Eight things I've learned from eight years of lifting

Plus: Much-sought-after commentary on Meek Mill's overhead press, an r/theydidthemath on Atlas stones, and hammies for the mammies. This is Links 41!

Eight things I've learned from eight years of lifting


A post shared by Casey Johnston (@swolewoman)

As of last month, I first touched barbell eight whole years ago. In a strictly strength-achievements sense, I admit my best-laid plans did not go accordingly. I’ve still never gone to Nationals; my deadlift barely exceeds my squat; no amount of clamshells or donkey kicks of squats meaningfully affected my hip dips. And even still: I regret nothing. Here is what I’ve learned:

There is no such thing as walking up to a squat rack and flawlessly adjusting the j-hooks and safety arms. There are one million different models out there. I still struggle with them. The industrial design gods have yet to bless the general category of “gym free weights.” That is not my problem.

Bros are nicer than you think. There are assholes in the gym but there are also assholes everywhere. I admit the lows are low if someone is not nice to you when you feel particularly vulnerable about your body and/or movement, but the highs are also that much higher. Our cultures have much to teach one another.


A post shared by Casey Johnston (@swolewoman)

Unless you were born one of the most mechanically gifted people on earth, you can still hugely benefit from a less-than-directly-uphill trajectory. That’s in terms of adding weight to your lifts, or always using the heaviest weights possible (once you build your strength base, that is). Drilling movement patterns with light weights as accessories, learning a variety of different things, and working on weaknesses CAN and WILL make you stronger overall.

Pursuant to that: showing up and doing your dumb little workout for your stupid mental health is all that you need to do like, 80 percent of the time. You don’t have to push yourself on every set, every movement, every workout in order to progress. It might take a little longer to achieve your wildest aesthetic or strength dreams, but that 80 or even 50 percent is better than zero. For the mentally unwell among us, workouts are also a near-constantly available way to remind yourself that you can, in fact, start and complete something.

Motivation and inspiration are illusions. I am not only not motivated a lot of the time, but I occasionally straight up don’t want to work out. 95% of the time, I am actively glad I did it anyway. And if I worked out only when I actually really felt excited to do it, I’d work out, like, for two weeks twice a year. I’d say this falls under the broad category of parenting my inner child more than “psyching myself up.”

Recovery matters. Stress kills gains. Not eating kills gains. Not sleeping kills gains. Debilitating soreness and lack of energy are probably a recovery problem, not a “the workout is too hard” problem.


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**Growing large and being large: There is simply no other experience like it.** I am only knee-high to the Jessica Buettners and Daniella Melos and Tamara Walcotts of the world. But every time I rest a hand on my thigh and it feels like a baby seal, or I catch a glimpse of my back looking like a bag of annoyed pythons, it feels amazing. When I’m briefly and quietly seized by fear that I have to move a heavy thing, and then I go to pick it up and it’s like a giant bag of cotton candy? That’s a gift I can give myself over and over.

I might never, ever actually do a good Bulgarian split squat, or over-head press more than like, 90 pounds. That’s okay. But also, fuck ‘em.

What subscribers got last week: I was moved to look into the once-ubiquitous women’s gym chain Curves. I wasn’t sure what I would find, but what it turned out to be was the very genesis of gyms for normies, gyms for non-bros, gyms that were not only not intimidating, but cheap and everywhere. I still can’t get over this stat: there were almost 8,000 Curves at one time. Today there are only 2,000 Planet Fitnesses, and it feels like they are everywhere. Of course, that doesn’t actually speak to Curves’ popularity; it was, uh, kind of a I’m-not-gonna-say-the-word on aspiring business owners.

If any fitness fad was going to succeed, it would have been Curves
The Question Is this a universal experience? Just 13 year old me, mom, and 10 other 40 year olds [at Curves]?? The Answer 1997 was a heady time for gyms. This trend piece from the New York Times namechecks Crunch, Equinox, New York Sports Club, Chelsea Piers, and David Barton, which all went on to become New York fitness institutions. Quoth one expert:


~Discord Picks of the Week: Just an incredible breakdown of how a sundress can show off muscles. Hammies for the mammies!!! Perfect, no notes. And also, the time Robert Mapplethorpe took photos of a bodybuilder, Lisa Lyon. ~

Finally: A Part Two to the LIFTOFF Q&A!!! If you’ve wondered whether you can keep adding weight if you’re not hitting squat depth, whether you should get a personal trainer, or a number of other things, check me out! Watch and like and subscribe, it will help me remove ads from my videos someday.

