I can deadlift 1.85x my own bodyweight. I can do 8 strict pull-ups. I can power clean 85% of my body. That’s decent on paper. But because I’m still fucking small, women come in for their on-ramps and are soon push-pressing my back squat.

Here’s the thing. I’m not competitive. No one believes me when I say this, but it’s true. When it comes to athletics, I have no competitive urge at all. Yes, in academics or in my job, I can definitely get worked up. But I do fitness for relaxation– for sanity– for the thing that takes me away from the books and computers and the dark, lonely, uncomfortable desk. I do it for the camaraderie. I don’t want to be able to lift more than these women. I just want to be able to keep up with them.

Jefe asked me again today: “what are your goals.” I want to be a “competitive” CrossFitter– not because I want to compete, but because I want to play. I want to be able to pace the firebreathers so that I don’t feel like I’m dragging them down when I work out beside them, or that I’m playing an entirely different game. When I was in middle school, the first year I tried out for the softball team, I didn’t make it. Well yeah– I was overweight, asthmatic, (always) uncoordinated, and definitely slow. But I wanted so badly to participate that I volunteered to be the team manager– just to be around the game. For a season, I tracked all the players’ stats, I helped them strategize their hits… I figured out the habits of the opposing teams’ batters and pitchers and fielders and relayed the information to the actual athletes. It was rewarding at times, but also torturous– a constant reminder of what I wanted to be, but could not . Sometimes… sitting around the box, I still feel like I’m pacing the sidelines. I’m 24 years old, and I’m still being picked last for kickball. Being relatively strong for my bodyweight is awesome for Cindy, but Fran would slaughter me, and I still don’t think I could finish Grace. And, of course, I do still want to coach some day. And I couldn’t dream of it until the thought of a 95lb clean and jerk doesn’t make me want to cry.

I… need to be patient, I know. I’ve gained a lot of strength on this program. My deadlift has climbed by 50lbs since I started. What used to be “heavy” cleans for me are now part of my warm-up sets. But it’s still somewhat demoralizing to be scraping the bottom of the strength barrel after so much hard work.

It’s just that… I wasn’t exactly athletic before I started, so it’s not like I’m focusing on strength because I’m an endurance rockstar. My run times were embarrassing before I stopped running. I hate that I can feel my endurance ebbing away each week. I hate that I can’t WOD for longer than 15 minutes without jeopardizing my strength gains. And I hate that after so much effort, after shoving my face with everything my goddamned IBS-ridden stomach will let me eat, my press still stalled out this week and I can’t run a fucking mile without feeling winded. I dread that after all this work, I’ll barely be able to do Rx’d weights and suddenly all WODs will feel hellish because I can’t survive anything longer than 10 minutes.

I know so many fitness blogs are about celebrating our bodies and our unique strengths right now, but today’s not one of those days. You know the slogan “Strong is the new skinny?” Yeah, I like the idea. I love that we’re promoting strength in women rather than skeletal, Hollywoodized figurines. But I’m fucking trapped in the old skinny, and I’m tired of it.

I suppose there’s no quick solution. I just embarked on this strength programming without perspective– not knowing exactly how long of a marathon it would be. More slow lifts. More peanut butter. More avoiding metcons…

Jo smash.

So Mother****ing Badass

In Rhetoric, Training, WOD on April 19, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Here’s the thing… though I am a woman blogging about fitness, I’ve actively avoided posting about “women in fitness.” There are several reasons for this. One, I’ve misstepped and misspoken often enough that I don’t feel as if I have any right to criticize anyone. Two, there are so many articulate, intelligent bloggers out there who’ve already said what needs to be said (the problem is putting those words into action). But, in all my strength program research, I’ve run across so many inane posts that I’m going to abuse your patience, dear readers, with a little verbal musing.

