Super Strong: The Most Powerful Women in Sport. Part 1 - Sarah Davies
Super Strong: The Most Powerful Women in Sport. Part 1 - Sarah Davies
Here at Mirafit we want to help everyone reach their full potential when it comes to fitness but a lot of women still feel apprehensive about strength training, worried that they don't know how to start or that they'll end up looking more muscular than they want to be. We've sat down with several inspirational strong women to discuss how and why everyone should be lifting weights. For the first interview in our series, we talked to Sarah Davies, beauty pageant winner and Team GB Olympic Weightlifter.
Tell us a bit about how you started Olympic Weightlifting.
I started lifting in September 2011 when I was at Leeds Metropolitan University, where the national team were training in weightlifting for London 2012. The best in the country were training at the university, and I stumbled across it by accident. I wasn’t really doing any sort of training, I was at the gym being a bit of a cardio bunny and doing a bit of this and a bit of that, not really knowing what I was doing.
Then I found weightlifting and I really enjoyed it. I was a gymnast as a kid and, when I stopped, there was a big gap in my life for all the hours that I used to put into that, and I hadn’t managed to fill it with anything until I found weightlifting.
My first weightlifting session I snatched 30kg and clean and jerked 40kg. It was terrible and the technique was rough, it was just brute force and ignorance. The people that I was training with said “you could be quite good at this” so I just decided to take it up.
It sounds like the female weightlifters had a big impact on you?
I didn’t train at the same time as them, but I had the support of a lot of the lifters from the national team. I was seeing good technique and therefore it was easier for me to replicate it. When people are training to lift in an environment where they don’t have that good technique around them it’s very easy to pick up their own bad habits.
How has the sport changed since you began?
I entered my first competition in the November of 2011. It was before weightlifting became cool and, because not a lot of women did weightlifting, the qualification standards for Nationals were really low. I hit my qualification total in the first ever competition I did and qualified for the English Championships the following February.
It was a bit of a whirlwind and because I saw success so early it helped me to keep going. I went to Nationals and won a medal because there were only three women in my weight class. There just weren’t many women weightlifting then. To have seen such a change in the past ten years where it’s now competitive to even qualify for nationals, it’s awesome to see.
Since I’ve started weightlifting, I’ve been to two Commonwealth Games, I won a silver medal at the last Commonwealth Games in 2018 and I’m currently training for Tokyo.
What common mistakes do you see when women begin weightlifting?
You still see a lot of women who are really nervous, specifically around Olympic Weightlifting. The difference between men and women is quite interesting because when women start weightlifting, they really want to get the technical stuff correct before they put weight on the bar, which is the right way to go. Men tend to just want to lift heavy weights.
A lot of women are timid and have that fear factor regarding weightlifting, they are a bit more conscious about what could go wrong whereas guys just say ‘nah, it’ll be alright.’ It’s about making sure that you’ve got a good coach who can teach you good technique so that you’re not going to hurt yourself.
The sport of Olympic Weightlifting is aggressive and definite and powerful, and women can try and get it ‘too right’ and really overthink the movements. In weightlifting the movement happens so quickly that you need to think about it away from the bar and, once you’re there, you have to just let it happen. The lift happens in less than a second and your brain can’t process that quickly so it’s important to learn to trust your body more and having a good coach to make sure that the technique comes in naturally.
Why do you think the popularity for weightlifting has increased among women recently?
Sports such as CrossFit have made it more accessible and these days it is seen as cool. Having a big bum is fashionable now, so weightlifting and strength training has become more popular with women because it gives this body ideal that women want without surgery. When I compete in pageants one of the first questions women ask me is ‘how do I get a bum like yours?’ I say there are two options, you can spend thousands and thousands of pounds like Kim Kardashian did or you can squat lots and lots of kilos. I think that’s the thing, you see all these Instagram accounts of girls doing bodyweight exercises to build a bum but at the end of the day, to build muscle, you need to put it under load and these girls don’t realise that I squat 170kg to be able to have a bum like this and that’s the difference.
What is your experience as a woman in what is traditionally a male dominated sport?
It is something that has evolved in my time over the sport because of how the gender split in the sport has evolved. After lifting for a couple of years I qualified for my first Commonwealth Games. It was around the time I won my first beauty pageant which led to media interest and there was a lot of articles in the papers and a lot of negative comments saying ‘women shouldn’t lift weights’ and ‘she looks like a man’ and all that ridiculous stuff. Now we pretty much have a 50/50 gender split, we’re sending four women to Tokyo and no men, so it shows how the tables have tipped on a national level.
I’d say the way that people perceive female weightlifting now is a lot more positive but I sit as an athlete representative on the International Weightlifting Federation Executive Board and on the Board there is only me and one other female in a room of 21 people so internationally we still have a lot of work to do to ensure that women are perceived as equal in weightlifting.
It’s interesting that women’s weightlifting has evolved in such a short amount of time.
