Last month at a local fitness center, I happened to overhear a conversation between
two moderately obese, middle aged women. The heavier of the two had been sitting
motionless on the Nautilus Chest Press unit for at least five minutes when her friend
entered the gym and said hello. "Hi, Mildred.......how's your program coming?"
Mildred grimaced as if she had just swallowed some bad tasting medicine as she stood
up from the Nautilus machine. "Not so good, Sherrie. I joined over the holidays
hoping to lose weight, but I'm afraid I haven't been very successful."
Sherrie looked closely at Mildred as though trying to assess the nature of her
friend's problem. "Have you been lifting weights?" "Yes.....Why
do you ask?" "Well," Sherrie opined, "that's a big mistake.
Lifting weights will make you GAIN, not lose."
Mildred sighed as if this was just what she had wanted to hear so as to have an
excuse for terminating what there was of her program. Then she and Sherrie walked
over to the juice bar for some refreshments. Neither of them have been back to the
I can't tell you how many women I've seen who fit this profile. All of
them hope to become fit, yet few receive the guidance and ongoing supervision that
they need. Major goals are not achieved without major motivation and careful planning.
Shaking my head in amazement, I stowed my workout journal and towel in my locker
and then set out on a run through the streets of Manchester, N.H. As I ran through
the back alleys, parking lots, and up and down some the city's more prominent
hills, I reflected upon the conversation I had witnessed mere moments before, one
of many similar dialogues I have heard over the years. Then I recalled how it used
to be, of how I had introduced a group of women to weight training more than twenty
years ago, and had become both praised and vilified for what had followed.
In January of 1980 I was the Health & Fitness Director of the largest health
club in the New England States. The Hampshire Hills Sports Complex was a plush,
expensive facility for the country club set. At that time we had separate gyms for
men and women.....separate, but decidedly unequal. The men's workout area was
filled with cardio equipment, free weights, squat rack, deadlift platform, various
benches, Universal Gym, speed and heavy bags, etc., while the women's gym had
one cheap, stationary cycle, vibrating belts, and a 'hip, thigh,and buttock
reducer' made up of rotating wooden balusters mounted on a motorized revolving
cylinder. There was also a plastic, spring-loaded Mark Eden Bust Developer, and
an open, carpeted area for 'toning' classes. Pathetic.
Some time prior to this I had restructured the women's group exercise classes
because they were far too easy. Checking the participants' heart rates proved
my point. At no time did anybody in these classes achieve a training heart rate
greater than 90 beats per minute. I dare say someone could easily obtain a more
challenging workout brushing their teeth.
Unfortunately, most of the female members didn't like the newly invigorated
classes, opting instead to retreat to the club's bar and lounge. I was told
they didn't like the heavy breathing and perspiration. I didn't understand.
As a compromise, management continued to offer the 'cutsie' toning classes
while allowing me to conduct the more challenging variety three times per week for
the club's more ambitious women. Soon this wouldn't be enough.
One day one of the members asked if I could sneak his wife into the Men's
Gym for a supervised weight training program. Her name was Pamela, a redhead with
bright blue eyes. The other thing I happened to notice was that she seemed frightened
and less than enthused about lifting weights. After all, this was her husband's
idea, not hers. "What are your goals?" I asked her. "Goals?"
"Yeah, goals," I explained, "You know, what would you like to accomplish?"
Pam's bright, blue eyes widened noticeably as she told me that she wanted to
be able to carry two bags of groceries. "Okay," came my bored response,
thinking she was joking. She wasn't. Pam explained that she'd been a dancer,
having practiced ballet for years, and had also danced with The Rockettes and been
on The Ed Sullivan Show in the mid 1960s. By 1980 she was playing tennis and running
10K road races, the effect of which was to make her very skinny and weak. The problem
I had was that, having never trained women before, I didn't know where to begin.
In 1980 there was little published information relating specifically to strength
training programs for female athletes. So instead I decided to wing it, training
her the same as I would any skinny, run down male. My program worked like a charm.
After a month of progressive training, Pam entered the gym one afternoon grinning
like Howdy Doody. "I did it!" she said, almost boasting, "I carried
two bags of groceries from out of my car and into the house! This weight lifting
stuff really works!" She hadn't been kidding.
Then, after having thoroughly warmed up, she began to train with a sense of determination
and enthusiasm that I've rarely witnessed. In the months ahead, there were times
when Pam appeared to have been more machine than human. This was so obvious that
many of the other members would simply stand back and watch in open-mouthed awe
as she blasted out rep after agonizing rep of barbell squats and did pull-ups with
a 15 lb. dumbbell suspended by a knotted rope from her waist. Two bags of groceries
were no longer enough to satisfy this paragon of power. What was next? "Let's
see how far you can take this," I suggested, more out of curiosity than grand
Soon Pam was stronger than her husband, and this presented its own set of problems,
but she refused to quit. Within two years Pam Bidwell was entering and winning powerlifting
contests, having officially pulled a 325 lb. dead lift and winning the Region 1
Championships (NY, NJ, and New England) in the 123 lb. Class in both 1982 and '83.
