Bay Strength is a group of four Starting Strength Coaches in the San Francisco Bay Area who instruct general strength training. They train seniors, competitive powerlifters, and everyone in between. Bay Strength's three female coaches sat down to have a conversation about their strength journeys, coaching philosophies, and owning strong female bodies.
A Conversation With The Women of Bay Strength
KATHERINE: Earlier, you both described how the environment that you’re in affected how you felt about your bodies and being strong, which I think is a perfect segue to talk about us at Bay Strength. How we choose to bring these issues forward with our trainees, and how we’re trying to create an environment that fosters just those things.
KELLY: Being around people who hate their body all the time makes you hate your body. Versus saying “yeah I have these legs because I squat a lot” and having that be the most valued thing.
KATHERINE: How do you deal with it when your trainees come in and have really specific aesthetic goals that are about making themselves smaller?
GWYN: I have coached a number of people one-on-one, where they’re not part of the class community, where they’ve expressed a fear of getting bulky. I really try to guide the conversation to “this is what you can do, and what you are capable of is so much more than you think you are able.” And if you just give it some time, just give the process some time, the process of linear progression, you might find that you like things better at the end. And if you don’t, that’s a great time to try a cut, because you will have built the engine by then. You’ll have the metabolic changes that come along with more muscle mass, and it’s easier to make changes at that point. So I do my best to get people to hold off from pursuing that initially.
KATHERINE: It’s a hard thing to tell people, I think. It’s hard to get that buy-in initially. I’ve had a couple of women come to me who are on Instagram and have seen the powerlifters with their booty shorts and have said “I want to powerlift because I want to look like that.” And I find that to be one of the more challenging things to overcome. Because, will powerlifting give you more muscle mass and, I think, make you happier with what your body looks like? Yeah. But telling someone “you’ll like your body more later” seems hard for people to swallow, especially if they haven’t experienced any part of the process yet. And I can’t lie to them and be like “yeah, you’re gonna have that girl’s butt.” You’re not.
Our fellow Starting Strength Coach Niki Sims was on the ‘More Than Strength’ podcast, and Niki used this great metaphor that I’ve since been butchering: If you’re pizza, you can’t become a burrito. All you can do is make yourself the best pizza you can be.
So, you only have the body that you have. There are ways that you can change the aesthetics of your body, but that is a tough thing to do, and you are never truly going to transform your body into someone else’s body. I’m convinced that the best version of almost anyone’s body is the body that squats and pulls the most weight. Especially for women, and especially for women who aren’t yet competing.
So that’s what I tell people: I think you’re really going to like the pizza that you are when that pizza squats 225 pounds. I think that pizza is going to be a really rad pizza, and I think you’re going to really enjoy being that pizza. Trying to become that burrito is just going to be frustrating. That’s been helpful, but it doesn’t always land right away. I think it’s a long process.
KELLY: When I was first training people, I had to sell people on the idea of getting stronger. Now I don’t have to do that, people come to us to get stronger, that why they’re here.
KATHERINE: That’s what we do, that’s what we promise. We promise to get you stronger. And we do it! Every time! Everybody gets stronger.
KELLY: I’ve tried a variety of tactics to help people get there, but the thing that’s been the most effective has been the classes that I have now, full of really strong women. I do my best to be honest and give people reassurance, but I think coming to class and seeing women struggle and fight hard and hit walls and bust through, and actually also seeing other people’s bodies change – we’re more accepting of other people’s bodies than our own often – it changes their view on it better than I could by myself. Us as coaches can only do so much, but the environment we create can do a lot of the work for me.
GWYN: That’s been my personal experience too, as well as my experience with my lifters.
KELLY: Mine too.
GWYN: It changes your view about everything.
KELLY: Choosing to be in a community that likes your body is pretty awesome. As opposed to the one that tries to tear it down.
KATHERINE: I think that’s what good and bad about the Instagram powerlifting culture. You can find so many amazing strong women. But the women who are most easily findable have the most followers, and they’re generally the women who fit most neatly into the package that society says that women need to fit into. Very beautiful and on the smaller side, really gorgeous 57kg lifters with butts like two planets crashed into each other and 315 pound squats. And those women are amazing!
