Three ago, being the supportive wife I am, I traveled from East Texas to Dallas to watch my husband compete in his first powerlifting meet. He had trained so hard, and I wanted to be there for him. Was I excited about watching this event? Hell no! I brought a book, my ipod and various other things that I thought I would need to occupy my time and hoped for the best. I was promised a good meal in Dallas, and since our small town restaurant choices are limited, I figured it was worth the trip. When we got to the weigh in spot the evening before, the female meet director that checked my hubby in asked me if I wanted to compete. I must have looked at her like she had grown horns, because she quickly said “It will be fun! You can even borrow my singlet if you want.” Seriously? I am dressed to the nines in a well coordinated outfit with matching shoes and jewelry, and she wants me to wear an incredibly unattractive wrestling singlet and lift with a bunch of burly women? I told her I was just here to watch this time and made a quick exit.
As soon as we got out of earshot, I asked my husband if I had built my biceps too much or had put on enough muscle to look manly. Treading very carefully here, he assured me that my hard work in the gym had paid off with some great definition, but he did not think I looked at all manly. He looked at his training partner/coach with that look that said without any words, “Compliment her quickly, or she will harp on this for the next several hours and ruin our evening.” Being a good friend and also sensing the dangerous turn the night could take, his coach spent the next few minutes telling me how hot and feminine I was. Crisis averted!
The next morning, I was excited and anxious for my husband as we headed to his event. I had no clue that this day would change the way I felt about myself, lifting, programming, and female strength in general. My first impression was that this was a group of people that loved what they were doing and were genuinely excited to support each other throughout the meet. Several lifters came over and introduced themselves and asked my husband if this was his first meet. They wished him luck and told him they were looking forward to seeing his lifts. Anyway, enough about him…..I smugly looked around expecting to see women with mustaches and unibrows…..instead I saw exactly the opposite. The women competing this day were all different sizes and shapes, but all feminine and would never be considered “manly”. I was beginning to feel very silly about being offended the day before.
Then the meet started, and since the flights work from lightest to heaviest weights, the first lifters were women. As each of them got on the platform to squat, they patted each other on the back, said encouraging things and then yelled out for each other during the lifts. As a matter of fact, the whole crowd cheered the lifters and celebrated their successful lifts or assured them “You’ve got that next time!” That happened for hours as the events moved from light weights to heavy and from squat to bench to deadlifts. This was such a fun group of people. And while powerlifting is a competitive sport, most would say they are competing against themselves….not each other. As each woman lifted in various events, I kept thinking to myself, I can lift that….or close to that. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to have people excited to see my lifts, cheering me on and behind me whether my lift was successful or not. I was also used to being one of the strongest women in the gym, and I liked the idea of having to push myself to “chase” someone stronger.
My workouts at the time were all over the place….the focus and intensity almost gone. That day, I decided that this was something I wanted to train for, and I could not wait to get back home and back to the gym! On Sunday after that fateful weekend, I completely reworked my whole my program and regrouped to train as a powerlifter. After my first workout, I was hooked. I have to tell you it has been one of the most empowering decisions I ever made, and I encourage everyone to at least give it a try. If you are brave or curious enough to step outside your comfort zone, there are 3 simple steps that I had to take and so must you:
Put aside your pre-conceived notions about what female powerlifters look like. Like me, I know you have an image in your mind, and she probably looks something like Fran from the movie Dodgeball.
I have been to and competed in several meets, and although there may be one or two women that look like the stereotype, most are incredibly feminine women who just happen to be strength junkies. Most of the women you will see will look more like the woman in video pictured here. There are a variety of ages as well. I have seen female lifters as young as 13 and as old as 74. I was impressed that the sport had such a long “career” for lifters.
Most of the women you will see will look more like the woman in this video:
One of my clients is a petite blond woman in her 40’s who came into our gym to work with me and get back on track with her workouts. She had worked with personal trainers in the past and had lifted somewhat heavy but never really thought about trying to push to see how much she was capable of lifting. In my personal training business, I do not use a powerlifting style workout with everyone, but she was a good candidate for it. She has a high stress job, enjoyed pushing herself and liked the idea of getting stronger. She soon figured out there was so much stress relief and confidence that comes from powerlifting. In 2 years, we have strayed from this style a couple of times in her sessions, but she always wants to go back to the basics of heavy lifts. She loves her fix of heavy weight after a stressful day. As Henry Rollins says in his essay “The Iron”, “when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts.”
Accept the reality that lifting heavy is not going to make you “bulky”. If only picking up heavy weights added bulk! Adding large amounts of muscle takes effort, lots of food, and testosterone. Many men can’t put on as much muscle as they would like, and they have as much as 10 times as much testosterone as women do. Getting big is not an accident, it is a choice, and not one most women can do without large quantities of food and sometimes added hormones. Besides the physical improbability of getting bulky from lifting heavy, powerlifting is done with smaller rep ranges, which are known for building strength and some definition. I actually went from a size 12 to a size 6-8 as I made the change from a more bodybuilding style workout to powerlifting. I also lost over 6 percent body fat and had to increase, yes ladies I said increase, my daily caloric intake by 500-1000 calories. I am not saying that you cannot do the same thing with different styles of lifting, but this sure worked for me.
A pound of muscle burns 3x as many calories as fat does, so having more muscle helps you burn more calories, even when you are just sitting around the house. Besides fat loss, adding muscle helps protect you from bone density loss, osteoporosis and helps maintain a strong core for balance. Just to be clear, you will still need cardio, since the heart is a critical muscle, but the weight training will get you great fat loss results as well as improve your overall health. Muscle is also more compact than fat, so you could weigh the same and be several sizes smaller.
Cardio alone is not a great way to keep your body fit and healthy. Our bodies are made to get used to what we do with them, so you have to keep increasing your work load to keep getting the results you want. It is difficult to find the time to keep increasing your time doing cardio. That is where your weight training comes in, and with power lifts, you can feel strong in the process.
Step 3: Pick up heavy weights!
You will squat, bench press and deadlift… with the barbell not the pink dumbbells you find in the group fitness room. I can tell you from experience there is such a rush to lifting up a bar with your body weight or more on it. Getting stronger can be addictive, and your body changes quickly. When you look back through your training journal, which I HIGHLY recommend you keep, you will be so amazed that you keep lifting more and more every week, even as you drop clothing sizes. It never hurts your ego when you can lift more than some of the men in the gym…..at half their weight. I want everyone to know that I was 43 when I started down this road, so I had some reservations about whether my body could withstand lifting heavy weight. Each week as I worked my way up though, this style of lifting felt so much easier on my joints than all the heavy volume work I had been doing.
I am not delusional, so I know not everybody wants to put on the sexy singlet and compete. But you can still use a powerlift style workout to lose fat, improve your strength and get rid of your stress. I started this journey, because I wanted to feel the rush of competition and have always liked working toward something specific, but I integrate this style workout even when I am not training for a meet. If this is something you want to do, find someone that knows how to do the basic lifts. Good form with heavy weights is critical, so you may even want to hire a personal trainer that can make sure you are doing everything you need to do to keep from getting hurt. Then put all fear aside and get ready to transform physically and mentally!