I wanted to start my fitness story off on a positive note, but I can’t. The truth is that the beginning of my journey was fueled by insecurity. Like many American girls, I grew up around TV and magazine images that portrayed very thin celebrities and models that I idolized. On top of that, I also come from a traditional Vietnamese family where my parents and aunts constantly judge my well-being by how much weight I gained or loss. I remember paying close attention to these comments around the age of 9 or 10. Although I don’t think they meant to hurt me with their words, it was during a time I where I started noticing changes in my body and compared myself to the rest of the girls around me. Around them, I always felt like I was really “big” or “fat” compared to them. I remember hating my large thighs and especially my belly.
“I never talked about it because I didn’t want anyone to know that I had negative thoughts about my body; I felt that it would make me appear weak or crazy.”
Now at the age of 25, I’ve refocused my health to the right balance of lifting weights and eating foods that I enjoy. I started weight-lifting about 3 years ago when my boyfriend, Vincent, convinced me to open up a gym membership with him. Right before that, I took about 6 months perfecting my pull-ups, push-ups, and dips. Once I felt strong enough, I agreed to take myself to the gym where I pictured a whole bunch of “scary” big buff guys. But as the first year went on, I started to focus more on weight-lifting and calisthenics because Vincent was really into doing bodybuilding type exercises. As Vincent went around the different stations working on specific muscle groups, I followed him around and continued to do whatever he was doing. We made sure to include pull-ups in almost every time at the beginning of our workout. I started to feel really happy with how I was looking. But most importantly, I felt incredibly STRONG.
Once I mastered the basic movements using the machines, I decided that I wanted to learn how squat, bench, and deadlift. I remember Vincent teaching me how to hold just a barbell on my back for the squat, and I absolutely hated it. It felt uncomfortable, and I whined about how much it hurt my back (Sorry Vincent!). I can see why Vincent got frustrated with teaching me—I was a non-compliant student! As irritated as I was, I knew that the only way I would perfect the squat, bench, or deadlift was to actually DO IT. So I started squatting almost every time I was at the gym, doing countless sets of 10s and gradually adding more weight each week.
From there, I discovered that these 3 movements were the essential movements performed in powerlifting. I was motivated by the females because I didn’t know women had the ability to be so strong. My focus at the gym started to be around these big 3 lifts, and some occasional bodybuilding exercises. My strength started to increase exponentially and I started to feel like I was actually good at lifting weights. It sounds silly, but it was a big accomplishment for me, especially when I finally was able to keep up with Vincent’s workouts! At the peak of my journey, I still felt like I always had to prove myself to him and was constantly telling him that I could keep up with him now.
After making the bold decision (for me) to join a powerlifting gym, I met a group of great lifters who helped me further my interest in competing at a powerlifting meet. They told me, “If you’re already thinking about it, then just DO IT”. I completely agree, you can either let the thought sit in your brain and having nothing come of it or get up and bring the idea to life. That’s exactly what I did. I signed up for my first meet last August in 2015, trained using my own programming, and recently earned a first place medal with an elite total in my division this year.
At my first meet, I met a bunch of supportive lifters both new and experienced. I loved the environment and how everyone cheered each other on. Although you are at a competition, the most important aspect was that everyone around you just wanted you to get the weight UP. It wasn’t about racing each other to the finish line, or being better than everyone else. It was about you versus the weight—you either lift it or you don’t. That’s exactly why I love it so much. You are in complete control of how you want the weight to move, and how strong you want to get.
“The feeling of lifting a weight you trained so hard for, and a weight you probably couldn’t even imagine yourself lifting, is one of the most satisfying feelings for me. That’s what keeps me motivated.”
By now, the smaller thighs and flat belly are no longer important to me. I’ve learned to appreciate my body for what it is. The large thighs are now muscular ones that drive the power I need to squat or deadlift. The belly I hated so much is now the solid core that stabilizes my balance when standing and handling heavy weight. The strength my body allows me to feel is far more valuable to me than how it looks, and I am perfectly happy with that.
by Elizabeth Dang