Featured photo: Athenas at Wake Forest University creates a safe space for female weight lifters. (courtesy photo)

The incident happened on a Monday evening, the time of day when the sky turns from blue to periwinkle to an ombre of dark. As Maggie Cowher made her way up the stone staircase of Wake Forest University’s Reynolds Gymnasium, her jet-black hair swirled softly in the wind. 

Cowher entered the weight room and searched amongst the squat racks and benches, eventually putting her bag down next to a wooden deadlift platform. She loaded weights onto the Olympic bar in front of her: four 45-pound plates, plus four 25s, plus the bar — 265 pounds in all. She warmed up and started her session, just like she does every weekday evening. 

A couple sets into her workout, a blonde woman similar in age set up on a platform next to Cowher’s. As she loaded plates onto her bar, a man who had been squatting on a nearby rack came up to help her. 

That’s odd, she didn’t look like she was struggling, Cowher thought. Is he just assuming she doesn’t know how to do it? He didn’t even give her a chance to try. 

Cowher continued on to her next deadlift set while the blonde woman started her first. Cowher noticed the man approach the blonde woman again. 

“I saw him go over to her and stop her in the middle of her set to correct her form,” said Cowher, over the phone. “I thought to myself, Am I going to need to say something?… I do not deal with that kind of interaction well. I wasn’t just gonna allow that to happen.” 

As her form was getting corrected, the blonde woman folded her arms around her waist. She forced a smile as her cheeks burned red. 

Cowher paused an extra second before her next set. 

“I was waiting to see if he’d give her poor advice so I had an excuse to step in,” she said. “And he did.”

Cowher stepped in to correct the poor advice. The man disagreed. They argued. 

“Well, I learned how to deadlift from a powerlifter,” said the man. 

“Well, I am a powerlifter,” Cowher said in response. 

Cowher’s story is not an uncommon one. According to a 2020 study by Penn State University, feelings of insecurity, lack of knowledge and unsolicited advice from male gymgoers can keep female students from weight-training at the gym. At Wake Forest University, a group of women are determined to change this. 

An all-female weight lifting club 

A 200-pound barbell rolled across the floor. Aashna Kumar placed it over her waist, and with the strength of her legs, swiftly lifted the barbell into the air. 

“Make sure your knees are bent at about a 90-degree angle,” Kumar said. “Stay balanced. You should feel this in your glutes and hamstrings.” 

Kumar is a coach for Athenas, Wake Forest’s all-female weight lifting club. She was leading a hip thrust demo for about 15 of its members, who had gathered in the Reynolds Gymnasium lobby.

Some were newer to the club, wearing Athenas T-shirts and beaming with an eagerness to learn. Others were seasoned weight lifters, defined by muscular builds and willingness to offer advice. The rest were nervous first-timers who watched the more experienced members with curious eyes.

Athenas’ private workout room is rectangular and open-spaced, with gray-bricked walls and no windows. Although the room was dull and dark, Kumar — short, tan, lean — exuded a welcoming, positive energy that filled it with warmth and comfortability. 

After she explained what muscles a hip thrust targets, the equipment that is needed to do one and where to perform them in the gym, Kumar demonstrated the exercise until each woman felt they had it down. 

“Alright girls, you know what to do,” said Cowher, who is now a co-president of Athenas. “Try out the exercise, play around, see what feels good…. This is a good space to try something new.” 

After the meeting, Cowher explained how the Athenas hold demos like this often, in addition to weekly group workout sessions. Their goal is to get women acquainted with difficult-to-perform exercises, making sure they feel comfortable with their form and confident in their strength before trying them at the gym independently. It’s a sort of middle-ground for female students who want to establish their place as weight lifters in the gym, similar to training wheels on a bike or bumpers on a bowling lane. 

When Virginia Wooten arrived at campus four years ago, she immediately noticed the need for an environment like this.

“When I first got to Wake Forest, I knew about the gym; I knew how to work out, I knew how to lift weights,” said Wooten, who co-founded Athenas. “But when I first got here…. I was so, so scared to work out.” 

This statement is hard to believe. Drinking coffee and chatting about the Athenas club, Wooten exudes confidence and a strong sense of authenticity. She’s tall, muscular, and outgoing, talking with an enthusiasm and sense of ease that ordinarily comes from years of friendship. She’s also a certified personal trainer and knows anything and everything about weight lifting. But it took Wooten three months to develop the courage to enter the weight room. And when she did, she was often one of just two women in the space. The other was Martina Lammel, Athenas’ other founder. 

Eventually, the two became friends, and they started working out together. 

“Having a gym buddy that was another girl in that space made me feel 10 times better about myself and about the space that I was in,” Wooten said. “She made working out fun.” 

