The Women of Strength at CCSC

by Gillian Mounsey Ward | November 30, 2013

It was June 1st, 2013 just after 9AM. The air was electric with excitement. Joni Keiser. All eyes were fixed on Joni Keiser’s tiny, 5’2”, 122-pound, frame as she stepped under the monolift to take her third squat attempt, with a look of pure determination on her face. The girls that train with her three times per week watched anxiously a few feet away in the wings. Her husband Chris had his camera trained upon her. I am her coach, and my legs trembled with a mix of excitement and nerves. All of us watching were determined to help Joni stand that bar up any way we could. Joni unracked the squat with a level of confidence that I had not ever before seen from her when the weights are heavy. She took a big breath, set hard, and squatted 200 pounds for the first time in her life. The crowd screamed for her throughout the lift, sending her positive energy that surely helped propel her out of the bottom of the hole. When she successfully completed the lift the crowd erupted with cheers and tears. We all felt Joni’s victory. Many of us had become close enough to Joni to know what she went through day in and day out in the gym to be able to achieve this monumental 200 pound squat. When I consider the reasons I coach I think of moments like this one.

If you ask Joni about this day this is what she will tell you:

“I had been stuck at 185–190 for what seemed like months. I tried 200 once or twice unsuccessfully. 200 always felt SO HEAVY!!! In my eyes, 200 was such a huge milestone.  I had somehow created a mental block when attempting to squat this weight.

“I am still new at powerlifting and am unsure of myself at times. I don’t know exactly what causes this. There are some days that I feel indifferent about lifting. I think, ‘at least I’m here doing something (a whatever happens, happens kind of attitude) instead of going home and sitting on the couch to watch TV the rest of the evening.’ There are days that I go into the gym with a solid goal in mind, focused and determined having thought about what was going to happen at the gym almost all day.

“There are times when lifting is scary as well. If the bar feels really HEAVY when I leave the rack with it, the very first thought in my head is my gosh, this is SO heavy! This is what would happen every time I would try to squat 200 pounds. That negative thought can make or break me some days.

“I felt super strong and solid that morning. Being my very first meet, I was so happy to do it in my home gym with all of the coaches from the gym and three of my female lifting partners. The support female lifters give to each other is like no other, in my opinion. All of the trainers and fellow lifters had known the struggle I had been having with the dreaded 200 pound squat. I had no idea how I was going to feel or react to being in the monolift (which is not what we would usually squat in) and being the center of attention with all eyes on me.  But that day, I was determined. I went into the meet with the thought of hopefully setting PRs on all of my lifts, or at least matching my previous PRs. The first 2 squats had gone so well. I was ready to get that 200-pound squat. When I got under the bar, I thought my heart was going to beat out of my chest. I told myself ‘this is it, you’ve got this!’ focused on the floor, took the bar out of the rack, and did the squat. There was a split second at the bottom that I thought I was done, that there was no way I was going to make it up. But the crowd was yelling and I was determined not to miss that 200lb squat I had been chasing for weeks, and I stood up.  It was such an amazing feeling! The cheering from the crowd, the hugs and congrats from my peers and coaches, the feeling of accomplishment was unbelievable! Moments like that are what will keep me lifting for years to come.”

Joni’s story becomes even more profound when viewed within the context of her lifting history.  She is a 35 year old mother of two that works full time as a perioperative registered nurse on Camp Lejuene in North Carolina. Her long hours in the operating room often prevent her from being properly nourished and hydrated, and she had been sedentary for many years. Before last January, she had experience only as an exerciser and had little to no experience with barbell training. The first few months of training were borderline traumatic for her, but she stuck with it and never gave up. In addition to the typical mechanical mistakes of a novice squatter Joni suffered from extreme muscle cramping especially in her feet. This left me perplexed but we worked through it. The mental obstacle of the squat seemed unconquerable for a long time. On linear progression, Joni’s squat was stuck between 135 lbs and 155 lbs for months. A subsequent change in programming with less squat volume ended up being the answer to breaking this plateau in her case. We kept her motivated by the gains that she made on the other lifts. Joni very recently hit a new squat PR of 215 lbs. Once again the room erupted in emotion.

between sets

There is something magical happening at Crystal Coast Strength & Conditioning (CCSC).  Women are choosing barbell training, sticking with it, and achieving things they never thought possible.  New relationships have formed, and lives have changed dramatically. These women are tight with each other. They are a family, not of blood, but united by their experiences under a barbell. This will be better explained by taking a look at the history of the CCSC program we call Semi-Private Strength.

When my husband and I opened CCSC in December of 2012, we created the Semi-Private Strength program. Semi-Private Strength is a group of up to four individuals that train together 2-3x per week in a specific time slot. They are initially placed by time of convenience for them and not by age or ability. Every person in the program runs Starting Strength until linear progression has run its course. When gains have stalled, goals are reassessed and they move on to some version of intermediate training, often with a specific goal in mind. Each group member is held accountable for maintaining his or her own training log , bar math, bar loading, spotting techniques, respecting the lifter performing the work-set, and attendance.

Ten months later, this program has exceeded my wildest expectations. For whatever reason, there are a substantially higher number of female participants. We have had twenty-two women participate in Semi-Private Strength, and though groups are not exclusively male or female, due to the higher level of female participation there are two all- women groups. It is a living, breathing culture of its own.

The youngest female in the program, Brianna Yoho, is fourteen years old. Her father, Steve, joined first and loved it so much that he brought his whole family. Brianna trains with three or four other women at 4:30 (that is a popular afternoon time slot, the only one that I allow over crowding by one additional trainee). Steve stays to watch her workout and will often take videos of the girls’ lifts and assist me as a spotter.

