Weightlifting in Portugal: a retreat with Lift Training Studios


I am no stranger to bootcamp-style fitness holidays (one I loved; one I did not), nor am I a stranger to weightlifting, so when the chance came to combine the two, I thought, why not? Full disclosure: I go to weightlifting classes at Lift Training Studios a couple of times a week. I do personal training with Niamh Fitzgerald who owns Lift. Since I started seeing her, I've lost over two stone and radically overhauled my whole life. I'd consider her a pretty good friend, so, y'know, that all probably coloured my experience in Lagos at Lift's inaugural weightlifting retreat. Also for the record: I paid for my week of torture weightlifting.

WTF happens at a weightlifting retreat?

weightlifting Lift Training Studios Lagos retreat

The million-dollar question! Before heading to Lagos, in Portugal, I knew this much about my week of weightlifting: we'd be eating breakfast and dinner en famille (all fresh, healthy fish, meat and vegetables*); we'd be doing two Strong (Wo)Man (one of the classes offered at Lift Training Studios) sessions a day over five days; we'd be free to eat what and where we wanted for dinner, within certain confines.

And that is, essentially, what happened. We all stayed in the Aqualuz in Lagos, where we ate breakfast and lunch – and we took a little stroll down the road to Shinobi Academy, a nearby gym, for our morning weightlifting sessions. Afternoon sessions were also at Shinobi, but outside, on the grass (all the better to ingest that vitamin D!). We ate dinner wherever we wanted, with whoever wanted to come.

Focus on body fat %

The focus, from day one, was on body fat loss – rather than straight-up weight loss, which is what I really struggled with at No 1 Bootcamp. Weightlifting is an incredible activity when it comes to losing body fat. The more muscle you gain, the more fat you lose, but it's not always about losing weight (although, for me, it was a welcome side effect).

weightlifting Lift Training Studios Lagos retreat

With that in mind, there was no calorie restriction at this weightlifting retreat. For breakfast, we had a massive selection: scrambled eggs, hard-boiled eggs, grilled tomatoes, roasted vegetables, sardines, mackerel, roast beef, tuna, cucumber... Lunch was usually meat of some kind (pork, veal, beef, lamb or fish) with a massive buffet selection of raw and cooked vegetables.

The only massive no-no was sugar, in all its forms – so we're talking no starchy carbohydrates at all, no fruit, no ice creams or sorbet or desserts of any kind. (And, though I yearned for a little Portuguese custard tart, I managed to resist.) It was pretty much like the elimination diet – and, having done it before, I didn't find the food-related rules difficult.

The tough part...

This was the view from the gym at today's morning session, before the heavens opened in the afternoon and I bawled crying when my grip failed me and I couldn't lift the weights any more during a particularly gruelling farmer's carry 🙈 Weirdly, I feel 10,000% better now and like maybe my body needed to just get that cry out of its system before we gung ho right into the next four sessions and the last stretch of our Portuguese weightlifting retreat 💪🏼 It's weird what the brain will do when you push your body to do things you didn't think you could... I'll try to share as much of tomorrow's session on Instagram stories as possible but there'll also be a mega blog post on the site this weekend once I get home and my muscles stop aching! 😂

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What I did find hard? The workouts. I had thought, rather naively, that the weightlifting classes would be a doddle. (Having spent a lot of time with Niamh, I should have known this wouldn't be the case. Perhaps I was just being optimistic.)

I realised, on day one, that the weightlifting sessions were going to be a lot tougher than I'd anticipated. Niamh was pretty much determined to push us as far as we would go. That's not to say that we were tortured (we weren't), but I got some of my best lifts in Portugal – this despite the fact that I was working out twice a day in 20-degree heat with zero carbohydrates in my system!

I cried on day four, during a particularly gruelling outdoor session when I was doing a farmer's carry (essentially, a walk back and forth, carrying heavy weights in each hand). My hands were sore and blistered and sweaty and I was exhausted and frustrated and kept dropping my weights. Eventually, I just started crying like a baby and toddled off to the corner to cry it out. I didn't cry again.

