“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” -Walt Whitman
“Oh well, girl.” -Maya Camille Winters
The most dramatic personal-growth phases tend to occur in the eighth year of each decade for me: 18, 28, and now 38. Slowly, slowly, slowly, then suddenly, something rips open and crackles through my skin, and when I look around again, everything is different. Including me.
The process is always messy. Uncomfortable. Embarrassing. Exhilarating. I relish every second, because past experiences indicate I’m on the path toward better.
But damn, shit gets weird sometimes.
The past six months, especially, have been filled with a slow, wild abandonment of old ways; a return to even older ways; creativity and daydreaming, introspection and solitude; moonlit intentions and deep connections; the asking of questions; and finally, the listening.
That last one is where the story always starts.
Hypertrophy. A training style that focuses on developing sheer muscle size (versus max strength or performance). I don’t know what took me so long to get here. Yes I do: I didn’t listen.
The story always begins with listening.
The story very often begins by listening to yourself. By paying attention.
My favorite aesthetic for myself is what I call the “foxy linebacker.” Big arms, big shoulders, big legs, a big back and butt. I like to look like I can hold my own in a physical confrontation. I suspect that I can.
I’ve got my strength and sports background to thank for that, and in pursuit of bigness, that can get you pretty far. Hey, train like an athlete, look like an athlete. And yet…I wanted more muscle. I just didn’t notice that I did, or realize I could have it.
The story always begins with listening.
Eventually, after many repetitions from various messengers, I did notice — and right around then, hypertrophy boss Kourtney Thomas came to a women’s retreat I help to host each year. After several long conversations with her, I was ready to embark upon my own personal Bigness Project, which has since expanded into 14 weeks of hypertrophy training geared toward making maximal muscle gains. (With a z, though, to fit gym culture: gainz.)
Side note: If all you’ve ever done is read and not say the word “hypertrophy” out loud, chances are you’re doing what everyone does at first, which is to pronounce it HY-per-trophy. Which is fine, as far as I’m concerned, but if you’re trying to blend with the old gym rats, move the emphasis and make it it hy-PER-trophy. Or hy-PURR-trophy, because that shit is satisfying.
I didn’t yet know it would be, though. In fact, I was prepared to be totally jacked but a tad bored by all the biceps curls.
Instead, I learned to listen. And much more.
I thought it was a personal journey, until I witnessed the same revelations occur in many of the women who have already joined the project. (I mean, no one else mentioned unicorns explicitly, I don’t think, but they wrote each other poetry. Tell me that isn’t the same thing.)
Here’s what you can expect.
Stage 1: Attention
Greater internal focus leads to more muscular recruitment and activity, which can be linked to an increase in muscle size. This means you’d best be focusing intently on making the mind-muscle connection during every single rep, and if a slow tempo is called for, relish that time under tension. Legions of bodybuilders will tell you this concentration is critical.
And then there’s the pump: a localized swelling, burning, achy sensation common during hypertrophy training. That sensation accompanies the rush of blood, oxygen, and nutrients to working muscles, which allows for a more sustained ability to contract your muscles. Getting a pump can lead to greater capillary density and bigger muscles because the engorgement stretches out the fascia around them. I’ll never forget my training partner, Julie Read, staring down at her biceps after a set of curls and saying, “I think I finally know why they call it ‘swole.’”
Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? And yet, there is pleasure in the pain. The exquisite burning that is at once too much and not quite enough.
Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said that the pump “is as satisfying to me as coming is.” (If you’ve never seen this clip from the famous bodybuilding documentary, Pumping Iron, you’re in for a treat.)
Whether or not you’re on the verge of orgasm, you certainly are all the way present in your body. Listening. Communicating. (“What happens if I turn my pinky up a little on this next rep can I get more rear delt and YEP, THERE WE GO THAT’S THE TICKET.”)
The part that could qualify as a self-improvement practice is that you’re not avoiding the discomfort. You’re not just tolerating it. You’re seeking it, because you know it will make you better. You value its role in the process.
Life, man. For what feels like the first time in a long time, I see a glimmer of the person I could become. Movement Minneapolis general manager Mark Schneider once recounted a story to me about a client who asked him if life is easier once you know your purpose. “No,” he replied. “In one scenario, you’re dying of thirst, and in the other you’re drowning…but you’ve convinced yourself you like swim.”
We have a lot of work to do. Just keep swimming.
Stage 2: Connection
You realize you’re listening more now, and not just in the gym. Not just to your muscles.
Look around. You’ll start to recognize other queens. And kings. And the jesters, and the knights. The princes and princesses. And also, villains and superheroes are real. So are dragons and unicorns. Witches and wizards. All of these are everywhere, actually.
Find each other. Form alliances. Move forward together. This is a cooperative effort.
Stage 3: Embodiment
Then come the riches, in the form of great big muscles. This is the reason you started this program to begin with. “All of this? For me?” But you know it is. And the muscles are wonderful, to be sure. You’re checking yourself out, feeling yourself up. You experience your body differently, with a deeper kindness and compassion.
Maybe, for the first time, you are big enough to accept them not as armor or defense against what you are not, but as a celebration and expression of self. DIY body art, if you will.
Muscles are really great accessories, to be worn to feel beautiful, capable, formidable. A way of adorning yourself, of treating yourself well. Of aligning your inner and outer selves.
It doesn’t have to be your thing, and if it’s not, that’s cool. I encourage you to find your own ways of experiencing what author and speaker Erin Brown calls #queenshit:
What is #queenshit? It is the audacity to believe that I am at the helm of my own life. That waking up in the morning is enough reason to believe I deserve my own care and attention. It is the radical idea that my voice, opinions, sexual expression, appearance, passions, all my ever-loving feelings and EVERY PART OF MY HUMAN are valuable and mine to decipher. Without craftily placing them in a perfect, limiting box I didn’t pick out or agree to.
On the wall of our gym, The Movement Minneapolis, is this quote from Albert Einstein: “Nothing changes until something moves.” You’re the thing that has to.
You have to build it, brick by brick, rep by rep, day in and day out. Because bigness is an act of love.
To join the waitlist for the next round of The Bigness Project, the 14-week muscle-maximizing program by Kourtney Thomas, CSCS, sign up now.
#bignessproject #ubig #queenshit #queenclub #allwelcome #bigarmsbiglife