The eldest female, Patricia Kennedy, is 62 years old. She is the poster child for my gym. Patricia walked in the door last winter and practically begged me to put her under a barbell. She looked over at the weights and said, “I want to do that.” More to come about her later, but I’ll give you a tidbit that will blow you away. Patricia lifts two days per week on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 AM. She has taken her squat from the empty bar for three sets of five to one hundred and thirty five pounds for three sets of five. Yes, 62-year-old Patricia Kennedy squats the big wheels, and it happens to be just shy of her bodyweight. She started strength training at sixty one!

The first women to pioneer this program were the meat-eaters; they were hungry for results.  They were competitive, and they were smart enough to know, or smart enough to believe when they were told, that strength training would make them better at everything. They were looking for answers and a solution to gain a level of fitness that they never before had achieved. Originally, these ladies were looking for CrossFit, which at the time we did not offer. Our services were personal training, semi-private strength, group conditioning classes, and open gym. I met with each new prospect and explained to them the benefits of strength training. With a combination of our reputation and a suggestion from a mutual friend, they gave up on exercise and took a chance on strength training.

This first group of women was fierce and intimidating to watch. They all were fit in appearance and chomping at the bit to get under a barbell. Results were their focus, and a competitive vibe was thick in the air. Other women in the gym admired them for both their physiques and their accomplishments, but were fearful of trying it themselves. Strength training at CCSC at first was not viewed as something that the “regular” people did. It was reserved for the driven athletic types. The buzz in the gym revolved around the results the strength groups were getting. It became the talk at local parties, dinners, the salon, the grocery store. People began to take note of the barbell as a means to get leaner, improve posture, improve confidence, lift the tush, and shape the back and arms.

Living in a small town with deep roots and a strong sense of community has its benefits. Word of mouth was our single biggest tool in bringing people through the doors. What they encountered when they got inside was simple: squat, press, deadlift, bench press, and power clean with some pull-ups thrown in.

Over time, a new breed of female trainees signed up for the program. Most of them wanted to look better, feel better, and improve their overall quality of life. They feared the unknown and were afraid to get hurt. Some harbored misconceptions of what barbell training would do to them.  They needed reassurance that they would not get “bulky” or put on unsightly amounts of muscle.  Their priority in life was not the gym. The gym was a tool that they hoped would make them more productive and better able to enjoy the other aspects of their lives. We now had the “regular” women under the barbell.
Having this sort of sample group of female trainees has made me ask the following questions to better understand how to have ongoing success.  Why do women choose barbell strength training?  What keeps them motivated? What are the factors to program adherence? What kind of gains can they expect to have? What environment is most conducive to training? What are their goals? And, finally, why does this hold their appeal when CrossFit style training is far more popular?

It was my pondering of these questions that led to this article. I already had the hard data of their training logs and attendance records. What I needed to understand were the pieces of information not evident on those pages.

There are several practical observations that can be drawn from the hard data of these women’s training history. On average, the women were able to run linear progression using the Starting Strength model for 6-10 weeks before needing major resets, if we started conservatively. The ones that stuck it out, for the most part, hit a sticking point on the squat at 1.25x bodyweight for 3 sets of 5. There are a few exceptions to this where age may have been the primary factor. A few outliers exceeded this number and ran up to 1.5x bodyweight squat.

The press was usually the first lift to stall. For a few, it was the bench press. Several of the women began microloading (using fractional plates and making jumps of less than five pounds) on the press as early as week three. Most women were able to press somewhere between 55% and 65% of their bodyweight for sets across by the time linear progression had run its course. The bench press exhibited a great degree of variance and ranged from 65% of bodyweight to 88% of bodyweight for 3 sets of 5.  I believe this was largely influenced by past experience. The few that were prior “gym rats” and had bench pressed or used dumbbells before hit higher percentages based on bodyweight.

The deadlift yielded the most unpredictable and variable results. After 12 weeks of training, numbers range from 10% over bodyweight for a set of 5 to nearly double bodyweight for a set of 5. I believe there are several reasons for this variance. The deadlift is the last lift performed of the Starting Strength training session. Mental and physical fatigue are factors. Another factor is that of “Mental commitment.” That bar is only coming up off the ground if you are all in. Finally, there is a good deal of genetics in one’s novice deadlift ability. I have witnessed completely untrained women with no exercise history pluck 300 pounds off the floor.

I have no useful data on the power clean as the degree of variance was too great to draw any hard conclusions. Power cleans improved with practice and as overall strength improved and the deadlift increased. No surprises there.

All of the information is useful and of great help when it comes to managing expectations and designing the next levels of programming, but it does not answer why the women train and what they derive from it. Only the women themselves can answer these questions.

Twelve of the female lifters of CCSC have been asked, through a series of discussions and written questions, to tell their story. Their day to day lives vary greatly, their goals vary greatly, but they share a common thread, and it has created a bond that needs to be seen to be comprehended fully. Every one of them knows what it’s like to walk a heavy bar out of the rack and squat. They all know the joy and accomplishment of a successful work set and the disappointment of a failed rep. This article is meant to provide insight into their experiences with strength training.

“Skinny” Newbies of the Early Morning

The 8:30 AM class is composed of three women, Paige, Julie, and Kristofer, that spent quite a bit of time in the conditioning program before making the leap to strength training. For months, they would watch others doing the barbell lifts with intrigue. As this past summer drew to an end and the kids were back in school, they decided to join the Semi-Private Strength class. All three women were avid exercisers yet rank novices in barbell training.

