KATHERINE: I’m really excited to have this conversation with you both, especially since we all came to strength from pretty different training histories.
GWYN: I came to strength training with a couple of different backgrounds. What really shaped how I felt about myself and body image was my dance background. The professional dance world is pretty hard on people in general. It doesn’t matter how you look, you always hate it. It doesn’t matter how thin you are, you’re always fat, your lines aren’t good enough. You’re looking at yourself in a leotard in the mirror 100% of the time. It’s a little rough that way.
I eventually left the dance world to start doing martial arts. I saw a bunch of people doing Aikido and I thought “that looks really pretty, I bet I could do that until I’m really old.” I started training and I liked the edge it had. Coming to martial arts allowed me to gain weight without being stigmatized for it. But as much as I tried to make my body image change and be accepting of all shapes and sizes, I was still pretty stuck. I did martial arts for about eight years before coming to strength training.
I was finding that my martial arts practice was requiring me to have a lot of strength and stamina that I was losing, and I couldn’t regain it just by doing martial arts. So I found a strength training program that promised I would be able to lift like a man, because I wanted to be as strong as the guys on the mat. And I also wanted much more upper body mass. Unfortunately, that program did not produce the results I was looking for.
From there I came to Starting Strength, and actually started to get strong, and learn about running a linear progression. I started in 2008, and over the course of the following years I started to want to coach. I wanted a way to get seniors stronger and for them to be able to live their lives well. And then I started liking coaching on its own. And now I coach for Bay Strength!
KATHERINE: Kelly, you also came from a dance background.
KELLY: A little bit, though I would say my strength journey actually started before that, when I was training horses. Because without really knowing it, I was getting strong. I was moving hay bales, and shoveling shit, and doing all the ranch work that needed to be done –
KATHERINE: Like actual shit.
KELLY: Yeah, like actual horse shit! Which isn’t so bad! I really liked being able to do all the ranch work I needed to do without help. When I was in that situation, I was fortunate to never really worry about my body image at all. After college, I stopped horse training and went into counseling at group homes, which is when I joined a salsa dancing team, with which came an emphasis on how thin I was.
That was probably the first time in my life I was actually worried about being thin. And like Gwyn said, you’re never thin enough. A couple years into dance, I was looking for another career, and a few people suggested I become a personal trainer. I’ve always taught, I’ve taught people how to ride horses and to salsa. It was easy and cheap to get certified and it was easy to get a job, so I started working at a box gym. And I quickly found out that I absolutely despised working with people who thought they were fat and thought they needed to lose ten pounds.
But I really liked working with seniors, and I really liked helping people get strong. And a friend of mine in the gym introduced me to Starting Strength. As I got stronger, I moved closer and closer to doing that for other people, just helping people get strong, and doing as little weight-loss focused training as possible. And here I am!
KATHERINE: Well, as for me, I never considered myself an athlete, but I did individual sports. I did a few years of volleyball, and I was a pretty committed competitive swimmer. I didn’t choose to swim in college, so after high school, I pretty much stopped swimming. I worked backstage in theater in college and then as a career so, similar to Kelly, I knew I needed to be strong. I liked feeling like I was capable enough to carry things, that I didn’t need help moving heavy set pieces or big bunches of cable. But then I left the backstage side of theater and did more of the admin side, and I started to become more sedentary.
I’m bigger and have always been a bigger person, both tall and big, and I just kind of started to hate having a body. So I tried all of the things that were supposed to be good for ladies. I did every single exercise recommendation. I did pilates, I did hot yoga, I did bootcamp classes. I did distance walking and the Couch to 5k. I did every lady fitness thing there could be. And nothing made me feel good about myself. It just felt like I was there to punish myself for being fat, or I was there to beat the unsatisfying part of my body out of me, to beat my body into submission.
And those thoughts weren’t conscious at the time, I just felt super shitty about it. My brother said to me, “you just need to be strong.” He lifted and was familiar with Starting Strength. Since I’d tried everything else, I thought, why not, being strong sounds good. He sent me to a squat camp put on by a Starting Strength Coach, Tom Campitelli, who is now my powerlifting coach. And I went to the camp, and it was a group of 10 or 12 people, and I was one of two women there. I could not squat down with my own bodyweight and stand back up without falling over or going way onto my toes. Tom said that I was too weak to squat with the bar, so he put a PVC pipe on my back and had me squat down to a box. I think that whole afternoon I was able to squat with the PVC pipe without falling down onto the box maybe twice.
And at the end of the day, and this always makes me really emotional, Tom didn’t say it was going to be hard, or tell me what I needed to fix about myself. He just looked me straight in the eyes and said “You can one day be very strong.” And then he sent me off with the Starting Strength linear progression and I got started.
And I went and worked hard and put a tiny bit of weight on the bar each time, and as soon as I started seeing more weight on the bar, I immediately felt better about, well, everything. But especially about existing in my body. I felt instant progress and instant improvement and my relationship with my body changed immediately.
All of this other stuff I had done was all about how I felt on a day to day basis. It was all about if I worked hard enough to be able to pat myself on the back. Did I work hard enough to be worthy of feeling okay about myself today? Did I EARN a good feeling? But there was no purpose. It was all about trying to assuage the bad feelings, whereas putting weight on the bar was like “No, I DID something. I did something MORE.”
