In high school I wrestled 103 pounds. My body wanted to weigh between 105 and 108, but the guy on the team who wrestled 112 was pure muscle. So I ate salads, I spit, I wore layers of sweats and rode the exercise bike in the back of the bus on the way to meets. Despite it all, I struggled to make weight. Then I got mono. My throat swelled shut and I lay in the hospital for two weeks, IV in my arm, eating nothing but Firecracker popsicles. I lost 20 pounds. It was the end of my wrestling career.
It was also the end, at least for some time, of any connection I felt with my body. If I thought about my body at all, it was with shame and anger and disgust. Before I started wrestling, doctors had told me I was severely underweight, prescribing weight gain drinks and milkshakes and anything that would put some fat and muscle on me. But my body is also oddly shaped. I have pectus excavatum, my sternum bowl-shaped, my bottom ribs flaring outward. For a long time I hated my warped skeleton, the way it imposed itself against my skin, the way people’s eyes flicked to it when I removed my shirt. So I kept my shirt on, justifying this by saying I hated the ocean and the pool, or that I was sensitive to the sun.
After I graduated from college in 2007, I got my first gym membership. I don’t know why I did it, and can’t remember what I was thinking at the time. I’m sure it was something masculine and misguided, something along the lines of, I’m tired of looking scrawny and weak. With a nine-to-five job replacing my chaotic class schedule, I had the time for regular workouts. I went to the gym three days a week, following a beginner’s push-pull-legs split from a book with a biceps-flexing doctor on the cover. I drank smoothies made with avocados and bananas and chocolate whey protein powder. Visiting high school friends over the holidays, one of them commented that my arms were thicker. It was the first time someone had said anything like that to me.
But I wasn’t consistent. I drank too much beer, skipped workouts, didn’t pay enough attention to nutrition. By 2010 I’d completely lapsed, and wouldn’t set foot in a gym for another five years.
When I found my way back, it was a gradual process. I followed the same workout plan I had years before, which by then was familiar and boring. I wasn’t motivated, and found it easy to put off working out day after day, until weeks would go by between workouts. In late 2015 I developed bursitis in my right shoulder—something my mother and grandfather both suffered from—and in spring 2016 I began experiencing unexplained, constant abdominal pain. I’m a bit of a worrier, and in the long time it took to diagnose both of these conditions, I became convinced I was seriously ill.
In July 2016, an acquaintance told me about StrongLifts, an exercise program with accompanying app that focuses on just five heavy compound lifts—squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and barbell row—performed in a cycle three days a week. This was a turning point. Instead of focusing on weight lifting as a means to aesthetic improvements, my aches and pains convinced me that maybe I should think about making my body stronger for purposes of overall health.
With StrongLifts, I saw my gradual and consistent progress, workout to workout, week to week. I’d never squatted outside of a Smith machine before, but within a year I was squatting 225 pounds. I was getting stronger, but not seeing a huge increase in muscle mass, so in April 2017 I committed to a year of bulking, aiming to gain between 24 and 36 pounds over that time. I started seriously focusing on nutrition, tracking my calorie, macronutrient (carbohydrates, fat, and protein), and fruit and vegetable intake. I stopped drinking so much over the weekend. It wasn’t a matter of willpower or discipline; I want to feel fresh and energized for the gym in the morning, and more than one or two drinks ruins that. After following StrongLifts for a year, I switched to bodybuilding workout programs, lifting lighter weight at higher repetitions and changing my workouts more frequently. As of January 2018, I have gained 24 pounds, and am on track to be near the upper range of my weight gain goal when April rolls around. Since July 2016 I haven’t missed my goal of working out three to five days a week more than a handful of times.
My stomach pains are gone. After a blood test and x-ray and endoscopy and CT scan, it turns out they were caused by stress and anxiety. I’ve been taking selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors, but consistent exercise has also greatly lowered my stress levels. No matter what is happening in my life, I make time for it. The gym has become for me what I imagine the yoga studio or running trail is for others: a place to get away from the world for awhile, to focus on myself, to align my body and mind in a way that enhances my overall wellness. Even while the world is in chaos, my body is something that I can control.
I’m nearly 33 years old and in better shape than ever. The difference from my previous attempts at working out has been my focus on every aspect of my health, but also my acceptance of and love for my body. It may look different from others’, and nothing I can do will change that. But I’m confident in it, now—not because of any external affirmations, but because I’ve seen what it can do and how it can take care of me. In turn, I’ve promised to take care of it.