Another similarity shared by this group is that all three women have genetically thin builds. A barbell lighter than 45 lbs was necessary to allow them to begin pressing. Luckily at the gym we are fortunate enough to have 15-lb training bars and 33-lb (15 kg) Olympic lifting bars. But, they are fast learners under the barbell and pick up cues quickly, though we have had some struggles with barbell math. Misloads happen frequently.

early morning trio at ccsc

Their slight frames have presented some unusual challenges for me as a coach. Microloading was necessary far earlier on in the training than typical. We have two full sets of fractional plates to load the bar with, allowing for increases as small as half a pound. I try to keep the upper body lifts with 2.5-lb jumps before reducing it further. Squats and Deadlifts remain in 5-lb increments for as long as possible. Additionally, they were more sensitive to the bar position in the squat because the “shelf” where the bar rests on their backs is primarily bone. Over time, they developed tolerance and put on enough muscle mass to cushion the stress.

Correcting form on the squat can be challenging due to hypermobility of the spine. A normal amount of extension is often hard to find and maintain when the lifter is very thin. The solution to this is to continue to follow the program as prescribed. This condition tends to correct itself with time spent under the bar.  As the weights get heavier, the hyperextension lessens.

Not over-exercising with this demographic is the key to continued progression and success of the program. At the onset of the program I explain to them that more is not better, better is better. If they are going to go out and run 50 miles per week the progress in the gym will not happen. I severely limit the quantity of exercise that they do outside of the strength class.

Paige Eilertson, 41, is a 5’5”, 130-pound stay-at-home mother of three. Paige looks like a model. She is a successful beauty pageant competitor with an admirable background – she has overcome an eating disorder. In high school, she was a competitive tennis player, and more recently, she worked out at the gym with dumbbells, machines, and cardio equipment. In the midst of her active community involvement and family life, she recently recognized the need for strength training, and I knew that she would thrive in a group setting with a high level of accountability. I asked Paige why she chose to strength train and what she gets out of it:

“I originally chose to strength train to be the most competitive for the bikini portion of the Mrs. NC pageant. Because of my platform of overcoming a severe 12 year eating disorder, I wanted to show that strong is healthy. There is so much pressure in the media to be skeletal thin, and I want to combat that unhealthy mentality.

“Strong muscles make me capable!  I can do tasks of the home that I need to do while my husband is away. My thinking is clearer and I look more attractive. I love the look of strong muscles rather than skin and bone. Being in shape makes me even more confident. It’s empowering!

“I enjoy working out with my friends and each of us meeting and exceeding our goals as well as seeing positive body composition changes. I’m inspired when I see others in the gym that are also working hard and seeing positive results.

“Lifting has made me more confident in my appearance. I have people ask me often what I do to keep in such great shape. That feels good!  It’s also helped me learn positive life lessons: working hard for something that doesn’t always come easy, going after a goal and not quitting when it gets tough, and putting in hard work and seeing great results.  It’s helped me learn greater perseverance and it’s one of my greatest stress relievers by a long shot.”

Julie Martin lifts on the platform that faces Paige.  She is the first to arrive and is always prepared. Julie’s barbell is set up in the rack, and her notebook open when I walk on to the training floor. Julie, 31, at 5’10” and 150 lbs looks more like a runner than a weightlifter. Prior to joining CCSC she ran for the past 7 years. Julie describes herself as a Christian, a wife, a homemaker and part time self-employed interior decorator/seamstress. She does not have children yet but it’s in her plans for the future. Julie busts her butt under the barbell. She is one of the few novices that really know how to grind and not give up. At the moment she and Paige are neck and neck in their linear progression. If one misses a class it is an opportunity for the other to pull ahead. A little bit of competition is healthy in this group.

Her decision to strength train came from not seeing the results and changes in her body that she wanted by running:

“I knew I needed more than cardio to become stronger. Honestly, I want to keep my body in good shape. Yes, some of my motivation is vain! But I’ve also become more aware of my need for weight training for overall physical maintenance as I become older. The benefits are beyond a shallow motivation.

“I feel good. I feel strong. Weight lifting boosts my confidence. Weight lifting was always what other people did, not me. Weight lifting was out of my comfort zone. Now I am the one under the bar and I am lifting weight that seemed unattainable to me before I began.

“I enjoy setting goals and seeing that I can accomplish them. I enjoy that I am challenged. Some days it is hard, but there is a proud and happy feeling that comes after struggling under a weight, but pushing through and finishing a lift.

“I dislike the occasional pain. I hate not making my lifts. I was discouraged early on by shoulder pain during the squat and was frustrated to have to adjust my bar position.

“Looking in the mirror and seeing muscle definition that wasn’t there before motivates me. Watching the other women that I lift with stick with it as the weights get heavier drives me. My husband’s words of praise and encouragement also help. He thinks it’s sexy that I lift!”

Kristofer Johnston lifts on the platform to Julie’s left is. Kristopher is 39, 5’5” and 108 lbs. She is a highly competitive marathon runner (though far too modest to share that with anyone), swimmer, and certified Pilates instructor. Kristopher and her husband own their own independent pharmacy and are both pharmacists. She is also a mother.

Kristofer chose to lift to become stronger and put on muscle. She wanted something to complement her running. Interestingly enough, she is now a stronger, faster runner because of it.

The small group setting is very enjoyable to Kristofer, and she feels the environment is very conducive to making gains and staying motivated. She enjoys both the mental and physical challenge of lifting. Kristofer also recognizes the injury prevention benefits that she derives from training. She has been plagued with overuse injuries and knew that she needed to be stronger to combat them. Time spent under a barbell means that less time needs to be spent out pounding the pavement.

