Important Considerations When Lifting With a Larger Body

By Sharon Moss

I am an amateur super heavyweight strongwoman. I am fat. I am 5’8 and I weigh 320 pounds.

Why did I tell you my weight? Because I exist. Because others aren’t comfortable sharing. Because what women do weigh is a mystery to a lot of people still.

The fitness industry is a difficult place for fat folks. We deal with everything from outright shaming to constant microaggressions — large and small reminders that we live in a world that assumes we’re lazy, incompetent, and unhealthy before we speak. We’re supposed to try be smaller, at all costs. But we can be strong and powerful just as we are.

Lifting logs, pulling trucks, and flipping tires — strongman is the first place I felt at home in my body. I stopped trying shrink or apologize for being too much. Lifting weights was the first step. It was my gateway to not just strongman, but running, hiking, kayaking, swimming, yoga, and even trying pole dancing.  Competing was the reason I took a real, honest look at my eating — and created sustainable, healthier habits for the first time.

I’m working to make space for us. The iron has taught this fat girl a few things. I own my space in the gym. I know I belong. We belong.

There are things we can all do to move move the fitness industry’s culture in a more positive and inclusive direction — from simply treating larger bodied people as competent individuals down to knowing the little ways we big folks may need to tweak our form.

What Fat People Need to Know

Lifting weights is a great entry point into building a positive relationship with one’s body and with exercise. It's a place where larger-bodied people have natural talent. If you’re a new or wanna be lifter, get out there and try. You are strong. You are powerful.

Don’t be afraid of your fat! It's yours. It’s you. Grab it, move it, and squish it where it needs to go. To get my weightlifting belt positioned correctly and minimize pinching, I put it on a little high, then push it down while pulling some of my stomach fat up from under it. A friend of mine adjusts her boobs every time she lays down to bench press. They just don’t lay evenly and she has to work that out. Totally normal.

It’s OK to wiggle and jiggle! Compression clothing and a good sports bra can minimize this if you need or want support. Dress how you are comfortable. I choose to dress to stay cooler and if my fat claps when I sprint... Oh well.

Don’t be afraid to ask for modifications or alternative movements (or to do a little supervised experimentation to find a better position).

Speak up if you have “no go” exercises. Bad experiences in school gym class or with past personal trainers are common. A good trainer will respect your physical and emotional boundaries. Over time, you may find your future self ready to take on those mountain climbers, pull-ups, or burpees.

What Everyone Needs to Know

Most lifts were created and perfected by men with lean, muscular builds. They didn’t have bellies or boobs to work around. What worked for them may not work for you (or for your client).

If you’re a new lifter, remember this and don’t panic if your form doesn’t look like the guys in the videos. You’re gonna move weight, I promise.

If you’re a trainer, don’t just “know” what proper form looks like — know why it’s proper form. Know what rules can be broken and don’t be afraid to break them. Accept “safe movement” over “perfect form.”

Specific Deadlift Considerations

To get technical, large lifters do have different mechanical challenges — especially in deadlifts. Big challenges, either conventional or sumo stance, are as follows.

Conventional Deadlift

Getting into proper position may feel squished and uncomfortable. To make space for our bellies, we tend to roll the bar out away from us and take our knees out over the bar. To help with this, think about creating more space in the set up and teaching ways to keep the bar in close.

  • To make space in conventional deadlift, we often need to start with a wider stance. Feet shoulder width apart is a good place to start. The stance should still be narrow enough to have the grip be comfortably outside the knees. Pointing the toes slightly out also helps increase the space and may feel more natural to some.
  • To keep the bar close to the body, start from higher with rack pulls or blocks. Keeping the bar close to the body gets easier as you move up from the floor. There’s also the more advanced trick of rolling the bar in close. Set up with the bar about a foot out in front, then get tight and roll in right before starting to pull. Plenty of heavyweight powerlifters and strong(wo)men do this. Just make sure the bar is controlled and there’s no swinging once the weight comes off the ground.

Sumo Deadlift

For us more endowed ladies, a challenge is finding a comfortable hand placement on the bar that doesn’t feel like we’re squeezing our chest with our elbows.

  • Take a wider grip and make sure you’re lifting with good technique. The minute your shoulders round, you’ll feel your upper arms start to come over your chest. Stay up and stay tight.

Generally, sumo deadlifts are easier for larger bodies than conventional deadlifts. Sumo is more open and therefore less squishy-feeling. They’re also great for folks having a hard time keeping the bar in close to their body.

Rack or block pulls are great for all kinds of mobility issues, for either style deadlift — not just for keeping the bar close to the body. There’s no rule that says you have to start someone deadlifting from the floor. For a lot of fat people, starting with just a 2 to 3-inch rise makes all the difference.

Coaches’ Corner

Most fat people are secretly strong. You don’t carry a couple hundred pounds around all the time and not build some muscle. In general, we struggle more with conditioning and mobility, but show up with greater natural strength.

Don’t assume fat people want to lose weight. Listen to our goals the same as you would listen to any new client. Don’t assume anything about the level of fitness of a fat person just by looking at them. Focus on what the person can do and set them up for success. Help create sustainable habits of moving that bring joy.

Negative experiences with gyms and exercise are unfortunately our norm. Lifting weights can be a high reward, body-positive, non-weight-loss-focused activity. In my experience, this is especially true with fat women.

Give a newbie lifter a tire to flip, a truck to pull, or a heavy bar to deadlift and she’ll still be talking about that moment years later. Lifting weights may be the first time she has permission to make noise, let loose, and find ferocity. To say there’s power in that is an understatement.

Coaches, be awesome. Make lifting weights accessible and fun to more people. Use it as a place to build from.

Create a culture where differences in bodies are understood and celebrated — where people feel at home and learn to be powerful.

Go forth and create more badasses!

Do you struggle with body image? Have you ever…

  • Felt anxious about clothes shopping or wearing certain clothes?
  • Dreaded going to an event (like a reunion or a wedding) — or even skipped the event altogether — because you felt too self-conscious about how you looked?
  • Found yourself not wanting to be in pictures or videos, or hiding behind other people in the picture to shield your body?
  • Scrolled through social media and felt worse and worse as you went?

If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.

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About the author:  Sharon Moss

Sharon Moss is an amateur strongwoman, Highland Games athlete, and Body Positive Fitness Alliance affiliated professional from Columbus, Ohio. She started competing in 2012 on a dare and has since competed both nationally and internationally. Sharon’s the kind of person who brings a truck pulling harness to a party, just in case. You can follow her on Instagram.

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