You know those times when you look back and question each of the choices you made that led up to the present moment? For me, this was at 8 pm, dozens of Tuesdays ago, when I first and finally walked into a gym in my neighbourhood in Bengaluru, armed with the upper body strength of a money plant.

However, the trainer walking me through my life’s first strength training exercises had a lot more faith in me. He ushered me over to a shoulder press machine. I needed to press the weight above my head. He removed every single plate, so it was at its lightest weight — less than 2.5 kg. He told me to do as many repetitions as I could, and walked away.

The machine was right at the centre of the weights section. A perfect vantage point for me to see every single person watch me fail to do even a single rep.

“Maaro, maaro. Aap kar sakte ho (Push, push. You can do it),” said a well-meaning buff man as I struggled. I proved him wrong. I sat at the machine for a while, defeated, before I quietly slinked back to the comfort of my 2.5-kg dumbbells on the other end of the gym.

I have yet to return to that same machine, nearly a year later. Two weeks ago, however, I reached for the 12.5-kg weights stacked near it, for another exercise. An older, even more buff man wordlessly took them from me and informed me he would do a set or two first.

“No worries. I’ll take the 15s,” I said coolly and reached for the giant dumbbells, the total weight of which is equivalent to two large dachshunds or three microwaves, Google says. Luckily, my body backed up my ego this one time, and I got through three full sets. Had I come full circle, managing to prove myself in the same spot I’d showcased my noodle strength? Yes, I assured myself as I nearly tripped over the shoulder press machine on my walk of triumph to restack the weights.

Back to the beginning

In the first few weeks, I remember feeling intimidated by the number and intensity of the serious-looking muscular men populating the weights section. I had to give myself a pep talk every time I walked over to grab dumbbells before rushing back to the warm-up area.

As the days went by, however, I began to notice several anomalies that defied my preconceived ideas: The odd woman or two grabbing the heavy barbell, stepping on the pull-up machine or doing lunges. It amazed me that women were not just showing up, but taking up space. There were people with various fitness levels, body types and workouts. I began to look out for more of these anomalies. Could I eventually be as confident?

Over time, there have been several significant moments of achievement. Sometimes, I’ve been the anomaly, smiling encouragingly at new faces with nervous expressions. Someone asked me how to use a machine the other day and I had to play it cool as I showed her, while success-dancing on the inside.

But the journey to this day was a long and winding one. Zumba, HIIT, 7-minute workouts, intuitive eating, 10,000 steps, running — I’d tried it all, with the goal of losing weight.

Having struggled with body image and disordered eating, I was worried. I stepped into the world of lifting too, with dread, scepticism and a great deal of anger directed toward my body. But I’d encountered too many positive stories on social media, of women who got into lifting and developed a healthier relationship with fitness. So, filled with curiosity and fresh off the boat of early-20s heartbreak and a job change, I set out to see for myself.

Turning point

At the gym, I spent the initial phase doing my best to pretend I knew what I was doing. The pretence was short-lived. Every time I needed to adjust equipment to my 5-foot total height, lift a heavy plate or move a bench, the game was up. Strangers would come to my aid — some simply, some reluctantly and some smugly. “You need to ask for help, or you’ll hurt yourself,” a kind stranger reminded me once, as I attempted to hoist a 25-kg plate up, endangering each of my 10 little toes.

I wish I could say the turning point came from deep within my spirit, through a commitment to self-growth. But the truth is — one of the best things about acquiring a new skill is being able to see progress, acknowledge it and measure it.

I started reaching for heavier weights. Even more encouraging was being able to note how movements that first felt difficult and awkward became smooth and natural.

Changing the angle of my elbows, leaning back by a few degrees and knowing when to inhale and exhale transformed where and how I ‘felt’ exercises. I began feeling movements in the right muscles, rather than just my hands. This also meant I discovered new parts of my body that could now be sore from a new workout.

My interest in learning more also gave me autonomy. On my way home from work, I’d look up each exercise I planned to do that day. I started to get more assertive in the weights section, asking to share equipment or letting people know I wasn’t done.

Looking back, the first thing that had to go was the fear of looking stupid. Even laying back on a bench to work out can feel embarrassing at first.

The fear of failure came second. I still look around subtly to see if anyone saw me replacing heavier weights with the lighter ones.

Third, and this is a tough one — the fear of looking ugly. I wasted so much energy trying to look graceful or cute. The fitness influencers I was seeing online in matching clothes and perfectly-in-place braids didn’t help. Over time, I got comfortable looking and feeling like the lead rodent in ‘Ratatouille’. Whether it was making ugly faces or sweating it out, I was now able to focus on the workout and get over the feeling of being watched or judged.

Buckets, babies, barbells

A few months after weight training, I could see the difference. I was sitting up straighter, sleeping better, and feeling less fatigued. The neck pain that had started with my new job, poised before a computer screen, faded a week after I began training my shoulders.

My mother, my first and favourite ‘gym bro’, agreed. After two months of consistent and slow weight training, she’d watched her back pain disappear too.

The success of newfound strength extends into the functional. When we ran out of water the other week, I found myself casually shuttling full buckets between bathrooms, foregoing my standard huffing, puffing and giving up. And the joy of being able to chat with your mum as you carry the entire farmland of vegetables she’s bought is something else.

