Growing up, I wouldn’t have described myself as strong. My favorite food was sugar, I was naturally thin, and I had virtually no muscle mass. I spent my free time mostly sitting indoors, reading, on the computer, or watching TV. When, one year, I tried out for my high school’s competitive dance team and made it, my body was not prepared. I vomited after my first line drill. My movements were never sharp enough or large enough. For my efforts I earned a hairline fracture in my tailbone, probably from too many high kicks thrown up without proper form. The older I get, the more I care about becoming sturdier. I want to take up space confidently. I want as best I can to avoid the osteoporosis that has shrunk so many women in my family. I want to see what my body can do when it’s actually fed and trained to support the movements I make. And I would never be mad at #bootygainz. Enter powerlifting—a sport that more and more women are turning to for the same kind of help. If you’re interested in making gains in both mind and body, take note of the three Ps of powerlifting: power, program, and protein.
Powerlifting, often associated with testosterone and a bygone era, is having its other cultural moment. Women now make up one-third of the United States’ competitive lifters, and the number of female competitors doubled between 2014 and 2016, with the largest increase taking place between 2015 and 2016. The shift feels intuitive—increasingly, women are breaking down barriers to areas they’ve been shut out of. Gone are the days of three-pound weights. Now we’re awake. And we want to get swole. Leah Prinzivalli, covering the inclusive, activist-minded Women’s Strength Coalition in New York City, wrote, “Imagine a 1980s ideal of a meathead, then add empathy and send her to therapy, and you’ll have a pretty good sense of the WSC lifters’ vibe.” This observation would likely hold up while scrolling through the female-lifter influencers of Instagram. Story after story reflects the same narrative of heavy lifting as healing from so many deprivations: of love, of food, of power. Evidence supports the notion that taking on sports can have a spillover effect into other areas of life. Research from EY and espnW, for example, has shown a positive correlation between women who play sports and women who excel as business leaders.
Powerlifting is a strength sport that focuses on three main lifts: the bench press, squat, and deadlift. (It’s distinct from weightlifting—also known as Olympic lifting, which comprises the snatch and the clean and jerk—and bodybuilding, which involves lifting heavy weights as well, but is more concerned with aesthetics than strength.) Competitive powerlifters have three attempts at each lift, with their heaviest lifts from each category averaged to create their overall scores. Of course, you don’t have to compete to reap incredible benefits from powerlifting, such as improved glucose tolerance and heart health, lower risk of injury or loss of function over time due to reduced muscle mass, and increased confidence and strength. While there are plenty of online resources to help educate you on the basics of powerlifting, dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) Matthew Stranberg recommends finding an experienced coach. Stranberg is also an exercise science advisor for an outpatient eating disorder treatment program for competitive athletes. “It takes thousands upon thousands of repetitions to undo something that you’ve learned over time, so doing it right the first time makes the process a lot better,” Stranberg tells HealthyWay. “That doesn’t mean you have to have a coach throughout, but getting an assessment—just like if you went to the doctor to get a baseline reading, or you would go to a tutor to help learn a different language as opposed to just kind of showing up and using Google translator—that can make a world of difference.”
Are you using powerlifting to supplement your performance in another activity? Are you pursuing maximum strength? Is looking “bulky” a concern? (As CSCS and Girls Gone Strong co-founder and owner Molly Galbraith illustrated at length, “bulky” is a very misunderstood term.) Your goals will affect what you eat to fuel your body throughout training. One thing’s for sure: You’ll probably want to consume significantly more protein. “To increase muscle mass in combination with physical activity, it is recommended that a person that lifts weights regularly or is training for a running or cycling event eats a range of 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound of body weight,” advises the American College of Sports Medicine. So, as a 5’2” (and a half!) 130-pound woman who is looking to gain strength and muscle mass while losing some fat (but not necessarily weight or size), I would want to consume between 65 and 104 grams of protein daily and the right caloric profile for my goals. That much protein, for example, might look like 1 to 2 scoops of protein powder in a smoothie with breakfast, 1 cup of Greek yogurt with lunch, and 2 single chicken breasts (or 2 cups of tofu) with dinner. As always, be aware that no diet or exercise regimen is a magic pill. “Oftentimes people use these as a maladaptive coping skill, and although exercise can be helpful, and although trying to eat in a way that nourishes your body can be helpful, if that is your way of coping with stress, or uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and emotions—that’s a lot of times where disorder can take place,” cautions Stranberg, who recommends engaging a dietitian and therapist along with a coach if you’re dealing with these issues. Last week, at my first training session, my coach asked me to think of the reasons I decided to take up powerlifting. He said to remember them because they would come in handy as the challenges grew. Maybe this strength sport is appealing to you because you’re sick of not being able to lift your suitcase or your kid without getting winded. Maybe you want to stay sharp at work. Maybe you just want some control in a country that seems fixated on stripping you of basic bodily autonomy. Powerlifting can’t solve everything. But all of these are fine reasons to take hold of the bar and push like hell.