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10 weird things I didn't expect to happen when I started lifting.

A whole new world of surprises.

I have some lovely friends, outside of "fitness people", who often seem perplexed with my love of lifting. I also have a lot of lovely friends who also love lifting, so I don't have to bore the former.

But one thing I have noticed from the non-lifters, is that they often see the gym as a place of drudgery, some kind of punishment for excess or desperate attempt to ward off the horrors of aging unfit.

When I worked in a gym, there was a member who turned up 3 times a week to train, and hated every second, but did it because she was worried about losing muscle and bone mass post-menopause. I always had an immense respect for her. Not many people would turn up religiously to spend an hour doing things they hated for the sake of their health.

That's not why I do it. I strongly adhere to the tenant of doing the exercise you love, and I really do love heavy strength training. That in itself was a bit of a surprise to me, a chronically ill bellydancer and yogi, but that's not the only surprise lifting had in store for me. Lifting changed my body and mind in ways I really wasn't expecting....

1. Callouses.

As a heavy lifter, a callous is a girl's best friend. I noticed my first one turn up around my wedding ring, so I stopped wearing that, but then the others came.

It's perfectly normal to develop harder patches of skin at the base of your fingers. They are a product of the pressure the bar places on the skin and they are harmless. Actually they are useful because they develop into stronger areas of skin that are less likely to be damaged.

Unless you don't look after them. If a callous gets too thick it can get crusty, sharp, start to flake off or even rip. So you have to look after your hands with a bit of a pumice stone or whatever. It's also super important to wash the chalk and gym grub off your hands as soon as you can after your workout.

Are gloves a useful tool against callouses? If you *need* to have beautiful hands for your massage therapy business or your hand modelling career, it's an option; but most lifters agree that gloves compromise grip and aren't the best option if you can avoid it.

2. Vasculature

I was always vaguely aware that bodybuilders had a thing for veins. Popped veins on flexed muscles are a staple of the physique stage.

I'm also an anatomist so really I had no excuse for not figuring it out earlier but I was still super surprised in the middle of a deadlift session when I looked down and noticed a new 3D roadmap on my forearms. It's a thing.

They aren't visible when I'm not lifting (like my muscles....) but as soon as I start working out, something in my system is all like "QUICK we need some FUEL down here" and, despite my lack of bodybuilder leanness, I suddenly have a load of vasculature.

A post shared by Claire Salem (@firelotusfitness) on

I like to take pictures for a friend who competes in bikini comps.

3. Posture

Despite being a dancer, posture has also been a struggle for me, probably because I am very hypermobile and it takes a lot of work to keep me upright.

When I started strength training, there was an immediate improvement, particularly in my upper back and pelvis carriage. I also notice that I use more muscles, and more core in my everyday movement. In fact, when I started running after a few months break for powerlifting training, I noticed that my footfalls were lighter and my gait smoother. I move like a damn panther....

4. Everyday feats of strength

When you are shifting literal tonnes of volume in the gym, shopping bags just don't seem all that bothersome.

My favourite lifting moment happened in my "other job". I'm a qualified science teacher, and I teach occasional supply days to keep my hand in. A student was being disruptive, so I decided to move his desk to the front of the class next to mine. So I got him to stand back and picked up the stone-composite topped lab bench and moved it. Apparently most teachers can't do that.

Hulk moments aside, it's pretty useful being able to pick up my ever-growing kids, my huge dog, deliveries. It's empowering to not have to ask for help all the time.

5. Bracing for everything.

Bracing is amazing. If you aren't sure, bracing is using your core to support a lift. I like to think of my abdomen as being like a sand bag, if it's all loose it flops around and makes me unstable, but if I use my core muscles, abs, TVA, pelvic floor and diaphragm, I can literally pack it all into a solid cylinder that supports my spine.

I learned to do this while lifting big weights, but I've noticed that I automatically brace for everyday tasks, which is great because that means I'm not only stronger, but also protecting my back.

6. Caring about a different kind of weight

Once upon a time, the weight on the scale was most important to me. Right now, the weight I can lift is way more interesting.

