Autism: a brief introduction

November last year I was invited to give a short talk at Bishop Grosseteste University, to a PGCE cohort, describing my lived experience of autism. As Darkside begins a new project dedicated to autistic women, I thought it might be a good idea to share the transcript of that talk.

It combined research and experience into a compelling narrative that I hope challenges the prevailing social construct of autism as ‘impairment.’ A construct written by those in transference of their own failings in empathy and theory of mind, and a construct that fails catastrophically to actually effect positive change in the lives of autistic people.

Slide 1

I’ve been doing a lot of research in preparation for this talk.  And these are the words that I’ve come across when reading about autism.  These are the words that you’ll have come across when reading about autism.  These are the words that professionals use to define autism to the general public.

Slide 2

What about these words?  Here’s some back story.

In 2014 I rented space in a gym and started Darkside Training, women-only strength and powerlifting gym.  These are some of the reviews that I received in those first few months of coaching. Five years later, this year in fact, I was diagnosed with autism.

Autism is defined as a triad of impairments.  Deficits in imagination, social communication and social interaction.  Professionals have taken the prevailing social constructs, defined them as normal and labelled difference as deficit.  Difference as impairment.  Difference as lesser than.

Slide 3

Neurotypical simply means neurologically typical, so in other words ‘normal.’

This was written by an autistic woman, she has a website devoted to the study of the neurobiologically typical, including a diagnostic scale if you’d like to measure your neurotypical traits.  In her website the world is turned upside down with autism the prevailing social construct and NTs (neurotypicals) the poor, pitied unfortunate.  Now this illustrates quite nicely not only the autistic capacity for sarcasm, but also the absurdity and malleability of accepted social structure. 

Autism is framed from the perspective of neurotypical observation and understanding, so conventional wisdom assumes that those with autism desire the same social constructs as neurotypicals and are simply deficient in their ability to obtain them. Neurotypicals observe behaviours and construct theories and ignore completely the necessary truth in autistic reality and perception.

Slide 4

This is the Sally-Anne Test.  Meet Sally, meet Anne.  Sally puts her ball in the basket and leaves the room.  Anne moves the ball from the basket to her box.  When Sally comes back, where will she look for the ball?

This is called a false belief test and has been used, particularly by Simon Baron-Cohen, a supposed ‘specialist’ in autism research, to ‘prove’ that autistic people do not have theory of mind – theory of mind is the ability to understand that other people have their own thoughts, values and beliefs.  Autistic people will often say that Sally will look in the box, rather than the basket, for her ball.

I have issue with the presumptions of this test, particularly with regard to its validity – are they measuring what they think they’re measuring?  Firstly, they’re using imaginative play with children who do not voluntarily engage in imaginative play and then the syntactic form of the questions posed by the test is some of the most complex in the English language.  So that when autistic and deaf children are given a false belief test administered visually rather than verbally, they score higher than non-autistic hearing children.

Simon Baron-Cohen has then described ToM as a core component of humanity that is impaired in autistic people.  I am less human than he is.  He posits that by lacking ToM autistic people must then lack empathy, a dangerous position when empathy is also considered an essential human trait.

He is also responsible for the ‘extreme male brain’ hypothesis, deciding that systemising is a biologically based male trait and empathising is a biologically based female trait, which is still, dangerously, impacting on the diagnosis of women with autism.  Because if women are biologically programmed towards empathy, which autistic people are deficient in, then how can women be autistic?

Simon Baron-Cohen has a lot to answer for. 

I have studied theory of mind for 31 years.  I have observed, learned and understood enough to pass as normal since my twenties.  The converse cannot be said to be true however.  Other people have not observed, learned or understood my behaviour enough to pass as autistic.  The thought would never even occur to them. 

Slide 5

I love this quote, from Olga Bogdashina, because it illustrates perfectly the dichotomy of perception.

And actually, if we’re going to use theory of mind as a concept, then we have to recognise that if autistic people don’t have theory of neurotypical mind then neurotypicals certainly don’t have theory of autistic mind.

Autism professionals don’t have theory of autism parent mind and autism parents don’t have theory of autism professional mind. 

None of us understand each other. 

And instead of using that lack of understanding to imply a lack of humanity, how about we use it to marvel at the complexity and multiplicity of human experience?

Slide 6

Let’s look at executive function, the ability to manage ourselves and lives, to plan and carry out tasks.  I have excellent executive function.  I manage 11 coaches and 200 women training in over 50 sessions each week.  I organise large events and write successful grant proposals.  I know what’s happening every hour of every day in that gym and I manage it well.

