Women are not supposed to be strong.
During her time in high school in the mid-1970s, this was and still is a perception in the world of fitness Sharon Esbenshade grew up around. She never participated in sports or fitness, even though her three kids grew up involved in sports.
In 2012, she decided it was time to put an end to this idea and hit the gym. For the next four years, she worked out at her gym. But in 2016, Sharon Esbenshade grew bored of the treadmills and the elliptical. She wanted more — for her brain and her body.
Luckily, her son Daniel Esbenshade and his wife, Brynn, opened their own gym in Federal Way in 2014: Temple Fitness. Sharon Esbenshade became her son’s student in 2016, and after a few months of lifting numbers she never thought possible, she entertained the idea of competing in weightlifting. And, after just two competitions under her belt, Sharon Esbenshade, at the age of 58, set the state squat record for her age group June 24 after squatting 176 pounds.
She broke the previous record, set in 2009, by 6 pounds making her a nationally ranked power lifter by the United States Association of Power Lifting.
“About a year ago, I started seeing progress in the amount of weight I could lift,” Sharon Esbenshade said. “Then I would just challenge myself, and [the weight] just kept increasing. I really just wanted a goal to start working towards.”
WHAT LIES WITHIN
Even though she has spent a good portion of her life around athletics, Sharon Esbenshade never truly ventured into the world of athletics and fitness.
In fact, she didn’t get the major itch until she turned 53 years old in 2012. Because all three of her kids were interested in athletics, and her son Daniel grew up to become a certified personal trainer, Sharon Esbenshade was determined to take her new venture seriously.
She conquered every piece of cardio equipment her gym could throw at her. She even joined a group weightlifting class called “Group Power.” For a while, the routine was exactly what Sharon Esbenshade needed it to be.
But about four years in, she hit a wall. The gym routine grew old, and Sharon Esbenshade longed for something more.
“That experience was good for her,” Daniel Esbenshade said. “At that time, that was what she needed. Was it the best vehicle for fitness? No, but it got her started. More importantly, it brought her here, to us.”
Her son and daughter-in-law opened Temple Fitness in the Dash Point Shopping Village in 2014, and two years later, Sharon Esbenshade became Daniel Esbenshade’s newest client.
When Sharon Esbenshade first came to Temple Fitness in 2016, she attempted to perform a squat with just the deadlift bar and no weight. It was such a struggle, she had to perform the exercise without the bar.
It was during this process Daniel Esbenshade discovered something interesting about his mother.
While she had great potential because of her prior experience in a gym, she wasn’t as ready as he thought she would be to lift significant weight.
After their first couple of sessions, Daniel Esbenshade determined his mother struggled psychologically, not physically, when it came to lifting heavier weight.
“When she came in here, her movements were already good because she was lifting light weights at the old gym, so her potential for lifting was really high,” Daniel Esbenshade said.
He had to formulate a plan to train her mind to believe she could lift anything.
“I actually used to have to lie to her and trick her into doing things because we have weights that look really heavy, but they’re actually super light,” Daniel Esbenshade said. “ So, I’d put something on the bar and her eyes would tell her she couldn’t lift it because of how big it looked.”
Just one month after struggling to lift the bar, Sharon Esbenshade was squatting 130 pounds, then 145.
As the weight continued to increase, Daniel Esbenshade had to be more creative in his approach to the mental side of his mother’s lifting.
He found it when he had Sharon Esbenshade demonstrate a proper deadlift for a new class at Temple Fitness.
Sharon Esbenshade executed it easily. What Sharon Esbenshade didn’t know was that her son had just taught her a lesson, too.
“I was like ‘congratulations,’ ” Daniel Esbenshade said. “ ‘You just deadlifted 165 pounds, and you did it for five reps. Good job.’ ”
She was both peeved and proud that her son put her through yet another psychological test.
“That gradual change just keeps you motivated, when you’re going and you see a number on the scale.” Sharon Esbenshade said. “Really though, what is that relative to? It’s when you see things like body composition, dress size going down. Those things have been so motivating.”
IT’S ABOUT THE GAINS
Sharon Esbenshade’s alarm goes off every morning at 4:30.
