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Transforming My Life, One Rep at a Time

By Leah Lutz

Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t ask me about my new hobby, my new life, and my new confidence. My life has been profoundly altered with strength training and the nutrition coaching from Barbell Medicine. Three years ago, January 2013, I sent an email to a random guy on the internet, Jordan Feigenbaum, that changed my life.

Hi Jordan,

I have been reading on the nutrition forum [at startingstrength.com], but I am interested in a private consult. I am way too embarrassed to put my stats on the internet, and I really need a plan. 

 I have lost 70lbs, then had shoulder surgery, I let things go to pot, and I did not do well maintaining a plan during the injury and rehab. I put 17lbs back on.  And I still have weight to lose beside that…

 I don’t want to give up strength training unless I really have to. Most trainers suggest I give that up, do cardio, and drop my caloric intake to 1200 per day. I tried that and I can’t keep that up.

 So, to get to the immediate point, I would like to know what is involved in a consult!

 Thanks,

Leah

When I sent that email, I was 215 lbs., hurt, becoming more and more distraught, and desperate for someone or something to help me. I had been trying, and I knew things weren’t ok as they were. Being overweight all of my adult life and then becoming morbidly obese was both something that burdened me every day and something I often tried to ignore. Neither course gave me a healthy, full life.

I had done the stereotypical crash diets, but as many have experienced, all eventually led to even more weight gain, and I was acutely aware of the problem that my weight and poor health had become. I could not ignore this, and it was changing who I was, who I wanted to be. I hadn’t considered myself a fearful person, but that is what I had become.

I was afraid of what people thought when they saw me, I knew they must be judging me. I was afraid to get outside and do anything requiring much exertion, balance, or coordination. I was terrified of trying any new active pursuit. If I thought about going new places-what would it be like there? Could I walk the length of the beach without becoming uncomfortably out of breath, standing out from everyone else? How could I make sure that I didn’t need to awkwardly try to squeeze myself into a booth at a new restaurant? Time to board an airplane? Well, every time I boarded a plane I was ashamed and embarrassed to be bumping passenger after passenger as I walked down the aisle, and then I spent the whole flight trying to somehow minimize the space I used. My world was getting smaller and smaller.

Almost everything I wanted to do or needed to do was becoming more difficult. I was tired, but I had mountains of work to do. I was embarrassed and hated dressing up for any social event, but I have lots of friends and love being with people. I was turning down invitations. Sometimes it was just too rough to feel comfortable and at ease. Being ill-at ease gets exhausting. So I worked more, tackling great projects, reading wonderful books, and cooking many, many gourmet meals and desserts.

I could make people very happy with food. Instead of trying to fade away, when I was in the kitchen, I was excited, energetic, and thrilled to provide nourishment and culinary delight that others raved about, relished, and truly appreciated. Food was my thing. It was something that gave me great joy- from the reading of cookbooks, to planning, shopping, prepping, cooking, and serving.

But my discomfort and fear at being so overweight was always there. My feelings of guilt at being unable to lose weight grew and grew. I was fearful of developing every obesity related disease. I was burdened with these intense feelings of failure and embarrassment often-every morning when I got dressed, every time I passed a mirror, every time I worked to get out of a photograph, every time I got winded walking.

I read diet books, and I tried many of them. I joined programs; I attempted to somehow change. But I just kept failing, and routine failure wore me down, and led to the fear that this was who I would always be, that I had no hope for a healthier life.

One winter I decided that I needed to try everything I could to change my life: I needed to spend money even if I felt like I didn’t have it, I needed to devote time I thought I didn’t have, I needed to reach out for help instead of always appearing to be in control of everything. The truth was that I wasn’t in control, so I needed to make this one of the biggest priorities in my life. I started taking steps that I’d been too afraid and proud to take before.

I joined a gym, a CrossFit Gym. That part of my story has been told before, so suffice it to say I was so terrified my first day, I thought I would throw up before I even started the class. I was embarrassed. But I decided I needed to get over that. I just needed to do this. For months, even the warm up was too hard, and I had to modify it. But the people in that gym encouraged me with overwhelming support. To this day, I am in awe and often moved to tears when I consider their consistent encouragement to keep going.

I drastically changed the way I ate, focusing on whole foods and cutting out sugar, grains, dairy, and processed foods. I exercised more than I ever had, lost 70 lbs, learned to love conquering new skills in the gym, and I got a taste of getting stronger. I had so many difficult days, but I also had many wonderful days-success, progress, and change both mentally and physically.

And then I floundered. I was still at the gym. I was still pushing myself, still trying to eat well, in fact I was working more and eating less and less. Eventually I worked myself into a new kind of exhaustion and an injury. Finding out that I had a complete tear in my rotator cuff was a huge blow. I was crushed. Yes, the pain was bad, I wasn’t using my arm normally anymore, but I was terrified of what surgery and rehab would mean for me. What would all that time out of the gym do to all this progress I had made? I was already having to adjust much of my gym time for my shoulder, but now?

