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Why This Powerlifter Loves Her Body More Than Ever

Lisa Haefner

If you have an Instagram and any sort of interest in fitness, chances are you've seen more and more girls picking up weights and posting about it. They may just be strength training for fun, or they may be doing bodybuilding (a sport where you train and compete on stage in front of judges who score your aesthetics), Olympic-style weightlifting (an Olympic sport with two lifts: the clean and jerk and the snatch), or powerlifting (a sport with three lifts: the back squat, deadlift, and bench press).

Meg Gallagher, aka @megsquats on Instagram, competes in powerlifting and has probably popped up on your feed. She's amassed more than 85K followers devoted to watching her strength-training journey—and that's not even counting her YouTube channel, where she has 88K subscribers. There's a reason she has so many followers (and made it on our list of IG powerlifters to follow): She's on a mission to "make powerlifting as trendy as Soul Cycle" and has a tight-knit crew of badass lifters that she calls her Strong, Strong Friends. And despite the fact that she can deadlift almost 400 pounds (just check out her recent PR video below), she's relatable as hell.

But even better than her social media accounts is the story of how she got here. She started out as a bodybuilder in the bikini division and found her way into powerlifting—which has made her love her body more than ever. We sat down with her to hear how it all happened—keep reading and watch her YouTube video below, because her story will seriously surprise you.

SHAPE: Have you always been a fitness person?

Meg Gallagher: In college, I played basketball and ran cross country. So I was a pretty serious athlete throughout my life. But, of course, as college basketball ends, I was like, "What do I do now?" So I enjoyed college, partied a little, and those habits stayed the same after I got a job. I didn't have time to go to the gym, and, at that point, since I wasn't playing sports I felt like I had nothing to train for. Then about three or four years after college, I signed up for a half marathon with my mom and later decided for my New Year's resolution that I was going to try CrossFit. I was seeing some of the CrossFit athletes who were popular, like Camille Leblanc-Bazinet. I thought they were really strong and I wanted to look like that. (P.S. Camille is one of the Instagram CrossFit girls you need to follow for serious fitspo.)

I tried it and was hooked because the competitive nature of the classes really appealed to me. It was the first time I was really noticing a change in my body—I started seeing more muscle definition, so I wanted to give myself a goal and a date to diet down and really see what my body was capable of, aesthetically. I was paying attention to social media, and still paying attention to my favorite CrossFit body goals, and I was seeing a lot of girls with muscle mass who were competing in these bikini bodybuilding shows. It seemed like another thing that I wanted to try out, so I decided I wanted to do a bikini show.

SHAPE: What was your bikini competition experience like?

MG: I think that, ultimately, it was mostly a negative experience, because it took the fun out of a lot of stuff for me. I loved training, but I didn't love training when I was always hungry—that was awful. I was tired all the time because I was dieting and I wasn't used to that and paying so much attention to my food—I was counting every single thing I was eating, all the while decreasing that amount too. At the time I thought my body looked good, but I still had this idea that my body was supposed to look better. I had complete body dysmorphia, despite being my smallest and leanest of my adult life. [The International OCD Foundation describes body dysmorphia as overly critical thoughts about your body that start consuming your life.]

I just wasn't satisfied. In a bikini competition, you get on stage, and it's a competition of you in a bikini with a bunch of other people. So I don't think I ever felt prepared. I never thought, "Yeah, this is the best me." When I got on stage, I wasn't really happy to be there. I had a little bit of fun during my competition day, but some people say, "Once the lights were on, that's when I knew, and I couldn't wait to get back on stage." It just wasn't like that for me. I made a few friends backstage while I was there, but, really, I made friends with a bunch of other hungry people. We were all starving. I really just couldn't wait until the show was over so I could eat. There are definitely people who can enjoy the process of prepping for competition and competing, I just don't think I'm one of them.

SHAPE: So how did you end up in competitive powerlifting?

MG: After the competition, I immediately started gaining weight. I was struggling with binging, and the body dysmorphia was still there, but this time I actually was gaining weight. I had no reference of what "normal Meg" looked like. It was super confusing because I had placed so much value on how I looked and the reflection of my abs in the mirror every day. I had no idea who I was anymore. No clue. I was dieting for the show and putting so much work into the show and focusing only on the show, so when the show was over, I was just a normal person again and I didn't know what to do. I didn't really have an exit strategy.