So, I got strong, really slowly, and that process changed basically everything about my life. And so I become a coach, because I truly couldn’t see any better way to spend my time than helping other people change their life for the better, the way getting strong changed my life too. It’s so sappy, but it’s true!
GWYN: Yeah, wanting to help seniors specifically is what got me coaching.
KATHERINE: I think that’s kind of why we all do this. Seems like we found something that we personally liked about getting stronger, and then felt a call to help others. It’s not like any of us three are here to send people to raw nationals. That would be cool! But we aren’t coaches because we achieved elite status and people started asking us “oh wow how did you become so dominant in this sport? Tell us what you’re doing, tell us your secret.” We saw the absolute, measurable benefits of this, for every person, and wanted to share it.
KELLY: With strength training I actually feel like I’m helping people more than I ever thought was even possible to do as a personal trainer. It’s not a path I expected to want to go down, but once I realized how much I could actually help people improve their lives, that was really strong motivation.
KATHERINE: I talked a little bit about how my relationship with my body changed, because that is my strength journey. I stopped thinking about anything but what I can do with my body. It created a purpose, which is what I was lacking. My body was this thing that I inhabited that was inconvenient for many reasons: finding clothes, and feeling too big, and feeling aesthetically displeasing. That changed when I put the barbell on my back. I know you both have different experiences, so how did the barbell change your feelings about your body?
GWYN: It was sneaky! (laughter) I worked so hard trying to change my body dysmorphia and my fat phobia and I flagellated myself for not being able to. One day I just gave up and said “Well I’m just not there.” And I started training with the barbell. I surrounded myself with strong women of all shapes and sizes, and their performance was the thing I was looking at. And I wasn’t looking at the line of the arch of their foot, or their turnout, or their arabesque. I was looking at how they performed under the bar, and admiring a lot of women, of various shapes and sizes. And one day I looked at myself on video and thought “holy shit, I need to gain some weight!” (laughter)
KATHERINE: A weird lightbulb moment! That does sound sneaky.
GWYN: And that was a moment where said to myself “oh I guess I’ve changed” but I hadn’t realized that I was changing.
And I still look at myself in the mirror in my shorts and see that I’m bumpy there and lumpy there and I have cellulite and I see those things and I don’t like them, but the overall tone of how I feel about myself, and how I feel about everyone else in the world as well, is really different.
KATHERINE: I think that’s important to say, because I think there’s a lot of messages out there that this is totally black and white. Like we are either supposed to hate our body, or be 100% okay with our body. It’s actually okay to have bad days sometimes. It doesn’t mean you’re less feminist or that you’re being bad to yourself, necessarily. There are things you can do to change the way your body looks, but the way you feel today is not necessarily representative of anything. Just because you don’t like your thighs today, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong, it’s like, just, not your most thigh-loving day. Tomorrow will be better.
That’s what I’ve been able to do since strength training. I’m able to take the bad days where I’m like, “ugh, my fucking body” and say it’s okay, because tomorrow I’m going to squat heavy, and that’s way more important than whether or not I like these shorts on me today.
KELLY: I think for me it’s a mixed bag. Prior to dancing, I think I didn’t really have an issue with my body! I worked all the time and was just kind of small because of what I was doing. I do recall always weighing more than my friends of the same size. Being 15 years old and wearing a size 1 jean and still being 10-15 pounds heavier than my friends who wore the same pants.
KATHERINE: That explains why you have a strong squat, Kelly! You are just more muscley! You’re dense!
KELLY: Yeah, I have a big butt from my mom, and yes, I’m just kind of dense. My first job as an adult, and actually as a kid too, was working on ranches. As a 10 year old or even younger.
GWYN: Wow, at 10 was when I was put on a diet for the first time.
KELLY: I don’t think I ever tried to diet hard until I started dancing. And then I went on 1200 calories a day, and I was doing a bunch of dance practices a week, plus social dancing, plus going to the gym, and I think back on that and just don’t understand how I did it. I was very small, but I was still heavier than the other dancers.
After taking a step back and starting to lift, things changed. But even now, there’s always a little bit of shift. When you’re around thin people all the time, who care about being thin, you think you should be thin, too. Being around women that lift, makes me feel like I should be really strong. And I would much rather be really strong. It’s useful to be strong. It’s beneficial to my life to be strong. Being skinny isn’t useful to me. There are still days when I’ll go out social dancing, and I’ll be back in the same crowd, and I’ll have flashbacks, where I compare my thighs to that other girl’s waist.
But being around strong people who all want to be strong, and care about being strong, makes me care about that the most, too. When I feel happy in general, I feel happier about my body, and lifting and eating makes me happy. Starving myself and worrying about my appearance makes me unhappy.
KATHERINE: It’s a self-fulfilling thing, right? If you organize your day around trying to whittle yourself down, if your day revolves around a relationship with your body where you’re continually telling it “no” and that it’s wrong and bad, you’re going to feel bad. But if you arrange your day around other stuff – just other stuff! It doesn’t even have to be around your training, if you just change where your focus is. You’ll have a better relationship with your body if you don’t put all that energy and time into thinking about making it smaller. And I think that getting stronger can be a really effective counter to that kind of thinking, if you let it.
In the second installment of this conversation, the coaches talk about creating a gym and coaching environment that emphasizes progress and abilities over aesthetics, the Instagram powerlifting community, scale weight and how to deal with it, and what they’re currently excited about in their own training.