Episode 18: How Strength Training Helps You Push Past Limits In and Out of the Gym with Alyssa Ages

How much would you’ve bet that the unathletic kid in your neighborhood would somehow go on to be a competitive athlete?

How Strength Training Helps You Push Past Limits In and Out of the Gym with Alyssa Ages

As a child, my guest Alyssa Ages couldn’t swim a pool lap or get a hit in Little League to save her life. But now she’s a strength training enthusiast and advocate who has spent 10 years competing in marathons, triathlons, and strong woman competitions. Her book Secrets of Giants dives into her journey in strength training and why people pursue it, the lessons she’s learned as a result, and how everyone can leverage those same lessons.

In this conversation on The Wonder Women Podcast, you’ll hear about how Alyssa’s time as an endurance athlete and strong woman competitor prepared her to embrace and learn from failure and how doing so helps you in and out of the gym. You’ll learn how strength training helps you maintain your independence, push past your limits, and endure discomfort.

1:53 – How Alyssa got started in strength training and what inspired her book

8:00 – How Alyssa’s life (and perspective on failure) changed due to lessons learned from strength training

14:50 – The balance of pushing yourself to your limits while still maintaining control and why discomfort can be empowering

20:56 – Why women should embrace strength training and reject the idea of taking it easy as they get older

Connect with Alyssa Ages

Alyssa is a Toronto-based, New York-born author, freelance writer, and copywriter. She is also a mom, strongman competitor, endurance athlete (six marathons & an Ironman), rock climber, CrossFitter, and former member of the Jersey City Bridge & Pummel roller derby team. Her work has appeared in ELLE, GQ, SELF, Slate, The Globe & Mail, WIRED, Men’s Health, Parents, and others.

Her debut book, Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength was featured in The New York Times and Publisher’s Weekly, among others. It is part personal narrative, part research mission, part midlife crisis odyssey into the world of strength to answer the question: What if strength isn’t about how much we can lift, but how we manage life’s struggles?

Alyssa Ages

Alyssa at The Globe and Mail

Mentioned In How Strength Training Helps You Push Past Limits In and Out of the Gym with Alyssa Ages

“Powerlifting Past 40 with Marisa Inda and Jen Thompson” | The Wonder Women Podcast

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

“Strength Training Isn’t About Success. It’s About Failure.” by Alyssa Ages | Slate

Arnold Sports Festival

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Michelle MacDonald: Welcome to The Wonder Women Podcast, where we discuss a variety of subjects all pertaining to optimizing your physique, building strength, developing a strong mindset, and tools to help you win at life.

I'm Michelle MacDonald and I'm the founder of The Wonder Women Coaching Team. We are a community of results-driven coaches and clients who believe that we can age like never before.

Welcome everyone to The Wonder Women Podcast. My name is Michelle MacDonald. I'm your host. Today we have a very special guest, Alyssa Ages, who wrote the book Secrets of Giants and showcases her journey, her transition from an endurance athlete, she did marathons, triathlons, into strength training as she's actually a strongwoman competitor.

She wrote a book really diving into, I guess, why people pursue strength, what are the benefits of strength training and really how we can as average people, as civilians can leverage a lot of those lessons. Without further ado, welcome to the show, Alyssa.

Alyssa Ages: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to talk to you.

Michelle MacDonald: We're excited to have you on. Let's just get right into it because there's so much that I want to cover and I think you're going to just speak so beautifully to our audience who are in pursuit of really optimizing their life and aging well.

This is not just for people that are older, but also for the younger generation, that pursuit of aging well. I know you're a mother of, it's two, right? Two young girls, how old are they now?

Alyssa Ages: Six and four.

Michelle MacDonald: Six and four, you are just a recently minted 40-year-old, I believe.

Alyssa Ages: Yeah, I am now 42, I will be 43 in May.

Michelle MacDonald: When did you get started with strength training?

Alyssa Ages: I have been doing this now for just 10 years. I came up on my 10-year anniversary in strength training.

Michelle MacDonald: Oh, wow, so it's been a while, so you started in your 30s?

Alyssa Ages: Yeah, started in my 30s. I'll backtrack, I was not an athletic kid. I don't come from this athletic childhood. I decided to train for a marathon in my early twenties even though I had never run a mile before and I trained, I just was like, “This is what I'm going to do.” I ended up running six marathons, decided I was going to now do a triathlon, even though, again, I couldn't even swim a lap in the pool.

