Working out is a no-brainer for me. It’s like choosing pie over cake. Another no-brainer. But it’s been so long since I last talked about my fitness on my blog that some of you wondered if I even still worked out at all.

In the words of a true 90s kid: Uh-duh.

I still bust my ass, and I have gym selfies here and new personal records there on my social media to prove it. I guess I just assumed you’d assume that I’d be Hulk-smashing it in the weight room whether I talked about it or not. So, it’s not really a question of whether I work out–the answer will always be “yes”–it’s a matter of how. This post is about that “how” and my experiences with fitness while traveling in other countries.

The “how” aspect has been at the mercy of my travels and my available resources. In Japan, I previously talked about doing the whole bodyweight program thing (with great results), but all in all, I’ve had to learn to be flexible, keep an open mind to changing goals, and be okay with just being okay. Although admittedly this “being okay” hippie-dippie attitude has threatened to blow up my plans to work out or eat sensibly a bit more than I care to admit.

Look, I’m not perfect either, but what has helped me is knowing that amid all of this flux and food that is too cute to eat the workouts give me a little sense of familiarity and home. It’s comforting to me that workouts are one of the few things in my routine that stays the same no matter where in the world I am, even if I’m technically working out in different environments.

Do You Even Lift, Hong Kong?

After having done bodyweight stuff for months, I wondered how my strength matched up against weights. By the time I’d arrived in Hong Kong, I was itching to get back into a gym on the regular. So, I used the amazing power of money to finagle a 3-month membership into a gym that was very, very close to where I was staying.

Previously in Japan, I had shied away from gym memberships because they were uber expensive. Yet the amount I paid for the Hong Kong gym actually wasn’t far off from what the local Japanese gyms wanted, but the biggest selling point was simply me knowing the language enough to make sure I wasn’t bound to crappy gym contracts or something.

Praise Keanu Reeves, the gym had everything I needed too. Thanks to my bodyweight program, I didn’t feel like I’d lost much strength either. If I had, the numbers very quickly went back up anyway.

My good friend and mentor JC Deen put me on a 5-day-a-week strength training program, which I shared on Lifehacker here. I never spent more than an hour in the gym. The workouts were fast and efficient. In addition to lifting, I walked a ton. You sort of have to if you want to get anywhere.

Who’s got dat cheesiness and has a regular gym again? THAT WEIRD CHINESE GIRL IN THE MIRROR. Gains train, all aboard! These gains were mad expensive tho… #fitngeeky #fitngeekyHK #gym #byemoney #fitness #travel #nomadlife

A photo posted by Stephanie Lee (@superlee7) on 

And so I trained five days a week for three months without really having specific numbers or a goal in mind, or even tracking my eating. To be honest, I didn’t care. I was just ecstatic to be lifting again and feeling like I could really make some notable strength progress again.

It was awesome. Except for the part where I felt like people got really judgey and came up to me only to say things like, “How much bigger are you going to get?” and “Wow, you’re so strong! Aren’t you worried that guys aren’t going to like you?” and other general mockery bullshit.

At least with the evolving lifting culture in the US, a girl like me lifting weights with good technique and a decent amount of weight seems a tad less novel than, say, a tap dancing polar bear with a top hat (and more like this exercising dog). In Hong Kong, I might as well have been She-Hulk rampaging through the gym and slapping everyone across the face. ‘Cause that was the expression some people wore.

Thankfully, aside from the glances and stares, people generally left me alone. The non-assholes who did talk to me ended up being bodybuilders (one of whom was a girl that was pretty stoked to have met me, too) and powerlifters. I asked the bodybuilders what their diet looked like since Hong Kong was just carbs, carbs, and more carbs on carbs (not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, but reducing fat intake is the biggest challenge).

The bodybuilders told me they generally just ate rice, noodles, chicken breast (typical), vegetables, and fish. That sounded similar to most of my own meals: Rice, lots of noodle soups, veggies, dragon fruit, and roasted meats (with the skin removed).

