Why I Lift Heavy Things

It took me a while to come around to the way of the barbell.

I was a long-form cardio, met-con queen. Chipper workouts and ever-longer runs made me feel challenged and invigorated. The crazier the list on the whiteboard, the happier I was.

But then I ‘graduated’ from bootcamp to indoor classes, and suddenly the barbell was part of my workout routine. I expected to see dramatic changes in my body, and I was sorely disappointed when I didn’t.

That’s when one of the smartest, most charming, most motivating women I  know (I’m looking at you, Melissa Hartwig.) suggested that once or twice a week, I should forget the sexy-fun stuff and just lift heavy things. I needed to build more muscle. Work my core. Overcome my fear of the heavy barbell.

I resisted this idea. (And by ‘resisted’ I mean I pretended I didn’t hear her say it. Over and over and over.)

Then I relented, joined an old school gym with intimidating metal plates, and started doing un-sexy things like 5X5 deadlifts and 5X5 front squats. I got comfortable being uncomfortable. I adapted to feeling fatigued in that “I just wrestled a saber-toothed tiger” way. I got down with the barbell.

It worked, too.

Then last spring a life implosion happened and training lost priority to tasks like remembering to eat and trying to sleep.

Tuesday was my first day to get back to the iron, as Henry Rollins calls it, after a 6-month lapse. The night before, I was apprehensive, so I used one of my favorite tricks: I pretended I wasn’t going to do it. I set my alarm. I got up at the appointed time. I drove to the gym, renewed my membership, and started my warmup… all without ever acknowledging I was doing it.

Then I did it.

And all the dread and procrastination were replaced with muscle memories of why I lift heavy things.



Nothing can compare to that ‘I can take on the world’ feeling when something intimidates me and I do it anyway. I’m always anxious – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot – every time I approach the barbell. There are times when it really does feel like I’ve never done a snatch, a clean, or a deadlift before. And the weight is always a little scary. It seems silly, but I’m surprised by how heavy heavy lifting is. (For real, I almost always say, “This is heavy.” like it’s news, or something.) Plus, there’s so much to remember: core tight, knees pressed out, shoulder blades together, heels down, chest up… The ability to commit to that bar, even when it seems like my cells are yelling, “Run!” makes me feel like the most beautiful, most badass, most accomplished woman around.

Ritual and superstition.

I love that the weight plates are supposed to face IN… that I wear my Converse on heavy lifting days… that I’m superstitious about ‘addressing the bar’ and how long my hands are on it before I actually lift. I like using my thumbs to measure how far apart my hands should be and pulling the bar to my shins just so… flipping my braid over my shoulder and thinking, “Tight, tight, tight.” There’s a mythos built up around lifting heavy things, and it’s easy for me to feel a connection to all the faceless others who’ve walked up to a scary-heavy bar and done their best to get the damn thing off the ground.

There’s freedom in focus.

There is so much to think about in executing a lift – and so much danger in over-thinking it. If I let my mind wonder during a deadlift or clean, it’s all over – and if I worry too much about one part of a move, parts that were previously instinctual go wonky-donk.

In that magical, in-between space of thinking/not thinking, there is freedom. A focus that’s pure. As my core tenses, my mind relaxes. And when it’s really going right, I can’t think about anything else, and I’m not really thinking about the barbell. I just am.

Fat burning, baby.

I’m not gonna lie: I want to look Good. Not just ‘good for your age’ or better than the people in my high school graduating class. Objectively, unequivocally, make-other-people-envious good. Everyone I trust and respect tells me that the way to get the lean, shapely, strong, efficient body I want is to lift heavy things. Leaner arms? Tighter thighs? Flatter abs? Chiseled jaw? Those are the result of heavy lifting, clean eating, and righteous rest.

I want to be a tough old broad.

The thing about lifting heavy stuff with our muscles is that it also makes our bones, tendons, and ligaments better equipped to handle whatever we dish out. No osteoporosis or joint troubles for me! I fully intend to carry my own groceries, move furniture myself, haul suitcases around the globe, and sprint for the bus from now until the end of my days.

It would be dishonest to say that I always look forward to addressing the barbell, and yes, sometimes 5X5 seems So. Freaking. Boring. But I have never regretted a heavy lifting session. I always feel better after than I did before.

Sometimes, on that special kinda day where everything clicks into place, the bar just floats free – and I’m free with it.

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  • Peggie says:

    Rock on Melissa! Love this!!

  • DagneyTaggert says:

    What a great post! You are so inspirational. I share your healthy obsession with looking good. I love to look good! Beauty and strength are a righteous duo.

    I am starting Paleo tomorrow and I will be using some of your recipes.

  • Fra Ambrosius says:

    I so needed this! 5×5 intimidates me like nothing else. I've been resisting adding weight, and you know, making progress. Time to graduate!