That’s the time she wakes up in order to get something she covets almost as much as her family: a cup of coffee.
She spends the next half hour in the quiet. Just her, her cup of coffee and her thoughts.
By 5:15, she’s walking into the gym.
She looks forward to all four to six rigorous days. She considers the gym members a second family. And she does not go to Temple Fitness because it is a family-owned business. She goes because each day brings something new.
“As you get older, you realize you want to do things more that you’ve never done before,” Sharon Esbenshade said. “There is an eventual end, so I just really wanted to do this.”
Her first-ever competition was March of this year. Daniel Esbenshade said the average weightlifter trains for three months leading up to a competition, however, so the two began training for March in January.
For the first three days of her weekly gym schedule, the two work on her main lifts: the bench press, deadlift and squat. The other days are focused on supplementary muscles, with exercises like lunges.
During a competition, lifters get three attempts, with the best lift counting as their best “score.” The “score is measured by the weight competitors lift. If they lift 200 pounds in all three, for example, their “score” is 600.
Throughout her first two competitions she received multiple fails. She lifted her bar before officials essentially granted her permission, which Sharon Esbenshade was unaware of at the time.
She didn’t let it discourage her, though.
“You learn more from your failures than you do your successes,” Sharon Esbenshade said. “I wanted to get back on that horse again right away so that I wouldn’t forget what I learned from those attempts.”
THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
When Sharon Esbenshade reached her final competition in June, she was ready.
Prior to her record-setting squat, she thought about her beginnings with Group Power. The beginnings at Temple Fitness. And the learning experiences through her first two competitions.
She arrived at one simple conclusion: She has come a long way, regardless of how the day unfolded.
And when she lifted the bar, mounted with 176 pounds of weight, setting a new record for women her age, the reputation of women and fitness in the ‘70s couldn’t have been more present in that moment.
“I mean, she’s 58 and squatting 176 pounds right then,” Daniel Esbenshade said. “She’s crying, working to lift it. And the gal who’s 25 and squats 400 [pounds] is screaming at her how amazing she’s doing.
“The work ethic is the same, even if the ages of the people and the weight their lifting aren’t, and that is really cool.”
After Sharon Esbenshade completed the record squat, Daniel Esbenshade was immediately there to hug his mom.
It was more than a “you did it, congratulatory” hug. It was a “look how far you’ve come and how far you can go” moment.
That wasn’t all, though.
Sharon Esbenshade also tied the state record for her age group that afternoon in the bench press and deadlift, after lifting 227 pounds.
“This has really given a new perspective on age, really,” Sharon Esbenshade said. “It really is just a number. It doesn’t define who you are. Also, you can’t just say you want this. You have to put action to that. I made it a priority because I wanted it.”
AGE REALLY IS JUST A NUMBER
Since setting the state record in the squat in June, Sharon Esbenshade has set her sights on what is next.
She will start training for the 2018 Washington State Championship, which is in February. Technically, Sharon Esbenshade is in her “off season.” In weightlifting, however, there’s really no such thing.
She keeps to her gym schedule, but she is only focused on supplementary muscle workouts. She will not start power lifting again until November.
Despite the hiatus, her goals remain present. Sharon Esbenshade wants to set the state record in the deadlift. The state record, which was also set in 2009 is 237 pounds. Her personal record is 226, but she’s not looking to lift 238; the goal is 250 pounds.
From November to February, Daniel Esbenshade will have his mother lifting half of 250 pounds.
After eight weeks, Sharon Esbenshade will increase the weight and go down in repetitions. She will be required to do three reps consistently with each increased weight amount.
If, over time, she can do three reps of 226 without a struggle, that means Sharon Esbenshade can lift beyond that.
“We want to see how many times she can lift 125 pounds,” Daniel Esbenshade said. “That will be the key. Once we are confident there, we’ll gradually increase the volume.”
After all this time weight lifting if Sharon Esbenshade has learned one thing, it’s that women are supposed to be strong.
“The best thing you can do is just start,” Sharon Esbenshade said. “A lot of friends my age get motivated because they know I’m doing it. It’s scary. It’s intimidating, but you discover, once you’re here, that everyone is rooting for you.”