The art, science, theory, and practice of perceiving yourself

Plus: protein cookie dough, the program I'm doing, my dads The Rock and Vin Diesel are fighting, and more.

The art, science, theory, and practice of perceiving yourself

When I started lifting, I was shocked what a wealth of information existed about it, now that I cared to find it: instructional videos, programs, advice about accessories, food, motivation, on and on and on. But at the end of almost every line, a lot of it seemed to come down to subjectivity: “When you feel like you have 1-2 reps left in the tank.” “When you feel a pull in your hamstrings.” “When you feel like you can add weight.” “When you feel tired during the day.” “When you feel sore.” "Whenever you feel ready."

I still find this funny, because I don’t think fitness people realize a lot of the time how attuned they are to a lot of things that someone who’s never done this before is not. They say this stuff as if we all know what a pull in our hamstrings feels like, or when we feel like we could 1-2 more reps, or what is “fine and normal” sore versus possibly an injury of some kind.

Lifting weights can be, at least to me, reassuringly mathematical and objective a lot of the time, but at the bottom of it is always myself. When I started lifting, I didn’t just not know what a “pull in my hamstrings” felt like, as opposed to… anything else. I didn’t know how anything felt. I was an absolute champion coper. You would have had to tell me when I felt a pull in my hamstrings, because otherwise I would lower the weight through the floor until my hamstrings snapped.

"How does that make you feel?" is a therapist caricature joke of a question, but I was not really asked it much growing up (and, in the event I was, punished juuust enough when I tried to answer that I did not have to be a rocket scientist to figure out this was a losing game). I don't mean that I could only have turned out a fully-formed human if my feelings had guided every decision above and beyond my parents' limited time, patience, and money. But it would have been fine to feel bad about whatever if I was also developing reflexes to identify and manage that feeling.

Instead, I now know, I would go around not only knowing how to identify that feeling, but still feeling it, and at a lower level of consciousness, feeling crazy without validation or acknowledgement that I feel bad, from anyone but especially from myself. Unsurprisingly, this does not set you up well in life generally, but if you stir a little perfectionism into the coping stew, it also doesn't set you up well for learning anything new.

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So what do you do, when you are a broken robot? Well—I wanted to pull out a method from way at the bottom of a previous Ask A Swole Woman column, which I called a “naturalist observational safari," but I now know in personal training would be described as “developing a self-monitoring practice.”

You give yourself space to try something, and then more importantly, you listen.

You perceive yourself.

So I suggested:

Get a notebook and every morning answer these three questions:
  • How do I feel?
  • What transpired yesterday that may have led to me feeling this way, or resulted from me feeling this way?
  • What do I want to try today?

This might at first be like

I feel whatever
Some stuff happened
I don’t know

But hopefully might become

I feel extremely anxious, like I’m looking for a thing that doesn’t exist
I followed the Bad Art Friend discourse for 17 straight hours until 2am
I simply have to love myself more than this so I'm not going to open Twitter today
My fucking back hurts
As a hostile witness I will testify under duress that I didn’t stand up for 12 hours
I’ll go for one 10 minute walk
I feel like I’m listing the breeze of life
I don’t really have anything that’s meaningful to me that I do
Fuck it; anything; pint of ice cream
My stomach hurts
Perhaps it was the pint of ice cream
No more pints of ice cream. I curse the pint of ice cream, curse it right out

If this feels novel to you thus far, I can essentially promise this will be a slow process with a lot of dead ends. But one of the things I liked about lifting is that it even asked those questions, in its own way. It doesn’t care if I’m, you know, Sad, but at the root of it, it doesn’t “go” as a concept if I don’t notice and try to understand my personal experience of it. And that practice radiated outward in the best way.

But you don’t have to lift to try perceiving yourself. It is free to listen.

I’m pressed to think of a terrifying downside that would discourage the whole enterprise, but it might be that this crystallizes for you that your life is, uh, really bad. But a) I don’t think you deserve that, and b) you’re the only one who can say authoritatively if things are bad for you.

If a corny sentiment like “you owe this to yourself” doesn’t click and you’re the kind of person who feels it’s your duty to live for everyone else, I’ll speak for myself: It’s not fun to deal with someone who is miserable from all their self-denial and repression. No one whose opinion matters wants whatever they get from from you to come at the expense of you being miserable. Honoring your feelings is not the same as demanding the whole world bend around you. I made that mistake for a long time, and I’ll keep making it, but perceiving is the only thing that begins pulling out of the dive. Of all the perceiving I can do or have done to me, the honest perceiving I do of myself is the most dangerous, but ALSO the most powerful.

So that's my personal recommendation this week: Try a little self-monitoring, a little self-perceiving, today. Consider trying it again tomorrow. I swear it'll come in handy at some point in your life, even if it's never your health or working out.


Your own girl was on NPR Life Kit this week talking about how to get started with lifting! I didn't actually listen to it but still whispers of my beginner guide, LIFTOFF, are making the rounds; subscribers are testing it out as we speak.