I’m still consistently surprised by how many women are genuine afraid of building muscle. The amount of “will this program make me bulky” questions out there make me laugh. Firstly, because I don’t see the rationale behind the muscle-aversion, but secondly… do they think it’s that easy for women to bulk up? I love the image of some unsuspecting girl waking up like she-hulk because she accidentally squatted too heavy and drank a protein shake. And hell, even if she were some lucky genetic freak of nature who put on muscle easily, it would never be an instantaneous process. She could easily decide that she didn’t like her newfound strength (god knows why) and back off the lifting and resume… Zumba, or whatever it is people do for fun that doesn’t involve moving heavy things.

That said, I’m also wary of people who too readily disparage these women. I balk at the idea of women who are afraid of muscle because it says something to me about the image we’ve built of women and their relationship to strength– physical or otherwise. But on the other hand, I don’t like the ways in which people feel as if they have a right to judge others and their relationships to their individual bodies. After all, it’s her body and if she wouldn’t be comfortable as a firebreather with a 4 minute Grace, what right do I have to disparage her for it? I may be sensitive to this issue because there are still individuals in my life around whom I’m uncomfortable wearing short sleeve after one too many unpleasant remarks about “muscle” (even though I’m far from she-hulk, I promise). And then I feel guilty about the self-censorship as if I’m “caving” to some sort of outside pressure, but sometimes it’s easier than repeating the same arguments…

Last summer, I was at a cafe with a few of the other women in the English Department. One of my coworkers– who is usually a very pleasant, considerate individual– hissed an appallingly judgmental remark about a random girl in the restaurant. The girl was thin, but not dramatically so. I wish I remembered her phrasing, but my colleague made some very derisive, snarky “joke” about how the girl must never eat. I was taken aback for a moment– that she was so quick to judge someone based on how she looked, and… on the off chance that this girl actually had an eating disorder, that it would be an impetus to jeer at her in passing.

I attribute her (my coworker’s) perspective to the collective knee-jerk reaction to the unrealistic portraits of women painted by the media/etc/every other straw man we like to burn in the name of our societal fuck-ups. I suppose it might be a necessary step in the rejection of these paradigms and the adoptions of new ones, but… why combat negativity with negativity?

It makes me think about some of the rhetoric that comes out of CrossFit. For the record, I love that CrossFit promotes strength in women– that it sees beauty in figures for their functionality rather than abstract aesthetics– “My butt is awesome because it can back squat a small car” (I wish… I’ll get there… give me a few years :p) I appreciate the sentiment behind “Strong is Sexy,” and I love the CrossFit Women’s Creed. But, “Strong is the New Skinny” makes me laugh. The reason we even want a “new skinny” is because there were so many damn things wrong with the old skinny. The old skinny glorified unrealistic (and honestly, unattractive) portraits of undernourished models. The old skinny inspired crash diets and compulsive cardio and stigmatization of strength in women. The old skinny prompts snarky criticisms of unfortunate girls in downtown cafes who might just happen to be genetically skinny rather than self-starved, aspring-model skinny. Strong shouldn’t be the New Skinny. It shouldn’t be any kind of skinny. But I suppose “Strong is so motherfucking badass it doesn’t need a slogan” makes for bad t-shirts.

Whoo… Okay, I suppose that’s my rant.

I’ve now completed one week of the 70’s big S&C program, which means it’s still way too soon to make any evaluative marks, but I’m feeling good about my squats. Coach Jefe said that I’m at least squatting deeper than I ever have before, which means that I’m at least achieving priority one– improve my form. Also, I did 3 sets of 5 at 90% bodyweight today, which felt okay. I’m getting nervous though as the weights increase. I wish the box had bumper bars. I feel troublesome having to ask for a spotter twice a week, but I’m trying to do my squats on open gym days so I don’t have to distract a coach from a class, at least. Also, my strict pull-ups are up to 3 sets of 6… I hope that translates into good things for my kips. A quick cool-down of skill work today… a very moderately paced six rounds of

6 wall balls

6 American swings


6 pistols

6 pull-ups.

Waiting for a meeting with my thesis adviser now. Then porchside drinks with friends to enjoy this (long-awaited) summer warmth!