The first Olympics that had women’s weightlifting was Sydney 2000 so in terms of the sport it’s quite new. Men’s weightlifting has been in the sport for the whole modern Olympics, but this is the fifth Olympics for women’s weightlifting and it’s only the last three years that we’ve had an equal gender split on weight categories as well, there used to be more weight categories for men than women.
What misconceptions do you think people have about weightlifters in general?
Definitely the biggest misconception I get is that I don’t look like a weightlifter. People expect you to be massive. I do a lot of work in schools and the teachers hear about a weightlifter coming in and they expect a proper old school Helga the Brute woman, to be six feet tall and six feet wide. They say ‘oh, you’re a lot smaller than I thought you’d be’ and ‘oh, you’re quite petite’ and I’m like ‘yeah, there are weight categories all the way down to 45kg.’ You do get your weightlifters who are a lot taller, but I do often get ‘you don’t look like a weightlifter’, but as I’m one of the best in the world, I’d say that I do look like a weightlifter.
People also expect the stereotype of being more masculine. I go on stage with a full face of make-up on and my hair done. You see it a lot more now and when I started you didn’t see it. I think that women feel that they can do that on the platform now, and it’s cool to see that change.
Did you have any role models like that when you were growing up?
I didn’t, and that’s part of why I do it now. As a gymnast when I was going into secondary school, I got bullied in year 7 and 8 for being muscular because I was shredded and when you’re that age, if you’re different, that leads to bullying. Part of the reason why I retired from gymnastics was that I didn’t like the negative attention that came with it. I look back on that now and think it’s ridiculous but at that age you didn’t have the same women in sport that we have now.
You look at the effect of 2012 and yes, the legacy didn’t last as much as we’d like it to but seeing Jessica Ennis on every billboard and seeing those strong female role-models in sport is a very different thing for that generation.
If another 11-year-old me can look at me and think ‘I can be muscular and I can be feminine and I can achieve everything that I want to’ then that is a big thing for me and part of the reason why I do what I do, because I didn’t have that role model.
Why is strength important as a woman growing up in the world?
There are obviously the physical benefits of strength. I recently moved from a first floor flat into a three-bedroom house and I was sore for a week afterwards, but I was able to do it by myself. It also helps when it comes to defending yourself.
I think being strong builds mental strength as well, because in a sport such as weightlifting, it is hard, and you beat your body up and the mental strength to keep going is a huge thing because it transfers into so many other parts of life.
The opportunities it brings are phenomenal, I’ve travelled all over the world and I’ve met people and it’s made me so much more confident in myself. I’m more muscular now than I’ve ever been but I’m also more confident in myself than I’ve ever been because I know that my body is capable of phenomenal things because of how it looks. I’m in decent shape because of what I do, I don’t go to the gym to achieve that body shape, it is a byproduct off the back of enjoying sport rather than going to the gym and slogging it.
Osteoporosis as you get older as a woman is a huge thing but if you’re strength training it increases bone density and there are so many things from weight training that keep you physically and mentally healthy.
Strength sports are also quite social. People don’t expect them to be because they are individual sports, but you can walk into any weightlifting gym or power gym or CrossFit gym and you will be welcomed in there and people will talk to you and you’ll make friends there. When you go into a commercial gym you don’t get the same experience because everyone’s got their headphones in and no-one talks to anyone.
What would you tell a woman at the very beginning of her weightlifting journey?
With weightlifting, because they are such technical movements, I’d tell them to get a good coach. Also, reach out to people on social media, I and a lot of other lifters will reply to people if they want to start the sport. It is a community and a family, and we are a minority sport so if we can get people involved, we will talk to them and help them out.
You don’t want to start and pick up bad habits or injure yourself. With the bar going overhead in weightlifting, more things can go wrong. Try and grab yourself a coach and ask around for recommendations. The British Weightlifting website has all the affiliated clubs so you can find one nearby.
If you do want to try it, use a broom handle or a PVC pipe to practice the movements. Don’t do it under any load. When you’re waiting to get a coach, work on your mobility. People don’t realise how mobile you need to be in weightlifting to get in the bottom position with the bar over your head. Doing some good foundational compound movements like squats and building leg strength will help.
I know people who have done powerlifting who do a bit of weightlifting to help with dynamic movements and I programme now for a couple of people who do strongman, and they see a massive benefit from fitting some weightlifting movements in.
If you could go back in time and start again, what would you do differently?
I’d enjoy the moment more because I was constantly striving for the next thing and I’d enjoy the newbie gains more than I did.
If you weren’t competing and training weightlifting, what would you be doing?
At Uni I was training to be a PE teacher. I graduated in 2013 and was teaching until 2016. I would have probably picked up CrossFit somewhere along the way as I like the concept when it’s taught well.
What is the best advice and tips you’ve received?
Focus on yourself and your own improvement. You might be competing against somebody else, but you can’t control what they’re doing in gym and how they’re training. If you get too wrapped up in everyone else, you can forget yourself along the way.
Finally, what is on your gym playlist?
I’m really not that bothered by music. I’ll hold my hands up and say that music isn’t really a hype thing for me, it never has been. I like it to be quiet when I’m going my technical work, or I get distracted really easily.