Right before 24-year-old Cynthia Leu—a 5'6, 140-pound corporate recruiter from Orange County—hoists 295 lbs. over her shoulders and squats, she's thinking: "pinch back, deep breath, brace belly" and "honestly, not much other than lift that shit."
Under a barbell double her bodyweight, there are no haunting memories of her past gym life: 15 pounds gained in college, the resulting cardio binges, a cheating ex-boyfriend who hacked away at her self-esteem with a metaphorical ax, or her Taiwanese model and fashion designer mom taking a (not metaphorical) rolling pin to her legs to make them look smaller. "In a sense, finding powerlifting and getting into that kind of saved my life," Leu says, explaining that she was bulimic when she first started working out. She shifted from cardio and bodybuilding to training as a powerlifter in December 2013 and by the time she participated in her first competition, or "meet," three months later, she had stopped purging entirely. Now, Leu has broken multiple state, national, and world records in her federation.
She's far from the only woman who has discovered the benefits of powerlifting over the past four years—something that's obvious to anyone with an Instagram account. The United States is seeing an explosion of women in powerlifting, a sport once reserved for brawny, testosterone-fueled men. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, the number of competitive female powerlifters doubled from around 3,000 to 6,000, compared to the 15 percent increase of male powerlifters from 10,900 to 12,500, according to Dave Tate, founder and CEO of EliteFTS and industry insider for over three decades. (These numbers were confirmed by Powerlifting Watch, the leading source of powerlifting rankings.) Tate claims 2015 to 2016 saw the biggest increase in women powerlifters the sport has ever seen, and that one third of American lifters are now women. And these numbers only include competitive lifters, not people who train recreationally but never compete—a demographic Tate says is "probably the area of the sport that's grown the most but nobody can quantify."
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What was once "a handful of women at a meet, if you were lucky" has evolved into women-only events like Queens of the Iron and Iron Maidens Raw Open boasting full rosters of diverse competitors. But who are these queens of iron? And why are so many maidens recently flocking to strength-based sports? Has powerlifting changed as a result? Should it?
Dawn Deacon-Maroscher, a 49-year-old mother of three and school psychologist whose husband describes her as "as far away from the muscle-head stereotype as you can get," says powerlifting was as much an emotional transformation as it was a physical one. "I felt more confident at work, more confident in my clothing... I was walking a little taller," she says. "So for me, not only was it a physical transformation, but emotionally it infused and crossed over [into other parts of my life]." Deacon-Maroscher went on to win the 2010 American World Powerlifting Congress Raw Bench Press Championship. At 148 pounds, she now benches 215 lbs. and trains women at Monster Garage Gym, the Illinois-based establishment she owns with her husband Eric Maroscher.
Leu says she also experienced a transformation through powerlifting, overcoming her bulimia and focusing on strength-based goals rather than the scale or "trying to see [her] abs more." These sorts of stories aren't uncommon. Jessica Stalter has spoken about how powerlifting keeps her "on the straight and narrow" after years of drug and alcohol abuse. Becci Holcomb, who won third place at the 2016 USA Powerlifting Raw Nationals, says she almost didn't register for the event after an abusive relationship left her "wrecked" just a month-and-a-half prior.
"We have a saying: Leave it under the bar," Holcomb says, fighting back tears. "I call it iron therapy."
Girls Who Powerlift (GWPL) started as an Instagram account in July 2015 to showcase exactly what you'd expect given its name. Within a few months it had 20,000 organic followers, says founder Ivy Knight. Two years later, it's surpassed 100,000 followers and has expanded into a website, blog, and app. Through its apparel shop, the company began selling wrist wraps designed for women's bodies, and expect to put out singlets and knee sleeves soon so, as Knight explains, women can stop "shifting around" in gear made for men.
"Women were powerlifting, we just didn't know," says Knight. "To know that there are other girls in your area or other girls in general doing what you do [or want to do], built this community into what it is." Thanks to GWPL and sites such as Girls Gone Strong, This is Female Powerlifting, the "I've Got a Minge Monday" thread on r/powerlifting, and YouTubers like MegSquats, women are challenging traditional conceptions femininity, not only in gyms or at meets, but also on the web—where niche communities thrive and pertinent information like why girls pee when they lift can be shared.
But it's not all protein shakes and high fives in the world of women's lifting. Strength over aesthetics is a hot-button issue for powerlifters because it's what differentiates the sport from bodybuilding and figure competitions. By focusing on strength, this inversion of what's typically prioritized is why many women are drawn to powerlifting —a sport of "packing your neck" until your chin has doubled, and wearing full singlets as opposed to bikinis.
Some, including EliteFTS writers Dani Overcash and JP Carroll, have criticized what they believe to be an oversexualized aspect of the women's lifting community: the hashtag #peachgang, which was created and popularized by GWPL and represents a "squat booty."
As more women lifters take to Instagram—a platform built entirely on prioritizing aesthetics—attracting interest in the sport as well as gaining sponsors, people like Overcash are asking whether the sport's ideals have been skewed. Yet Knight insists that #peachgang is about "being proud of the body you've worked hard to create." She says, "I love the fact that I can love my curves and do girly things...and still lift more than most men."
Whether they choose to prioritize strength or aesthetics, women in powerlifting are regularly sexualized by men. And while it would be fine to say things like "Lift me overhead and dominate me. How's $5,000?" on FetLife, these types of messages are unsolicited by athletes including Holcomb, who says she received them weekly. She also says she receives requests to wrestle and step on men.
Stephanie Pio, a high school teacher, World Natural Bodybuilding Federation figure professional and elite-level USPA powerlifter, says men have inquired about her Nikes on multiple occasions, asking seemingly innocuous questions like "Do you wear them barefoot?" that soon take a sexual turn. "It took me embarrassingly long to realize [the guy] was like jerking off to the image of my foot in my shoe," she says. "Man, to be unknowingly involved in somebody's sexual fantasies...it really takes you off guard."
Pio's also frustrated by all the "mansplaining" she says she experiences online and at the gym. "If anybody's gonna correct my form...it's definitely a man and it's almost always not correct," she says. Leu agrees, saying those kinds of "haters" are the reason she rarely trains at commercial gyms, opting instead to train out of her garage or a CrossFit box. Gyms, especially strength gyms, can feel like an intimidating boys' club, says Deacon-Maroscher, who had to get used to the "macho" atmosphere, the farting, and the guys who "drop trou" in the middle of the floor. "And then sometimes guys have a difficult time spotting women," she added. "They're trying to be respectful...[but] I have to lay it out: Grab a boob if you have to. I don't want to get crushed."
Nevertheless, Deacon-Maroscher says women have found a home in powerlifting because of the "camaraderie" among female lifters who cheer each other on and even support each other at competitions, where goals boil down to achieving personal bests anyway. "When they're able to lift a certain weight," she explains, "then they start questioning, 'Well, what else did I think I couldn't do that I can actually do?'"