Then in September, as I attempted to integrate into university life, my executive function declined, dramatically, I struggled to focus, to finish tasks, to remember sequences.  And it took weeks out of this environment for that to come back. 

It wasn’t just the time or task commitment of university, because I’ve worked 70/80 hour weeks for the last 5 years, that’s entrepreneurship.  My decline in executive function wasn’t just about time, or lack thereof.

Ogawa et al., studied chronic stress in children with and without autism.  ASD – autism spectrum disorder and TD – typically developing.  They used strands of hair to test for cortisol, stress levels, as hair will show a long term impact, not affected by acute situations.  They found that children with autism had higher levels of chronic stress than those without, and that that chronic stress impacted on the autistic children’s spatial working memory, an aspect of executive function.

This chronic stress arose from the environment that those children were placed within, and its effects on executive function suggest that executive function deficits are not an inherent biological trait of autism.

And so those autistic people who do struggle with executive function, is it a side effect of attempting to fit into a society that clearly isn’t interested in autistic perception?  What would happen if those autistic people had the freedom to create their own environment?  Moderate their own sensory input?  Set their own  appropriate boundaries?

Because much of an autistic’s life is spent suffering through unnecessary sensory overload, navigating ambiguous social contexts and enduring the ignorance and ambivalence of those who apparently, have the empathy that we do not.

Slide 7

This all culminates in some serious social and organisational harm.

In the general population it is men who are at the highest risk of suicide, they accounted for ¾ of UK deaths by suicide in 2018, and suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 20 – 49.

In the autistic population however, women are at most risk.  Women with autism are 13 times more likely to die by suicide than their non-autistic counterparts.  Not just think about, not attempt, but actually die.  Women with autism are 13 times more likely to DIE by suicide.

And particularly relevant for us as teachers, children with autism are 28 times more likely to think about or attempt suicide, 28 times more likely.

And even when we removed actual autism diagnoses from the research population, elevated autistic traits are still associated with suicide attempts.

Slide 8

It’s only very recently, that researchers have tried to find out why autistic people are at such a high risk.

Non-suicidal self injury is fairly self explanatory, let’s talk camouflaging.

Slide 9

In order to engage in camouflaging, you must have insight into your own behaviours, how these may be negatively perceived by others, and then have a strong motivation to adapt your social behaviour to be accepted. 

Now, does this sound like someone with social deficits? 

Would a socially deficient person be able to understand how their behaviour is observed by others and then change that behaviour in order to fit in?  How can a person who lacks theory of mind understand that they are being negatively perceived?  How can a person without empathy be socially motivated to perform acceptable behaviour?

To accept that autistic people camouflage, you have to then question the prevailing theoretical models of autism.

But of course, constantly hiding who you are has its downsides.  Anxiety, depression, loss of identity, self-hatred.

This camouflaging is particularly dangerous for women.  The ratio of autism diagnoses in men and women is currently around 3:1, 3 men for every 1 woman.  However, this is for autism as a whole spectrum.  When we remove intellectual disability and focus only on high functioning autism, studies are suggesting that the ratio is closer to 9:1.  9 men for every 1 woman.

If I went to the doctor with my prevailing symptoms of generalised anxiety, depression, disassociation, hypersensitivity and social anxiety, I’d be prescribed propranolol or citalopram.  Not referred for an autism assessment.  How many of those missing women in the diagnostic ratios have been misdiagnosed with psychiatric conditions?

Slide 10

And then when we try to explain how we’re actually feeling, no one is actually listening.  This is a quote from a participant in the first research article here, when talking with a therapist. The therapist expected her to react in the same way as a neurotypical person, even knowing that she was autistic.  The therapist could not step outside of their own experience in order to empathise with their patient’s experience.  So who has theory of mind now?

This over-reactive sensory perception I think is key to autistic experience.  Certainly in my experience.  The majority of observable social, communication and executive function deficits can be traced back to sensory overload.  Repetitive behaviour and adherence to routines is an anxiety response due to the stress of sensory overload.  And we’re just starting to see research showing the relationship between autism and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) as exposure to sensory overload for extended periods of time constitutes actual physiological and psychological trauma to the autistic person. 

This PTSD link could also explain the autistic lack of episodic memory (our autobiographical memory) which is often, rather offensively, viewed as lack of self awareness or self reflection. 

And it could explain anxiety that is more akin to the adrenaline fight, flight or freeze response.  A physical manifestation of panic and trauma.

Put a neurotypical person in a war zone, and they may come back to normal life with observable autistic traits.  Maybe normal life is a war zone for the autistic person. 

