Building a Women’s Weightlifting Movement, One Campus at a Time

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The Girl Gains SUNY New Paltz chapter in New Paltz, New York, cheers on a member deadlifting in December 2023. (Girl Gains)

During her sophomore year at the University of Mary Washington, Andrea Gallegos worked the front desk of the school gym. As she greeted students, she noticed many of the gymgoers were men. The few women there to weightlift would ask if female trainers were available. There weren’t any. 

Toward the end of her fall semester, Gallegos saw a TikTok of San Diego State University students at their first women’s weightlifting meeting. The club was called Girl Gains. She gathered a few gym-going friends and applied to start a chapter at her Virginia school. 

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Thanks to her job, Gallegos could easily launch events for her Girl Gains chapter. The 80 or so members attended gym takeovers on weekday afternoons, and monthly meetings focused on workout plans, nutrition and lifting techniques. She even got the gym to shut down for exclusive Girl Gains “ladies’ lift nights,” where trainers would lead members through specific weight-lifting exercises for two hours.

“The takeovers were very strategic, to show everyone a balance of what it’s like with more women at the gym,” Gallegos said. “Members shared that the whole gym environment became more positive with more girls around, when they could recognize each other and say hi.” 

That inclusivity is exactly what Girl Gains set out to achieve. Its founder, Elisabeth Bradley, a San Diego State University student, was intimidated by the male-dominated campus gym and wanted to create a community for women and nonbinary gymgoers. When she started the club in 2020, classes and extracurriculars were online because of the pandemic, so she had no idea who would show up to the online kick-off meeting. 

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Girl Gains members during a weekend weightlifting boot camp in San Diego in July 2023. (Girl Gains)

Sixty people attended that first Zoom, and when classes started back up in person in the fall of 2021, around 100 members packed into the classroom. “I recorded how many people were there, and I posted about the turnout on TikTok,” Bradley said. “That’s when it went viral and we were just flooded with comments and people tagging their friends. People from all over the country were asking how to start their own chapters.” 

Since that first post, Girl Gains has expanded to over 100 college and high school chapters in the U.S., Canada and Vietnam. Each chapter has at least 30 members and holds fitness and social events every month, on top of Girl Gains’ annual national event, which features expert panels and workouts. Today, students still reach out to start campus chapters after seeing Girl Gains videos on TikTok. 

“People of any experience level can join — whether you’ve ever stepped foot in the weight room, or if you’re super experienced,” Bradley said, adding that chapters meet at least twice a month. “That’s why I also love weightlifting — it’s very much an individual sport, and you can make it challenging for your level.”

Why More Young Women Are Turning to Strength Training

Diana Carrillo, one of the first members to join Girl Gains at San Diego State, started going to the gym during her sophomore year. She stuck to the cardio machines like the Stairmaster or the treadmill because she was too intimidated to try anything else. Without knowing how to even approach weight machines, she was “too embarrassed and worried” that she would make a fool of herself, she said. Growing up, she had also fielded occasional comments from her father when she worked out. “Don’t get too manly,” he would say when she went to the gym. “Wanting to be skinny and small was a hard mindset to get out of,” Carillo said. 

After joining Girl Gains, she buddied up with gymgoers who knew their way around the machines. “Having people who know what they’re doing was really nice because they can show you correct form and encourage you,” Carrillo said. “Having that community was important.” 

Girl Gains chapter founders apply with a 30-person interest list, after which they attend an onboarding session to learn about the mission and values of the organization. Each chapter hosts two general meetings and two fitness events a month and collaborates with other chapters during monthly national meetings. Nationwide, there’s been a recent uptick in women interested in strength training. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of women who engage in regular strength training grew from 18% in 2004 to 25% in 2020. Hashtags like “girls who lift” have over a million posts on TikTok, and on the fitness app Classpass, strength training was the  No. 1 workout of 2022 for its majority female users.

Fitness influencers and pandemic at-home workouts have likely helped spur this rise in women’s weightlifting, say Ashleigh Johnson and Jenni Green, associate professors at the San Diego State’s School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. “On Instagram, there are so many more influencers that promote strength training and building than before,” Green said. “I definitely am seeing more trainers who are advocating for lifting and having muscle and getting away from numbers on the scale. I think there’s certainly been a shift — it’s becoming more and more acceptable with more diverse representation.” 

According to Johnson and Green, strength training offers multiple health benefits for young women. The first is increasing bone health, which women can build upon until their mid-20s. “Osteoporosis is a big issue for women as we age,” Johnson said. “That’s not usually what college females are thinking about, but building that strength is a great way to set up a positive trajectory.” 

The second is mental health — lifting has been proven to lower stress, anxiety and depression. “Especially due to Covid, where we do see such a large decline in mental health across the demographic of female college students, lifting can serve as an outlet for stress management and self-care,” Green said. 

The researchers, who are surveying Girl Gains members to gather data on their community-building efforts, highlighted the social support and connection unique to the organization. “Girl Gains’ focus on utilizing the community creates extra motivation for women to show up at the gym,” Green said. “That shared experience brings huge benefits for young women taking on weightlifting for the first time.” 

How Women’s Weightlifting Offers Lessons Outside of the Gym

Girl Gains hopes to impart weightlifting lessons that extend beyond the gym to members’ daily lives. Bradley said that weightlifting for women is different from other forms of fitness because instead of viewing the end goal as losing weight or slimming down, lifting empowers them to grow bigger and stronger. “It’s very powerful as a woman to want to build and shape yourself,” she said. “The process that happens when students think that they can’t lift a certain weight, and then over time, they prove that they are able to get stronger — it’s so rewarding. It carries over into their whole life, not even just the weight room.”

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Girl Gains members at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, spot one another’s bench presses in spring 2024.

Martinez also emphasized the importance of helping young women unlearn societal messages about shrinking their bodies. One of Girl Gains’ slogans is to “take up space,” and that includes outside the weight room, too, she said. “Taking up space is about your confidence in how you show up in the world, especially in community, with other people who support you,” she said.

For Gallegos, it’s gratifying to see students who learned weightlifting through Girl Gains now attempting to lift heavy weights with proper form at the gym. “When I see them doing a lift I taught them or spotting other girls, it feels like a full-circle moment,” she said. 

As for Carrillo, who graduated in 2021, she’s spreading her love of weightlifting beyond students to women of any age — including her own mother. Though her mother was embarrassed during her first visit to the gym, she recently leveled up to successfully doing a ball slam, a total-body exercise of slamming a weighted ball while squatting. “A couple of weeks ago, she couldn’t even stay balanced during the slam, but yesterday, she didn’t fall at all,” Carrillo said. “She loves lifting now, and she’s my biggest fan.” 


Iris Kim is an NBCU Academy Storyteller. Previously, she was an associate producer at Wondery and a development assistant on HBO Max’s International TV team. She has written for NBC Asian America, Harper’s Bazaar, Salon, Electric Lit, Slate and TIME covering Asian American politics, identity and culture.