Functional strength. Better bone density. Feeling appropriately smug in a muscle tank. Whatever the motivation may be, more and more women are picking up a barbell and doing some heavy lifting, despite decades of taboo (thanks to some deeply rooted ideas of what a woman’s body is capable of, not to mention the occasional questionable advice from fitness mags and gurus) around this form of exercise. While it might be cliche to call these women “badass,” it’s tough to think of a term that so appropriately describes the sight of, say, a 100-pound woman doing this to a bar laden with 364 pounds of weight. After all, being able to deadlift hundreds of pounds or bench press the equivalent of a mini horse feels pretty damn powerful.
As more women are starting to dominate the weight room, they're also learning how beneficial it can be—and not just for their overall long-term health or physique. From getting a boost of confidence to learning patience and how to love your body for what it can do, and not just how it looks, the trials and triumphs of training in a weight room can come with a host of unexpected life lessons. We caught up with four women who have made weightlifting a major part of their lives to talk about what the sport has taught them and how it’s shaped them, both inside and out.
At 103 pounds, Heather Connor competes as the lightest open competitor for the United States Powerlifting (USAPL) team. She currently holds the slot of number one in the nation and number two in the world, has set and broken more than 20 U.S. records, and holds the American title for deadlifting. The crazy part: She’s only been involved in the sport for a year and a half.
What are some of the happiest moments you’ve achieved so far?
When I first started powerlifting, I was nervous, and to this day, I still get butterflies before a competition. My proudest moments since the beginning are the goals that I have set and reached. Like winning my weight class at the Arnold Sports Classic, and then going on to represent the USA at the world championship and placing second overall and winning the gold medal in the deadlift category, while being the youngest competitor who had the least experience in the sport.
What do you love about lifting weights?
The people that I meet along the way. I've met people that I've always looked up to and then turning into the person that people look up to. I love being able to inspire and motivate all different types of people in the sport. That itself is rewarding.
What else has lifting taught you?
To listen. Listening is such a key factor in anything that you do. When I started listening and not thinking I was the greatest thing since sliced bread; that's when I started to get stronger. I listened to the constructive criticism, I listened to athletes that reached out for advice or just to talk. I listened to my body, and I listened to my family who always have supported me and encouraged me every step. Lifting, I believe, has turned me into a more humble person.
What advice would you give to someone interested in lifting?
If there was anything I could say to a woman who is curious about lifting, it would be to erase all doubt in your mind. Never compare yourself to anyone else. Set goals and chase them, and for anyone that tries to tell you that you can't, show them that you can and you will. Yes, there will negative people, but there will be so many more positive people in this journey that will help and guide you in the right direction. I have so many powerful women I can thank for where I am today. I wouldn't be where I am today, nor the athlete I am today, without them.
Five hundred pounds. That’s about how much a Galapagos turtle or a small motorcycle weighs, and that’s how much Kimberly Walford is deadlifting in this incredible video. Walford, who lives in New York and holds multiple world records, is a force of nature (and one hell of a source of inspiration for those who follow her on Instagram). She’s been weightlifting since high school, started competing a decade and a half ago, and crushes records left and right as a competitive powerlifter.
How long ago did you start lifting?
I started strength training about 25 years ago and competing in powerlifting about 15 years ago.
What inspired you to start? Was it difficult or intimidating in the beginning?
I started weight training because my high school track coach told us that he wanted us to not only be fast but strong. It wasn’t difficult or intimidating to begin because I knew it had a purpose in making me a better track and field athlete.
Since then, what have been some of your proudest moments or greatest accomplishments in the gym?
My proudest training moments would be the first times I hit the “plate” milestones—squatting 225 pounds, 315 pounds, 405 pounds; benching 135 pounds, 225 pounds; deadlifting 315 pounds, 405 pounds, 495 pounds. My proudest competition moments have been every time I have had the opportunity to win an Open Raw World record and a national championship, and/or break an Open Raw World or American record.
What do you love the most about lifting?
Regardless of age, body type, or athletic ability, it is a sport that can empower any athlete who participates in it to harness inner and physical strength. It encourages emotional and physical growth through experiences lined with successes, perseverance, and drawbacks.
What’s your biggest goal right now?
To continue to lift to push myself towards more championships, records, and personal records for as long as God, mind, body, and soul allow me to do it.
Has lifting taught you anything you’ve been able to carry over to other areas of your life?
Lifting has reinforced within me the power of believing in yourself. So many things I have accomplished and persevered through in life were a result of my belief that I can do it and will be stronger in the end because I did it.
Has lifting improved your life in ways you didn’t expect?
It is a continuous source of inner strength, inspiration, and motivation to be a better person for God, myself, and my family and friends who support me.
Wright exudes the kind of confidence that really and truly comes from within—and maybe also comes from being able to do stuff like this. The former gymnast fell into weightlifting by chance and decided to compete within a couple weeks of touching a barbell. Now, she shares the love by coaching other aspiring lifters, men, and women. Yes, she’s petite, and yes, she has a pixie vibe going on, but seriously: Don’t call her “the cutest weightlifter." “This idea, that a woman can't reach success in sports without society examining it through sex-tinted glasses, is crushing us,” she wrote last year. She loves the way weightlifting has taught her how to invest time, care, and energy into her own body, and she especially loves it when her clients’ young daughters tell her they want to be strong, too.
How did you get started?
