For a long time, men have dominated the sport of weight lifting. But tucked away at a YMCA in the small Midwestern town of Canton, Ohio, some 150 women are pumping iron, straining and twisting their feminine physiques, trying to smooth those flabby curves.
And all for what?
For some it’s just to stay in shape, but for about 20 others it’s a competitive sport and a rapidly developing one at that.
Canton is the home of the nation’s first bodybuilding competition for women, according to Henry McGhee Jr., weight training director at the “Y” and the one who started the program in 1973.
“We’ve always had contests here at the “Y” for men,” McGhee said. “But when I introduced the women, the response was tremendous. It’s something about seeing the women go through their posing routines that turns the crowds on.”
To correct the fallacies about women getting musclebound McGhee quickly asserts, “Women can’t get muscular, because of their low hormone level…it’s impossible.”
To get into McGhee’s weight training program a woman must pass four tests: a running exercise, demonstrate that she can do chin-ups and parallel dips and pass the fat caliber test.
McGhee has turned down over 500 women because they weren’t in shape. “This is not a conditioning program,” he stresses. “Nor are we out to make beauty queens. Our goal is to perfect the human body and to mold a well-proportioned female sculpture with strength to protect her and prevent injuries.”
Perri Gaffney is one who passed the tests easily.
“I want to go to the Olympics in 1980,” Gaffney said. I heard that they might have women’s powerlifting at the next Olympics,” she said. “That’s my goal.”
A Kent State graduate, Ms. Gaffney said she hasn’t done anything athletically since running track in high school, but vows that if there is a women’s weightlifting event three summers from now, she’ll be in it.
Training Olympians is nothing new to McGhee, who has to his credits 1976 basketball Olympian Phil Hubbard and Ronnie Harris, a lightweight boxing gold medalist in the 1968 games.
A nutrition expert, McGhee, who holds a master’s degree in chemistry, strongly advocates dedication and diet control. “Diet control is 60 percent of the program. It’s hard, strenuous work, but it pays off,” he said.
Indeed, it has paid off for Cynthia Carthen, 24, one of McGhee’s prized pupils. Carthen is holder of “Ms. Body Canton 1976” and “Ms. Body Ohio 1977” titles. “I love the competition,” said Carthen. “Henry is always pushing me to get better.” “These judges are tough. They look for body symmetry, muscle tone, how you float through your poses and to see how much fat you have.”
Carthen attributes her success to a careful diet which includes salads, seafoods, poultry, lots of juices and health foods. Sporting a 34-28-38 in a 5-foot, 7-inch frame, Carthen goes through her 45-minute work-out three times a week sweating and grunting behind the commands of McGhee, who is trying to get her ready for the “Ms. Body Midwest” contest in October. “What I try to stress to the other girls is that you have to stick with it,” Carthen said. “You can’t work-out today and then come in next week and hope to get results.”
Richard Ravalli is Associate Professor of History at William Jessup University.