Slide 11

We each have a social imperative to effect meaningful change in our communities.  To support, empower and understand the differences that make us uniquely human.  There is no longer any excuse for wilful ignorance, or arrogant misinterpretation.

I also showed an excerpt from the video below, as its depiction of sensory overload via augmented video is actually quite accurate.

Questions or comments? Feel free to drop me a message xx

Happy New Year!!

lauren 60kg dead

As you may have noticed by now, Darkside isn’t a part of the standard weight lifting culture.  We are neither the extreme bootcampesque idolisation of vomit and never giving up, nor the hardcore back slapping masculinity of old school powerlifting.  We are something else entirely, an almost unique presentation within the typical societal perceptions of weight training.

Led by women, for women, without the trappings of our modern preoccupation with sexualisation, the ‘thin ideal’ and distorted, internalised, media representations of ‘health’ at any cost.

Darkside’s inception, three years ago, was a turning point for my own interests in female health and the accessibility of weight training for the female population and as we expanded into our own space, only 19 months ago, I began to think very carefully of what Darkside might become.

Drawing influences from and working with our Darkside coaches has been a wonderful exploration of how we can best meet the needs of the women in our community.  From specialist coaches in pre/post-natal training and physiotherapy to the development of an entirely Darkside approach to methodology, programming and the coach-lifter relationship.

It is essential that Darkside continues to provide an environment for women that is both accessible and effective in its training methods – the foundation of which is attracting women who have never lifted before and helping to develop within them a sustainable base of safe technique, progression and healthful behaviours.  This involves the plentiful application of cake, coffee and sweets along with an open and honest dialogue that includes plenty of laughing.

And some actual weight training, of course.

You guessed correctly, we’re quite serious about not taking ourselves too seriously.

So, to the vision.

There is a dearth of research into the female weight training population, particularly with regard to beginning females, and what little there is tends to focus purely on technical programming and physiological effect.  Not on how to get women lifting in the first place, not how to make them feel better about themselves (without resorting to punishing behaviours and food morality) or even just how to help them progress within their busy lives.

This is, quite frankly, a disgrace.

No wonder so few women partake in an activity that could play such a huge role in their health, wellbeing and overall confidence.

Darkside is, and forever will be, here for the average woman, who needs the space and time to carve something for herself.  There’s no short term, unsustainable ‘body transformations’ here because we have a much greater interest in helping you to change your life than your level of body fat.

We seek to be provocative.  To change the landscape of women’s health and participation in weight training through our own published research, practical applications and meaningful reflections.  To help women achieve their full potential through innovative methods of coaching pain perception and proprioception (feeling  where your body is in space and moving it correctly), management of eating disordered behaviours and mental health conditions and approaching food mindfully, without moralisation or guilt.

Therein lies our uniqueness


North Midlands Championships, 6th August!

Wow, what a fantastic day!  On Sunday 6th August Darkside took 20 ladies to their local powerlifting competition in Horncastle.  Powerlifting is a strength sport, utilising maximal attempts in the squat, bench press and deadlift and is open to everyone from the age of 14 onwards.  Usually dominated by men and little understood by the general population, Darkside is starting to challenge perceptions and open opportunities for women to participate in an activity that has huge benefits for their physical and mental health.

The Junior team had their first outing on the 6th, a strong start with Anya squatting a 60kg, benching a big PB of 27.5kg and finishing with a 70kg deadlift.  Chloe and Amy squatted 70kg and then hit divisional records on their bench and deadlifts with 35kg/37.5kg and 92.5kg/100kg.  Amy-M, only a junior for this year, squatted 105kg, benched a milestone 60kg and deadlifted 120kg, very impressive!

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8 of the ladies achieved their qualifying total for the British Masters (over 40 years old) competition at the end of the year!
  Krystyna finished with a 75kg squat, huge 47.5kg bench press and 87.5kg deadlift.  Clare got 100kg for her squat, 50kg bench and lovely 115kg deads.  Jodi hit massive PBs from her last competition, getting a 107.5kg squat, 55kg bench and 122.5kg deadlift.  Sarah also got big PBs with 85kg for her squat, 50kg bench and 130kg deadlift.

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Carrie got all white lights, squatting 87.5kg, benching 52.5kg and deadlifting 122.5kg.  Belle squatted a beautiful 95kg, benched 45kg and deadlifted 120kg.  This was Rachael’s very first competition, squatting 85kg, benching 50kg and deadlifting 105kg and Karen also got a divisional record with her massive 115kg squat, along with a 42.5kg bench and 135kg deadlift!

