If You Give a Girl a Barbell:  A Story of Lifting in the 70’s

By Lisa Bowden

When I started training with weights back in the late 1970's, I wasn't welcome in every gym.

Back then, usually, I needed a man to get into hardcore lifting gyms. They were exclusively men's gyms and would be considered exclusionary and sexist by any standard today. I was repeatedly asked if I was gay and or wanted to be a man. This was not the case. After finally gaining entry into a few of these gyms, after much persistence and NEVER listening to “no”, I lifted hard and heavy and earned my place amongst the ordinary men and giants alike.  I might have even trained harder, just to prove that I did indeed belong.  I wasn't there to socialize or get a boyfriend.  Most women's gyms during the 70's were fluffy, social spas. Most of the "exercise" was passive and the women attending were not encouraged to move let alone break a sweat.  This was not something I was interested in.    


My counterparts in the early days of bodybuilding were women who wanted to propel beyond the stereotype of the norm.  


I started out as a small slip of a girl who was always very strong.  I climbed street lights to the top, arm wrestled (and beat most of) the other kids on my street, including the boys. I raced anyone who would take me on, and I cartwheeled into oblivion. My mother had trouble containing me.  I learned at a very early age, that academics were not my thing, but the physical was. It felt good to be strong, and I focused on that. I started out as a gymnast, so taking my physical form to the next level was a natural progression.  A perfect storm of seeing Arnold Schwarzenegger on tv in the 70's coupled with a chance encounter with a bodybuilder in my neighbor’s yard, made me curious as to how they got that way.  The year was 1977. That was the same year I received Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book "The Education of a Bodybuilder" for Christmas when I was 14.  And my mother, being the progressive woman she was, gave me my first weight lifting set. When she went to pick it up at the store, the man who helped load it said "Wow, this is a great gift for your son for Christmas!" She replied, "Thank you. It's for my daughter, who is 14".  She glanced in her rearview mirror as she drove off. The man still standing there shaking his head with a funny look on his face. Years after, she still liked to tell the story.

About a year or so later I found a few Muscle Builder magazines rifling through a stack of books at a used book store. Muscle Builder was Joe Weider's first magazine dedicated to bodybuilders. I slowly sat down. Transfixed. All the bodies, piles of muscle, statue like... I had only seen a few bodybuilders prior to this, and somehow, I made a connection. I kept flipping until I saw an image that I had never seen before.  It was a woman. A woman Bodybuilder to be exact.  I had not heard of such a thing, and I devoured each page dedicated to the women showcased on the glossy pages. Displayed prominently was a pictorial of Stacey Bentley. She was not just an accessory to the man, a garnish. She had her own story. Lisa Lyon was another that I saw in an article in Time Magazine. I was on to something. They were shaped like a superwoman of sorts. Broad shoulders, tiny waist and defined legs. I was determined to look like them.

"She was not just an accessory to the man, a garnish. She had her own story." 

The Information on training for women was scarce, (no google or internet meant going to the library in the hopes of finding information.) so I took the information in Arnold's book first, then a bit later pared it with Gold's Gym Weightlifting book I had found, and started there. I trained in my basement, lifting the old mismatched weights that had been discarded by my father. Trial and error, determined and all in. Between my Junior and Senior year of high school I trained this way, and realized during gymnastics that I had gotten stronger.  My senior year of high school choosing electives for classes, I approached the gym teacher to ask him If I could take his Weight Training class in gym. Mr. Leary was the football coach with a thick Boston accent, and much to my surprise, he hesitantly agreed. Side by side with football player and other sports counterparts, I was in my glory. Finally, some instruction! Other girls soon followed.


A year or so later, there was a Grand Prix of men’s bodybuilding in 1981 held in Worcester, MA, and I begged my poor father to take me to see it. I sat in the audience sort of trance like, and I'm sure my father was horrified. I took my paper program backstage hoping for autographs. The janitor cleaning up saw me, and led me back to the small pump up room where I obtained four or five signatures, including Al Beckles, Johnny Fuller and Greg DeFerro.  The smell of sweat, tanning lotion, oil and rusty weights was formidable, memorable and intoxicating.    


Shortly thereafter I had read about a women’s competition in my area.  I had no clue about dieting yet, but had decent arms and shape for a small girl. I learned the basic poses that were printed with the entry forms, and set a 90 second routine to music. I baked myself in the sun, copying what I had seen on the pages of Muscle Builder.  I sent my entry and enlisted my ally, my father, to drive. The show was the Ms. Northeast Classic in May of 1981 held in Boston.  I quietly pumped up in the corner of the room behind the stage and followed directions of the MC and runners backstage. I intently watched the other women. There were more women competing than I had thought there would be. The sounds of Neil Diamond's America could be heard blasting through the speakers of the Brown auditorium, as we filed in onstage one by one like tanned, shiny soldiers. When I took my place on the brightly lit stage, I saw my father sitting up front clapping. The winner of that competition was very lean and I realized I'd have to take my chubby self and go back to the drawing board and focus on the eating part next. The next day on cover of the sports section of the Boston Globe, I had made the lineup. That night I also made the new on television. The attention was heady and I wanted more.


