Jen Sinkler wraps her well-manicured fingers around a barbell, squats and grunts.
She hoists 200 pounds of iron high above the ground, then drops it with a loud clang. She mops the sweat — and a little makeup — from her forehead.
Sinkler does a dozen more reps as Aerosmith’s “Dream On” blares overhead at a gym in the Uptown area of Minneapolis, where she trains a growing fraternity of female powerlifters.
She’s fresh off a first-place win at a major powerlifting meet — where she registered a personal best of 358 pounds in the dead lift.
“Now I want more,” she said, grinning. “I would love to see 400.”
Sinkler also wants to see something else: droves of women entering the ranks of powerlifters.
Sinkler, 36, doesn’t look like a typical musclehead. Her arms are thick, but there are no bulging veins or sinewy muscles. Her fingernails are always painted, her platinum blonde mane always styled. She wears pink lip gloss and bright tights. It’s a look befitting a social media star — which she is.
Sinkler’s influence has reached tens of thousands through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, where she regularly posts photos and videos of herself and other members of her crew dead lifting, bench pressing and back squatting with intimidating amounts of weight. The Huffington Post named her among the 20 best fitness experts worth following on Twitter.
Sinkler co-leads a women’s-only strength class three times a week at the Movement Minneapolis — initiating novices into her band of women warriors.
In person and online, she makes lifting look, well, glamorous — posing in the latest fitness fashion and perfect makeup even while sweating. “I want to feel my best,” Sinkler said. “If I look schlubby, I feel schlubby.”
Her Twitter profile proudly declares, “never, ever without lip gloss.” Sinkler’s brand of femininity seems at odds with the public’s perception of a powerlifter.
“I enjoy breaking that stereotype,” she said.
Muscling her way in
An ex-rugby player, Sinkler hung up her cleats in 2009 after competing at the Women’s World Cup in Dubai. She then embarked on a new career as a personal trainer and fitness writer.
She readily acknowledges she’s into a different aesthetic than the willowy bodies celebrated in women’s fashion magazines. She covets “juicy quads,” not thigh gaps. She and her gym buddies — all women — strut around the gym in muscle tanks that show off their oversized arms and shoulders. Sinkler’s guns are blazing. Her biceps measure 13½ inches around.
Inside the gym, there are no stair climbers or elliptical machines. No TVs, either. Just long barbell rods stacked with iron plates, kettlebells, heavy ropes, tires, a concrete block and other raw materials built for testing strength. Oh, and Heart Radio on Pandora playing old rock ballads — the soundtrack for Sinkler and her crew’s training sessions.
Lifting can be especially good for women’s health, Sinkler said, because it increases bone density and the added muscle helps the body handle more calories. Still, many women are hesitant to try it.
“When people first come in, usually their stated goal is that they want to lose weight. Culturally, we’re told that we should become less, smaller, more dainty,” Sinkler said. She often has to reassure beginners that they won’t get freakishly bulky. “I tell them: ‘You will become smaller, but you’ll become mightier, too.’
“The fear of becoming Hulk Hogan is completely unfounded,” she said. “We just don’t have the testosterone that men have.”
Still, women are becoming a more common sight at powerlifting meets. At the Twin Cities Power Lifting Open this year, a record number of women participated. Strength training in general is on the rise. The percentage of women who lift weights jumped from 17 percent in 2004 to 22 percent last year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Sinkler is “helping to usher more women into the sport,” said Angela Simons, a longtime lifter and secretary of USA Powerlifting. “She’s personable. She’s very outgoing. She’s the kind of person I’d like to see in the sport.”
Her wonder women
Sinkler’s clients range in age from women in their 20s to Madge McInerny. She’s 65. McInerny joined Sinkler’s class a couple of years ago having never picked up a barbell in her life. Today, the slender Minneapolis grandmother can dead lift 135 pounds.
“My goal is not to be a competitor,” McInerny said. “I just want to be as strong as I can be — and not be the little, fragile old lady — so I can do things for myself.”
Through Sinkler, she’s learned that lifting heavy weights isn’t going to diminish her femininity. “I look at her,” she said of Sinkler, “and I think she looks like a strong, average beautiful woman. Then you see her in a dress and she doesn’t look like a weightlifter.”
Sinkler has inspired some of her students to follow in her competitive footsteps.
A couple of years ago, Alexis Kantor, 42, was struggling to keep the baby weight off. The Target executive tried cardio and running. “But I hated every minute of it,” she said. “It wasn’t sustainable because I didn’t enjoy it.”
Then she met Sinkler. “I stopped thinking of weight loss as a goal.” Once she started lifting, Kantor said, “Every time I could lift something heavier, it was like this amazing confidence boost.”
This fall, Kantor entered a local powerlifting competition and won the master’s class division, placing third overall for the bench press. She pushed 121½ pounds.
“I take chances now in ways that I wanted to, but wasn’t willing to before,” she said.
Kantor has completely transformed herself, Sinkler said. “She’s lost 45 pounds and has become a jock,” she said, beaming.
‘She knows how to win’
Women make up the bulk of clients at the Movement, said owner David Dellanave, who is also Sinkler’s husband.
Not surprisingly, the two met at the gym. Now, they are a fixture there and at local powerlifting meets. Dellanave also appears occasionally in Sinkler’s Instagram posts, depicting their cozy life at home in Brooklyn Park with their two dogs. For them, strength training is a shared passion.
“We love lifting together,” said Dellanave.
He attributed his wife’s success as a powerlifter to her competiti ve drive.
“Whatever it is she decides to do, she is going to win,” he said.
Right now, Sinkler is focused on her main goal: getting more women to fall in love with fitness through lifting weights.
“We’ve been selling ourselves short in the fitness community for so long because we’ve said, ‘this is what you can look like’ — instead of ‘this is what you can do,’ ” she said.