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For Charly, Sho, Kaylee and Helen, this was their very first competition.
  Charly squatted a smooth 85kg, benched 45kg and deadlifted 90kg.  Sho, who we will convince to wear a belt and knee sleeves ;), squatted 90kg, benched 42.5kg and deadlifted a milestone 100kg.  Kaylee got some huge numbers with a 105kg squat, 50kg bench and 130kg deadlift and Helen finished with 85kg for her squat, 47.5kg bench and 112.5kg deadlift.

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Emily has competed before, pre-Darkside, she got a brilliant 80kg squat, 45kg bench and 105kg deadlift.
  Lauren and Dawn hit massive PBs with a 100kg squat, 60kg bench and 130kg deadlift for Lauren and Dawn squatted 90kg, benched 47.5kg and deadlifted 102.5kg.  Brigette squatted 90kg, benched 42.5kg and hit her surprise deadift of 105kg.

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Such a wonderful day, highlighting the diversity and team work of the women of Darkside.
  Very proud!
Huge thanks go to our ladies in the warm up room – Sam, Nicky, Emma and Rachael.  They worked tirelessly throughout the day to ensure that everyone was warmed up and ready to compete!  Beth and our photography team for documenting the day, Marc and his Horncastle team for running such a brilliant comp and everyone who came down to support and cheer us on!

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North Midlands Powerlifting Championships, 15th April 2017

What a fantastic day!!  7 of our ladies attended the North Midlands Powerlifting Championships on the Saturday, for 3 of them it was their very first time!

We started with Claire, Lisa, Holly Cl. and Krystyna in the first group.  Holly was going for her British qualifying total and achieved it with plenty to spare, finishing with a 75kg squat, 35kg bench and double bodyweight 105kg deadlift, very impressive Holly!  For Claire and Lisa it was their first comp and they did so well.  Claire squatted 70kg, benched 35kg and deadlifted 85kg whilst Lisa finished on a 65kg squat, brilliant 40kg bench and 82.5kg deadlift :).  Krystyna was focused and fast with 70kg for her squat, lovely 45kg bench and 85kg deadlift!!

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In the second group Rachael was another first timer, so strong with a 90kg squat, 42.5kg bench and massive 120kg deadlift!  Brigette with the awesome blue hair squatted 82.5kg, benched 37.5kg and deadlifted a milestone 100kg and Holly Co. finished with 102.5kg on her squat, 55kg bench and 15kg comp PB deadlift of 135kg :).

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It takes a lot of courage to step up onto that platform and I am so impressed and proud of each and every one of you <3.

Photo credits to Chris Bradbury and Bob Willmington.  Our senior coach Beth did a fantastic job in the warm up room and thank you to all the Darkside ladies who came down to support, it means a lot :).  Thanks to Marc Giles and his fabulous Horncastle team who have organised and delivered another excellent comp.  Next one is August, can’t wait!

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A Different Approach

It’s that time of year, again, when we get bombarded with ‘body transformations,’ ‘cleanses,’ ‘diet tricks’ and ‘boot camps’ that will enable us to lose 10kg in 10 days and love ourselves again because we’re skinny.

Last year, it made it me angry.  This year, I’m just tired.  I’m tired of the same propaganda spewed by the fitness industry that makes an unfathomable amount of money from women hating themselves.  I’m tired of the malicious marketing that encourages women believe that fitness models and bikini competitors are at the peak of health and beauty.  I’m tired of the focus on a random set of appearance criteria instead of strength and performance.

In a culture that idolises the concept of ‘go hard or go home,’ sometimes it’s best to just go home.  ‘Sweat is fat crying’ is not only biologically impossible but rather disturbing because both dietary and body fat are necessary and important to our health and wellbeing.  The only time we should ‘think of the calories this season’ is in how they can nourish our body and be awesomely delicious.

Memes that praise and admire vomiting in the gym are not ok – this kind of ‘beasting’ simply induces muscle soreness, which tells us nothing other than you’ve done something different, and can actually be counterproductive to progress.

Labelling certain foods as ‘guilt-free’ is absurd – some foods are more nutrient dense than others but they all play their part in the enjoyment life.

Tying self worth to random (and largely unhealthy) standards of physical beauty is a sure way to be forever unhappy with yourself.

Food is amazing.  Moving your body in a way that you enjoy is amazing.  Get strong, have fun and feel the #calorielove.

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North Midlands Powerlifting Championships – November 2016

Well, that was a day!  Darkside took 22 women to their local powerlifting championships on the 19th November 2016, 14 of whom were first timers.  Incredibly impressed with their determination, focus and strength.