So I went back to CrossFit, but since I'd gained so much fat (or what I thought was so much fat) I didn't feel comfortable with moving around that much, and that was heartbreaking. I didn't want to jump around, jump rope, do handstands or anything, so I just went to strength training. So that's when I was like, I'm just going to strength train and try to get really strong—and I think that saved me. Because I was also gaining weight, and with weight gain you can also gain a lot of strength and muscle. As I started training more for strength, I learned what powerlifting actually was. One of my friends told me he knew how competitive I would be and he took a look at the amount of weight I was lifting and said I'd actually do pretty well at a competition. After like 7 months of training, that's when I started to think about competing in powerlifting.

SHAPE: What was it like looking at strength as the goal rather than aesthetics?

MG: With powerlifting, you can quantify your progress in a very concrete way that was very appealing to me. It was no longer me looking at my body and maybe noticing a change or being confused about why a change was happening. There's no confusion with how much weight you're squatting. It was the consistency and linear progress that I needed to see to give me a better frame of reference of where I was physically. After the bikini competition, I had gained a lot of weight, I looked different, I felt different, my confidence was way low, and I was confused about where my values were.

With aesthetics as the goal, how do you even know what you've accomplished? Even when I looked my best I didn't feel my best, and I didn't know that I looked my best at the time. I thought I could be better. Now, I know I can get stronger, but I know for sure that I'm stronger than I was a few months ago. I think I look better and I definitely feel better than when I was at my leanest, but I'm sure someone could look at those photos from the bikini competition and be like, "oh you looked better here or you looked better here," but who cares—there's no arguing that I'm stronger now.

SHAPE: Why should women try strength training?

MG: I think that every human possesses the ability to get stronger. That's not true with everything—not all of us possess the ability to get smarter, not all of us possess the ability in our certain life conditions to get more money. Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in one area or the other—but you can always get stronger. For me, training and focusing on my strength was a good way to watch myself progress and get better at something. You can play basketball, but you don't really know if you're getting better. You don't really write down how many shots you made in a game. With strength training, if you're doing it right, you are writing it down in a book, and you are quantifying everything and very seriously tracking what you're doing. And it's a big deal when you add a plate to the barbell, or when you can even just lift the barbell. So I'd say that for people who feel stuck, it's a great place for you to make a goal of getting stronger. Because it's cheap (for the most part), and if you're healthy enough to do it, I think it could be the first step in progressing in other areas of your life—and it makes you look good too. (Still not convinced? Just check out these women who prove that being strong is dead sexy.)

SHAPE: What do you want to say to women who think that strength training makes you bulky?

MG: I would just suggest to take it slow and just see what happens. Unless you're taking steroids, you're probably not going to get bulky. A lot of people are going to hear that and not believe it. You can also get stronger without lifting weights. Get to the point where you can do a bodyweight pull-up, and just see what happens. I can guarantee you that a bodyweight pull-up is not going to make you bulky, but it will make you strong. You're not lifting any weights.

For me, I've been called every name. I've been called too skinny. I've been called too fat. I've been called too muscular. I think once you get to a place where there are so many more important things, like how you're training and what your training goals are, you stop caring. I'm at a point where I don't even care how I look. I think I look fine and I look happy, but that's not my main focus anymore, which is so freeing. I can go to the gym and only focus on this one thing—getting better and getting stronger. And when you're not focused on how you look, you can just enjoy your life so much more too (even out of the gym). There's a certain amount of confidence that comes with someone who doesn't care what anyone thinks. And, sometimes, that confidence just comes from having too much other shit to worry about it. (Related: 5 Reasons Lifting Heavy Weight Won't Make You Bulky.)

SHAPE: What is "Strong, Strong Friends"?

MG: It just started as the group of people that I was lifting with; we would call each other our "strong friends." I would just naturally say, "I'm going out to eat with my strong friends," and people would just know I meant my gym friends. Once I started making YouTube videos, I documented my own progress and people were watching it and giving me really good feedback. It was so inspiring for me to hear about all these other women who were training too, and learning about my training from my videos. I felt like they were my friends too, so I started selling some merchandise, so if any Strong, Strong Friends happened to be training in the same place, it's an easy conversation starter. They can just be like, "I watch @megsquats too!" Which has actually happened before.

SHAPE: Any tips for girls who want to try strength training and become one of your Strong, Strong Friends?

MG: I always tell people that if you're really interested in holding a barbell and doing things with it, a good first step is to try CrossFit. It's so popular that you can probably find a gym in your city, and although they don't have a ton of time to focus on barbell fundamentals, you will have someone watching you at all times, which is better than the alternative. They'll teach you how to back squat and deadlift with the proper mechanics. (Not ready for a barbell? Try a dumbbell workout first.)