Chi Pham is strong. Period. And she doesn't need a six-pack or chiseled biceps to prove it.

By By Jahla Seppanen
Updated: August 02, 2017

Twenty-four-year-old Chi Pham was ready to post a #TransformationTuesday photo tracking her triathlon training progress when she stopped and worried, "What if everyone sees this and thinks I went backward instead of forward?"

Before training for her second Ironman, Pham (a UX designer, avid pie-eater, and outdoor-lover from Denver) had been doing a weightlifting routine and gained some noticeable muscle mass and definition. She posted a few photos to Instagram and the likes and positive comments started rolling in. Plus, she admits to loving her new chiseled, strong look. But now, months after swapping the weight room for endurance bike rides and runs, Pham says she was feeling fit but wondered if she still looked the part. (P.S. There are positive ways to use Instagram to get fit.)

"At the surface level, that's what it would look like on Instagram...I just didn't look as strong as before," Pham told Shape exclusively. "I was weaker in the weight room, but then I got to thinking about how I had replaced muscle with other gains-6-mile runs were now a breeze-and how it was ridiculous for me to assume that just because I lost muscle mass it meant I was weaker."

In a comparison post on Instagram, she writes: "Who's to say that my body when it's in "Ironman" shape isn't as strong or fit as when I'm lifting weights? I might have less muscle, yes, but I KNOW that what I lack in muscle, I've gained in endurance, mental strength, and cardio shape."

Training for an Ironman forced her to look at her body in a new light, she says. Instead of seeing individual body parts or areas that could be improved, she began seeing herself as a unit, a full-body machine that was capable of achieving amazing things. "I realized once I started training that I would have to throw away all the metrics I had previously used to define 'strong' or 'success,'" she says. (Here's what it's really like to train for-and be-an Ironman.)

And while making this kind of mental switch wasn't exactly a piece of cake, Pham says everything started making more sense when she changed the "why" behind her workouts. "Previously, exercise was just a means for me to burn calories so that ultimately, I could get my 'dream bod,'" she says.

In another post, Pham shares a memory of feeling embarrassed by her thighs in a swimsuit, saying she remembers "sitting by the edge of the pool and being completely mortified that my thighs looked HUGE. But here's the thing, I *KNEW* that I had strong legs. You have muscle, skin, and fat. Sometimes it all splooshes out when it's being pressed up against some concrete. Sometimes they pop when you wear heels. Sometimes... you're just you and that's all that matters."

Along with the training adjustments came the necessary diet changes to properly prepare for a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon-distance 26.2-mile run to complete the Ironman. At first, she tried training on a calorie-deficient plan, thinking she could get ready for a race and maybe drop a pound or two in the process. Pham says she now realizes how unrealistic and negative that approach was for her body, her mental health, and her training. With the food restrictions and the long training workouts, she had zero energy and, naturally, her performance suffered. "Being toned and having a six-pack has little to do with whether you can push yourself physically," she says.

She started thinking more about why she signed up for an Ironman race in the first place, and the answer was to simply complete the race and feel strong and confident doing it. Her goal wasn't to lose weight or get glamour muscles. So, then and there, she decided to adopt a new definition of "strong." To her, strength means a desire and a drive to improve-not your body type, jean size, or body fat percentage, but to grow in mind, body, and spirit from the woman you were yesterday-and putting in the hard work to get there.

"You can be physically strong, mentally strong, spiritually strong, or emotionally strong," Pham tells us. "You can be someone who can run an ultramarathon or someone who managed to fit in a 20-minute bodyweight circuit before your kids got up in the morning. These are all amazing displays of strength, but oftentimes, we're limited to just one definition of physical 'aesthetic' strength."

Now, Pham wants to spread her self-love and strong-is-not-a-look message to everyone who will listen-including her 134,000 followers on Instagram. Her photos and revelations all abide by one rule, and that is to keep it #real on a platform obsessed with posed and polished perfection. She reminds you to love your belly rolls, and when it's time to repeat motivational mantras. (Try one of her go-tos: "Dear body, Thank you for being your own beautiful, badass self-unlike any other on this entire planet.") You can learn to channel your inner warrior, find inspiration from the rockstar women in your life, and start measuring your strength by being able to do 10 push-ups...instead of losing 10 pounds.

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