Despite picking up only a few measly five-pound dumbbells in my entire life, I have read Casey Johnston’s weightlifting advice column, Ask a Swole Woman, for years. I started reading it when the first article published a million years ago (summer 2016) at The Hairpin (RIP), which means at this point, I have read Johnston’s blogs about weightlifting for six years of my life. At no point did I attempt to lift weights. I read about squat form, lifting heavy, bulking, and strength training while I (in order) tried cycle classes, circuit training, boxing, walking, doing nothing, and some terrifying bodyweight app on my phone. Never did I actually take Johnston’s advice and start lifting. I liked the way she writes! And I guess, on some deep sad level, I didn’t believe her when she promised that lifting weights could be for everyone, that there was no firm law saying that you had to be a bro who could bench 250 to hold a barbell. It sure felt like there was a rule.
In the spring, when Johnston reached out and asked me if I’d be willing to try her new program LIFTOFF, a 12-week method to teach you the basics of weightlifting, I agreed. But I was nervous. What if I dropped the barbell on my face? What if the progress wasn’t as linear as I’d hoped? But for years I’d read the column, tried to start, and ended up on some Reddit forum that made me more confused than directed, so I agreed. I would try.
I did the whole program. Twelve weeks. Then I … just kept doing it. I’m not great at going to the gym, and I’ve never been good at exercising. But my brain needs endorphins to survive and I wanted a way to get them without falling into a trap of hating myself or my body or becoming obsessive. I was just trying to move. And Johnston’s program gave me that. Last week, I deadlifted 200 pounds. It has been easier for me to go to the gym than ever in my life.
Now that Johnston’s refined and expanded LIFTOFF: Couch to Barbell is available to buy, I wanted to interview her about why she made it. I called her up to ask questions about how she became the Swole Woman, why she wrote a program for beginners, and if there are any good New Year’s fitness resolutions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Just to catch everyone up, can you walk me through how we ended up here? How did you become the Swole Woman? When did this all begin?
So earlier on in my adult life, my experience of working out was almost entirely about guilt and punishment. I would get into this cycle of: You eat too many calories. You must exercise the calories away. You can never exercise enough. The operating core was always about burning calories. I was running as fast as I could for as long as I could. But I realized that this just wasn’t working as a system in the way I’m being promised it will.
At one point I came across a subreddit from a woman who had tried out lifting weights and had done it for six months. I had always believed that lifting weights would make you bulky. But this woman looked objectively hotter. She was achieving the goals I had about how I wanted to feel, and I wasn’t. She was eating 50 percent more food. She was getting everything I wanted, but was working out less, enjoying it more, and eating it more.
So I started lifting weights.
Pretty quickly, though, it felt to me like your relationship with weights became something you were almost a public evangelist for.
Oh yeah. Once I started lifting, I started yelling about it to people who would listen and even people who wouldn’t listen. I think even people who weren’t necessarily onboard ideologically were like, “She has a lot to say about this.” So one of those people was Silvia Killingsworth, who at the time was the editor of The Hairpin. She wanted an advice column.
I was like, “You’re crazy for thinking people are going to care about this. But you don’t have to ask me twice.” I did it. And people did read it! When The Hairpin died, a bunch of places reached out. I wrote the column for SELF Magazine for a while, and then when Vice wanted to hire me, they wanted me to bring my column with me.
Now that I’m not at Vice, I’ve started a Substack newsletter called She’s A Beast. The one-line description: being strong mentally, emotionally and physically.
My very strong conviction is that more people need muscles and strength. Way fewer people need cardio.
I guess, why, though? What was it that you could get out of lifting weights that you weren’t getting in other places? What does it give you?
I mean, I started getting into cardio exercise because I gained some weight in college and I wasn’t aware of any other way of dealing with that, including mentally. My goals were just to lose weight, always to lose weight. The more weight I lost, the more I felt like it wasn’t enough. I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to what it is I wanted to look like.
Looking back now at pictures of myself, I was so small. Too small. But all I saw in the mirror was that I don’t look the way I should look, which is like “optimally hot.” That’s what I wanted.
