'In my wildest dreams...'

Updated: May 7, 2019

Have your 'New Year-New Me' goals already been kicked to the curb? Ditched the training in favour of speedy trips to the fridge made between binge watching that ever-so-popular box set on Netflix ? Well girl, listen up! A month from now the Press will be full of bikini-body diets, ads for fake tans and promises of quick-fix cellulite cures. In our heart of hearts even the most naive among us know there are no quick solutions or easy routes to achieving our dreams.

Our guest blogger today on the Lifestyle Blog is Abi Graham. I first met Abi while working out in a local sports centre. At the time she was one of the few women I would see in the weights gym, which ten years ago was a more male-dominated training environment where only the bravest of females would venture. To be honest she completely destroyed my stereo-typical, out-dated images of the female power lifter. In the mid 2000s I was more of a cardio-addict, for me Spinning classes and Aerobics combined with the tiniest of hand-held weights were my 'thing.' If someone suggested 'upping' the weights or changing my 'reps' they immediately became the enemy, I'd literally run from the gym panicking, with images of myself with over-developed 'Popeye' arms, such was my ignorance of weight training, correct technique and the benefits it could bring to me. Yet, I'd still gasp in admiration at the firm, strong and healthy physiques of certain gym buddies, not knowing how they achieved their shape, sighing that it was 'all probably down to genetics anyway' and not understanding that with the right mindset everyone has it within their grasp to develop a stronger physique and empowering body confidence.

From waif-like weakling to three-times British Powerlifting Championship - Abi Graham.

I was always picked last for the sports teams at school - my awkward small frame did nothing to deter the school bullies, nor the male students who teased me somewhat cruelly even in my first year of University. My weak waif-like body made me feel inadequate and child-like well into my 20s. I was always the academic loner with no sporting ability, and I was desperately lonely up until the point I found my first boyfriend aged 22.

Aged 17, my journey had not yet begun.

Now, aged 39, I am a three-times British Powerlifting Champion! I have represented my country in six international Powerlifting competitions, (four World Championships), as one of only 7 members of Team GB. This year I finished 7th in my weight-class in the IPF Classic World Championships in Belarus. I have broken the British Deadlift Record, lifting 178kg at a bodyweight of under 63kg!

Don't shy away from new goals.

I have added over a stone in muscle to my frame, which is now densely muscled and powerful, and I love it. I am regularly told that my strength and physique intimidates many other gym members! I am stronger than I could have ever believed possible in my wildest dreams.

This evolution has been very gradual over the last 17 years however, and for much of that time I have not been very highly motivated at all! Finally deciding to do Powerlifting competitions about 10 years after I first started lifting weights was the thing I needed to give me long-lasting motivation and the drive to train 5 days a week even though for most of those sessions I feel pretty tired before I even start the session and would far rather stay at home and lie on the couch!

I believe that everyone needs clear goals to remain motivated, and goals which are progressive, that you can continually make more ambitious, goals that you are certain you really want to achieve. Simply going to the gym because you feel you "should", or because you want to improve your health or lose weight may be enough to get you started initially, but there is no way these vague ideas can keep someone motivated to train several times a week and progressing for the rest of their lives! For this reason, I would highly recommend competing in Powerlifting to anyone of literally any age and any level!

My initial motivation to lift weights was much more modest though and I would never in my wildest dreams have thought I could become strong let alone win national titles in a sport! I just wanted to "get in shape" and I chose weight-lifting because I thought it would be the least amount of time and effort to achieve this - which is actually completely true! Plus, I hate most sport, particularly running and getting out of breath!

So I started lifting aged 21, having done no form of physical activity since I'd left school, I was incredibly unfit and although I was small, I was shapeless and skinny-fat with a little pot-belly. It was several months before I had the strength to do a single pressup.

'I only start counting when it starts hurting.' Muhammad Ali.

For several years, I was really not very motivated - even though I now had what many people considered to be a "nice and athletic" figure, I gradually realised that I wasn't interested in training half-heartedly for my whole life just staying at the same level.

So finally, after training for about 9 years by myself (and still having little idea what I was doing), I got a trainer. This was when I finally learned that Powerlifting existed - and after 2 more years of gentle coaxing from several people, I worked up the courage to compete for the first time in 2011.

Powerlifting is what finally gave me lasting motivation for my training - by seeing first hand on a national and then international level just how strong it was possible for a woman my size to get, I realised I could train harder and started to wonder what I might be capable of.

The way Powerlifting has changed every part of my life for the better is hard to over-emphasise. Each little strength-goal I've reached, each competition I've won, each national championship title I've achieved has given me long-lasting satisfaction which makes all the work well worth it.

But it has also taught me something extremely fundamental - how well we perform at anything in life has little to do with basic talent and everything to do with simple persistence. Never giving up, and just slowly but surely working to improve, month by month, year by year.

I don't have any basic talent for Powerlifting - I am "naturally" extremely skinny, I don't build muscle easily, I didn't do any sports before I took up weight-training (because I basically hate sport!) and when I first did leg training, a single set of 20 squats with no extra weight at all left me pretty flattened! The level of strength I reached after 10 years of training, I've seen other people achieve in just a matter of months.

However, I've been able to beat many more gifted athletes simply because I've worked at this for 17 years! This is a great feeling for me - to know how far I've come, and to know that what I've achieved was simply tenacious hard work, and that hard work very often beats "talent".

