Some people say women aren’t as strong as men. They say women don’t have upper body strength. They say biology is destiny. They’ve never met Maura Shuttleworth.
Five feet tall and 105 pounds, Shuttleworth broke the Minnesota state record in her weight class last November when she bench-pressed 180 pounds, and she’s set her sights on the national women’s record of 214 pounds, which she hopes to break within the year. But first things first: this month she’s headed to Hungary with the rest of the U.S. team to compete against the world’s best at the International Powerlifting Federation World Bench Press Championship. If she can bench-press 200 or 210 pounds there, she’ll come home happy.
A strong start
In a flowered skirt and short-sleeved top, the petite Shuttleworth doesn’t look like a weightlifter. She’s got dangly earrings and long curly hair instead of ballooning biceps and a five o’clock shadow, and she looks, in fact, somewhat delicate.
If her appearance upsets people’s assumptions about what strength looks like, that’s just fine with her. She recalled a recent encounter in a San Francisco gym with relish. “We were just playing around,” she said, “and I had the 135 [pounds] on there and I just did a couple reps and one of the guys in the gym comes up to me and he’s like, ‘Did you have the plates on the bar?’ and I was like ‘Yeah,’ and he says, ‘I’ve never seen a woman do that before. And you’re so little.’”
She giggled as she finished the story, and then pointed out that her weight isn’t shockingly disproportionate to her strength. “If you think about it, [I lift] 180 pounds, which is close to double weight, and you see it a lot of times with the guys. If you have a guy who’s like 200 pounds, you might see him bench 400 and that’s a good bench for him, but we wouldn’t be, like, in shock by it,” she explained. “I think that there’s a lot of misperceptions out in the world about what women can do athletically.”
Shuttleworth credits her father with making sure she didn’t grow up with any such notion: he had played and coached minor league baseball, and he hauled his daughters out on the mound when they were still toddlers. Shuttleworth and her siblings were all involved in high school sports; she focused on gymnastics.
As a junior in high school, she took a weight training class. She thought it would be fun, and it was—except for the boys. They teased her and the other girl relentlessly. “They would make fun of us and pretend like they were straining at the bar,” she recalled. “I wasn’t really the type to say anything to them, but in my head I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll show you.’”
With the encouragement of the teacher (who was also the football coach) she improved—by the end of that year, she could bench her body weight. That impressed the guys, but she wanted more. The following year she took a class where students competed against each other in weightlifting (girls against girls and boys against boys), and she was consistently king of the hill. “I was the littlest but I didn’t care,” she said. “I wanted to beat all the girls because that was the only way that it was fun and interesting to me. By the end of that year, I could bench 140.”
At Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., Shuttleworth focused mainly on gymnastics and lifted weights only occasionally. It was only after she graduated that she found out about the world of powerlifting: a trainer at a gym where she worked out asked her if she’d ever competed. After two meets, she was hooked.
Shuttleworth has competed for the past eight years. She’s a member of USA Powerlifting, which she says is the most reputable of dozens of U.S. powerlifting groups—USA Powerlifting routinely drug-tests athletes and is affiliated with the International Powerlifting Federation. “The really cool thing is when we go to Worlds [championships], we’ll have 30 or more countries represented there,” Shuttleworth said.
When Shuttleworth boards the plane to Hungary this month, she’ll be taking time off from her job as an assistant county attorney in Washington County. She’s worked in the civil division there for nearly a year. Before that, she worked in private practice for three years following her 2002 graduation from law school.
In spite of a heavy workload, Shuttleworth finds time to pursue her passion. She works out with training buddies at the Press Gym in Roseville four to six nights a week and attends three to five competitions each year. The traveling gets expensive and her wins don’t carry cash prizes, so she’s searching for sponsors.
This will be the second time she’s competed at the International Powerlifting Bench Press World Championships: she attended the 2004 competition, which was held in Cleveland. She knows she’s not ready to take the medal yet: to do that, she’d have to lift another 100 pounds. The world record for a single lift (not in combination with squat and deadlift) in her weight class is 281 pounds. Shuttleworth considers the record holder, Yukako Fukushima, “an amazing technician.”