I love this. Caring about scale weight means worrying about food, exercise, trying to be small. Bar weight is about working at being more. Heavier weights, more muscle mass, being stronger and more effective. I do have to think about keeping in my competitive weight class, but if it wasn't for that, I'd gladly put on a few pounds to get stronger.

7. So very hungry

I wish someone had told me this one earlier.

You have to fuel the lifting machine. Lifting at high intensity (heavy) and volume (lots of it) needs a lot of good quality food behind it.

When I was training for a meet, I was tracking my food intake and macro counting, now I am in off-season I am using the same intuitive eating skills that I teach my nutrition coaching clients. [Well, you have to practice what you preach, and actually it's a lot easier and more comfortable to focus on making sure the foundations of good nutrition are there, and trusting my body to handle the rest. It works, I have steadfastly maintained my weight and size, while gaining a little muscle, for several months without measuring or counting any meals.]

Being very tuned into my hunger I have noticed a phenomenon that happens on heavy training days. Usually I find my hunger creeps up gradually, I go from satisfied after a meal, to feeling a little peckish, to properly hungry, then I eat again. On heavy days I can go from feeling comfortable, to absolutely ravenous in minutes. Out of the blue.

I have turned down food because I am sure I don't need it, only to find myself feeling like I am digesting my own innards 5 minutes later.


It's not just me being weird or awkward. It's hormonal. Hunger spikes like this are caused by a spike of the hormone ghrelin in response to a drop in blood sugar which is triggered by a combination of using energy in training, and the nervous system response to intense training. So there you go.

8. Poking and prodding

There is nothing more exciting than new muscles. Fact.

The amount of time spent flexing, prodding and generally testing out new chunks of muscle cannot be underestimated. Everyone does it. I'm owning it.

Strange things I didn't realise about muscle mass.

  • Many of my muscles aren't bigger unless they are flexed. My arms are actually smaller, and my sleeves looser, until I pick something up and hulk out.
  • Relaxed muscle is pretty soft still, a few days ago I found myself wondering how I suddenly had more fat above my bra strap, but in trying to get a better look, tensed my lats and nope - that's muscle.
  • Shaving your armpits gets tricky when the muscles surrounding the area grow. Suddenly the armpit is deeper and it's hard to get in there. 
  • Muscle definition is more about leanness than bulk. You have have serious muscle mass, but if you aren't cutting fat like a bodybuilder, you aren't going to look like a bodybuilder.
  • Growing muscle is super empowering. Seriously.

9. Missing the gym

"The lifting life" doesn't mean lifting every day. Gains are made at home just as much in the gym, so I spend a lot of time resting and making sure the work I did gets the opportunity to bloom.

You might think that a couple of days of chilling out, not doing anything too taxing, naps and eating would be the best thing ever. But actually, I love training.

Training is my happy place. When I train I try to stay off comms (with the exception of sending messages and videos to my poor, harassed coach. Ryan is brilliant though, he doesn't complain).

It's a time which is about nothing but breathing and counting, and while it is incredibly physically taxing, it is one of the most mentally peaceful things I can do. I simply don't have the capacity to worry, or plan or be preoccupied with anything. That is a rare treasure and I am always itching to get back again.

10. Confidence and being a badass

Physical capability is a wonderful thing. For a large part of my life I have been a less-able person, and that makes you feel vulnerable. It takes a lot out of me to strength train, and it was a long road getting here.

It feels good to move around with efficacy. It feels good to be able to carry my own heavy stuff.

Someone gets on your nerves. I could squat you mate. Not so intimidating now are you?

It feels good to unapologetically claim space. It feels good to value my body for its strength. It's amazing to be part of a community of women who love themselves and appreciate a different kind of aesthetic, where we wear unflattering singlets and pull stupid lifting faces and just don't care because we are secure in our badassery.

Are you interested in starting a new fitness plan, but not sure where to start? I offer online and in-person personal training - or simply write training plans, for people like you. Also, keep an eye out for my new Free Living Fitness programme, which is out soon.

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