(Re)Starting Strength

by | May 19, 2021

The squat


I woke up on April the 13th, excited about what was going to be the second biggest event of the year thus far–I was going back to the gym. The first event had happened the previous day when I went swimming. I was so excited that  3 hours earlier than I was due to leave I put on the new pair of gym leggings I had bought especially for the occasion. When the time finally came I rushed to the gym. The staff members and I greeted each other like old friends you haven’t seen in years (at a distance of course). A quarter of an hour had passed before I made my way to the weight training section. The barbells and dumbbells were neatly stacked inviting me to put them to use. I stood in front of the squat rack and my brain started firing questions: “how much weight should I start with? How high should the barbell be again for me to lift it up safely? How do I adjust the height of the screw thingies? shouldn’t I warm up first? yeah I should but for how long?”  I stood there waiting for my brain to come up with answers but it couldn’t.

I had thought that just like swimming came to me as soon as I stepped into the pool, I would know what to do as soon as I laid eyes on the barbells. I knew better than to just jump in and start lifting, this is how injuries happen. I remembered I have the Kindle app on my phone and could just quickly check my weight training book. I scrolled through the books I had downloaded onto my phone but the book wasn’t there. It occurred to me that I changed phones last year so I will need to re-download this book. What was the book called again? For the life of me I couldn’t remember the title. How was it possible? I had read and referred to this book dozens of times over the years. I tried multiple variants of keyword search using “weights” “training” “bodybuilding” but NADA! So I started scrolling through my entire Kindle library but I gave up after a few minutes. I looked at the time and I had only 36 mins left of the hour I had booked to be in the gym. I decided to abandon my original plan and just stick to biking and bodyweight exercises that day.

This is not the first time my memory has failed me where weight training is concerned. I had avoided weights for years because I thought it would make me bulky, plus I was put off by the images of sweaty men grunting and puffing their chests. And it just looked boring. But a decade ago when I had my Lasik eye operation I was told I couldn’t go anywhere near a swimming pool for a month and would need to find an alternative form of exercise. The part of Beijing I lived in was not conducive to running or power-walking outside, so I was left with the gym option. There just happened to be a gym right behind my apartment building so I joined. Since I was clueless about most of the equipment in the gym, they suggested I sign up with a personal trainer (PT). I thought why not try it for a month? After the month was up, I continued working out with the PT because he had really grown on me. He was so good natured and seeing him always made me smile, and he promised me thinner thighs. He delivered!  For four years we met twice per week. Each time he would instruct me on how to do some exercises and I’d do them under his encouraging eyes. By the next session, I would have forgotten the instructions and he would have to tell me again. This went on for months without him commenting on my poor memory. Then one day he asked me why was it that I could never remember how to do these exercises. I replied I didn’t know, but it was convenient for me not to remember so I could keep training with him—he was my didi (little brother) and I was his jiejie (big sister). I enjoyed our conversations so much that we hung out outside of the gym. He loved inviting me to dinner with him and his friends. I think it was his way of making sure I was eating properly for training. He often quizzed me about when and what I ate before our training and what I was going to eat after. As he was also a professional bodybuilder I got to learn about that world and the amount of discipline and training required to prepare for competitions. I saw through his own training and others he trained how you can truly transform the human body through exercise. He dispersed the myth of weight training making you bulky, I actually became leaner. On top of that, I built a solid vocabulary of exercise terms in Chinese.

(re)starting strength


But once I left China I conveniently forgot all about squats, deadlifts and the gym. Six months later I was ordered back to weight lifting by an osteopath after I complained of hip and knee pains. He said I needed to build strength and women lose more muscle mass as they age and I was no longer a spring chicken (his exact words!). Off I went in search of a personal trainer because I could barely remember what was the difference between squats and deadlifts, never mind how to perform them. Tried a couple of personal trainers but they didn’t make me smile like my didi/PT did.  I decided it was time I educate myself on how to weight train, which led me to that book whose name escaped me on my first day back to the gym after the lockdown.

Later that day after the gym, scrolling again through my Kindle library, I eventually found the book I was looking for, Starting Strength. As you can see it is completely different from what I thought it was called. Not sure how I could have forgotten because this book had a big impact on me when I first read it, hence why I had referred to it often over the years. While my didi/PT in Beijing showed me the transformational power of weight training, Starting Strength made me appreciate the mechanics behind it. Before reading the book I didn’t dare do squats unsupervised for fear of hurting my knees, but the book explained clearly how to do the squat safely. I learnt that I needn’t fear it because “the squat, when performed correctly, not only is the safest leg exercise for the knees, but also produces more stable knees than any other leg exercise does.” From then on I became a devotee of the squat.

A couple of days later I went back to the gym armed with knowledge from Starting Strength supplemented with a training program from Thinner Leaner Stronger, another book I re-discovered in my library. I was very much interested in being leaner because despite my best efforts, my waistline had expanded a little over this past year. Damn you Trader Joe’s twice fried plantain crisps for being so scrumptiously comforting! This time round at the gym, I did manage to do some barbell exercises though I had to keep stopping to look up instructions in my book or the accompanying Starting Strengthvideos on Youtube. Normally working out is when I do my podcast listening but I couldn’t on that visit because I needed to concentrate. In fact, in the month that I have been back I haven’t listened to any podcasts at all. I have to remember to warm up properly, the correct hand position, to set the timer for rest time in between sets, to do the maths of accurate weight increments, etc. A lot to remember!

So what’s the moral of this story? That this human’s memory is feeble and fallible. And that I shouldn’t be too confident and complacent with the knowledge I think I have even if it is much treasured. I love doing the squat, deadlift and the military press therefore I  didn’t think I could easily forget them but eh, I’m human. So, forgive me that I can’t recommend any interesting podcasts this time round, but I can recommend the following:


(re)starting strength

Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe: offers a clear explanation of how to carry out the most essential weight training exercises.

Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker: A complement to Starting Strength, goes into more details on the mechanics of the process and how to devise and adapt training based on your level and age.

(re)starting strength

The Military Press: Learn to or refresh your press skills from this short video.The good thing about this video is that you won’t be distracted by the performer’s physique or outfit.

Learn to squat: This video simply breaks down how to do the squat properly and safely.

Deadlift: You can learn to deadlift like a pro in less than 5 mins. Ok multiply that by like 20, the amount of times I’ve seen this video this month in my attempt at mastery.

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