The morning started with Evie, hitting some fab new squat and bench PBs with a 60kg squat, 37.5kg bench and 70kg deadlift, well done!  Holly C. got comp PBs across the board with a 65kg squat, 32.5kg bench (finally!) and huge 95kg deadlift.  Leah, her very first comp, was completely unphased squatting 82.5kg, benching 45kg and deadlifting 92.5kg, very strong.  Beth went an unprecedented 8/9 with fab comp PBs, 87.5kg squat, 45kg bench and 117.5kg deadlift!

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In the second group we had 4 new competitors.  Sarah K. narrowly missed out on her qualifying total for the British Masters, but still squatted a fast 60kg, benched 47.5kg and deadlifted a solid 115kg.  Faye hit 75kg for her squat, big 42.5kg bench and 90kg deadlift.  Laura M. squatted 77.5kg, benched a beautiful 45kg and deadlifted 95g and Carrie made her qualifying total for the British Masters with an 85kg squat, 47.5kg bench and 115kg deadlift, well done!!  Nikki S. made some awesome new comp PBs, 70kg squat, 35kg bench and 87.5kg deadlift!

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7 new lifters in the third group, but well supported by our experienced ladies.  Poppy hit a great 60kg squat, 37.5kg bench and 80kg deadlift, Brigette squatted 75kg, benched 35kg and deadlifted a fast 82.5kg, Dawn’s squat reached a beautiful 77.5kg, along with a 40kg bench and 97.5kg deadlift, Katie F. squatted 80kg, benched a solid 32.5kg and deadlifted 105kg and Nicky H. made her qualifying total for the British Masters with an 82.5kg squat, 52.5kg bench and huge 120kg deadlift!

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Fran squatted a focused 87.5kg, benched 42.5kg and deadlifted 115kg, very focused and solid and whilst Jodi failed her first squat due to nerves she rallied beautifully and finished with a fantastic 90kg, along with a 52.5kg bench and 115kg deadlift!  Carla, Emma H. and Magdalena all made brilliant comp PBs with Carla squatting her milestone 100kg, benching 42.5kg and deadlifting 125kg, Emma also got her milestone 100kg squat with a lovely 50kg bench and 135kg deadlift and Magdalena squatted 125kg, benched 57.5kg and deadlifted an amazing 150kg, qualifying for the Senior British!

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Our final group was Clare, Katie N. and Laura Ma.  Clare made her qualifying total for the British Masters with a 100kg deadlift, 45kg bench and 112.5kg deadlift, all comp PBs as well!  Katie and Laura were first timers with Katie squatting 85kg, benching 50kg and deadlifting a fab 120kg and Laura hitting 92.5kg on her squat with a 40kg bench and 105kg deadlift!

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Huge thanks to Laura C. who tirelessly ran the warm up room with speed and focus and to our group ‘mothers’ who helped the newbies and made sure everyone was in the right place at the right time!  We had an awesome army of Darksiders helping to load and spot for the warm ups and yelling for us on the platform.  Thank you Marc Giles and your Horncastle team for putting on another organised and brilliantly run competition.

All photo credits to Chris Bradbury, thank you!

I never fail to be impressed by the Darkside lifters, you are a community, a family and you support each-other like nothing I have ever seen.  Laughter, hugs and cake.  And a whole lot of strength.

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Darkside is 2 years old!!!

20160712_212229_005_01It is Darkside’s second anniversary this month and it’s been an absolutely brilliant year.  In April we signed the contract to our brand new premises, trained new coaches, expanded our timetable and we now have 35 ladies competing at the next divisional powerlifting competition in November!

The majority of the women who train here were beginners when they first stepped through the doors.  Bored with commercial gyms, intimidated by testosterone-filled weights areas and bombarded with weight loss adverts and programmes they sought a safe space where they could learn to lift and appreciated their bodies.


Early in our development, we knew that we wanted to be almost the antithesis of the standard gym model.   No mirrors, no dance music, no emphasis on the ‘bikini model’ look and no endless rows of weight and cardio machines.  We purposely avoid any sense of elitism or cliques and everyone is equal – lift 10kg or 100kg and all are worthy of the same attention, respect and support.

Darkside is just 2 years old and we are a growing community.  A group of amazing women who challenge societal values and achieve successes that they never thought possible.  Together, we are creating a culture of female empowerment and all women are welcome here.

The coffee and cake is good too ;).

