The Importance of Inclusive Examples

How do I color like a 4-year-old? The question perplexed me. I was fourteen, working my first “real” job at a daycare center, and I’d been given the instruction that when I join them for creative tasks, I was to protect the children’s self-esteem by not working too far ahead of their abilities. So, as I sat down at the very low table, my knees knocking against the edge as I awkwardly leaned forward to my paper, I wondered about how to strike the balance between not insulting them by scribbling with abandon but also not overshadowing the kids around me with the talents of someone with ten more years’ experience.

I don’t honestly know if my attempts at coloring in an “age-appropriate way” had any impact on the kids I worked with that summer. Part of me felt then, and still feels now to some extent, that it seems odd that their self-esteems could be so fragile, that maybe it would be ok to have the conversation that they could grow and get better over time, and that maybe giving them something to work towards might even be good for them?

And yet, even while I have this thought, I am simultaneously annoyed at listening to world-class lifters give “general” advice that over and over again lists weights that I could only dream of someday lifting. For example, in last week’s episode on lifting progressions, the good doctors at Barbell Medicine give an example of varying abilities on a squat from day to day, with an RPE of an 8 being maybe 360 pounds one day but “only” 300 pounds a few days later.

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/episode-187-progressive-loading-part-ii/id1199780143?i=1000575642515

Or, I know I’ve heard Eric Helms talk on Iron Culture about “only” working out say 90 minutes a few times a week, like that was some serious cutting back on the volume we could all relate to. And that’s fine when he’s talking on 3DMJ to bodybuilders hoping to go pro, but Iron Culture’s audience is supposed to be “all lifters,” and references to that kind of programming is leaving a lot of us out.

These kinds of examples do not inspire me; they feel alienating. Now, part of it is the sexism that I’ve railed against in various places, including in this post about Omar’s common use of reference points being world-class lifts for men, and achievable by only the most elite of women. Women are routinely left out of the category of “who is a lifter” simply by referencing mostly unachievable lifting weights.

But it’s more than forgetting that women lift weights, too. For the vast majority of us, strength training is only one piece of our active lives, and we all have varying levels of time, ability, talent, and privilege to pursue it.

I may never squat 300 pounds, let alone 360. That doesn’t mean no one can, or even no woman can, far from it. And I don’t think I would mind the occasional reach example, stories being told to inspire and push people to believe in the possibilities. However, it isn’t just sometimes; these kinds of big numbers are the norm. And I can’t help but point out that the content producers who get most rewarded for their insights are the strong and the jacked, as folks implicitly believe that they must know more about what they’re talking about because, hey, look at their results! But this selection process rewards the outliers, and they are not representative of the majority of the lifting population, which is I assume their intended audience.

I also can’t help but wonder to what degree this exposes an unconscious element of one-upmanship so pervasive in the male-centric lifting world. Like during the sumo vs. conventional deadlifts debate, life is a hierarchy, and you earn your place by being stronger and more valid than the next guy. And then there’s my favorite version of this–giving examples that are a “reach” goal for most of us while being self-deprecating about how unimpressive their numbers are. Let me talk about my embarrassing 400-pound deadlift for a moment. . .

So, I would love to hear more inclusive examples given. I would like to hear powerlifters use smaller numbers in their exemplars; after all, the previous point about RPE would still be made comparing 100 pounds to 160. I would like to hear bodybuilders give more examples of building volume from 3 sets to 5 instead of the seemingly ubiquitous and presumed normative 10-20 sets per week. I would like to hear regular acknowledgment that the vast majority of us struggle, at least some of the time, with pushing ourselves as hard as we might like to due to enumerable challenges–work, family, finances, unfriendly gym cultures, perimenopause, etc., etc.

Unlike those four-year-olds, I don’t suggest this to protect our potentially-fragile egos. Rather, I think it would do a lot of good to help more of us feel seen and included in the group. We could more easily identify as “lifters” when our realities are regularly observed and validated. Hitting a strength plateau isn’t the only reason people lose interest in lifting. We have to see ourselves in the work, we have to believe in the process, and we need realistic expectations to build our self-efficacy upon.

If the goal of fitness content is to inform and inspire people to get and stay active, then the creators of that content need to connect with their audience–their entire, diverse audience, not just the few who find competing against big numbers motivational. Help us see ourselves in the work.

I recognize that there’s pressure to be seen as impressively strong. I know that social media rewards people who have done amazing things, who stand out in the crowd. But I think we can work within that reality without alienating the majority of the lifting community. Using modest weights and more easily accessible programming examples doesn’t reflect poorly on the creator–it shows that they understand where the rest of us are grinding away. It shows compassion, empathy and understanding. And it helps to build a more inclusive community where we may not feel as discouraged that we aren’t strong enough or hardcore enough to “count.”

This summer, I’ve been lifting once or twice a week. Sometimes those sessions are for as little as 20 minutes. I haven’t tested my one-rep maxes in over a year, so I have no idea where they stand these days, but I’m certain they’ve slowly gone down as I’ve cut back on the volume and intensity of my lifting. These changes have been an accommodation to help me manage stress while I learn to listen to my body and work with my PTSD. Nowhere in the lifting content creation space, except here I suppose, have I heard these kinds of concerns or this kind of programming, addressed or even acknowledged. I have enough years of lifting under my belt to still identify myself as a lifter, but it’s a tricky thing. I would still benefit from some communal validation! It always feels better to know you’re not alone.

Someone who squats 50 pounds and another who squats 500 are both doing the work. Someone learning to lift twice a week, doing incline push-ups against their kitchen counter is still doing resistance training, and it is in fact essential that they build that strong foundation if they’re ever to get further in their lifting journey. Someone who used to dedicate 10 hours a week to training who cuts back to two is still a lifter; they’re just adjusting their priorities. I want every one of them to see themselves in lifting content. I want them to feel welcome, included, and valid. It isn’t scribbling outside the lines to meet them where they’re at.

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