February 10, 2016

Understanding Strength as More than What Happens at the Gym.


Aditya Rakhman/Flickr

I have been reading books after books on strength. My relationship with this word goes back to 2013, when I started my first strength training program.

As a woman and mother of two living in Mumbai where the fitness industry was still stuck on aerobics and branded fat-burning workouts for women, here we were; trying to establish our own space with our niche understanding of what it means to be fit.

We had been running our fitness centres for five years. In this time, I had been trained by a range of our trainers in every available methodology—boxing, kicking, bodyweight, circuits, suspension training and the likes of many others.

My personal progression took me from being a young mother of two toddlers to a young mother of two preschoolers. Through these years of resistance training, I was pushing myself hard to get back into my pre-pregnancy shape and weight. Driven by my fitness goals, I forgot how to listen to my body. I would train when tired, train when energetic, train when hungry, when sick or even when sleep deprived.

I thought I was doing the right thing. My mind knew better than my body. What could my body know anyway? It was out of shape, fat and flabby. My mind on the other hand was sharp, driven and had goals and plans.

While I was listened to my mind, my body was struggling. I developed acute rotator cuff pain on the right shoulder and was often so tight in my adductors and hamstring that it would take an entire training session spent stretching out tight knots to get me to relax. I often carried two children in my arms and that also took a toll on my posture. I developed a winged shoulder blade and was in constant pain.

That’s when strength training entered my life.

My husband started training me on an unspoken pact that I would not question him on anything and simply do as I was told. It was hard. Not because I was doing more, but because I was asked to do less, much less, than I was used to. I was asked to rest and recover completely before the next training session; to keep a detailed diary with weights and reps and to do no more.

For two and a half years we continued with this training. I filled up an entire diary of training sessions. As I was filling in my last page, I looked back on my very first workout and realised that I had been doing the same four fundamental compound exercises—squat, deadlift, chest press and military press—for the last two and a half years and never stopped to complain or get bored. I also noticed that my strength in those exercises had more than doubled and my body shape had emerged into one I was beginning to admire.

But was it just the physical me that had transfigured in these years? I think not. I knew I was much stronger in the gym now, but what I was slowly realising is that I was now a lot stronger outside of it too.

So let me try and share this other robustness I was experiencing.


Being stronger made me more aware of my frame and build. I began to like myself with my shoulders straight and broad. The self-consciousness of holding my shoulders straight became a habit. Even when riding my bike, I became acutely aware of this frame.


Always keeping your abs in happens automatically as you straighten your shoulders. Try it. A tip that helped me tune in was the thought that I should breathe in, then release my breath but not entirely, leaving a part of my abs tucked in while I am still breathing.

Deep breathing.

Watching my chest rise and fall when in a stressful situation became a way to slow down and practice detachment.

Taking responsibility for my kitchen.

How much of my body shape depended on my food was a real revelation to me. There are three parts to food: buy, cook and eat. All along I had been leaving the responsibility of buy and cook to others and only concentrated on eating.

With my new training, this started changing too. I saw food with new-found respect. I felt responsible for the food we bought and took ownership of how it was cooked at home. I learnt how to get creative with meals, while keeping them simple at the same time. I saw my family respond to my initiative and that was a great feeling.

Focus and drive.

The neural pathways that helped me concentrate on squatting with my entire bodyweight were surely the same pathways that activated all other areas of focus in my life! Starting with our finances to our work, holidays and how we spend our leisure time together—I found myself planning it better with focus and stamina.


There are no quick results with strength training. The require a lot of patience and trust. Effort shows outcome in due course, and this course is much slower than most of us expect it to be. I learnt that life is also like that. Kids will learn when they are ready. Partners need space. Situations can be handled with tolerance.

Now, you may say I am making too many connections with simply getting stronger in the gym to overall growth in other areas of my life but if you stop and think about it for a minute, everything is interconnected and no one area in our life progresses in a silo. It’s the 80:20 rule at play: what we do 20 percent of the time that makes 80 percent of the difference.

My strength training was an anchor for growth as well as a catalyst for change in my personal life. I learnt how to do fewer things better in the gym. As a result, I succeeded at doing many things better outside the gym.

I developed deeper skill at each fundamental movement and that took all my focus in the gym. I learnt to recognise the important parts of my life outside the gym and give them the priority they deserved.

Not listening to my body in the gym made me vulnerable to so many setbacks in my personal life. Those setbacks turned into opportunities and choices the moment I listened to my body.

I suppose, in this respect, the body is a synonym for inner voice and physical strength for toughness of spirit.


Author: Madhuri Kudva

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photo: Aditya Rakhman/Flickr

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