EmpowHER is a 12-week weightlifting programme hosted in the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) – based at the University of Cape Town (UCT) – designed to help women take control of their health, get stronger and feel confident in a gym setting.
The thought of waking up early on a Saturday morning to land in the gym – complete with bright lights and loud, upbeat music – before 08:00 is enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone whose activewear sees more action in coffee shops than on the training floor. Let alone if you’re a woman and the session is set to take place in the usually male-dominated weightlifting area.
One way to change your mind about this scene, though, would be to take part in the EmpowHER programme. The energy and enthusiasm brought by the instructors and participants make the session fly by, leaving you feeling invigorated and ready to take on the day.
SSISA, which works in collaboration with UCT’s Division of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine (ESSM), has a long tradition of championing athletic excellence. Focusing on four strategic pillars – wellness, performance, education and research – the centre aims to bring people closer to realising their full potential and being their personal best.
EmpowHER is the embodiment of this mission. Created by biokineticists Meka Lentin and Olivia Bloomer, the programme aims to foster an encouraging environment for women who want to build strength and gain confidence lifting weights.
“We wanted to create a space where women would feel comfortable to learn about weightlifting because one of the biggest barriers is that women don’t feel comfortable enough to lift heavy, which means they don’t see results,” explained Bloomer.
“Our goal was to build a community where women cheer each other on rather than [compete] against one another.”
“There can also be an element of competition in the gym, so our goal was to build a community where women cheer each other on rather than [compete] against one another.”
Another core objective of the programme is to change the perception that the weight section and weightlifting are reserved for men. “It’s also about breaking down the stigma that weights are for men and you’re going to get bulky if you lift,” said Lentin.
“It’s a very old-school mentality that weights are for men and cardio is for girls. So, we wanted to break down that barrier and show that ‘strong’ feels good. We don’t want to do these exercises to change our bodies or lose weight, but we want to get stronger and push our limits.”
This idea of empowering women to push themselves and love their bodies is central to the programme. “I think one of the biggest things that sets us apart [from other female-focused exercise programmes] is that EmpowHER isn’t centred on weight loss.
“We want to create an environment where women want to celebrate and love their bodies; where we’re doing something that feels good for ourselves and for our health without punishing ourselves or wanting to get smaller,” noted Bloomer.
Structured for success
EmpowHER is a periodised programme spread over 12 weeks to enable participants to learn and grow stronger as the course advances. Two of the three classes per week focus on either upper body or lower body exercises, with the third incorporating cardiovascular exercises and muscle isolation.
“To start off, we have four different phases. Phase one will be getting the women familiar with the weights and how it feels to work with them. A lot of the time this is just getting the ladies with a training bar and focusing on technique,” explained Lentin.
“In phases two to four, we start to increase the weights and get the girls going with the six main lifts – that’s our squat, hip thrusts and deadlift, and the bent over row, chest press and pull up. So by the end of phase four, you can really see how strong they are.”
The progressive design and personalisation provided by Lentin and Bloomer mean that the programme is suitable for women of all abilities and ages. “We’ve had ladies who’ve never picked up a weight before come and join us and be perfectly comfortable,” added Lentin. “That’s not only young ladies, either.
“We’ve had ladies in their 60s who’ve never been in a gym environment and we’ve taken them from that to being confident with lifting and doing the exercises.”
To enhance the structure, participants are provided with an educational e-book and a workout log book. Plus, they are invited to join the EmpowHER “girl-gang community” to keep them accountable.
“Each woman gets a workout tracker. So at the beginning of the programme, you write down what you’ve lifted and your goal for the end of the programme. At the end of each session, you write down what you loved, what you found challenging and so on,” said Lentin.
Coaching is also provided to ensure that the women are setting realistic goals and will get the most out of the course. Bloomer said that this level of personalisation is key. “The biggest thing about the programme is that you don’t have to do anything.
“We want girls to become independent in the gym. We want them to know what pushing themselves feels like. So they show up, however they feel on the day, and push themselves as hard as they want to push. They get a feel for what muscle failure feels like and that sets them up to be able to push themselves safely when they’re in the gym on their own,” she noted.
Stories of strength
The well-known adage about proof and pudding rings true with EmpowHER. The women who take part in the course praise both the programme design as well as the personalised approach, and the results they see.
Keightley Walsh said that the programme has built her confidence – both in her body and her attitude towards the weight area. “I’ve become more confident. When I started in the gym alone, I would never go near the weight section.
“Now, I have so much confidence that I just put myself in the middle of all the men, pick up the heaviest weight and just do my thing. It really speaks to the name EmpowHER. You’re empowered to use those weights, challenge yourself in weightlifting and to push your body to its limits,” she noted.
This sentiment is echoed by Rachel McFarlane, who joined the class with the objective of feeling stronger after recovering from an injury. “I’ve definitely grown in strength and confidence and have become more comfortable in the weight section.
“Having recovered from an injury, it has really helped me to regain my strength. [Meka and Olivia] both work with you and walk around and correct you as you do your exercises, and they’ve been completely hands-on throughout the process.”
The next EmpowHER stream starts on 5 September 2022. Classes take place at SSISA on Mondays and Wednesdays at 07:30; Tuesdays and Thursdays at 06:30; and Saturdays at 08:00. SSISA members can join for R350 per month and non-members for R800 per month.
For any enquiries, please email Olivia Bloomer.
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