"Strength IS power, it IS empowerinG" - MB, 2018
Like many of you I spent a ridiculous amount of time in college tethered to an elliptical machine. Perhaps you too remember sweating nearly shoulder to shoulder with other girls, racing toward nowhere in the cardio wing of your campus gym.
I scheduled my classes in a way that made it convenient to get to the gym, and overdid it on the bottomless caffeine in the dining hall because I thought it’d make my workouts better. All this joyless obsessing because I was chasing skinny with no regard for healthy.
I wish I could say that I’m all better now - that my relationship with my body and exercise is rock solid. I’m still working on it, but in my 30s I’m more at home in my physical self than I ever thought possible. I now see my body for what it is capable of, rather than just its shape.
I owe this growth in no small part to my work with Maria Bascetta of The Southern Squeeze.
When she opened a strength training space in my south Nashville neighborhood last year with a motto of “we’re not that gym,“ I was immediately intrigued.
Like many women, I’ve always been intimidated by the weightroom. But Maria showed me that deadlifts and kettlebell swings weren’t so complicated after all. As I took more small group classes and worked with her one-on-one, I got physically stronger, but there were some unexpected benefits as well.
The ability to move heavy objects with increasing ease built a sense of power in me that I started carrying along with me in my everyday life. I started feeling my physical strength translate into professional confidence, and it felt damn good.
Maria was kind enough to share her story with me for the Spotlight series, and if you’re a Nashville lady looking for a different kind of strength - I can’t recommend her enough.
How did you first get into to strength training?
In 2011, I was in college studying Anthropology, Arabic, and Linguistics while also pursuing an Air Force ROTC path. Though I finished out my undergrad in some of those same fields, I started to really evaluate whether the political climate was something I wanted to jump into.
I ended up in the American University gyms trying to figure out how to lift weights. I copied people I saw, and spent hours reading bodybuilding and the few women’s fitness magazines I could find. I took yoga and step aerobics at the school’s gym, and ended up teaching an “ass and abs” class as my first foray into teaching anybody anything.
At the end of my undergrad, without a solid plan for my Anthropology and International Communication degree, I got my personal training certificate, and joined a big box gym as a newbie trainer.
I loved fitness, but I wasn’t sure I was cut out for helping other people long term. I was lucky enough to have a fitness manager that knew I could be great, and pushed me in the right direction. At that time, the gym I was working at had some great in-house education programs, and I just starting taking as many classes and workshops as possible.
A lot of it was to learn how to help myself - which is key if you are eventually going to help other people sift through all the bullshit in the fitness industry.
What made you decide to turn this passion into a career?
Around the time I started working as a trainer in DC, I also started having really odd joint swelling and pain. It took about a year for me to get diagnosed with Lymes Disease, and by the time they figured out what was wrong, I had developed some long-term issues and even some autoimmune arthritis.
Lymes is tricky, and and the treatment at that time was about a year of antibiotics, and it was not without consequences. I got better, but I was told that the autoimmune arthritis and skin issues that I developed would possibly last forever.
During this time I became laser focused on trying to understand nutrition. How could I eat to support healing even if medication was something I had to take? How could I work around arthritic joints and become super strong even though I was facing obstacles?
I became engrossed in strength training, and went back to school for a Masters in Health Promotion Management and Nutrition Counseling.
My own disease and experience with our healthcare system made me realize how important preventive care truly is, and how much it can actually do.
The Squeeze is unlike any other fitness facility I’ve ever encountered. How do you keep it such an uplifting, ego-free space?
There is so much ego in the fitness industry, with so many coaches and instructors parading around like training people seems so “glamorous.” People are getting hurt attending classes that don’t scale for them, or don’t account for their injuries or fitness level.
Most people (aside from the hardcore athletes I know) are intimidated by the fitness space. Over the years I've done fitness assessments and one-on-one sessions with hundreds, if not thousands of people.
Most people want the same thing - they want to feel heard, to be seen and understood.
They want to get strong and look better in their clothes, and they’re struggling to manage their time and fit workouts into their schedule. They want to eat better but don’t know how. They don’t know how to exercise or what proper exercise progression and regression looks like.
Most people do better in groups with some form of accountability and friendliness. My priority at The Squeeze is help people feel encouraged to be their best. There are no mirrors here - years of training people and watching them turn away from mirrors or compare themselves to others led me to that choice. And when you’re learning form, you should feel it first, not have to look at it.
Our goal board, the low lights, and the welcoming vibe all help to create an atmosphere that isn’t threatening. There are always options to choose easier or more challenging exercises. I’ve also found that having an intro session and individualized assessment go a long way in helping people feel comfortable here.
This gym is for those who haven’t found their fitness “space,” yet or have been discouraged elsewhere.
So many weight rooms are male-dominated spaces. What advice do you have for women who are interested in strength training?
Find a female strength coach with good credentials and experience. Look for a coach that listens to what YOU want, and who isn’t just going to give you their personal workout of the day, or try to make you adopt their beliefs on what you should look like.
I want The Squeeze to be a body positive space.
So many people, especially women, walk into a weight room or a big box gym and are handed the weight loss “packet.” Maybe strength is their priority - but that’s not always encouraged.
If you’re feeling self-conscious about the exercises you’re doing, don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Remember that almost everyone is judging themselves, and worrying about their own stuff - they aren’t looking at you.
As one of your clients, I know firsthand how developing physical strength has impacted other aspects of my life. What’s your take on the relationship between physical strength and other types of power?
Strength IS power - it IS empowering.
So many of us have been trying to shrink and look a certain way. We forget how good it FEELS to be strong and healthy. Focusing on what our bodies can do, rather than just on how we look will often bring us to a place where we love how we look.
Have a weight loss goal? Want to look hotter and embrace your sexy? Awesome! There is nothing wrong with aesthetic goals - but if we get the strength thing down - all that comes anyway!
Movement to me is a privilege having been through bouts of chronic pain, joint injury, and other issues. I remember that, even when I don’t want to do something, that I am super lucky that I CAN go do it.
It’s not something I have to do, it’s something I get to do, and that is effing awesome.