Kristofer admits to being timid about beginning the program. Initially, she feared that it was not for her and might actually harm her running. She was concerned about adding bulk to her frame. After a little bit of time under the bar, Kristofer’s concerns melted away. I enjoy watching the determination on her face during the sessions. She is extremely focused and highly coachable. Her ability to interpret cues and make corrections mid-lift is unparalleled.

The Sophisticated Dames of the Late Morning

This group has gone through many evolutions since the inception of the program. Until October 24th, 2013 the group contained a male trainee, Steve Yoho. Steve has moved to an evening group of all men. His wife Traci Yoho continues to train in the morning. Tina Keim and Patricia Kennedy lift alongside Traci.

Patricia Kennedy is 62 years old, 5’7” and 139 lbs and is one of the originals in the program. She exudes elegance, sophistication, beauty and strength. Patricia played basketball in high school and then was a runner for several years when her children were young.

Patricia was widowed two years ago after being the full-time caregiver for her husband who died of frontal temporal dementia at the age of 62. She now has another wonderful man in her life, and together they enjoy being active on the water and boating. Patricia has helped make a change in his lifestyle, and he now joins her in the gym for workouts.

When asked about her choice to strength train Patricia explains:

“I had always wanted to strength train and knew I could do it. I wanted to do something for myself that would challenge me to my roots. It’s almost like I wanted to move a mountain and was looking for a way to do it. I wish I had this opportunity during my long caregiving stint. It would have given me a healthy outlet and more energy during this time.

“Lifting makes me feel powerful! It challenges me both physically and mentally. It makes me feel good to know that at my age I am physically strong and that this has become a lifestyle for me that I will continue for the rest of my life. I can’t imagine being out of the gym for any length of time. I enjoy pushing myself to my limit physically. It really gives me a sense of accomplishment.

“The results, I both see and feel. I have never felt stronger, better, and more in control of my life. I have also learned that I can do anything I desire with the right amount of effort and training. I may be over 60, but I feel so much younger than that. It has made me more aware of how to treat my body and how both food and rest will affect it. Lifting has given me physical strength but also a mental toughness and tenacity in everything I do.

“I believe the biggest misconception about strength training is that you are going to look like a man. I don’t think a lot of women, especially in my age bracket, think that a muscular woman is attractive, but I do.  I would encourage other women to strength train by telling them that it is a necessity in order to maintain muscle mass through the aging process. Lifting also helps ward off osteoporosis and improves balance.

Tina Keim lifts on the rack next to Patricia. The two of them bicker sometimes; watching them interact is entertaining. Tina is 47 years old, 5’ and 113 lbs. She was a childhood gymnast, lifetime fitness enthusiast and has the build of Mary Lou Retton circa 1984. Tina has had approximately 20 years experience with strength training prior to beginning the program but had never run a linear strength progression. As a Crossfit instructor and a Commanding Officer’s wife, and the mom of a 100 lb Doberman, Tina is very busy and on the go all of the time. Her presence brings spunk and liveliness to the group.

Tina chose to lift to improve her overall strength. She enjoys the goal-oriented nature of the program and the sense of accomplishment. Lifting makes her feel confident. She came to us with the exceptional upper body strength of a gymnast but needed work on her squats and deadlifts. Pound for pound Tina is the strongest on the bench press of all of the women in the program. Her sets of five are at near bodyweight.

Tina was very candid and explained that she dislikes the food cravings and sometimes the absence of variety. Being in such a tiny package, her biggest obstacle to sticking to the program is the weight gain.  Lifting makes her hungrier and sometimes she indulges in more calories than she would like.

According to Tina, the biggest misconception about strength training is that,

“It will make you look less feminine. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Strength is beauty.

“Lifting has helped me feel I can handle whatever may come up in everyday life − moving furniture, lifting boxes overhead, carrying groceries, etc.”

The newest addition to this group is Traci Yoho. Traci, at 42, is the youngest group member and has been lifting for three and a half months. She has no athletic history and was not doing any exercise for a long time prior to strength training. Traci and her husband Steve own a few Little Caesar’s stores and have been very kind to CCSC serving as our primary sponsor at our powerlifting meets that benefit severely injured servicemen and their families.

Traci joined the group because her husband had started lifting and was enjoying it.  She wanted to try something new and challenging. Traci has a smile that lights up the room. Her motivation comes from watching her teammates achieve their goals and the encouragement that they give her. Walking out of the gym feeling good about herself keeps her coming back.

Coaching Traci has been extremely rewarding. The first few weeks she struggled with a lack of body awareness. Traci has lots of raw strength but is completely untrained on how to take command of her body. She is learning these skills and making gains at an astounding rate. Her deadlift is nearing 200 lbs for a set of five. Traci will be able to run a linear progression for the squat and deadlift for a very long time.

When asked how lifting has changed her life, she responded,

“I feel more energized. I am excited to go to the gym rather than having to force myself to go. I am seeing results and it has helped me to stay motivated and to eat properly, so I get what I need to continue to get stronger.”

The Afternoon Veterans & Neophyte Teenager

The 4:30 PM group of ladies has remained relatively constant since we opened our doors in December of last year. Joni Keiser trained from day one, in fact she committed to training before we even opened the doors. Jessica Miller and Cheri Wissman joined shortly thereafter. Rachel Hanson has bounced around through a few groups but has found her home with the 4:30 group. Late summer our youngest member, Brianna Yoho, joined the veterans. These girls are more than a group that shares my coaching at a particular time. They are a team; they are a family.

This bunch tends to hit highs and lows together. They feed off one other’s energy. They share stories about life, encourage each other in the gym, coach one other when appropriate, and look out for each other. Some days are filled with intensity and determination. Other days are chatty and slower moving. I am constantly lighting a fire under their butts to keep the pace. After all, it is a group of women − I believe that some days they would rather sit together with chocolate and wine (grape juice for Brianna & Rachel) and talk. One thing is for sure, when they get under the barbell they give it their all.