After realizing the benefits of a female gym buddy, the two women decided to form Athenas, which now connects more than 300 women across campus who want to establish friendships while working out. Since their start three years ago, the Athenas have pulled around 12 percent of female students into the Wake Forest weight room. 

“It took me months to get the courage to go into the weight room, and that’s coming from someone with experience,” said Wooten. “I just couldn’t imagine what girls felt like when they were just starting to work out.” 

‘It’s almost always guys’

According to Wooten, female students reported that they feel uncomfortable and intimidated in Reynolds Gymnasium. Some stated this came from a lack of knowledge of how to work out properly. Others claimed they didn’t know where certain equipment was located. The majority of women agreed that the male-dominated environment was the most frightening factor of all. 

“At any given time, the weight room is split 80 percent men, 20 percent women,” said Wooten. “That’s the main intimidation factor for me. I mean, if you ever go in the weight room, it’s almost always mostly guys.”

During a tour of the gym, Cowher walked down a set of stairs and through an Olympic weight lifting room members coined the “fishbowl”, because of its tall windows lining the upper half of the room, allowing other gym-goers to look down upon the lifters below. 

Heavy weights slammed onto the ground, sending a sharp cling throughout the air. The room was taken up predominantly by men. 

This male-dominated environment is just part of the reason why women avoid the gym, according to a 2018 study published in the Social Science & Medicine Journal. When female participants were interviewed on gym-related experiences, researchers noticed that negative body image, gender stereotypes and self-consciousness also came into play. 

“There is a stigma that women experience when wanting to weight lift, and that makes starting tough,” Wooten said. “I had family and friends tell me to not weight lift because they thought I’d look like a man. There are also mental and physical barriers when you go in there and it is just guys. It can make you nervous to try new things,” she said. 

This mindset has kept women out of the weight room for decades, and it is exactly what Athenas is trying to combat. By renting space in Reynolds Gymnasium twice a week, they offer a space where women can work out in a space free of judgment. In this all-female space, the women can gain support from other motivated women while removing the intimidation factor that gyms can foster. 

The private room Athenas use has no windows, no outside observers. Female lifters, some beginners, some experienced, are the only people in the room. Positive affirmations and words of encouragement fill the air. Some women even dance to the music that blasts through the space. 

No one feels judged, no one is embarrassed to fail at something new. It’s the direct opposite of the fishbowl. 

But while the Athenas promote a female presence in the weight lifting community, they acknowledge that women should feel comfortable in all gyms, in all public spaces. Even in the fishbowl. 

“The club is not about saying screw men, you have ruined this space,” said Wooten. “It’s about saying that we belong here just as much as anybody else.” 

The women know that they can not claim their space if members work out in isolation forever. They also know that men can help their cause. They can be allies, not enemies. 

“Not every guy is a bad guy, that is not what the point of Athenas is,” said Wooten. “Guys who will help girls and will make space for girls in the gym, they’re awesome. We celebrate that. We are so thankful for that. That is why we made cheerleaders.” 

Athenas’ cheerleaders

Jesse Leary was eating a pizza in Zick’s, the campus’ popular pizza spot, when Wooten asked him about the gig. 

“I said absolutely,” said Leary, who’s always been good friends with Wooten. “I always hated the concept that women would be intimidated and feel uncomfortable at the gym just because of what men were doing.” 

After that, Leary became one of the original Athenas Cheerleaders. The purpose of the group is to provide support to the members of the club, or to any women in the weight room, when they enter the public space.

“The gym isn’t supposed to be an intimidating place, it is supposed to be a place where you can go for your physical and mental health and a space where you can chill and destress,” said Leary, who answered a call on FaceTime while at the gym. “Our role is all about showing support and not being a face that is intimidating or makes somebody feel like they don’t want to be there.” 

Members of Athena’s Cheerleaders are a supportive group of men who train at the gym alongside the club. (courtesy photo)

A few minutes later, a second face popped up on the screen. It was warm and welcoming, smiling brightly as it loaded onto the call. 

“When I walk into the gym, I barely ever see women in the weight room,” said Nikolai Chechkin, who had just gotten back from the gym when he joined the conversation. “I can definitely see how that adds to the intimidation. I myself have been intimidated.” 

As Wooten’s boyfriend, Chechkin is also an original cheerleader who has always been supportive of the Athenas. 

“If you can have someone in the gym who can basically serve as your rock, your stable point, it helps alleviate that intimidation,” he said, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses and popping his headphones over his blonde hair. “You stop thinking about being judged and start thinking about how you and the other person are doing.” 

“If someone is nervous, they can talk to us and ask for help,” said Chechkin. “To be successful in the gym, you need to be able to give yourself the space, the time, the confidence. And we want to let girls know that we are here for them and that they can do this.” 

