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‘Strong over skinny’: Women powerlifters ditch stigma around bulking up

7 min

Sasha Stein’s exercise journey started a way many women can relate to: with an underused gym membership and a weight-loss goal. Now, the only number she focuses on is the amount she can powerlift.

Now more than ever, women are hitting the gym and heading straight to the weight racks. No longer fazed by the stigma that women can get too bulky from lifting weights, women powerlifters see the sport as a physical and mental salve. Those who have fallen in love with powerlifting — a slower version of weightlifting, often with heavier weights — say they feel stronger and more poised, regardless of their size.

Stein, 24, started exercising at Gainesville Health & Fitness in Florida, which was where her friend Lauren Wall, an online personal trainer, introduced her to the world of powerlifting. Wall loved to lift and explained to Stein how powerlifting could change her life, and how she’d lose fat and gain muscle through the activity. But she wouldn’t have to worry about having more muscle than desired, Wall reassured her, because bulking up happens intentionally. And she wouldn’t be alone: The support of a growing legion of powerlifting women would transform her mentally, too.

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Wall showed Stein the proper form for the three fundamental powerlifts: squatting with a weight bar pressed behind the shoulders; bench-pressing the bar up from the chest while lying down; and dead-lifting from a sumo squat to pick up and hold the weight bar in front of the hips.

“That’s where I really started implementing more bodybuilding and using the gym as a kind of therapy,” said Stein, who started lifting around 45 to 65 pounds and is now at 155 to 250. She went “from regular going to the gym to: ‘Okay, I’m setting up a routine. I’m prioritizing my schedule to get it in.’ And it’s carried me ever since.”

Powerlifting is characterized by straight barbells, which are long rods that hold large, circular plates on each end. As opposed to the quick, jerky movements that Olympic weightlifters must perform to get their straight barbells and weights overhead, powerlifters typically have heavier weights that they lift slowly behind their back, above their chest or at hip level, depending on the type of lift.

The more Stein practiced the exercises Wall taught her, the more she began to see the gym as more than a place for weight loss and muscle gain. She said she now devotes four to five days each week to exercising, because it’s become her mood booster and her way to blow off steam after a tough day.

Wall, 24, got into powerlifting as a way to stay fit after undergoing knee surgeries from playing college basketball. Her clients have asked to try it for themselves after watching others squat and dead-lift at power racks, the cages used for powerlifting.

“It’s the best part of my day, every single day,” Wall said. “Going to different cities and states, … going to find a powerlifting gym and seeing all the other people who love to do it day in and day out, it’s the basis of everything that I do, and it’s so much fun. I couldn’t see myself living without it.”

Fitness enthusiasts practice progressive overload, gradually increasing the weight, repetitions or frequency of an exercise. As Stein improved in powerlifting, she said, she began taking a progressive-overload approach to life: If she pushed herself a little each day, she knew she would see results.

“I want to look muscular. I choose to look this way,” said Angelina Spizzieri, a 19-year-old powerlifter. “A huge misconception of females in strength sports is, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to look manly.’ You’re only going to look manly if you train to look that way. I trained to look a little bit more buff, because I prefer that. But I honestly never struggled with the pushback, because I was always so confident.”

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Heidi Dehnel, 41, has seen women take up more spots in the powerlifting classes offered at Core Strength & Performance in Huntsville, Ala., the gym she co-owns with her husband. The small, private fitness center, which offers only strength-training and powerlifting classes, has a membership that’s about 80 percent women, with powerlifters as young as 23 and as old as 72, she said.

“It’s a lot more … women who have explored other avenues of training who are now seeing other women like them trying to powerlift and realizing that there is a possibility for that,” Dehnel said.

Some of the women whom Dehnel trains compete in events such as those hosted by the United States Powerlifting Association, the largest powerlifting federation. But many also lift for leisure and view powerlifting meets as a bucket-list item.

“If you would’ve asked somebody 10, 15 years ago what powerlifting was, you would think of huge, 300-pound-plus meatheads screaming in the gym, heavy metal all the time,” said Dehnel, who hosts the podcast “The Future Is Female Powerlifting.” “It’s definitely not what my gym is like. We’re much more inviting than the average old-school powerlifting gym.”

Seeing women who looked like her represented in the sport also encouraged Dehnel to join the fold. At the first meet she attended in 2011, she was inspired by Susan Salazar, a Navy veteran who’s Latina, like Dehnel. Latina and Black women are often marketed shapewear and fed the ideal of having a thin waist and a big butt, features that are often sexualized, Dehnel said, but powerlifting helped her see her body for what it could do rather than what it looked like.

Lanatria Ellis, 34, said powerlifting helped her overcome lifelong struggles with body dysmorphia, a common condition in which people agonize over their body’s real or perceived flaws. Ellis, who lives in Garland, N.C., said she used to obsess over her appearance, despite being petite.

“When I started weightlifting, that was the first time in my whole life I stopped thinking about the number on the scale, and I stopped thinking about the size of the clothes I was wearing,” she said. As a powerlifter, she is more focused, despite having attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, she said, and she has generally felt less anxious and more energetic.

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Sam Ong, 23, also felt self-conscious about her body after she stopped swimming and doing CrossFit. But with the help of her partner and powerlifting coach, the Union City, Calif., resident started to feel more in tune with her body and gain a Kardashian-like confidence as a powerlifter. She’s trying to increase her squat and dead-lift records from 315 to 400 pounds and her bench-press personal best of 167 pounds up to 200.

Her support system consists of those she has met in person, such as her partner’s clients, and online within the broader network of powerlifting women. Together, they’ve motivated her to crush her personal records and self-doubts.

“I feel like we’re all such a close-knit community,” Ong said. “Even if you have no clue who someone is, a stranger is totally willing to celebrate a PR with you, and it’s just so nice to see that … powerlifters come in all shapes and sizes.”

She made an Instagram account, @sam_dont_lift, to keep track of her progress, then other women powerlifters discovered her page and peppered her comments with words of encouragement. Ong said she has become close with her online fans, supporting and socializing with them regularly. She’s grateful to her powerlifting friends for helping her adopt a “strong over skinny” mind-set.

“No matter what I look like, I know that my body is healthy,” Ong said. “And if this is what my body looks like healthy, I am perfectly fine with that.”