Jessica Miller is the oldest member of the group at 40. She is 5’2½” and approximately 150lbs. She comes straight from work as a physician’s assistant at a busy family practice. When she comes in she is often tired and frazzled but looks like a million bucks in her professional attire sporting her chic haircut. Jessica is a “soon to be single mother of two amazing, smart, silly kids and one fabulous dog.

Prior to lifting, Jessica ran, did the elliptical, participated in boot camp style classes, and dallied in yoga, and a little CrossFit. She was active in sports in high school – track, cross country, and soccer.  She endured sciatica during both pregnancies and over the last 5-6 years has had recurrent headaches and neck/upper back pain.

Jessica is the silent motivator of the group. She is no-nonsense and does whatever is asked of her. She quietly plugs along hitting PR after PR and nobody knows it but her. That is enough to satisfy her.  If she ever fears getting under the barbell, she never shows it. Jessica originally chose to strength train to be able to do “real” push ups and a strict pull-up. She also wanted to explore more of the barbell work that she got a taste of in CrossFit.

Jessica explains,

“Training makes me feel tired, sore, strong, angry, excited, thrilled, scared&and passionate. It is an amazing feeling to be able to put a barbell over your head – or to put almost 200 lbs on your back and squat! 

“My biggest obstacle to sticking with the program is time. I adjusted my work schedule in order to be able to leave early 2 days a week to get to the gym. I have to stay a bit later on two other days to make up for the lost time but it’s been worth it. There is still the occasional schedule change that makes me miss a day but for the most part I just think of it as part of my schedule for that day. I have to be there, just like any other appointment or commitment. 

“Sometimes I am self-motivated. I want to see what I can do that day. I try to remember that feeling when I hit a PR and let that drive me. I feel like part of a team, like I need to be there and I need them to be there too. The amazing women I get to lift with and spend a few hours with each week motivate me greatly.”

We are fortunate to have Jessica spreading the benefits of strength training to the outside world through her practice. Having advocates of the barbell in the medical profession is a step in the right direction.

“I have had this conversation many times with my patients. I truly believe in the health benefits of strength training, especially as people age. Strong muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more capable of withstanding stress – this can decrease your risk of injury. Strength training and resistance exercises can reduce bone deterioration and build bone mass, which in turn help to prevent osteoporosis. There are also benefits you may not see. Regular exercise, specifically weight training can have a positive effect on insulin resistance, blood pressure, resting metabolism, and heart disease. I ask almost every single patient about his or her exercise habits. One of the other main reasons I stick with it is for stress relief. It’s a fabulous feeling to pick up heavy things and put them back down again – sometimes slam them back down again depending on the type of day you have had.”

Both the inner strength and outward grace that that Jessica displays inspire me. Very few people know what Jessica has been dealing with this year as she has the uncanny ability to check her emotions at the door and focus.

“I realized that no matter how I was feeling, emotionally or physically, the barbell was the same. Sometimes it felt a bit heavier or lighter then other days, but it was the same. The bar was not going to take it easy on me. It was going to expect me to do the same things, and I wanted it to. I needed that consistency in my life.

“This has been a year of fear, sadness, anger, and grief. But, I know that no matter what my day at work or what my life challenges me with that day, I will leave the gym feeling strong physically even if I feel like a wreck on the inside and cry the entire way home.

“Training is my therapy, my drug, my teacher, my friend.”

Cheri Wissman joined the group just after Jessica.  In the midst of a career change, she is a full time student for a second time, aiming to start a doctor of physical therapy program in 2015 or 2016. At 5’6” and 160lbs, Cheri has been an athlete for most of her life.

Cheri grew up playing slow-pitch softball and soccer. Later on, she got into running and sprint distance triathlons. She first started CrossFit in May 2008 then switched to a focus on weightlifting in Sept 2010. Her first strength cycle was with CCSC in Feb 2013.

Cheri, a fitness professional and competitive weightlifter, sought out my coaching through her own research. She explains her reason’s for joining the semi-private strength program at CCSC :

“After moving to North Carolina, I bought my own women’s weightlifting barbell and carried it around in the back of my SUV, I brought it in and out of the gym for every training session.

“It is difficult to find a coach who is the right fit, or even a coach who is qualified. Because I have a lot of education myself, it can be difficult to find a coach who is “ahead” of me and can help me further my learning as an athlete.

“CCSC has the only coaches in the area with enough experience for me to learn something GOOD from them. It was time to get STRONG to help move my Olympic lifts to the next level. Lastly, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I needed something to belong to while my husband was away. That is what really cemented my feeling of needing to stay with my group because of the support I get from being with them. They are my anchor in life, as so many other things change and flux.”

Cheri started the program in the middle of her husband’s 4th deployment, a 7-month deployment to Afghanistan. She ran linear progression longer than any other woman in the history of the program. After running nine straight weeks without a hiccup she took her sets across on the squat from 135 to 215. On Cheri’s decision to strength train, she says,

“I seem to have always had a sense that being strong was something awesome and desirable. My ‘guns’ pose is a true classic. I’ve been flashing it since I was in high school. Having big biceps is just a trait I get from my genetics, but loving being strong is something that’s part of my soul.

“Making my body stronger and more capable is the best cure I have ever found for the disease of hating the shape of my body. I spent a few years in high school trying to make myself smaller, especially my legs and my stomach. Just like so many other women, I was convinced that my body wasn’t ‘right,’ and that I would gain something if I could just force it into the shape it was ‘supposed’ to be. That perfect shape was never attainable. I have been lean enough to weigh about 130 pounds twice in my life, and by all accounts my body was as ‘perfect’ as I could make it at those times. But the happiness I thought would accompany physical perfection never arrived. There were always more improvements to be made. It was a never-ending trap.

