‘My Guy Friends Told Me Women Couldn’t Lift—So I Set Out To Prove Them Wrong’

The female workout scene in South Africa is not huge. Most of the women you see at the gym are middle-aged, attempting a serious intervention for their health, or girls who are kind of just there to look cute for Instagram.

The first time I went to the gym at 18, it was with a few guy friends who went regularly and they told me not to use the machines alone—because I’m a girl and wouldn’t be able to handle it by myself.

I grew up in a small farm town in northwest South Africa. My dad was very, very strict and I was a very insecure girl, always following what my friends did and depending on these friendships to keep me sane, even if they weren’t healthy ones. I struggled with a lot of dark emotions, and went through it on my own because I was too afraid to open up to anyone.

I’ve wanted to be an athlete for as long as I can remember. Every year of school, I entered athletic competitions and every year, I came in last or close to it. I used to run around the block in hopes of getting faster but never got there. On Sundays, my parents weren’t home so I would dedicate the day to dancing—but that’s about as much exercise as I got.

That first time I went to the gym with the guys, though, everything changed. Doing leg presses, lifting weights—it made me feel strong. It made me feel capable. And the guys telling me I couldn’t handle the gym on my own because I was a girl? That made me want to prove them wrong.

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So I started saving the pocket money my mom gave me for school and by the end of the month, I had enough for the fees.

I started seeing changes in my headspace almost immediately. Going to the gym made me feel stronger and more in control of my life. It made all those dark feelings easier to deal with. The gym was a 30- to 40-minute walk from our house, but this mental lift motivated me to go whenever I could, which ended up being three to four times a week.

I loved the feeling of working my legs, and that became my sole goal: big legs and a flat stomach. For a while, I only did leg days. I went straight for the Smith machine and once I learned to balance the squat bar, I was there every day.

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After the first week or two in the gym, one of the assistants came over and told me that I was working hard, but I needed to work smart. He explained that I couldn’t just come in and lift legs every time.

I listened to his advice. I started switching between lower body lifting, core, and cardio. I didn’t want to spend money on a personal trainer, so I used the gym Wifi to go on Instagram and pulled workout plans from fitfluencers like Kathy ”Drayton” Freeman and Simoen Panda.

When I went away to university, later that year, that’s when my fitness really took off. I started working side jobs to help me pay for the fees and healthy meals, but the gym was closer, and away from my strict household, I had the freedom to go whenever I wanted.

And I really took advantage of that. I was like a bunny on steroids. Some days I would go two to three times a day because I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. I wanted to see results faster and I thought the more you worked, the more changes you’d see. Luckily, the deeper I got into the fitness world, the more I learned—including the very important fact that you need to let your body rest to see progress.

Eventually, I cut back to lifting just a few times a week so my muscles could actually recover.

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If I broke up with a guy, I’d go lift and the heartbreak would hurt less. I was stronger than them anyway, so what was I upset about? I started drinking less. I started smiling more. I surrounded myself with better people at university, ones who fed off my positivity and delivered it back, creating a chain reaction of uplifting energy.

Lifting became about more than results, but my progress really changed the way I viewed myself. After working out for about a year, my quad muscles really started to pop, a fact that set in the first time my sister commented on how toned my legs were.

I hadn’t even noticed the progress because I was never really taught to consider my achievements. No one had ever told me they were proud of me. But with the changes in my body, I started getting compliments on my dedication and discipline and it made me feel good about myself. For the first time in my life, I was being taken seriously—and for something that was genuinely making me a happier person.

And I realized I was proud, too. I’d never seen a muscle like that on my body before, but it was my perseverance that made it happen.

On a break from school, I kept up my workouts back home, following routines from Instagram. But I realized, outside of the weight room, I couldn’t do a lot of the moves because my arms weren’t strong enough. When I got back in the gym, I decided to start focusing on total-body strength instead of just legs and core. 2017 became the year of the upper body—and it paid off.

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Now, a typical week for me looks like:

Monday: Quads and calves

Tuesday: Back and shoulders

Wednesday: Hamstrings, glutes, and calves

Thursday: Cardio

Friday: Arms and chest

Saturday and Sunday: Rest


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I mostly eat healthy, but allow myself one cheat meal per week, usually on Fridays.

On a normal weekday, breakfast looks like a shake, eggs and chicken breasts, tuna, or lean red meat; lunch is where most of my carbs come from, so I’ll have pasta or rice with vegetables and fish, meat, or chicken for protein. For dinner, I’ll have vegetables and protein with a shake.

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Energy? ?: @sheriffshots_

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When I joined the gym at 18, I set a goal for myself that by the age of 25, I would be as strong and toned as the women I saw on Instagram. But to my total surprise, I gained all that muscle in just three years. At 21, I not only reached my goals four years earlier than expected, but I did so with limited resources.

I am in love with my legs—they’re like my babies. But as great as the physical transformation is, the biggest change is how powerful I feel about my identity. Fitness has helped me gain so much self-worth and completely defeat that place of insecurity I came from. I laugh so much more and cry so much less.

Yes, there are dark days when the depression creeps in, but I find myself coping better than I did five years ago. Most importantly, I’m not dependent on anyone other than myself for my own happiness. I’m falling in love with myself and the woman I’m becoming every single day.

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It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. If you want to get bigger, smaller, faster, stronger, you can make it happen.

Follow Kelly’s fitness journey @kellyfitty.

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