Getting Strong: A Conversation Between Two Nonbinary Humans About Weight Lifting

Feature image center photo via Jasmine Lin / Getty Images

Both Stef and Nico have both gotten into strength training in the past year, as you might know from some of Stef’s work. Erstwhile, Stef (easily) convinced Nico to subscribe to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newsletter and also at one point recommended some shoulder rehabilitation exercises when they had an injury. In other words, they’re an awesome and supportive strength training / powerlifting advocate — and also a fellow nonbinary human. So, for this here International Nonbinary People’s Day, Nico and Stef sat down to talk strength training, weights and their relationships to themselves and their bodies and the sticky web of connections in between.


Nico: Okay, so first question, since this is a discussion for International Nonbinary People’s Day, I think it would be cool to start with talking about how we each identify, if that’s okay with you, Stef!

Personally, I tend to go with ‘genderqueer’ or ‘gender fluid,’ but I also see myself as being nonbinary, like by definition? As someone not doing gender on the binary? That sounds less sure than I thought it would, but that’s where I’m at! I also accept and use nonbinary as shorthand or as an identity I align with because I feel solidarity with other nonbinary folks.

Stef: Yeah, absolutely. I actually feel that entirely. I identify as queer and nonbinary because that’s the language we have to talk about how I feel. mostly, i just don’t identify with GenderTM in general, haha. I don’t want people to be confused and think that I don’t recognize it or care about it… I just feel like it’s not for me, personally.

So I always kind of see myself as performing “Stef” as opposed to performing some other thing we’ve defined.

I hope that makes sense.

Nico: I can very much relate to that. I feel like I’m just here.

Just a guy here. On the Earth.

Stef: Yes, precisely that. i’m literally just some guy. and i like it that way.

Nico: I love that.

Stef: Yeah, I used to be kind of self-conscious about that because I think it’s cool that people feel so aligned with one particular identity or another. There is a lot of power in that. But as I’ve matured and gotten older, I’ve found a lot of community with people like me and people not like me so I see the power in it all equally now.

Nico: I think there is power in being able to step away from something that is not authentic to you.

Stef: Totally. That’s exactly it.

Nico: We’ve both come to weight lifting kind of within recent memory, is that correct? So, before we got into strength training, what kinds of associations did we have with strength-based sports (I hope that’s a term) and weightlifting? Had we ever imagined it would be for us?

Stef: Definitely. I just started weightlifting last August, so I’m coming up on my one year anniversary of this journey.

Nico: Congratulations on your anniversary!!

Stef: You know, in the 90s, I grew up watching guys like Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, and in the early 2000s, my little brother and I were huge fans of WWF wrestling. We loved people like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Chyna and Mankind and The Rock — it was kind of always there around me, but i was never interested in like the LIFTING itself. So, I guess I consider my main association with strength sports and weightlifting as coming through getting to know my close friend, Brendan. We met about seven years ago because we were both in the new teacher co-hort of the school we taught at. He’s been into strength sports forever and participates in strongman and powerlifting competitions. Honestly, for the first like five and a half years we were friends, I thought it was cool he did it but still felt very far removed from it as a fat person.

Nico: Did Brendan get you into it? Also we’ve talked about Arnold before. I subscribe to his newsletter because of you. Is strength training contagious?

I think I thought that like, trying to more seriously exercise with weights and strength train just wouldn’t be for me? I’d largely focused on cardio-based exercise, including and especially running. And that’s just a pretty different kind of movement. I feel like early associations I had with strength training are like, Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Trunchbull, Rowdy Roddy Piper, wrestlers yeah. It felt almost like, something kind of unobtainable? Like you already had to be jacked?

Stef: Okay so yeah, same experience for me! Like I said, I felt very far removed from it being fat my whole life. I didn’t know or see a lot of fat athletes (though they do exist! especially in strength sports!). By the time I became an adult, I was like “this sports shit is just not for me” but I see now that was more of a protective stance I was taking. like I didn’t want to be vulnerable and try something new or SEE if I liked anything. I just kind of wrote it off and went about my business, haha.

