Living the Life of a Little Lady that Lifts: Perspectives and Pointers from a Five-Foot-Nothing Female 52
by Nicola Paviglianiti
“Are you actually a man?”
“Can I see your calluses? Can you flex for me?”
“Would you win if we wrestled?”
“Are you strong enough to make a grown man feel like a child?”
“Be careful sweetheart! Are you sure you can lift that?”
Little do they know I am still working with my warmup weights….
“It’s not normal for a girl to bench with the blue plates..”
Referring to the 20kg’s I am about to lift. For reps.
“…Would you consider bearing my children? You're very strong!” ***
These are just a few of the countless comments I have received since starting the sport of powerlifting, and I’m sure many other girls that lift weights will be able to relate.
I am currently training for IPF Worlds 2017 as a member of Team Canada for the female 52kg junior class. As such, PR’s (personal records) are creeping into the program more frequently, and every training session seems to present an opportunity for a unique encounter from a boy at the gym that cannot believe his eyes. This post is entirely from my perspective and I can’t speak for all women, but hopefully it will provide some insight into situations girls that lift sometimes face, as well as provide some strategies for both lifters and onlooker to help avoid embarrassing encounters.
When people think of powerlifters (male or female) they often have a certain stereotype in mind, assuming bulky, big, and without brains. Trust me, this is far from the truth, and is the very reason many people fall in love with powerlifting and what makes the community so special. Anyone and everyone is welcome in the sport, and you have lifters from diverse backgrounds, and of all different shapes and sizes within weight classes. Just take a look at the Team Canada roster and you will find doctors, gym owners, moms, grandmas, entrepreneurs, engineers, and nerdy Masters students like me. However, when you don’t fit society’s silly powerlifter stereotype, it often makes for a lot of unwanted questions and gym stares. What am I even witnessing? What is she doing with those weights?
The above photo is with my good lifting pal Linda, who basically breaks every powerlifting stereotype with her love for leggings, her colourful hair, and the fact that she is a grandma.
The above photo is of 4 of the strongest powerlifters in Canada (from 4 different weight classes) that will be competing in Belarus – strong, smart, successful, and full of smiles.
Being a female that lifts is incredibly empowering and can be a confidence boost, but it can have its annoying, uncomfortable, and awkward moments too. Commercial gyms aren’t my usual training space, but even at powerlifting and strength specific gyms not everyone is accustomed to seeing a girl put on a few plates. It's 2017 people, so let’s get the message out that there is no one-size-fits-all-powerlifter and that girls can be strong and lift weights too – hence my motivation to share my own journey and story every opportunity I can. Female powerlifters put a lot of hard work and passion into training and are proud of it, and respect and support are appreciated most.
Pointers for Girls that Powerlift
LIFTING VIDEOS. Always store some lifting videos on your cellphone, as they can be very useful to pull up in order to help someone quickly understand what exactly it is you do. One of each lift is ideal to teach a curious individual who is unfamiliar with powerlifting the components of the sport, too often confused with Olympic weightlifting. Having some heavy lifts that you have recently done can also come in in handy when someone doesn’t believe you after you inform them your max. Plus who doesn’t like to re-live a little PR glory?
BRING HEADPHONES. Listening to music when you lift (or even pretending to) can be a great strategy to stop people interrupting your session. There have been many times I was in a hurry to get my training done, so I put my earbuds in with the tunes turned off in order to be alone and get in my zone.
INSTRUCT YOUR SPOTS If you need a spot or bench hand off for one of your lifts, be sure to provide clear instructions. With a female under the bar, people have a tendency to freak out and automatically “save” you, or have no faith at all in your capabilities therefore providing assistance through the entire lift. Trust me, a back squat spotter grinding against you the entire movement is not fun! Before starting the lift, tell the individual to only help you with the weight if required, and that you will tell them if/when you need assistance. Be firm that you are in control of the lift and the situation! Another critical aspect is to ensure the individual you scout out as a spot is in fact able to keep you safe. For example, I once hit a PR squat (with a decently sized male spotter) who later informed me he was relieved I hit the weight due to the fact it was heavier than his deadlift max and he would not have been able to catch the weight if I had had to bail. #NobodyDied
SMILE. Most important of all, smile. Don’t take silly comments or messy moments too seriously, and try to get a good laugh instead. Powerlifting and training is supposed to be fun, not stressful, and use every opportunity you can to turn the situation into something you can raise awareness to the awesomeness of being a female lifter, as well as inspire the other person with your strength and love for the sport. People are often genuinely interested in what you do, so remember to always be #LiftingAndUpLifting while training.
Some little Team Canada female lifters from Worlds 2016 in Texas that can lift a lot.
Pointers if you see a Girl that Powerlifts
TRAINING BEFORE TALKING. Chances are the girl powerlifting in the gym is there with a purpose, and has a program she needs to complete within a certain amount of time. She is at the gym to work hard and get her deadlifts done, not carry out conversations all day. Never approach or talk to a girl mid-lift, nor when she has a focus face and looks like she is about to lift. If you do have a question or compliment keep the communication short, and it is crucial to be patient and wait for proper moments that present themselves. Examples of appropriate times you may be able to get a word in include when she is changing plates on the bar, filling a water bottle, and of course the optimal time is when she is actually done.
COMPLIMENT HER. But don’t be creepy. If you are impressed by the girl’s lifting and think she is strong, tell her so! Saving your own ego is not necessary in the process (never add “for a girl”) and keep things simple. “Awesome lift!” “You’re really strong”. But leave it at that, and don’t try to make it into a long love conversation. A good suggestion if you are eager to get to know her more is to tell her that you are interested in following her lifting journey, and ask if she has an Instagram handle of Facebook profile you could add her on. Here is where you may be able to continue the conversation (and she may want to too!), but let her get her training done.
DON’T STARE. I once had someone literally pull up a chair right in front of the Eleiko squat rack I was using, where the individual proceeded to sit and watch every single set. Talk about self-conscious squats! This example is extreme (and was in a foreign country) but people who stop what they are doing to look at all your lifts is very annoying, and if this is you, this situation should be avoided at all costs. If you do find yourself unable to turn away, please at least follow up with a high-five.
RESPECT HER SPACE. Unless you are asked, do not try to be the gym hero and spot her lifts. Don’t try to help her load or unload weights on the bar either, because guaranteed she is strong enough to do it herself. Advice may be welcomed but never be demeaning, and trust the girl that she does in fact know what she is doing. If you aren’t careful in your interactions, you may also have her crazy female coach to answer to….
My favourite big Swedish spotting friend – always keeping me safe and I haven’t failed a squat with his encouraging words of support yet.
Do you have stories or struggles or words of wisdom for women lifting some weights at the gym? Do you agree, or think this is just a silly rant. Feel free to comment, share, or add to the conversation.
***Thankfully the baby comment mentioned above was a joke from a good CPU lifting bro of mine - but still, you get the point.