Why Lifting Weights Is for Everyone
Casey Johnston was worn out and hungry when she first showed up at her neighborhood gym, a $15-a-month hole in the wall that was popular with firefighters who lifted heavy and yelled a lot. Johnston had fallen into a years-long bad cycle of restrictive dieting and punishing cardio, and her search for a way out had led her to Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, a classic weightlifting manual that advises a radically simple three-day-a-week free-weight program.
This new way of working out changed more than just her body—less than two years later she had a weightlifting column for the influential women’s blog The Hairpin, and writing about lifting would eventually become her full-time job with the successful Substack newsletter She’s a Beast. But on her first day, there was a big issue. Rippetoe’s program is based entirely around classic barbell lifts, and she wasn’t yet strong enough to lift even the bare 45-pound bar. Solving that problem wasn’t difficult (the workouts could be approximated with lighter dumbbells) but it was revealing: Almost all the weightlifting advice out there preaches to the meathead choir, and even beginner programs often aren’t quite beginner enough.
Serious lifting is usually thought of as something people—mostly men—do to get muscles, either for competitive bodybuilding or just to show off at the beach. Or it’s training for competitive athletes, the football and baseball players for whom the weight room is a necessary evil in order to get strong and win games. But Johnston’s focus on writing for women (and, by extension, anyone else who would not otherwise consider lifting weights in a systematic way, which is probably most men) has unlocked a broader reason to lift: getting stronger as a holistically life-improving practice.
“Our body has all of these ways that we’re good at moving, and that’s what lifting is structured around,” she told me as I squatted (poorly) in her backyard rack. “You don’t have to be the strongest person there ever was in order to benefit from learning to move in those ways.” Picking up bags of cat litter or hoisting an overstuffed suitcase into a plane’s overhead bin suddenly becomes much easier with a little more muscle.
In a deeper way, though, Johnston thinks building strength is a way to create an entirely different kind of relationship with your body. When tackling some of the thorniest questions in fitness—should I be doing cardio? Should I be eating carbs? What should my body look like?—the answer for Johnston can almost always come from asking “What would help you get stronger?” It’s the key that opens every door. And so when a reader asked, after Kate Moss, whether anything tastes as good as skinny feels, Johnston was ready: “Being strong feels better than skinny feels.”
Building a new relationship with food is at the center of Johnston’s writing. She was athletic as a kid, but in college she stopped moving, gained weight, and started feeling a little depressed. “I decided I wanted to lose some weight—I started running and doing the 1,200-calorie diet,” she said. “And at first it worked, but then it kind of stopped working. I kept running more and more and trying to eat less and less and hoping that I could just bear down hard enough. That went on for seven years, and the longer it went, the worse everything felt.”
It was this “obsessive” pattern of thinking about food and fitness that led her to a thread on Reddit documenting a woman’s progress over six months of lifting. The physical results were appealing, but what stopped her in her tracks was the program itself: Three workouts a week, plenty of rest, and lots of food. This led her to Starting Strength and the bare-bones gym.
“I found it extremely gratifying and validating and illuminating, that all I had to do was just show up, do this very precisely circumscribed amount of work, rest the next day, and eat my food,” she said. “It felt almost magical.”
Lots of people feel this way about running or yoga or rock climbing or any number of physical pursuits, but lifting clicked for her—and she couldn’t stop talking about it. After she delivered a version of this story to the editor of The Hairpin, she started writing about it with the zeal of the converted. “I’m not a personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, lawyer, nutritionist, dietician, CEO, gym owner, Pokemon gym owner, or anything,” she wrote in the first post. “But I like working out, and think it’d be cool if other people liked working out, too. If we all make sick gains and get stronger (musculoskeletally, emotionally) in the process, good.”
When The Hairpin shut down, “Ask a Swole Woman” moved to Self and then to Vice. (Self, like GQ, is owned by Condé Nast.) Then after a mid-pandemic layoff, Johnston went independent, and now her newsletter has around 10,000 subscribers on the free list and enough paid subscribers to support her “and then some” when compared to her last staff job. She’s removed one title she didn’t have from her original disclaimer—she got a personal-training certification last year—though the overall tone has remained that of an enthusiastic amateur with an eye for bullshit.
While there are plenty of posts auditing the too-good-to-be-true claims of fitness influencers and the weight-loss industry, the core message of her project has been metronome-consistent: demystifying weight training for people who aren’t in the conventional meathead demographic, and then convincing them to train (and eat) like a bit of a meathead anyway.
This means compound barbell lifts—squats, rows, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses—with high weight and low reps. It means avoiding the on-rails strength machines that clutter most mass-market gyms. It means getting lots of protein. And crucially, it means tracking and systematically increasing exactly how much you’re lifting. This is a foundational principle of most serious weightlifting programs, but is usually missing from muscle magazine plans or high-rep, low weight schemes that are supposed to “tone.” When Johnston talks about “getting stronger,” she means literally moving more weight.
Her most recent big project was a self-published book, Liftoff: Couch to Barbell, a program designed to bring anyone with “zero familiarity with lifting weights” up to speed. It addresses the pitfall she faced when just getting started: not being strong enough to start getting stronger. (In demonstrations for the first, no-weight phase, she’s lifting the handle of a Swiffer.) Johnston says she wrote the book for, anyone who “feels alienated by the burden of their physical self and their body that’s never hot enough, always in too much pain, and never able to show up when it counts.”
The idea, as ever, is that every single person could gain something by getting stronger. Johnston envisions a future in which serious weightlifting is seen in this light, as a source of growth that’s accessible to anyone, instead of as the domain of Cro-Magnon narcissists. “There should be free gyms with dozens of squat racks, everywhere,” she told me. “We’re not there yet.”