Nico: That’s really interesting… because yeah, you kind of have to be earnest about it if you’re going to strength train, right? And that means going to that vulnerable place, putting yourself out there.

Stef: I think it’s that and also just the fear of failure. Which, I’ve learned now, is a cool thing about strength sports. It’s like… you don’t fail in the same crushing ass way other athletes do. if you mess up a lift or don’t hit a goal, that just means you didn’t beat yourself. Of course, there are lifting competitions and everything, but a lot of the people I’ve gotten to know who are into this are into it to beat themselves, not someone else.

Nico: Yeah, because you’re only trying to make yourself stronger. It’s you vs past self.

Stef: Yes, you’re only trying to make yourself stronger! you vs. your past self, always!

Brendan did get me into it in a very round about way, and I know he’s hella proud of that because he said it today when we were talking about other stuff, haha. He basically very gently encouraged me to try it out after I asked him if he thought it would be a good idea to help fix some knee problems that I was diagnosed with last year. And since then, he — along with my strength coach, Vinny, and other people I’ve met — has been very supportive of me, like becoming full-on obsessed with it all.

Nico: That’s awesome. I love how supportive the community is.

Stef: Yeah, me too.

Nico: Your gym sounds awesome. I still just lift at home.

Stef: I wanted to ask you, what made you finally take the dive?

Nico: So, taking the dive was oddly related to, like, my gender journey actually, and kind of how I wanted to move through the world.

Stef: Oh wow, ok, yeah, please say more about that. If you’re cool with that!

Nico: So, I kind of veer over onto the masc spectrum sometimes, and was doing a lot of sort of testing those waters and feeling that for myself over the past couple of years, and late last fall, I think, I started wishing that I was 1) stronger and that 2) that I had a less like, “feminine” visual appearance (big scare quotes here because what even does that mean).

As someone who at the time (because we’re broken up yikes) was the heavy lifter of things in my queer relationship and also constantly confronting my limitations in that role while working on fixing up our old, beat up house and while trying to… I don’t know… just navigate existence, I started looking on social media and the internet for answers about strength training and weight lifting. But also like, specifically, I got into it because I started looking up exercise routines for trans dudes.

I arrived at it from a very gay place, haha.

Stef: Ok, yeah, that totally makes sense!! And I’m glad you were able to find something that made you feel more comfortable as you were navigating all of those questions and feelings. (I am sorry to hear about that break up, though!). Your story is much gayer than mine, lol

I honestly didn’t consider the implications on my gender feelings until I actually started. Then I started to realize how much more affirmed I felt in my identity, which was more of a weird coincidence. I think in general, it’s made me feel more comfortable being alive, and that just impacts everything else about me.

Nico: I love that! I was going to ask about that. Let’s talk about it.

Can you tell me more about how it makes you feel comfortable being alive?

Stef: Particularly in powerlifting (which is mainly the sport I practice with my coach, though we also do a lot of bodybuilding work, too), you’re doing a series of conjugate movements. So yeah, you’re lifting heavy shit, but the particular ways you’re lifting those heavy ass things helps strengthen multiple muscles in your body at a time. And what’s cool about that is that you get stronger all over. Literally, your whole body gets stronger if you’re doing it right. And so, you know, there are benefits to that.

You can do heavy lifting in regular life, you can walk further and faster, you don’t get tired as easily when you’re doing physical activity, etc. — like there is just this overall better body feel that I’ve experienced through movement that really impacts how I feel about everything else. I just feel more capable, and so that makes me more confident, and more confidence leads to feeling less self-conscious about how others perceive my gender presentation, etc. etc.

I hope that makes sense.

Nico: That makes a lot of sense! And is incredibly relatable, yes.

