Women Find Strength and Community at Grassroots Fitness by Lifting Heavy

Lifting. Heavy. Photographs by Scott Etkin.
By Scott Etkin
It’s 7:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday at Grassroots Fitness, an independent gym on Amsterdam between West 77th and 78th streets. On one side of the studio, a half dozen people work out with personal trainers; on the other, a group of women in spandex and sweatshirts begin their weekly group warmup.
Many women who wake up early on a weekday to exercise are likely to go for a jog or join a spin or yoga class; far fewer will set out to hit their three rep max in a barbell back squat – that is, lift heavy weights. But that’s exactly what’s happening on Wednesday mornings at Grassroots Fitness.
Heather Gunn-Rivera, who has run Grassroots with her husband, Wil since 2004, stands in front of a large whiteboard, writing out the day’s rep scheme. As the women hit the floor to stretch, Gunn-Rivera asks the group why they need ankle mobility. “To keep our knees stable,” comes a quick response.
Stable knees will be vital later in the hour, when women in the group will take off their shoes (to help their posture) and partner up by height to do squats with weights of 100 to 150 pounds. Many of the women here have progressed to this level over years of dedication to Grassroots’ “Women’s Strength” program, a females-only class that women are drawn to not only because of the physical benefits, but because of the bond they feel being part of this community. 
“I’ve done other co-ed programs in the past and it felt like everyone was on a different wavelength,” said Tara Mathew, who has trained at Grassroots for two years. “Here, a lot of us have similar physical challenges. It was nice to find people you can relate to.”
Heather Gunn-Rivera at the white board.
Gunn-Rivera is constantly animated, befitting her background in theater before she became a trainer. As the women progress to a more active warm up with bands, she asks each one what their expectations are for today. “It’s the ‘Cheers’ of fitness, where everybody knows your name,” she said. “It’s the difference between customer service and hospitality.” 
Some women in the program who spoke with West Side Rag found that weight training has improved their running or has helped them get back to exercising after an injury.  
“Having this community of women train with you, it’s so inspirational. You root for each other,” said Lauren Sachs, who has been training at Grassroots for eight years, ever since she joined the gym for rehab after an injury. 
“As women, we start losing bone density at the age of 30,” Gunn-Rivera said in an interview with WSR. “Cardio breaks down muscle protein and we need muscle to build our bones.” She gets especially excited when she sees a client shift from the “cardio mentality” to pursuing strength training.
Warming up.
“For me, the cardio mentality is: ‘The harder I go, the more I sweat, the longer I suffer, the higher the reward.’ It’s the ‘never enough’ mentality: ‘I can never be skinny enough,’” Gunn-Rivera said. “I wanted to flip that. It’s about being more at home in your body. It’s about what we gain, not what we lose.”   
Though some women shun weight training because they fear it will make them look bulkier,  “that’s a misconception,” said Sachs; her view is backed up by research on women and weight training. 
The Women’s Strength program is broken up into eight-week segments, allowing clients to learn the technique behind the traditional barbell lifts (squat, deadlift, and bench press) and steadily progress toward using heavier weights. Women in the program keep track of the weights they’ve lifted either on their smartphones or by hand on cards kept at the gym. 
Towards the end of the class, a woman goes for a personal record lift, increasing from 95 to 105 pounds, and Gunn-Rivera makes sure she has everyone’s attention. When the client hits four reps, everyone cheers.
Gunn-Rivera wants to mark these moments even more in the future. “I think we’re going to get a bell,” she said.
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