For years my version of strength training involved lazy biceps curls with a pair of canary yellow 2 ½-pound weights during commercial breaks. "You're so teeny," people would say when they hugged me, as if talking about a baby bird. I took their comments as praise, even as I stewed over the imperfections (short legs, thick ankles) beneath my delicate shoulders.

But two years ago, drained by work and motherhood, I'd shrunk to an angular 110 pounds. Though I admired my slender arms in pictures, I felt listless. My neighbor JoEllen suggested I check out a CrossFit gym she'd joined (the gym, which offers intensive strength and conditioning training and is popular with the Marines, has locations all over the country). "I hate working out, but I love lifting heavy shit," JoEllen told me. Her passion was appealing: I wanted to feel that turned on by my workout.

During my first few classes, the humiliations were endless. I whimpered while squatting a 25-pound "training" bar as the women around me—mothers, surgeons, musicians—pressed 100 pounds or more over their heads and then threw their bars down like used tissues. Attempting a back squat, I fell forward and became pinned under my bar, requiring my coach, who conjured the cranky drill sergeant in Private Benjamin, to rescue me. I thought often of quitting—until the morning I added a five-pound weight to either end of my 35-pound bar and timidly heaved it into the air. My classmates cheered like I'd just medaled at the Olympics. Suddenly it didn't matter that I was the weakest person in the room. I was stronger than I'd been the week before.

Over the next several months, I came to appreciate that my barbell left no mental space for anything but my quivering arm muscles and tightening core. When I got home I'd admire the broadening V of my back, the pronounced curve of my hamstrings. And when my 4-year-old daughter drew a picture of me with a crude barbell at my feet (saying, "When I grow up, I'm going to be strong like you"), I knew there was no turning back.

I'm now 39, and for the first time I look upon my body with unabashed respect for all it can do and lift and bear. The other day my coach told me that my butt was looking bigger. "Oh my God," I said, awash in pride. "Thank you!"

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