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Project Overview

Empowering college women through strength training.

Identifying the Problem

For many women, “gymtimidation” prevents them from getting fit. Sport England, a British organization that funds grassroots athletic initiatives, found that a fear of judgment far outweighs women’s confidence to exercise. Concerns ranging from embarrassment over athletic ability to worries about appearance prevent women from staying active. This lack of confidence can have devastating effects for college students, including an interference with personal development and academic success.

Rachel believed that one way to improve female confidence levels is to encourage women to venture outside the cardio room. Although weight-training programs are most popular among men, both independent studies and Rachel’s personal experience support such programs as an effective way to improve self-esteem in women. For Rachel, lifting weights and overcoming gymtimidation inspired her to strive for a healthier lifestyle and to make peace with her body. When she shared her story with other women, many asked her to teach them how to lift, and those who Rachel has taught reported the positive influence that lifting has had in their lives.

As a student at Duke University, Rachel was aware that her school offered two weightlifting classes, “Weightlifting” and “Weightlifting for Women.” The class for women teaches students to use exercise machines but ignores important strength training methods such as barbell training, Olympic weightlifting and bodyweight workouts. The “Weightlifting” class has a more varied curriculum, but it is limited to 15 students, and few women take it because of the female-only option.

Rachel wanted to address Duke’s gender biases in fitness instruction by creating a community of students committed to trying new forms of exercise, educating women about benefits of Olympic weightlifting and strength-training, and confronting the stereotypes that women face at the gym head on. She wanted to educate women about  the transformative power of strength training, and how it could lead to self-empowerment. 

Creating A Solution

Rachel partnered with another female student to create Uplift, a student organization at Duke University that seeks to increase female participation in strength training activities on campus as a means for improving self-confidence. During its first semester of existence, Uplift offered three free workshops to teach female students how to perform the key powerlifting exercises –– squat, bench press, and deadlift –– and to introduce participants to the equipment in the weight room. Rachel and her partner recruited a Duke fitness instructor and personal trainer to lead the workshops in the university’s recreation center, free of charge. They then advertised the event on campus, and over 50 women signed up to attend the workshops.

Rachel further advertised her project and the motivation behind it by publishing an article about the gender gap in gyms in  the student newspaper at Duke University. She also created a Facebook page, and reached out to women she met in the gym to better understand what services Uplift should offer and how she could recruit other female lifters to help. Rachel and her partner also applied to be recognized as an official student organization, allowing Uplift to have access to university funds to cover the expenses of holding monthly workshops and other events. Uplift can now hire a personal trainer for workshops, and recruit an executive board, faculty advisor, and nutritionist, to guide club goals. 

Rachel has several next steps for her project. She would like to grow Uplift by seeking partnerships with other campus organizations, which will provide additional outlets for recruitment and programming. She plans to implement an informal workout series, as well as weekly Uplift meetups. She would like to hold a special training session with female weightlifters who are interested in opening up their personal workshops to the public. Rachel also wants to create an online resource called the "Uplift Guide to Exercise" to help people who want to try lifting but don't know where to start.

Lessons Learned

Rachel was surprised by how easy it was to find a trainer, and by how many people were interested in Uplift. She had assumed it would be challenging to market Uplift and recruit new members, but neither seemed too difficult. One challenge she faced was that, while students were eager to sign up for the workshops, it was more difficult getting them to commit to coming. Many people dropped out last minute due to sickness or other obligations, and Rachel and her partner were not able to fill these slots with participants on their waiting list. While Rachel recognizes that Uplift could charge participants a small nominal fee that can be used to fund future Uplift workshops, and which would encourage people to follow through with their commitment to attend workshops, she isn’t sure if she wants to create a bar to entrance that may prevent people from participating. She encourages others developing similar projects to consider this possibility.


So far, this project has not required any funding, and Rachel has not raised any money to develop and implement Uplift.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Germany Germany 2014

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