Photo: Stocksy
Photo: Stocksy


The mental benefits of lifting heavy things

When Abby Driver first joined her gym, she discovered the free-weights room was an unwelcoming place for women. It took a chance introduction to weightlifting to discover its physical and psychological powers

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By Abby Driver on

I’ve never been one for exercise. I’m about as co-ordinated as a drunk giraffe and have the technical sporting prowess of Phoebe Buffay. Suffice to say PE was a grim ordeal that left me thinking exercise = running around a boggy field in unflattering shorts being shouted at by sadistic PE teachers. So I simply didn’t do it.

It was only when I gained a few extra pounds at university (courtesy of a diet of bad food and alcohol) that I thought about exercise again. I started researching fitness and pored over images of lithe, Lycra-clad women doing various forms of cardio. Running. Zumba. Waving pink dumbbells in the air. At my gym induction, the trainer showing our group (all male but me) the free-weights room turned to me and said, “Of course you won’t really be using this.” Instead, he took great care explaining how the elliptical trainer could help me "tone up".

I slowly realised this was the way the fitness industry was. Women do cardio, men do weight training. Women lose fat, men gain muscle. Women take up as little space as possible, men do not. For a while, I played along. I started running and even managed to knock out two half-marathons. But, while I loved the post-run endorphins, actually running made me mainly miserable.

On a whim, I decided to sign up for a gym instructor course and it was there I learnt about weightlifting and how it can improve everything, from your metabolic rate to mental wellbeing. Intrigued, I signed up to a beginners' weightlifting course.

It was tough; I was demoralisingly weak. But I was hooked from my very first deadlift. And, soon enough, I was getting stronger, which in all fairness wasn’t hugely impressive, given I previously had the approximate strength of a seven-year-old, but regardless – it felt good. It began to seep into my everyday life, too. Training my adorable-but-nevertheless-30kg dog was much more manageable. And lugging huge Lidl bags from the car to the kitchen? No problem.

I slowly realised this was the way the fitness industry was. Women do cardio, men do weight training. Women lose fat, men gain muscle. Women take up as little space as possible, men do not

But by far the biggest benefit for me was the mental shift. Time spent under a barbell has transformed my mind. Weightlifting has allowed me to see exercise as a way to be more, rather than something to be endured. It was so different to any other exercise, which was always a neverending struggle.

It also changed my relationship with my body. We live in a world where girls are conditioned to grow up thinking how they look is the most important thing they can offer the world. Even our Olympians are not immune to this. After featuring in a BBC documentary about her journey to the Olympics, weightlifter Zoe Smith received some Twitter trolling on how unattractive her body was. She responded on her blog: “What makes you think we actually give a toss that you, personally, do not find us attractive?” Shortly after, at the 2012 Olympic Games, she smashed the British clean and jerk record for her weight class, tweeting to her trolls: "What are you doing with your life? I've just competed at the Olympics!”

I’m not Zoe Smith – but weightlifting has taught me the very same lesson: to focus on what my body can actually do, instead of focusing on whether it fits the physical ideals of the given day.

When I started out, my trainer got me to use a broomstick to practise my form. At the time, I felt humiliated, but I persevered because "form is everything". And now? I can haul my own bodyweight up from the ground. I’ve found nothing that increases my mental fortitude like a brutal set of squats when your quads are all “PLEASE, HAVE MERCY!”, but your brain knows you can do it. And then you do it.

So, perhaps it’s no surprise that I now rely on weightlifting to keep me sane. When I get depressed at the state of the world and think about selling all my worldly possessions to go and live off-grid, or, more realistically, my to-do list is spiralling out of control, I head for some iron-therapy. I always leave feeling better.

And it seems I’m not alone. According to a survey, there has been a significant rise in the number of women weightlifting in the UK. If you’re even slightly interested in giving lifting a whirl, I can’t recommend it enough. I now breeze instead of wheeze up the near-vertical hill to my parents' house. Each time I walk my beast of a dog, there is a feeling of strength and control that didn’t exist before. Hell, I even can open my own jars now. These seemingly small changes have changed everything. I’m no longer scared to take up space.


Photo: Stocksy
Tagged in:
Breathing Space
Mental Health

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