Despite being active, I had never really had a positive body image, so heading into my first year of university, I thought, “This is my chance. I can work toward my dream body”—which was, of course, to be thin.
I was 66 kilograms. So the summer before my first year, I started piling on the cardio. Occasionally, I’d do very light weights, but I didn’t want to get bulky.
And I lost weight really fast. In just four months, I had dropped down to 53 kilograms. But suddenly, 53 didn’t feel low enough.
Just as quickly as I had shed the kgs, I became full-blown obsessed with counting calories, and losing more and more weight. I was working out twice a day and eating 1,200 calories. No cheat meals. The obsession was slowly taking away both my social life and my mental health.
I had very disordered eating. It was too much. I wanted to be able to eat regularly and not be obsessive over every bite of food I ate. I had reached my desire to be “small” but didn’t feel the satisfaction I expected from reaching my goal. So I set a new one: to be healthy and strong, physical and mentally.
When I looked at what would actually help my mental health, I knew I needed to find strength. So I started lifting heavier weights. I hired a personal trainer to teach me proper form and show me the basics in my final months before heading off to university.
Once I got to school, I got a job at the campus gym, which became the best way to learn. I had been researching ways to make my workouts more creative on Instagram. But the most helpful thing was actually reaching out to people who’d come into the gym and lift with me. Every one of them taught me something new and showed me a new perspective or a new workout, which made me super versatile. Over time, lifting started to help me feel physically stronger—but being part of the community is what really helped me feel mentally strong.
Right away, I loved that lifting weights was easier than running for an hour—and way more fun! But I knew that to get stronger, I needed to eat more. Nutrition was definitely the hardest part for me. It took a long time to fix my relationship with food.
Slowly, I started adding more calories in. I definitely was scared of getting bulky, but the more I read and researched, the more I realised that probably wouldn't happen unless I was eating a ton and lifting really, really, heavy. I started allowing myself more treats so that I wasn’t restricting and then bingeing. Instead, I learned to eat in moderation.
As I started eating more food, I also started lifting heavier weights. I began focusing more on the weight I was lifting in the gym, not the weight on the scale. The more I liked the changes in my body, the more I realised food wasn’t the enemy and instead could simply be fuel for my workouts.
Here's what my standard workout week looks like right now:
Wednesday: Legs (Hamstring/Glute focused)
Friday: Legs (Quad/Glute focused)
Saturday: Active Rest Day
Sunday: Cardio/Light Legs/Abs
I love incorporating more compound lifts, like bench, squats, glute hip thrusts, and deadlifts. These are all exercises that I typically use heavier weights for and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to put some heavy weight on the bar and move it.
I do include cardio still, because it helps maintain leanness, but also because it’s good for my mind—I find it really hard to get through, so it pushes me to be better and work harder. Typically, my cardio is HIIT style, so 10 to 15 mins of sprints or sled pushes.
I follow an IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) approach to eating, aiming for 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day. Since I have a history of restrictive and disordered eating, this has been the best way for me to stay balanced because it removes the category of “good” and “bad” foods. Obviously an Oreo isn't as good as a cup of spinach, but both foods provide a certain amount of protein, carbs, and fats that will add to your total caloric/macro budget.
I personally find balance by doing 85 percent whole, nutritious-dense, and more natural foods and 15 percent more calorie-dense foods. I eat pretty clean, with treats here and there. If I am craving a pizza or a donut, I can make it work into my day—not every day, but sometimes you just need that donut!
I limit my alcohol to the weekends, with a glass of wine here and there. That’s what feels like balance to me, but it’s definitely different for every person.
There have been a few big moments for me. Strength-wise, when I could finally bench press 61 kilograms, I was in shock. It was so motivating and empowering.
The biggest surprise was definitely how much lifting changed my metabolism. Now, I can eat a lot more food, have awesome lifts, and I’m not always worried or obsessing over calories.
But honestly, it hasn't been until recently that I've truly seen the last two years of hard work show. I finally feel defined in all areas—I see definition in my shoulders and my stomach. It's amazing to be able to wake up, look in the mirror, and think "wow, I'm proud of myself." I’ve gained 11 kilograms since I started lifting, and now weigh 65 kilograms.
I’m almost back up to the weight that drove me to disordered eating in the first place. The funny thing is that now, at the same weight, I actually have my dream body—plus mental strength and happiness.
GABBY’S NUMBER-ONE TIP
Women of all shapes and sizes shouldn't be scared to pick up weights—for so many reasons! The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism, so you can burn up to 30 to 50 calories more per pound of muscle you add. And for women scared of getting bulky, you won’t as long as you aren’t eating in a crazy surplus. But most of all, lifting weights makes you stronger mentally and physically and it is also SO empowering. It makes me feel invincible.
Follow Gabby’s journey @gmalefit.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US