Venture into the depths of the graffitied RAW complex near Berlin’s Warschauerstraße and you’ll find no shortage of grimey clubs and neon-lit bars. But if you walk past the giant SUICIDE CIRCUS sign and through the dusty, cigarette-littered wasteland you’ll find an institution that champions technique over techno and barbells over beer bottles.
This tourist-filled nightlife hub in the centre of Friedrichshain is the last place you’d expect to find a world-renowned olympic weightlifting gym but, with a gigantic screaming ape lifting a barbell graffitied on the wall, Berlin Strength certainly knows how to fit in.
Walk past the ape and through the black double doors and the sound of barbells slamming on the floor is almost deafening. Exhausted athletes, men and women alike, grunt and yelp as they push unbelievably heavy weights up and over their heads. These athletes are pushing themselves to their very limits on this sunny Thursday afternoon; their ambition and determination virtually radiating off them.
Berlin Strength is a concept unique to Germany. It’s powerlifting, weightlifting and functional training gym for women and men – but with a focus on women. Graphic tees with Berlin Strength logos hang near the reception area and stacks of protein powder line the black walls. But there’s something a little different about these powders: all of them are vegan.
That’s right. Berlin Strength is a vegan, female-empowering weightlifting gym. Niche – but that’s what makes it so special.
My trainer today is Sassi who co-manages the gym with three other partners. Sassi is petite, extremely strong and full of energy. From the way she speaks about the gym it’s clear she’s very passionate about what she does. Today she’ll show me how to lift heavy weights and how to safely push my body to the limit.
“We’ll warm up by throwing this ball on the floor – so your body knows it’s time to do exercise,” Sassi says. She hands me a 12 kilo medicine ball and I lift it above my head and slam it on the ground. I love the fact that this warm up isn’t running on a treadmill; and there’s something extremely therapeutic about slamming a ball on the floor really hard. “I hate cardio.” Sassi says. “I hate sweating, I hate the feeling of being out of breath. It makes me angry. I get super angry when I’m on a treadmill.”
I’m surprised to hear an athlete say they hate cardio. In my mind ‘fitness’ is always associated with people doing one thousand burpees and sprinting 5km in 10 minutes. But Sassi never does cardio – she just lifts heavy weights.
“People often think that powerlifting is dangerous or unsafe – but that’s not true.” Sassi tells me as she drags out an extremely intimidating contraption. “This is a trap bar.” She says. “It’s one of the safest ways to learn how to lift.”
The trap bar is designed to train my entire body through the motion of squats and deadlifts. Sassi shows me how to step inside and brace my legs, using my core and leg muscles to keep my back in line and then straighten my legs under the full load. The movement is slow but I can literally feel every muscle in my body working. It’s an amazing feeling – like I am utilising my body in a very efficient way.
“Great work! You’re strong!” Sassi says. “Let’s add more weight.” We add an extra 10 kg to each side of the bar and I try again. It’s getting heavy. “Shall we add more weight?” Sassi says, a glint of joy in her eye. We pile on an extra 20kg. I step in, take a deep breathe, squat and push myself upwards with every ounce of strength I have.
“More?” Sassi says. She’s enjoying this. And I am too – it’s empowering to be able to lift weights this heavy. Honestly I had no idea I was capable of this. Sassi encourages me to add more and more weight until finally I reach the 100kg mark. “Focus!” Sassi says. I take a deep breath, concentrate as hard as I can, grab the bar, close my eyes and heave. But it won’t budge. I’ve hit my maximum. “Now you know your one rep max!” Sassi says. “And well done! That was incredible for a first try.” Sassi’s support is awesome and her enthusiasm contagious. Now I can see how weight lifting can get addictive.
Sassi’s journey into weightlifting began eight years ago. “If I’m honest with myself the motivation to start came from not having the best relationship with my body; like most females. I wanted to lose weight and look a certain way. But then over the years of exercising that all went away. Now I never weigh myself and I never think about food. I just eat what I want.”
This, too, is news to me. I always assumed that to be a competitive athlete you had to keep track of your nutrition. “I don’t track it, I don’t want to have any numbers anywhere,” Sassi says. “Except on the bar.”
We move on to our next exercise: sled pushes. Sassi and I pile weights onto a triangular-shaped sled to push from one side of the gym to the other. “Be careful of Lenny,” Sassi warns me. She’s talking about a very fluffy grey dog lying in a pile at the end of the sled run. “He won’t move for anything,” Sassi says. “Not even a 100 kilo sled.”
Sassi shows me how to push the sled, bracing my entire body and locking my shoulders in. I put all my weight against it and push it as fast as I can until I am a foot away from Lenny. Then I take the rope around my wrists and pull the sled backwards. By the end of that 30 second exercise I feel as exhausted as if I’d just run a mile. It’s insane – this kind of exercise is just so efficient.
“I like being strong because I can do so much with my body,” Sassi says. “In the beginning I wanted to be able to do a pull up so badly. And I worked for so long for it. Now, on a good day, I can do a pull up with 20 kilos strapped around my waist. It’s insane what you can do when you just work for it.”
Feeling strong is empowering for everybody – but even more so for women. Berlin Strength provides a space where strong women can train and support each other. “It was very nice to see you lift today,” Sassi says as I catch my breath after a sled push. “You just enjoyed it. I think women are often surprised by how strong they are and how strong they can be.” Sassi tells me how this translates to other aspects of life. “If you can lift a 100 kilo trap bar just think of what else you’re capable of.”
Berlin Strength’s ethos is simple – it’s about equality for all. For women, men, LGBTQ+ from all races and backgrounds. “You can see when you’re in the gym what our mission is and what we believe in for people and that also extends to the treatment of animals. This is our perception of the world.”
As Sassi and I put away the heavy weights we’ve used today I feel totally inspired. The environment Sassi and her colleagues have built here has created more than just a gym. It’s a safe space for anyone from any background to train and become the best version of themselves. All you need to do is work for it.
If you’d like to train at Berlin Strength take a look at their website for more details.
And Urban Sports Club has tons of functional fitness partners across Europe. Take a look at our site to see what’s on in your area.