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There is a specter haunting the gym. But this specter has no political affiliation, à la Karl Marx’s call to communism. No, this specter has a bit more to do with redefining societal norms and expectations when it comes to a woman’s “proper place” in the gym, if we can be so outrageous as to talk about what’s “proper.”
Growing up, I watched my mother struggle with her weight. After delivering my own strapping 10-pound body, followed by my 9-pound, 11-ounce brother, my amazing mother had several years of “trying to shake the baby weight.” And I watched her shake, and shake, and shake, to little effect.
I watched the culture of the female exerciser in the 1980s. First, there were the Jane Fonda fitness tapes, replete with sand-filled ankle weights, which encouraged women to lay on their sides and do lying leg raises on the floor, hidden in their own homes, not being so bold and outward with their pursuit of nice buns.
A few years later, it transitioned to Women’s Workout World, a safe haven where female lifters could go, “not be judged,” and presumably not be too serious.
And I saw the results that followed from that mentality. Or lack thereof.
Whether it’s Curves or its more modern and gender-neutral stepchild Planet Fitness, I have watched these trends and fads over the last 30 years that relegate scared women to remaining out of shape. All the while, those who perpetuate this school of thought tell women it’s OK to be scared, that it’s a good thing, and society should tiptoe around your fears, cater to your low self-image and build a facility just for you, where you can stuff your head in the sand, like a proper female, and not worry — for 30 minutes — about what anybody says or thinks about your body.
Selling plagiarized self-esteem at its finest. Three cheers for capitalism.
Let’s flash-forward to about 2010. We started seeing a lot of different things in the gym. We saw new divisions introduced on the bodybuilding stage, including the Bikini and women’s Physique divisions. For the first time at Physique shows, we saw women outnumbering the men. And we saw the culture shifting.
Gyms began filling up with semi-buff women wearing T-shirts — oh, the T-shirts, the endless T-shirts — bearing catchphrases like “Strong Is the New Sexy!” or perhaps “She Squats.” This trend has now exploded into a never-ending litany of pseudo-witty phrases like “Practice Safe Sets,” “Squats and Stilettos,” “Muscles and Mascara,” and numerous others that I have tried with all my energy to ignore.
Yes, it’s true: Women have stepped up and now “run their own ish,” as the kids say. The gym culture has changed quite a bit in the last few years.
Or has it?
The problem is that any time I put on a training video featuring a famous IFBB pro Bikini competitor, it’s basically a clip of her bending over while holding 10-pound dumbbells and showing off her “hard-earned glute-ham tie-in.” In another video, that same fitness enthusiast may be jumping up and down mindlessly onto a small box and extoling the virtues of “plyometrics.” (Code for: I have no idea how to work out or what the difference is between hypertrophy training and aerobic exercise.)
And then there’s my personal favorite: female lifters who have actually developed some respectable degree of muscle mass, rather than the “squat booty” one so proudly displays when they have learned to bury an earth-shattering 135 pounds for a handful of reps. (Yes, I am mocking the “beast moders” who are only squatting a plate. You want cred? Put some real slag iron on your back and drop it like it’s hot. Your slightly less flabby buttocks is not the same thing as a true squat booty.)
My point? Yes, the slogans have changed. The clothing has changed. The population split has changed, and there is a lot more estrogen on the free-weight floor than ever before in the history of gyms.
But the expectations — what is “acceptable” and “desirable” — has not changed. Women, from what I have seen, are still largely pigeonholing themselves into the, “Well, I don’t want to get too big, I don’t want to train too hard” mentality, despite their fancy slogans and hashtag claims.
At Team Warrior Within, we have fought to change that culture and allow women to truly train like their lives depend on it. Here are three prime examples:
1. Donna McGinn
Donna was the first woman who I helped turn IFBB pro. She came to me at age 48, with three grown daughters, and said it was time to take back her life by getting into amazing shape. We trained like extreme bodybuilders, sometimes like powerlifters, getting her as strong as possible on basic core movements. This included working up to 275-pound squats for sets of 10, leg pressing eight plates per side, shoulder pressing 60-pound dumbbells for sets of 10 and deadlifting 275 pounds for sets of six to eight reps. And lo and behold, a mere two years after she started aggressively lifting, Donna stepped onstage at the 2015 NPC North American Championships and snagged her IFBB pro card. She walks around now, 50 years old, with tighter glutes and hamstrings than you will ever see on a 20-year-old girl.
2. Felecia Murray
This newly minted IFBB pro and client was trained by my wife, Nikki Johnston, whom Felecia approached after the 2014 NPC Baltimore Gladiator Championships. Felecia already had an amazing build — round muscle bellies, great taper and all the potential in the world — but hadn’t quite tapped into every ounce of that potential. So Nikki took her to task and helped unleash this demon in the gym. I watched Felecia train over the past year like she was on a mission from God — the volume, the pace, the intensity, the weights she was flinging around the floor. Felecia progressed to where she was squatting 295 pounds, doing lateral raises with 40-pound dumbbells and rowing the 120-pound dumbbell for solid sets of 10. Oh, and let’s not forget that Felecia also began her journey in her mid 40s, with three children at home, as a military vet with a full-time career.
3. Brianna Krause
Brianna, a Bikini competitor, is my third and final IFBB pro as of this writing. And let me tell you, she’s not the stereotypical “cardio bunny” who does nothing but some lame plyos, possibly some lateral raises with 5-pound dumbbells and, of course, posts endlessly on social media. No, our Bikini girls do it a little differently. I knew this as soon as Brianna sent me a video of her free squatting 225 pounds for six reps, which she followed up by telling me that her goal was to rep 250 pounds before she started prep. “She squats.” No really, Brianna does. And the LEGITIMATE “booty gains” will be displayed this year at her pro debut in November. She has already given me some candid previews, with a gluteus maximus that has apparently doubled in size over the last seven months since turning pro.
These women approach their training like warriors, with intelligent nutritional programming to match. The Spartan Diet consists of bland chicken breasts and even blander egg whites. Donna and Felecia — along with the majority of my amateur competitors — get the occasional treat of Divine Nutrition whey isolate. Thank the gods above for cinnamon bun, vanilla peanut butter and caramel corn, which often provide the only delicious meal of the day when deep in contest prep. And despite the broscience anti-shake front, our competitors include protein shakes in their contest prep right up until a few days before the show. Because Divine Nutrition offers an all-natural blend with no additives, we can be confident that the product is pure and will not lead to stomach issues or any degree of subcutaneous water retention on game day, hence leading to the skin-slitting conditioning sported by Donna and Felecia.
So has the culture changed? Are women truly “empowered” in the gym these days? Well, they certainly claim they are. They certainly like to tell people they are. They certainly like to wear clothing suggesting that they are.
But on average, I just don’t see it. I still see lots and lots of scared individuals, peering out in fear, confused about how to approach things, convinced that they shouldn’t “go too hard” or “get too big,” for fear that they may be criticized.
There are many notable exceptions, of course. And I applaud my iron sisters who choose to truly push, to rip the knurl off the bar, embrace the calluses, grunt, yell and kill themselves in the gym, if that’s what it takes to push things to the next level. At Team Warrior Within, we have created and promoted a culture of always training with everything you’ve got, pushing with every ounce of being you can muster and truly chasing your greatest potential.
We don’t have the catchphrases on our shirts. What we do have are the round, bulbous, contoured bodies under those shirts that renders said catchphrases completely unnecessary.
If you’re going to insist on wearing a shirt with the phrase “She Lifts” plastered across the chest, fine. But prove it. Every. Damn. Time.