At CrossFit Works gym at 204 S. Tucson Blvd., I'm struck by the absence of a typical gym atmosphere. There are no mirrors and no blaring televisions. Even the people are unpredictable—there are no made-up and coiffed women, and no pushy plastic sales ... er, training staffers. Instead, I find a gym where people get down to basics.
That means no isolated muscle machines, treadmills, bikes or steppers. Instead, there are barbells, dumbbells and weight benches—all designed to get members fit and strong. Sure, there are other weightlifting gyms around, but are there many women present? Is the owner a woman?
At CrossFit (www.crossfitworks.com), the answer to both questions is "Yes."
Owner and single-mom Jennifer Higgins is a young-looking 41 and has long, brown hair. Feminine with a petite build, you'd never guess she is a weightlifter. In fact, Higgins is a record-holder, dead-lifting more than 300 pounds at a 2011 100 Percent Raw Powerlifting competition. (That means no wraps, lifting suits or drugs.)
Right off the bat, Higgins disproves a common thought—that women weightlifters look masculine. She faces this type of thinking often. "Practically every day, I hear (women say), 'I don't want muscles people can see,' or, 'I don't want to look strong.' That tells me that we still have a stereotype of what a pretty girl is."
Higgins says she encounters women who are interested in joining her gym, but are intimidated. "It's a huge hurdle to come into a gym like this and lift weights. Actually, there are a bunch of hurdles. First is the physical hurdle, and second is the mental/social hurdle.
"Before I owned my gym, I used to lift weights at LA Fitness. The free-weight area rarely has a woman. You're like a freak if you're in there. Guys look at you (as if to say), 'What are you doing in here? This is our area.' Weightlifting is a very difficult sport or hobby for women to get into."
As a competitor, Higgins has experienced this firsthand. She says that at power-lift meets, there are usually only a couple of women. And when she competed at the Raw nationals, the T-shirts came in double- and extra-large. "I'm sure it's not meant to be discouraging, but that's a message," she says.
To counter both the physical and social obstacles women face in the sport, Higgins goes out of her way to make her gym welcoming to all. She never wants anyone to feel out of place. There's also a subset of CrossFit Works, called Bare Bones Barbell Club (barebonesbarbell.com), which is strictly for weightlifters.
As a member, Higgins says it's not a place to find a date or read a magazine. "We work hard here. If you are training in this gym, I expect you to take your health and wellness seriously. Give it your all. Everyone around you deserves that."
Higgins believes that women deserve to feel comfortable in the sport. To this end, she recently held an All-Women Strength Challenge event at her gym (allwomenstrengthchallenge.com). More than 40 women competed in three events—the push-pull, the clean and jerk, and the heavy conditioner. Considering that Higgins has been to competitions with only 20 registered men and women, she was excited to see the large number of registrants for an all-women event.
"I think weightlifting is one of the most-valuable physical acts a woman can do. A lot of research indicates overall health is correlated to (the amount of) lean muscle mass. You build lean muscle mass lifting weights."
Higgins also believes that weightlifting involves using the body as nature intended. "We work with people's bodies to mimic what we used to do on a regular basis. It wasn't typical to go on a five-mile run. But it was common to lift two 5-gallon buckets of water each day. So weightlifting is the gym version of what being a farmer was 200 years ago."
Even though Higgins' programs help the body mimic the movements of physical labor, there's no goal for women to mimic men.
"Women in weightlifting, more than any other sport, are not trying to be like men," she says. "Our hormones and our body composition make it crystal clear that we will never even approach the weightlifting accomplishments that men achieve. Women in weightlifting are testing their physical and mental strength. ... We try to be better than we were the day before."