A few weeks after that competition, I left Massachusetts and moved to a little seaside town in NJ to live with my grandmother, to train in a gym that was training bodybuilders. Fred and Sue Koch were the owners of the Fitness Center, and Sue was a competitor.  I would get the chance to train in a place that wouldn't make me leave because I didn’t belong and who would guide and foster me and all my aspirations.  June 15, 1981.  My first day going to the gym, I took the train to the small town of Little Silver, NJ.  Disembarking the train, the gym was adjacent to the Railroad Station. It sat in the upper floor of an old white house, with the entry around back.  I stood in front of the building for what seemed like forever. My heart was racing. I took a deep breath, and walked up the stairs. Inside my senses were overwhelmed. It was warm, and I could smell the sweat hanging in the air. I heard clanking and banging of weights and yelling. Laughter, talking, and more yelling.  I peered through the partition and got a glimpse, of the first real gym I would step into.  I stepped over the threshold. Nervous, but I immediately felt at home.  This would be where I stayed for the next few years, learning the ins and out of dieting and proper form, and cardio which I had never done, under the tutelage of Fred and Sue.


I learned the very basics of good form, showing up on time, and being responsible from Fred and Sue and it set in motion my wanting to be the best. There were a handful of other women there, in the trenches of training hard and heavy. Trudy was an older woman in her 50s, Pat was a designer in her 20s and Carolyn, not much older than me, was a tall statuesque blonde and she and I would commiserate on our shortcomings. She marveled on how easy I made it look to squat, and I huffed and puffed that I had such a short distance to travel with the bar. Dawn who worked at the gym, rounded out my circle of life, and I would tag along with her much like an older sister carting around a younger sibling.          

I worked early in the morning at seaside The Shoreham Hotel as a roll girl. I carried a metal box, filled with pastry, warmed with coal on the bottom. Not the best job for someone as body conscious as I, but it paid my gym membership. I hopped the train at 10, trained until 1 and then back on the train for the dinner shift. After work, I'd run and hour on the boardwalk with the sweet, salty smell of the ocean lilting in the air.  My grandmother always watching but never saying much, mentioned she noticed that I was always in a horrible mood before the run, but when I was done, I was happy.  I explained that running just wasn’t my thing. It still isn't.  I competed once that summer placing 9th in the Mason Dixon Open in Maryland, and I was just happy to be onstage doing my thing.   The following summer I went on to compete another 6 times, with a myriad of placings, 3rds, 2nds and an eventual win at the Jersey Cup, and qualifying for the USA to be held that year out West.  I would wake with my mind on training and used positive imagery before bed, visualizing training and getting stronger. I loved every part of the process.         

I was met with resistance everywhere really. But it never deterred me.

I was strong and had always been strong. Nothing anyone would say, would have stopped me nor would I have ever wasted my time explaining what I was doing. If we had had social media back then, would it have been different? Would I have felt compelled to respond to every hater or negative comment? Maybe. The difference was that people back then didn't use a monitor and keyboard to hide behind. They said every slur and insult to my face. I would shake my head and walk past never giving it my energy. One thing I realized when I was 18 and getting ready to compete was that things out of the ordinary will always garner attention. Being different made people uncomfortable.  I was happy not being ordinary.            


I competed in my first national competition at the USA in Las Vegas held at Caesars Palace, and placed 9th amongst a formidable lightweight class that year. A few years later I switched federations, from NPC to AAU thus rendering any chance of being an IFBB Pro a dead dream. I competed alone and with a partner in couples for a few more years.  After my last competition Ms. Massachusetts in 1984 and placing 2nd, I gave up on competing. I still continued to train just as hard and wound up in better shape than when competing when I had so many restrictions. The sport had changed dramatically over the years and the women who were trained by overzealous boyfriends and coaches were getting bigger and bigger. Gone was the aesthetic of the little Superwoman that first drew me in. Gone was my lust for competition. And so, I stepped away.

As I look at the photos of myself even now and retrace my journey from the very first gym I was turned away from, to people calling me names and trying to make me feel bad, to eventually landing in the oddly supportive male dominated world of weights and bodybuilding, I see how it shaped me. Not just in the physical form. That’s a given. I walked in wanting to be liked. I was insecure and self-conscious. But it changed me.

It challenged me. It made me confident, and confrontational, persistent, outspoken and happy. I believed I could do anything.  And I learned, never to take “no” for an answer.              


I (Lisa Bowden) am an old ex bodybuilder, and a novice Crossfitter. I'm pretty horrible at it, but try nonetheless. I never trained for endurance and and can safely say I have a love-hate relationship with endurance and cardio training. The weights will always be my first love. At almost 55, I’m not apt to push as hard as I used to. I know my glory day PR's and I'm fine with them. Being saddled with Rheumatoid Arthritis doesn’t help. I just modify and keep moving. I have written for Flex, Muscular Development, and other Periodicals. Currently working on a children’s book, If You Give A Girl A Barbell.