“How much do you bench?” and other signs of ignorance

I wrote and posted this to another site years ago, but it still remains relevant. Just last week, once again, I was asked by an incredulous 13-yearold, “You lift?! Oh yeah, how much do you bench?” So, it seemed time to share it once again.

I am a middle school teacher, and therefore spend my days surrounded by sweet, well-intentioned, and deeply ignorant little humans. I love my students, and I am often amazed at their unique perspectives, their senses of humor, and their boundless energy. I am also often amazed at how deeply entrenched in the public zeitgeist they are already. Their mental sponges have soaked up popular opinions without skepticism or discernment. As a result, they can be a challenging combination of opinionated and without practical experience. Their assumptions around personal fitness, nutrition, and body size are especially illustrative of this reality.

I choose to teach with a very open style. I believe that the best learning comes about when we share stories and make personal connections with the material, and so I freely share much of my life with my students. Beyond being my philosophy of education, it is also just very authentic for me to be open and transparent. I have never been very good at masking my emotions or filtering my responses.

In any case, this penchant for sharing myself means that it is not uncommon for me to mention my workouts with a class—maybe I’m discussing Newton’s laws and drawing an example from a recent lifting session at the gym. And usually, after the first incredulous question, “You lift weights?” the immediate follow-up question will be, “oh yeah, how much do you bench?”

And I get stumped. I imagine my more skeptical students taking the inevitable pause as proof that I’m deceiving them about my weightlifting (I clearly do not fit their mental image of someone who strength trains regularly). But what I am actually stopped by is how overwhelmingly difficult it is to retrace their misconceptions back far enough to answer their question. Where do I begin?

Firstly, I want to explain, it takes years of lifting to build any sort of visible muscle for most of us, and how visible it is highly dependent on how much body fat you have. And, as a person born with a uterus, I don’t have the necessary hormones to encourage huge muscle growth, even with years in the gym.

Secondly, you can lift for strength without significantly increasing the size of your muscles.

Thirdly, you can lift for strength or muscle growth without ever maxing out your lifts or learning what your “one rep maxes” are.

Fourthly, barbell bench pressing is not the best exercise if your goals are functional strength of the pectoral and supporting muscles of the chest, shoulders and back—dumbbells will actually require further stabilizing and therefore may be a better exercise for overall fitness.

Fifthly, strength athletes who are not powerlifters aim for balanced training, which means they don’t usually specialize in a few moves like the bench press (unless they’re specifically training for a powerlifting meet).

And finally and far most-importantly, there is value in strength training even if you cannot lift an impressive amount of weight at any given time, since the point is working at the edge of your limits, wherever they may be. The skill and discipline of lifting is the point of the work, and our goals are always a moving target. So what you lift this week doesn’t matter, the real strength comes from lifting more, with better quality, consistently, over time.

Usually, I skip to the end of this diatribe in class, but I can feel my students tuning me out, hearing it as an excuse to not divulge what they assume will be an unimpressive number. I know that I am leaving the conversation without impressing them, without changing their minds, and without furthering their understanding of the nature of weightlifting as a lifelong endeavor.

I get a similar look from my students when we talk about running. Although there is the practical difference that most of them have, at least, done some running. But again, they have the mindset that speed is what matters and seem completely focused on the goal of being “faster than” rather than any interest in the intrinsic value of running for its own sake.

I try to encourage more open-minded appreciation for the achievement of doing the running, even if it isn’t fast or far, by sharing that I am slow and that it is a challenge for me. I also talk about how I just don’t think I’m a natural runner, but I enjoy it anyway, and I like that I’m slowly improving, even if my current reality isn’t impressive. I want to impress upon them the consistency, the effort, and my willingness to push through the discomfort. But I don’t know how to help them switch their mindsets away from prioritizing being better than others in order for the effort to be worthwhile.

In fact, at this age, asking them what they enjoy doing is synonymous with asking them what they are good at. They enjoy most what they find easy to do, and what they receive the most positive support and praise for. If you ask a kid why they don’t like doing something, they will likely tell you because it is hard. This is a deeply held and completely natural response, and yet I find it frustrating both as a teacher and as a fitness enthusiast trying to spread my love of an active lifestyle. How do we teach kids to be open to the process, not just the destination?

I’m not sure how to convince a student that a physical activity is worthwhile, even if the numbers are not impressive. But I am certain that however we do it, it needs to begin before I meet them in middle school. By the age of 12, most kids are ready to judge an effort based on the final score.

And this is a problematic point of view if we want to raise kids into adults who can enjoy active, healthy lives. Not only will they be terribly limited in their own activities if they only enjoy them when they are “good” at them, but it constrains their perceptions of other people. Exercise is worthwhile and healthful for everybody and every body. Old, young, fat, thin, strong, weak, healthy, sick, we all benefit from being physically active. No population hasn’t been shown to be able to improve with regular physical activity. Even people in their eighties, lifting weights seated in a chair, have improved muscle strength, bone density, and prevented falls when following a consistent program. But you won’t become that old person lifting weights if you think that you shouldn’t bother because you’re not any good at it.

And so I try to model doing the work and enjoying it, even though there’s plenty room for growth.

If we fail to teach them otherwise, what happens to these kids as they grow up and learn that it is more complicated than they assumed? What happens when their bodies prove to be imperfect, messy, complicated things that reflect all sorts of life experiences, genetic predispositions, and random chance? Will they learn to be more forgiving, more open-minded about success, and more tolerant of diversity? Or will they grow up to be forever dissatisfied, or filled with self-loathing at their seeming failures, or give up before they ever really try because it wasn’t as easy as it “should” be? I hope not. I hope I can help them find the joy in the everyday, in the journey and the process.

What do you do to ensure that you are teaching a love of movement to the next generation? How do you measure success?

A version of this post first was shared at Fit is a Feminist Issue.

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