This is sort of a difficult concept to communicate, because it feels like two opposing things. But the first problem with this form of exercising was that I was truly biologically undermining myself by being so focused on my body weight. I was dieting aggressively, continuously, for years, which had the effect of depleting my muscle mass and deregulating my metabolism. That made it more difficult to lose weight and more difficult to keep weight off.
The other problem was that I was locating my value of myself in how I looked. I was not ever going to feel good about myself just by being small enough. It wasn’t making me feel better, and it wasn’t making me healthier.
I started gaining more weight as I lifted, because you need to deliberately gain weight (bulk, as we say). I gained 10 or 15 pounds. I was like, “Wow, I’ve never felt better about myself. I feel very attractive. My sessions are going very well. My body feels very good.”
Obviously the column is popular and has a great, engaged readership. Talk to me a bit about your new program, LIFTOFF: Couch to Barbell. Obviously this is much more than an advice column. It’s a whole exercise plan!
Yes, so I made LIFTOFF because when I got started lifting I was really excited to do it, but it was prohibitively difficult to figure out how to start. The barbell weighs 45 pounds! That’s very heavy! I wanted to do Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, but the first step of that program is like, OK, you walk up to the barbell and do a squat. I was very in the dark.
And I was like, A) I’m too scared to do that, B) I literally do not know how to do that, and C) I’m not sure I know what a squat is or isn’t supposed to be. In all the years since I’ve gotten into weightlifting, no one has made the thing that I wanted to exist. So I made it.
It’s a very obvious thing that should exist, something that could put people on that path to lift a barbell. A program that is more about skill building and about learning to move your body in a particular way. A program that values that you don’t have to be really, really strong in order for that to be useful.
I wish I had done this earlier. The number one thing people ask me is: “How did you get started? How did you get going?” I would start to explain and then I would go on for 10 minutes. I realized that I can just take everything that I did and make it easy for people to cross this boundary. Hopefully even if they don’t actually like strength training, they can have a limited 12-week involvement with this program and they can have built their strength. You can do whatever you want now.
That’s something that really stood out to me about LIFTOFF when I did it. Every workout program I have ever done has been like, Let’s get you to 100% hot and fit immediately. Nothing else matters. But for the first three weeks of LIFTOFF you’re just … learning the movements.
Yes, so phase one is the bodyweight phase. Most people are not familiar with moving your body in the way that you do with these compound movements. You have to use whole systems of muscles working together. You might be stiff from sitting all the time.
I think this was not hard for you because you’re a former catcher, but most people do not have the hip mobility that it takes to do a full squat. When you bring weights into these movements, you can’t practice [form] very much before you get tired. So I thought, why not build that part of practice into the whole thing?
Plus, that gives you three weeks to ease in. To try to dial into how you’re eating. To find a gym, or psyching yourself up to go to the gym.
Oh my god. I was so nervous about joining the gym. I was terrified that the strong men of the gym would look at me holding the barbell completely wrong.
I do think that people are looking at you less than you think. But having a foundation for your movements will just help you feel better in the gym if you know in your heart that you are doing what you want to be doing. It will help if some guy comes up to you and says, “You should hold it like this instead of like this,” because you’ll know whether he’s right or not.
Yes! It did really do that for me! I guess it’s so hard, because we live in *a society* to have a relationship with exercise that doesn’t suck. Do you have any advice for readers who might be thinking about creating a fitness resolution for 2022?
A good health- or fitness-oriented goal would be based around what your body can do, and not what it looks like or what it is.
Losing weight as a goal has never helped anybody ever. One of the reasons I made LIFTOFF is that lifting weights gave me an understanding of my body that was oriented around what I do, and not what it can look like. That changed everything. I had such a destructive relationship with myself, and I had never understood my body in another way.
Once I started, I realized that not only can I lift weights and get stronger, my body is built for this. My body is built for this feedback loop of: You eat, and then you rebuild your muscles, and you can go do physical work and a little bit more. I live here, and I can take care of the place where I live all the time. I can make it be better to live here in my body.
Instead of thinking about myself as a brain in a bottle stuffed inside a meat bag, I now feel connected to the rest of myself. I understand what food is for and what exercise is for. Before, they were torture mechanisms that hopefully end one day. Now, I know that I can have a relationship to my body, and how I move it, that is not a piece of shit.