By Wendy Grace
When women think about getting in shape, the first thing they think about is cardio exercise, like jogging, cycling or swimming. Many do circuit classes, which incorporate cardio with light weight lifting. And many try whatever is popular at the moment – classes like Pilates or Crossfit.
A small percentage of women try the sport of powerlifting. If you ask most Americans what a powerlifting woman would look like, they would probably say she’s massive, hulking, and ‘roided-out (as in steroids). Women who do come to the sport, often do so by accident. Maybe their boyfriend introduced them to it; or maybe they watched people training at their gym.
But as soon as they dig deeper, they learn that woman of all ages and all sizes are in the warm and supportive powerlifting community, and that powerlifting offers incredible rewards to women.
I have been a certified fitness trainer for most of my career. I would never gone into powerlifting if my husband Chris – and a few years later, my petite 13-year-old daughter Amber – hadn’t caught the bug.
At the first meet I attended (as a support team member for my husband), I was struck by the sight of a 100 lb. 20-year-old woman hoisting a 300 lb. barbell off the ground. It made me realize that this sport is for anyone who is strong at heart.
In 2015, Amber, then 12, became interested in powerlifting and went into training with Chris, who holds several state records in the sport. At her first meet, in October 2015, she set California records for her age and weight group with her squat, bench and deadlift (the three basic exercises of the sport of powerlifting.)
Five months later, she did even better, setting some American records. She’s now training for her third meet. She weighs 101 lbs, and can deadlift 210 lbs., bench 100 lbs., and squat 180 lbs. Soon she’ll be lifting 5 times her body weight! And she just keeps getting stronger and more beautiful. You would never know to look at her how much weight she can move.
I decided to start training for powerlifting after Amber’s first meet, in the fall of 2015. The first thing I learned: Expect to be sore when you start – a soreness that penetrates deep into muscles and bones. Don’t worry – you will adapt.
You may find vulnerable areas – mine was my neck. Over time, I figured out that the pain was coming from my trapezius muscles. Now I manage that weakness with a monthly massage.
The biggest challenge when you start powerlifting is the mental challenge. You have to wrap your brain around learning techniques and safe forms; and you have to BELIEVE that you can lift numbers of pounds that you never thought possible.
When I started experiencing soreness, I wanted to quit. I decided it was crazy. I hated my husband for telling me what to do, and I couldn’t believe that my daughter had sucked me into it. But I pushed through because I had to prove to Amber that you shouldn’t quit; and I had to prove to myself that I could be tough. I had to prove to my clients, too, that if they can do all the things I ask of them, then I can do something challenging, too.
At my first meet, I set three state records for women my age (early 40s) and in my 120 lb. weight class, with a 110 lb. bench press, a 215 lb. squat, and a 265 lb. deadlift. What’s more, I had a great time – powerlifting meets are fun and an adrenaline rush, and competitors cheer each other on.
After the first meet, I checked powerlifting meets off my bucket list. I did not think I would ever compete again. Considering that I work full time at our gym, and care for my husband, children, extended family, and clients, I was super reluctant to compete again. But, of course, my daughter started coaxing me again. She nagged me for three weeks, until I finally agreed.
So about two months before the competition, Amber’s third and my second meet, Chris put us on a 5-day-a-week program that was a little less intense than our first-go round. I promised myself the monthly massage. Finding the right pillow also helped, by causing less stress to the cervical part of the spine
I knew it would be hard. But I also believed in myself so much more. And this time, I had another woman to train with, my friend Candie who is also a personal trainer. She’s a Cross Fitter, and this was her first powerlifting experience powerlifting. Having another grown woman to train with helped a lot with my motivation!
This time, I had a lot more appreciation for my husband, who is a great coach. When I started training with him, and he would make a correction, I would yell at him, and then he would give me the silent treatment for 2 days. Since then, I’ve learned to shut up and do the work.
In the two months before the competition, we trained for five days a week, and up to two hours a day. Monday was squat day; Tuesday was benching; Wednesday, deadlifting; on Thursday, back to light squats, working about 50% of max. On Friday, we did what we call “deficit deadweights,” which also helps with range of motion and flexibility. An example: deadlifting while standing on a 2” high platform. You have to reach over even further to lift the barbell off the ground.
I am happy to report that the sport is catching on with women. At the most recent meet, there were more women than men. The vast majority are normal size, including small women like Amber and me. You would never guess that they were powerlifters if you met them on the street.
The key to successful training is finding a knowledgeable coach who has a great deal of powerlifting experience. If your training causes frequent injury or excessive fatigue, something is wrong. There’s always trial and error involved, and both for the lifter and the coach – both must be open to changing things and keeping an open mind. I was a lot more tired during my first round of training than my second, when we reduced the intensity. A good trainer knows when to push, and when to back off.
Above all, you must develop mental toughness. You must believe that you can do this. When Chris first made me squat 135 lbs., I thought he was crazy. Now, it’s a warm up.