OTTAWA – In the two-hour Saturday training session at Hyperforce, Aimee Brouillard, aka Strongwoman Aimee, does only three implements: the yoke, the atlas stone and the car push. She tells me to get in her car and steer while she pushes from the bumper across the 200-foot parking lot. As she slowly moves the car forward, I watch her in the rearview mirror, scrunching up her face in the effort to push her orange-gold Toyota Matrix over the pavement. I can hear her bursts of breaths as she digs deep to find more power in her stride, making the car pick up speed. When she reaches the door to the gym she stops, we switch spots, she backs up, and then I give it a go. I can actually do this one. By the time I push the car to the other side of the parking lot my legs are filled with a raging burn that builds from my calves to my quads, nearly paralyzing me. But I’ve impressed Brouillard, and even a beefy strongman who watched me from inside his truck before heading home. This encourages me to
return for a few more weekend training sessions at the gym.
A fitness enthusiast myself, I’m exploring this underground scene of extreme strength training since hearing of its steadily growing popularity for women in Canada. Could it be right for me?
“The process of discovering what your body is capable of doing is very empowering,” Brouillard says to me. In her second year of competing, Brouillard is determined to become a much-needed spokeswoman for the strength sport. Her task is to convince other women – like me – that anyone can train like her.
Brouillard is a confident 32-year-old woman, who says she’s feels safe and sexy since she started doing the strongwoman training. She’s a personal trainer with six years of experience under her belt and has her own coaching business, Love to Train, to help people find a healthier lifestyle. This spring she is going to Austin, Texas, for the Paleo f(x) health conference for her first big gig as a spokeswoman for strongwoman and to promote why more women should do it.
Before she dedicated her life to coaching men and women in the city, Brouillard studied fine arts and business at the University of Ottawa, where she met her husband of nine years, Alexis. But working in a gallery wasn’t her shtick. The couple’s impressionistic artwork decorates their home in Gatineau, but so do their propped-up road bikes, and sporting gear. They consider themselves an outdoorsy pair. But while Brouillard lifts concrete stones, and a steel yoke in competitions, Alexis, whose narrow frame and lean muscular build says that strongman isn’t his game. He prefers marathons and 24-hour adventure races, an expedition event that involves orienteering as you mountain bike, paddle, climb or run through the wilderness racing to the checkpoints.
Even though Brouillard’s husband is almost the antithesis of her in his quiet demeanour, and passion for endurance sports, he says he’s proud of her.
“I like it. It goes along with my philosophy of being capable,” Alexis says.
After being introduced to these two super athletes I’m still not convinced that I could do strongwoman. This is the sport that is legendary for competitors who look like freaks of nature, like Iceland’s strongest man, Hafthór Júlíus Björnsson, who is 6”9, 419-pounds, and known in Game of Thrones as The Mountain. I’m not sure my yoga/runner’s body could handle lifting serious weights – I usually pick up the five or 10-pound dumbbells at the gym – and I definitely don’t want to pack on too much muscle.
But Brouillard doesn’t think that women should worry about building muscle on a feminine frame. The concept that if a woman lifts weights she’ll bulk up like a man is false (unless she takes steroids). In recent years, women have been debunking that myth, causing a new social media trend to emerge: strong is the new skinny or #girlswholift. It may be a result of the CrossFit revolution, a fitness sport that went from 13 gyms to 10,000 internationally in nine years. It’s a type of training where you do circuits of explosive movements, such as weightlifting, rope climbing, box jumps and sprints. The CrossFit Games began in 2007, and suddenly people started seeing images of finely toned women powerlifting Olympic-sized weights, and making it look good.
Brouillard never tried CrossFit. She went from bodybuilding, to triathlons and a marathon, then straight into the deep end of strength-training sports. She finds that with other fitness activities like running or bodybuilding, there’s a body type that you have to conform to, and that often involves serious dieting. Since Brouillard started strongwoman she’s developed a healthier relationship with food, and accepts her body as it is. She even celebrates gaining a few extra pounds if it means she’ll be able to lift heavier weights.