I like to lovingly refer to my swim ability as one of those inflatable tube men from the used car dealership falls into the deep end. That's what I looked like. But I ended up doing an IRONMAN. When I finished the IRONMAN, I thought, “Okay, I got to do something different.”

I first tried hot yoga, which was not for me. But then I found my way into CrossFit. I just loved it right away. It was this great combination of what I loved about cardio and something brand new for me, which was strength training.

I was doing it for a couple of months and a friend of mine from one of my classes said, "You got to come to this strongman gym with me." I went and day one, one of the things that we lifted was an Atlas Stone, which if you've ever watched the old World's Strongest Man competitions on ESPN, it's those big round concrete boulders and it was 90 pounds.

I lifted it to my shoulder and I remember just feeling this just sudden sense of invincibility. There was nothing I couldn't do and I fell in love with it. I've been doing it for 10 years, but I did take a few years off of competing when I was trying to get pregnant and having my daughters.

The impetus for this book came from me deciding, “Okay, I'm turning 40. I'm no longer trying to get pregnant, being pregnant, nursing a kid. What else can this body do? How strong can I make it now?" I went back into competing to find out.

Michelle MacDonald: I love that. Just so the people that are new to you, you had a miscarriage. I think that you were in training for a competition. How far away were you from that first competition, like months or something?

Alyssa Ages: Two months. It was about two months away.

Michelle MacDonald: And training was going well and all of that, then you ended up having a miscarriage and I think that was a bit of a rabbit hole. Do you want to talk about that? Because that's important too, [inaudible] go through things like this.

Alyssa Ages: Yeah. I had just moved from New York to Toronto. I was getting ready for a competition here and my husband and I had just started trying to get pregnant I mean literally that month and so I didn't expect anything and I was lifting one of those Atlas Stone in the gym actually. I remember feeling just really tired, just this level of exhaustion that was different from anything I felt before.

When I went home, I took a pregnancy test, I found out I was pregnant. Then within a few weeks, I found out I was miscarrying. You know logically, the people in your life go through it. I think there are probably times where I thought, “Oh, you go through that so early, it doesn't matter.”

But if you just take those couple of weeks of knowing that you're pregnant to start mentally planning what the rest of your life is going to look like, it really took me from feeling like this incredibly strong, invincible person who could just do anything and could tell my body to do anything and it would do it to feeling broken, weak, and vulnerable. I didn't trust that my body could do hard things anymore.

I blamed myself a lot, which ultimately I learned it was not my fault, but you go down that rabbit hole as well. One of the things during that recovery and while I was going through being at the fertility clinic was that I would keep going back to the gym and I would keep lifting.

I would find that every time I left, I walked a little taller. I had my head held high, my shoulders pulled back. It started to make me believe that my body was capable of doing hard things again.

That was really, really life-changing. When I decided to write this book, it was really inspired by going through that experience and saying, “What was it about strength training that did that for me? Why did it have such a strong impact on how I felt about myself?”

Michelle MacDonald: You ended up interviewing about 50 athletes, I think. Correct? Getting their idea of their own journey and what strength training had brought to their lives. It's an incredible book. I mean, the book is called Secrets of Giants again, guys. A great read. It's very anecdotal. You just get swept along and you get to meet so many legends in the world of strength training, which I love. I love that.

You can go and pursue these people on your own as well. But it's just a wonderful, wonderful book. We had actually early on in one of our episodes, Jen Thompson and Marisa Inda. Jen, of course, they're both fabulous, incredible world champions in the world of powerlifting. I think you must know Jen Thompson because [inaudible] doesn't make sense.

She's just such a down-to-earth awesome woman and probably like you, I mean, I loved your writing style and how you talk about the actual nitty-gritty of strength training. I know that you do all the things, the delight and taking the slack out of the bar, and using your entire body to move the weight up.

I did one strongman, not competition, but I was at a gym and I had to lift an Atlas Stone up. You do not have to be told to pack your lats and keep the weight close to your body because that's the only way that you're going to do it. There's going to be no gap between that weight and your body. You're going to leverage it up anyways.

But the audience that listens to these shows loves all of it. They're in for all of it because they have discovered the power of athleticism in strength training and doing the hard thing. We're definitely speaking to the choir here.

I want to start off weaving a few thoughts together. In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth, who we all know so well, she said, "I wasn't going to fail because I didn't care or didn't try. That's not who I am." Then you echo this value in your own editorial for, I think it was Slate.