Now, there are 16 men who hold the title of Athenas Cheerleaders. And, while they don’t attend the group workouts — those are still all-female — the men continue to provide an immense amount of support to women in the public weight room every day. 

“What we shouldn’t underestimate at all is the power of male privilege in certain spaces. That is especially in the gym and on college campuses,” Leary said. “I feel like being able to use your male privilege in order to make women feel more comfortable is always something that I am down for, that Nikolai is down for, and something that is a big part of what cheerleaders stand for.” 

Building self-efficacy

“Seeing a man wearing an Athenas shirt is so great,” said Payton Yeo, an original Athenas member. “It has helped enhance the gym community for me. And gym community greatly impacts your confidence in the gym.” 

Yeo is the head coach of Athenas, and has been since the start of her senior year. She plans the Athenas schedule, works with other coaches to create group workouts, and supports the coaches while they give exercise explanations. She has a tall, muscular build and dark, brown hair. She is warm, she is chatty, and she is confident. It’s evident that she is strong. 

But Yeo was quick to reveal that she hasn’t always been this way. 

“Freshman year, I tried to go to the gym. But it was terrifying,” she said. “I wanted to be fit, but I wasn’t.”

Once Yeo built the confidence to go to Reynolds Gymnasium, she started with the offered group workout classes. They were dark and provided a good place to hide.

“If I wasn’t doing a class, I would go to the gym at 6:00 am to avoid the crowd,” she said. “I would find the smallest little corner of the gym and just be the smallest person I could.” 

After her sophomore year, Yeo went home for the summer and found group fitness classes that taught adults how to weight lift. 

“None of the Wake classes offered something like that,” she said. 

At least, not before Athenas. But after Wooten encouraged Yeo to join Athenas her junior year, she gained more confidence in herself and in the gym. Going to scheduled workouts helped her get more comfortable in Wake’s gym and with the equipment, and they taught her new exercises she could do on her own. 

“Before Athenas, I was lifting weights, but I wasn’t weight lifting, ” said Yeo. “There is a difference between fitness, health, and wellness, and asking yourself how much you can lift or how strong you can be.” 

The group makes sure to keep everyone safe by teaching members basic forms for lifting. (courtesy photo)

In a little over a year, Yeo went from deadlifting 65 pounds to 285 pounds. “I went from, How can my body look, to What can my body do,” she said. 

Her old self would have hated the muscle she’s gained, hated that her shoulders are bigger and her quads are thicker. But that all changed with Athenas.

“We are not a group that is saying, ‘You look too bulky, you gained too much muscle.’ We appreciate the muscle; we realize how hard it is to put it on,” she said. “Whereas the general population may not want bulky or muscular girls, we love it, because we know that we’ve put so much work in to get it.” 

Now Yeo is a personal trainer with the goal of sharing her experience with other women.

“I want to help other girls transition that mindset from, How can I become smaller? to, How can I become stronger?,” she said. “It is so much more fun when you appreciate what you can do, instead of focusing on what you can’t do, or how you can’t look.” 

According to Dr. Shannon Mihalko, a health and exercise science researcher and professor at Wake Forest University, the confidence that Yeo has developed is not a coincidence. It’s a psychological phenomenon called self-efficacy, or a task-specific form of self-confidence. So, when it comes to the Athenas, self-efficacy describes how confident each member is in their ability to weight lift. If a woman has low self-efficacy in her ability to weight lift, she would have low self-confidence in the gym. 

But self-efficacy is something that can be built upon. And the greater it builds, the greater confidence is built, too. 

“The best way to build self-efficacy is by being surrounded by other people like yourself,” said Mihalko. “I think that’s what the girls are doing so well. If you can join a club and see that you are not the only person that feels this way about the gym, that you can work together to get over that fear and anxiety about it, all of this will build your confidence to be able to do that task of weight lifting.” 

Building this confidence can transfer to all aspects of life, Mihalko says. 

“The thing about confidence is that it is so generalizable. It starts to impact things similar to the task you are working on. You have a rippling effect,” said Mihalko. “So, if you are able to work out in an environment that you are not so comfortable in, you’ll gain experience in finding confidence in an uncomfortable space.” 

And this is exactly what Wooten and Lammel’s goal for Athenas has been all along. Wooten no longer runs the club, but she watches from afar, as she is in the process of developing a community-based, all-female fitness app. She hopes it will take the influence of Athenas beyond Wake Forest’s campus. 

“I have seen so many people gain confidence in the gym since the start of Athenas,” said Wooten. “The way that I’ve seen it work is if you can feel confident in a gym setting where you are working on yourself, if you know you belong there and deserve to be there, that will translate to any other part of your life. You could go into a meeting, a business pitch, an interview and know that you belong there. It’s been really cool to see that happen.” 

Learn More about Athenas on Instagram by following @athenaswfu.

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