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Peabody gym produces elite female powerlifters

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Power lifter Kim Clark went through her curling repetitions at Gym Warriors in Peabody as she prepared for an upcoming competition.

Hot-pink socks hiked to her knees, black hair pulled back in a bouncy ponytail, the athletic 33-year-old hoists a bar loaded up with weights the diameter of car tires.

She dead-lifts one rep, then two, hinging from a crouch to a standing position, straight arms heaving the laden bar to her hips.

Peabody, MA - 11/15/11 - Indya Sheehan, cq, goes through her repetitions under the watchful eye of coach/trainer Paul DeSimone while training at Gym Warriors in Peabody for an upcoming competition. North Week women powerlifters are among the top 100 in the country. Feature photos of them training at Gym Warriors in Peabody with their coach/trainer Paul DeSimone. - (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin), section: North Week, reporter: Taryn Plumb, slug: 04nolifters. LOID: 5.0.541220246.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Indya Sheehan went through her repetitions under the watchful eye of coach and trainer Paul DeSimone at Gym Warriors in Peabody.

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Her face flames red; her neck veins pulse; her legs and arms tremble with the effort. With each repetition, the weights clank back to the floor.

After a set of four, she sets the bar down, shakes out her arms and legs.

Indya Sheehan is lifting 195 pounds, roughly 30 pounds more than her own weight.

And she’s just warming up.

“You just tell yourself you’re going to pick that up,’’ Sheehan, of Rowley, said later of preparing herself to heft such massive amounts, noting her mantra, “I have to get this to the top.’’

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The women here are slim and pretty, manicured and never without makeup - but don’t be fooled. A half-dozen are elite powerhouses of strength and stamina, some capable of cranking up weights twice as heavy as they are. Training at Gym Warriors in Peabody under the well-muscled tutelage of Paul DeSimone, they defy expectations of their gender, with nearly all of them ranked among the top 100 female powerlifters in the world.

Using no equipment - no belt, no wrist wraps, in what’s known as the “raw’’ method - they display their might in several competitions, setting world records and qualifying for national events, including 2012 championships sanctioned by the US Powerlifting Federation and the Elite Powerlifting Federation.

Powerlifting is ultimately a sport of extreme weightlifting, in which participants attempt to squat, bench press, or deadlift as much weight as they can with each individual lift, ending with a total score for all three. It is a sport dominated by men - making the local women’s accomplishments that much more impressive.

In some cases, they’re even surprised by their own power.

“I never knew I was that strong,’’ said 21-year-old Kim Clark of Peabody, a curly-haired brunette with model looks and a model build who recently set a deadlift record, “pulling’’ 332.5 pounds without equipment - the highest in the past 20 years for a woman, ranking her 42d of all time.

Her fellow powerlifter Nicole Mentus noted her own ability to “out-squat a lot of guys.

“I’m not manly, nor do I have a lot of muscle tone,’’ said the lithe and tan 32-year-old, a nurse from Peabody who can squat 215 pounds and deadlift 225. “People ask ‘How can you lift all this weight?’ ’’

DeSimone, a longtime competitive bodybuilder, has the answer in a method he has developed himself: It blends figure modeling with powerlifting, customized to each woman, he explained. (But he won’t give up much more than that.) Ultimately, the process involves four to five days a week of circuit training and lifting - and no cardio allowed. Also, not surprisingly, the trainees have to keep a healthy diet.

“I can take any girl and make them strong,’’ boasted DeSimone, pointing out that Clark was deadlifting 195 pounds just two weeks after she began training.

But Gym Warriors, which was featured in Powerlifting USA Magazine a few years ago, has also been the proving ground for several male powerlifters.

In both cases, they congregate at the gritty, self-described “hardcore’’ workout space, tucked on the fourth floor of an industrial building in Peabody.

The rectangular gym is cramped with racks, weight machines and bowls of chalk, pictures of the young Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bulging bodybuilders plastered around like wallpaper.

On a recent weeknight, music by Metallica blasted from above, accentuated by the clank of weights and the grunts of lifters. In one corner, Clark did reps of upright rows, working in increments from 20 to 50 pounds.

After her workout, the Salem State University student explained that, although she has always been in shape - having been involved with dancing and cheerleading for years - she had no idea she was capable of such strength.

People are impressed, she said. “They can’t believe I got into this. I’ve been very girly my whole life. It’s a big change.’’

Her fellow strong woman Gabriela Tortolano of Salisbury also noted a “shock and awe’’ reaction from both herself and others.

In the beginning, “I never even thought I could lift that,’’ the 22-year-old Salem State student, with red-tinged hair and purple fingernails, said as she pointed to a deadlifting bar.

Now? “We warm up with that.’’

Having started just nine months ago, she has quickly accelerated, packing more and more weight onto the bar, and losing 40 pounds in the process. (And as a side effect, becoming the go-to person when friends and family need help moving furniture or other heavy objects.)

She is now ranked among the top 50 female powerlifters in the world: She can deadlift 336 pounds, squat 181, and bench 101. At a competition in November, she lifted a combination of 623 pounds among all three exercises.

And next season? She hopes to work up to 400 pounds on her deadlift, 250 on her squat, and 150 on her bench press.

“I have a personal slogan: Powerlifting is 75 percent determination, 25 percent strength,’’ she said.

Sheehan, meanwhile - who works as a dog groomer and also boxes when she’s not slinging weights - set her own personal deadlift record at 265.

“I think part of it is genetics,’’ she said, “but a lot of it is what you put into it.’’

Mentus agreed, noting that powerlifting takes “commitment, determination, drive, passion.’’ She is also spurred on by the desire to “prove everybody wrong’’ that women can’t be as tough and powerful as men.

“It’s seeing how far I can take my body,’’ she said, and ultimately asking, “What’s the next level?’’

Personal bests:

Gabriela Tortolano

Deadlift - 336 pounds

Squat - 201 pounds

Bench - 95 pounds

Kim Clark

(record-breaking*) Deadlift - 332.5 pounds

Squat - 165 pounds

Bench - 95 pounds

Nicole Mentus

Deadlift - 225 pounds

Squat - 215 pounds

Bench - 110 pounds

*Kim Clark’s deadlift was the 42d best deadlift of all time for a woman. It was the highest deadlift of any woman with no belt in the past 20 years

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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