Muscles Are Impolite

by Hannah Pralle | November 02, 2021

muscles bunched under the bar in a squat

When I was a little girl, my dad was gone for work, for weeks at a time, on the oil rigs. Saying goodbye was a big deal, because I didn’t get to do it every day, and so it had to last a long time. This feeling was compounded by my dad making certain to emphasize, to my brother and me, that any of us could die, at any moment, with zero warning. My mother would sagely nod in agreement, untroubled.

Being five, or six, or whatever I was, the only way I knew to integrate this information was to construct a pretty elaborate goodbye statement, intended to cover all the bases. “Goodbye, I love you, be safe, see you later!”

I was a little older when a family pet died, and I was sad but not surprised. I’d been warned this could happen. In school, I noticed that classmates responded to deaths in their extended families differently, and more severely, than I did.

This is not an essay about how much my parents might have fucked me up, although that’s a valid question. I only mention it because I just finished a squat workout, here at my Hawaiian home gym, and was thinking about barbells, as I often do. I worked out alone, as usual, because of the few friends I’ve made since moving here, none of them want to barbell with me. More so, I was thinking what a shame it is I only started in my 40s, and not in my 30s or 20s. A proper introduction to barbell strength training, at almost any age, would have obliterated any fitness paradigm I’d had going on before, and thankfully so.

Like any excited convert, I’ve enthused at my circle, particularly those who are currently unhappy with their bodies (which is almost everyone), with limited success. I don’t know why — they have the same problems that barbell training has helped me solve. Brings up a lot of questions for me, like: what was I doing before, and why was I able to recognize barbell training as better, and why can’t most other people I encounter see the same thing?

Oddly, that’s what put me in mind of my dad’s macabre early life advice. My attention was directed to the impolite underpinnings of things, from an early age. Any time you can swap out a shallower strategy for a deeper strategy, you’re winning. Any time you can address a root cause rather than a symptom, you’re winning. And I think we all get that, intellectually, but the reason we confine ourselves to symptom management in most areas of our lives is…because it’s more polite. More socially acceptable.

For instance, we’ve made vanity itself an incredibly impolite proposition. I’ve always thought vanity is just fine, if you own it, and honestly it can be a superpower if you consciously harness it to thriving. But in a time when abs and biceps are the padded bras and fake eyelashes of the fitness world – and padded bras and fake eyelashes are the meat and potatoes of the cyber world – and when everyone wants everything fast, whether it’s abs, tits, or taters, even something as universal as vanity gets a little complicated.

I used to teach Freshman Comp at a state university and it was there I received the first inkling that I might not be very woke. Every semester, sad, pudgy girls would submit impassioned rhetorical arguments about the media’s portrayal of women as being unrealistic. And you know what? That’s fine. The glossy fashion magazines do, in fact, photoshop and airbrush and elongate even those emaciated models, clutching their bizarre purses and reclining, apparently dead, in gutters, or liquidly spilled halfway off chaise lounges.

Since actual, red-blooded men wouldn’t touch these magazines with a ten foot pole, let alone concern themselves with the purses or nearly expired skeletal women represented, I thought it an odd set of train tracks to lay down on, personally. To feel victimized by magazines that you yourself paid $3.50 for, well, okay.

But more importantly, aren’t these allegedly oppressive stereotypes actual markers of health, if you kind of squint? What’s wrong with eating a clean diet that results in clear eyes and healthy skin? What’s wrong with having rosy lips, indicative of adequate circulation? What’s wrong with having your fat more where it should be and less where it shouldn’t be? What’s wrong with having bodily contours that are feminine?

Apparently all female college freshman have received intel that physical appeal can only be the result of girdles, crash diets, and patriarchy, but even before I discovered barbell strength training (a practice that women, particularly, seem discouraged from considering), I was thinking into the roots of that.

