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'I Went From Being The Girl Who Dreaded Gym Class To Winning A Pull-Up Contest'

Gym class brings back a lot of negative memories for me. I never played any sports as a kid. I didn’t know the rules, and that made me feel embarrassed. I didn’t want all eyes on me while I would possibly make a mistake that would hurt the whole team.

On top of that, I was a tiny kid. Everyone was bigger, taller, and stronger than me. Even in college I didn’t do any kind of intramural or club sports. I would go to the gym recreationally, but with all the walking you naturally do on campus, I didn’t feel the need to commit.

I was on and off with exercise until my late twenties, when I got engaged. There’s a pressure to work out so that you look good in your dress and on your honeymoon, so I started to make an effort. I was going to the gym, but I still had no clue how to work with weights. I was just doing cardio and a program that focused on HIIT exercises. It was so repetitive, and I dreaded going. I kept it up until my wedding, but afterward, I fell off again. As I got older, I found myself being more set in my routine and it was harder to get myself to try something new.

A combination of pandemic lockdown and coping with loss pushed toward strength training.

Years later, we moved and I joined another gym because it was close to our new house. Tired of holding myself accountable, I tried working with a personal trainer. I liked where it was going, but then we were sent into pandemic lockdown.

In the meantime, my cat also passed away, which really impacted me. With her chronic condition, she needed constant, intense care. When she died, my brain needed something else to focus on. That was my impetus for getting back to the gym.

a woman standing on a barbell
Susan Misur

Gyms reopened, and I dedicated myself to personal training and learning how to build strength. Everything finally started to click for me. My trainer taught me how to do squats on the racks, sled pushes and pulls, hex bar squats, curls, rows, weighted lunges, and more.

I thought, I can actually do this. I never pictured myself—a barely five-foot-tall person—being able to build this kind of muscle. I never saw myself as athletic, but strength training has helped me believe in myself.

Now, it’s been three years, and I’ve been on a really dedicated schedule ever since.

My biggest strength training accomplishment was winning a contest at work by doing 22 pull-ups.

After realizing that my arm strength was building, I decided to start doing pull-ups every week to see how many I could do at once. To me, pull-ups were always one of the hardest exercises people could do at the gym. My trainer had me start by using resistance bands to assist my pull ups, and over time, I felt myself getting better. Soon, I was able to do them without the support.

a woman lifting weights
Susan Misur

Last year I was working at a university, and they had a fitness center on campus. One day, the people working at the fitness center put on a contest to see who of all the staff, faculty, and students could do the most pull ups.

It was low stakes—the winner would simply win a t-shirt and a round of applause—but I decided to throw my hat in the ring to show my support. I could see that they really wanted more participants. Much to my surprise, I won the contest! I did about 22 pull-ups. They weren’t perfect form, but I felt pretty cool. Nowadays, I do a solid eight pull-ups per set. It’s safe to say that I’ve come a long way.

These three factors were key to my transformation.

1. I wasn't afraid to try different gyms while traveling.

I recommend going to the gyms in hotels when you are traveling so that you can stick to your routine. Usually, barely anyone is in them! Most of the time, they’re completely empty. If you’re afraid of trying certain moves in your home gym where it’s crowded, do it in a hotel gym to give yourself a chance to build your confidence privately.

2. If you can, work with a personal trainer for an accurate strength training education.

While it may not be accessible for everyone, for me, personal training was really helpful. It became the one to two days per week where I didn’t have to put the planning on myself. I just go in, and no matter what we’re working on, the rest is up to the trainer and it’s all taken care of. It removes that need for decision making, plus they teach you how to do the moves safely and correctly. It also keeps you accountable, because you have a standing appointment every single week. It forces you to get into a routine and take the time to build the habit.

3. Remember that the gym can provide a sense of true consistency in your life.

In a world where everything is constantly changing, the gym is always there. It’ll help you develop a sense of consistency in your life. So many of the moves are the same. They’re reliable. It’s something you can always count, and to me, there’s comfort in having a repetitive routine.

working out on exercise equipment
Susan Misur

Nowadays, I structure my workouts by muscle groups: upper body, lower body, and full body (and cardio!).

Overall, strength training is like a do over of my gym class years. It’s a second chance to make it a success this time. These days, I’ve continued with personal training, but I also do strength training on my own now, too.

I prioritize doing two days per week of upper body, two days of lower body, and a fifth day of full-body exercises. I try to make the full body exercises fun, doing moves that I might not be able to do when the gym is super crowded, like pushing around the sled or slamming ropes.

strength transformation
Susan Misur

For my sixth workout day, I’ll usually do cardio. I try to run about three miles outside, depending on the weather. But if I’m not feeling up to that, I’ll do a day of core-focused work. I also try to incorporate cardio at the beginning or end of every workout by climbing the stair master or walking on the treadmill.

On my rest days, I don’t go to the gym. My brain needs the space away from it, and I know I’ll get bored seeing the same place every day. Usually, I’ll go on walks or explore different hiking trails with my dad. I’ll also do yard work. And honestly, my strength training only helps me be better at all of those activities.

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