Do Weight Classes Matter For Beginner Powerlifters?
By Allie Feras
For many new lifters, discovering strength sports is an empowering experience. This may be the first time they have seen what their bodies are capable of, how powerful they can be. If they are a woman, they may finally feel freed from societal expectations to shrink themselves down, to be small and weak and demure. They may burst with enthusiasm, embracing their new muscle, throwing out their scale, taking up space.
And they want to train harder, get stronger, take part in this community. So they sign up for their first meet! And as they fill out the registration form, they come to a little box marked “weight class.”
“I’m the heaviest I’ve ever been. I can’t imagine getting bigger.”
“I’m only 6 lbs over the lower weight class.”
“I’ll be more competitive at a lighter weight.”
Or at least, that’s how I felt when I started lifting, and still those were the things I said to myself as I filled out the registration form for my first meet (on paper, since powerlifting still hadn’t joined the 21st century in 2012).
For my first few meets, I struggled to keep my weight down, close to the numbers I had seen on the scale as an unathletic, unmuscled teenager. And I struggled to get stronger. I had no history of eating disorders or weight obsession, no more than the average woman in a disordered world. I didn’t hate my body. But seeing so many women my size or smaller lifting so much more than me, I felt like I didn’t deserve to weigh more unless I was stronger. My numbers were bad enough at a low body weight, surely gaining weight would only make my Wilks score even lower.
So I kept cutting, and water cutting, and regaining. For what? To be more “competitive”? My numbers weren’t competitive, not even 3 weight classes below me. Being competitive in powerlifting takes many years, especially when you’re starting with zero athletic background. I gained nothing from this--especially not any muscle--but I lost a lot. I lost a lot of progress I could have made in that time. I lost my energy and my libido. I lost my period for over a year.
Amenorrhea is one third of the “female athlete triad,” along with disordered eating and bone loss (although there can be many other causes of amenorrhea, so check with a doctor if you experience this). It is often discussed in relation to endurance sports like marathon running, or aesthetic sports like gymnastics. There are many stories of women encountering these problems in those sports, and finding refuge in strength training precisely because it puts less emphasis on appearance and size. But powerlifting is not a panacea, and weight-class athletes are also prone to the triad.
Although weight classes are an important part of leveling the playing field, they are overemphasized within the strength sports community, especially for newer competitors. Too many lifters look only at the short term results and are scared to gain weight, preventing them from reaching their long-term potential. “Body transformation” photos of lifters who are cutting to win national/international meets and break huge records are impressive, but they don’t show the years of work and muscle gain that preceded them. Cutting down a weight class can be a useful strategy for very competitive lifters, but the rest of us should question whether it is worth it. I’m not arguing that no one should ever cut; there are lots of great reasons to do whatever you want with your body, many of which are completely unrelated to powerlifting. But when it comes to getting stronger, committing to a weight class too early in your lifting career can set you back.
As for me, after a year of complaining that I couldn’t POSSIBLY be undereating because I didn’t even have abs, I intentionally gained weight and got my period back. To my shock, my absolute strength and my Wilks score increased faster than they ever had at a lighter weight. I still feel an aversion to gaining weight and sometimes get jealous when smaller women are stronger than me, but at least for now I am at a size I can easily maintain while training hard.
Many lifters, myself included, have gained so much more than strength from the sport. It helps us to see the flaws in society’s expectations of us. But strength sports are still a part of that society, and in many ways our weird little subculture still glorifies smaller female bodies to the exclusion of others. We pay lip service to body acceptance and claim to support strong, muscular women, but only if they’re also lean and conventionally attractive. We replace one ideal with another and consider ourselves enlightened.
As a community, we need to face this reality and recognize that this sport is not inherently empowering just because it develops our physical power. We must make it empowering through the way that we talk about athletes’ bodies, the way that we coach, the way that we train, and the way that we fuel that training.
Allie Feras is a powerlifter, USAPL state referee (despite not living in a state), and meet director. She has two very nice cats and her favorite food is breakfast sandwiches.