BODY building and power-lifting were once seen as testosterone driven, male preserves, but the sports have now become the new “phenomenon” for women in Limerick.
And forget about lifting bags of sugar or strapping on arm weights to lose weight or tone up – these women are lifting weights of 130kg – more than twice their body weight.
Gar Benn, from Ardnacrusha, who opened the City Gym on Sexton Street last September, said when they started he knew about five women who liked to lift heavy weights, but has been stunned by the increasing response to having a women’s only power-lifting club.
Now they have some 40 women, aged 18-54, who attend their classes several nights a week – and the first weight any newcomer will weight will be 40kg. Gar’s own mother Brenda, 54, is currently the oldest member of the club, and can lift 85kg in a dead-lift.
“The stereotype of big and bulky power-lifters is gone, and women can’t build the same muscle that men do, because they don’t have testosterone. They’re just in lean, phenomenal shape. The days of doing long distance cardio, for two to three hours, are dead; it’s all about resistance training.”
Gar explained that previously the women felt awkward or intimidated in mixed-sex gyms, where men normally command the weights – and the mirrors – and he wanted to create an environment where women felt free to lift weights without gaping stares.
“The girls love feeling empowered that they can lift three to four times their body weight. One woman said that when she trains in UL everyone used to stop and stare at what she was doing, because of the size of the weights. She was embarrassed at the attention at first, now she loves that she can do this,” the 25 year-old personal trainer told the Limerick Leader.
After just a few months of training, the women are reaping the dividends in multiple ways, and a number of them competed in Cork last weekend at the IDFPA (The Irish Drug Free Power-lifting Association) competition, with great success, including Aoife Williams, 23, from Caherdavin who came first with her deadlift within her weight category of sub 58.5kg and lifted 130kg - or 289 pounds.
Of the 450-odd participants, some 60% were women.
“I’ve always played team sports, such as hockey and basketball,” explained Aoife, “but this is different. Before I may have been fit but I didn’t look strong and this has instilled confidence in me that no other sport has done. It’s you against you and the only competition is yourself. All of the girls encourage each other to do better, and lift more than we did in the last session.
“I never imagined I would be physically able to lift these weights. At the moment I can lift about two and a half times my body weight, but I’m aiming for three.”
Prior to the establishment of the Limerick club, Aoife was the only competitor who travelled from UL to the intervarsity competitions in Cork, and saw that they had a women’s powerlifting club. “They had such a close bond, and I said to myself I wished Limerick had the same. I approached Gar and put up a status about it on Facebook and the response was phenomenal. It has really taken off, and Gliondar (the recent RTE programme about female powerlifters) can only help. It is just an amazing facility for Limerick women to have, and I would advice anyone to try it out. It is worth coming along to a class just to experience the atmosphere alone.”
While body-building and power-lifting are different sports, Limerick – and indeed Ireland’s most successful female bodybuilder - Sophia McNamara, from Corbally, said they are both about female empowerment.
The 40 year-old, single mum of two said prior to 2009 she never did any type of exercise and suffered from crippling self-consciousness. After three months of training she won her first title, and now claims 10 Irish titles, and was fourth in the Universe in 2013. After taking a year out, she is looking forward to competing again at the body building championships in UL this winter. “Body building has a bad rep, but it can be feminine and I always wanted to remain feminine and inspire other women to compete. As a single parent for the past 11 years now, body building has definitely helped me to develop more self-confidence. But you also have to have a very thick skin, and be aware of the politics that exist in this sport, and never forget your own self worth.”
The powerlifting club in the City Gym, Sexton Street, runs Mondays (7-8pm), Wednesdays (8-9pm), Thursdays (11.30-12.30) and on Fridays (6-7pm). It costs €30 a month.