But I think that doesn’t help promote the diversity in powerlifting that actually exists when you go to a meet. There is so much diversity in how people are built and how they lift, in every weight class. And that’s what’s really great about having an IRL lifting community, and not just relying on the internet. If you’re lucky enough to find a group of people to train with, you see all of the variety and diversity of other people's’ shapes and sizes of strong. You can see that strong doesn’t have one shape. And also training-wise, you see those women struggle and hit plateaus and be frustrated. And you don’t see that elsewhere, because we all present the most shiny, cellulite-free version of ourselves to the internet.
KELLY: And not only all sizes, but all ages and abilities. We have amazing seniors classes and they do amazing things. And we also have differently-abled lifters with chronic injuries, who have never excelled at a sport before, who can come in and deadlift 250 pounds. You don’t have to be a natural athlete, you don’t have to be injury-free, you don’t have to be young. My body may not be the way I’d like it for five million reasons, but I can still be a stronger version of myself.
Kelly Bryant photo by Thomas Campitelli
GWYN: Yeah, that’s the other issue with Instagram culture. Not everybody is going to be 5’6” with 315 on their back. But everybody can get stronger. And everyone can get measurably stronger, every single time they train, when they first begin. And that’s huge.
KATHERINE: Not every person has the genetic potential to squat 300 pounds. People will join class and say “this is nothing compared to what that person next to me is doing.” And I have to say, “But today, this is heavy for you. And you’re going to work hard.” Instead of comparing the weight that’s on the bar, compare how hard you are working. Are you both giving it your all? The only way I’ll let people compare themselves to each other in class is if they’re sandbagging. Don’t compare the weight on the bar, compare your effort and commitment.
KELLY: Come to our seniors classes! Come watch 70 year olds lift for the first time. And guess what, they’re old and their bodies hurt, but they’re doing it anyway.
GWYN: They’re running to the bar! They’re running to the bar because they know how valuable every second they get to have is. And we have to tell them to sit down and rest!
KATHERINE: Some people are going to have the natural athleticism to bench 95 on their linear progression right out of the gate, and they’ll blow through it. But they won’t have hit the same grindy portion as the woman next to her grinding out some slow triples at 65. The women grinding out 65 is working harder than the woman who doesn’t even know what a heavy bench feels like yet because she’s naturally strong, and is flinging it up there. I respect and appreciate and get inspired so much more by a grindy 65 pound bench on the second try after failing the previous time. That fires me up so much as a coach and as a lifter to see people going through grinds, and I don’t care what’s on that bar. If I see someone grinding out a heavy rep, it’s inspiring to me no matter what the weight is.
KELLY: Yeah, when they’re fighting as hard as they can! That’s the best stuff.
GWYN: There is a lot of appreciation for heart! That’s a really good reason why everybody should go to a meet. Because that’s how lifters are. We want to cheer for you, we want to watch you try for something that’s just a little bit out of your capacity and make it because you fucking stayed with it. That’s what we respect. We don’t care what weight is on the bar.
KELLY: Very very few of us go to meets because we think we are going to win. I’m never going to win.
GWYN: There are people in that situation, but guess what, there aren’t a lot of them, because there are a lot of people lifting, and how many of us can be the best?
KATHERINE: That’s why meets and IRL experiences where you are around a lot of other lifters are always cool. I’ve been to a handful of meets every year in the three years I’ve been involved in the sport, and I always leave meets really excited about the lifting community. There are always one or two people in the back who are out there trying to stunt on everybody and feel like a big shot. But for the rest of the people, the first lifter in the flight gets big claps, anybody who misses a lift no matter how light it is gets huge support from the crowd for their second attempt at the weight. I’ve seen judges go out of their way to talk to new lifters about what they did when they messed up the command. I think it’s one of the best environments out there. And I don’t know how many other sports get that. Plus, you get to lift on the same platform as those super elite lifters, the few who are going to win. That’s really really special and inspiring.
While we’re on the topic of meets, let’s talk about scale weight, since it’s such a common thing for people to obsess about.
GWYN: I did a big cut a couple of years ago and while I managed to keep my lifts fairly high during the process, I found that being lighter on the mat during martial arts practice was not helpful. My training partners could throw me around really easily. I felt like I’d gotten too light for my leverages – long limbs and height – and ended up gaining mass back deliberately. Cutting has its place if you are a strong competitor in a weight class sport, including lifting, but I think most lifters place too much importance on their numbers relative to their body weight.
