At a squat rack on the first floor of the Weinstein Center for Recreation, junior Abby Bangs begins her third set of bent rows as “Crooked Smile” by J. Cole plays through her AirPods. It is pull day, so her lifts are focusing on her biceps, back and forearms. The gym is not overly crowded, but of the 20 people in the weights section, she is the only girl.
Some days, being in the weights section makes her feel like a powerful and strong woman. She has been lifting since her first year at the University of Richmond and currently works out four times per week. When she leaves the gym in the morning knowing she was the only girl in the weights section, she feels like nothing can stop her in her day. But on other days, she does not feel as empowered and comfortable in the gym.
“If I am not feeling 100% and I walk in and there are no other girls there, it’s so defeating, in my opinion,” Bangs said. “It definitely hits me when I need a spot and there’s no girls in the gym.” She knows that most people would be happy to spot her bench press, but it takes her time to muster up the courage to ask.
Bangs is co-president of Girl Gains UR, which is the female-identifying and non-binary student lifting club on campus. Senior Ally Palalay, the other co-president, started UR’s chapter of the Girl Gains club with her friends in 2022 after discovering the national organization on TikTok. Bangs and Palalay are both passionate about growing the Girl Gains UR community so that girls who may not already have the knowledge and confidence it takes can feel comfortable in the typically male-dominated gym.
In order to build its community, Girl Gains UR hosts both formal and informal events. During its general body meetings, the group gathers in the gym’s second floor classroom to learn about holistic wellness topics, with the most recent one being stress management and burnout.
A few times per year, the group reserves the entire gym for an hour before its 9 a.m. opening on Sunday mornings to host “crash courses.” There, members can work out in the empty gym or get help learning how to use machines and lift with proper form. The club also organizes informal bonding events like impromptu “hot girl walks” outdoors.
While implementing Girl Gains’ inclusive presence is easy on a Sunday morning when the gym is closed, the more daunting task is changing the scene at its busiest times.
When Bangs was nine years old, she joined the newly formed diving team at her local swimming pool. She spent hours in the pool perfecting her dives and fully invested herself inthe sport, but quit when she was 18 because it was no longer her passion. Upon her high school graduation, she had gone to the gym once or twice, but had not yet hit her stride in the weight room.
“Coming into college, I think the really prominent pipeline that occurs,” Bangs said, “is when ex-athletes leave their sport, and they’re like, ‘I don’t know what to do,’ and they end up lifting or running.” She is an example of this pattern, as during her first year at UR, she started lifting and made it a part of her daily routine.
Ever since she started her weightlifting journey, Bangs has felt more perceptive of the way her body feels, she said. She prioritizes her nutrition more, and has found herself more conscious of her health and wellness. Girl Gains UR has allowed Bangs to bond with others over their shared love for those values. While Bangs and her Girl Gains UR friends are confident enough to walk in and own the gym, barriers still stand in the way for others who might be considering starting weight lifting.
Sarah Lee, the faculty advisor for Girl Gains UR and manager of fitness and facilities for the gym, believes there are several reasons that it may be difficult for women to start their own fitness journeys, the first being the lack of representation.
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“If you look at a weight room, traditionally you see mostly men,” Lee said. The equipment itself can be intimidating too, she said. “Sometimes the hardest part is thinking, ‘okay, I am picking up this barbell. Now I’ve crossed that barrier. What do I do next?’”
Lee believes that there is a need for clubs like Girl Gains on college campuses because women are generally at a higher risk of having body image issues and focusing on objectives like weight management rather than overall strength and health. “I know when I was in college,” Lee said, “I struggled with that same mindset.” The goal, she says, is not exercising to be smaller, but exercising to be stronger and a more whole person.
During Palalay’s first year, a male student whom she had previously been on an unsuccessful blind date with took the squat rack directly next to hers and began copying the exercises she was doing, she said. He then texted her saying that he did not want to approach her, but proceeded to send her a video with how to properly break down the form of the exercise. When she would move to another area of the gym to get away from him, he would follow and go to a machine that was closeby.
“I broke down to the point where I went up to the staff, and I was like, ‘I can’t deal with this man,” Palalay said.
The encounter gave her more motivation to start Girl Gains UR, so that the female presence in the gym matches the male presence. Palalay enjoys seeing other girls working out in the gym and hopes Girl Gains UR can continue to help to break down the barriers that exist.
Palalay reached out to Bangs In February 2022 with a question: would Bangs consider serving on the executive board of Girl Gains UR? Bangs joined the club as one of the media chairs. A few months later, Palalay had to take an unexpected gap semester, and when she asked Bangs to be her on-campus co-president, Bangs jumped at the opportunity.
Palalay, who is now studying abroad, is impressed by Bangs’ leadership skills and said Bangs has the patience, resilience and energy that was needed for the club to be successful. “She’s a biochem major,” Palalay said, “which is crazy to me because this girl is always in the lab but she still makes time to help others and foster that working out environment.”
Since Bangs became co-president, her continuous hard work has paid off. Girl Gains UR, which started out as an idea derived from a TikTok, now has 102 people in its GroupMe group chat. Bangs estimated that around 50 of those are active members. She researches the wellness topics before each general body meeting and puts a lot of thought into planning events, she said.
Lee, the faculty advisor, said that watching Bangs grow throughout her involvement in the club has been amazing, and that her creativity has blossomed.
“She has really been inspiring to watch lead this group,” Lee said, “and I see her doing it all the time. I work here full time, so I see her in here actually doing the work in the weight room.”
The 2022-2023 school year was a year of learning for Girl Gains UR, Bangs said, as certain challenges come with starting an entirely new club on campus, especially with no prior knowledge of how to do that. Along with having to manage the workload of a biochemistry major, she had trouble learning how to allocate tasks and lead events. Sometimes the club went many weeks without meeting, which is something she regrets.
“It just was really unfortunate that last year, because I was struggling so much,” Bangs said, “I feel like the club wasn’t able to reach where it could have gone.”
Since Palalay is not on campus, the executive board has not been completely intact, and it has been harder this semester to plan events, Bangs said. In the spring, she hopes to bring back the lifting pairs program they implemented last year, which pairs up the members so that they can conquer the gym together and further cultivate community.
With the graduation of most of its board members looming in the next year, Girl Gains UR will need to find replacements if the club is going to build on its success. The future of the club will rely on the foundation that Bangs, Palalay and the other board members have built since its fruition.
The challenge of making the gym a safe and encouraging environment for all women is still far off for the leaders of Girl Gains UR. For now, they must focus on building programming and keeping their group going.
“I think the club has come so far since it started as an idea with a couple of girls and no money,” Palalay said. “The fact that they can do these things now is what I get excited about, and I am super excited to come back and see what I can do as well.”
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