New parents, you’ll scoff at this, but the other day, I rocked a baby for a full 15 minutes without feeling tired. Hilariously though, I’ve been thinking of most things in dumbbell sizes. So I was mostly thinking: “Oh I could totally bicep curl this baby.”

What has caught me off guard is the impact on mental health. The confidence of being able to take up space bleeds into other areas of your life. A bad workout doesn’t mean my body has failed me, it means tomorrow I eat better, get more rest and try again. And no matter how the day has been, I can go, lift something heavy, and push myself to do something I haven’t done before.

My goals have evolved too — I am more concerned with the kilos I’m lifting in the gym than with the weight I’m losing. My relationship with food is evolving too. Foods I enjoy eating are not ‘rewards’ that I need to ‘earn’. Restrictive eating has become illogical — eating less or skipping meals is incongruent with having a good workout and getting stronger.

Unlikely friendships

Another outcome? Discovering and befriending a whole new community.

My first gym friend was made when I heard Taylor Swift blasting through the headphones of a poker-faced teen. In between getting flak for taking too many rest days, and being lightly bullied to lift heavier weights, I befriended a Gen Z. Turns out, bonding over sad music and painful leg days is a strange yet solid foundation for friendship.

Outside the gym, a friend and fitness enthusiast recently drafted a new workout programme based on my favourite exercises. Another friend gave me some ‘protein buttermilk’ to sample. Being able to share my smallest achievement to the extravagant support of others is so wholesome.

My loved ones are having to see and love a new side of me. My mother is forced to feel my biceps on a near-daily basis to affirm how much they’ve grown. And my friends have to hear me talk about how much weight I can leg press (more than that of an average panda).

Elusive balance

The journey is not without its pitfalls. For one, when you talk about exercise, most questions revolve around how many of those pesky pounds you’ve gotten rid of.

I caught myself going down a downward spiral recently. I was being regular with my workouts and eating clean, but I was not seeing ‘results’. I’d outgrown some of my favourite outfits. I began tracking my ‘macros’ — the proportions of proteins, fats and carbs I consumed daily. Gradually, the practice started to toe the line of hyper-awareness and anxiety. I considered quitting. Mid-workout later that evening, I realised something: My whole life, I had worried about how my body looked. But for the first time in the more than two decades I’ve spent in this body, I cared more about what it could do, how strong it could be, and what I could do to help it along.

For now, this was a good place for me. I carried on, with greater care. I told a few friends how I was feeling, processed the thoughts and stopped tracking everything closely.

A second culprit revealed itself later that week — my period. Each phase of the cycle does not just influence mood and body image, but also capacity, food needs and rest requirements. Learning to work with these asks instead of scolding myself into a preset routine has made everything easier.

It gets personal

For some gym-goers, the priority is getting bigger muscles, for others, more confidence, and for still others, working out is an escape.

Lifting weights seems to accommodate these various goals. For me, it allows for a dichotomy. It means I can walk home at 10 pm on an empty road, feeling like I can take down anyone who were to come at me. At the same time, I can be a 26-year-old in my pink sweatpants, holding a penguin keychain and singing along to the ‘Moana’ soundtrack.

I have seen how weight training has opened up new worlds for non-athletes, who grew up classifying themselves as inept at anything requiring hand-eye coordination.

Be it a dear friend in Singapore who’s uncovered a love for climbing, another who has seen fitness make him a better drummer, or a third who is celebrating dropping two dress sizes after home workouts. You get to decide where the journey goes, and where it meets you.

Lifting was a non-threatening part of that journey for me, which helped me reframe my approach to strength and fitness. It’s all about finding a safe space, which may not be a gym at all. But to make your mind, and therein, your body a safe home for yourself.

There’s so much more to conquer, so much to learn. Even as I build strength, do I want to build speed, endurance, balance? I’m grateful that after so many years of relating to my body as a tough trainer or its greatest critic, I can finally just be a friend.

It’s not just young women…

Chances are, you’ve come across several Instagram reels of women lifting three times their body weight. Trainers point to an evolving perception of fitness as a key reason.

Strength coach and powerlifter Arnima Kumari from Bengaluru says, “While women have always used
functional strength and lifting in their day-to-day lives, the gym setup was traditionally sports and men-focused. This is changing now.”

As women train and get stronger, their goals also transform. “Initially, many women come to lose weight or look a certain way. But over time, they begin training for strength, mental health and better bone density. For others, it becomes their ‘me time’,” says Arnima.

Lifting heavy weights has earned a bad rep of making one bulky and less flexible, and causing joint pains. “In reality, it adds lean muscle mass, strengthens bones and improves posture. I have seen it help women with PCOS, hormonal imbalance and period cramps,” says Vasudha Aggarwal, a health and wellness coach from Bengaluru. 

And this is not limited to younger women. Vasudha cites the example of her 60-plus mother, who had a slipped disc a few years ago. “She has rebuilt her strength with a balanced workout including weight training, yoga, and good food,” she says. In general, people are now embracing balanced workouts. Yoga, dance and crossfit classes at The Fitness District that Vasudha runs in Bengaluru see an evenly balanced gender ratio.