She also developed a phenomenal body. Had I not witnessed her transformation with
my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it possible. By no coincidence she also
set the New England Past Forty Women's Record in the 200 meter sprint, qualifying
her to go to the Nationals in Indianapolis. Soon Pam's friends began to pressure
the club's management to allow them to use the Men's Gym, and in no time
at all I had a stable of proficient female athletes training under my tutelage.
Pat Cassidy, for example, was a very focused registered nurse and mother of two,
taking graduate courses to earn an MBA. She too began to compete in powerlifting,
acquiring the moniker 'Ms. 9 for 9', for having never missed a lift in competition.
Pam also recruited Patti Blanchette, the strongest drug-free woman I have ever seen.
With only three months of training under her belt, Patti won the Women's Division
of the 1983 Eastern America Powerlifting Championships, having squatted with 300,
benched 155, and deadlifted 335.
As a part of her competition training, Patti would work up to repetition partial
squats with over 400 lbs. I can still recall how after having pulled that 335 lb.
deadlift to win the meet, she charged off the lifting platform to hug me, but that
hug came off more like a cross-body block, knocking me for a loop! A very dangerous
woman, completely unaware of her own strength.
Then there was Maureen. In early May of 1982, Maureen Svirsky had driven up to
Milford N.H. from her job as a waitress at The Duk-In Restaurant in Fitchburg Massachusetts.
She claimed to have wanted to be a bodybuilder, and in hindsight I can still recall
the intensity and resolve projected by her voice as she said this. I put my feet
up on the desk and smiled, suspecting that this urge of hers may have been merely
a passing fancy. "Just how badly do you want to be a bodybuilder?" I asked
her. Maureen wanted to be a bodybuilder so badly that she willingly agreed to join
the club and commute from Fitchburg to Hampshire Hills, more than forty miles, to
train under my direct supervision four days a week. For added incentive I suggested
that she consider entering the New Hampshire State Bodybuilding Championships scheduled
for June 13th in Manchester. I warned her ahead of time that with only one month
to train, it wouldn't be easy. She seemed to welcome the challenge.
Her first several sessions were intentionally made easy so that she would have
time to adapt to the ever increasing training load. I took special care to make
each and every one of her workouts more challenging than the last. Soon Maureen
was doing squats, deadlifts, incline dumbbell presses, dips, and chins until she
couldn't see straight and......most amazing of all, she kept coming back for
more! It was at about this time that I began to develop an empathy for Dr. Victor
Frankenstein. My God! What awesome powers had I unleashed? At five feet two inches
in height, and weighing in at barely 105 pounds, this strawberry blonde may have
been petite, but she certainly didn't lack heart. On the contrary!
Before either she or I had realized, a month had come and gone, and on center
stage at Manchester's Practical Arts Auditorium, stood Maureen beneath the harsh,
overhead spotlight..... effortlessly gliding from one classically muscular pose
to another to the tumultuous applause of over one thousand spectators. These poses
had been choreographed to her music, The Seduction , making her presentation even
more dramatic and inspiring. The way the combination of light and shadow played
about her shimmering, alabaster musculature, in contrast to her black, crocheted
bikini, had an almost hypnotic effect upon the judges and spectators. Her body appeared
to have been sculpted from highly polished marble, and this most assuredly set the
stage for what was to follow.
There in the front row of the auditorium, I could view my buddies from the 'Y',
The Goon Squad, watching Maureen the way a pack of hungry wolves would eyeball an
elegant, white-tailed doe. But Maureen was far from being a helpless prey. By this
point she had the entire auditorium, including The Goons, under her complete control.
No longer was this a women's bodybuilding contest; it had become The Maureen
Svirsky Show. For as Maureen progressed through her meticulously executed poses,
she seemed to pull the audience under a magical spell, and I knew for certain that
she had already won. My friends in the crowd were now screaming and carrying on
like a gang of teenaged girls at a Beatles concert circa 1965.
Maureen's final pose, an arms overhead abdominal vacuum, brought down the
house, and she easily won the Ms. New Hampshire title over several seasoned competitors.
It was quite an upset. Nobody had expected a relative unknown to have come seemingly
from out of nowhere to take top honors. It would have come as no surprise had these
people witnessed her training.
Then the problems started. Pam entered the gym late one afternoon and walked up
to my desk. "Am I fat?" she asked me apprehensively. Pam Bidwell had about
as much fat on her as a boiled grape, but she had been hassled by other women in
the locker room, who surrounded her and, poking and prodding, told her she was fat.
"What do these other women look like?" I asked her. Pam smiled as if realizing
their motive. "They're fat." she admitted. "And envious too,"
I concluded, not giving it a second thought until more problems materialized.
The local and regional press, including The Boston Globe, had begun running feature
articles on both Pam and Maureen, putting them and Hampshire Hills on the fitness
radar screens throughout the area which, it seemed at the time, was a good thing.
From my vantage point today, I'm not so sure it was.
Things grew progressively weird after this.......not at all what I had expected.
First, the facility's owners expressed their concern that I was tarnishing their
club's image. (As what.....a haven for heavy drinking, obese couch potatoes?)
They also wondered about why so many women but few men were seeking me out for fitness
training. "I've often wondered about that myself," I conceded, "I
guess it's just not a priority for the men."