Rotator cuff surgery is painful, and I was in a lot of pain for a quite a while. My weight was creeping up. My body composition was changing, and my fear was rising.

Going back to the gym and doing what I had done before just wasn’t working. I was always in pain. So I had to figure something out. What I missed the most was strength training. It dawned on me that what bothered me at this moment was that I was feeling weaker and weaker.

I needed to strength train, and it seemed like a safe, controlled, knowable way to get back to regular training in the gym. At that time, December 2012, I couldn’t rack a bar and my physical therapist had warned me that I might never properly rack a bar again. (My surgeon told me I didn’t need to bother as the 5lb dumbbells were enough for a woman). I couldn’t bench, and going into the surgery I had been warned I might never be able to really bench again. I had just been cleared to try deadlifts. To say I was despondent at my strength training prospects would be an understatement. I started reading all about strength training, and decided to see what Starting Strength was actually about. But I was still overwhelmed. I could squat with the safety bar, I was nervous to deadlift, bench was out, and overhead press was a disaster. So I was still afraid.

I realized that I was acquainted with a Starting Strength coach, so I decided to email him and see if he had any ideas. Tom Campitelli is the voice of reason. While I was panicking about my weight, my strength loss, my shoulder pain, and my lack of direction, he just simply narrowed it down to what I needed to do-training what I could, moving forward slowly, and going through some painful rehab. Because of this guidance and encouragement, I started a log on the Starting Strength forums, read all I could, and made slow and steady progress. It was very slow, but it was progress.

But I was still overweight and back up to 215 lbs actually. I had a lot to learn and a lot of work to do.

That’s when I sent the email.

Could this guy Jordan help? I had my doubts given that I felt like I had tried almost everything, but I decided to hire a guy on the other side of the country to do what other coaches had been telling me just wasn’t possible-to lose weight and gain strength.

I needed a major food re-haul, again. Time to toss out my existing ideas of good meals and work with the new plan. Right off the bat, Jordan changed up my diet, giving me more carbohydrates than I was comfortable with, having been on low-carb diets for so long. Previously I had been in a pretty strict Paleo diet routine, but once I started tracking my food, it was clear that I was eating a lot of fat, not too many carbs, and not as much protein as I had thought. I messed up my macros day after day that first week, frustrated that I was spending so much time trying to make my old diet somehow fit the new targets.

The carbs actually instilled a new fear into my days. I was convinced that it had been carbs making me fat and keeping me from losing more weight. After plenty of back and forth about food, carbs, calories, evidence, and plenty of reassurance, it came down to trust and simply following the plan. Over and over that has been the bottom line: follow the plan, whether I feel like it at the moment or not. It’s not a blind, empty capitulation to someone’s directives. Jordan backed everything up with evidence, answered all my questions, and then it was up to me to do it.  It was time to stop worrying, stop emailing, and just figure out how to make the plan work for me. I had spent several years fostering my fear of carbs, and now I just needed to eat that bowl of oatmeal.

So I ate the oatmeal, fruit, rice, potatoes and the much leaner protein, including dairy. I cut out all the excess fats, the copious amounts of nuts, coconut oil, avocado, and fatty cuts of meat. Success! I was suddenly feeling better, working better, and I had more confidence. My fear of foods was lessening, slowly but surely.

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Even though the plan was simple and clear, the process of going from 215 lbs. to an eventual competition weight of 138, has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It exhausted me mentally, in ways I never could have expected. I knew that losing weight would be hard, but it demanded complete buy-in. There were plenty of days that had little more than work, training, and eating my pre-prepped food. I was too worn out for much else. In all my ups and downs, often wondering if I’d see my goal, Jordan provides a dose of reality, “It is very easy to get fixated on the weight. Just remember it’s an ebb and flow kind of thing. I have zero doubts that you’re going to accomplish what you want and be stronger than ever in the coming months. Just keep plugging away. “

And there were many great days, and many successes along the way that kept me excited and motivated. It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the scale and the progress that is or isn’t happening, but one of the things that kept me sane and always moving forward has been my strength training. Going to the gym, having a clear training plan, seeing regular strength gains, and knowing my coach believed I could do this helped to get rid of the gripping obsession I had with my weight and more fears faded away.

My confidence under the bar was soaring. Knowing that I was taking steps toward my goals each day was transforming me.

I loved every bit of my training because I love being strong, I love the act of moving a heavy, sometimes intimidating weight. I love a training plan, but there are plenty of individual training days that are incredibly hard, move me to tears, make me want to quit, make me think I’m failing or wasting all this time and effort. I know it’s all incredibly worth it, even if it doesn’t always feel like it, but I wouldn’t have known this, and I certainly wouldn’t have remembered this without the coaching of Jordan. How many training reports included angst over a particular lift or session? Many. As the coach, he upholds his role to remind me of the truth and bring me back to reality, often to jolt me out of my wallowing my feelings. “Be happy you’re no longer screwing around with the SSB and dumbbells.”