I was a competitive gymnast for years and years. I decided to walk away from the sport at the start of my senior year in high school. I got into CrossFit, but I wasn't even lifting weights, I was just doing a few workouts on my own. Back in 2011, we had a competitive Olympic lifter who just kept his bar and plates in the basement of our gym and one day my old boss was like, “Hey, I'm going to go do this workout if you want to jump in.” So I wandered down there. I did this workout and... I wasn't bad. I mean, I was actually terrible, but two weeks later, there was a local meet, and I qualified for the national championship as well as the American Open championship. After that, I got hooked.
What was that first meet like?
For me, I like being uncomfortable. I love the challenge. I grew up very shy, and I think as I gained more confidence and security in who I was and accepted being this strong woman, I broke down that shell. My first national competition, I talked to as many people as I could. The weightlifting world is a very small world.
Why did you get hooked?
One overlap between gymnastics and weightlifting is that you have to be fully dedicated and passionate and committed to it. When you’re training for something 25 hours a week that's not going to get you any money, it's all self-drive and passion, that's completely it. So I fell in love with it, and then I started competing.
Has it changed the way you think about your body?
Completely. As a gymnast, I wasn't a member of a gym where weight was an issue, but I've struggled with body image issues my entire life. Especially once I ended gymnastics and I started seeing changes to my body. I remember I woke up that first year in college and looked down and I didn't have calluses on my hands, and I cried because I no longer felt like an athlete. When I got into weightlifting, I saw the changes. My arms came back, my back came back, my big ass got bigger. Even then, I think just getting into that training mentality, you start looking at food as fuel. You have to recover. You have to sleep. You have to go to physical therapy. You have to tend to your body more than you've ever tended to anything in your life before—unless you've had a child. You start to just appreciate and love what it's capable of, and you're taking care of your body for that. You're not taking care of it for aesthetics or to look good for someone else. It gets to the point where your body is just a body, not in a detached way, but in a way that invests you in it even more.
Why do you love lifting?
I have a lot of female clients, and every time one of my female clients comes in and says, “Hey, my daughter came up to me and said, ‘Mommy, I want muscles like yours, I want to be strong,’” that's what makes it for me. That's why I do what I do.
What would you say for someone who is interested in lifting but intimidated or not sure where to start?
I've trained a lot of women, and I've heard this time and time again: A woman comes to training and says, "I don't want thick legs or an ass like a shelf." And I say, "Okay, your body is going to react how it will, but what is it that you're looking for? Are you doing this for someone else? Are you doing it for you?" I think that goes for everything in life. When you go to the gym, you're not there for anyone else. You're not there to be judged by anyone else, and you're not there to judge the other people in the gym. The focus should be on embracing your strength. I go into gyms where people don't know me, and I've had men come up and say, "You're going to hurt yourself, why are you doing that, do you want me to spot you from behind?" I would be lying if I said it didn't bother me, but no, I do it for me, not for anyone else. I'm a strong, beautiful, intelligent woman, and I'm going to take care of myself in all of those ways. That's the only reason I'm in the weight room. Just for me.
Amber Abweh can deadlift 400 pounds, and also bears a striking resemblance to a certain Mother of Dragons—a badass combo if there ever were one. The 21-year-old San Diego, California, resident says that learning to lift shifted her own internal dialogue from focusing on how her body looks to focusing on how it performs—a far cry from the early days of her fitness journey when she was gunning for a six-pack and limiting herself to a hardcore diet. “Now I don't care about a six-pack. I want six plates on the bar when I squat,” she says. (She appreciates being able to eat pizza and ice cream, too.)
What inspired you to start lifting? Was it difficult or intimidating in the beginning?
I was very intimidated in the beginning because I had no idea where to start. I would mimic other people's exercises. Over time, I learned I had the potential of being really strong. That's when I got into powerlifting. Powerlifting was the best thing that happened to me because it made me realize that strength is beauty. I stopped caring so much about how I looked and started to care more about how I performed. It helped me love my body and all its capabilities.
Since then, what have been some of your proudest moments?
When I pulled my first 400-pound deadlift. I was three weeks out from my powerlifting competition, and I came down with a horrible sinus infection. My program called for me to test my new deadlift max. I really thought I wasn't going to be able to lift much due to the horrible sickness. But I told myself to focus on the weights and not make excuses. That was when I pulled 400. I had no idea that I pulled that much until my boyfriend ran up and hugged me. I was so delusional from being sick, it didn't hit me until after my boyfriend told me how much it was. I was so happy, I almost started crying.
What do you love the most about lifting?
I love how much dedication has to go into it. Anyone can go to the gym once a week and do a couple of crunches and push-ups, but when it comes to changing your physique or improving strength, it takes time and effort. When I see someone lifting a lot of weight, I have more appreciation towards them because I can see their hard work.
Has lifting taught you anything you’ve been able to carry over to other areas of your life?
Lifting has taught me to have more self-discipline. When you set a fitness goal, you have to be 100 percent committed to it. There is no half-assing hard work. That applies to all areas of life. Set goals and do what it has to take to accomplish it.
Any memorable epiphanies or aha moments you can share from the gym?
I remember when I first started lifting, I only cared about having a six-pack. I would starve myself with only eating protein and veggies and do a lot of cardio. I only lifted really light weights because I didn't want to get "bulky." I was miserable. I didn't want to go out to eat with friends because I thought it would ruin my process. I pushed away a lot of people just for the sake of gaining a six-pack. And then I realized that there has to be a better way. That’s when I discovered powerlifting. With powerlifting, I learned about moderation. I learned to enjoy my social life and my lifting life. I eat whatever I want now. I eat ice cream, pizza, and hamburgers in moderation.