“[Yukako] has a mega-huge arch, grips way out wide and just really decreases her range of motion,” said Shuttleworth. In other words, her back is arched and her hands are wide apart on the bar when she lifts.
In Olympic weightlifting, which includes events like the clean and jerk (lifting the weights above the head), lifters are judged by agility and speed as well as strength. In powerlifting (where the three events are bench press, squat and deadlift), it’s more about brute force, said Shuttleworth. Technique still comes into play, though, as lifters try to minimize the distance the bar travels: Shuttleworth calls it “decreasing the range of motion.” The farther apart your hands are on the bar, the closer the bar is to your chest when your arms are fully extended, or locked out—i.e., you don’t have to lift the bar as high. A good back arch also helps decrease the range of motion, said Shuttleworth—but take the arch too far, and it can get you in trouble. Rules dictate that shoulders and butt must stay on the bench during a press. At a national bench press meet in March, Shuttleworth was disqualified for breaking this rule. “My butt came off, seriously, like this much,” she held her fingers about an inch apart, “but they caught it and DQ’d me on that.”
Shuttleworth says that she has had far fewer injuries as a lifter than she had as a gymnast, when she was prone to tendonitis. She’s heard of lifters with back and shoulder problems. She advises moderation to protect against most injury: work out regularly and rest the body, use ice and stretch when needed and increase weights gradually.
The number of women powerlifters is increasing both locally and nationally, according to Shuttleworth: in 1999, there were only two other Minnesota women competing; today there are about a dozen. In 2001, Shuttleworth estimated, about 100 women attended the national powerlifting championship; by 2005, there were 125.
More than other athletes, powerlifters provide excellent role models for young girls, said Shuttleworth, because they demonstrate what a healthy, strong woman’s body looks like and promote healthier attitudes about eating and dieting.
“When I was a gymnast, it was more about ‘How do you look? Are you this little tiny lean athlete?’ and there was a lot more concern about cutting back on what you’re eating or trying to diet,” said Shuttleworth. “Whereas when I started lifting, it really was, ‘I can’t starve myself because I’m not going to be strong if I don’t eat. I think that’s one of the best things about lifting weights—the way that you really do have this healthier body image overall.”
That said, Shuttleworth does find herself concerned with weight, mainly because she’s chosen to compete in the 105-pound weight class, even though her normal weight is about 110. So about a month before each meet, she has to lose a few pounds.
Even when she’s not gearing up for a competition, though, Shuttleworth eats lots of lean protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fat. Breakfast is toast and peanut butter; two hours after that is a protein bar. Then lunch. “I eat like every two hours,” she laughed. “That’s my natural schedule for eating.”
Powerlifting has helped her see food as friend rather than foe, and she wishes more women could feel this way. “I think it’s really important for women and girls to think about food as fuel rather than as something bad,” she said. “To me it’s really about what your body can do and how is that food helping your body do that.”
As far as getting the word out, Shuttleworth is not content with just being a role model: she recently became chair of the scholarship subcommittee of the USA Powerlifting Women’s Committee, which hopes to launch a scholarship program for college-age women powerlifters.
After all, if one person breaks the mold, it’s a surprise; if many people break the mold, then perhaps the mold was a silly idea.
World Bench Press Index
* About 80: the number of women registered for the competition by early May.
* 10: number of women’s weight classes
* 286.6: number of pounds (130 kilograms) lifted for a women’s world bench press record (in a 105-pound, or 48-kilogram, weight class). For a single lift (a bench press that’s not part of a three-part competition) the record is 281 pounds (127.5 kilograms). Both records are held by Yukako Fukushima.
* 451: number of pounds lifted in a squat by Bettina Altizer, the 2005 inductee in USA Powerlifting Women’s Hall of Fame. Altizer also deadlifted 418 pounds.
* 672: number of pounds lifted in a squat last year by Germany’s Galina Karpova, the 272-pound world record holder. Karpova also holds the record for the three-lift bench press in this class: 423.5 pounds. Find out more about the International Powerlifting Federation at “www.powerlifting-ipf.com”:http://www.powerlifting-ipf.com.