“Strength training finally snapped me out of focusing on body appearance, and instead shifted my focus to skill and strength development. Coming to the realization that my body was amazing because it could learn skills and grow muscles felt like being set free from prison. I still struggle with pressures to diet or use cardio to make my appearance more lean, but on the whole, getting strong and getting better are my top fitness goals. That’s what keeps me coming back to the gym week after week.”

cheri poses

Cheri then goes on to reveal to us the very profound ways that strength training has changed her life:

“It gave me the strength to give up disordered eating and to put in the hard work to learn to love my body unconditionally. It has given me a sport that I can compete in for the rest of my life. It showed me I loved to coach and teach and share my own personal experience of learning to be strong to help other women. It brought me to a profession, through which I want to help change people’s relationships with their bodies.”

Rachel Hanson, 19, favors the same lifting platform as Jessica. Good stuff happens in that rack.  Rachel, at 5’3” and 150lbs, is built to squat. One look at her and you know the raw materials are there.  Six months ago Rachel made the transition from our conditioning classes over to the strength program.  She is the daughter of my husband’s best friend, so she is special to us. Rachel had been watching and admiring from afar for a while before making the decision to switch over to the iron. According to Rachel, she made the decision to start lifting when, “I saw Gillian’s comic book singlet when I watched her lift at a meet. I thought it would be cool to try something new out. I was tired of being tired of my body.”

Rachel is a full time student at Carteret Community College and works part time for Hope for the Warriors on Camp Lejuene. As a child, she played soccer and softball. In high school, she ended up having to give up sports in order to get a job so that she could afford a car. This left her sedentary for the most part. Training makes Rachel feel confident not only with her body but in speaking to others. It has helped her form relationships with new people and provides a common thread. She is also happy about the way her clothes fit. When asked what keeps her motivated her reply is,

“I love the feeling you get when you make gains or you see someone in your group reach a new PR.  My biggest fear is that I will move somewhere where a strength gym is not nearby and I will lose all the progress I’ve made.

“Knowing that I can improve drives me. Even if the numbers don’t go up, I can work on form to get better. My coaches inspire me; they’re good enough to compete on top levels but they are here training us, showing us what they know, and how to get better and stronger.”

Rachel competed at her first powerlifting meet on June 1, 2013 alongside her teammates Joni and Cheri. She had a phenomenal experience topped off with shrieks of joy when she made the 200lb deadlift that has always been her nemesis. When I asked Rachel what the best moment of the meet was for her she told me that it was watching Joni set a huge PR, not her own accomplishments. On the 9th of November Rachel competed in her second meet in Gatlinburg Tennessee. She is a member of our first ever all-teenage team. Rachel assumes the role of caring big sister. At CCSC we are grateful to have her help and her enthusiastic attitude.

Rachel and Brianna have become very close. Recently they have been paired up in the group as they are prepping for the meet and working on executing their lifts with commands.

Pint-sized Brianna is 4’11" and tips the scales at almost 100 lbs. She is a high school freshman and chose to strength train because she liked the upper body exercises that she had done in gymnastics as a child. Brianna looks forward to the end of her school day when she gets to come to the gym.  The look on people’s faces when she tells them that she is a powerlifter is priceless to her. Brianna is exceptionally driven and can see a bright future for herself in lifting if she continues to work hard and stay focused. She is aware of her astounding potential. After a couple of months under the barbell she hit a squat one a half times her bodyweight. She is getting ready to take the powerlifting community by storm. 

The gym can determine her mood and make or break the day for her depending on her performance. She finds it discouraging when she does everything right and still has an off-day. Brianna gets pestered and teased by the boys at school for her interest in strength training. Instead of this deterring her, it motivates her to prove them wrong and be better.


Strength training gives Brianna confidence. She has a newfound sense of independence both in and out of the gym. Well informed of the misconceptions about women and strength training, Brianna knows that she will never get big or bulky. She believes that the women that she sees lifting are beautiful. According to Brianna,

“Lifting has completely changed my life. I’m a teenage girl. I have gone from admiring thigh gaps, which I’ve never had and was always self-conscious about, to dreaming about the day that my triceps will look a certain way. Society gives you an image of perfection that teenage girls are obsessed with. Lifting has shown me that being fit and strong is more admirable, powerful, and beautiful than being a size zero.

“My favorite exercise would have to be either the squat or the deadlift. They are the ones I have to work hardest at and every rep completed is a challenge. Every set at a heavier weight is an accomplishment.

“I fear the day that I plateau. Everything has gone well so far, but I know it won’t stay that way forever. Barbell training is not always fun − it’s hard work. I enjoy training with my group. We always listen to music and take turns spotting and executing lifts.”

Working with this group has presented unforeseen coaching challenges. All of the girls in the group are at different levels in their training and on different programs at this point. Brianna is still running a novice linear progression. Rachel is an advanced beginner. Cheri, Joni, and Jessica are intermediates but have very different goals. Joni, Rachel, and Cheri have all competed in powerlifting this past year. Brianna is getting ready to do her first meet. Pound for pound Joni is the strongest female lifter in the strength program at CCSC, but she doesn’t realize it because she compares her lifts to those of the bigger girls. Their personalities are all very different. Each of them have taught me life lessons and how to be a better coach. I am thankful to have them here at the gym, and for whatever reason I am very protective of them. When they get under a heavy barbell my muscles are firing along with theirs, in sympathy. If I could complete the lift for them I would. This leaves me exhausted but highly rewarded.


