My entry into strength training was more unconventional and started at a much younger age than most.
As a child, I had severe stomach issues that stumped doctors. I was prescribed a medication that unfortunately and unexpectedly brought on many side effects, including anxiety, pain when standing and walking, and weight gain. I was also experiencing injuries due to an undiagnosed connective tissue disorder, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which included joint dislocations and chronic pain.
Because doctors were unsure as to why I was injury prone and struggling with joint pain, I was told to go to physical therapy to help with the chronic pain. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I learned I had Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. My physical therapist was a bodybuilding competitor, and she told my mom I should work with her coach and personal trainer named Jennifer Abrams, who owns her own company called Steps To Success. That recommendation changed everything.
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I started bodyweight strength training in middle school, and I believe it saved my life.
When I was 11 years old, I started training with Jennifer. She guided me through injury-informed bodyweight exercises and we progressed to resistance band training and eventually implemented weights. She was always mindful of my health and helped me progress and avoid pain. It gave me newfound confidence, and she quickly became a role model to me. To put it simply, working with Jennifer saved my life.
After about 18 months, I lost 60 pounds and stopped training with Jennifer because she helped me finally play sports again. I still had to deal with chronic pain (and still do today), but it’s a fraction of what it used to be. The combination of physical therapy and strength training helped me tremendously. When I did experience pain, I managed it with ice, elevating my joints, wearing a brace, or rest.
Not only was I able to be active with peers, but I started the girls field hockey team at my high school to encourage girls of all athletic capacities to play a sport I loved. I also tried volleyball for the first time and played lacrosse for both my high school and a travel team. Sometimes I’d work out on my own and do agility ladders, sprints, and interval training. But as a team, we’d do lifting sessions twice a week, and other days we’d do speed and agility conditioning.
After feeling weak and sick most of my life, bodybuilding inspired me to find my strength.
I was first introduced to bodybuilding through Jennifer when I was 11 and knew I always wanted to try it. In my senior year of high school, I got serious about pursuing my passion, so I reconnected with Jennifer to help. Initially, I liked the idea of getting strong because I spent so much of my childhood feeling weak due to my health issues.
I’ve always wanted to be strong, but focusing on bodybuilding created a new purpose to guide my training. I was set on getting healthier and being able to move better. During my sports seasons, I dedicated my training to my performance and added gym weight lifting sessions after practice three times a week. Once my sports seasons ended, I had more time and strength trained five days a week.
I quickly realized that bodybuilding required a different headspace than my team sports. Rather than thinking about how to be a better teammate, I was responsible for pushing myself for myself. Whether it was beating my previous reps or pushing more weight, I was in competition with myself.
I prepped for 16 weeks for my first bodybuilding competition in May of 2020. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to step on stage because of the COVID-19 pandemic. To this day, I’d still like to step on stage and compete.
I believe I owe it to my inner child to show her I can do it. Even though I’m not competing right now, I still train and eat like a bodybuilder.
Now, I strength train five times a week and mostly work my legs.
My typical week of training includes three leg days, one push day, and one pull day. I’d like to compete in the wellness division, which focuses on lower body muscle development. I also just want bigger legs!
I either do my cardio first thing in the morning or after my weight lifting sessions. Some days I’ll run on the treadmill or outside, other days I’ll use the elliptical or the bike—I like to have fun and switch it up.
For the past eight months, I’ve been switching between quad, glute, and hamstring days. I prefer to train to failure on compound movements for legs. That means I push myself to maximal effort while being intentional about my range of motion and tempo. My workouts are usually one to two hours long, depending on how much rest I take between exercises. In one leg day, I’ll usually complete five to seven different moves per workout.
I have a love-hate relationship with leg day. My go-to leg exercises include leg press, pendulum squats, hack squats, hip extensions, glute bridges, adductors, seated leg curls, and split squats. On pull days, I love doing stepped-back hammer rows and iliac lat pulldowns while seated on a bench. On push days, I’ll take on lateral raises and dumbbell flat bench presses.
Generally, when I’m lifting heavier weight I’m performing lower reps, but the exact number of sets I do varies depending on the workout. For my top sets, I typically push for eight to 10 reps with the heaviest weight I can use with proper form and tempo. For my back-off sets, which is the final set of my exercise where I drop the weight, I’ll increase the reps generally to 12 to 15 depending on the exercise.
Training my legs has always been difficult because of my previous back injuries. I chose to focus on strengthening my weak points and honed in on pendulum squats, leg press, hack squats, and hip extensions, which used to be uncomfortable. Now, I’m proud of the fact that not only can I do these exercises but can also continue to increase the weight and utilize proper range of motion.
I changed my mentality around food—now it’s my fuel.
My relationship with food wasn’t always smooth. In high school, I developed a binge eating disorder and got caught up in diet culture. Luckily, I got help and spent two years getting myself back on track.
By the time I was a senior, I was in a better mental space about eating. Taking kinesiology courses in college also helped me remember that food wasn’t the enemy. Now, I’m focused on getting enough protein, carbs, and calories to help power my workouts. Nutrition is complex, and it goes hand in hand with performance.
To fuel my current workouts, I currently prioritize eating whole foods and avoid anything processed. For protein and carbs, I eat chicken, shrimp, eggs, beef, rice, oatmeal, and potatoes. I also load up on fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and avocado. To prepare for a competition, I would shift my diet to a deficit to be stage-lean.
I listen to my body when it needs to rest.
I think as women, we often tell ourselves we can’t have breaks, and there’s no time to rest. With strength training, you have to honor the days when your body needs a break. When it comes to bodybuilding, you’re constantly sore because of how frequently you train, so it’s important to understand the difference between healthy soreness and what fatigue that requires rest feels like.
I know that pushing myself to work out when I shouldn’t sets me up for more stress and potential injuries. That’s why I spend my rest days getting outdoors, seeing friends, or even deep-cleaning my space.
I learned how to be a cheerleader and coach for myself instead of always being a critic.
I faced many challenges growing up as we all have. As I’ve grown up, I’m starting to understand how limiting the victim mentality can be. I also am embracing the fact that in order to truly succeed, I must treat myself with love and kindness in addition to discipline. I realized early on when it came to training, it was a me-versus-me dynamic. When I am competing with myself, I also have my own back.
It’s on me to nurture myself and be my own biggest support system. I do that in a few ways. I hold myself accountable to hit the gym if I’m just feeling lazy. I also tell myself ‘you need rest’ if I know my body needs it. I’ve become a better coach to myself and ultimately my biggest friend rather than my worst critic.
Having community support gave me confidence and helped me enjoy the process.
I credit my mom for always being a huge support system for me throughout my journey. She’s the person who pushes me to go for the things I’m scared of. My best friends are also like-minded and have always wanted to see me succeed. Whether it’s a spotter, a friend, or a trainer rooting me on, it makes me enjoy the process and have fun with it that much more.
After struggling to feel good in my skin for so many years, I find bodybuilding to be empowering. It shows me that a woman can be multifaceted. I can be strong and feminine and powerful. I was always told I couldn’t do things when I was younger because I was sick, but bodybuilding broke through the ceiling of possibilities.