Sugar – it's a bitch

The toughest part, for me anyway, was definitely the mental, emotional challenge – and I think a lot of my emotional ups and downs were as a direct result of my body missing the sugar I give it on a daily basis! Sure, the weightlifting sessions were gruelling and it was hot and I wasn't sleeping that well (I missed my teddy bear** and have vowed never to travel without him), but I honestly felt like I was on an emotional rollercoaster for a lot of the time.

On day two, we all sat down and chatted about how it was going. We agreed that it was tougher than we thought it would be, but agreed unanimously that we'd come back in October for the second retreat.

Halfway through the week, I started to have a rethink. Maybe bootcamp-style holidays just weren't for me. I missed eating ice-cream and drinking milky coffees (a holiday tradition), and I didn't even get to go to Zara, for the love of God!

Then, on the last day, when we finished our final session and congratulated each other and hobbled back to the hotel, sweaty and tired and relieved, I decided that I would, in fact, do it again. It was tough and I was tired but I felt so, so happy with myself at the end.

And the results?

It is VERY difficult to take a photograph of oneself at this angle but, for Instagram, I will persevere. Here I am, all 14.5 stone of me, in my Debenhams bikini top and H&M bikini bottoms, absolutely loving my bikini body 🙌🏻 This was the first year that I honestly did not care about how my belly rolled when I sat up, or how my thighs got squished when I tried to pull on my bikini bottoms over my thong (an attempt which resulted in my toppling over very attractively). I've done what not every body could; I've spent six days lifting seriously heavy weights (130kg squat today tyvm) and eating super healthy food and drinking only water and coffee and eschewing Portuguese pastries and I feel strong and energised and motivated AF. I've lost 5% body fat but that's honestly not even the biggest thing for me; I think it's that I've rediscovered how great it feels to think seriously smug thoughts about what your body can do, and what it WILL do in a week or a month or a year – if I treat it well and stop periodically depriving it and filling it full of shit 😂 I'm 100% coming back to @liftdublin7's second #liftinlagos retreat in September and gonna be a fitter, stronger, more determined version of myself by then 💪🏼 I wanna be my own #bodygoals and I can't think of a better goal to aim for than strong, fit and fulfilled ☺️

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On the last day, Niamh whipped back out the calipers to measure our body fat percentage again. On day one, I was at 37%. My highest body fat percentage yet, Niamh suspects it was a result of inflammation and bloating due to my (very bad) vegetarian diet. I was basically existing on sugar and carbohydrates, and eating a lot of dairy, which was causing some gross adverse effects on my skin, my tummy and, er, elsewhere (honestly – you don't want to know).

On day five, I was down to 32% – that's a 5% body fat loss in one week. When I got home, I weighed myself; I'd lost 7lbs. (Compare that to bootcamp in Ibiza, where I lost a whopping 17lbs in one week.)

But the biggest result for me was that I came back from Lagos feeling strong – and determined. In Faro airport, I snacked on nuts and 70% dark chocolate. The day after my flight landed, I went for brunch with My Stephen; I had bacon and eggs and avocado and asked for them to keep the sourdough (My Stephen then said he'd eat it, so we got it on the side). I've signed up to an X Fit class tomorrow morning – and right now, I'm about to go to Energie for a swim and a sauna.

I was talking to a friend about it this morning and she announced: "I think Portugal has cured your bootcamp-related PTSD!" And while I think that might be a tad dramatic (bootcamp may have totally thrown me for a loop and made me feel incredibly deprived, but it didn't give me PTSD) – she may be on to something.

My verdict

I think that might have been the most physically – and mentally – challenging week of my life. But I came home feeling re-energised and motivated and strong. As for the second weightlifting retreat? I've already put my name down.

*My vegetarianism lasted about 36 hours in Lagos. I caved on day two when I realised I'd be surviving on eggs and vegetables and, honestly? I feel so much better. I really, really wanted vegetarianism to work for me (or else I never would've told the world I was doing it), but it just didn't. Read more about my decision to backtrack here.

**That's not a euphemism. I do have a teddy bear. His name is Tigey and he's a tiger and I sleep with him cuddled up in my arms.