”I transformed my upper body strength – and it all started with a 25-pound weight. Bag of Rice’

By | March 17, 2024

As soon as I started walking, I was working out. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t on a sports team growing up. For me, sports meant practicing after school and traveling on the weekends for competitions for whatever sport I played. As a teenager, during the off-season, my mother begged me to go to the gym with her for fun, but I didn’t have much interest in it.

I liked running and endurance-based activities because I felt they were a good complement to sports, especially lacrosse, which eventually became my main activity. Eventually I was able to play lacrosse in college, where I first had to start strength training to prepare for the season. While I was in shape for my sport, I couldn’t even raise the bar in the gym, and I was fascinated by all the different moves that I didn’t really understand.

I became even more interested in strength training during lockdown – when all I had to train for was a heavy bag of rice and a backpack.

Halfway through college, everyone was sent home due to the pandemic. I felt far away from my whole life and all my friends, and like I had nothing to do. I had so much time and nowhere to go.

While I was home alone, I had nothing to do but exercise. To pass the time and cope with what was happening, I wanted to exercise, but I felt stuck since the gyms were closed.

Then my dad handed me a 25-pound bag of rice from Costco and said, “You can work out with this.” You can actually do a lot with it.” So I put that bag of rice in a backpack to make it heavy, and I used it as a weight. I put the backpack in front of my body and did squats. I would use it as a kettlebell for kettlebell swings. I put him on my back and did walking lunges.

I realized there was a lot I could do at home, but I wanted to try strength training at the gym. I decided that once I was done playing lacrosse in college, I would start getting serious about a gym routine.

a few women pose for the cameraa few women pose for the camera

Pilar and her mother at the gymPillar Lewis

The more time I spent in the gym, the more disciplined I felt.

When I graduated, I was excited – but so confused – about where to start. I followed fitness influencers on TikTok who offered workout tips and advice on what moves to try. But I also wanted to make sure all my information was accurate and scientifically backed, so I started researching online, looking at the moves other people were doing at the gym, and contacting my old college coaches for tips.

At first I thought I should run And Lifting every day to stay fit, but I quickly realized I was overworking my body. I started learning more about the basics of strength training and how to train different muscles with compound movements like squats, deadlifts, hang cleans and more. I also learned how to complement those movements by doing additional exercises with dumbbells or bodyweight exercises like curls, lunges and more.

After a combination of trial and error, research, and practice at the gym, I finally found my strength training routine and stride. I finally started perfecting my strength exercises. My self-confidence grew enormously, which only motivated me to continue. I developed so much discipline that translated into every other aspect of my life.

Even when things were no longer normal for me, I could fall back on strength training to find my rhythm again. I know it will always be there, giving me structure even when everything else feels unsettled.

a person who lifts weightsa person who lifts weights

Pillar Lewis

These three factors were key to my strength transformation.

1. I prioritize eating enough protein, and I’m not afraid to eat in general.

When I first started lifting, I was hungry because I was training more, but I was afraid to eat more. But if you want to build muscle, you need protein and you need to eat! It’s how your body survives and thrives. You have to take care of yourself, and that includes getting enough sleep.

2. The motivation to train isn’t always there, but I’ve learned to push through it to build discipline.

I don’t always feel motivated to exercise. That’s just how life is. But when I started strength training, I developed so much discipline. Even when I don’t have motivation, that discipline is there now, not just in the gym. Persevere and let that habit form.

3. I remember the positivity that strength training brings to my life and mental health.

It’s really true when they say exercise is medicine. When I take care of my body, even when my mental headspace isn’t in top condition, I feel better after exercise. It’s not just about achieving personal bests either. (Although that certainly helps!) I might say to myself, “I don’t want to go to the gym today, but I will because I know it’s good for me.” Strength training gives me the confidence that I can do anything I put my mind to.

a woman training in a gyma woman training in a gym

Pillar Lewis

These days I focus on training different muscle groups and writing my own training plans.

Nowadays I train four days a week with strength and I also do a fixed cardio day. I base my training on muscle groups.

  • Monday: Hamstrings and glutes

  • Tuesday: Chest, shoulders, triceps

  • Wednesday: Cardio day

  • Thursday: Quads, lower body

  • Friday: Back and biceps

Each workout has a main exercise, such as a squat, bench press or deadlift. I then combine them with additional exercises such as lunges, quad extensions, hamstring curls, rear hang gliding, incline dumbbell bench presses and more that target smaller muscles.

I try to stay between four and five exercises per workout so I don’t overdo it. I like to keep it simple when I write my training plans. I follow those plans for a certain number of weeks, depending on my goals, and then I move on. I like to keep things interesting for myself so I’m never bored because I want to be able to do this forever.

someone who works on a machinesomeone who works on a machine

Pillar Lewis

Being able to hang 100 pounds and bench press 135 pounds were milestones for me.

I used to be unable to hang the bar cleanly, and once I even dropped it on my knee and tore my bursa. It was all bruised and I was so ashamed. From that moment on I had a real mental block with clean-up tasks. I told myself, “I’ll never be able to carry much weight.”

Years later, I decided it was time to face my fear. I worked my way up until I was able to put 25 pound plates on each side, which came out to about 100 pounds depending on the bar. The more I practiced, the easier it became for me, and it was a huge milestone to get there.

Upper body movements in particular give me strength. Many people do not think that as a woman you can have impressive upper body strength. When I was able to work my way up to placing a weight of 45 pounds on each side for the bench press, reaching 135 pounds, I felt unstoppable. It was such a big deal for me because I never thought I could do it. It’s such a powerful feeling to do something that many people see as something only men would do.

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