From my end, in terms of the intersection of identity + getting stronger, it has… like… even if I don’t feel like I’ve done very much in the way of altering the look of my body so far, I feel like the way it has allowed me to pick up heavier objects is super affirming, including, yeah, inhabiting and performing whatever ‘Nico’ is.

I think there’s something that happens, too, with getting to know your body and muscles in that way, where I feel more connected with myself, more connected to my connective tissue.

Stef: Oh yeah, absolutely!

Nico: And like my mind’s sense of my body and the way they relate is much stronger.

Stef: Yes, that’s so real.

I have spent pretty much my whole life ignoring my body, so this is a completely new life for me. I feel so tuned into to what’s happening in a way that I’ve never experienced. I was just talking about this the other day, actually… I wake up with a stiff back for all the days I have my period, and I never noticed that until recently because I was always in various states of pain before I started lifting.

And I asked the guy who owns the gym, “isn’t that weird? I should probably do something about that, right?” and he was like “how long has this been happening?” and I just had to say, “I really don’t know, man. I’m just noticing it now. I feel like I’m noticing shit about my body I didn’t even know about before” and he just laughed and said “yeah, that’s what happens when you do this” haha.

Nico: That’s incredible and also, I feel like, yeah, being more in touch with oneself also opens up more avenues for the act of self-care, in a very serious sense. Like, wow, the fact that you didn’t even realize you were hurting in a particular way, but now you do know, so you can address it.

Stef: Yeah, totally. That’s exactly it. I probably have had that weird stiffness forever, but I just didn’t register it. It’s wild.

Nico: Can you talk a little bit about your training program and what you’re working on now? I think it would also be cool to define Power Lifting for the class.

Stef: Powerlifting is literally the practice of three movements: the squat, the deadlift, and the bench press.

The idea is that you’re building enough strength to kick ass in those three arenas. Again, a lot plays into that (the amount you can train, genetics, other “supplements,” etc.) but basically, it’s you vs. your past self. You’re trying to get to the top of where you can go on those three movements.

Nico: Interesting!

Stef: Bodybuilding is kind of just what it sounds like.

You’re building muscle size, which doesn’t always mean you’re building strength. I know that sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, but apparently our bodies can do this. We can increase the mass without necessarily increasing the amount we lift. This is where you see people doing more isolated movements on machines and stuff… you’re working less muscle groups at a time HARD. So maybe you’ll do things like your back and shoulders or your triceps and biceps or your quads and hamstrings, etc. etc.

Nico: Thank you for the definitions!

Stef: Strongman/woman (these competitions are very gendered, just so everyone knows) is the freakiest one of all (because I think we’re all freaks, lol). Basically, you train with both powerlifting and bodybuilding stuff, but you also train more unconventional tools.

You’ll use a “log” for overhead pressing instead of a barbell and plates. You’ll walk with a yoke on your back or pick up heavy ass stones instead of doing a traditional squat. Strongman is kind of a “what heavy shit do we have around to lift?” kind of sport, which makes it a lot of fun to watch.

There is certainly a wide range of body types when it comes to powerlifting, where with bodybuilding, you can’t really do that. The idea with bodybuilding is that you’re able to show off all the muscle groups possible, so totally different vibe in terms of aesthetics and strength expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, though! Bodybuilders work their asses off. For the people who are competing, this is all HARD ass work.

Nico: I feel like i’m learning so much!

And also I especially want to go to a strongman/woman competition now and watch people lift logs and stones.

Stef: Haha, i just went to my first one earlier this year and it was a blast.

My training right now is a combination of powerlifting stuff and bodybuilding stuff. We practice a lot of deadlifting (just did 20 earlier today) and benching, and we do a lot of different types of squats. But we also do a lot of accessory work (these are the weights/machines that aren’t barbell-related). It’s good to have a combination of all of that… it’s called the conjugate method. You build strength more slowly, but more safely.