It’s 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday at Hyperforce in Gatineau, where future strongmen and strongwomen competitors meet to test and train their bodies in the basement of a single story industrial-type building. Brouillard, aka Strongwoman Aimee, is in the back corner. She wears a pink shirt, black leggings, and knee-high socks with a navy stripe across the top. Her white-blonde hair is tied back, her eyelashes black with heavy mascara. In the background, the anthems of AC/DC play, along with the sound of clanging metal and manly grunts. A couple of burly men with thick well-trimmed beards stand nearby. They watch Brouillard while they wait for their turn with a piece of equipment, or take a break from their heavy lifting.
Brouillard stands with her knees bent under the metal yoke, the top of the metal frame resting along her shoulders. Her hands push out onto the side frame that holds the crossbeams below. She takes a breath, and then uses the power of her thighs to lift the 385-pound of steel under her 165-pound frame. With a lot more grace and femininity than an ox, Aimee carries the yoke across the room, and back.
“A farmer found a great way to work out,” she said to me after her second set. I give it a try. Just from the effort, I feel my spine compress in an unnatural way. I realize I’d have a better chance trying to push over a brick wall. Brouillard tells me that I have to build up to the yoke by doing other weight training. I work on my deadlift instead.
The Hyperforce gym in Gatineau has 3,000-square-feet of space for its members to practise strongman implements, or awkward strength exercises, such as carrying 130lb weights (as you would carry heavy grocery bags) in each hand while you charge across the room. Huge Viking-like men have competed publicly since 1977, when the World’s Strongest Man was first televized at Universal Studios. Recently, the sideshow is becoming more accessible to average humans, and more women are showing up to gyms like Hyperforce, which now has three women addicted to the unconventional workout.
Last year, Brouillard was among some of the other women in the sport to push for a new federation in the strongman/woman world, called the Canadian Alliance of Amature Strength Athletes (CAASA). This year, the federation is setting up categories for lightweights, and amateurs, to compete without having to go against a pack of giantesses. Last year, Brouillard didn’t have that option, and she put on 20-pounds by eating 3,500 calories a day, to be able to compete with heavyweight women in Virginia, Ontario and Quebec. She said she won’t be doing that again.
Brouillard didn’t start out strong. Born with severe scoliosis, she spent four years wrapped in a prison of steel, plastic, leather straps and foam lining to prevent the three curves in her spine from worsening as she grew into her adult body.
“I was a really cool pre-teen,” Brouillard says, rolling her hazel eyes. From ages 10 until 14, she wore a back brace that was more like a cruel 18th-century corset. For 24 hours a day, she was locked in her corrective shield of armour. Her doctor told her that she’d never be athletic and would always live in pain, much like her mother and grandmother, who suffered from the same condition their entire lives.
When Brouillard entered high school, she was finally free of the brace, but instead of feeling liberated, she felt sad. The brace had become part of her identity – it was her armour. That’s when she began to build another kind of armour, by lifting weights at the school gym.
Sixteen years later, Brouillard spends every Saturday at the strongman gym in Gatineau and she trains three times a week at the gym she works at in Ottawa. Since she was a teenager, she’s pursued the path of empowering herself by building a stronger body.
I wondered about other women who do strength training and the reasons they do it, so I spoke with a bodybuilder, a power lifter and few other strongwoman. They all said that it makes them feel more functional in their daily lives, and their body is more supported against injury.
“You don’t have to be a humungous girl to do it,” says Jennifer Oreck, who currently holds the title of Ontario’s strongest woman. This 30-year-old is only 5”2 and 146-pounds and likes to pull trucks at the events.
I also heard from 36-year-old Colleen Smith, who started out in martial arts but didn’t enjoy cutting weight for competitions. When she got into strongwomen she gained more muscle and rediscovered food.
“The whole idea from women to other women that smaller is better is some kind of archaic persuasive message,” Smith says. She loves the absurdity of the strongwoman competitions, such as flipping an 800-pound tire for an event.
