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success story

When most people first take up an exercise regimen, they might dabble in a yoga or cycling class. I took it one step further. I became a powerlifter. In 2011, I broke the record for the squat in the 105-pound female weight class at the American Powerlifting Association meet in Louisville, Ky. How did I end up gleefully high-fiving my coach less than a year after I’d left the couch for the gym?

It wasn’t because I was a bulky, muscle-bound lifter; when I broke the squat record, I weighed in at 99 pounds. And it certainly wasn’t because I was a born athlete; as a slightly built, bookish kid, I shunned sports. A brief gym stint in my mid-20s left me with a loathing of the elliptical machine. I didn’t set foot in a gym again for some 10 years, coasting on good genes and a reasonable diet.

But as my career as a food writer ramped up, so did my dress size. I knew I had to do something. So, in the spirit of never doing anything halfway, I started looking for the most extreme fitness challenge I could find.

This seeking of extremes is a natural inclination for me: For instance, shortly after I quit being a vegetarian I went to a farm in France to make my own foie gras. Once I decided to get strong and fit, I wanted to throw myself at it 100 percent. So I headed for an iron-pumping gym near my home — a place full of serious, hard-bodied lifters — and signed myself up.

More Muscle, Please

When I first visited the gym, I met its co-owner, Ben Carter, an experienced USA Weightlifting–certified coach. We

talked amid squat racks, chin-up bars,  and stacks of weights and barbells. Timidly, I told Ben that I wanted to “tone up and lose a few pounds.” “Piece of cake!” he said. I wasn’t so sure. I filled out my registration paperwork, and under “goals” wrote: “Reduce body fat and increase strength.” The goals of building confidence and reducing stress didn’t even occur to me at the time.

When I started, I dove in to the workouts, discovering to my surprise that my body was actually good for something other than thinking and eating. I was long a skeptic of the endorphin high that athletes claim to get from a good workout. But after a few times at the gym, I found myself on my way home enthusiastically belting out songs with the car radio.

I couldn’t wait to go back for more! I sprung out of bed early in the morning to speed to the gym. The cacophonous music and distinctive smell of the place raised my heart rate before I was even warmed up. I spent an hour or so, three times a week, training with Ben, learning I could push myself physically in ways I would never have imagined. Part of it was my desire to succeed. But part of it also was this man who is double my weight roaring at me to “Pick it up!” Despite the hard work, I reveled in the few hours a week I spent not thinking about deadlines or work stresses.

Unlike bodybuilders who train long hours to sculpt muscles, I worked to build strength. My first victory came after I had struggled for weeks to complete an unassisted chin-up. Ben lifted me to the bar when I couldn’t do it myself, and rigged bands to support part of my weight as I practiced. I dreamed of the moment I’d finally pull my own weight above that bar for the first time, and I wondered if I ever would. Then, one day, I did. I dropped to the floor jubilant after my first chin-up, and when I landed, I was a new person. I was strong.

Power Packed

And I wanted more. From the first time Ben put a barbell on my back and told me to squat, I became addicted to adding weight. I grew enamored of the pursuit of strength as the plates increased from the saucer-size 2.5 pounders to the 10s and 25s, and finally to the impressively thick 45s. I couldn’t get enough, especially of the “king of lifts”: the squat.

The back squat required me to face a deep fear of putting a heavy weight on my back. But every time I got under the bar, squatted and rose, my passion grew. Lifting heavier and heavier weights left me giddy like nothing I’d ever known. Along the way a new figure with a six-pack began to emerge from under a layer of marshmallow fluff. Looking in the mirror, I’d marvel that this was my body.

But the new body was just the beginning. I’d always been an anxious, self-doubting type, but my emotional shell sloughed off along with the excess fat.

I felt like I could do anything! I could squat and stand up with 190 pounds on my back. I could pull 205 pounds off the floor in a dead lift. I could bench press my body weight. I finally got the nerve to get a tattoo after years of thinking about it. I took on new freelance work. For the first time, I became a magazine editor. I booked a vacation to Bangkok, where I took a Muay Thai (Thai boxing) lesson. I wanted to do all that this new body was capable of!

I shifted from an attitude of wanting things to happen to one of making things happen. That sounds simple, but it was a revelation after a lifetime of depending on others — first my parents and then my husband — to change a tire, kill a spider, mow the lawn. That sense of self-reliance, and the secret glee of feeling like a badass, immeasurably ratcheted up my happiness and satisfaction.

Defying Expectations

At a recent family reunion, I took on my uncle (a man made strong by years of farming) at arm wrestling. He hadn’t seen me in a year and didn’t know about my new mania. Although I gave myself splinters digging into the picnic table to keep my arm upright as long as possible, the wide-eyed look on his face as he struggled to get my arm down was priceless.

To my great delight, friends and family, even strangers, have told me how inspired they are by my journey — enough to join a health club or try something new. Even Brian, my husband, who loves to spend his leisure time watching a football game on TV, has taken up basketball to get back in shape. “I have to keep up with you,” he tells me. “You’re my team.”

Along the way I’ve shared my progress on a blog ( and Facebook. In the beginning I did it so people could giggle at the novelty: Isn’t it funny? A food writer lifting weights! But as I grew stronger and discovered my possibilities, I had to tell others, “If I can do this, anybody can.”

Success Summary

Meet: Dana McMahan, 37, a food and travel writer and Web content developer who lives in Louisville, Ky. Married to Brian McMahan.

Big Achievement: Broke the American Powerlifting Association national record for squat in the 105-pound female weight class; mastered a 105-pound bench press, a 205-pound dead lift and a 200-pound squat.

Big Inspiration: Strong, confident women who aren’t afraid to lift heavy weights.

What Worked: Focusing on building strength with heavy lifting. Trusting her coach to know what training she needed.

What Didn’t: Getting too worried about looks or weight; counting calories.

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