Dear Swole Woman,
After reading your column, I decided to learn how to lift about a year-and-a-half ago. I started out with StrongLifts for a while, then decided to pay a ton of money to a (fantastic and beloved!) personal trainer to help make sure I was doing the exercises safely.
I stuck with the A/B routine she wrote up for me for about 10 months (mostly full-body compound movements like deadlifts, squats, clean and press, etc.), but then I found myself getting painfully bored every time I went to the gym; then eventually I stopped going to the gym at all. I took up running in the meantime, which, surprisingly, I loved (I know, I know cardio), but I still want to continue to build up strength.
My question is—what do I do at the gym now? I want to get a new routine, because even now the old one feels boring. Do I need to pay another eye-searing amount of money to a personal trainer? I feel like all the resources I’ve been able to find online are either for absolute beginners (i.e. not different enough from my old routine to alleviate my boredom) or for those who have a super high entry point (pull-ups! very obscure machines I do not know how to use or identify!).
You have made great progress!! You should be really proud of what you’ve done so far, taking initiative not only to pursue some training, but to devote the time and resources to doing it right. It makes me really happy to hear this, even if you have started to dabble in the black art of the devil’s exercise (any kind of cardio).
Boredom with a routine is a super common problem when it comes to exercise, and rightfully so; it’s tedious to do the same thing week in and week out. The generic antidote you will usually see pushed is to “mix it up.” But what does it turns chair around mean reverses baseball cap to mix it up? This column exists for nothing if not to interrogate the very ontology of working out, so here we go.
You got into strength training because you had a goal: to get into strength training. You achieved that goal! That is great. But now you are goal-less, in part because getting started with something is usually the most straightforward part. Any new hobby or activity starts to get weedy when you are no longer just mucking around with the basics and have to start thinking about what you really want out of it. On the face of your letter, you are asking for a new program, but what you’re really asking is for a new goal.
I know this feeling well; I’ve been goal-less in my training for almost a year, which has been nice in some ways. Goals are a challenge and a kind of pressure, and when training isn’t my priority and I can’t give it the time and mental energy to move that chess piece forward, all I do is stress myself out. But working out also scales back nicely to just an activity, or even something I can walk away from a little bit, knowing that I love it and it will be fun and rewarding to rediscover how much I love it after I take some time away and miss it, which allows me to show up for it with renewed energy. You don’t have to be all-in all the time on everything. I have other, nontraining goals right now, and it’s more important to be moving those forward than moving forward on strength. And that’s fine! But I know if I want to remotivate myself at some point in the near future, that will involve deciding I want something, and then charting a path to it.
More acutely, lately I’ve been feeling like instead of trying to live, I was trying not to die. By that, I mean I felt like I’d been living according to anyone’s wants and needs except my own, not for lack of wanting things but for lack of putting myself and my needs first. I’ve been living reactively with respect to everyone and everything else, and not proactively for myself. Finding that proactive thread again has meant deciding what I want and doing the work to make it a priority, even if it meant de-prioritizing other things and people. While some guilt comes with de-prioritizing other things, deliberately prioritizing at least one thing for yourself feels amazing.
I can’t set you a new goal, because I don’t know what you want. However, I can throw out some possibilities to give you some potential directions you could take your journey in. Then your role would be to think about them, and if any speak to you—even in a tangential sense, such that maybe you don’t want to do that specific thing but maybe something like it—you can start to put the pieces together in your own head that would lead you there.
For instance, would you like to be able to do a pull-up? There are programs for that. Would you want to train for a sport, even if that sport is (woof) running? There are programs for that as well. Do you want to get as physically strong as humanly possible? Do you want to do an obstacle course? Try pole dancing? Try trapezing? Join a dragon boat? Do a power-lifting competition? How much strength you need for all these kinds varies, but it will pay off in all of them.
Once you have a goal, it becomes much easier to figure out what to do next and parcel it out into steps along the path toward that goal. If you want to, say, be in a power-lifting competition, you might get back with that trainer you mentioned to pick a meet where you will compete and then figure out a training program that will build your strength up to peak on that day. Same for if you wanted to run a race, or do a performance.
My biggest suggestion here would be not to make an aesthetic goal. While that is certainly something you can do, and many people pursue that and love it, I think the most beautiful thing about lifting is that you learn all the amazing things your body can do other than look nice (and frankly, I very much doubt pursuing the activity-type goals will give you a body you hate, if for no other reason than you learn to appreciate it precisely for a reason other than what it looks like or how attractive it is to others). Your body can not only grow and be strong and capable and support you in your day-to-day life, but you can use it to achieve things you might never have thought you could do. I spent a very long time believing that being able to do a pull-up was just against my womanly biology (a tallish, large-ish body with long arms), based on real reported articles that I had read. Now I can do five real pull-ups at a time.
If really all you’re looking for is a fresh program, there are numerous cookie-cutter ones available for free out there that you don’t need to pay any money for, and you definitely don’t need to pay a trainer for something specialized to you, particularly if you don’t have a specific goal beyond getting a little stronger or continuing to go to the gym. Here is a fairly enormous rundown of a ton of different strength-training programs; here is another compendium of general muscle-building programs. I think you will find that most of them are broadly similar; that is, they tend to revolve around a few core movements in a fairly limited range of set and rep schemes. I personally think this is a pretty beautiful thing about lifting; there is not a magical secret person-to-person-specific formula in order to make it work, and the same basic strategy works for a very broad number of people.
The key might not be in throwing in a ton of new exercise variations, but leaning into working on doing your absolute best on those core movements and working to refine them. Many people make the mistake of thinking that their lack of progress means they need to switch up their program. While you don’t have to perform precisely the same exercises for precisely the same reps and sets for years on end, careening wildly from high-rep superset machine exercises to low-rep intense barbell movements and back is not a magical key to trick your body into getting stronger; consistency and deliberate effort are what works, not wild variety or muscle confusion.
Maybe you’ve already tried this and find it tedious, but if not, I suggest putting your currently misdirected and/or misspent energy into understanding the complexity and beauty of those movements. There are nearly infinite videos and articles, millions of words and minutes spilled on how to apply the theory of a good squat or deadlift to various bodies, challenges, and training scenarios. Maybe you don’t go in for that kind of thing, but I personally find it pretty fascinating. Stronger By Science, which is run by Greg Nuckols, has several in-depth guides of this type that themselves reference further studies. A not-so-secret secret of lifting weights is that there is a hefty contingent of people who absolutely adore nerding out on its complexities, and not just the complexities of individual training exercises but of nutrition, program structure, meet preparation, and on and on. If you think you might be interested in getting to know that bit of lifting more deeply, there are a lot of super passionate people (hello) who can’t wait to bring you into the fold.
So, continuing with this does depend on you embracing a direction. Fortunately there a ton of directions in which to go, especially when you consider you can embrace strength training for not specifically strength’s sake, and as a means to some other physical pursuit, whether it’s dancing or team sports. But strength for strength’s sake is not a thing I think many women give a chance, so maybe it’s time to consider it.