My guess is that you’ve never heard those two words spoken in the same sentence. Just a few years ago, I never would have dreamed I would fall in love with weight training or call myself a “bodybuilder”.
Hearing the word “bodybuilding”, I think the image that pops into most people’s minds is a big, bulky male with biceps as big around as his head. At least that’s what I associated it with for years before learning about it myself. Like all other sports, sometimes there are stigmas attached to it that are not representative of the whole.
I don't train like a typical bodybuilder, as I practice the "big three" lifts of powerlifting: squat, bench and deadlift. They are all very technical lifts, so I am constantly tweaking my technique and learning what form is best for my structure to ensure I stay safe and efficient while doing them. Combining heavy barbell training and bodybuilding style of lifting has contributed greatly to my strength and muscle gains. Lifting this way from the beginning will benefit me in the future, as I plan to compete in both bodybuilding and powerlifting competitions.
Just a year ago, I was still a collegiate cross-country runner, trying to make it through my last season so I could focus completely on lifting and riding. I had been lifting for about a year before my last season, but my consistently high running mileage was holding me back from my new fitness goals. I no longer loved long-distance running once I experienced what it felt like to be strong and watch my body change before my eyes. My mentality changed drastically as well. The entire process of growing my body also grew my confidence and self-love.
I could ramble on and on about how much lifting has changed me inside and out, but here I’ll discuss it from a riding perspective. Being a fit rider is important for both yourself and your horse, and any form for exercise can help make you a better rider. Your choice of activity doesn’t have to be weight training of course, but it does has some great benefits.
Please note, I am not a personal trainer (yet), and these benefits I have noticed in myself may be different in other people or how one trains. I have been active my entire life, and had a seven year cross-country running career prior to finding a passion for lifting. Aerobic exercise like running certainly has benefits to riding as well, but not as many as I have observed with lifting. When I was running, my aerobic endurance was at its peak. I had great endurance while riding, and noticed only a slight decrease in that endurance during prolonged break periods from activity. That was great, but I did not have the physical strength to ride as effectively as I could. Since I made the switch to lifting, I have not noticed any significant difference in my endurance while riding, and have noticed a large increase in strength.
The most significant benefits to riding that I have seen include more leg strength, improved posture, better body awareness and control, and better balance. Although I was rather petite when I was younger, my legs have always been relatively strong. Since I have been training consistently with properly performed heavy lifts, my leg strength has improved exponentially. Having stronger hamstrings that I have learned how to activate or "fire" has helped me use my leg more effectively to influence my ride. Of course there is always progress to be made in the strength and hypertrophy (muscle gain) departments, but I am happy with the results I have seen so far.
Body awareness is incredibly important while riding, since every slight adjustment to your weight or position can impact your horse. Just like in lifting, you have to create a mind-to-muscle connection so you are utilizing your body's strength to the best of your ability. How I brace my core before performing a heavy deadlift or squat is similar to how I brace it while sitting the trot or half-halting.
My balance has never been poor, but it has never been great either. As you may know, balance is a key component of riding, for both you and your horse. Depending on what kind of lifting you choose to do, you may find that some exercises really challenge your balance. Some of my favorites for working on balance include pistol squats, split squats with one foot on a bench, single leg Romanian deadlifts with a dumbbell, and back squats. These exercises also challenge my flexibility, which is admittedly a weak point I am working on improving. Strength is important in riding, but balance and flexibility are very important as well. To be a more well-rounded rider and athlete, I am making my mobility before and after training sessions a priority, and even practicing some yoga.
If you are interested in getting into lifting, make sure that you learn proper and safe form from a professional and reputable source. This will help you prevent injury and progress at an appropriate rate. You should also make sure you are lifting weights that are manageable as you first start out, and you can increase the weight as you are confident in your ability and form.
To my fellow ladies, please do not be afraid to lift heavy weights for fear of getting "bulky" or "too big". In natural athletes, it takes lots of time and consistency to build a good base of muscle. This is another topic I could ramble on about, but here is the take away: Lift all the weights!
Having an overall strong and healthy body is empowering. It makes me feel confident and capable, of doing more than just lifting heavy things. The mental fortitude developed as a result of training has carried over into other aspects of my life, such as riding and my studies making me a more confident rider and dedicated student.
Here's to more early morning lifting sessions, deadlift PRs, hard-earned calluses, water, recovery, flexibility, and overall confidence. Oh, and food. Lots of food. Those muscles need good fuel to work for you!
Until next time!