You said, "Strength training isn't about success," and I love this, “Strength training isn't about success at all. It's about learning to accept, expect, and ultimately love failure. The resilience you develop through those missteps, and the understanding that failing doesn’t make you a failure, permeates the rest of your life, affecting the way you take risks and bounce back at work, in school, and in social settings.”

I'd love to have you talk more about that and how life has changed for you because of this lesson that you learned from strength training.

Alyssa Ages: Yeah. I mean, when I mentioned briefly before that I was not an athletic kid, it's worth mentioning that I tried to be. I was 10 years old and I was playing Little League Baseball and I remember later in life, even just thinking about the fact that I never hit the ball. I knew that I never hit the ball and I think my loan accolade during the season was I got the MVP game ball for getting hit with the ball and getting an automatic walk to first base. That was it.

Some people might have gone, “Okay, I'm not great at this. How do I get better at it?” But I didn't. Failure messed with me in a certain kind of way that made me go "I'm just not good at athletics." I quite literally avoided them for 10 years of my life as best as I could. Just tried not to do any of it.

I was playing a corporate softball game when I was in my early 20s. When I tell you I have not touched a baseball bat for 10 years before that, yeah, I had not. But I had to and I got up to bat and I swung and I hit the ball. I ran off to the side and I called my mom and I said, “Oh, my God, Mom. After all those swings and misses in childhood, I finally hit the ball.”

She said to me, “Well, it wasn't that you swung and you missed all those times, you never swung the bat.” I realized I had been making up this story about myself for 10 years based on what I thought had happened, based on the fact that I thought I was just really bad at it. It turned out I'd never tried. I was just so scared of failure that I never tried.

That was what sent me down that road of, “I'm going to do all these sports with absolutely no natural talent in any of them, and just see what I can work hard to do.” That right away taught me about the power of failure, but then strength training has taught me more about failure than anything I ever have done before.

I mean, first of all, if you've ever gone into any good strength training gym, CrossFit gym, powerlifting gym, Olympic weightlifting gym, one of the first things they should teach you is how to fail. They should teach you how to fail out from under a bar that is too heavy. That's because it is absolutely expected that if you're going to push your limit in any way in the gym, you're going to fail and you can't avoid it.

If you want to set goals for yourself and reach them, you just have to learn how to fail them safely. What can you do to expect that it's going to happen and then recover from it? That's an incredibly powerful thing to be told right away, “Hey, you're going to do this new sport and you are going to eff it up a million times over.”

I do. I mean, I screw it up all the time now. I have come in last in almost every single strongman competition I've done in 10 years, which really should deter me from the sport, but it doesn't because I keep going, "Well, what else can I do? What can I change here? Okay, I didn't get this lift this time. How can I make that a little bit better?"

It's also made it so that I feel like, as you mentioned, failure doesn't make you a failure. When I don't place in those competitions, I don't view myself as a failure. Now, I go, "Well, what did you do today that was better than what you had done yesterday or in your last competition? It doesn't matter what anyone else has done."

I know that in a lot of sports, that kind of feeling can exist. But in strongman in particular, is this very interesting vibe where everyone who is there, your fiercest competition, whatever, they just want to see someone hit a record, someone hit a lift they've never done before. It's just so exciting to watch people do something that is at the absolute end of their physical capability and go past it. I think that's just incredibly powerful.

Michelle MacDonald: I love that. That really echoes my own experience with powerlifting. I have done sports my entire life. I was a scrappy, tiny little thing that didn't weigh three digits until I think creatine. I was just so tiny, but I love sports.

But sports are always very competitive. Of course, a lot of times what's missing in the world of competition is that language of what competition actually is, which is striving together. Did you mention that about striving together versus pitting yourself against the other person?

Alyssa Ages: Yeah.

Michelle MacDonald: Which I love. In powerlifting, it was the first time, I think, again, we all have our hallucinations of reality, but I think it was my first time in an event where everybody is so all into the lift being complete.

My mom goes to almost all my events. She has my entire life, she still does. I'd be in the back and I would literally hear my mom's voice, yelling and encouraging, like, “Up, up, up, up,” whatever. Whoever was on the platform, and halfway through the competition, people said to me, “Wow, your mom is amazing. She's always there.”

But I mean, everyone's like that. Cheering each other on and in your heart, like truly in your heart, I think because you know what it's like to be under the bar or to have that bar in your hands and trying to move the weight, you're really in that experience with other people and every cell in your body wants that person to do that lift.

It’s almost like if they do their lift, maybe you're going to do your lift or I don't know what it is, this is [all coming up, these meets.]

