The Best Exercise You Aren’t Doing

Photo-Illustration: Photo courtesy of Liefia Ingalls

About a year and a half ago, bored to death with every other workout I’d tried, I decided to start lifting weights. I was inspired by my friend Casey Johnston, who writes a very good advice column on lifting called Ask a Swole Woman, and paid 20 bucks for a day pass to her gym so she would show me what to do. I’ve been back three times a week almost every week since. I started working with a trainer named Hans six months ago and my progress skyrocketed. Here are just some of the things I can do: deadlift 235 pounds; squat 170 pounds; bench press 110 pounds; flip a 450-pound tire.

Until I started lifting, the primary motivation behind my exercise was to stay as thin as possible. To work out was, inherently, to suffer: I ran, I did the elliptical, I did SoulCycle — anything that would tell me how many calories I burned. While I enjoyed the way I felt afterward, I rarely enjoyed the exercise itself. Until lifting.

Lifting is slow, careful, deliberate. Lifting comes with lots of breaks between sets. With lifting, I can see myself getting better month to month, if not week to week. I never became a faster runner, or better at SoulCycle, if that’s even possible. I just got through it, grateful to be done until the next day.

Lifting has made me tougher. It has also, in tandem with eating the amount of food I need to get stronger, led me to gain about 20 pounds and two clothing sizes. Most of the time I feel good about this. But not always.

Partly in an attempt to reshape my own ideas about strength and beauty, I have followed a number of women powerlifters on Instagram. My favorite, Liefia Ingalls, is literally the World’s Strongest Woman in the middle weight class (2018), and the Strongest Woman in the World in the middle weight class (2018). You probably didn’t even know those are two different things. I talked with Liefia about strength, beauty, and powerlifting just after she set a world record (well, two) in the latter, at the Arnold Pro Strongwoman event in Columbus, Ohio.

What got you interested in lifting heavy?

I started training because I felt pressure to be prettier, or skinnier, or somehow made better by being more fit. I didn’t have a very good image of myself. I had the same body-image issues that I think a lot of women are familiar with. But when I started working out, I realized I liked the way it felt to lift heavy, and I liked to see myself getting stronger, and of all the things I was doing in the gym, lifting was what I actually enjoyed. I started to care more about that, the enjoyment of it, than the results I was trying to get.

When you started and focused on heavy lifting in particular, did you have any apprehension about it being, like, a guy thing? I think seeing the weight areas at various gyms, and how male they always seemed to be, kept me away.

I definitely felt that. In the early years of my training, I think that was honestly the big thing that kept me from doing it more regularly. I mostly always went to the gym by myself, and going to a commercial-type gym, where it’s all women over on cardio machines and the weight room is all guys, and they all look big and scary — you just don’t want to deal with it. I think a big thing that helped me get over that was changing the environment. There’s a huge difference between working out in a local gym versus a smaller, private gym. When I decided I wanted to get serious about training, I joined a CrossFit gym, and CrossFit was a lot more conducive to that.

Another assumption that’s been challenging for me is having always thought of exercise as something that should make me smaller, whereas with lifting, I’ve gained weight. I’ve gotten bigger because I’m stronger. Was it hard for you to retrain your own thinking around that?

One misconception I deal with, especially as a trainer, is this perception that if you want to lose weight and get smaller, that’s incompatible with getting strong. In the beginning, that is what happened to me. Even when I focused on getting stronger, for quite a while I still lost weight. There’s a long shift that happens, especially for women. You do eventually get to the point where you want to be stronger and more capable, and that involves adding mass, but that’s usually pretty deep down the tunnel. By the time I got to that point, I was fully invested in the outcome of the process rather than the physical outcome — what my body could do, and what its function was, more than what it looked like.

Have you found that your idea of what looks good, physically, has shifted too?

Yeah, absolutely. Now when I see the images of bodies like that, I understand the look and effort and consistency involved to make that body. It becomes an art in itself. I don’t just see the aesthetic of a body, I see the function. Twenty years ago I probably would have been like, “No way. That’s too muscular. I don’t want to look like that,” because at one time, I didn’t. If I’m also really honest, sometimes I’m like, This is a weird body I have. I can’t believe it’s changed so much. Do I want to look this way? But it’s also not really a concern anymore. My body looks this way because that’s what it needs to look like in order to do the things I want it to do, so that’s okay with me.

Heavy lifting also feels like something that can be a healthier, long-term fitness project in a way that heavy cardio or perpetually trying to lose weight can’t, at least for me.

There’s a lot of misconceptions about lifting and strength training being bad for you: You’re going to get hurt, or your body’s not going to be in good shape. Poor lifting is bad for you, but strength training is fantastic for you.

Being strong does take a lot of time and accumulation. By what I’m doing I’m investing in myself. A lot of my incentive has become making myself into more, rather than less. I hear that a lot, especially with women [who’ve been taught to] be less, be skinnier, be smaller, blend in better. Lifting has taught me a lot about myself, but I think the biggest one is that it shapes my relationship with my body, changing it from being a package to being a tool, and realizing that tool will change shape as you change its function.

What you said about changing goals really resonates with me, because I never would’ve thought I’d care how much I could deadlift, and now I have this really strong desire to be able to deadlift 300 pounds sometime this year, and that’s actually possible.

That was huge for me too. Before lifting, there are so many things I would have said were not for me. I’m not an athlete, I’m not smart enough to do this, or I’m not rich enough to do that. It’s taking something I previously thought to be impossible and making it something I can physically do. Once upon a time my lifetime goal was to deadlift 400 pounds, and I thought I was being reasonable. Now I deadlift 500 pounds. Going through that process of setting your own goals and breaking them apart and realizing if you keep doing this, you can do anything — that’s something I never got from anything else in my life.

How do you navigate your diet, particularly when you’re around other women? Like the weight aspect, the way lifters eat feels so contrary to the way women are taught to eat.

Where I’m at now, the intensity of my training is so high, and my goal is to be as big and strong as possible, so I have to actually eat a lot of food. Before, it was like, How can I get myself to eat less and not be miserable about it, now it’s like, I need to be eating more, I need to be eating more. Now I find myself complaining, like, “Ugh, I can’t believe I have to eat more of this food,” and it’s something that ten years ago I would’ve been like, Who could complain about having to eat more? It’s all a shift in perspective.

I have my lifting friends and my non-lifting friends. [With my lifter friends], it’s like, how much can we eat? But then I went to a wedding a week ago with a bunch of friends from college, and we [Liefia and her boyfriend, who also lifts] were definitely the biggest, hungriest people there. They’re all nice and accepting people, I didn’t feel ostracized for it or anything, but it is funny. Everybody makes a comment. Like, everyone. It’s a constant reminder that you’re doing something unusual.

What are some of your most recent wins?

I just came back from the Arnold Pro festival in Ohio. I didn’t compete in the normal strongwoman show there, I competed in two world-record attempts. I just set a world record for 165 pound dumbbell press. I did two reps. [For context: I, Katie, can do 30, maybe 35 pounds in dumbbell press.] I co-set that record with another woman, we tied. And then I broke the record for lifting a 324-pound stone with three reps. So I set that momentarily. But then Donna Moore beat me with five reps, which is insane.

Why should more women lift heavy?

My opinion is that strength training is underutilized by all people. I don’t think the issues women have with self-confidence and body image are unique to women, but obviously the way they affect us is unique to us. An inordinate amount of our self-value is tied to what we look like. There’s this perception that looking a certain way defines what we’re capable of, or what we’re worth in society. Lifting has rearranged that relationship for me. I literally don’t care what other people think of how I look, because it serves me so well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Best Exercise You Aren’t Doing