I'm A Woman, And I Love Powerlifting

By Dana McMahan for Blisstree.com

I spend four days per week in a gym; on days off, I pine to be there. I lift hundreds of pounds, sport smeary chalk prints on my sweat-soaked clothes and listen to cacophonous music at dangerously loud levels when I train. I attack large, bloody-rare steaks like a caveman. Am I a 275-pound shaved-headed dude with my bench total dangling as a charm from a gold chain around my thick neck?

Nope. I’m a 100-pound, 30-something female food writer who has fallen in love with powerlifting.

How did I discover the allure of going under the bar? Blame the affair on my CrossFit coach, who started me as a total beginner -- without an athletic bone or urge in my body -- with chin-ups and push-ups. He saw my manic drive to do more, and started loading a barbell with weights. I quickly became hooked on going under the bar and finding out how much I could squat and stand up with, and bench press, or pull from the floor in a deadlift. He called me a powerlifter one day, and it clicked. This was what I wanted to do. This was what made my heart pound with excitement. The sound of heavy weights crashing back into the rack or to the ground caused a frisson even when it wasn’t from my own barbell. Searching for my body’s limits was an addictive pursuit and I couldn’t get enough.

As the callouses grew and I learned I could conquer more and more weight, I found myself sitting up straighter, walking with my head higher and shoulders back, and smiling more. The first time I squatted 180 pounds I found myself smiling hugely at passersby later that day in the suites at Churchill Downs, my local racetrack. A man returned my smile, perhaps automatically in response to a trim blonde in a hat and sundress. I had to contain the laughter welling up as I wondered what he’d think if he knew I was smiling because I could squat him!

Petty stresses and grievances rolled off me like so much water on a freshly-waxed car. I tried new adventures -- a Muay Thai lesson in Bangkok, clambering up onto an elephant in northern Thailand, taking on a job as the editor of a food magazine. Get a tattoo of the world on my back? Why not? I could do anything I wanted.

Why don’t more women do this? I pondered, to myself and to friends. If only they knew how amazing they would feel! If other women just knew what a stress reliever it is. (Being strong enough to sling a sledgehammer repeatedly into a tractor tire at my gym allowed for immediate relief when a weaselly blogger publicly disdained my selection as a food critic that would have otherwise called for an illegal activity or, at minimum, drinking unwise amounts of clear liquor.) And seriously, if they knew how fast and easily they would reach that great, shiny American goal of Losing Weight, wouldn’t they show up in hordes at the door to the gym, pleading for a turn at the squat rack?

Turns out, not so much. Aside from some other die-hards like me, most women shy away from heavy weights. Because seemingly, even in this era of snopes and the ability to research anything your little heart desires online, people, many women -- and trainers -- still believe lifting heavy weights will make them bulky or, thanks to perverse media claims, “too toned.” I can only surmise that the inventor of two-pound dumbbells started this misinformation campaign which has pervaded gyms across the country, where women with great fear of looking like a Russian heavyweight powerlifter cling to their tiny weights as they shuffle along on treadmills.

Bulky, my arse. My workouts rarely include more than five repetitions of any lift. They’re also, at least with the squat and deadlift, performed with weights well above my body weight. Does hanging a kettlebell from my foot while I perform unassisted chin-ups, or counting off handstand push-ups make my arms big? In a word: no. But it does allow me to haul industrial-sized bags of dog food without help. It means I can retrieve my suitcase from the overhead compartment without fear of crushing my skull (or someone else’s!). And it lets me grab the sleeveless, backless dress without hesitation while shopping. The women I met at a recent powerlifting competition had bodies most dieting women would starve themselves in hopes of achieving -- and many of them eat 3,000 or 4,000 (or more!) calories a day just to fuel their training.

That’s the bonus of a lifetime for me. Contending with heavy weights several times a week requires large infusions of fuel. That’s right. I have to eat. A lot. Studies may dispute the "muscle burns more calories than fat" theory, but to maintain my lower-than-ever weight, I know I need more calories than before. In my line of work, and with a passion for food that takes me to far-flung destinations to taste and cook, that’s the proverbial cherry on top of my love for powerlifting.