On a plane from Scranton, Pennsylvania, back home to Louisville recently I was engaging in the usual polite chit-chat with my seat-mate… “are you headed home? What were you in town for?” When I told the burly former military man next to me I’d been to a national powerlifting championship — to compete — his eyes widened comically as he performed a classic double take. “YOU?” he asked, his voice going a little high-pitched. “You‘re a powerlifter? You bench and everything?”
I didn’t ask whether his surprise stemmed from the fact that I’m a woman or that I’d weighed in at a whopping 100.5 pounds for my meet. Either way, he was having a hard time reconciling his mental image of a powerlifter with the slender little bit sitting next to him. To his credit, he asked the question any lifter will jump on: “How much did you lift?” And though my 176lb squat, 94lb bench press and 187lb deadlift were small potatoes at the USAPL Raw Nationals, I realized as I was talking excitedly to this stranger that there just aren’t many women my size who can claim those numbers.
Flash back a year: I was an out-of-shape avoider of all exercise with a full-time desk job and a fast-growing freelance career as a food writer. Smack in my mid-30s, this lifestyle was catching up as the scale crept up. I joined a CrossFit gym determined to jump into the deep end and get whipped into shape so I could keep eating all the lovely “research” restaurant and home cooked meals my work required.
I was quickly detoured by the squat rack and chin-up bar though, and virtually stopped CrossFit before I’d done more than a handful of WODs. Weights were just too much fun! And while the prowler and sled and runs with sandbags were certainly satisfying, nothing, and I mean nothing, got me as excited as hearing the words “put some more weight on the bar.”
Even while I was shrinking I was growing stronger every day and was euphoric with the power. My coach eventually pulled me almost completely out of CrossFit work and put me on a powerlifting training program. I freaking LOVED it. As the callouses formed and the muscles hardened I found that I looked at everything differently. With every new PR my confidence soared. My attitude chilled — no need to get annoyed at petty things when I can go get under the bar tonight! I even finally got up the nerve to get a tattoo after thinking about it for literally half my life.
My weight continued to drop though I was devouring more food than ever. Only recently an omnivore after nine years of not eating meat I found myself craving steak and red meat. My coach pushed me to eat more to fuel my training. After a lifetime of thinking I was doing something right if I were hungry, I found a very happy new way of life: eat when I’m hungry. And eat plenty! Going to bed hungry had felt like a virtuous act most of my life — maybe I’d weigh less in the morning, right? Now if I wake up hungry in the night I stand happily and sleepily in a dark kitchen and eat spoonfuls of almond butter.
Going into powerlifting competitions I am judged on how much weight I can move, not on how much is on the scale. This was an incredibly freeing concept as a woman. Nobody cares what I look like on the platform, only whether I go to depth on squat, pause on the bench, and pull that shit off the floor in the deadlift. This isn’t to say I have completely undone three decades plus of trying to meet our culture’s idea of ‘ideal.’ I have serious guns, and quads that don’t fit into the jeans that fit my waist, and the veins in my arms sometimes pop out like a dude’s, but I still want to put on cute dresses and mascara and have my husband tell me I’m pretty.
Most days my desire to be strong beats the desire to be slim and I eat what I need to for training – plenty of local pastured meats, vegetables and fruits and yummy, yummy fats (I should buy stock in almond butter, and put avocados in everything from tuna salad to omelets). I even eat more (or not the best foods) on occasion — from time to time I have a weekend where I go to a multi-course wine dinner, or it’s a birthday or holiday and I scarf down pizza, soda, cake, cheese … anything and everything I want. (Funnily enough I tend to hit PRs after those weekends!) But some days the princess comes out and I want my abs to look more defined. I forget how very very much I want to squat double my bodyweight (and I’m SO close) and I start thinking about calories. Then when I get shaky during training I realize how stupid that is and I guzzle some chocolate milk and go replenish my body so I will be STRONG next time. A six pack doesn’t get that barbell to rise, but a strong core does.
Don’t be afraid to lift heavy. I know what the fear is, but I promise you, lifting heavy weights does not make you bulky. My conspiracy theory holds that it’s the diet industry that perpetuates this myth. Think about it. If women knew they didn’t have to diet if they would just lift heavy, an entire industry would sink. I lost almost 20 pounds (I actually probably lost more fat pounds than that, and gained back muscle in its place) lifting heavy. Lifting heavy weights is the most empowering thing I’ve ever done. If Id’ been afraid I wouldn’t be skinny I’d have missed out on seriously the most amazing experience of my life.
Don’t be afraid to eat big. If you’re training hard, you have to eat or you can’t get stronger. If you have a ravenous appetite after heavy lifts your body is talking to you. It’s telling you to feed it, so listen! (Just don’t eat garbage. There’s eating big and then there’s eating gross.) I’ve upped my average daily calories from about 1500 calories to about 2000. I eat when I get up, again mid-morning, again at lunch, again mid-afternoon and again at dinner, all washed down with lots and lots of water. You have to fuel for training. Have I mentioned you HAVE to eat?
And do you know what the joy in all this is? When you learn you can go under a weight so heavy it seems impossible to move it — and yet you move it — you won’t be afraid of anything. So go lift and go eat.