As a person who’s somewhat clumsy and definitely lacking in natural athleticism, weight training never seemed like a logical part of my life. Why would I risk dropping something heavy on my foot, and why would I lift weights to burn calories when it’s way easier to do that on a treadmill (at least according to the treadmill’s calorie counter)? I’ve been regularly running, biking, and walking long distances since college, mainly because these activities don’t require a lot of coordination beyond a single repeated movement.
But at the ripe old age of 26, I noticed my muscle tone decreasing and some “puff” lingering around my body that I swear wasn’t there last year. Just a few weeks ago, I decided that it was time to get a personal trainer to help me understand exactly what jocks are doing with all those machines—and how I could use them, too.
I knew strength training would be soreness-inducing and mentally taxing. But a few things about this new type of exercise surprised me, both pleasantly and unpleasantly. After just two and a half weeks of starting a new weight training program with a trainer, here are a few differences I noticed in my life. Caveat: Every person’s body is different. Maybe our experiences have nothing in common, and you’ll notice none or few of these phenomena.
1. Disruptions in sleep. Waking up around 7 or 7:15 to head to the gym was nothing new for me; I was accustomed to doing that to run on the treadmill. But after adding strength training to my schedule, I’m much more exhausted at night than I was when only running and walking. After around 10:30 p.m., I’m often so tired that I just fall into my bed! This happens more on strength training days, but increasingly on other days, too. On the positive side, it’s been generally easier for me to wake up early in the morning. Some days, I’ve even been getting up a few minutes before my alarm. It’s like I’m giving my body some kind of rhythm, and I feel like I truly need that sleep to repair and recover.
2. Craving breakfast. I’ve never eaten much right before I go work out (especially if I’m exercising in the morning), but I’ve found that I must eat a few morsels of something before I head to the gym nowadays. I like eating two or three bites of a Clif’s Builder’s Bar or a small handful of those addictive smokehouse almonds.
3. Wanting more protein. Being vegan, a lot of people think I must be super-deficient in protein and iron, but I’m not. I recently had blood tests and a physical after more than a year and a half of strict vegan eating, and the doctor told me to keep up the great work in every respect (my good cholesterol was especially high). But if you’re trying to build muscle, an extra protein boost is helpful, so I started incorporating some Vega protein powder into my diet. Whoa, this stuff delivers. I’m super sore when I drink it, and within a few hours, I feel recovered and strong. I also notice that I’m naturally gravitating toward higher-protein meals: more lentils, beans, seitan, and whole grains. It’s weird how your body helps you crave the things you need.
4. Correcting bad posture. I’ve had increasingly poor posture for the past few years, and it was like I couldn’t win: my ab muscles were getting weaker from seated office work, so my posture was getting worse; yet my posture was getting slouchier so my ab muscles were growing weaker as a result. Now that I’ve been doing a ton of core exercises (planks, push-ups, simple crunches, and more), I feel myself using those ab muscles unintentionally. Like yesterday, I was driving to Whole Foods and I adjusted the rearview mirror so I could sit up straighter. Weird and unplanned, but I’m thankful for it.
5. Pure cardio seems less useful. I can’t imagine going back to my old workout habits. For years, I would jog on the treadmill for 30-45 minutes and follow that up with a few sets of lifting 8-10 pound weights. Sometimes I did intervals on the treadmill, but I don’t think I ran as fast as I really could have. I’d close it all out with some type of crunches or sit-ups. And somehow, I was surprised that I didn’t see amazing muscle definition. Through a strength training program, I’ve learned that we can actually push ourselves way harder than we think, but sometimes a personal trainer is necessary to help us activate that. I may think I can only lift 10 pounds for 10 reps on a shoulder-press machine, but the trainer knows I can safely do 40 pounds and 20 reps. This is where it helps to have an expert show you the ropes. Now I try to push myself to those limits even when working out on my own.
6. Unexpectedly quick results. After two and a half weeks, I definitely still have a slew of muscles that are extremely weak and need a lot of work. But I am absolutely thrilled to see the preliminary, vague, very early outline of some muscles I haven’t seen in a while. I’m actually surprised that I can see any results, given how sad my muscle tone was before. I can flex my arms and abs and see that this is working, which is all the more reason to continue doing it. Additionally, I can lift much heavier weights and get deeper into a push-up than ever before, and my form has improved dramatically. It’s hard to believe that these kinds of results can happen so quickly, and I’m looking forward to seeing where I’ll be in a few months.
7. Other habits start falling into place. This would probably be true for anyone starting an all-new workout program, but I’ve found that if you’re working hard and focusing on your training, you’re less likely to jinx your progress by screwing up in other areas. I struggled for months to remember to log my calories in MyFitnessPal, but now that I’ve been so mentally focused on my training, it’s easier for me to log calories because I want to maximize my work in the gym. (Yes, I recorded 2,700 calories on Thanksgiving Day last week.)
I will never be an elite athlete, and no matter how much muscle I build, I don’t think I’ll ever be the first person to bounce up and volunteer when someone suggests that we play dodgeball or soccer. But I do think it’s important to teach my bones to be stronger and my muscles to be more efficient, especially as I get older. Slaving away for hours on the treadmill just doesn’t seem like the most productive way to do that anymore.