Darkside Guide for competing in British Powerlifting (formerly GBPF) competitions

In this guide, you will find answers to commonly asked questions leading up to a competition, especially if it’s your first one! Hopefully this guide will put your mind at ease and help prepare you for the event. Questions answered:

  • What is a BP powerlifting competition?
  • What happens on the day?
  • What are the red and white lights for?
  • What are the commands?
  • What kit do I need?
  • Weight classes?
  • Can I use supplements?
  • I am on medication – will this affect me?
  • What should I eat before, during or after?
  • What weight should I lift?
  • What training will I be doing in the run up/ after?

Hopefully these will answer the majority of your questions, but if you still have any, contact Shantelle, Bob or Beth!

What is a BP powerlifting competition?

Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

Simply put, a competition with British Powerlifting is an event where you can demonstrate your strength in the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift (in that order). In addition to your strength, it also demonstrates your control over the bar/weight at all times.


During each discipline, you are given three attempts to lift your best. Judges sit to the front and side of the lifting platform in order to assess how well you executed the lift, and if it should pass or fail. Spotters are also on hand if you are unable to complete the lift so they can ‘catch’ the bar, keeping you safe. Ideally, your first attempt should be a weight you are comfortable with, with your second a bit harder, and that will leave your third attempt open for either a challenging weight you can do or, if you are feeling confident on the day, a personal PB. Remember, these lifts will be heavier than what you presently do in a training session as you are only doing one rep, rather than five. In the weeks leading up to the event, we will figure out where this is for you.

If you a fail a first or second lift – don’t worry, you can repeat the same weight again and failing a third isn’t uncommon either, which is why you want a sensible weight choice for your first or second lift.

cropped krys
Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

When you have completed all three lifts, your score will be added up, giving you a total. These are then put in order within your weight/age class to find a winner of that category, though generally everybody is celebrated for taking part! At regional level, your total may also qualify you to compete at a British level – the qualifying total varies depending on category.

Please note: in order to compete, you will need to become a member of the BP. Membership lasts for one year at a time, and you can sign up here:

What happens on the day?

When you arrive at the event, the first thing you will be asked to do is weigh in – this is to ensure you are in the correct weight category and flight order. After this, head over to the platform to have your rack height for squats set – all you need to do is pop under the bar and stand up, until it feels comfortable.

At this point you have time to relax – try and have something to eat and drink to fuel your lifts (explained later!). Don’t worry about your weight numbers, we submit these on your behalf. Before each lift, you will also be allotted time to warm up at the side of the platform, so you are going into your first lift nice and warmed up, and ready!

You will then take it in turns to do each lift. For example, if there are 7 people in the first flight, all seven will take it in turns to do Squat attempt 1, then 2, then 3. You will not be doing each attempt in one go! After squats, you will get a short rest before going through to warm up for Bench, and the process repeats until you finish on Deadlift. Then you are done to watch others (women usually go first, so you’ll be relaxing while the men compete). Hang around though so you can be awarded your certificate and medal.

Darkside tradition is we also bring and eat cake to celebrate J

What are the red and white lights for?

Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

At the side of the stage, you may notice three square lights. These indicate to competitors and organisers if you pass or fail a lift. The judges sat around the stage have control of these lights.

What they mean is as follows:
Three White Lights – pass, well done!

Two White, One Red – you have passed, but one of the judges thought they saw a reason for failure of the lift.

Three Red – fail. You missed the commands, did not complete/start the lift, did not squat to depth, hitched the deadlift, stumbled, didn’t lock out the bench evenly… etc

What are the commands?

On each lift, you have to listen out for commands. They are as follows:

Get under the bar, set up, and get it off the rack. Look down at the floor, finish any other adjustments you want to make, and then look at the judge. This is their signal that you’re ready to start.

“Squat” – your permission to start. Do a full squat and stand up. Do not move!
“Rack” permission to rack the bar. Then you are done.

Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

Set up, take the bar off the spotter, and wait.
“Start” bring the bar down you your chest, wait.
“Press” push the bar back up to the starting position, wait.
“Rack” guide the bar back to the rack with the spotter. Down let go until fully racked. Done!

There is only one command. The lift begins as you start to pull it off the floor. Once you lock out, wait for the command “down” before placing it back on the floor.

What kit do I need?

You don’t actually need a whole load of kit to compete. It’s easier to break down into what’s essential, what we’d recommend, and what’s nice.

Note: please don’t buy accessory items you’ve not trained in much before competing. Not everyone gets on with knee sleeves for instance, and comp day is a bad day to realise they hinder you rather than help!


