‘‘I Transformed My Upper-Body Strength—And It All Started With A 25-Lb. Bag Of Rice’

a woman lifting weights
'How I Progressed To Bench Press 135 Pounds'Pilar Lewis

As soon as I started walking, I was playing a sport. I don’t remember there being a time where I wasn't on a sports team during my childhood. To me, exercise was practice after school and traveling for games on the weekend for whatever sport I was playing. As a teen, in my off-seasons, my mom would beg me to go to the gym with her for fun, but I didn't have much interest in it.

I liked running and endurance-based activities because I felt like they complimented sports pretty well, especially lacrosse, which eventually became my main activity. I ended up being able to play lacrosse in college, where I was first required to start strength training to prepare for the season. While I was in shape for my sport, I couldn’t even lift the bar in the gym, and I was mesmerized by all the different movements that I didn’t really understand.

I became even more interested in strength training during lockdown—when all I had to train was a heavy bag of rice and a backpack.

In the middle of college, everyone was sent home because of the pandemic. I felt far away from my entire life and all my friends, and like there was nothing for me to be doing. There was so much time on my hands, and there was nowhere for me to be.

While sitting at home alone, I had nothing to do besides work out. To pass the time and cope with what was happening, I wanted to exercise, but I felt stuck since gyms were closed.

Then my dad handed me this 25-pound bag of rice from Costco and said, “You can train with this. There’s actually a lot you can do with it.” So I stuffed that bag of rice in a backpack to make it heavy, and I’d use it as a weight. I would put the backpack at the front of my body and do squats. I would use it as a kettlebell for kettlebell swings. I would put it on my back and do walking lunges.

I realized there was a lot I could do at home, but I wanted to try to strength train at the actual gym. I decided that, when I was done playing college lacrosse, I would get serious about a gym routine.

a couple of women posing for the camera
Pilar and her mom at the gymPilar Lewis

The more time I spent at the gym, the more disciplined I felt.

When I graduated from college, I was excited—but so confused—about where to begin. I followed fitness influencers on TikTok who gave workout tips and advice on which movements to try. But I also wanted to make sure all of my information was accurate and science-based, so I started researching online, watching the moves other people at the gym were doing, and reaching out to my old college coaches for tips.

At first, I thought I needed to be running and lifting every day to stay fit, but I soon realized I was over-exerting my body. I started learning more about the basics of strength training and how to work different muscles with compound movements like squats, deadlifts, hang cleans, and more. I also learned how to supplement those movements by doing auxiliary exercises with dumbbells or body weight exercises like curls, lunges, and more.

After a combination of trial and error, researching, and practicing at the gym, I finally found my strength training routine and stride. I started to finally perfect my strength exercises. My confidence was growing so much as a result, which only motivated me to continue. I developed so much discipline that translated into every other aspect of my life.

Even when things got off-routine for me, I could fall back into strength training to find my rhythm again. I know it’ll always be there, giving me structure even when everything else feels unsettled.

a person lifting weights
Pilar Lewis

These three factors were key to my strength transformation.

1. I prioritize eating enough protein, and I'm not afraid to eat in general.

When I first started lifting, I was hungrier because I was training more, but I was afraid to eat more. But if you want to build muscle, you need protein and you have to eat! It’s how your body survives and thrives. You need to take care of yourself, and that includes getting enough sleep.

2. The motivation to workout isn't always there, but I learned to push through it to build discipline.

I do not always feel motivated to workout. That’s just how life is. But when I started strength training, I developed so much discipline. Even when I don’t have motivation, that discipline is there now, not just at the gym. Stick with it and allow that habit to form.

3. I remember the positivity that strength training brings to my life and mental health.

It’s honestly true when they say that movement is medicine. When I'm taking care of my body, even if my mental headspace isn't in peak condition, I feel better after movement. It’s not all about hitting personal bests, either. (Though those certainly help!) I might tell myself, “I don't want to go to the gym today, but I will because I know it’s good for me.” Strength training gives me the confidence to know I can do anything I set my mind to.

a woman working out in a gym
Pilar Lewis

These days, I focus on training different muscle groups and writing my own workout plans.

Nowadays, I strength train four days a week, and I’ll also do a designated cardio day. I base my training on muscle groups.

  • Monday: Hamstrings and glutes

  • Tuesday: Chest, shoulders, triceps

  • Wednesday: Cardio day

  • Thursday: Quads, lower body

  • Friday: Back and biceps

Each workout will have a main exercise, such as a squat, bench press, or deadlift. Then, I pair them with auxiliary exercises like lunges, quad extensions, hamstring curls, rear delt flies, incline dumbbell bench presses, and more that target smaller muscles.

I try to stay between four to five exercises per workout so I don't overdo it. I like to keep it simple when I write my workout plans. I’ll follow those plans for a certain number of weeks depending on my goals, then I’ll move on from there. I like to keep things interesting for myself to ensure I never get bored, because I want to be able to do this forever.

a person working out on a machine
Pilar Lewis

Being able to hang clean 100 pounds and bench press 135 pounds were milestones for me.

I used to not be able to hang clean the bar, and once I even dropped it on my knee and ruptured my bursa. It was all bruised, and I was so embarrassed. From then on, I had a real mental block with hang cleans. I told myself, “I’m never going to be able to do a lot of weight.”

Years later, I decided it was about time I face my fear. I worked my way up to being able to put 25-pound plates on each side, coming out to about 100 pounds, depending on the bar. The more I practiced, the easier it became for me, and getting there was a huge milestone.

Any upper-body movements are especially empowering to me. Many people don’t think you can have impressive upper-body strength as a woman. When I was able to work my way up to putting a 45-pound weight on each side for bench presses, coming out to 135 pounds, I felt unstoppable. It was such a big deal to me since I never thought I’d be able to do it. It’s such an empowering feeling to be doing something that a lot of people see as something only men would do.

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