KELLY: With the cutting I’m doing right now, it has an end date, and I don’t have a goal number, and I’m trying hard to keep muscle, so it’s not so much about the scale as it is about changing other things. That said, for the most part, I don’t have any of my lifters try to lose weight on a linear progression. In general my lifters who do the best with tracking and nutrition during their linear progression are the people who are trying to build muscle. Everybody else I just try to be as encouraging as possible and help them feel their best as they progress in getting stronger. But most novices aren’t yet prepared for the level of commitment it takes to actually do what they need to do to change their body composition – not yet.
GWYN: I have the hardest time getting skinny men to gain weight! I’ve had people come in and say “I have to buy new clothes” and usually the best place to start off with is “your waist is getting smaller.” Their clothes aren’t fitting because their legs are getting bigger and their arms and shoulders are getting bigger, and it’s just that their proportions are changing.
KATHERINE: Yeah, I have women come in and say “I can’t zip my dresses anymore” and I have to say, where are they not zipping? And inevitably it’s because they have lats now, and I get to tell them their dress isn’t fitting because they have a nice strong back. I think measurements are helpful.
What Kelly says rings really true to me though, that for novices and people who are just getting started, the whole tracking thing is really a challenge and what you need to do to actually cut is really hard.
KELLY: And an LP is hard!
KATHERINE: Yeah! Just stay the course. And some people can’t hack that. And I really try not to judge people when they have failings of worrying about the scale and their size, because there’s so much bad crap out there. Because maybe we’re the only place that’s telling them to focus on what you can DO. Later on once they’re thinking about competitions, when they’re thinking about other sports, or what their intermediate programming is going to look like, that’s when we can start dialing things in and thinking about scale weight, because at that point they’ll hopefully have a good relationship to training. I think a linear progression puts you in a really good habit, of coming into the gym and working hard, and also a habit of trusting the process.
A linear progression is such a “trust the process” kind of thing. You’re like “oh my god, 140 pounds felt SO HEAVY”
GWYN: How am I going to do 142.5?
KATHERINE: How is it possible that on Monday I’m going to squat 140 and on Wednesday I’m going to squat 142.5? This blows my mind. And then they do it and they go “oooooh shit! Oh, okay!”
I feel like there are a couple of sea change moments in an LP when they go “ooooh no” and enter another stage of heaviness where they say “I have no idea if I can do this.” And it takes so much trust, when they come in and they fail a set, and they have to come in two days later and try it again, and when they make it, that builds trust in the process. That’s the kind of trust in the process that you need to do a cut, the process of putting more weight on the bar is scary and it takes determination and commitment, and frankly so does a cut. You have to be disciplined and you have to play the long game and you have to trust that one and a half pounds on the bar or 10 more grams of protein are going to make a big difference in what you can do in the long term.
And I think the linear progression is so valuable mentally for both those things, in trying to do nutrition and also for life. For me, one of the things I found that was so amazing with the barbell is that I was like “oh, I didn’t think I had determination.” I thought as a person, I thought one of my personality traits was that I lacked stick-to-itiveness. I thought that I quit things.
GWYN: It’s hard not to think that about yourself when you keep doing things that don’t work out for you, fitness wise, right? That don’t produce measurable results.
KATHERINE: Yeah! And I thought I was a scaredy-cat, and that I was weak, emotionally. The linear progression taught me that I do have a work ethic, that I can put my nose to the grindstone. It taught me so much about who I am as a person, these positive things that I never knew I had. I think it can offer that to everybody. I think that really crushing your linear progression can create these habits of trust and determination and bravery that we don’t necessarily have an opportunity to prove to ourselves a lot of the time in our daily life, and that what makes us better athletes and people.
KELLY: You’re doing a linear progression in the intensity of the weight, but you’re also doing a linear progression of how hard you have to work and how scared you are and the intensity of the experience. And your ability to THINK when you’re scared of the weight. It’s a rare opportunity to build your tolerance to being uncomfortable, to being scared, and it allows you to slowly build that. Instead of being shoved into a highly intense, hard, scary situation. This gives you time to build up those emotional muscles and calluses as well.
