Hi Martha! How old are you, how long have you been training, and what are your current lifts?

I am 30 years old. I started training on 10/23/15, so I’ve been lifting for just about 16 months. My best lifts to date are a 200 lb squat, 130 lb bench, and 235 lb deadlift at around 130-132 lbs bodyweight. I’m preparing for my first meet at the end of the February, so I’m hoping I’ll set some PRs then!

What made you first start lifting?

I have an autoimmune disease that gradually took away my energy and left me with achy joints and crushing fatigue. At the end of 2014, I started a medication called plaquenil that helped me take the first few steps toward moving more. With the encouragement of my rheumatologist, I started exercising and losing weight, which led to this amazing snowball effect. When I was sick, I always thought exercise would take away my energy and make it harder to get through the day, but instead I found that it gave more than it took. I started very simply. I was walking more often, and then I was going on hikes, practicing yoga, or running. I love hiking, and I enjoy yoga, but I found running to be hard on my joints.

One of my friends had done Starting Strength many years ago, and he’d been trying to get me interested in the compound lifts for a long time. Now that I was regularly exercising, I was finally curious about it. I got very very lucky. My city has a starting strength gym named Fivex3. It is run by an amazing woman.

My first day I squatted the bar (45 lbs), benched the bar (45 lbs), and deadlifted 75lbs. With a lot of consistency and a lot of excellent coaching and support, I’ve made so much progress since then.

What keeps you coming back to the sport?

I’m a graduate student in a computational field, genetic epidemiology, and I spend a lot of the day pretty mired in my computer. It feels so good to get up and move. My gym is a really social and warm place, so if I’ve been staring at a block of code all day, it’s really wonderful to do something physical and speak to other humans for a few hours.

Then there are the ways it improves my life even when I’m not in the gym. Everyday things became so much easier for me as I got stronger. The litter my cats prefer comes in 40 lb bags, and I remember when I had to ask my husband to carry the bags for me, inside the house and up the stairs. Now I can sling them around like it’s not a big deal, because it’s really not. Last time I went to the pet store and was piling 160 lbs of litter into my cart, the store clerk said they should hire me to manage their stock!

You recently wrote that to you, powerlifting is a feminist act. Can you go a little deeper into that?

After the inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington, I had a lot of thoughts circling in my head about why I approach powerlifting as part of my feminism. I wrote some of them down on instagram (which my husband has correctly identified as being 90% lifting and 10% puppies):

I have been trying to work out how to articulate that, to me, lifting is a feminist act.

I do this because I control my own body.

I am becoming larger and louder and taking up more space. I am not quiet and I am not small and I am not cute and I don’t exist for you.

In defiance of expectations: to be where I want to be, rather than just where I am expected.

To be strong–there is a reason that phrases like “fragile beauty” or “delicate beauty” exist. To be feminine in our society means to some people to be weak–to be small, to not have muscles, to require help–and that is not the type of femininity I embrace.

To be independent. To be able to take care of myself. To be able to carry my nephews without any trouble. To carry full watering cans to my garden. To lift heavy pots and pans without assistance. And to carry a heavy backpack on my shoulders, when I walk to a school where I am earning my MD and my PhD. To lift my patients when they have fallen. To be a strong shoulder for someone who is unsteady on their feet. To be capable and competent and tough as hell.

As I’ve trained in this sport, I’ve learned that there are some elements of the community that I steadfastly reject. There are some individuals to whom powerlifting means being masculine, and being superior to others. At first I was so surprised and confused when I learned about that history because powerlifting means something radically different to me.

I’m not a particularly imposing person. I’m 5’2″, and I look rather young for my age. I remember, when I was rotating in the hospital as a 25-year-old medical student, being asked if I was in High School and just shadowing. For a long time, I wished to be even better at that. I wanted to be more petite, more slender.

I’m really happy to sincerely want something else. I’m happy that I’ve started to show my age, and that I am more useful, to myself and others, than I’ve ever been.

What’s a personal goal of yours, that’s not related to lifting?

I am excited to be towards the end of graduate school! I am in a combined MD/PhD program. I did three years of medical school from 2010-2013, and then started my PhD in genetic epidemiology (a field in public health). I’m on track to defend this spring, and then return to medical school. I am hoping to graduate in 2018, and then start residency. It’ll be interesting trying to continue training in powerlifting while I’m in medical school (and eventually residency), but I have the benefit of a supportive partner & excellent coaches. I love this sport so much, and it is so essential to my physical and mental health, that it will remain a priority for me.

If you could tell your past/younger self something, related to training or not, what would it be?

The main thing that comes to mind, is that I spent way too long letting others’ priorities dictate my own priorities. I went to a very competitive high school, and while I learned persistence and dedication, I also swallowed the idea that being a “success” meant getting good grades, and going to a prestigious university, and getting a prestigious job; I let myself be swept up in the academic conveyor belt, where every stage is just about making yourself competitive for the next one, rather than enjoying the process. Some of the most meaningful and most surprising things in my life have come from sideways journeys, rather than the thing I was “supposed” to want.

The things I hope for my future now have more to do with the people I love and the people I hope to take care of, rather than having the “right” job at the “right” hospital.

To what can you attribute your progress?

I don’t think there’s anything special about me. (Editor’s note: I sure do!) I’m not particularly gifted in this sport. I have made progress because I am consistent, and conscientious. That was made possible by stumbling upon coaches who taught me well, and support an environment that is fun to train in. If I didn’t enjoy my time training, even with the world’s supply of willpower I don’t think I would have made as much progress!