Science finally said fucking forget about your body weight already!; it’s the worst possible thing to focus on for your health. Interestingly, this study harkens back (not literally but spiritually) to a link from a previous newsletter of mine, where I said it sure does seem like exercise is interruptive to a lot of to the cycles interlinked with health-related issues and/or causes of obesity. Sure, losing weight may helpful to health in some cases (though not endlessly helpful!), but focusing on "losing weight" is a destructive cycle that ultimately rarely helps. This study also says “hey, what if we focused on building exercise habits for health?” A thing I have been saying for a while. I'm just... like, okay, the day everyone joins me on page, I just want you to remember.

Speaking of that, here's what subscribers will be getting this week (on Sunday, in two days):

We will be analyzing the situation with Adele's workouts and her new relationship with her body, in part by doing a deep dive on her trainer's Instagram, plus a related discussion about the "Kumail Nanjiani and HIS body" piece in Vulture from this week.

Should we worry? Are they okay? Those of you who dare to smash the button will find out.

I'm doing my little pull-up journey research, and found this video helpful, specifically the "attack the bar with your chest" cue. I've NEVER been good at pull-ups even though I can technically do at least one even drunk and asleep, so I'm constantly in remedial education mode about them.


A post shared by A Swole Woman | eating/lifting (@swolewoman)

Some have asked me what program I'm doing now; it's a lightly customized version of this Renaissance Periodization bodybuilding template, of all things. Is it expensive? Yes, kinda. But it covers 20 weeks of training, and I wear one of the same two pairs of sweatpants every day. I feel okay to live a little in the specific respect of lifting weights, which brings me endless joy and a sense of achievement in a world filled with chaos. RP even has a “gym free” template for people of any level, which still requires dumbbells (haven’t tried it, but this is a generally tried and true business for strength athletes, and I’ve evangelized their book on food for women a million times. This book is also good if you wanted to understand strength training programming for some reason).


A post shared by A Swole Woman | eating/lifting (@swolewoman)

~Beasties Discord Pick of the Week: I  am on a cut for the next few weeks, which means, to me, cue the engineering of appropriately macro'd desserts. I aspire to try this "protein ice cream," but happened to have the materials for this protein "cookie dough" from TikTok. I made it with regular whey protein and it tasted fine but the texture was honestly like snot. If  you are interested in doing it, don't skip the instruction to use plant-based protein; this will be the one time where it's honestly welcome. I don't have fiber powder either, but that would help too. I made a version with half-plant and half-whey and added like a 1/2 tbsp of peanut butter and it was great. Green, but great. ~

In The Dreaded Cardio news: distraction is key. Not unrelated, I’ve been reading this book, Runner’s High, about weed and running.

How jacked can the humble jumping jack make me? I clicked on this even though I VERY contemptuously know the answer to this question; believe you me, I felt superior. Yet I still read the whole thing, because it is very kindly and empathetically done!


Regrettably, my fathers, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Vin Diesel, are having words with one another in a publication. Please respect my family's privacy at this time.

Life coaches get a lot of hate, but it does really seem like there is room for such a person in a lot of people's lives; good role models and social support are so crucial to our well being, but not a given for a lot of reasons (see: bad parents). This Joel Golby piece about getting a life coach was funny and thoughtful.

Elsewhere in the Guardian, when were abs ever out? Also, "the new high-waisted trousers are less forgiving of a soft tummy..." honey, what?? If you’re not snatched wearing high waisted pants, they’ve done wrong by you. Pry my high waisted pants from my dead hands!

Anne Helen Petersen wrote a relatable piece about her relationship with her Peloton bike, but the thing that stuck out to me was all the ways that Peloton instructors find to say "the leaderboard is not actually a leaderboard, it's [a figment of space and time/the journey inside your heart/a non-Euclidean projection of arbitrary values, AND the friends we made along the way]." If you have to protest so much about a central feature of your service, perhaps you should consider not having it? But if you HAVE to have it then I wonder why!

Why is TikTok so obsessed with labeling everything as a trauma response? I agree we need way more resources and understanding around trauma, but a game of "put a finger down if you..." is not it, and is probably just empty views-grubbing.

100 calorie portions of Halloween candy: Thanks I hate it. I know I'm on a cut, but even still, I hate it. Candy does not deserve to be slivered into little thimble amounts. If you want candy, have the candy.


YOU HAVE TO WATCH MAID ON NETFLIX. I know I was mean to Netflix previously for putting out algorithmically generated dreck, but this is NOT that. God, what a good show. The premise sounds bleak and dour but trust me that it isn't; there are so many wonderful moments of defiance and humor.

For your Halloween season: I watched Scream 4 for the first time. Fans of Cabin in the Woods and similar films will enjoy :). Earlier this year I also watched this indie movie called Scare Me that I really, really liked; Aya Cash is in it! At the time it was only on Shudder but now it seems to be in more places. Who among us doesn't think about escaping to a remote upstate cabin will be nice, relaxing, and refreshing, only to be overwhelmed by the fact that you're alone in the woods?

Oh my god, I loved this little profile of this first baseman who loves to chat up runners on the opposing team so, so much. Freddie Freeman gets what sports should be about, and that's having a good time with your pals! "'Oh, I’ll give hitting tips all day long,' he said. 'I want people to succeed. I never want anybody to fail.'” King!

Guy ascending 3 floors of a building with one one-floor-sized ladder moves like a dang monkey.

Every week I say “this one won’t be that long” and then it is. But I love you for reading, thank you for reading, let’s go—