I Heart Powerlifting (And I’m Not Bulky Or Masculine)

I spend four days per week in a gym; on days off, I pine to be there. I lift hundreds of pounds, sport smeary chalk prints on my sweat-soaked clothes and listen to cacophonous music at dangerously loud levels when I train. I attack large, bloody-rare steaks like a caveman. Am I a 275-pound shaved-headed dude with my bench total dangling as a charm from a gold chain around my thick neck?

Nope. I’m a 100-pound 30-something female food writer who has fallen in love with powerlifting.

How did I discover the allure of going under the bar? Blame the affair on my CrossFit coach, who started me as a total beginner–without an athletic bone or urge in my body–with chin-ups and push-ups. He saw my manic drive to do more, and started loading a barbell with weights. I quickly became hooked on going under the bar and finding out how much I could squat and stand up with, and bench press, or pull from the floor in a deadlift. He called me a powerlifter one day, and it clicked. This was what I wanted to do. This was what made my heart pound with excitement. The sound of heavy weights crashing back into the rack or to the ground caused a frisson even when it wasn’t from my own barbell. Searching for my body’s limits was an addictive pursuit and I couldn’t get enough.

As the callouses grew and I learned I could conquer more and more weight, I found myself sitting up straighter, walking with my head higher and shoulders back, and smiling more. The first time I squatted 180 pounds I found myself smiling hugely at passersby later that day in the suites at Churchill Downs, my local racetrack. A man returned my smile, perhaps automatically in response to a trim blonde in a hat and sundress. I had to contain the laughter welling up as I wondered what he’d think if he knew I was smiling because I could squat him!

Petty stresses and grievances rolled off me like so much water on a freshly-waxed car. I tried new adventures–a Muay Thai lesson in Bangkok, clambering up onto an elephant in northern Thailand, taking on a job as the editor of a food magazine. Get a tattoo of the world on my back? Why not? I could do anything I wanted.

Why don’t more women do this? I pondered, to myself and to friends. If only they knew how amazing they would feel! If other women just knew what a stress reliever it is. (Being strong enough to sling a sledgehammer repeatedly into a tractor tire at my gym allowed for immediate relief when a weaselly blogger publicly disdained my selection as a food critic that would have otherwise called for an illegal activity or, at minimum, drinking unwise amounts of clear liquor.) And seriously, if they knew how fast and easily they would reach that great, shiny American goal of Losing Weight, wouldn’t they show up in hordes at the door to the gym, pleading for a turn at the squat rack?

Turns out, not so much. Aside from some other die-hards like me, most women shy away from heavy weights. Because seemingly, even in this era of snopes and the ability to research anything your little heart desires online, people, many women—and trainers–still believe lifting heavy weights will make them bulky or, thanks to perverse media claims, “too toned.” I can only surmise that the inventor of two-pound dumbbells started this misinformation campaign which has pervaded gyms across the country, where women with great fear of looking like a Russian heavyweight powerlifter cling to their tiny weights as they shuffle along on treadmills.

Bulky, my arse. My workouts rarely include more than five repetitions of any lift. They’re also, at least with the squat and deadlift, performed with weights well above my body weight. Does hanging a kettlebell from my foot while I perform unassisted chin-ups, or counting off handstand push-ups make my arms big? In a word, no. But it does allow me to haul industrial-sized bags of dog food without help. It means I can retrieve my suitcase from the overhead compartment without fear of crushing my skull (or someone else’s!). And it lets me grab the sleeveless, backless dress without hesitation while shopping. The women I met at a recent powerlifting competition had bodies most dieting women would starve themselves in hopes of achieving–and many of them eat 3,000, 4,000, or more calories a day just to fuel their training.

That’s the bonus of a lifetime for me. Contending with heavy weights several times a week requires large infusions of fuel. That’s right. I have to eat. A lot. Studies may dispute the muscle burns more calories than fat theory, but to maintain my lower-than-ever weight, I know I need more calories than before. In my line of work, and with a passion for food that takes me to far-flung destinations to taste and cook, that’s the proverbial cherry on top of my love for powerlifting.

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    • Christy

      Good for you – that’s awesome. It makes me giggle when I hear women talk about skipping strength/weight training because they don’t want to look “manly”.

    • B

      Oh I love this article!!!! I love to lift! I ‘ve tried the running thing… and it just doesn’t do it for me – but lifting – yes. Yes, yes, and yes!!!! :-) Thanks so much for sharing! I am still trying to master the damn pull up… but I will get there – there is something to be said for being able to quote the weight you bench pressed that day!

    • Lainey

      Dana, thanks for sharing your story. As a fellow weight trainer I try to combat the myths that women will get bulky from lifting but unfortunately it takes time to convince people to ignore what they have heard for so many years.

    • Mindy

      Dana, thanks so much for sharing! I completely agree, and while I don’t consider myself a powerlifter by any means, I do love lifting and feel it was the key in completely changing my body.

    • Anna May

      Well said! I want to share this with all my girl friends who look at me weird when I say I’m powerlifting. I enjoy every second that I lift. Great pictures too. You’re inspiring!