Alyssa Ages: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think failure bakes into powerlifting almost more than any other strength sport because the idea is you're going to go out and your first lift is something that's hard, but you're pretty sure you can do it.

Second lift, generally you're going for some kind of a PR or at least the most you've ever done in the gym. Then your third one, you go out there expecting that this is really out of the realm. If I hit this, amazing. But the idea that you go out there for your final lift, almost anticipating that that's going to be a failure, but I'm going to give it a shot is pretty cool.

Michelle MacDonald: As a coach, because we're talking about embracing failure, pushing yourself, and all of that, but on the other hand, there's this idea, I wasn't sure if I was going to get into this with you or not, but we're going for it, lifting safely. We coach online, I've been coaching online since 2012.

Generally, what I tell my clients is unless I tell you to go to failure, I want you to push as close to failure as you can get but maintain control. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that because there is that dance between pushing yourself to your limits, and a lot of times, that means going beyond your limits, but the wear and tear on the body, lifting safely, the worst thing for progress is to be sidelined for months because of the injury.

Can you talk a little bit about that? Because I'm sure you've had injuries, been in the gym with other people that have had injuries.

Alyssa Ages: Oh, yeah, I have definitely had injuries, although less so from strength training than I did from endurance training. I should add that. But yeah, I mean, I think there's this impetus for a lot of us when we go into the gym of if you lift something and it's easy and you really like strength training, I don't know if this is just me, but I always feel like, “Oh, I want to do more. That was easy today. What else is in the tank?”

There's this drive to almost want to hit your one rep max every time you go do something. But you can't. I mean, you can't do that to your central nervous system every time you go in.

So yeah, I think the idea of getting close and touching failure without actually necessarily failing I mean, you don't know if it's the same in powerlifting but in strongman, you're not usually training to absolute failure on anything because we're not really going for hypertrophy, we're going for strength. But I think it's interesting to be able to touch that close to that point and then have the restraint to pull back from it as well.

Michelle MacDonald: Mm-hmm. Okay, and then obviously as you've progressed as an athlete, because now you are an athlete, you've probably had that experience of pushing far past what the beginner you would have deemed your pain threshold.

You're able to get to that place and almost relish those reps or those lifts where everything's burning, your muscles are quivering, your heart rate is like a 170 or whatever, and you should have technically given up ages ago, but you're able to grind through it. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Alyssa Ages: Yeah, it's this idea of getting really comfortable with sitting in that discomfort. Because pain, acute pain, obviously we want to avoid that, but the pain of discomfort, I think can be really empowering when you know that you can endure that feeling, get through it, push past it, and that you didn't let it stop you.

I think especially if you're somebody like me who trains three out of four days a week that I strength train, I do it in my garage. There is no one in there that's going to know if I skip a rep because it got hard, but I'm going to know when you train for long enough, you start to care about becoming accountable to yourself, which is really important.

It's something that carries over to everything else in my life. An interesting example of something that just happened recently where I used that and I hadn't thought about the connection until just now, but I was at the Arnold Sports Festival a week or two ago, which for anybody who doesn't know, is this just massive confluence of people who love strength and they're competing and they're fans and there's an expo and there are 80 different strength sports and it’s wild.

I went there to sell copies of my book. They put me at this autograph table, which was really cool. I got this whole sign with my name on it. I said, “Hey, because I'm not going to be on the main schedule, can you put me next to whoever the most popular people are at the same time as they're there?” which I thought was this really great idea.

I ended up being next to this bodybuilder who is particularly huge on YouTube and social media. As I watched the lineup for him, I'm looking and I'm going, “Oh, God, this is not my audience. This is a lot of teenage boys. I don't know if they're going to read this. I don't know if they care to read a book about a 40-year-old mom in her strength journey.”

I'm watching hundreds of people line up for him. I am right next to him. I'm staring out at the barrel of nobody, nobody waiting in my line. Every once in a while, someone trickles over out of curiosity. There were so many times that I wanted to get up and walk away. It was so uncomfortable. I'm in the background of people's pictures that they're taking with him.

This is level of kind of mortification of it and I kept thinking, “No one is making you sit here. If this sucks, you can get up, you can walk away, and you don't have to be doing this anymore. The worst that happens is you've got to bring these books home with you.”

I had a 90-minute time slot. I just kept going, “You can do this. You can sit in this discomfort for 90 minutes and own it.” And I did. I didn't take my phone out and scroll. I just sat there and looked out on this crowd, tried to smile at as many people as I could, and just dealt with that, in not even failure, but just really crummy uncomfortable situation.