So, let’s see…what was I doing before the barbell? My earliest “exercise” memories are of jumping up and down on the couch so much that I destroyed it, while my dad was off at the oil rigs, because my mom was too nihilistic to stop me. I would set goals relative to the long, narrow hallway in our shitty little single-wide trailer house. I’m going to sprint down and touch the far wall and sprint back and touch the couch – fifty times, or one hundred times, or two hundred times. A lot of climbing on the jungle gyms and monkey bars too.

The oil field went bust and we moved to the Navajo Reservation when I was in elementary school, where my long, lanky ass was quickly enlisted on the girls’ cross country team. I learned that I could run three miles without stopping, and then six, and then ten, and then pretty soon I ran out of time before nightfall to find out how long I could run without stopping, because that’s just how running works. The Navajos value long-distance running, on a cultural level, because that’s how people honestly got around. They have this practice where you run with a mouthful of water, to train for races. It’s a sort of poor man’s high altitude training. Very uncomfortable.

I took a weight training class in high school, and our coach was a washed-up slob who taught us nothing, but told us to enjoy however healthy we were now, because “it’s all downhill from here.” In fact, I encountered this attitude consistently in adults. “Once you turn 30, it just all goes!” “Once you turn 40, it all goes!” I was like, “Is that really true, or are you just kind of a piece of shit?”

I ran cross country all through high school, and did the best I could with bodyweight-type calisthenics. I could never do a full push-up, with my mile-long arms, and was curious how that would play out for me when I enlisted in the Army National Guard and went off to boot camp. Drill sergeants have this amazing way of taking people who can’t do push-ups and transforming them into people who can do push-ups, through the alchemy of desperation. I also became well acquainted with all the types of exercise you can do involving a milk crate.

You’d think there would have been some flirtation with a barbell in there at some point, but nope. Came back to college, ran through all four seasons – rain, sleet, and snow, like a dumbass – did calisthenics in my dorm room, and maybe looked at the free weights once or twice, but they seemed as remote to me as world peace.

Fussed around with my diet, and I am proud of what I accomplished there. I mean, white college girls in the dorms were a pretty crazy culture shock for me, despite being technically a white girl myself. But having grown up on the rez, I didn’t realize how much non-verbal communication I was used to until I was around white girls, where it was all verbal, constantly verbal, and turned up to eleven.

And they just did crazy shit, every minute of every day. It was all fast food and microwave food and spraying canned whipped cream directly into their mouths — until suddenly they’d all realize, almost like a herd twitch, that it was three weeks until Spring Break and they had to fit into their bikinis, and then the whole dorm would go on a crash diet and talk about that, at the same level of DefCon as the dietary debauchery before.

It was then I decided, or rather internally confirmed, that whatever I do about diet and exercise, I’m gonna do it 365 days a year, whether I’m staring down the barrel of a bikini or not. Otherwise it’s just a lot of drama.

Still no barbell in sight. Tragic.

An important thing I need to mention: I was diagnosed with scoliosis by a fairly predatorial chiropractor when I was nineteen. Pretty common for ectomorph gals like me, I’ve realized. It was a real curvature, but he talked it up like my life was over, probably to scare me into more of his services. I spent a bunch of money on said services and eventually told him to go fuck himself, but I carried a feeling of being weak, flawed, and physically vulnerable forward from that point. He’d told me to never lift weights, get pregnant, or eat spicy food (??), and I didn’t believe he was all the way right. I just didn’t know how to think about it.

So my 20s and 30s were just a bunch of economic scrambling, for the most part, and I arrived in my 40s with a fitness paradigm that was not much evolved, but also not much degraded. Whole foods focus, hill sprints, push-ups, lots of water, that kind of thing. I was working about six months out of the year on wildland fires as a fuel driver, and really feeling a degree of depression and ennui during my six months off, or partially off – I freelanced as a CDL equipment delivery driver during the winter months.

Since I categorically avoided doing anything to stress (i.e. strengthen) my back muscles, the commercial driving really got me out of whack, to the point that sometimes it was difficult for me to walk or sleep, but I was fine most of the time. My hometown, Flagstaff, was a windy frozen tundra the whole off-season and so my normal fitness activities were tortuous in that weather, and frankly dangerous on that ice.