When I started working with Jordan in January 2013, I was squatting 150x5x3 with a safety squat bar, benching nothing, deadlifting 123x5x1, and pressing a PVC pipe. April 2013, was marked by my switch to high bar squats and finally benching the women’s bar, and Jordan dropped the big goal bomb.

For a reason unknown to me, he decided that entering a powerlifting meet in the 165lb class would be great motivation. I was 195lbs. Before this I had been staunchly against entering any weight class meet since I wasn’t happy with my weight nor was I eager for my weight to become so public. I also knew that a meet meant a singlet. So many reasons to tell him he was utterly crazy, and so many reasons for me to be fearful, but I was ready to conquer this. It wasn’t easy, and at times it seemed implausible that I’d make it, and I really wasn’t sure I wanted be a powerlifter. Ever.  I continued to train, kept up with my macros, and mulled this idea over and over and over. I worried about a lot-could I really make weight, wear a singlet, be on a platform with everyone watching, be judged, do something so unknown to me…But I was determined to put these fears behind me. Jordan kept assuring me that my goal for this meet was to make weight and just lift. And I did it. I weighed in on October 6, 2013 at 165 lbs, competed, and even set some records.

I have no doubt that strength training, and for me the drive of competition, made this seemingly overwhelming task more doable. I can’t even tell you the number of times I was discouraged and frustrated with the scale, but I was motivated by steady training progress. Barbell training has obviously made a tremendous difference in my health, my body composition, and my mental fortitude. Facing my fear of the competition was just one more step in my journey. It turns out I love the competition, even though it still makes me nervous, I am driven to keep training for new goals, and I value my time training both for my health and the fun of competing. Since that first meet, I went on to drop another weight class and competed in the 148 class at USPA 2014 Worlds, taking 5th in the Open class. Then in 2015 I decided to drop to the 138 class in the USAPL, competed and qualified for the USAPL Raw Nationals, and ended up placing 2nd in my class there. As one who had never competed athletically before, these last few years have held many more firsts, demanded more facing of fears, but all of this has brought me more confidence and exciting new ventures. One of the greatest shocks of my life came this October when I was invited to lift on the Raw Nationals Masters Team in 2016. The 265 lb. Leah who argued that physical activity was over-rated and way too much trouble is long gone.

From the beginning, my coach believed in me far more than I believed in myself. I never would have imagined that I could or would compete. I strongly doubted that I would ever get to 165. I still saw myself as the 200-something pound adult I had been for so long. I am profoundly thankful that he believed in me when I could not. While I the old me was often gripped with my fear from past failure, fear of poor health and injury, and fear of never making a lasting change, my life has changed in so many ways. It’s not that I’m a new person. I am fundamentally the same person I have always been. But I now see myself, my potential, and even the potential in others differently. I’m no longer just wishing I could find some way to live more fully, no longer fearful of all I can’t do. I now have goals and new habits. I’ve learned new things, conquered fears, and done things I never imagined possible. I am becoming more of who I am meant to be. I am becoming more fully Leah, confident and excited about the life I have been given.

 

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Dale says:

    Wonderful story. Great job Leah!

  • […] Barbellmedicine – Transforming my life one rep at a time […]

    • Maria says:

      Wow! What a inspiration! You are amazing, the commitment to stay focus on your goals are very clear. Thank you for sharing your journey to becoming healthy, strong and fit. You are truly a beautiful person.

  • Annie. says:

    I totally agree, wonderful story, honest and encouraging: Thank you for that! Also, I admire the way you never gave up and face(d) your very fears!

  • Raya says:

    You are amazing, Leah! Thanks for sharing your story — it’s such an encouragement. Xx

  • Osanna says:

    Seriously amazed. I love the videos of your lifts. To more boldness and confidence.

  • Crista says:

    What a fantastic read! I can relate on so many levels to this story. The best and most consistent I’ve ever been was with personal training. Strength is so phenomenal! Time to make it a priority again.

  • Stefano Magaddino says:

    Attsa my coach!

  • Toby says:

    Hi, this is STILL being read, and STILL inspiring. Thanks for the extra hope and motivation…Lord knows I could use it! 🙂

  • Pooja says:

    Yes, this is STILL being read. I have read this again and again and I relate so much to this that I have buckets of tears flowing each time! I have read many weight loss stories, but yours is special because you are so honest about everything you felt when you were overweight. Many of the emotions that I feel have found words here! Thank you so much for sharing. I turned to Starting Strength at the brink of despair…and now I am not measuring success by only what the scale/tape shows…

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