Kiara Forman of Catonsville and Carey Taylor of Fells Point are training for the 2017 Weightlifting Championships in Chicago in May. (Baltimore Sun video)
Kiara Forman reaches down, grabs the barbell and looks intently in front of her as she mentally prepares for what is about to come.
The 26-year-old pokes her lip out, lets out a barely audible grunt and heaves 71 kilograms (more than 156 pounds) over her head. She lifts a little too quickly, loses her balance and stumbles forward a bit.
"Control that speed," advises her coach, Jason Morstein, watching from across the room. "A little slower on the lift."
Forman tries again and performs a near-perfect snatch — a weightlifting move where the barbell is lifted from the ground to above a person's head in one continuous motion.
"That was deep," Forman quips, sitting down for a breather.
Forman is one of two female weightlifters at the Baltimore Area Strength Athletes Gym in Rosedale who recently qualified to compete at the 2017 Weightlifting National Championships in Chicago in May. They're also among thousands of women who've flocked to the sport over the past decade and contributed to its rapid growth.
In Maryland and Washington, D.C., female members of USA Weightlifting, the governing body for the sport, grew from just four in 2007 to 383 as of Jan. 1. Nationally, the number of women members increased tenfold over the same period.
Morstein, who opened his gym in August, said that about half of the lifters there are women.
Forman and fellow lifter Carey Taylor are training at least five days a week for the May championships. In the competition, the athletes are judged on two lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. The clean and jerk is a two-movement exercise where weight is lifted to shoulder level and then raised above the head in a powerful jerking movement.
In addition to the tournament in May, USA Weightlifting selects top contenders to participate in other major international events, including the Olympic Games and Pan American Games. Women are increasingly among the participants.
California native Sarah Elizabeth Robles won the bronze in women's weightlifting at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She took up the sport in college while on the track and field team as part of her shot put training.
"They're introduced to it and they get hooked," said Kevin Farley, director of membership for USA Weightlifting.
Gone are the days when weightlifting was thought of as man's sport and women worried about losing their feminine figures to and being left with bulky masculine bodies. Today's female weightlifters embrace their muscles and strength. They like the challenge and euphoria that come with reaching a new weight level and competing with others to be the strongest.
"It's challenging and hard," Forman said. "I need hard things in my life."
There are other benefits to weightlifting, fitness experts say. It strengthens bones, reducing a woman's chance of developing osteoporosis, and burns calories long after a workout is done. People who lift weights also tend to sleep better and have better posture.
Many athletes have been introduced to weightlifting as a way to improve their performance in other sports, such as gymnastics or track and field, according to USA Weightlifting.The sport has also grown in part because of the popularity of CrossFit, which helped make lifting more mainstream.
Forman started CrossFit training while studying engineering at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. CrossFit consists of high-intensity workouts that change frequently. One day the class might do "suicide" sprints and the next squats with heavy weights. Forman said she always best liked the workouts that involved weights and using her strength.
Weightlifting proved a natural transition. She liked that it was goal-oriented, and it was challenging as she strove to lift heavier weights as she improved each week.
Her gym-mate Taylor also likes the challenge. The 29-year-old who works in finance played soccer and other sports in high school, but stopped when she went to the College of Charleston.
Trying to get back in shape after graduating, Taylor bought a Groupon for CrossFit. She loved the varied workouts and how people in the class motivated each other. But weightlifting was a more natural fit because Taylor, like Forman, liked the strength exercises the most.
"I have always been a strong girl, and weightlifting allows me to work on that," she said.
The women say they're unconcerned about preconceptions people may have about women who lift.
"I wear dresses," Taylor said.
Training for competition involves practicing a technique by breaking it down into its component parts. During a recent session, Forman worked on block snatches. Instead of starting with the barbell on the floor, it was raised off the ground on blocks. This allowed her to focus on building power in her legs.
Lifters also work on grabbing the bar correctly and having good movement from the ground to get the full lift. They might do different exercises to develop the muscles in the best way.
And they never lift the most weight they can during training.
"Training is a long process," Farley said. "The focus is on technique. And you don't want to max out every time because you'll blow yourself out. The only time you want to max out is on competition day."
Morstein, Forman and Taylor's coach, said he designs the workouts so the women build up strength, endurance and technique to have their best performance when they compete.
"My goal as a coach is to get them to their peak on competition day," he said.
Farley said that women are often surprised at how strong they can become. Some of the strongest women he has seen can lift the equivalent of a marble pool table.
"There are tough women," he said. "They don't care what people think about them."