Bustle’s Personal Best is a series on how to identify — and then unabashedly go after — what you truly want, by learning from people who’ve already done it.
Casey Johnston, 35, is a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer and writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. Eight years ago, she discovered heavy lifting, and she loved it almost instantly. She’s been evangelizing about it pretty much ever since, previously in a column called Ask A Swole Woman, which she’s taken from The Hairpin to Self to Vice. Now, she’s the author of Liftoff: Couch to Barbell, a 12-week program designed for people with zero experience in the gym. She also writes the popular newsletter She’s A Beast, where she writes critically about wellness trends.
Here, she talks to Bustle about how her strength-based accomplishments have led her to appreciate what her body can do, rather than focusing on how it looks.
How did you get into heavy lifting?
I used to be a runner in my early and mid-20s. I never did it with fitness goals in mind, however; the end goals were mainly to burn calories and try to lose weight. While I got heavily into running, I just felt like I could never lose enough weight or eat little enough. I felt like the more I ran and the less I ate, the more my body sort of stayed the same. It was discouraging, and I didn’t know what to do. To top it all off, I started to experience various minor injuries from running, likely the result of overtraining and not fueling enough.
About eight years ago, in 2014, I ran across a post on Reddit by a woman who had been doing strength training for six months. She shared “before” and “after” photos, as well as her program and how much her lifts had progressed. What stuck out to me was that she was only working out three days a week for about 30 minutes at a time, and she was eating a lot of food. It was like an epiphany; no one had ever told me that this was an option. I’d been running and running for hours and hours every week and dozens of miles and was miserable. Meanwhile, this lady was eating twice as much food as me and working out a third as much and was extremely happy with her body.
I had also always thought lifting weights would make you bulky. But looking at this woman’s photos, she looked like she had changed, but she wasn’t much bulkier. So from there, I read Starting Strength, which is a very extensive manual on how to do the main compound lifts, like squat, bench, deadlifts. I started looking more into lifting, and I started doing it myself.
Lifting was so much more about how my body felt and what it could do, rather than about how small it was.
I loved everything about it. I loved how short the workouts were; I loved only doing about five reps at a time and being able to rest for a minute between sets. I also loved eating a lot. It was just a dream come true for somebody who had always struggled so much with their body. It was amazing to work out and not feel so much resentment about it. Running for me was about losing weight, whereas lifting was about how much I could lift, if I felt good in the gym, how my form was, and if I was moving well. Outside of the gym, it was about if I felt stronger, which I did. It was so much more about how my body felt and what it could do, rather than about how small it was.
Was the shift in mindset immediate?
Honestly, no. Early on, it was really a process to get used to the idea of not orienting everything around losing weight and doing as much activity as possible. It was tough to feel secure in all of that. I’m not proud to say it now, but my big fear was that I would close to double the amount of food I was eating, and that I would instantly gain 10 pounds and feel terrible about myself. So when that didn’t happen, that was a huge relief.
Now, however, I have this much more generous relationship with myself that’s built on that foundation rather than fatphobic fears. Once I saw that it wasn’t as realistic of a concern as I always worried it would be, that allowed me to find my way to deliberately gaining weight so I could get stronger and have bigger muscles.
What was the first lifting accomplishment you felt super proud of, and how did the accomplishment make you feel?
I would say squatting my body weight for the first time. That’s often people’s first lifting landmark, and it takes a few months to build up to that. I was doing a program where the operative thing was adding a little bit of weight to each lift during every session. So I would start off squatting around 30 pounds, and then the next session I would squat 35, and the next one, 40, and so on. Once I accomplished it, I felt amazing and really powerful. I felt I could believe in my own ability to build this skill and get stronger in this way, because I would never have thought that I would ever squat over 100 pounds. The fact that I could get there and build on my level of ability every day and see those results was very revelatory to me.
How has building strength thanks to heavy lifting impacted how you view your body and your overall outlook?
On the day-to-day, ever since a few weeks into starting lifting, I’ve felt such a difference in how I move and how strong my back is, how mobile my hips are, and how just bending down to grab things from the floor or carrying groceries or my cats in their carrier all feel so much easier. It pays off every day.
The most rewarding thing about lifting is having a more constructive relationship with myself where I see the positive feedback loop of “eating makes you feel better, training makes you feel better, and resting from training makes you feel better.” I love being able to work out on my own terms rather than just to burn calories like it’s a chore. It can really give you a sense of accomplishment and allow you to work out some of your frustrations.
What advice would you give people who want to get into lifting but are still feeling intimidated for whatever reason?
Something I often say to my readers and people who are new to lifting is that for a long time, I thought lifting was the more advanced, more intense version of working out for people who are really into working out and are very fit already. But lifting is for everybody — you don’t have to be super athletic and be a body-building stage star. Just as running is a skill, lifting is also a skill. It’s a sort of confirmation bias to think that because you only see people who are lifting super heavy weights in the gym, and if you can’t already do that, you’re not allowed to lift weights, period. That’s the biggest fallacy — you don’t have to do anything fancy in order to get stronger. Most people have absolutely no background in strength, which just means there’s that much more low-hanging fruit for them to start.
Lifting is for everybody — you don’t have to be super athletic.
What challenges did you encounter when you first started out, and how did you overcome them?
I initially found that beginner programs often assumed you could already lift a barbell, which is 45 pounds and very heavy. I couldn’t do that when I started. There was nothing that really sort of pieced together the path from being able to do absolutely nothing to having some sort of basic lifting competency. So, I wrote this program that’s called Liftoff: Couch to Barbell. It starts at body-weight and no-weight movements and helps you progress slowly to getting to use a barbell. The book also helps you understand how to eat and why to eat and how to rest and why to rest and what lifting will do for you, how it can sort of fit into your life.
What message do you have for new lifters who want to try to stick it out?
Even if you don’t see this for yourself long-term, even if you have another sport, even if you feel like you’re not somebody who works out, I really just believe in my heart that if more people gave lifting a try, they would notice a difference in how they feel and move in their everyday lives. I’m trying to smooth the groove from people not trying it, thinking it’s not for them, thinking it’s too advanced, or only for people who want to be super athletic to the message that it’s a type of exercise, just like anything else.