    • Dana McMahan

      Thanks all! And N – you’ll get the pull-up, just be persistent :)

    • Lisa

      I love hearing women speak out about this! CrossFit and lifting have changed my life! I can’t believe I wasted so much time doing bicep curls and “running” on the elliptical. Thanks for the great read!

    • Jessica

      Thanks so much for sharing! I completely agree and do the same thing when I see a little woman or man and find out their weight I ‘m like “Wow! I can squat them or put them over my head!” It’s a wonderful feeling. I have a goal of a 200 lb back squat (only 10 lbs away as of last week!!) by fall and I’m only 140lbs at 5’9″ not even remotely close to “big” or “bulky”. I couldn’t agree more with your article I just love being strong!

    • kelly

      say it loud, say it proud…i love what you have shared. usually i start talking about this with my friends that want “to tone up” and i stifle my eyeroll and try to calmly explain lifting weights. i usually find it hard to keep my excitement under wraps and i probably come across as a total psycho. they sure don’t believe me when i talk about pushing weight. they look at me and they sure don’t think i look manly, yet they seem to be in disbelief when i start talking in numbers higher then their body weight. so thank you for speaking out so eloquently! keep up the fantastic work!

    • Dana S.

      I’m so happy to see all the ladies here excited about powerlifting. I am 145lbs and people think I weight 135 but I’m as sexy and fit as a twenty year old. (Mind you I’m 39 and I’ll compete with the youngest of them). I powerlift 3 days a week for 2 hours (1 hour abs each day).

      I’ve also been told I have the best abs and trust me ladies I get compliments from women than men on how sexy it looks when I’m working out! It’s a girl tone.

      Very proud of you ladies…. Go Dana… I love that name!

    • Bonnie

      I am so happy to see another female telling others about the joys and benefits of powerlifting. At my gym, I am the only female who powerlifts, and guys look at me like I am insane. Very few of them take me seriously. It’s annoying, but I get satisfaction from knowing that I can deadlift more than they can. I’m 22 years old and can deadlift twice my body weight. I am not bulky at all. I’m not sure where it began that weightlifting = bulkiness … Totally not true.

      Thank you so much for sharing this with us!!! :)


    • Amy

      I’ll join the rest of you in saying that I love lifting! I’m nowhere near powerlifter status but I absolutely love weights. I always hear, “oh, I’d get too bulky!” or “be careful not to get too muscle-y!” but that’s not a problem I’ve had. I love being toned – and being able to flex! :)

    • Hannah

      I heart this article.
      Just started weight training at my university’s gym and already feel so much stronger and more confident. This will definitely help keep me going :)

    • Laura

      I LOVE this article! I lift weights 3-4 days a week and can’t get enough. I’m 5’2 and 100 pounds. There’s not much bulk going on, but I never need help lifting things. It’s such an empowering feeling!

      I’d love to hear more about how you got into power-lifing and how to balance travel with the type of workouts you do.

      • Dana

        Thanks Laura! I got into it through CrossFit, but when I found out I was good, I just kept going! :) I like to visit other CrossFit gyms when I travel and just use the program my coach gives me. When I go to France and Morocco for 16 days this fall I’m not sure what I’ll do to keep up. Maybe some deload time, and lots of push-ups and things like that.

    • Jess

      You’re such an inspiration! I’m also very small and love lifting regularly! I feel so empowered and am attending my first crossfit class very soon. :]

    • Briana Rognlin

      I was thinking about this post today at the gym while I was squatting… ahem…30 pounds in dumbbell weight. It made me appreciate a) the hard work Dana must put in to be able to squat 180, and b) how amazing the human body is that it can be so tiny and strong.

      I get my “highs” from all kinds of training—I love running, yoga and spin classes, too—but I’ve recently gotten back into weights and am amazed by how great it feels to start feeling strong.

      Dana’s such an inspiration – I’ll think of her every time I’m thinking about skipping a set because I don’t feel like it or I’m too tired!

    • Maggie

      I LOVE powerlifting and Crossfit…it has changed my life in all kinds of ways…mentally, emotionally and physically.

    • Lindsey

      I shared your piece on the blog for my Crossfit! You think you’re in shape, until you Crossfit and then you’re constantly amazed at all the things you never thought you could do! Thanks for being an inspiration to us all– strong is the new sexy :o)

      • Dana

        Thanks Lindsey!

    • James

      I hope this article will circulate widely. I had the same experience with powerlifting, but I have trouble interesting female friends. “I don’t want to get bulky,” they say. I tell them that “bulky” guys spent many years (and often used lots of steroids) to get that way.

    • Damy

      Repeat after me: Every Body is Different. As a Certified Personal Trainer I have direct experience with the whole “bulky woman” debate. Contrary to what many may claim, I have built significant amounts of muscle (15-20 lbs) in just a few months by weight lifting. No, I didn’t use steroids or special supplments other than protein shakes. I have a tall and naturally strong, athletic body. Other, relatively small and slim female clients that I have trained have lifted weights using the exact same techniques but with very different results (they got smaller). Their body type does not naturally build a lot of muscle. Workouts MUST be personalized, based on body type and specific goals!