  • Singlet
  • Socks up to the knee (for deadlift)
  • Footwear (if you train in your socks, start training in shoes – weightlifting shoes, converse, deadlift slippers or anything with a solid, flat heel!)
  • T-shirt for under singlet (we will sort a Darkside logo t-shirt order for this closer to the time)


  • Lifting belt

Items also allowed

  • Knee sleeves
  • Wrist wraps

Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

All this kit is available to buy in the UK online. There are is a huge range of options to suit your budget. For example, you can have an SBD singlet for £60, or a basic Strength Shop singlet for £25. Belts vary from £35-£200. The choice is yours. I say this because unfortunately you can’t just buy ANY kit from any brand, it has to be from the list of IPF approved brands.
You can find the approved kit list here:

If you are unsure about an item, please ask! We will organise a group order closer to competition time to save on postage and ensure that everyone has the right kit.

If you are really struggling for kit, we try to bring as many spare items and sizes as possible, but ideally you should have these for yourself. Almost all of it will come in useful for training, so isn’t a waste of money! J

Weight classes

Just a little word on weight classes and your weight really.
As with many sports, to make it fair, everything is divided in gender, age, and weight categories. There really is a weight category for everyone. Senior and master categories start from under 47kg, working up to 84kg and above.

To pick your weight class, just stand on a pair of scales, and then pick the appropriate class. It’s that simple.

Please do not use your first, second, or even third competition as a reason to lose weight!

The only time I would personally ever recommend some join a lighter weight category is if they were extremely borderline – less than a kilo – into getting into the next category down. Even then, it really does not matter as this stage what category you are competing in. We want you to have fun and get some experience. It will help you understand why we are so passionate about the sport to teach it.

Here are my personal reasons (from experience), as to why:

  1. You are there to have fun, first and foremost. Trying to frantically cut down before competition is a lot of added pressure, and will take away the fun of the day
  2. You are meant to be demonstrating you at your very strongest. When you are losing weight, you are probably doing so mostly through your calorie consumption and for many, this will most result in a loss of strength. You NEED fuel to lift. You need carbs and fats to fuel good lifts. You may achieve being in a lighter category, but at what cost? So eat, enjoy eating, train hard, and watch the kilos pile on the bar! There are nutritionists out there which may be able to achieve some kind of equilibrium between diet and strength, but for now, keep it easy for yourself
  3. If you are the lightest in the category, and you draw with someone who is heavier, you will win due to being the lightest person throwing that much weight around. So really, it’s a win-win situation.
  4. The categories are purely for fairness, you will see all kinds of body shapes splattered across each one. That’s the beauty of powerlifting, it invites ANYBODY to come have fun.

Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

If you are currently taking part in a weight loss or gain programme, that is fine, apply for the competition a little bit closer to the closing date with a realistic category in mind. If you weigh 70kg in September, it might be a little unrealistic to enter the under 57kg category for instance.

If your weight class is incorrect on the day, don’t worry, it can generally be adjusted at regional level on the day.  British level and above, you must weigh in at the weight class that you have entered.

Also, if you enjoy it, there are plenty of other competitions in future for you to play around with what category you feel best in.

Can I use supplements?

If you train with supplements then by all means you are free to use them when you compete. That is, provided there are of the legal variety and the ingredients are not controlled by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency). The BP is a drug-free federation, and as such needs to ensure there’s nothing nasty in what you are using. Some pre-workouts contain banned substances for instance, or there’s a rule to how much caffeine you can consume (don’t panic – it’s a lot!).

The list of banned or limited substances can be found here: (PDF download)

I am on medication – will this affect me?

This is similar to the above question about supplements. If you are on medication (not including contraceptive) either long or short term, please check the banned or limited substance list.

If you are medicated with a drug which would usually be banned, such as steroids, you will need to complete at TUE (therapeutic use exemption) form with your doctor and send it to the BP anti-doping officer.
You can run your medication through this database to see if it is controlled or not:

What should I eat?

Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

Ideally you want to have something to eat before you start lifting. At this point, carbs are your best friend. This will give you the fuel required for a good lift.

Best things you can reach for are energy drinks, sweets such as Haribo, porridge, flapjack, fruit/ dried fruit, bananas. Also try and get some protein in there such as greek yoghurt, protein shakes, meat (make yourself up a nice salad or sandwiches), beans and pulses, high protein snacks (there’s plenty out there beyond the stuff in supermarkets).

Don’t forget to have some fats too, especially helpful for the protein to work effectively. Snack on nuts, throw in some avocado to your lunch, home bake snacks with real butter etc.

Do not get hungry! Keep snacking as you need to throughout the event. Personally, you may need a decent refuel just before deadlifts, as that is when the carbs of the morning are likely to wear off and cause a bit of a crash.

What weight should I lift?

