A Heavy Load: on PhDing and Lifting Heavy Things

Picking up an increasingly heavier load may seem daunting. Going through a slow and tiring intellectual process like a PhD can also take its toll. In this blog post, our editor Lúcia shares her experience with weightlifting and explores how it can relate to her PhD journey so far.

As we are all surrounded by clichés and I am no different, I started my journey with weightlifting after a painful breakup. Last year my relationship ended a couple of weeks before the start of the pandemic. Aside from rushing to the hairdressers and asking for a fringe, I also decided to start something new. A friend told me to try Crossfit. I had a lot of prejudice, but I went and started a foundation at a Crossfit gym in Coventry. Crossfit in itself didn’t do much for me, but this modality incorporates something that I fell in love instantly with: weightlifting. Under that umbrella we have two main sports: powerlifting and olympic weightlifting. I was lucky that in the gym I tried crossfit for the first time they also focus on specific abilities and have specific classes catering to those abilities, which is how I got into the sport in the first place. I did some classes, loved it, and then everything closed down.

During the first lockdown I was alone and stuck in my flat, away from family and most friends, and I tried my best to keep my body moving. Then when things opened up again I enjoyed some time back, and then again for another lockdown I did what I could. I managed to keep some of my fitness level up by going on some runs, doing the odd exercise, but I really missed my almost daily favourite activity: picking up heavy things and then putting them down again, which is the easiest way to describe it. I am now back to the gym full time since mid April and feel better than ever. But what does a journey as a kinda fat kinda fit weightlifting lover teach me or us anything about doing a PhD? I asked myself the same question, and I will try to answer this here to the best of my abilities.

The weightlifting mentality

One thing that my anxious overachiever perfectionist self constantly battles with is the idea of ‘when will I be good at it?’. I would usually focus solely on that and not be able to enjoy the process, and get bored of things when I finally thought I was good at it. Bringing a friend who is quite fit and good at sports to an olympic weightlifting class and seeing her get frustrated because she wasn’t good at it right away was eye-opening. This sport involves so much technique, so much thinking, and at the same time it asks of you to get out of your own head (something that, for us who rely on our minds to earn a living, can be quite the challenge in itself). It is not about pure strength, it is about practice, neverending practice, and it humbles you. Some days a weight that you are usually ok to lift without much thought will not get off the ground, some days it’s just not gonna happen. It is scary that it literally does not depend on anyone else, as opposed to many other sports, it is all about you. The competition is also with ourselves, not with others. This is scary. No one else knows our bodies better than we do, no one else really knows how we feel better than we do, and no one else can pick up the weight for us. It is all on you. Does this remind you of anything? A PhD is a similarly lonely journey, in that it asks us to come up with a question and answer it ourselves. Of course, with the help of supervisors, colleagues, friends and the academic community, but in the end it is your work, and it’s on you. You become a subject expert, you are a doctor of something. Scary, huh? Picking up a heavy bar doesn’t seem that bad now, does it?

Even though at the end of our PhD we will get to add a fancy Dr. before our names and wear a funny mushroom hat, we are never completely done with learning. We are never just ‘good at it’ and then just stop progressing. It’s not about being good at something, it is about the journey of learning more and getting better at it, little by little.

Psyching yourself up

When you think of sports in general you hardly think of all the mental work involved and happening in the background. When we see someone lifting a very heavy weight we just assume it comes down to pure strength, but a lot of it is psychological work holding up the weight. Similarly, when your head is not at it, when you are not feeling confident or when you see the weight on the plates and psych yourself up, it doesn’t matter how strong you are physically, you need to work on your mental toughness as well. As a person who is always pretty much ‘in my head’, I struggle to shut my brain off, especially in a sport that requires so much concentration and technique. What I am learning recently is how to shut off specific parts of your thinking and light some others. I also learnt a lot about body consciousness, and engaging specific parts of my body, paying attention to each part that makes up the whole. I thought going into the gym would shut off my mind from all the PhD work, but when your income comes from thinking and someone comes and tells you to ‘not think’, it can be hard advice to follow. But I do. I leave the room feeling lighter, stronger and more in tune with myself. It is extremely helpful in many areas in life to be able to feel this way, to shut off parts that are not helping you, and to focus on those that are. It is also a helpful break from all the intellectual work to have an experience when you connect your body and mind, do a lot of thinking, but not the intellectual type. We often neglect these other types of thinking and abilities that will actually help us both now and later in life.

A slow, steady progress

Weightlifting involves a lot of patience. If you rush, if you are not focused, concentrated enough, you will most likely lose on technique and do something wrong which will set you back physically or mentally. Sure, you can rely on pure strength, but only to a certain point or level, from then on you will plateau and you will only get better if you focus on technique, and have patience. Slowly, with enough practice and technique drills you begin to get better at it, lift heavier, but this process cannot be rushed. Similarly, while doing your research you might compare yourself to your colleagues who have already written half their thesis in their first year, but you forget to realise the differences between your work and theirs, the idiosyncrasies of your work and the fact that the process is slow and most likely not steady. The process of writing a PhD is not linear, you change the project many times, you change your mind, you grow with it. If you grow and learn, why wouldn’t your research change as well? Trusting the process and being patient with the ups and downs are things I can see connect the mindset of these two seemingly dramatically opposed activities. 

Tips and Resources

Each of us has their own journey with fitness, and for some it may not only seem daunting, but be perceived as almost impossible, due to many reasons. If you have injuries, traumatic experiences, anxiety, disabilities, it may seem out of reach to do any kind of physical activities, let alone weightlifting. There is a book by Laura Koudhari called Lifting Heavy Things: Healing Trauma One Rep at a Time, which I am currently reading, that might inspire you. I go to a Strength and Conditioning gym in Coventry, but there are many other options, if you’re interested. The Warwick Sports Centre is an amazing facility and has all the equipment for powerlifting and any accessory work you might need. Warwick Uni also has dedicated sports clubs for weightlifting, like Warwick Barbell. If you feel a bit insecure, try to approach a PT, or even try a class like Body Pump offered at the sports centre. Some commercial gyms have the equipment as well, but always look for a professional to teach you the moves and check on your technique. I hope that through some of these, whatever you do, you’ll find out you are stronger than you think, both physically and mentally.

How about you? Do you do any exercise or practice any sport? Share with us! 

by Lúcia

Lúcia Collischonn is a third-year PhD student in Translation Studies at the Warwick Writing Programme. She is the editor of the library blogs: Study Blog and PhD Life. Lúcia is an award-losing literary translator, writer and language nerd. Her translation of Yoko Tawada’s Etüden im Schnee was published in 2019 in Brazil. You can find her ramblings on twitter @lucycolli. 

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