Coach Christis Raimo : A role model for the other women

Christis Raimo holds a coaching position at CCSC. She is a personal trainer, teaches group conditioning classes and serves as my second-in-command on the Semi-Private Strength groups. The women in the gym are highly motivated and inspired by her.  She represents what is possible with consistent effort and determination.

Christis, 37, is a former avid CrossFitter that was looking to broaden her education and experience. Her primary role is that of stay-at-home mom to 10-year-old Grace, and Marine Corps wife. A tiny little package of power at 5 ft tall, 118 lbs, Christis has a killer pair of legs that are the envy of many at the gym. Christis rode horses as a child and then became a gym-going exercise buff at fourteen. She has had a lifelong love and passion for physical fitness as evidenced by her hard-earned physique.

Christis started lifting seriously in September of 2012, after I asked her to be in the inaugural powerlifting meet held at CCSC in December of last year to benefit injured servicemen and women and their families. In the early days, she came to lift in my garage before we opened the gym. The first time I saw her set up under the barbell and unrack her squat I knew that she would excel. She hit 135 pounds for 3 sets of 5 that day with near perfect form. It turned out that she was quite familiar with the low-bar position and teachings of Mark Rippetoe.

Currently Christis trains part-time as my lifting partner and part-time at her home gym balancing the responsibilities of her home and work life. In September she underwent surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome and has been slowly making her way back under a barbell. On the day of this writing Christis squatted 170 for 3x5 just under four weeks post-surgery. Christis explains,

“I had previous experience with barbells but never really focused on dedicated improvement of strength. I am not competitive by nature but I’ll do most anything for a good cause, especially one close to my heart. I made a deal with Gillian that I would participate if she would train me for it. I don’t like not to do well at things, and I don’t like pressure, but I was hooked pretty quickly.

“Strength training makes me feel different, it makes me stand out. It’s not what the masses of women are doing. I feel proud, accomplished and strong. Even though my numbers are not at a highly competitive level, when I step back and compare myself with the average 5ft tall, 37 year old mom/wife, I’m pretty strong.

“There is a certain drive that I get from lifting that I don’t get with other training programs. At this stage in my life, if I feel healthy, and I’m happy with my appearance. I couldn’t care less about how ‘fast’ I can do something. I do care greatly about how strong I feel. I have had setbacks and lost focus at times, but it’s always in the back of my head that I don’t want to lose my strength.

“Mostly, I dislike the pressure that I put on myself with lifting. I am not one who responds well to pressure, I tend to crack a little. I don’t like a big audience or videos being taken. I don’t even really like spotters – I feel that if they are there it means there is a possibility of failure. A failed lift can be immensely devastating to me.

“When progress slows down after the novice gains have ended, it really tests your mental strength to see beyond the excitement and stay focused on gains, as small as they may be. There is great mental toughness required in getting under a heavy barbell three times per week.

“Part of my motivation comes from the fear of losing what I have worked so hard for. I am also motivated by seeing women similar to my age and size that are strong.

“Women have the misconception that barbell training will make them too big. I explain to them that there is nothing else like it and how it makes you feel. Pound for pound, I am stronger than most untrained male Marines that I know. When I see a guy much bigger than me working as hard as I am on the same weight it feels damn good.

“Lifting has challenged me to confront some emotional demons that I have struggled with: fear of failure and of not being good enough. It has made me look inside myself and not give up when things get tough or heavy. It means that a re-set or a missed lift does not mean that I have failed. It is a stepping-stone to success. I have to trust the process.

“My favorite and least favorite lift is the squat. The squat is the end-all, be-all lift to me. If it’s a good squat day there is no feeling quite like it. If it’s a bad squat day, there is no feeling quite like that either.”


For months, I flipped through training logs filled with numbers and coached countless sets with these impressive women. I knew that the scribbles, done with shaky hands after heavy sets, told a deeper story. During training, we remain focused on the work. A small amount of conversation is permitted provided that the training is not affected. To me, the barbell tells all. I know if someone is under-fed, stressed, has not slept, is anxious, and so on. As a trainer and a coach, I do more than implement a program. It is imperative that I have the skill to bend, flex, and quickly adapt when things go awry. Plans change, reps get missed, body parts get tweaked, and life stresses get in the way of exact plan execution. Emotional weight gets added to the bar. Making these snap adjustments that keep trainees in the game is an art. Sending someone a program to follow is easy, but if the program is adequately challenging it will not be long before she hits a speed bump. This is where good coaching comes in, this is the difference between being just a trainer and being a coach. I am a coach.

Part of the training at CCSC is accountability. All of the students of strength are taught to spot and have to have basic coaching skills. Over time they develop an eye for movement and are of great help to me. A selfish person would be lost and out of place in one of the semi-private groups. By teaching the clients how to coach, and to spot one another, we have created a greater sense of meaning and belonging to the participants. It creates a group culture and teamwork abounds.

When a potential new member tours the gym, I sometimes struggle to articulate the magic of the strength program. Displaying a notebook of squat numbers has little or no relevance to most women. Most women that walk through the doors cannot differentiate between a dumbbell and a barbell. They just want to look and feel better. It is the combination of this conundrum and the pride that I have in the strength trainees at CCSC that serve as my motivation for this article.

The collection of this data revealed that the recurring theme keeping these women lifting was a sense of community and belonging. They have a high level of commitment to each other. Nearly all of the women interviewed for this piece mentioned that barbell training is an overall confidence booster.  Getting under a barbell helps them achieve a sense of strength and confidence beyond the physical aspect alone.

