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Lady Lifter

Nastassja Varney finds empowerment in a CrossFit gym

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See below for more images. Photos by Lauryn Hottinger

“Lifting is a confidence booster,” says Nastassja Varney. “I feel like a completely different person from when I started, both in the gym and outside the gym. I wish more women knew how empowering it is to lift heavy stuff.”

Varney, who lives in Westbrook, is living proof that weight training can result in weight loss. Since she first set foot into CrossFit MF in Portland three years ago, she dropped 90 pounds—and, just as importantly, found her passion.

“Physical transformations are often what people are seeking when they come to the gym, but the mental transformations can be the biggest change,” says Matt Sherburne, head coach at CrossFit MF in Portland and co-owner of CrossFit MF in Windham. “The biggest change for Nastassja has been her confidence. It was a huge leap for her to even start doing CrossFit. She still battles self-doubt, but now when she tells me no, that she can’t do something, now I see her go off by herself and try it.”

Varney grew up playing sports, but by her late 20s her life became more sedentary and her weight crept up.

“It’s amazing what kind of toll it takes on the body sitting for seven or eight hours a day,” Varney says. “And going to the gym and walking on a treadmill felt so mundane.”

CrossFit, by contrast, is a workout that is always changing. It’s a high-intensity fitness regimen based on aspects of weightlifting, gymnastics, running, rowing and other sports. It’s easily modified based on any person’s particular ability, and it’s increasingly popular in Maine and nationally.

Varney’s road to CrossFit began with going on a Paleo diet—meat and fish, vegetables, nuts and seeds. As she researched the Paleo lifestyle, she discovered that a lot of folks who found inspiration from the way early people ate also found inspiration in the way they moved. In other words, there’s an affinity between Paleo eaters and CrossFit members.

“A lot of it comes down to the basics,” Varney explains. “Paleo is the basic food that was available, and CrossFit is functional movement, nothing out of the ordinary.”

Impressively, this nothing-out-of-the-ordinary comment comes from a woman who often lifts 300 pounds.

“The intensity can be extreme,” she concedes, “but the movements are functional, like lifting something heavy off the ground.”

Though it’s not exactly what the Paleolithic people did, who among us hasn’t needed to move some furniture or an appliance?

“You aren’t going to lift 200 or 300 pounds every day, but to know that you’re capable of it—it changes your approach to the way you live,” she says.

When Varney first walked into CrossFit MF three years ago, she was intimidated. “I didn’t know anyone, and there were a lot of really fit people in their 20s, and loud music,” she says. “But the gym is really welcoming. When there’s a new person there, we go introduce ourselves. No one wants to be there feeling like they don’t belong.”

“People see CrossFit on ESPN and think they’ll stick out like a sore thumb if they don’t look like those athletes,” Sherburne says. “but that’s a small subset of the CrossFit community. Those are the highest-level athletes. We have people who want to lift heavy weights or want to lose 50 pounds or want to find a social outlet.”

Varney works out four to six times a week: four evening classes during the workweek plus at least one weekend session. A class includes group warm-ups, lifting technique, reps and skills like handstands and muscle-ups (like exercises on gymnastics rings).

“Everything is scalable,” Varney says. “If there’s something you can’t do, there’s another movement that can give a similar effect. And if you have injuries, everything can be modified.”

Class is different every time—which is important to people like Varney who get bored—and every couple of months there’s a test week to monitor progress.

“If you go to the gym every day by yourself, are you really challenging yourself to improve over time?” Varney asked.

Not only does she appreciate a personal challenge, she thrives under a little competition.

“I enjoy being able to compete with other people on a team, not necessarily to win but just to have fun,” she said. “It’s such a community here. The majority of my friends now are from CrossFit. You hold each other accountable. You’re there for a purpose and everyone else is too. There are top athletes, and they’re extremely fit. But at our gym, everybody fits in.

In fact, the “MF” in CrossFit MF stands for Misfit.

With Varney’s focus on what she can do with her body rather than what it weighs, the weight has indeed been coming off.

“I try not to focus as much on the scale but on making good decisions—because I’m never going to be perfect—and being able to right myself when I do go off-track.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer from Scarborough.

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