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Why I Lift Heavy Things

by Melissa Joulwan
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

It took me a while to come around to the way of the barbell.

Back in the day, before I found CrossFit and strength training, I was a long-form cardio, aerobic workout queen. Triathlons, half marathons, 100-mile bike rides: these were the things that made me feel challenged and invigorated. Then I became the person who was happiest when the WOD on the CrossFit whiteboard was an insane list of scary exercises. Box jumps and pullups and renegade rows and sumo deadlift high-pull as fast as possible? OK!

Although I really did enjoy the exertion, if I’m being honest, the primary reason I put myself through grueling cardio workouts is because I wanted to be lean and fit. I wanted to see dramatic changes in how my body looked. But no matter how many miles I ran or Filthy Fifties I completed, my body appeared to be remarkably the same.

That’s when one of the smartest, most charming, most motivating women I know (Hello, Melissa Hartwig!) suggested that once or twice a week, I should forget the sexy-fun workouts and lift heavy things. I needed to build more muscle. Work my core. Overcome my fear of the heavy barbell.

I resisted this idea. (By “resisted,” I mean I pretended I didn’t hear her say it, over and over and over again.) Then I relented, joined an old school gym with intimidating metal plates — and a singular smell of sweat and testosterone — and started doing what I considered to be un-sexy things like 5X5 deadlifts and 5X5 front squats. I got comfortable being uncomfortable. I adapted to feeling fatigued in that “I just wrestled a saber-toothed tiger” way. In short, I got down with the barbell.

It’s been four years now of lifting somewhat regularly, and now more than ever, I know that lifting heavy things is important for me — and quite probably for you, too. Here’s why.

Box Jumps!


Nothing can compare to that “I can take on the world” feeling when something intimidates me but I do it anyway. I’m anxious – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – every time I approach the barbell. There are times when it really does feel like I’ve never done a snatch, a clean, or a deadlift before. And the weight is always a little scary. It seems silly, but I’m surprised by how heavyheavy lifting is. (When I start a lift, I almost always say to myself, “This is heavy.” like that’s news, or something.) Plus, there’s so much to remember: core tight, knees pressed out, shoulder blades together, heels down, chest up. The ability to commit to that bar — even when it seems like all the cells in my body are screaming, “Run away!” — makes me feel like the most beautiful, most badass, most accomplished woman around.

Ritual and superstition.

I love that the weight plates are supposed to face in… that I wear my Converse on heavy lifting days… that I’m superstitious about “addressing the bar” and how long my hands are on it before I actually lift. I like using my thumbs to measure how far apart my hands should be and pulling the bar to my shins just so, inhaling to completely fill my lungs and thinking, “Tight, tight, tight.” There’s a mythos built up around lifting heavy things, and it’s easy for me to feel a connection to all the faceless others who’ve walked up to a scary-heavy bar and done their best to get the damn thing off the ground.

There’s freedom in focus.

There is so much to think about in executing a lift — and so much danger in over-thinking it. If I let my mind wonder during a deadlift or clean, it’s all over, and if I worry too much about one part of a move, things that were previously instinctual go wonky-donk. In that magical, in-between space of thinking/not thinking, there is freedom. A focus that’s pure. As my core tenses, my mind relaxes. And when it’s really going right, I can’t think about anything else, and I’m not really thinking about anything at all. I just am.

Lean and mean.

I’m not gonna lie: I want to look Good. Not just “good for a 45-year-old” or better than the people in my high school graduating class. Objectively, unequivocally, make-myself-feel-proud good. Everyone I trust and respect informs me that the way to get the lean, shapely, strong, efficient body I want is to lift heavy things. Leaner arms? Tighter thighs? Flatter abs? Chiseled jaw? Those are the result of heavy lifting, clean eating, and righteous rest.

I want to be a tough old broad.

The thing about lifting heavy stuff with our muscles is that it also makes our bones, tendons, and ligaments better equipped to handle whatever we dish out. No osteoporosis or joint troubles for me! I fully intend to carry my own groceries, move furniture myself, haul suitcases around the globe, and sprint for the bus from now until the end of my days.

Now my workouts are a balance of get-sweaty barnburners — I still have a deep affection for box jumps — and plenty of quality time with the barbell. It would be dishonest to say that I always look forward to throwing around the iron, but I have never regretted a heavy lifting session. I always feel better after than I did before. And sometimes, on that special kind of day where everything clicks into place, the bar just floats free — and I’m free with it.


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