Abs. We all have them.
But the first time I saw mine? At 43 years old. This was after three babies (my kids are 12, 12 and 8), and while working the most intense job of my career. (Hi, I’m the Editor-in-Chief of WH!) It began as a glimmer of midsection definition last July, and now I’m the woman at the gym/pool/on IG who people stop and ask “How did you do it?” My body recomposition results from training with the Ladder app blow my mind, and I’m excited to share my journey…
(FYI: WH readers can start a free trial of the Ladder app—no credit card required!—and receive 50 percent off their first month by signing up using any of the links in this article.)
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I was a competitive athlete (soccer, tennis, basketball) growing up, and I’ve worked out five days a week for pretty much as long as I can remember. As an adult, my workouts can best be defined by fitness phases.
Let me explain. In my twenties, I ran half-marathons and marathons. By my thirties, I became obsessed with triathlons and even competed in a Half-Ironman. I went through various boutique fitness chapters from there: the years of being a SoulCycle devotee, later, a burpee queen in The Class, and, post-third-baby, a regular on SLT reformers in Brooklyn and NYC.
For many, many years, my cardio-hardwired-brain believed that if I didn’t run five miles, it wasn’t a “real” workout. (Much compassion for younger Liz. ❤️) Most recently, I catalogued my journey to get my first pullup on my Instagram. I pretty much looked like I do in the image below: definitely fit, but IMO, less sculpted than I should be given the hours and hours of effort I put forth in my workouts every week.
To be clear, straight-up strength training was always happening in the background of these other pursuits. I’d hit the gym a couple times a week and power through some sets and reps with dumbbells…my go-to’s were biceps curls, skull-crushers for my triceps, and maybe even some bench-pressing.
It all felt good and empoweringbut it was also haphazard…I’d just do whatever I “felt” like that day. My love of fitness is almost 100-percent about how calm, clear, and confident workouts make me feel. Sweating allows me to show up for the rest of my life, navigating all of the twists and turns each day takes.
Now is the part where I tell you that all of the above can be true…and you can also experience the thrill of watching your muscles grow, seeing yourself become more sculpted, and, yes, noticing in the mirror that your core has morphed from soft to strong.
My transformation began in my 40s when I committed to a training program.
It all started during the pandemic, when I craved structure in my home workouts and started using the Ladder app, a platform that allows everyday exercisers to join teams led by best-in-class trainers who program workouts that you complete virtually. I joined the Body & Bell team with WH advisory board member, Lauren Kanski, CSCS. (Full disclosure: Lauren is also a friend of mine.) Her program mostly leverages kettlebells, an unsung hero at the gym that’s awesome for recruiting core strength, improving mobility, and generally making you feel like a badass.
Every morning, I diligently opened Ladder to watch Lauren’s intro to the session, then grabbed my bells and followed along to her video demos and audio cueing. We began each workout with a warm-up, then did some central nervous system prep (power or plyo moves to prime the muscles recruited in the main lift), six or eight KB moves, and finished with a five-minute cool-down. The whole shebang usually took 45-60 minutes.
I did four strength-focused workouts, plus a three- or four-mile run and hot yoga class, every single week…transitioning to gym workouts once the world re-opened. With my local YMCA’s rack of heavier bells at my fingertips, things really, well, picked up from there.
As my confidence grew, so did my curiosity. I started listening to podcasts about strength training, and following exercise physiologists on social media. As the EIC of WH, I’m lucky to have a team of experts on speed dial. I’d text Lauren questions or ask WH‘s fitness editors for advice. Think: What are the best shoes for weight lifting? What should a recovery day really look like? I was (still am, actually) like a sponge, soaking up all of the information I could find to bolster the gains I was making at the Y.
Around this time, I noticed that when Lauren would program the option to pick up a barbell rather than KBs or dumbbells, I felt even more lit up during and after my workouts. And as a glutton for a new challenge, I came to love the challenge of those barbell days, particularly when we executed deadlifts.
I pivoted to barbell training to take my muscle gains to a whole new level.
So this past spring, I moved over to the barbell-focused Limitless crew, also on Ladder, with coach Kelly Matthews, CSCS. (There are currently 15 coaches; members can switch teams and style of workouts whenever they want. And FYI, each team has super-strong community vibes, where members share wins, ask questions, and cheer each other on in a linked message board.) Here, barbells were the star, and hypertrophy—a.k.a. muscle growth—was the goal. Quick science lesson: Hypertrophy is the enlargement of tissue due to the increase in size of its cells, which is triggered by repeated stress and recovery. Basically, you increase volume over time, and your muscles get bigger. 💪
The moves are not complicated: We executed classics like lunges, squats, push presses, and so on. The magic is the progressive increase in volume. I dutifully upped my weight when Kelly said to, adding plates and reps week over week even when it felt totally outside of my comfort zone.