Even the real pros like to check their progress

I used to believe that at some point I would reach my natural strength "limit" and that certain strength goals would be forever beyond me. I have since surpassed every one of those targets that I thought I would never reach. Now, although I am far stronger than i could ever have believed possible, I now don't know what my limits might be and don't think in terms of "impossibilities" - to my surprise, every year by continually learning and experimenting, I have found a way to become stronger still.

And purely as lucky side-effects of my powerlifting training, I've gained a physique which is unique and powerful, which I love and am proud of, and if I chose to, I could compete probably quite successfully in a physique contest (although this doesn't currently interest me). A lot of people are surprised at how small I am when they find out I'm a powerlifter - but that's because they don't realise that the only way a woman can get freakishly large muscles is by taking steroids.

I am fairly muscular for a lifetime drug-free athlete - but I still only weigh 64kg (10 stone) and I'm 5'6" tall and size 10-12. I'm pretty small, and everyone I've met tells me how much they like my physique and to them it looks very "feminine". I'll be honest though - for a long time now, I've been very happy with the amazing things my body can do, and that brings me a lot more happiness than how my body looks. Many female powerlifters feel this way regardless of their shape and size - discovering that your body can do incredible things frees you from the feeling that your body has to look a certain way for you to have self-worth.

I am also doing one of the very best things you can do for your long-term health - the long list of physical and mental health benefits of muscle building are finally being recognised, and I believe it will help me remain really strong, fit and healthy to an old age.

Set personal targets

I now have many goals for the following years which are more motivating than ever - because I turn 40 next year, I am eligible to compete in "Masters" divisions. Masters 1 (or M1) is for ages 40-50, M2 is for ages 50-60, M3 is for ages 60-70, and M4 is 70 and older. Many powerlifters reach their peak in their mid 40s, some even later. But right now, my strength level would be enough to claim every British M1 record in my weight-class - and in international Masters competitions, I stand a very good chance of winning medals and hopefully international titles. Anyone of any age and strength level can compete in powerlifting - and at a regional level, there is no minimum standard you have to reach. Consider it equivalent to taking part in a fun-run - you can just sign up and do it! There is literally no judgement at all about how much people can lift or what people look like - powerlifters come in absolutely all shapes and sizes, and strength levels. We know that some people are lucky to be just born strong, but others have to work very hard to reach a lower level - that is respected hugely by everyone in powerlifting. Just find a gym, pick up a little weight, and get started!

So, how do I stay motivated?

I am still naturally a very sedentary person and I generally like doing as little as possible, certainly not busting my ass 5 days a week in the gym. Very occasionally I feel like going - but mostly I just remind myself that I won't reach my targets if I don't go, that I will take each set as it comes and only do what I'm able to do that day. And that realistically, if I stay in, I probably won't enjoy it as much as I should because I'll feel I should have gone to the gym instead. It's just discipline that gets me to the gym every day, certainly not an excitement or motivation at the thought of training - I just do it, trying not to give too much thought to the fact that it might be tiring or tough.

One upside to training 5 days a week though is that the nights and days that I do have off are wonderful - I look forward to these lovely nights off far more than if I had every night off.

Fun night out! All dressed up as Lara Croft.

When I train, I usually just try to think about one set at a time - if I gave too much thought to the fact that I'd be doing 6 warm-up sets and 8 actual "work sets" after the warm up - on squat as well as bench, then the thought of it is pretty horrendous! That's especially true when I'm pretty tired, and that's often the case.

But what I also know from experience is that I almost always feel far, far better after a couple of warm up sets. Usually my first squat set with just the 20kg bar feels pretty uninspiring, very lacking in power, surprisingly tiring and sometimes even leaves me out of breath!

But the second set with 50kg feels somewhat better than 20kg did, the set with 70kg feels a little more powerful, then 80kg and 90kg have some real power, speed, coordination and strength. Even on a day when I'm really tired beforehand, and sleep-deprived.

There have been many times when my performance has defied expectations - times when I felt very well-rested but actually wasn't very strong, and many times when I've felt very tired but have performed very well in training once I've warmed up.

This helps me find motivation when I'm really tired and just want to collapse on the sofa! I know that the session will not be as bad as I think and will improve my mood and make me feel I'm progressing towards my goals.

The most effective training approach is the one you can sustainably actually stick to - rather than the "perfect" plan. Doing something, anything, no matter how little, is nearly always better than doing nothing. And very often, if you go to the gym just planning to do something very gentle, you find once you're warmed up that you're capable of a lot more than you initially felt like. But always give yourself the real option of gentle workouts when you need them.

Monitoring my progress, a recent gym selfie.

A sustainable long-term plan has to be something you don't hate and dread. I quite often don't feel that enthusiastic about going to train but once I'm there I'm fine. I usually enjoy it at least a bit. I have tried much more punishing training programmes - not only were they horrible to do and I dreaded them, they didn't even make me stronger! My gentler approach has been much more effective at increasing my strength! I believe training should be challenging but not punishing.

Each session that I do in a week is different - some are more demanding than others. I can change the order of them if I'm really tired, and do one of my lighter sessions and leave the heavier one for a different day.

If I move a session and have a rest day instead, that's okay - but the following day it then becomes my absolute top priority to train. It does not get moved on two days unless I'm ill and at least a couple of months out from a competition.

Almost everyone is very disciplined about doing their job - every weekday we get up early when we're tired and go to work whether we like it or not. Why? Because we are very clear that work brings us benefits which are essential to us. To find discipline I think we need to be very clear about why what we are doing is important. You can always find lots of good reasons not to train - instead we need to give ourselves good reasons to train! We need goals we care about reaching so we can find the discipline to train whether we want to or not!

British Powerlifting, standing proud.

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