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strength

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Farewell to Grasping

"Look relaxed!" she said. And so, I went with that because in the moment, I finally could. An hour later, milk spit up trickling down my blouse as I watched one of my dogs poop on the dining room floor while baby stuck his fingers up my nose... not so much.

"Look relaxed!" she said. And so, I went with that because in the moment, I finally could. An hour later, milk spit up trickling down my blouse as I watched one of my dogs poop on the dining room floor while baby stuck his fingers up my nose... not so much.

In 2017, I learned that we can plan all we want in our attempts to manifest what we think our lives should be, but it's often the serendipitous, spontaneous experiences that bring us to the place we need to be in order to grow, like the seed of a wildflower carried by the wind.

After years of believing that I would never have a family of my own due to endometriosis and ambivalence, my gregarious, funny and fearless little guy entered the world in February, born to two introverted, bookish parents who are still trying to figure out where our bubbly charmer came from. We’d done everything we possibly could to ensure a natural water birth, but after 23 hours of labor, he arrived unruffled by an otherwise harrowing emergency C-section, which somehow set the tone for parenting, my anxieties and neuroticism harshly contrasting the reality of raising such an easy, confident baby.

Here’s how I saw it — I’d be one of those present, put-together moms while expanding Tangram Wellness, writing a book, and working on a doctorate as he napped. I’d strive to be like that gorgeous blonde mom who jogs by my house every morning — she with the perfectly sculpted six-pack, placid wrinkle-free face and Lululemon wunder shorts. I so, so want to be her some days! Now, the reality:

with any significant step forward, there is so much loss. I find that concepts like “balance” and “having it all” as a mother are complete and utter bullshit, that the appearance of perfection means something very different behind closed doors, that holding ourselves up to idealized Instagram standards is yet another form of self-hatred.

So, I chose to scale back Tangram, shuttering it as a full-fledged company and slowly redirecting it back to its essence as one woman, one coach, who simply wants to serve the people she's meant to serve where and when she can. The book, which I’d mapped out to write over six months of baby naps, is looking more like a multi-year project, and the degree that I was aiming to apply for has taken on an entirely new hue, less a necessity and more a high-risk roll of the dice. These days, I’m lucky to get to the gym four times a week. Cardio means a breathless ten-minute stroller run to my favorite coffee shop. And, now that I've been blessed with my son, I've realized that this once proudly child-free woman would probably be happiest with a large family which, at my age, is both an impossibility and a yearning that few of my peers relate to. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has gone as planned.

In 2017, I stopped being a “fixer,” an aspect of my personality that I’d once believed was set in stone. I stopped trying to heal people who have no real interest in feeling good, and I walked away from toxicity cloaked as love, estranging myself from the past after saying a final time in 2016, shortly before I’d conceived, #metoo. 

There must be something in the air—so many women, like seeds, found their roots this year and began to flourish fiercely on the outskirts of a desert beset by predators. Their buds are everywhere now, a variegation of colors and textures sprouting from a once unfamiliar land as if they belonged there, because they do. Me too. We cannot breathe in new life without releasing the weight that pulls us under and that often requires a real fight and then, rest. Rest. 

For all the shifts and surprises, 2017 has been the best year of my life. And yet, the entire time, I haven’t been the one driving, despite all of my planning. God is a tricky topic to write about these days, but for many of us in recovery — recovery from anything — we eventually have to learn to “let go and let God.” I guess I’ve finally realized, after 8 years of sobriety, what that truly means. Cultivating spiritual fortitude sounds like a worthwhile goal for next year, and every year thereafter.

My wish for all of us in 2018 is that we can enjoy “what is” a bit more instead of focusing on what could be — a tall order in this age of achievement, frustration and hashtags, where our will and desires are king and queen. To make ample space for mystery and surprise — to "trust the timing of your life," as the saying goes — is a strange thing for a behavior change coach to advocate but I think, at this point, it’s a strong way forward. Farewell to grasping. 

Ring it in, and bring it on! Happy New Year.

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10 Characteristics of Truly Strong Women

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You've probably seen the meme, "Strong is the New Sexy," usually accompanying a photo of a muscled female in a skimpy outfit. As a competitive bodybuilder and coach who is deeply entrenched in the world of wellness, it can be tough to break free from the idea that strength has anything to do with the way a person looks. In reality, true strength has nothing to do with washboard abs, deadlift PRs or yoga inversions.