Maybe it’s just a fad, but it seems as though society is more accepting of bigger stronger women. I see more and more women at the gym doing heavy lifting, and I’m not talking about using those dinky five-pound dumbbells that I like to use. Lifting weights at the gym is one thing; strongwoman training takes it to the next level. The question is if it’s dangerous.
Brouillard has a team of people to help her: a massage therapist, a chiropractor, a couple of coaches, and the group at Hyperforce to train with on Saturdays. Brouillard’s chiropractor, Brent Burton, normally works with nimble Ultimate Frisbee players, but he got involved in strongman last year, when he went to the Carp Fair competition as part of Strongwoman Aimee’s support squad. He watched her compete against eight other women and was amazed.
“Aimee makes me feel like a pipsqueak sometimes even though I’m the one working on her,” Burton said.
The risk of injury isn’t something Burton is worried about with Brouillard, even with her scoliosis. “For Aimee, with those demands of a heavy load there are some increased risks,” Burton said. “But she’s good at knowing what her limits are.”
Her condition may be a blessing in disguise. Brouillard is hyperaware of her body’s abilities and knows how to push herself just the right amount. She may be able to powerlift a 90-pound metal log over her head, but because of her misshapen spine, she can’t do push-ups or pull-ups. At the gym, she watches aspiring strongmen and strongwomen push themselves beyond their limits, as they tempt fate while others cheer them on. If they go too far, they can do damage by tearing a muscle or spraining a joint. If they don’t push themselves enough, they don’t get stronger.
Being heavier is an advantage in the sport, but no matter what size, women can train and get the benefits of lifting like a strongwoman. Studies say that consistent resistance training improves bone density, which decreases the risk of osteoporosis and getting fractures from an unfortunate stumble. Lifting weights can also improve conditioning for people with scoliosis.
“Strengthening the one side that’s shortened, which happens with the curvature, is super important,” says physiotherapist, Jodie Wilson. “If you ignore it you may have an increase in that curvature and could experience more pain or disfigurement.” Brouillard felt the need to strengthen her body as a teenager, and now that she’s in her thirties, she notices that she doesn’t deal with the same pain that her mother and grandmother have.
Back at Hyperforce, Aimee gets ready to lift the atlas stones. “This is my best event,” she says, with a cheeky smile, “I usually win at this one.” She starts by wrapping her arms with tape, to protect her skin from the rough concrete. Then she opens a jar of pine resin, and rubs the sticky gel along the inside of her arms – for grip, she tells me. She steps over the 150-pound stone, squats down, hugs the stone into her body, rolls it up onto her quads, then with a quick thrust she stands up and hoists it over the battered wooden platform. With the same speed, she rolls it back into her arms, and brings it to the floor with a victorious thud.
“It’s just like how you would load a tire into the back of your car,” she said. Right. The smallest stone they have is 90-pounds. I try to lift it, but I feel like I’m hopelessly trying to lift the proverbial sword from the stone, or the stone from the ground in this case. I’m not a complete weakling, but 90-pounds is a big leap from the 25-pound kettlebell (cast-iron ball with a handle) that I occasionally use at the gym. I feel better after I find out it took Brouillard a few weeks of trying to finally lift the 90-pound stone off the ground. Within a year she was lifting the 150-pound stone.
The next week, after Brouillard convinces me to return, she modifies some of the implements for me to suit my budding muscles. She brings a 45-pound sandbag, and I train with that instead. I admit, it does feel exhilarating trying to throw the bag up and down as many times as I can in one minute. The treadmill and elliptical machines now seem boring compared to the thrill of hoisting around sandbags, and the burning in my muscles is more impressive.
After a full month of training at the strongman gym with Strongwoman Aimee, I’ve decided that maybe I can do this. I don’t plan on competing, but pushing myself in this unconventional way once a week actually improves my performance at the gym. When I go to reach for the five or 10-pound dumbbells I catch myself, and remember that only a few days ago I carried two 95-pound weights in my hands while jogging across the gym, and I pushed a car across a parking lot – twice. It has encouraged me to choose the weight that will challenge me the most because now I know I’m stronger than I think.
By: Shannon Lough