All of them greatly enjoy their improved physical capabilities and the satisfaction of setting PRs. Many of them start out wanting to look better, but that is not what keeps them hooked. They are hooked by the challenge. They are hooked by the hard work. Oddly, they are hooked by the stability it provides. When they enter the gym they know exactly what they are getting – no surprises: 95 pounds is 95 pounds.

Many of the women fear a heavy barbell which makes the thrill of victory that much sweeter.  None of the women in the program have learned how to attack a barbell yet. I believe that comes with time and is not inherent in everyone’s personality. Speaking from personal experience it took me two years of dedicated barbell training before I understood what it meant to be aggressive under a barbell.

Progress is more meaningful than the actual weight to them. They seem less interested in how much weight, only that there is more, and the numbers guide how I program their training. The sense of progress and personal fulfillment is what keeps them coming back. The women enjoy the way lifting weights makes them different from others and the pride in being educated beyond their peers about their bodies.

Weight, Body Composition & Body Image

This article would be incomplete without addressing the elephant in the room. Women do not want to put on significant body mass in order to get stronger. A pair of jeans not fitting can be so crushing to a woman that she reconsiders her decision to strength train. The most important part of the whole program is long-term adherence. If strength training is to become part of a woman’s lifestyle it must add, rather than detract, from her physical image of herself. There is no sense in getting someone strong if they are going to quit in three months and never touch a barbell again.

A significant caloric surplus does not yield the same strength benefits for woman as it does for young men. In the absence of testosterone, more fat mass than muscle mass is gained on a high calorie diet. The few that are willing to eat for gains end up unhappy with the body fat that they gain within two months.

Without nutritional intervention, the women that come in with higher levels of bodyfat generally lose bodyfat and have a change to their physical proportions. However, they do not see the scale weight drop as they would like. When asked if they like the way they look, they are happier.  Often they lose one or two clothing sizes without dietary changes.

The women that come in “skinny” go in one of two directions. Some resist putting on any weight at all and thus hit a wall very quickly. Those that love the act of training as opposed to just the results stick with it. For some, an increase in weight on the bar is far less important than how the lifting makes them feel. The rest of the “skinny” women are willing to put on weight to an extent. As long as they are happy with what they see in the mirror, they stick with it. If a dress does not zip up the side they either pull back on their caloric intake or give up dedicated strength training in favor of the more fashionable CrossFit. 

A third body type, genetic mesomorphs, often find their way to barbell training because they are good at it. Every now and then I encounter a female with the rare ability to put on significant muscle mass. For some of these women it is a blessing, for others a curse. These women make rapid gains as expected. They squat and their legs grow. Other women fear that this will happen to them and I explain the genetic differences. Most women that fall into this category have been lifelong athletes with a long history of some type of strength work. They laid the foundation during a critical period in adolescent development.

Even amongst a very educated client base there are still many misconceptions. Women often want to drop weight or lose bodyfat before beginning a strength program. They fear becoming bulky, or they think that their metabolisms will slow if they reduce running volume in favor of lifting. This is when it is helpful to have a gym full of female lifters to be real life examples of strength training.

I encounter these issues every day. I am not a certified nutritionist and do not dispense nutritional programs or advocate a specific diet for my trainees. Instead, I focus on educating the lifters about eating for performance. We keep it simple. Eat too much, you will get fat. Eat too little, you will get weak. Eat enough to hit your lifts with a focus on high quality foods – adequate protein, lots of veggies, some fruit, healthy fats, and every once in a while enjoy yourself and go for a splurge. People often get frustrated at me for not putting them on a specific diet or telling them exactly how many calories that they need. I explain that there are individual differences for everyone. I teach them to learn the workings of their own bodies often by keeping a food log in conjunction with their training log. This way they can see what diet changes yield what outcome in the gym and on the scale.

I also make them aware that there is no hiding a starvation diet. As I’ve stated previously – the barbell tells all. If a women refuses to eat, she is wasting her time barbell training. I make this very clear on day one.

All barbell trainees will see a positive improvement in posture and carriage that will give them a slimmer, sleeker appearance. Most will experience a reduction in waist circumference due largely in part to the increased tone of the deeper muscles of the midsection. All of the women at CCSC know that squats and deadlifts do far more for the abdominals than crunches.

The rate of progress for women is slower than it is for men, and the gains come to a halt far sooner. This is directly related to hormonal differences. Understanding the difference between the sexes is required for good coaching and the long term success of the lifters.

I have found great success driving the lifts up after a stall by adding accessory work with a hypertrophy rep scheme. This is especially true on the upper body lifts. When the bench press and overhead press completely stall, I add various exercises − rows, pull-ups, push-ups or dips, and upper body dumbbell work − all after the main lifts have been completed for the day. With adequate nutrition the lifter will put on a little bit of muscle and will enjoy the variety. This added work helps alleviate some of the frustration of lack of progress on the main lifts. My solution to driving the squat is to swing back and forth in training phases between sets of 3s and 5s with very occasional singles and doubles. Also in my experience, a lot of additional lower body accessory work does little more than tire legs instead of gaining bigger squat numbers.

I have come to conclusions by tracking the progress of numerous women over time and by being my own experiment. As a highly competitive, top ranked female lifter, I am not exempt from any of the aforementioned notions. I want to get stronger and be a world champion but I do not want to gain weight or have my clothes not fit. Even at my level, being unhappy with what I see in the mirror or having to give away an article of clothing that no longer fits can ruin my day. I continue because I know nothing else. I fear quitting because once you quit, it is easier to do again. I am driven by the way the strength I exhibit in the gym carries over to all aspects in my life. As Jessica so profoundly put it earlier in this article, “training is my therapy, my drug, my teacher, my friend.”

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