GWYN: I think it’s pretty significant, and I never thought about it until now, the difference between using training or exercise or whatever, movement, to punish yourself, and going really hard and flagellating the shit out of yourself. And not having measurable results. And basing it on how you feel. Going from that, then going to something that’s measurable and repeatable, where you can track your progress, that’s really different. Instead of getting under the bar because you’re a bad person, who weighs too much, you’re going to get under the bar even though you’re terrified because you know it’s going to fucking WORK.
KELLY: Because that last time you did it, and you were terrified, and it worked.
GWYN: It’s a really different risk/reward scenario.
KATHERINE: Yeah, or it’s because you want to DO something. It’s not “I want to feel this later” or “I want to eat something without guilt.”
GWYN: Or I want to work off my bad night.
KATHERINE: Which is not say that some lifters don’t go under the bar with a self-punishment idea in their heads, but that’s more of an intermediate lifter sort of thing of being like “ugh I’m so weak” – which, side note, I also discourage as an idea – but that’s one of the things that we can foster as coaches. If you fail, it’s not because you suck, just go get it next time. I think the most positive relationship with the barbell is “I want to DO this, I have to have DONE this.” You’re not seeking absolution, you’re not seeking forgiveness from the world for how BAD you are. There’s no morality judgment.
GWYN: Yeah, I don’t think you can really work on mental toughness when you’re punishing yourself all the time. Or you can, and you’re actually more mentally tough than you realized, you just didn’t know it. It’s hard to tell.
Gwyn Brookes photo by Thomas Campitelli
KELLY: I feel like because the barbell is to track-able, there’s been days where I’ve been like “I feel like shit, I feel bad” and I go in and am prepared for a horrible session, and then I crush it. But if I wasn’t doing something track-able, I would have just done whatever I felt like, or I would have gone running until I felt like it had been enough. Whatever I did wouldn’t have been track-able in the same way.
GWYN: I remember those days from my novice progression when I was emotionally kind of wrecked, and I ended up having a really great day, and on the other side, there were days where I went into the gym ready to crush it, and set PRs, and it just wasn’t there. And it didn’t matter how great I felt or how pumped I was, I had to still go back and do it again on another day.
KATHERINE: Yeah, there are certain things on a linear progression that are just non-negotiable. You gotta eat, you gotta sleep, and then you come in and you smash the weight.
GWYN: And you can’t make up for that by being pumped.
KATHERINE: Well, I think sometimes you can, but I think not a 3x5! Not on a 3x5 LP.
GWYN: Yeah, that’s the test of your empirical readiness.
KATHERINE: Speaking of readiness, let’s wrap up by talking about our goals! I’m just coming off an injury, so my goals right now are to get back to my pre-injury weights. It has been a really good mental exercise in not being greedy, but also staying motivated even though I’m working so much lighter than I had been. I’m training for the US Strengthlifting Nationals in January, and I would like to press something over 100, and I would like to squat 275, and pull 315. But in the short term I would like to make everything look nice and keep having fun while I’m training.
KELLY: As we mentioned earlier, I’m doing a cut, and I want to stay as strong as possible for the duration of that. I just got new programming, and I’d like to keep working on my chin ups since those are the only lift that’s going to get easier during the cut. I’ll also be competing in January, and I’m hoping to squat 300.
KATHERINE: Yeah, you are OWED a 300 pound squat, Kelly! You deserve it. You have it.
KELLY: Yeah! Those are my main goals, and I just want to keep getting my lifters strong, it makes me really happy to get people strong.
GWYN: Well, I guess my goals are really complicated.
KATHERINE: Wow, I am SHOCKED by this, Gwyn. (laughter)
GWYN: So, this is my tenth year of lifting. I am also turning 48 and I can really tell every year that my training capacity is diminishing. I’m lifting in October and January, and I would like to have some pretty lifts on the platform. So long as everything looks nice in October, I’ll be happy. My last PRs were 99 for press, 238 squat, and 319 deadlift. I’ve been hovering in that eternal cycle where you’re always a late intermediate. Which is not the easiest place to be when you also train three different martial arts. And I LOVE training hard, it makes me happy, I don’t do it to punish myself, I love flying through the air. I love doing high volume sets. I like the way it makes me feel. So I have to dial that back so that I can set some PRs.
KATHERINE: Thanks for this rad conversation, you guys! I feel like we got to know each other a little better now. Thanks for helping us deepen our relationship, Women’s Strength Coalition! (laughter)