My breath rose in misty clouds in the air in front of me and I snuggled deeper into my blanket. It was 2010 and I was in a typical student hovel in Dunedin, having transferred universities to pursue nutrition studies. We were too cheap to turn the heat pump on in my flat, so I was freezing my ass off in my room. I risked poking an icy hand out of my blanket to scroll Facebook on my laptop. (Back in those days, kids, we didn’t have smartphones, and everyone who was anyone used Facebook for everything.)
An event popped up on my screen: my flat mate was holding “The Gentlemen’s Powerlifting Competition.” I have three brothers and I can be just a smidge (read: incredibly) competitive and there was something about this event that immediately irked me: it appeared to be only for men. What if I wanted to compete?
This all sounds super female warrior and all that, but there was a problem: I didn’t even know what powerlifting was. This may have been in the olden days but it was still the age of Google, so I clued myself up. Powerlifting is basically three big weightlifting exercises: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. I didn’t know how to do any of those things…
I messaged my brother, who was (and still is) way overly-qualified in everything to do with any kind of fitness or physical training, and I asked him, “Do you think I’d like powerlifting?”
This was over a decade ago so I might not get the exact words right, but he said something like “There’s a buzz you get when you feel really jacked up and strong. I think you’d love it, Lu.”
I wasn’t going to turn up to the competition in a big statement of girl power only to suck at the actual event, so I set about educating myself. You have to remember that back then, the gym was a different place to what it is now. The student gym in Dunedin was split in two: the weights area was downstairs and the cardio area was upstairs. In reality this meant that the dudes went downstairs and the ladies went upstairs, and very few people broke that rule. Even in the weights area, there weren’t a lot of people. Crossfit was yet to gain a mainstream following so it was only the more hardcore athlete types that lifted. And most women thought if they trained with heavy weights they’d get really big, so they avoided it altogether. I’m so glad those myths have been dispelled and way more people are into weight training, because in 2010 it took a lot of guts for a girl like me to walk into the weights room.
In fact, I was so nervous about it, that I didn’t immediately go to the student gym. Instead I asked the flat mate that was running the competition if I could do a free trial at the gym where he worked part-time. And maybe he could, pretty please, show me some basics? Being the kind of person who was really very passionate about his chosen field, he was happy to show me around the gym and get me started. I never actually confessed my desire to join his powerlifting competition but, looking back, he would probably have been stoked.
After a two-week stint at his gym, my confidence was enough that I went to the student gym and didn’t immediately jog up the stairs. Instead I turned right, shoved my bag into a locker and tried to swallow my nerves. I knew how to set up a squat rack, I could do a deadlift without screwing up my back, and I was even getting pretty good at my bench press form, although that was still the hardest. I could do this! My mouth was as dry as the Sahara desert, and I chugged water clumsily while trying to get my bearings by looking sideways out of my eyes. I was so fearful of looking inept that I didn’t even want to turn my head because it would show that I didn’t know where the squat rack was! I expected stares, I was even braced to have to defend my right to be there, but what actually happened blew my mind: I was welcomed. One of my flat mate’s friends saw me and even complimented me on my bench press form.
“Oh well, I can’t really handle much weight,” I replied, embarrassed for no reason.
“That doesn’t matter, you have great technique. I wish my technique was that good.”
You could have melted cheese on my face, I blushed so hard.
I wasn’t lying, I really couldn’t handle much weight. I didn’t even put weights on the bar when bench pressing because the bar was heavy enough! Did you know that bar weighs 20kg? For a small girl like me, that was heavy. I struggled along but I could feel myself getting stronger each week, and I grew to love the weights room at the gym. The guys in there helped each other out and they would always do things like lift the big 20kg plates for me if they could see they were in the way of whatever equipment I wanted to use.
I still lift today. I even put weights on the bench press bar. Sometimes quite a few weights. I’ve stopped and started a few times as I’ve moved cities, and I had to start almost from scratch when I got back into it after having a baby, but there’s a buzz I get when I feel really jacked up and strong, and I love it. I’m still working on the goal I set myself 11 years ago – to squat twice my bodyweight. I made it to within 8kg of that goal at one point, but to be honest it’s not accomplishing the goal that matters, it’s the journey there.
What about The Gentlemen’s Powerlifting Competition? I want to say I went along and kicked ass but I didn’t. What I did do was even better than the statement I would have made by attending a one-off event: I became a regular lifter and I started encouraging my female friends to come into the weights room, too.
Why tell you all this? If you think I’m trying to sell you on the gym, I’m not. There are many ways to keep fit and gain strength, and the gym is just one of them. I truly think the best exercise you can do is whatever you enjoy, because then you’ll keep doing it! But the thing is, you’re not going to know what you enjoy if you don’t try out something new. Who knew I’d enjoy getting under a loaded bar that weighs more than I do? Well, aside from my brother, that is.