I tried syncing deadlift days to in-person workouts with my friend Ebenezer Samuel, CSCS—who oversees WH fitness business development and is also the fitness director at WH‘s sibling brand, Men’s Health—to really lock up my form and volume. We were on a trajectory toward me deadlifting 300 pounds this year when an old sacrum injury from a skiing accident re-emerged and slowed my roll. (Suffer from back pain? Please read this to change ya life.) But still, I’ve persisted, becoming a barbell-loving, heavy-lifting, totally lit-up gym rat.
My Biggest Takeaways After Seeing Results With Ladder
1. Like most women, I wasn’t lifting heavy enough during all of those years and decades before turning 43.
I’d spent most of my hours/decades in the gym doing random workouts. When I got strategic with my programming and higher volume, everything changed. (FYI: Hypertrophy can be achieved a variety of ways…the key is to add volume, whether that’s through additional sets and reps with medium or light weights, or with fewer reps and heavier weights. The heavy approach is by far the most efficient, which is key for someone like me who has a lot going on outside of the hour I can devote to working out each day.)
2. I made recovery a nonnegotiable.
Recovery is crucial to any solid strength program, and it’s key to my journey, too. Ladder teams generally do six-week blocks with two week de-load sessions that are lighter in volume for mental and physical recovery in between—rather than wandering around the weight room aimlessly, or picking random workouts from IG. That focus on (1) heavy, and (2) a methodical progression have been the game-changers and helped me avoid overtraining.
3. I used an app to make tracking my protein easy.
A quick note on my nutrition, which is key for body recomp. I locked in my protein consumption at the same time I got serious in the weight room, focusing on eating 30g of protein with each meal to activate muscle synthesis, and aiming to consume 100-125g of protein per day.
At first, I used an app to track my protein, but over time I’ve gotten good at estimating. Now I can look at a chicken breast or bowl of yogurt and mentally calculate how much protein it contains. I don’t count calories or other macros because for me, I find that when I prioritize protein, everything else falls into place. (There are lots of ways to get enough protein, yes that goes for vegans and vegetarians, but most of us women are not eating enough to support or brains, immune systems, bones, and yep, muscles.)
4. I found effective tools for motivating myself on “I don’t wanna” days.
- Prioritize discipline over motivation. Following a specific program is key to combat the completely normal ebbs and flows of motivation we all experience: Knowing I’ll be told what move and how many reps takes my brain out of the equation. My job is to show up.
- Abide by the four-minute rule. I make myself put on workout clothes and get to the gym. Then I set a timer for four minutes, and if I still am NOTTT FEELINGGG ITT, then I let myself off the hook. Spoiler: I’ve never thrown in the towel. Once I start moving, sigh, it’s really just never as tough as I anticipated. (Not so coincidentally, science says that it takes about four minutes for our bodies to physiologically adjust to the effort of a workout. Basically, it’s hard and then suddenly we’re just doing it.)
- Give 100-percent of whatever I’ve got. Sometimes bench-pressing 95 pounds feels easy-ish. The next week it may feel totally impossible. Sleep, my menstrual cycle, what I had for dinner the night before, stress levels…these variables can really add up. So I focus on giving 100-percent of whatever I have to give that day. As long as I try my best? I’m good.
The benefits of lifting heavy go so far beyond muscle definition and deadlifting PRs.
If you take one thing away from my story, let it be that message. The science-backed health payoffs include better bone density, a stronger immune system, reduced anxiety, improved self-esteem, and on and on. And on. AND ON! I’ve got a lot of living to do and three young children to keep up with, so those abs-adjacent benefits are everything to me.
Today, I’m 44 years old and feel more energetic, balanced, strong and confident than ever. My weight-lifting is honestly just a Trojan horse for feeling my best mentally, emotionally and physically. And while kettlebells and barbells are now forever a part of my fitness foundation, I do want to venture into some new physical goals in the coming months and year…
I’m daydreaming about climbing Mount Rainier next summer. I have friends training for a Half-Ironman, and it’s making me want to swap my e-bike for a road bike. A coach at the Y suggested I sign-up for a fitness competition. I know I’m all over the place—which is a fun place to be, btw!—and that maintaining a strong base of barbell training will help me achieve any and all of those physical pursuits.
Final thoughts! Over the past year-ish on this body recomp journey, my life has included some weeks and months that have been extra-busy with work travel and admittedly less structured eating…and my midsection sometimes feels softer as result. Our bodies have seasons, and that’s cool, too! Because I know that my abs don’t define me. And I also know that they’re always there if I want to reveal them….now I know how to make ’em pop.
Liz Plosser is the editor-in-chief of Women’s Health. She’s been passionately reporting and editing health, fitness, nutrition, sexual health, and mental health content for her entire career. She has a 360-degree outlook on the wellness world, having worked across platforms at print magazines (Self, Cosmopolitan), with video (CosmoBody), overseeing content and strategy for brands (Canyon Rach, SoulCycle) and as SVP of Content in the digital space (Well+Good).