Here are 10 characteristics I've observed of truly strong women:

1. Strong women do not let rejection deter them. They push through criticism until they reach their desired destination. Their self-worth isn't hinged on the judgments of others.
2. Strong women honor their inherent creativity as a divine gift. However dark or painful, they dig deep into themselves, mining the unique contributions they have to offer up to the world.
3. Strong women recognize that not everyone has good intentions. They put their intuition to work, they ask the right questions, and they keep both eyes open. They are sharp, quick-witted and discerning.
4. Strong women are able to tell the truth about their past because they've committed to learning from it while guiding others. They view the past as WISDOM instead of shame.
5. Strong women set an example for their children instead of employing, "do as I say, not as I do." They accept their babies as watchful, intelligent and autonomous beings.
6. Strong women aren't afraid to ask for help when they need it. They won't hesitate to reach out to a friend, counsellor or a coach.
7. Strong women respect and take care of their bodies. Their bodies are their homes. They don't flood their homes with booze and drugs and other garbage.
8. Strong women say what they mean and mean what they say without apology. They are experts at conveying the word, "No."
9. Strong women rise from the ashes of their former selves. They are built from the fires of hardship and struggle. They earn every bit of their strength.
10. Strong women carve out their earthly successes by helping other women succeed. They see their life-force as plentiful. Strong women help their friends surpass them with humility, not envy.The big picture is clear to them.

Our strength isn't built in a gym- it's built from the trials and tests we encounter in our lives.

How would you define true strength? What are some characteristics of strong women that you've observed?

 

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Becoming a Lean, Mean Pull-Up Queen: How YOU (Yes, YOU!) Can Do a Pull-Up

Few exercises are more daunting than the common pull-up, especially for women, who've been led to believe that this particular domain has been reserved only for the manliest of dudes. In fact, you may even remember a recent statistic that caused a lot of controversy: a whopping fifty-five percent of US Marine female recruits could not pass a minimum three pull-up requirement, which led many a journalist to conclude that women could not do pull-ups at all (I kid you not- the New York Times headline that got tongues wagging was "Why Women Can't Do Pull-Ups.")

When this New York Times article was published, I'd advanced to being able to do three full unassisted wide grip pull-ups, and therefore felt simultaneously smug and enraged while reading it. We women have been grossly misled about what we should be focusing on in fitness, as well as where our abilities lie. Through my own experience in rebuilding my body, I've uncovered two massive truths that fly directly in the face of what we've been taught:
a) We ladies DO belong in the weight room, and we'll find what we're looking for by lifting the heavy stuff. 
b) We CAN and SHOULD hold our own with the boys. Screw "training like girls." 

That said, women are still avoiding one of the best exercises in the world for developing the arms, back and overall level of fitness, and when we first attempt a pull-up, we often find that our efforts are futile. Here are a few common reasons why:

1. Women have up to 40 percent less muscle mass in their upper bodies than men. Women also tend to have a higher proportion of slow twitch oxidative muscle fibers, which are recruited for endurance activities like higher repetitions of an exercise or a long run. However, these slow twitch Type I fibers produce less force than their Type II counterparts. Due to these factors, it's more challenging for women to move their bodies upward against gravity in comparison for men. "Tough" is by no means synonymous with "impossible"- it just means that we have to work a little harder! 
 
2. When starting out, both women and men have a tendency to rely on the muscles of their arms, rather than engaging the latissiumus (lats) muscle of their back, which should serve as the primary source of power. This is often confusing, because many of us have never even felt our lats and therefore struggle to activate them. You can become intimately acquainted with your lats by doing many sets of wide grip pulldowns and paying close attention to form. With that in mind, here are a few exercises I recommend incorporating into your training to strengthen the latissimus dorsi, as well as the infraspinatus, teres minor, and teres major muscles.

1. Wide Grip Pulldowns
2. Underhand Close Grip Pulldowns
3. Straight Arm Pulldowns
4. Seated Cable Rows

The Latissimus dorsi muscle: the quiet yet powerful type! 

The Latissimus dorsi muscle: the quiet yet powerful type! 