    PS–I just moved from 15lb DBs to 25lb DBs for power cleans, and it was ugly, but it got done!

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Peggie –> Thanks, lady! And congrats to you, tiple digit paleo queen.

    DangeyTaggert –> Glad you enjoyed the post! How's your first day of paleo going?

    Fra Ambrosius –> Congratulations on the jump up in weight! If you start kinda light on the 5X5, you can make them your friend. Let me know how it turns out!

  • Mandy says:

    Such perfect timing! I am still on a high from my 180 pound PR on deadlift yesterday. That's more than my bodyweight! I was also scared of lifting heavy stuff for a long time. Now that I am getting over that, I feel like I can conquer the world after being able to lift something like that. Great post! 🙂

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Mandy! That's really, really great. CONGRATULATIONS! I hope you're walking with an extra swagger today!

  • Melissa Urban says:

    @Mel: YOU are the inspiring one. I knew if I was patient and persistent, you'd come around. But your "Oh, sorry, didn't catch that, heavy what?" routine didn't fool me for a second. Ha.

    Heavy stuff still scares me sometimes. A 5×5 front squat at 80%, heavy clean and jerk triples or squat 1RM attempt still gives me butterflies before I grab the bar. But whether you make the lift or not, know that you are making yourself stronger mentally and physically every time you set foot in your crap-tastic gym. And strong just feels GOOD.

    Can't wait to pick up heavy stuff in Houston! Love you.

    xoMelissa (and Dallas says so too).

  • angela says:

    Thank you so much for this post. We literally started Starting Strength about a week ago (i'm on session 4) and I feel so unsexy and like it can't be doing anything for me unless i'm panting and making 'sweat angels' on the ground afterward. But i know lifting heavy things will get me what I want – which is just what you want! – and i'm so relieved i'm not the only one. thanks again!

  • themurr says:

    Great post. I followed a somewhat similar progression, ran hard and that sort, finally converted to the gospel and began moving Heavy Things. My lifting buddies hear an amazingly whiny 'heavy' from me all the time, especially during squats and deadlifts, so nice to know I'm not the only one with those sorts of thoughts.
    P.S. Love your Moroccan meatball recipe, surprisingly convinced my mother to try it and it was a smashing success.

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Angela –> Congratulations on starting heavy lifting! You look so sexy in that barbell!

    The Murr –> Glad you like this post — and the Moroccan meatballs. Thanks so much for letting me know!

  • LizzieFriend says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I've been lurking for a while (can't say enough good things about your blog–you're inspiring and hilarious), but I wanted to ask a question. You talk about doing CrossFit, running on your own and now lifting on your own as well. If you don't mind me asking, what's your general weekly workout schedule? Are you doing all three of these things multiple times per week (in which case, wowza)?

    I'm currently doing CrossFit three or four times (ideally four, but life happens) per week, and I like the idea of improving my strength but don't want to overdo it. Do you do these lifting sessions in the place of a CF workout? Or are they something you do on rest days? Thank you!

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Hey, Lizzie! Great question… on a 'perfect' week, my schedule would look like this:

    Sunday = rest
    Monday = CrossFit class
    Tuesday = heavy lifting
    Wednesday = CrossFit class
    Thursday = rest
    Friday = CrossFit class
    Saturday = run or outdoor "play" CrossFit

    On the heavy lifting day, I do a warmup and then usually 5X5 of two movements (bench press, deadlift) or 3X3 of three movements (squat, bench press, deadlift).

    M/W/F, I do whatever they tell me to at my class 😉

    Saturday is play day. I either do running intervals, or just put on my headphones and la-la-la run around the lake, or we do a backyard workout with dumbbells, jump ropes, pullup bar, etc.

    This is my ideal. If I'm tired, I either skip the heavy day or Saturday… or "go easy" on one or both of those.

  • LizzieFriend says:

    Thank you, Melissa! That answered my question perfectly.

  • Lauren says:

    LOVE this post. hell yeah.

  • I love this!!! The part about pretending your NOT going to do something up until the point that your actually doing it is the same thing I do. My gym is in my garage and whenever my husband sees me putting on my ‘workout’ clothes and asks, “are you going to train?” I usually answer, “maybe.” I think to myself that I’ll just go out there, look at the bar, maybe load it up…who knows what will happen….of course, 99% of the time I end up doing exactly what I pretended I might not do!

    Awesome post!

  • *you’re…ugh sorry I despise spelling mistakes,

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  • Alicia says:

    I know this is an older post, but it’s really helpful/motivating! Do you recommend any resources for an absolute novice? My exercise is usually walking/jogging/hiking/yoga… no weights other than half-assed attempts at using the machines at the gym. How do you know how much to lift, how many times?