Lifting with Tigers in the Room

I have PTSD and lifting weights can trigger me. I love lifting weights, and I’ve spent the last half year or so trying to figure out how I can keep lifting in my life. What I have learned is that lifting, for me, for now, requires that I practice radical self-acceptance–listening to all the subtle input from my emotions, my body and nervous system and responding to the information that I’ve done enough.

My goal for now is to schedule 2-4 lifting sessions each week and to start. If I start the session, I give myself credit and check off the habit on my tracker. How much I do, how long I do it, how heavy it is, none of that matters for it to “count.”

This expectation has resulted in a major shift in how I think about my lifting. I’ve had to let go of the notion of traditional, progressive programming. Not to say I’m not currently gaining strength. The more rigid thinking I had before meant that if I couldn’t do what I had scheduled, I didn’t do anything. Now, I do something most times. Through being more flexible with myself, I’m actually adding back strength that I had lost.

I have made myself a menu of lifting programs, and I choose whichever one calls to me. Each program is “full body,” meaning they include something upper body and something lower body, not meaning that I’m hitting every possible movement pattern in a session. But I know that if I make it through most of the 4 programs that week, I have given my body a well-rounded stimulus. I don’t pressure myself to do a program just because I haven’t done it in a while, nor do I insist that I do the entire program each session. I let myself stop whenever it is time to stop.

The important thing for me right now is to build trust that I am listening to my body. Choosing the workout that calls to me is part of that. Another way I am building trust and reinforcing consent is by being flexible about the weights and reps I do each session. If something feels good, that’s the weights I do that day. If it feels hard, then I go lighter. But if it feels easy, I also listen to that and allow myself to add some challenge.

Not pushing too hard with the weights or reps is part of how I’m managing arousal. If I can perform a lift for 10-12 reps, I do 8 instead. I intentionally stop short, so I don’t have to push hard. The goal is to be able to keep doing something, and if I get too worked up, I might have to stop. By doing less, I actually get to do more. This is how I’m treating set volume, too. I rarely do more than 3 sets at a working weight. I could do more, but by letting myself stop when I start to feel fatigued, I’m rebuilding trust with myself, and I seem to get less triggered.

I’m finding this style of lifting extremely liberating. I don’t have to follow a rigid program. I don’t have to expect myself to always push harder week after week. I don’t have to lift for an hour each session. I don’t have to ignore my preferences. I can lift in a way that feels good–emotionally and physically–and I know I’m benefiting from it. I feel better in my body when I’m lifting regularly, and that is the goal–to feel good, capable, stronger.

Lifting this way helps me to continue to lift. I spent a few years cutting back, hoping I could inch back into the practice. It wasn’t until I allowed my mindset to shift about what counts, what’s good enough, what’s worth calling a workout, that I was able to explore new options and find a system that works for me today.

Life brings us many stressors, and you don’t have to have PTSD for a more flexible approach to be beneficial for you. Lifting culture carries a lot of baggage that can result in some serious all-or-nothing thinking. If you’ve been struggling to fit lifting into your life circumstances, I hope you can find some wisdom here to apply to your own practice. Find a way to do something rather than trying to do everything; do less so you can do more.

(1) The title of this piece is an homage (that’s what you say when you take someone else’s idea and make it your own, right?!) to the title of this B365 podcast on trauma and eating behaviors.

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