As previously mentioned, we will look at this during your training in the run up to the competition. We will give you a weight we think you should aim for at competition on the board, and from there work towards it. Just before comp we will look at what your first, second and third should be, and adjust on the day if needed. Don’t stress about it – we do all this for you. Just focus on lifting to pass.

What training will I be doing in the run up/ after?

A few weeks before the competition you will stop doing the training you currently do with us (working sets of five reps) and undergo “one rep max” (1rm) training. This is fun! We will only ask you to do one rep, on command, and slowly inch up the weight until we find your top point.  We can also assess your weak points and improve them.

We will hold comp days where we focus solely on out competition ladies and give you all an excuse to meet and network with each other, so you have lots of friendly faces on the day!


Any questions, contact Shantelle, Bob or Beth!

Photo Credit: Jess Shillitto

Big News and a Little Reflection

20160518_111617It’s been quiet on this blog for a while, but it’s all been go at Darkside.  After working from the Pacific Gym for 18 months, we now have our very own gym in Lincoln!!  We opened at the start of the month and have already added 7 new strength classes, trained two of our ladies as coaches and welcomed on board a sports therapist and rehab specialist.

It’s been busy.

None of this would have been possible without the trust and support of the Darkside ladies, who are a joy to coach and make the long hours and caffeine addiction completely worth it.  Love you all!20160510_190413

It’s at times of expansion that it’s always good to take a moment.  A moment to take stock and realise the complex relationships and encounters that have culminated to this point.  Success is never about one person, in fact, you could say that this gym actually had its birth when I was seventeen and saw a poster for Aikido in the window of the High Street papershop.  A random birth maybe, but the poster was actually designed by Phyllis Mahon, our artist and designer, and Bob Willmington, our co-founder.

20160517_182457Through Aikido, I not only met Bob and Phyllis who are now, 10 years later, integral to Darkside, but started to develop the social, physical and coaching skills necessary for this business.  Sensei Paul Chambers and everyone at the dojo who taught or trained with me have had a massive influence in who I am and if I hadn’t walked through those doors, I honestly don’t think Darkside would exist today.

20160517_184601I initially went to the Pacific to ‘get fit and lose weight.’  It was there that I fell in love with weight lifting and through one of its members, discovered my powerlifting coach Marc Giles.  His skills and knowledge developed me into a competitive powerlifter and inspired the concept of a female sanctuary of strength.

There are many instances like these and not all were great at the time, but they each had their part to play.

So thank you.  Thank you to everyone who has been a presence in my life, for whatever reason, because ultimately a part of that presence resides within Darkside.

Darkside isn’t just a gym, it is a community of women who are dedicated to getting STRONG, together.  No frills, no fuss and no bitching.

Now, where are the chocolate-covered coffee beans?20160510_191102


IMG_20151115_144126As we head through the Christmas season, we’re bombarded with countless new diets, weight-loss plans and ‘body transformations.’ Ripped bodies are everywhere, and they’re seemingly happy and healthy and whatever product they’re selling at extortionate prices was essential to their success. This is the fitness and weight-loss industry and 99% of what they’re selling us a lie.

If a company requires us to buy their product to get healthy then they’re likely more interested in their own profit than our health. If a ‘body transformation’ participant lost 50 pounds in 28 days then they’re probably either lyinIMG_20151102_212805g or they did it in an unhealthy manner. If a particular weight loss plan puts you on 1200 calories or less per day, with no carbs or no fats or some other hyper-restrictive, arbitrary nonsense, then it’s not sustainable and it’s certainly not healthy.

As you can probably tell, this stuff makes me just a little annoyed. Because the entire industry is only profitable if women (and men too) dislike themselves. We’re fat, ugly, lazy, gluttonous, unworthy. These messages are internalised in a disturbingly prolific way and no matter how feminist or body positive we believe ourselves to be, it is incredibly difficult to erase 50 odd years of social conditioning in self-hatred and dissatisfaction.

We need to stop assigning moral value to food, certain foods are more nutrient dense than others but that does not IMG_20151227_173019make them ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it simply makes them a choice. If you can tolerate gluten then it is not evil, small amounts of sugar within a diet full of vegetables and protein is absolutely fine and carbs can be eaten at any time of the day that works best for you.

There is no need to use exercise as punishment for eating ‘bad’ food and guilt has no place in nutrition. None.

Eating disordered behaviour has almost become the norm, from restriction to binging and the emotional fallout that comes with it and it’s time for it to stop. Eat the food that makes you feel good and perform well. There is no one way that works for everyone so find what works for you and above all, whatever you’re eating, enjoy it.