Nico: Nice.

Stef: I’d love to hear about your routine, too! Especially because you do it at home, which is something I haven’t ever tried.

Nico: So, I basically follow a pre-made routine that is, you’d probably define it as bodybuilding? Although I do all the deadlift / squat / bench press exercises, too, so maybe also a combo. It’s definitely intended to result in things like bigger arms, broader shoulders, etc. — and is designed by a masc lesbian/queer for other masc people. The program cycles me through 4 days / week of different exercises on different days and it works pretty well for me because I don’t have to think about what I’m going to do. I’m just like “oh it’s back day ok.” I got a set of dumbbells / barbells from a friend of my mom who no longer uses them, so they’re super vintage. I DO need to get a proper bench haha.

Want to see a photo of my creepy workout space?

Stef: Oh wow, that sounds like an amazing set up actually. you can literally gain so much strength with a dumbbell set and a barbell with some plates, so that’s awesome you have all of that!

And haha yeah, of course. I’d love to!

Nico:

a photo of nico's workout space which is a bunch of barbell and dumbell stuff and plates on a dirty basement floor with crumbling paint

Bleak is the new chic.

There’s also some resistance bands, etc. kettlebells.

Stef: Honestly, that’s just like the old days! You’re just following tradition. Back in the day, all strength gyms were like random ass spots in some building’s basement or some little spot in the back of a shopping plaza or some shit haha.

(I have been reading and researching a lot about strength culture, so that’s where that info is coming from, haha.)

Nico: Yeah, I feel like there is a time honored tradition of using dumbbells in a basement.

Stef: Totally. There really is!

You have some great stuff, though. I love the plate loaded dumbbells… so much easier on your hands because with most dumbbell sets at gyms, the handle gets thicker as the weight increases. It’s one of my weekly struggles right now.

OK! Getting back to a question you asked WAYY earlier about Arnold’s newsletter and the contagiousness of strength training…

First of all, you know I love Arnold’s newsletter, lol. It’s a really fun start to the day, and actually, he sometimes says some really useful stuff.

Plus Arnold is this character… he feels like such a big presence to me because of growing up watching his movies and stuff. I’m going through an Arnold phase right now, lol… just inexplicably slightly obsessed with his life (among a few other famous-ish strength people).

But yeah, I do think strength training is kind of contagious in a way. It’s a sport that requires skill, but not like kind of skill that seems unattainable. You need to know how to move your body correctly through the various movements and then from there, you decide how far you want to take it. Plus, it feels cool to get stronger! Like even if you have some physical limitations, there are movements you can do and places where you can feel stronger. And that’s really rad in my opinion.

For me, I hated the first month. I won’t lie. I was like “I do not want to do this shit” and then something clicked. I think it was just noticing differences in how I felt and getting to know the people who are constantly working to build and sustain this community. I was like “this is actually really cool” out of nowhere one day. And I just kind of got more and more emotionally invested.

Nico: I love that answer so much

Do you think you’ll be sticking with it for some time?

Stef: Yeah, I kind of feel like my body already made that decision for me. I don’t know how far I’ll go. I mean, right now, I’m considering doing a powerlifting meet at the end of this year (my coach is trying to gently persuade me as we speak) — but I don’t know if COMPETING will be a thing that I make a big part of my life. I’m happy to just go to the gym and work my ass off and feel the glory of that.

What about you?

Nico: I think I’ll keep up with it for sure! I’ve started blending in more running again, and I think I’m getting to a pretty happy balanced place, in terms of the movement I’m doing.

Plus, again, getting strong is cool as hell.

Stef: Oh wow, yeah, that’s awesome!

Nico: Well, this was awesome.

Stef: Before we close up, I want to also say that strength is relative! When I say getting strong rules, I don’t have any number or definition in mind when I say that. It’s cool for people, as INDIVIDUALS, to feel like they’re strong and capable and I encourage that whether you’re bench pressing 45 pounds or 445.

