At 69 years old, Paula Nordgaarden had never lifted weights until six years ago, when a women’s-only gym moved in across the street six years ago.
“I had just done some little dumbbell things in my 50s, but nothing with the bars,” she said. “I had never cleaned or jerked.”
The Farmgirlfit gym, located in eastern downtown Spokane, draws women of all ages, and caters particularly toward moms, offering free child care during the hourlong workouts. In the front of the building, about a dozen children ran around a closed-off play area, or watched their moms work out in the room over.
“I had been going to a different gym for a while, and it was just me by myself, and I wanted to go someplace that was a little bit more of a community,” said Kathryn Hawworth, who took a few minutes to play with her 4-year-old daughter, Juniper, after her workout. “I think that women are starting to finally figure out that strong is desirable.”
Women in cross-training isn’t new, but the gym’s take on a women-only fitness center that incorporates more heavy weightlifting and functional fitness seems to have picked up steam with social media trends like #LiftLikeAGirl increasing visibility, and articles such as one published in Time magazine last year touting health benefits like increased bone density and a decreased risk of diabetes.
“I think that’s the direction the fitness community as a whole is moving,” said Farmgirlfit manager Savannah Robertson. “Strong is beautiful.”
Historically, women have been discouraged from certain types of fitness training, particularly high-intensity weight training, said Farmgirlfit co-founder Jaunessa Walsh.
“There’s always been this misconception that if you lift weights you’re going to get bulky, and it’s something we still battle with,” she said. “You really have to train a certain way to look (bulky), and eat a certain way.”
But through the growing popularity of sports like CrossFit, races like Spartan and the popularization of female MMA fighters and fitness gurus on social media, women weightlifting or doing extreme sports is becoming more normalized, Walsh said.
At SCE Fitness, where athletes do high-intensity workouts with the kinds of obstacles seen in Spartan races and the popular TV show “American Ninja Warrior,” owner K. Jay Davis said an overwhelming majority of his gymgoers are women.
“Most of the guys I’ve had have been led into the gym by their significant other,” he said. “Like, 98 percent.”
Of the women Davis coaches, one of the strongest is Melissa Coombes.
Coombes, who originally started the workouts as a way to get back into shape after having a baby, juggles three jobs and is now expecting a second child. The supportive group mentality is transformative, she said. She’s noticed it in herself, and in friends.
“You can see it in the way she carries herself,” Coombes said of one woman she trained with. “Watching people grow, it’s really empowering.”
Women aren’t just taking over sports like CrossFit, which many trainers say has been accessible and popular with women since its inception. The same trend is beginning to appear in sports that used to be unquestioningly male-dominated.
In 2012, female boxers were able to go the the Olympics for the first time. Although pro boxing is still less common for women, it has become an increasingly popular choice for working out.
Carol Wirth, 55, started training in 1996, when boxing was relatively uncommon among women. A friend from the high school where she taught convinced her to try the sport, and Wirth said she was immediately drawn in.
“I knew I had to do it, because it was scary,” she said. “I went in there, and I realized that the same thing I was doing in life, which was running from conflict, I was trying to do in there, and it just doesn’t work. I got to learn how to deal with that, and face that conflict in a healthy way.”
At the time, few coaches would accept female students, and boxing gyms were commonly devoid of any women.
“I was told when I got to the gym to wear more loose clothing,” she said. “If I wore anything that was in any way revealing, the guys wouldn’t take me seriously. So I started dressing like a guy.”
Even then, she wasn’t treated the same as other boxers.
“There would always be the assumption that I’m a lesbian (because I boxed), 100 percent automatically,” she said.
As an amateur, finding a sparring partner was nearly impossible, so in 2000, Wirth decided to go pro. She continued through 2001, and still boxes today. Today, the attitude toward women has shifted drastically, she said.
At Spokane Boxing Gym where Wirth practices, women of all ages and walks of life make up about half of the clients, owner Rick Welliver said.
“My oldest client is 83 years old,” he said, “She’s been with me about seven years.”
Other boxers are college students, and some are mothers. Most women at the gym said they come in to get fit and gain confidence. For some, it’s a way to overcome personal struggles.
“I think a lot of women come in here fighting something they need to conquer real bad,” said 49-year-old Cyre Par. “I got drawn in, big time, and I’m so glad. It’s saving my life.”
At Boxfit Spokane, owned by Rick’s brother, Chauncy Welliver, there are “more women than men in our gym,” he said. “It is becoming a bit of a feminine sport. If you had said that 20 years ago, people would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
Some of those women who originally came to his gym for health reasons have since turned pro.
Jillian Shah walked into Boxfit hoping to find a fun workout she could stick to. Welliver noticed her skill and encouraged her to compete.
“She never planned on getting hit,” Welliver said, but as it turned out, “she’s one of the best in the nation.”
Shah placed fifth at a national competition in 2015, and in doing so became a role model for several younger girls that box at the gym.
“We have girls, 12, 13 years old. They look up to Jill,” Welliver said – “tough girls,” who admire Shah and other professional boxers like World Champion Claressa Shields. “They come from Rogers High School, and they wanted to punch stuff.”