I took advantage of the ample carbs in the hopes that they’d give me more energy in the gym to go heavier and slowly build more strength and muscle. It was also just a good opportunity to eat the things I wanted to within reason–all under the banner of fitness and gains! Admittedly, I didn’t closely track my measurements and strength numbers. I just focused on consistently getting a good workout and training my mind to push past the points where I started to feel lazy or comfortable.

Results After Three Months of Lifting

The results? Rawrsome numbers and progress that I’m dang proud of:

  • I hit an all-time squat PR of 205 pounds. If I had a belt and a spotter, I would’ve tried going for 225. Still, at 205, that means my squat went up by 35 pounds in three months!
  • Other leg exercises like walking lunges, Romanian deadlifts, and split squats are all at least 5-10 pounds higher than before.
  • A 5-pound increase in dumbbell bicep curls. I now curl with 20-pound dumbbells. Bro. In the squat rack.
  • Incline chest presses with 40 pounds for 8-10 reps when I couldn’t hit the 8th rep with 35 before.

My last squat session in Hong Kong and hit a PR. Going back to Japan in a couple days and may not have a gym again. Back to a bodyweight program? Maybe, we shall see! #fitngeeky #fitness #fitnessnomad #squats #strongwomen

A video posted by Stephanie Lee (@superlee7) on 

Hey, thanks for the new bests, carbs!

Those are just off the top of my head. Overall, I’m stoked to share with you that I’m still doing what I can to make progress. Not everything is all rosy though: I gained a bit of body fat in the process (overall 4 pounds since November). Not a shocker considering how lax I was,  even though I typically stick to a relatively healthy diet; I just supplement it with snacks and Asian desserts…

I’m still secretly hoping my weight gain is magically all muscle.

As much as I hope, wish, and click my heels together, it’s not. Here are some photos that are almost six months apart:

Early November 2015 (Just starting my bodyweight program)

Mid-March 2016 (My bangs are shorter but my hair is in a ponytail here…and after Hong Kong)

There’s some body fat gain (barely noticeable with a quick and casual glance), but that’s to be expected when I’m not revolving my entire life around lifting and eating exclusively to look a certain way. And I definitely enjoyed myself in Hong Kong. During my stay, I also discovered that I’d actually picked up some bad eating habits from living with my cousin. It really is true that both the people and your immediate food environment (unhealthy snacks lying around, junk food within arm’s reach, etc.) can totally take your otherwise normally good eating habits and take a steaming dump on them.

The other thing I realized was that I used my heavy strength training as license to eat more carbs and extra calories, thinking that they’d all go to muscle and better performance in the gym. I wasn’t completely wrong; they did. I got stronger, but I also (inevitably) got a bit…more to love.

It was a mind trap to think that way (and is actually a really common bias called the licensing effect, where people would give themselves permission to do something “bad” after doing something “good”). Now that I’m more aware of this, I can make somewhat better decisions moving forward, like having only one slice of cheesecake instead of two (just kidding….maybe half).

It’s a Constant Push(-ups) and Pull(-ups)

Now that I’m once again in Japan, I’m falling back on my bodyweight (probably a new program though) and once-a-week gym routine.

A part of me is a little bummed that switching back to a bodyweight program means I won’t be able to squat 225 anytime soon, but if my past experience has taught me anything, I have no reason to be concerned. The plan from hereon is to stop the weight gain, or else all the clothes I brought with me are just gonna explode right off my biceps and thighs (if only).

To start, I need to get a better handle on my sleep and stress because they were so out of whack  in Hong Kong. Getting those first under control should make a big impact. Rather than track my eating again, I’m just cutting out the unnecessary snacking and eating only when I actually feel hungry. This is not a new or novel strategy, of course, but I’ve always had this terrible habit of continuing eating and looking for snacks, even after I’d literally just eaten.

That’s a thing that happens to all of us, right? Right??

Anyway, Japan, here’s to making sure I can still squat 225 in another couple of months and letting me eat all the ramen…for gains.

–Stephanie