I was 42, and for some reason it just became apparent to me that I needed to figure out some type of indoor exercise, and that that exercise needed to be barbell. How odd: to arrive at the most logical thing, but only through a circuitous process of elimination, decades-long. I didn’t know a lot, but I knew those treadmills were bullshit, and the isolation machines looked mind-numbing. I joined a gym and saw personal trainers traineering their victims, and didn’t like the looks of that either. So, I started watching YouTube videos on the compound lifts and gave it my best shot.

Long story short, I met Nick Huth at the gym and we trained together for almost three years. The first time he had me deadlift, I explained that I had scoliosis and shouldn’t do that. He explained that I actually should do that, because if normal activities were putting my back out of commission, then consistent, scalable, escalating stress on the muscles along my spine was the only reasonable response.

I was pretty nervous about this but turns out he was right and I was wrong, as was the idiot chiropractor from so many years ago, and the entire mediocre medical perspective. Got a weak spot? Make sure you make it weaker through applied sedentation, until it spreads to the rest of your body. Great. I’d been scared off exercising my back, and it turns out the only thing that could make it less vulnerable was actually training it. It all makes so much sense now, in hindsight. You know how it is: once you see it, you can’t un-see it.

I got my deadlift up from 50% to 150% of my bodyweight, in about two years, and almost all sensation and indeed appearance of scoliosis has gone away — replaced with muscle, fortitude, total ease in the face of daily spinal stressors. The rest of my body benefited too, of course. Now, I walk up a hill every day, and lift 5-6 days a week, eat whatever I want, and that’s that.

Which returns me to the subject of vanity, as an appetite, and the way that the barbell has helped me to realize that we’ve frankly pathologized so many of our natural appetites. We try to find ways to not eat when we’re hungry, to not sleep when we’re sleepy, to redirect our bodies’ natural desire for exertion to milquetoast routines, and really worst of all to think that there’s something wrong with wanting men’s shoulders to be wider than their guts, or women’s asses to be wider than their waists. It’s just crazy. The only sense I can make of it, and why I had to make my way to barbell training so laboriously over a lifetime of otherwise trial and error, is that we’ve rendered certain forms of physical stress…impolite! I don’t know how else to frame it.

Case in point: having long, skinny arms is my toxic trait, as I mentioned. It took me a long time to work up to my first, full-hang, unassisted chin-up. I mean, it’s a range of motion of like eight miles. Then I got up to three in a row, and proudly sent my dad a video of me knocking those out. Rather than congratulating me, he interpreted my obvious physical stress in the video as distress, and recommended I reduce all this red-faced, squinting fluster by standing on a chair for a boost. My physical stress accomplishment was reflexively interpreted as a physical distress failure.

Another data point: recently had a visit from a male music friend. This guy bemoaned the fact that a super hot, super fit chick is currently friend-zoning him. My friend is rounding 50 as an almost entirely sedentary person, and it shows – not dramatically overweight, but dramatically under-muscled.

So all this bemoaning occurred between sets as I was shoulder pressing, and as, you know, a red blooded female who can relate to wanting to be friends, but not naked friends, with under-muscled men, I just felt this tremendous, almost unspeakable cognitive dissonance overtake me. All I managed to say was, “Hey, you’re welcome to get under this barbell! Chicks like shoulders.”

“Looks dangerous…”

So there you have it. Another entirely healthy appetite – the impolite vanity of wanting our own bodies to be sexually objectified by the people we’re currently sexually objectifying – squashed.

So I know this is an odd mishmash of ideas, but I just have to return to gratitude for my dad being so impolite as to warn me, at such a young age, that people die. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it set me up to notice what we will and won’t talk about, what we will and won’t admit to. It’s opened up a readiness to become aware about the everywhere-apparent cognitive dissonance of being a barbell person in a treadmill world.

But I’ll save all that for another essay...

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