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Women take on strongman training in Amherst

  • Amber French of Pelham grimaces while deadlifting during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength and Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst, on Feb. 18. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Stephanie Mattrey of Amherst tapes her wrists during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength and Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst on Feb. 18. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Stephanie Mattrey, of Amherst, lifts a log, a 75-pound barbell, during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength & Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst on Feb. 18. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kara McColgan, of Greenfield, deadlifts during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength and Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst on Feb. 18. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amanda Robillard of Leverett, right, lifts an atlas stone over a bar while coach Alexander Leboeuf encourages her during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength and Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst on Feb. 18. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amanda Robillard, left, congratulates Stephanie Mattrey for an accomplishment during training on Feb. 18. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amanda Robillard, of Leverett, deadlifts during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength and Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst on Feb. 18. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Amber French, of Pelham, trains with the yoke walk on Feb. 18. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Stephanie Mattrey lifts an atlas stone on Feb. 18 while coach Alexander Leboeuf encourages her, at bottom right. Tony Sicard keep time. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • “It’s a very mental thing as well as a muscle thing, you have to push yourself” says Amanda Robillard, of Leverett. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kara McColgan, of Greenfield, carries a weighted sack during StrongWoman Sunday on Feb. 18. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kara McColgan, of Greenfield, lifts an atlas stone over a bar while Emma Golonka of Whately looks on during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength and Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst on Feb. 18. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Kara McColgan, of Greenfield, and Stephanie Mattrey, of Amherst, put away equipment after training during StrongWoman Sunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength and Conditioning and hosted by the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst on Feb. 18. —GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



For the Recorder
Monday, March 05, 2018

Stephanie Mattrey, 36, of Amherst, muscles cut like a statue, picks up a concrete ball that weighs 120 pounds, and tosses it over a bar just above her shoulders.

She is dressed in black spandex and glistening with sweat. Shakira is singing “Ohhh baby when you talk like that… ” over the speakers in the Hampshire Athletic Club in Amherst as she works.

Mattrey clenches her jaw and lifts the ball again. She does this several times and then the room erupts in cheers and hollers as she fist bumps with her friend and fellow athlete, Amanda Robillard, 42. There are at least five other women on the basketball court around them, all deadlifting weights, some lifting several hundred pounds.

“I’m going to have to take a nap today,” Mattrey says during a brief break.

She and the other women here are training in a sport mostly dominated by men. They are strongman athletes and they are defying expectations about what a woman should look like or be able to do, they say.

“It is assumed that women can’t lift heavy things or they shouldn’t — I feel like we are pioneers,” Mattrey says. “...Women are just as competitive as men.”

The ladies come here on Sundays for StrongWomanSunday, a program organized by Hybrid Strength & Conditioning, a Pioneer Valley strength training company.

In strongman, the objective is for competitors to display their strength; several of the women will be competing in the Fem and Fierce Strongest Woman competition in Connecticut in March. That competition is broken down by weight class with each woman competing in several events, like lifting two jeep tires on an axle, for example. The competitors also are asked to carry heavy sand bags, walking with them around a cone. While completing each task, women are asked to do as many reps as possible in 60 seconds.

The Connecticut event is the first competition that most of the StrongWoman Sunday women will be attending, but competitions like these are held all over the country by national organizations like the United States Strongman, Inc. and The American Strongman Corp.

Major changes

The excitement of the competition is motivating, but the health benefits of strongman are even more compelling, the women say. It’s a workout, Mattrey says, that has gotten her into the best shape of her life since she’s been training once a week. An added perk is that her strength has practical applications.

“Instead of pushing a table on the floor and scratching up the floor, I just lift it up. It’s really cool,” Mattrey says. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, I feel like I am 20.”

A mother of three young children, ages 8, 6, and 3, and an acupuncturist with a private practice in Hadley, Mattrey struggled to make time for herself over the years, she says. Her health declined. She gained weight, her back ached, and she didn’t have much energy.

“Physically, I was very overweight. I just did not want to take care of myself because it felt too overwhelming and I just couldn’t move around as much. I’m only 36, but I couldn’t get up and play with my kids. Anything physically was hard,” she says. “Mentally I felt very trapped ... I put myself so far on the back burner that I started to get depressed.”

Throughout her life, Mattrey says, she always had been an athlete, but working out took a backseat once she started having children. Her first attempt to get back in shape started a few years ago when she joined Hampshire Athletic Club. There she met Alexander Leboeuf, owner of Hybrid Strength & Conditioning, who was teaching classes at the gym.

She started training with him in the fall of 2017, and results followed. She lost 100 pounds and the pain in her body disappeared.

“My whole body feels great,” she says. “I also feel like it makes me a better mother.”

Mattrey says she picks up the laundry and the groceries with ease and she can now lift all three of her children at once. “I just think it is the best thing ever,” she says.

A show of strength

During the 90-minute workout on the basketball court at the gym, the women move between lifting the concrete balls and lifting another weight called a log, which is like a 75-pound barbell. Most of the women do about eight reps before dropping the log to the ground.

Some beginners are working out in another corner, lifting a 45-pound barbell bar. Typically, those with little experience start with reps on light weights to build a muscular frame. Then, little by little, they add on, up to as high as 155 pounds. The most one of the women in the program ever has lifted is 220 pounds, according to Leboeuf. “You start small to end big,” he says. Everyone keeps a journal to log progress. “Hopefully, they will see a change over time.”

During the workout, the women cheer each other on. Occasionally, someone will break out in a victory dance when a goal has been surpassed.

As Mattrey worked on a second round of reps lifting that 120-pound concrete ball, known to the strongman community as a stone, Hybrid Strength & Conditioning co-facilitator Tony Sicard urged her on: “Come on, you are halfway there,” he said as he kept time on his phone. She lifted the stone over the bar above her shoulders twice in just 10 seconds. “Waaay better than last time,” Sicard shouted. “Let’s go! Up! Up!”

When she finished with a total of eight reps, she let out a scream and high fived Robillard. “Niiice!!” Leboeuf yelled out as he beat his chest with his fist.

Anyone is welcome to attend Strong Woman Sunday, but Leboeuf suggests that people take some time to familiarize themselves with lifting a 45-pound barbell at the gym first. During his program, he will work one-on-one with newbies, instructing them on how to lift safely: “Root your feet into the ground. Drop your hips and engage your abdomen. Pinch your shoulder blades together to create tension in the upper back — hold this tension — inhale.”

The women are constantly challenged to do more. “It’s a very mental thing as well as a muscle thing, you have to push yourself” Robillard says.

Mattrey agrees, “Every week I am doing things that I thought I wouldn’t do.”

“How empowering is that?”

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com.

StrongWoman Sundays are held at the Hampshire Athletic Club, 90 Gatehouse Road, Amherst each week at 9 a.m. It costs $20 to attend a 90-minute session. To learn more about StrongWoman Sundays visit https://www.facebook.com/HybridSC or call 413-320-5588.