I do know that I wouldn't have been able to do that even 10 years ago. That is something that I really learned from just being able to sit in discomfort in the gym that I have truly translated to my life outside of the gym.

Michelle MacDonald: Yeah, you said in your book, I think it was on rebuilding trust, you kept rebuilding trust, it's like your version of the midlife crisis that people make. You said, “Given the choice to,” was it run towards discomfort?

Alyssa Ages: Yeah.

Michelle MacDonald: Or lead to comfort, you chose discomfort. That has made such a huge difference in the trajectory of your life, which is really what this is all about, this journey towards strength.

Alyssa Ages: Yes, exactly.

Michelle MacDonald: You learn to test yourself and it's so true, you learn to test yourself in the safety of the gym. Then you learn that you have so much left in the tank, and you learn to keep pushing yourself.

I love AMRAP tests. I throw AMRAP tests to my clients. If they're listening, they'll know what I mean. At The Wonder Women, we coach women how to become an athlete. You don't exercise, you train, your nutrition fuels your workouts, all of the language, all of the things.

We actually asked them to report their RPEs. We do all the things. I love AMRAP because they'll be saying, “Oh, that was an RP8.” I'm looking at the bar speed or whatever it is that they're doing and I'm like, “Well, I'm not really seeing much. I can see you're huffing and puffing, but the bar speed's not changing.” So I'll give them an AMRAP test to do the following week, and I'll say lift the same weight, but just go until you absolutely can't do another weight, and they'll tack on like an extra 10.

Alyssa Ages: Yeah. I love that.

Michelle MacDonald: Yeah. That means you didn't have any effective reps. All the time with the gym, you're just maintaining. You learn to endure a lot more than you think you're capable of, and that is so fundamental.

How can we, as women, apply that to the aging process? You said that you embrace discomfort instead of accepting a slow descent into aging. Could you explain that a little more?

Alyssa Ages: Yeah, I mean, I think as women, we've been told for a really long time, and more so as you get older, that now it's time to hang up your tough sports stuff, just lean into something gentle and easier.

I mean, we can talk in a minute about how terrible that is for just your actual aging process, but even mentally. You are going to age faster if you're believing that you're aging faster. The master's group in strongman and strongwoman is so competitive, I won't even enter it because I'm like, “Absolutely not.” My masters is 40 and up.

Michelle MacDonald: Okay.

Alyssa Ages: Then there is also a 50 and up masters, but I won't even touch it. Those women are way stronger than I am. I'm still sticking to my weight class for now. It's just important to not go, "Okay, there's this dead end of my life that I've been told forever that 40 is this dead end." And it's not.

I think I have more confidence in myself and who I am and my abilities in my, I know I'm just into my 40s now, but already I feel like I believe I can do more and I'm confident in just knowing what I want to do and how I want to feel and the space that I want to take up and just doing them. I think that's incredibly important.

Then on the physical side of it, I mean, we know as we get older, all the crummy stuff that happens of starting to lose bone density, lose muscle mass, and muscle strength, and muscle power, and the only way that we can mitigate that is from strength training, is from doing something weight bearing.

When we've told women forever, “Just be careful, be careful, don't get hurt.” What we're actually doing is setting them up to get hurt. Because if you're not doing this, then when you couple the loss of balance that comes with muscle loss, the loss of strength, the loss of bone, that's where you get into these really scary situations where let's say you have a trip, you trip on something and because you don't have great balance, because you haven't been working on your strength, you continue to fall.

Now you also don't have the strength to pick yourself back up and stop yourself from falling. Now you fall and because you have that weakened bone density, now you have a fracture. Now you start to worry about losing independence because you're not going to recover from that as easily. If we keep telling women, “Hey, don't do this, we're going to put more of us at risk for that.

Michelle MacDonald: Hey guys. Thanks for tuning in to another episode of The Wonder Women Podcast. You know we don't make money from this podcast. Our mission is to get as much great information out there to the widest audience possible to help more people like you thrive at any age.

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That wraps up episode one of a two-part series with Alyssa Ages. We discussed her journey from an endurance athlete to a mother of two daughters, a strongwoman competitor, and an author. She emphasizes the importance of embracing failure and learning to expect and love it, something essential we learn in the gym.

Alyssa also shares how strength training has taught her to push past her own limits and endure discomfort both in the gym and in life. She also encourages women to challenge societal expectations that embrace strength training as they age.

Tune in next week as we explore the conflicting messages around strength for women and how we can change the narrative for younger women.