Getting Stronger

Last week, I started lifting. Again. 

During my last semester here, my suitemate and I had gotten into the habit of it. We’d

wake up at 7am,⁠01

a near impossible task to ask of two 19 year old college students

and head down into the cramped gym in the basement of Senior Haus every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Very few of the 90 or so residents was awake, and occasionally we’d see one other person who would come as we were finishing. In the quiet of the building, save for the mechanical whirring that plague every dorm basement, we got down to the great exercise that is

Lifting Heavy Things.⁠02

which involves a lot of different exercises, but my main focus is gonna be on SQUATTING

That was my first foray into lifting, and I can admit that it can be really intimidating to start. Starting from zero is an awful feeling. On my first few weeks, I couldn’t even squat

just the bar,⁠03

usually 45 pounds on its own

and my legs would turn to jelly after every workout. My arms noodled out above me when I tried benching anything over 15 pounds. Eventually, though, I got to the point I could squat both the bar, plus 30 pounds. That’s a whole 75 pounds being lifted purely by the sheer

force of my thighs.⁠04

ok, there’s other muscles involved, but this is where you REALLY feel it

Maybe these numbers mean nothing to you if you’ve never lifted anything, or if you’re some kind of pro, but it was a pretty big deal to me, at the time!

Unfortunately, as other responsibilities and stresses started catching up to me, our lifting regime tapered off until it became nothing. I was depressed, not because I wasn’t working out any more, but due to an awful combination of external pressures and internal workings. That summer, right after my Spring semester in 2017, in the throes of depression, Chris sent me a link to

an article about lifting⁠05

if the blogs or his social media presence haven’t made it clear, he is really into powerlifting

titled “You just get stronger”. I read it then, and while I found it touching, I didn’t change. It was just another addition to my collection of positive things I could look back on when I was better. In the two years I was gone, I

didn’t lift a thing,⁠06

unless you count moving twice, which did involve SOME lifting of boxes and furniture

which I had partially blamed on my own motivation, and the often exorbitant cost of gym memberships. Just as you’d expect, all of my muscles withered away into putty without the constant strain of heavy lifting. Well, not totally, but they definitely reverted to a pre-lifting state.

But, I’m doing it. Again. My first day back, in the Stata gym with my roommate, my legs hurt so much I was mentally screaming at myself to keep going during lunges. The 45 pound bar, which I had gotten to the point of squatting it with ease years ago, was a challenge that hurt my whole body. I had broken so much of sweat doing it that my glasses had started to slip down my face. My legs were on fire as I painstakingly climbed stairs one by one for the next two days. I was essentially right back at square one, even though this wasn’t really new at all. Like the author of the article says:

Starting over is often more difficult than starting.

In a lot of ways, getting back into lifting feels a lot like coming back to MIT. The feeling of dread before a painful set was all too familiar. Standing there, too afraid to grab the bar and just do it. You can’t go back, because you’re already in your gym clothes standing in front of the rack, and people will notice. You can’t go back, because you’re not equipped to face the disappointment of not doing it. But, you think of the pain that courses through your legs when you realize you have to go back up after going down, the wobble of your knees when you walk around afterwards. And you freeze. 

As much as I had tried to force myself to be happier, to be excited, to feel the rush that returning to school would give me, I couldn’t feel anything but the dread. This wasn’t like the first time, where I didn’t know what was coming, where all I could do was keep going so I could find out. I knew exactly what I’d be getting into, and it paralyzed me. I had gotten through the process of coming back as easily as I’d put on sweatpants and sneakers, and now I was faced with the real heavy lifting. I remembered the sleepless nights, the crushing anxiety that surrounded me before every test, every PSET I had to find the knowledge to solve somehow, and I felt the disappointment of knowing that the MIT I remembered wasn’t the same, not really. All I had was dread.

My roommate always tells me I need to focus more on the pain while I lift, to focus on the muscles working underneath the skin and the sensations going through my body. That eventually I’d learn to love it, to use it as an anchor that keeps me going back for more. To be completely honest, I can’t see a future where that’s true for me. When I think about MIT, I feel the same way. I can’t foresee focusing on the now: the pain, the stress, the hours lost to unfulfilling work. Whenever I get ready for a set, I steel myself and think about the after—the feeling of relief when it’s finally over, the pride I get when I realize I lifted 5 more pounds than the week before, the joy I get from just finishing something I thought I couldn’t. School is kind of like that, too. I’m steeling myself for the after, the what comes next, the beyond that I can’t fully visualize.

It never gets easier, you just get stronger.

But, I’m here. Again. I’m lifting. These things felt so impossible to imagine doing when I was at my worst. And, it feels pretty damn good. I might be getting ahead of myself now, since it’s only been halfway through one semester, and 1.5 weeks of lifting, but I’m relishing in the joy, anyway. Next week, I’ll add more weight, and I’ll do that, even when it sucks. It’s incredibly motivating to see progress happen before your very eyes, which lifting often does, especially when you’re beginning. Because it’s all just numbers you add, things you can carry, tangible progress that happens in such a clear way that there’s never doubt that you’re progressing.

All in all, starting over has been a lot better than I anticipated. Yeah, the first day back absolutely sucked, and it felt a lot like I was back at square one, but I’m not. I feel like I’m getting back to where I was quicker than last time around. And, with time, I’ll reach the point where I was, then, and then, in even more time, even surpass it. Maybe I’ll lose my steam and stop for another two years, or I’ll hurt myself due to bad form and be forced to take a break. And maybe, some time after that, I’ll decide to pick it up and go through the process of Starting Over, again, and again and again. That’s okay, too. For now though, it’s just a lot of soreness all around.

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