Last week, I had a shaming experience at a gym… right after it made my stomach drop and my throat prickle, it put me in to a white hot fury. Nobody makes me cry, but me, dammit! Fitness via running, lifting, head-standing, meditating, etc. is a pursuit that makes me feel powerful and empowered. It also makes me feel nice and human, fallible and in progress. So when that feel good vibe got messed with, I got pretty indignant. I thought that perhaps I might share in hopes of starting/continuing a conversation that I’ve had with numerous friends and community members. My aim is that we get a bit more curious about how we show up to fitness and for those we fitness with.
I’m an active person with an enthusiasm for group fitness. I’ll try anything, because I really don’t mind not being good. I am typically patient enough to persevere through any challenges and figure things out as I go. This has served me well and was learned through a variety of unfortunate injuries. These were inflicted when I rushed full-on into some pretty dicey physical situations. Add to that, excited coaches and trainers that encouraged me to sometimes do more than was safe or feasible and a few strained muscles and ligament tears later, I’m here to tell you that I know my body, it’s capacity, and my goals – and I take full responsibility for my physical efforts in the gym.
Now last week, I found myself in a gym where there were barbells and heavy weights, and acronyms, like AMRAP and 3RM. I love these gyms. This is how I originally found the athlete within! Lately I’ve been running – I haven’t been lifting weights, so I go into these types of workouts humble and cautious. We were asked to find the maximum amount of weight we could move from our shoulders overhead for 3 repetitions, a 3 rep max (3RM) for the strength portion.
I put more weight than I thought probable over my head… thrice. I was stoked with myself. I even tested a weight that I failed at, just to make sure. Then, in the workout, were asked to load our bar with 80% of that 3RM. I picked a weight that felt reasonable to me. In my head, 80% is a guideline. It’s arbitrary for most people, who may be training infrequently, are inexperienced, are feeling fatigued… It’s just a suggestion, right?
Apparently not. The coach at this gym informed me that I was 5lbs shy of 80% on my bar. After I got over being impressed by his quick mental mathematics, I laughed and said: “My lower back says this is just right, actually.” This was not an acceptable response. We went back and forth a few times and I refused to add the 5lbs to my bar. The coach chose to stop the class and tell everyone that, because I refused to add the 5lbs, someone else would have to put it on their bar. One of the other women did so, and the workout started.
I resisted the urge to strip my bar, put away my weights, and walk out right there, because I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I realize now, that be choosing not to take action or speak up, I lost the opportunity to express my views on what I believe to be a dangerous coaching practice and the disrespectful treatment of another human being. Instead of feeling strong and empowered, I felt shamed and belittled for exerting my right to choose what was best for me in that moment.
Could I have handled 5 extra pounds? Yes, likely – but that’s not the point. I share the details, because I don’t want to spout off generic and generalizable “advice” about participating in fitness. I also don’t want to be petty, because that’s not productive. I want to talk about how we show up for others, the ways we impact one another, and the best ways to encourage others in pursuit of our individual goals. I don’t actually have the answers, but it’s a conversation I want to have to get better myself. I want to show up for myself and for those that show up with me at November Project, on runs, and at the gym.
As a teacher and a graduate student, I’ve spent the past two years researching social justice in physical education, so I feel that I have a good deal of information from a variety of perspectives. I understand that the way we’ve been socialized and are situated socially can impact how we approach physical activity. There are a number of factors that act as inhibitors for people pursuing fitness. We do not need to make this harder on each other. You can encourage people and practice empathy in tandem.
For me, good coaching is like good teaching. I know numerous exceptional coaches who allow their clients to have agency in the pursuit of their goals. They challenge by choice, they enter in discussion, they value the voice of the people that show up to take part. This is a crucial element in sustaining many people’s engagement in fitness. Knowing this, we all play an influential part in the community of sport and physical fitness as members of November Project.
This coach did not know me, my goals, my prior injuries, my recovery, my mental state, nor did he ask. My objective in coming to the gym was not to leave depleted… I came for a boost! I came to pick up heavy things, get my heart pumping, and then tackle the rest of my day. I imagine this is the case for many people, and I want it on the record: you get to choose. No one deserves to be publicly shamed for the amount they run, or don’t run, or how much is/isn’t on their bar, or how many times they did/didn’t go to the gym. You get to choose.
I think as participants in #freefitness we all need to remember that showing up is the hardest part. I want to know why you come to NP, but you also don’t owe me an explanation for how you choose to show up. If you choose to run your heart out, because you’re training for a half marathon next spring – I am glad you came. If you woke up and want to modify the moves because you just needed to start your day with some fresh air and smiles – I’m equally glad you came. You get to choose.
Show up curious for and with others; don’t just seek out those that lift you up, but pay it forward and help others to do hard things. There’s no need to feel shamed for the ways that we participate in fitness – we don’t have to feel shame for sticking to our guns, for modifying an exercise, or pushing our own limits. I hope that you set ambitious goals and impress the heck out of yourself. I also hope you take care of yourself knowing you have nothing to prove. Please extend this same compassion and encouragement to those around you. Choose to be an ambassador for inclusive, #freefitness for everyone you meet. No shame.
I remain #justhappytobehere,
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