3. Women are unfortunately conditioned to believe that the pull-up (and many other feats of strength) is an unattainable goal for them. To increase your physical strength, you must rely on your mental muscles as well. If you don’t believe that you can do it, you very likely won’t!  

So, now that you know IT IS POSSIBLE, what steps can YOU take to be able to execute a perfect pull-up? Here's the quick and dirty:

Step 1:  Low Bar Pull-Ups     

Begin on a low bar with your knees bent, heels planted into the ground. This will provide added support.  As you progress and are able to do 15-20 low bar pull-ups with bent knees, extend your legs straight.

Begin on a low bar with your knees bent, heels planted into the ground. This will provide added support.  As you progress and are able to do 15-20 low bar pull-ups with bent knees, extend your legs straight.

Begin practicing pull-ups on a low bar. Most playgrounds have one variation or another. In the initial phase, perform pull-up movements with your heels on the ground and knees bent, which will provide added support. Be sure to keep the back straight, chest upright and core tight. Avoid tensing your neck! Once you progress with the bent knee low bar pull-up and are able to complete 15-20 consecutive reps with proper form, you can then move on to practicing them with extended straight legs. When you can complete two sets of straight leg low bar pull ups at 15-20 reps, you're ready to move on to Step 2.

Step 2: Band Pull-Ups

Use a rubber band specifically made for pull-up training to help you advance toward the big goal... the UNASSISTED REAL DEAL PULL-UP!!!

Use a rubber band specifically made for pull-up training to help you advance toward the big goal... the UNASSISTED REAL DEAL PULL-UP!!!

Purchase a thick rubber band specifically made for pull-up training. I use the Functional Fitness band, available on Amazon.com, and you can also purchase bands through MovementFirst.sg, a fantastic online fitness supply store right here in Singapore. These bands come in different resistances, and are usually sold in a package of 3, so you can start off with the easiest one and eventually progress to the minimal resistance band.

Loop the band around a pull-up bar and "kneel" into the band as you're holding the bar, with both knees centered in the middle of the band. Palms should be facing forward. You can either use a wider grip or regular grip. Both grips target your lats, but wide grip pull-ups take a bit of strain off the shoulder while close grip pull-ups tend to target the lower back a bit more. Some fitness pros believe that a wide grip actually widens the back, but that's up for debate.

Pull your torso up, arching your back just slightly and pushing out your chest. Focus on squeezing the back muscles while keeping the torso stationary. The only thing that should be moving are your arms. The full pulling movement is completed once the bar touches your upper chest. Hold this contracted position for a second, and slowly lower yourself back down to starting position. Repeat! Once you are able to complete 15 pull-ups with a particular band, you can advance to the more difficult band. After you've been able to do 15-20 reps on the most difficult band, you're ready for the UNASSISTED REAL DEAL PULL-UP. WOOHOO! 

Proud Pull-Up Queen... but it wasn't always this way. In fact, last year I could do ZERO unassisted pull-ups!

Proud Pull-Up Queen... but it wasn't always this way. In fact, last year I could do ZERO unassisted pull-ups!

Step 3: Owning Your Status as a Lady Boss- the Real Deal Pull-Up

Jump your hands up to the bar, palms facing forward (away from you). Do not grip the bar too tightly, as this can add strain to the forearms. Employ the same form you used in Step 2, crossing one leg over the other, as shown in the photo. As a reminder, arch your back just slightly and puff out your chest, which will help activate the right muscles and take some pressure off the biceps and forearms. Pull upward until the bar touches the top of your chest, and hold this position for a second. Slowly lower yourself back down to starting position- a slow speed here is important, as this will boost muscle growth during the eccentric action of a movement. Don't just drop down, even if you're feeling fatigued. Repeat the full movement and begin setting some big goals for yourself!

I am currently up to being able to do three sets of 8 unassisted pull-ups on a good day, and I struggle through these once or twice a week. By the end of the year, I'd like to be able to do three sets of 12-15. Last year at this time, I was able to do.... ZERO!!!! I'm sharing this with you to highlight that we all start at the beginning. If you put your mind to what you wish to achieve, a world of possibility becomes yours for the taking. 

Have a question or comment on this post? Is there a topic that you'd like me to address? I love hearing from you- leave your thoughts below! 

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