Crushing Sets and Setting Records: Women 50+ Find Their Happy Place at the Gym

Seven years ago, Kerry Hutto decided to start weightlifting for the first time.

Now she holds a state record for deadlifting – at the age of 74.

It’s all thanks to her support system: a women-only gym in Plymouth called HALE Strength and Shape, where the culture is almost more important than the workout.

A senior woman poses for a photo in a weightlifting gym
Kerry Hutto, 74, poses for a photo at the powerlifting competition Feb. 9 at the Michigan Senior Olympics.

Hutto was among the 19 women from HALE competing Sunday, Feb. 9, in the Michigan Senior Olympics powerlifting event in Plymouth. As the weights clanked and the crowd cheered for every competitor, it became obvious the event wasn’t about the amount of weight stacked on the bar.

It’s about the ability to lift after age 50 – and what that means to all the competitors and their families.

“My health is everything,” said Margot Hibbitts, 61, who belongs to the HALE gym and competed in the deadlift and bench press. “It’s freedom to choose the activities I want to do.”

Two 60+ women pose for a photo in a gym
Kathy Varilone, left, and Margot Hibbitts, right, pose for a photo at the powerlifting competition during the Feb. 9, 2020, Michigan Senior Olympics. The back of their shirts say “outlive everyone.”

The Michigan Senior Olympics, sponsored in part by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, are open to individuals age 50 and older. The Winter Senior Olympics, which are ongoing in February, have 900 competitors. The Summer Senior Olympics will have 1,500 competitors this year.

To Hutto, power lifting was a new workout to her when she tried it at first in her late 60s. Growing up, physical education was never emphasized for girls in school, she said. As her daughter and son-in-law, Courtney Hessenbruch and Kurt Hessenbruch, started HALE in 2013, Hutto was intrigued by the results she saw in gym members she knew.

“I went and survived my first class,” Hutto said.

She was hooked.

A woman bench presses
A woman competes in the bench press during the Feb. 9, 2020, powerlifting competition in the Michigan Senior Olympics.

Hutto says she’s motivated to work out to stay active and healthy and on her feet – and for the feeling of accomplishment after finishing a workout.

Part of the success behind HALE’s following is the culture: it’s open only to women, and there are no mirrors.

“What I hear a lot in the gym is, ‘It’s my happy place. It’s my safe place,’” Hibbitts said.

Kathy Varilone, 61, said she’s motivated to lift weights to keep up with her two grand kids. She wants to keep climbing on the playground with them and go hiking when she wants to.

Women powerlifting at the gym
Women from HALE Strength and Shape warm up at the Michigan Senior Olympics Feb. 9, 2020. Their team T-shirts read “outlive everyone.”

“The support and camaraderie at the gym make it a great place,” Varilone said.

The female competitors from HALE gathered together during the Senior Olympics competition to help each other warm up on the bench press and stretch out their muscles.

It’s more than fitting that the team’s T-shirts feature the longest-living vertebrate – a Galapagos tortoise – on the front.

On the back: “Outlive everyone.”

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Photo credit: Jennifer McCallion, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan

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