Girls Can Make Gains, Too—Better Than You

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I get it. You thought it’d come across as friendly. I came to the gym at a different time today. You had never seen me before. You probably thought it looked cute that I braved the treacherous jungle of squat racks—very rarely penetrated by girls.

Tuesdays are leg day for me, and if you’ve read some of my other pieces, you know that I’m a gym rat. A fitness fanatic. A health nut. Whatever you want to call it, I’m someone who cares about fitness an awful lot. It makes up a huge part of my lifestyle. As a marathon runner, the majority of my training consists of running and lifting weights.

In high school, I needed to gain some weight to become a stronger athlete, so I decided I wanted to do it in the healthiest way possible. I wanted to do it in such a way that would strictly benefit my physical goals. I wanted to gain it all in muscle.

So I read up on the technicalities of it—the nutrition, exercises and rest—and persuaded my dad to take me with his friends to the gym. On the weekends, three middle-aged policemen and I, a 15-year-old girl, bench-pressed together. And I loved it.

After learning the moves and wanting to increase the frequency with which I strength trained, I started going on my own. As the years passed, all the trainers and regular members recognized or knew me. So I never felt uncomfortable. I’d chat with the trainers during my rest between sets and pick up some tips and tricks. I spent a couple of months working with one for hour-long sessions in which she honed my deadlift and squatting techniques. So yes, I do know what I’m doing.

Coming to college, as a freshman girl, I felt hesitant to take the plunge into the weights area of the gym. Basically no girls ever go down there at Boston College. Sometimes you’ll see some athletes, donning their maroon Under Armour, but that’s about it. If girls go on this floor, they’re off to the side in the tiny section with lighter weights—almost hiding and praying the people on the cardio deck aren’t giggling at them. I was not ready to give up my strength training, though, so I popped my headphones in, pumped up Nirvana much louder than I should have and went for it. I’ve lifted three days a week since then.

I like that strength training in that gym made me so nervous at one time. Overcoming that apprehension has built up this confidence that continues to grow with my biceps. Working out surrounded only by guys doing something so hard, simple and honest is invigorating and it really just makes me feel tough. In a world where most achievements have become attainable through shortcuts, lifting weights (without steroids) remains an activity that requires authentic hard work. You can’t cheat and still make gains.

When I was a freshman, the guys used to look at me with surprise when I would grab the hex bar and carry it over to an empty spot in front of the mirror. Even more would start to stare as I loaded it up with 45-pound plates—just to start. As I warmed up and made the weight heavier, their expressions slowly melted. They’d look impressed for a second or two, then go back to their workout.

After a few weeks, people got used to me, and I stopped being self-conscious. I focused on my training. However, today, someone questioned my knowledge and ability. I don’t think that’s what bothered me so much. The truly irritating aspect of the encounter was the reason why he questioned me.

Walking over to my favorite squat rack—the only one situated directly in front of the mirror with no obstructions, the guy deadlifting next to me looked over in amusement. As I shook out my legs a little, trying to loosen them up, he switched to watching me in the mirror. I suppose he thought that was a bit more discreet.

Then, as I adjusted the safety bars, he turned and leaned over to me.

“Do you need help?” he asked.

He caught me off guard, and I replied without even thinking.

“Oh no, I’m alright,” I said quickly. He turned back around with raised eyebrows.

Maybe I am making a bigger deal out of this than I should be. He really could have meant it in a helpful, friendly way. But then again, I know that he only asked me because I’m a girl. Never in my life have I seen a guy in the gym walk over to another guy while he’s preparing to do an exercise and ask if he needs help. Sometimes guys will ask others to act as a spotter while they try to max out, but I know they don’t offer to “help.”

Be honest: He asked if I needed help because I am a girl. I know girls in some countries aren’t even allowed to drive—let alone workout in three-inch spandex at the public gym. But even in the U.S., discrimination lives on in the subtlest of ways. It will continue to do so unless we keep working on it.

I also experienced an urge to change up my workout today so that I’d start deadlifting instead of squatting. Just so I could put that kid’s max to shame. Maybe then I could’ve offered him some of my help.

Shannon is a junior at Boston College, studying English and Communication. Her passions include running, reading, and eating endless jars of peanut butter.

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