Wolfville's strongwoman Birgit Elssner places 2nd at worlds

Nova Scotia strongwoman Birgit Elssner places second at the 2016 World Championship Powerlifting Congress in Louisiana.

Ignore 'men who say you're a woman, you shouldn't be doing this,' says powerlifting care worker

Elssner started out lifting tires. Now she can haul the whole truck. (Courtesy Birgit Elssner)

Like so many Canadians, Birgit Elssner suffered from a vague sense that she should exercise more. But when she went to the gym, it looked like everyone had worked out before they got there.

In her 30s, she found "a thousand excuses not to go." But three years ago a coach noticed how strong she was and asked her if she'd ever heard of powerlifting. She discovered a gym unlike any she'd been to before. The Highlander Strength and Fitness warehouse gym in New Minas, N.S., has no stationary bikes, no elliptical machines and no mirrors.

Instead, Elssner started lifting tires, beer kegs and sandbags. "I just trained normally and then all of a sudden I was at my first competition," she said.

Care assistant by day 

Elssner works as a care assistant in Wolfville with the L'Arche Homefires community for people with intellectual disabilities. She trains regularly in a small group.

Elssner placed second in her category at last weekend's world championships. (Courtesy Birgit Elssner )

"All six of us, we don't have any other goal than to train our muscles, have some fun and maybe change our body shape," she said. "The whole powerlifting thing is just a byproduct of us wanting to be stronger."

She says in her powerlifting world, nobody cares what you look like, what you eat, or why you're there. "I felt really at home. I wasn't being judged by what I achieved, or what I wore, or how I looked," she said. "Women that were in my training session, we are just supporting each other."

Elssner is 40 now and no longer learning the ropes. In June, she competed at the Canadian nationals and earned a spot at the 2016 World Championship Powerlifting Congress in Baton Rouge, La., held Nov. 7 to 13.

Powerlifters from 20 nations gathered to compete in the squat, deadlift and bench press. Elssner's strength is the deadlift.

'It's just you and the bar'

She went to the U.S. last weekend and came second in her age and weight category with a lift of "only" 330 pounds. She had competed two weeks earlier in Amherst, N.S., and thinks that kept her shy of her personal best.

"330 pounds is still pretty good," she says with a laugh. She holds the Canadian record in her master category at 369.2 pounds. 

"Even though I may lift as part of Team Canada, it's not that Team Canada is going to go under if I don't lift well. I don't have anybody really to compete against — it's just yourself and overcoming your inner thoughts. You have to do a lot of positive self-talk," she said. "It's just you and the bar — I don't have to be strong for anyone else."

'Every woman should follow her dreams'

But lifting tires no longer poses enough challenge. These days, Elssner's into hauling the whole truck at strongwomen competitions. The Atlantic Canadian circuit of strongmen competitions has few women, she says, although more compete in Ontario.

"In my head, society sees a woman as thin, slim, trim and being really athletic. In powerlifting, you do put on quite a lot of muscle," she said. "Every woman should follow her dreams, whatever they may want to do. And not to listen to men who say you're a woman, you shouldn't be doing this."

She hopes more women hear their inner strongwoman calling them out into the street to pull trucks.