‘Exercise should feel like freedom, not punishment’: meet the powerlifter on a mission to inspire women | The last taboo

Illustration: Andrea Forgacs/Guardian

Poorna Bell

There are many steps that led me from the gym treadmill to lifting 130kg of iron on a weightlifting platform, but most likely it started around four years ago, when I was moving house. My husband, Rob, had passed away suddenly 12 months previously, and he had always done the heavy lifting when we moved. I had loved the fact that he was strong, but I hadn’t recognised that I was perpetuating old tropes that being strong was different for men and women: for men, it was rooted in physicality; for women, it was about mental endurance.

The house move made me realise that I needed to get strong for practicality, so I found a personal trainer to show me how to do squats and deadlifts. It changed my entire relationship with exercise. For so long I had carried the idea that exercise should partly feel like punishment, but when I started lifting weights I realised it actually felt like freedom. I saw the weight I could lift steadily increase, and that planted a seed of self-belief, which started to grow into a system of empowerment I had never felt before.

But truth be told, I was worried about bulking up and looking too masculine. While the shift towards women doing weights was happening, there was still a very particular type of aesthetic: a bit of muscle but still hyper-feminine.

I would have continued in this way indefinitely, clipping my own wings to meet some arbitrary and sexist idea that women need to be as small as possible but for a chance encounter in the gym. A trainer told me they were running an unofficial powerlifting competition, and asked if I’d like to take part.

“Powerlifting?” I laughed. “No chance.” Just the word conjured up images of massive men hulking around plates of iron. But when I talked to my own trainer, Jack, about it, he said that, actually, it might be a great way to focus my training.

In order to get stronger, I had to stop worrying about what I looked like, and I had to eat enough food for my workouts. From that point, it was as if I slipped into a gear I didn’t even know was there, and my body kept pushing until I couldn’t believe the amount I was lifting. I had no idea I possessed this kind of strength.

On the competition day, I geared up to my final deadlift, and when I pulled the bar up, I instantly felt my bladder go. I didn’t know it at the time, but when women deadlift, sometimes it can put pressure on the bladder and forces involuntary incontinence.

Shortly after that, I joined Jack’s powerlifting team and talked about my loss of bladder control to other women who had experienced it – the lack of judgment and openness was refreshing. In fact, given that bladder leakage can happen when you’re maxing out, in other words, lifting the heaviest weight you can manage, it just means you’re lifting a big weight, which can be pretty badass.

Talking about this stuff is really important, because otherwise we just think we’re going through it alone or, worse, might think about giving up. I recently saw a friend of mine in the gym and asked her how her training was going. She told me she was really pleased with a deadlift number she had hit, but that she might have to abandon lifting because (and she spoke in a whisper) she peed herself.

I told her that it was nothing to be embarrassed about and that, while pelvic floor exercises could help, the fear of peeing certainly shouldn’t prevent her from lifting heavier weights. The look of relief in her eyes made me realise that being strong is important, but that helping other women to access their own strength in a way that’s right for them, and not be held back by a lot of the societal norms that shame and shrink women, is just as important.

Last year, I decided to set up a platform called See My Strong, which looks at
the idea of women’s strength in its entirety. Strong is not an aesthetic or
how much you do in comparison with others, but rather how it makes you feel. And whatever your version is of being strong, it should make you feel confident, empowered and liberated in your own body – life is far too short for anything less.

Many women experience light bladder weakness at some point in their lives. By exercising your pelvic floor muscles you can seriously reduce the risk of little leaks. To find out more, search “TENA My Pelvic Floor Fitness app” or visit tena.co.uk/ageless

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