Raising the bar for women’s weightlifting
More and more women are finding out that weightlifting does wonders for mind, body and spirit
Alex Craig weightlifting at her club in Dolphin’s Barn. Photograph: Dave Meehan
If you think weightlifting’s for tough guys, the entrance to Dublin’s newest weightlifting club, nestled between a funeral parlour and Dolphin House flats, does little to disprove the myth. But step through its blue metal door and you’ll find women taking to it in their droves.
With benefits including improved physical strength, core muscles of steel, better flexibility and stronger bones, not to mention fat loss, muscle tone and a tight bum, it’s no wonder women are waking up to weightlifting. New club Capital Strength Weightlifting is showing them how it’s done.
“All it comes down to is you and the bar,” says Alex Craig, co-founder of the club. A few weeks ago, she became the first woman in Irish history to qualify for the European Weightlifting Championships. A trained physical therapist, she’s passionate about weightlifting for women.
“It’s this little world of just you and the bar,” says Craig. “That’s an amazing feeling and it’s very empowering for women. All that societal stuff of what you look like, what you weigh, what you wear, all that just drops away. Weightlifting can bring you to this amazing, calm, centred, meditative state.”
The Dubliner discovered the sport when injury forced her to retire as a professional acrobat. She is now the top-ranked female weightlifter in Irish history.
And if the image you have of a female weightlifter is “Olga from Uzbekistan”, with big shoulders, a deep voice and an Adam’s apple, you couldn’t be more wrong. Top ranked in Ireland, Craig is a petite 5ft 1in, weighs 51.7kg and is lean as a greyhound. Today, she even has ribbons in her hair.
While their club caters for both sexes, from absolute beginners to Olympic hopefuls, female members are on the up and include mothers, office workers and health professionals. “There’s been a lot of focus in recent years on cardiovascular fitness, but when it comes down to things people do in their everyday lives such as carrying shopping or changing a wheel, those things are easier when you’re stronger,” says Leech.
And for those who spend their days at a desk, weightlifting puts back, shoulder and arm muscles through a full range of movement. There are aesthetic benefits too.
“By building muscle mass, you burn more calories at rest,” says Leech. “Almost every single person who comes in here as an absolute beginner will end up losing body fat. If you are stressing your body in a very efficient and healthful way, you will end up burning an awful lot more.”
Olympic weightlifting, which the club teaches everyone from beginners to elite sports people, comprises two key moves. The “clean and jerk” entails lifting a barbell off the floor to a racked position across the chest and then “jerking” it above the head until the arms are straight. The second movement, the “snatch”, means lifting it overhead in a smooth continuous movement.
Beginners start with a broom handle. “We work on the actual technique of the movement first,” says Leech. “Once someone is efficient enough to do the technique with a broom handle, we move them onto a light aluminium bar and then to a 15kg-20kg bar. Over three months, beginners can be snatching or cleaning and jerking 50kg.”
Lifting 73kg over her head to qualify for the European Championships, that’s 20kg more than her body weight, Craig can also “back squat” – taking the bar on her back, squatting down and then standing up – 121kg. “That’s the weight of a baby elephant,” she says proudly.
And she’s keen to disprove the bulk myth. “Personally I think I look more female now. I have a better shape than when I was doing other training. Now I go in and out in the right places.”
Dee Lynch, women’s development officer with Weightlifting Ireland, was a convert too. “I started running on the treadmill in the gym and found out that it didn’t really work for fat loss. A friend introduced me to weightlifting and I got good very quickly. I just really enjoyed it.”
Despite initial fears that she would “turn into the Incredible Hulk”, she says the opposite is the case. “I lost a lot of body fat and put on muscle. I used to be a size 12- 14, now I’m a size eight.”
But she says her aims have long shifted from mere appearance to real strength. “My goal now is just to be as healthy as I can be. I’m lifting in Weightlifting Ireland competitions and I’m hoping to lift in the European Championships next year.”
The biggest benefit she says has been psychological. “When you start lifting the heavy weights, you feel you can take on anything. You just get more of a can-do attitude. I’ve seen it in all the girls who come in.”
Harry Leech says women who haven’t tried the sport before are often surprised at the results.
“There’s potential for people to come in and do very well. I think people are often very surprised by how quickly they get strong and how much they enjoy it,” he says. In fact, in the past three years, the sport has gone from having 15 women on the ranking list for Ireland to almost 100.
“It’s not just about lifting a weight, you’re learning a new skill,” says Leech. “People really enjoy being taught something new.”