As a software developer, I spend a lot of my day sitting at a desk, fingers poised over a keyboard. For office workers like me, finding ways to incorporate exercise in your day is critical to protecting your ability to write clean code for years to come. This is the story of how I got started with powerlifting.
The first time I had ever heard of powerlifting I was at a party, chatting with a personal trainer named Alan. He looked at me and said, “You know, if you trained with me, I bet you could put on another 30 pounds or so.” When you grow up female in this country you learn to think of exercise as a method for trying to lose weight. I looked at him cockeyed. He elaborated, “I don’t do smaller. Smaller’s boring. But I can help you get bigger.” Later, I saw two other women at the party who had trained with Alan picking up men and doing squats with them. I was intrigued.
I thought to myself, “Maybe this is easier than it looks!” So, I tried and failed, collapsing under the weight of the person I’d just tried to squat. These women didn’t look that much bigger than me, but yet they were so much stronger! I was intimidated and impressed. I got Alan’s contact information and wrote to him the next day.
I had never moved free weights before and had always been intimidated by them whenever I went to the Y. The free weights at the gym are in a whole separate room full of swole bros. Meanwhile, everyone who looked like me was using the nautilus machines or running on ellipticals. How did those swole bros learn to lift weights in the first place, and why hadn’t I learned it yet? I’d had a glimpse into the world that Alan and his friends live in – where women take pride in getting bigger and stronger. It was a life-affirming alternative to the dominant narrative telling me I should starve and jog myself into the smallest, weakest, body possible. I asked Alan to teach me to lift, and soon enough, I had a full powerlifting gym in my basement and a group of friends coming over every day to train with me.
Powerlifting is simple in that there are only three movements you need to learn how to do: the deadlift, squat, and bench press. The only equipment you need is a barbell and weights, a squat rack, and a bench. When you’re a new female powerlifter, you can also expect a litany of discouraging advice from loved ones about the dangers of bulking up and the risk of hurting yourself by picking up anything larger than a latte. People love to scare women away from weightlifting with the idea that lifting weights and building muscle will make you look like a man.
When I heard these messages from my loved ones, I was shocked that they felt their right to be attracted to me was more important than my right to exercise. Ignoring these well-intentioned but discouraging messages is also good training for what comes next: becoming the most powerful person you can be, and asserting your right to take up as much space as you need.
Deadlifting is the simplest lift: you bend over to pick up the weight, straighten out your back, bend your knees, take a deep breath and hold it, and then stand up. It feels like carrying a bunch of groceries. Most reasonably-fit beginners can work up to deadlifting their own body weight. I once deadlifted 205lb, about 1.5 times my bodyweight. Some of the strongest women in the world can deadlift over three times their body weight. The weight moves slowly and it doesn’t move far, and after maybe a dozen or two reps, you’re done for the day. If you do it right, your back and hamstrings and core will be warm and sore for days. Deadlifting is safe if you get the posture right – you don’t need a spotter and you can’t drop the weight on your feet. Want to watch Daisy Ridley pulling 176lb? She instagrammed it.
Squat is a slightly more complicated movement, and it took me a while before I found a spot to hold the bar that felt comfortable. When you squat, you rest the bar over your shoulders, take a deep breath and hold it, tighten your core muscles, and squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor, and then stand back up. I’ve met people who can squat as much as they can deadlift. I once or twice managed as much as 155lb. When you spot someone who is doing squats, you stand behind them ready to hug them under the arms if they need help to stand back up. Squats work on the large muscle groups in your legs and core, so there’s lots of room to build huge ones. After I trained squats for six months, I could pick up grown men, drape them over my shoulders, and squat them. It’s a thrilling experience that I highly recommend.
Bench press is, surprisingly, also a full-body exercise. Competition powerlifters arch their backs on the bench, drive their legs into the floor, tighten their cores, and throw their whole body into moving as much weight as possible. Turns out, big barrel-chested dudes excel at competition bench press because they don’t have to move the weight as far to get it to their chest and back. I once saw a video of a very-flexible 13-year-old girl bench pressing 240lb, and she does it partly by arching her back very deeply to achieve the same effect. Dang. My best bench press so far was 115lb, and my goal this year is to be able to bench press my body weight.
My basement gym is now home to a small but growing crew of feminist powerlifters, all of us getting stronger, spotting each other, trading high fives, and slowly outgrowing our strapless dresses as our max bench press creeps higher and higher. We’ve got posters of Channing Tatum, charts documenting our max lifts, and plans to attend a competition in matching singlets one of these days. I never got that manly physique people kept warning me about. It turns out that you need testosterone if you want to look like a dude, and powerlifting just made me stronger, not bigger. In general, my powerlifting friends and I have been happier, more energetic, and less concerned about the appearance of our (newly-muscular) corporeal vessels since we started lifting. If we had people in our lives who once fetishized us for our weakness, we’ve now thoroughly disappointed them, and replaced them with people who respect and appreciate strong women.