I’ve linked Grant’s writing before, here’s another great piece on how working out made his body feel better to be in.

Knee pain from “wear and tear” osteoarthritis appears to be helped by walking. I love not only how the incredibly backwards “if it hurts don’t do that” ethos is built right into the condition name (”wear and tear”) but that the apparent solution to the condition is…. wearing and tearing. My usual “good work, keep it up” to privatized Western medicine.

“Me working out to look absolutely jacked at my wedding.”

A great r/theydidthemath on “how much pressure was put on this guy’s spine as he lifts Atlas stones.” Lots of people in the comments learning that, dun dun dun, you don’t lift with your back!

The dark art of pretending you are fine.

The IPF Worlds are now over, and here are the results. Lots of records smashed, and lots of good Instagram follows here if you are building your mindset bubble.


I opened this piece in The Drift about irritable bowel syndrome in women with great interest. Not because I’m interested in IBS per se, but I immediately Ctrl-F’d for “eating disorder.” Lo and behold:

“Dr. Kimberly Harer… cautioned clinicians to beware of how “disordered eating habits shift from being a reasonable response to an underlying gastrointestinal condition to pathologic behaviors that cause physical or psychosocial impairment.” The latter, she argued, could indicate that self-reported IBS symptoms are actually signifiers of full-blown eating disorders. Multiple studies, in fact, have demonstrated the overlap between IBS and eating disorders… It’s not hard to grasp why. The tolls of disordered eating — malnutrition, swings from binging to vomiting, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behavior — can lead to the kind of digestive and psychological stress that wrecks the microbiota of the gut. In turn, recovery from eating disorders can be delayed by fears of post-meal discomfort.”

I’ve been watching this space, particularly with regard to influencers, being silent, sitting on my hands. WHEW. The vast majority of women (three in four!) have disordered eating habits, and the IBS connection feels very under-researched. I do wonder what people are supposed to do when the IBS person or disordered-eating person in question has a substantial platform and doesn’t seem to be connecting the dots.

Meek Mill was lifting a barbell over his head this week, but weirdly. Many are asking if this is “right.”

Here is the thing—personal trainers are a rich tapestry. Some are deeply educated and mentored and experienced; some got their certification at essentially a McDonald’s self-checkout kiosk. Many of them across the spectrum justify a great many movements under the banner of “functional fitness,” and those themselves range in usefulness. Some of those movements are bear crawls. Some are hitting a semi-truck tire with a sledgehammer.

I say all this because the first round of this debate would go something like, “Meek Mill is moments from hurting himself!” “Nah, he’s doing functional fitness.” And sure, I guess you could argue this is basically stability work; it’s not all that different from the last stage of a Turkish getup.

But whether someone is doing something “good” or “bad” doesn’t stem from the merits of the movement alone; sometimes it’s just whether they seem, in the way they move, like they’re going to be imminently injured. The way he’s arching his back, the way that his wrist isn’t stacked under the bar, the way that his elbow is all akimbo, it all screams “yike.” There is a way to do this movement with good form; this ain’t it. Swole Woman Court finds Meek Mill’s personal trainer guilty in the third degree of misapplication of functional fitness.

”I lost 50 pounds during COVID. Everyone has something to say about my body.”

This Slate piece is paywalled, but the gist is that a man’s husband is frustrated that he can’t lose weight and he feels it is obviously because he snacks too much.

Don’t click this one at work.

Oh boy don’t click this one at work either.


How harmful is social media? I appreciate the closure here on how “disinformation journalism” was a vanity project for a select few white guy journalists between 2016 and 2020.

Who’s afraid of Amber Heard? Great contextualization of how the trial fits into the way we view domestic abusers and survivors.

An arresting collection of Ms. covers here, including a man reaching his hand into the blouse of a puppet careerwoman and an unsparing photo of a woman who’s been physically abused. Gloria Steinem did not miss!! There’s also a retrospective book on Ms. at Internet Archive and see a bunch more iconic covers here.

Surprising no one, Harriet the Spy was my first personality. I love this old Anna Holmes piece on her and Scout, too.

That is all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—