Nico: Oh for sure. Definitely closer to the 45 end over heeeere.

I love the way you’re like, coaching anyone reading this.

Stef: I always joke about how I’ll go to the gym and my brothers will be pushing 300 or 400 pounds, then I get on the bench with my 125 and they’re all hooting and hollering for me, haha. It’s a good reminder that it’s just about progression… getting stronger than you were last month. That’s all.

Nico: I feel so inspired! Thank you so much, Stef!

Stef: Yeah, of course! Thank YOU. I love talking about this shit so much, haha… it’s good to have a place to put it.

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Nico

Nico Hall is Autostraddle's and For Them's Membership Editorial and Ops Dude, and has been working in membership and the arts for over a decade. They write nonfiction both creative and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 226 articles for us.

Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 86 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. But no mention of weightlifting (aka Olympic weightlifting), the third pillar in the classical strength-sports trifecta? What’s better than picking up a barbell from the floor and throwing it over your head?

  2. Love this post. I’m a big fan of climbing for strength training. It’s really good for building muscle tone and strengthening your joints and connective tissues.

    I’m happy that, Steff, you’re finding community in your gym! That’s been a hurdle for me for sure. I tend to bring my own peeps to climb with. Too many gym bros i don’t wanna know at a bouldering gym lol!

    Climbing outdoors is also a blast and, Nico, there are outdoor crags near Pittsburgh!

    • I also really love climbing. I prefer top rope to bouldering, but I’ve generally felt really lucky about our local gym being queer-friendly with a pretty balanced mix of genders (and minimal douchiness).

      Between climbing and boxing I’m definitely finding my growing arm muscles and definition gender affirming. It’s helped make summer tank tops a source of genderqueer euphoria! 💜

  3. “Gender is not for me” and “I have spent pretty much my whole life ignoring my body” are so intensely relatable, Stef 😩 Sometimes the trainers at my women-only gym (lolol I am an imposter) will be like “Do you feel the pull in your xyz muscle?” and I’ll be like no I haven’t registered a feeling in my body for 84 years???

  4. I enjoyed this! I have been powerlifting very on and off for 10(!) years now, but finally decided to get back into it at a dedicated powerlifting gym (for once!) after a 4 year hiatus in part due to an earlier Stef piece. Glad to see you’re still at it and keeping it contagious!

  5. Thank you for this! I’ve been wanting to start lifting and am looking for resources that aren’t fatphobic and don’t focus on weight loss. When I search on YouTube the algorithm keeps giving me weight loss videos.

    Any recommendations for good resources?

    I had a baby 6 months ago, which made me feel super strong and lifting him has been building my arm strength. I want to keep it up!

  6. Such an awesome and important conversation. Thanks for the shoutout, Stef! Your progress in knowledge and movement has been incredible to watch and I couldn’t be prouder to be your brother in life and strength. You’re now the official strength historian for Fat Guy, Jacked Guy.

  7. I recently started strength training too!
    I watched some Vin Diesel movies and was like “you know what? I could try to look more like that, with visible strength and muscles”
    AMD I’ve been at it for a few weeks now!
    The things I really enjoy are 1) listening to good music intentionally – it’s a really good time for me to listen to new albums 2) the “runners high” esque feeling that I never got from running, but definitely do from completing strength workouts 3) taking hot pictures of me every time I work out to send to my spouse 4) noticing my new strength, and my improvements!

  8. this came at a perfect time for me! i (genderqueer woman) discovered years ago that i also much prefer “you vs. past self” exercise to team/competitive sports, and after 3 years of slowly atrophying about two months ago i started strength training. it’s amazing how much better and more in tune with my body i feel. and it’s been really gender-affirming for me to feel and see how i’m getting stronger just in my daily life, even in a relatively short time. all this to say, so much in this conversation resonated a ton. thank you both for sharing!!

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