      • Damy

        To clarify: I love the muscle that I’ve gained by weightlifting. However, I never assume that my female clients wish to look as athletic as I do. Weights can be used to bulk up or slim down, and the same techniques cannot be used on everyone. Personalize, personalize, personalize.

    • Susan Louise

      OK sign me up:)
      Do I have to go to a gym or can it be done at home?
      I live up in the North Pole, not quite, but almost:)
      Perimenopausal, mood swings, slightly overweight
      but can still hang with the best in snowboarding:)
      Need R-E-L-I-E-F from crying jags and rollercoaster
      hormonal rides……any link you can send me???

      • Dana

        Susan, there’s plenty you can do at home! Pushups, air squats, lunges …
        I’d start with http://startingstrength.com/ if you don’t have access to a gym with a good coach who believes in strength training for women.

    • Heather B.

      I love this post! I am right there with you! I used to workout at my local gym doing Zumba, dance jam and spin classes when I met a Crossfit trainer. He wanted me to do some crazy stuff, and I could actually do it! I am 36 years young, 5’4″ 135 lbs and I’ve never felt better! My friends are always asking me “why would you want to lift so much weight? Why do you want to “bulk” up and who cares about pull ups?”………… but all while they are turning their nose up at my lifting, they continue to ask lots of questiions. Are they intrigued but don’t want to admit their interest? :) Well, first of all, I lift heavy weight because I CAN and it makes me feel powerful! I am soooo not bulky, I am fit, sexy & strong, and as far as pullups go, why the hell not? Ha ha! I am addicted to my Crossfit WOD’s, I get pissed when I stumble on my double-unders and callouses are just part of my routine. I love your article and I can SO relate. We are a big family of powerful women. Rock on sister!!! :)

    • Brenda

      Thanks for sharing your story!! I just started Crossfit 3 months ago and I love it! I was in pretty good shape before I started but the transformation since I started Crossfit is amazing!! I am having a hard time taking a day off. I only wish every woman could experience what Crossfit could do to change and enhance every aspect of your life!

    • Lily

      Sorry to break the news, but you are indeed masculine.
      Femininity is not just a physical thing, it’s also about attitude and emotions. Feminine women enjoy being the smaller, weaker, and more fragile sex. They don’t want to compete at sports with men, rather they want to look up to men and admire their manly strength and athletic prowess.

      I do wish more men were excited about weightlifting and bodybuilding today – as well as martial arts. Playing rough and tumble sports, instead of sitting around watching other guys do that. Men need to learn once again to take pride in their strength and masculinity, to glory in the power and virility of their bodies.

      What a strange and twisted culture our society has been encouraging, where so many females striving to be mannish amazons, and so many adult males resigning themselves to “guyhood” and couch-potato slacking. What a shame for them never to have the pride and power of full manhood. And what a shame for women, not to revel in their femininity, and not to have any strong male heroes to look up to and admire.

      Gender characteristics are not just a random artifact of our “cultural conditioning.” The important sex differences are natural and innate:
      Sexy, masculine men = strong, powerful, aggressive, dominant.
      Sexy, feminine women = modest, shy, weak, fragile, sexually submissive.

      That holds not only for men and women, but also throughout almost all higher animal species. A bull is a very different animal from a cow. The bull’s masculinity is natural, not cultural. Cows don’t try to be like bulls, and women should not try to be like men; nor vice versa.

      How sad that you’ve got it all mixed up, like so many other misguided people today who are rebelling against their own gender.

      • Alise

        Lily, please enter the 21st century. Where did you come up with this??: “Sexy, feminine women = modest, shy, weak, fragile, sexually submissive.”

        I know Dana, and Dana is the furthest point away from “masculine”.

      • Adriana

        You can be a cow. I lift weights, and I’m a lioness!

      • Nicketa

        Poor Lily, she’s going to end up extinct because she can’t adapt and survive because she’s weak and fragile and is waiting for a big strong man to save her. Oh well, while you wait for the men to come back to their senses and take care of you, the rest of us women will save the species. Hint: try luring them back with your sexual submissiveness! :-p As for the article, interesting thoughts. Never considered weigh-training but it sounds fun, for exercise anyway.

    • Susan

      Lily – You HAVE to be kidding me. Even if you don’t agree with powerlifting or weightlifting for women, women have never been fragile or weak. (And the sexually submissive thing is just stupid). Do you really think the cave women were weak and fragile? Hell no! They delivered babies without any meds or doctors. They lived in huts and gathered food for the family. There is not one mother or working woman that I know that is weak or fragile. If not physically strong, women must be emotionally strong to endure periods, child birth, and the challenges of every day lift. Survival of the fittest…weak human beings do not survive, wether they are men or women. Strong humans do. Most women that I know are strong by NATURE.

    • michelle

      I’ve been weightlifting (not girly weights, but heavy-as heavy as I can manage) for 2 years. I’ve been trying very hard to build bulky muscles and have failed..

    • Stephanie

      @ Lily. Ew. Creepy and outdated.

    • kylie

      I can totally relate, I love weights too, I dont know why, it makes no sense to me, but I get the biggest kick out of it.

    • Karn

      Subscribed! Great blog.