Complicating matters, a schism had developed among the club's female members.
There were those who chose to wear leotards and tights and follow the traditional
women's toning classes or play tennis. Then there were the mavericks who wore
gym shorts and tee shirts, carried blocks of magnesium carbonate chalk, wore lifting
belts, and trained harder than most of the men. The latter group used the women's
area for showers and lockers only, preferring to exercise in the Men's Gym downstairs.
Pam and her friends had become reluctant role models for a cadre of younger women
hoping to emulate them. Some were serious and had talent; most were not.
Diane was one of these. She idolized Pam Bidwell to such an extent that she went
so far as to wear the same perfume and gym attire as Pam. Facially she resembled
Rocky Marciano and used to break out in hives whenever she exercised. She also used
to moan and groan in what sounded like orgiastic ecstasy the way some of the other
women did when doing forced reps with the weights. But Diane did this as she warmed
up on the stationary bike. Strange.
Some of the older men were very vocal in their complaints to the club's management
and owners about this. Granted, watching a half dozen attractive women push themselves
to the limit on squats and deadlifts can have an unsettling effect on a frustrated,
middle-aged, married man. But it was the noises that pushed many of these gents
over the edge.
Their wives took things even farther. Most of these men's wives were part
of the Women's Spa crowd who used to hang around after the tennis doubles matches
and fitness classes, talking about food and how they hated exercise. Some of these
busy bodies surmised that something illegal or immoral was transpiring downstairs
in the Men's Gym........something, so the story went, about me procuring women
for the airline pilots whom I had also been training at that time. Gee, why hadn't
I thought of that? Needless to say, Pam and her friends weren't amused by this
There were strange phone calls as well. "I got an obscene phone call last
night!" Pam told me, laughing. "And I talked to the guy for an hour!"
"Why'd you stay on the phone with him for an hour if it was an obscene
call?" "Well, my husband was away on business, and I thought it was you
joking around." "Hey.....it wasn't me!" "Yeah," Pam
admitted, sliding two 25 lb. plates onto the Olympic bar, "I realized that
when he started to talk about my Volvo. You know I drive a Mazda." "Jeeziz!"
Every day at around 4 PM the phone would ring in the Men's Gym, most often
somebody trying to pass himself of as a women's training expert or physique
photographer. This one was typical. ".......IS MAUREEN THERE?" It was
a very excited man's voice on the other end of the line. Maureen had not yet
arrived, so I took a message. He claimed his name was Roger, a women's fitness
consultant, and that he wanted to take pictures of Maureen for Muscle & Fitness Magazine . This was Maureen's first experience with this sort of thing, so she
gave Roger the benefit of the doubt and agreed to meet him in the gym provided I
stay right by her side the whole time. As soon as Roger walked through the door,
we both knew he was not what he claimed to have been. That Kodak Brownie camera
suspended from his neck by a few strands of yellow yarn was a dead give away. Looking
like a bespectacled Peter Lorre certainly strained his credibility as well. Maureen
gave him the brush off, and I showed him to the door.
But Roger continued calling, along with a host of others promising to make her
a star. The purpose of this treatise on women and weights is to provide you with
an overview of what has proven itself to be strange terrain. Next, I submit for
your perusal the following tips: 1) Plan your route carefully. Even with the best
of programs there will inevitably be many stumbling blocks along the way. Don't
get discouraged. 2) Retain the services of a skilled trainer. This is most important
for getting off to a good start, but is also invaluable for the ongoing education,
motivation, and oversight. 3) Train as heavy as you can with proper form, while
attempting to consistently increase your poundages by about 5% per week. Don't
worry about growing large muscles or looking like a large, ugly man. Virtually ALL
of the women bodybuilders featured in the media today are on such high levels of
testosterone and other drugs that they could make Mike Tyson cry for his mamma.
Add some muscle; lose some fat; look and feel better, not worse! 4) Pay attention
to your nutrition and sleep patterns. The woman who goes to the gym and then gorges
on bagels, cream cheese, and chocolates is only fooling herself. As far as sleep
goes, if you have to get up early, you had best go to bed early. 5) Skip the fitness
classes. Walking, biking, running, or even cardio machines in conjunction with an
intelligently designed strength training program and mildly hypocaloric diet will
do a far better job of promoting and maintaining fat loss. 6) When you go to the
gym, dress plainly and leave off the makeup so as not to draw the attention of lounge
lizards looking for a health club queen. 7) Get in, get the job done, and go home.
Now that I think of it, all of the above points are essentially the same advice
I would offer to any man wanting to get started on a strength training program.
Today Pam Bidwell is a personal trainer at Gold's Gym in Nashua. Pat Cassidy
is a practicing psychologist in Concord, and Maureen has her own massage therapy
practice in California. Patti Blanchette quit training after she won her meet and,
the last I heard, is involved in the computer industry.
Having considered my adventures as Health & Fitness Director at Hampshire
Hills, my only regret is that I never told any of these women how proud I was of
what they had been able to achieve. While this may have been shortsighted on my
part, it's a mistake I've vowed not to repeat with my kids.
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