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Gaining More Than Muscle: Penn State Girl Gains Promoting Healthy Lifestyles & Lifelong Friendships

It’s all about the journey. Two seniors, with separate weightlifting and fitness journeys, banded together to create a space for girls to grow in the gym and in their self-image.

Lily McHugh, a telecommunications major, and April Farrell, a criminology major, met on their freshmen year dorm floor in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. With limited gym access, both students were seeking a way to stay happy and healthy during a peak life transition.

McHugh had been involved in athletics throughout high school, but it never gave her real meaning or purpose.

“I hated working out when I was younger,” McHugh said. “There wasn’t one bone in my body four years ago that wanted to go to the gym.

With some help from her sister, a personal trainer, she began her lifting journey and fell in love with it. The discipline of signing up and reserving IM Building time slots played a key factor in her motivation. Her first weightlifting goal was to gain healthy weight back and begin a journey of self-love for herself and her body.

“I’m in the process,” McHugh reminded herself. “This is my journey, it’s going to take a little time, but how I look right now, I have to appreciate that. That’s just who I am.”

Farrell’s journey to weightlifting began at a younger age. She trained with her soccer trainer, whose goal was to build more muscle mass onto her. When she got to college and was forced to reserve spaces in the gym, she fell into an unhealthy space.

“I dealt with a lot of problems as a kid just being really restricted with sugar and a lot of very bad foods,” Farrell said. “My mom’s sister and her mother died from diabetes, and that forced her to view sugar as the enemy. It was all out of love, what she was doing, and she’s an amazing mother, but what she did absolutely destroyed me as a kid. I didn’t realize growing up, and to this point, how much it caught up to me and really messed me up, which was a lot to handle.”

With limited gym time, a surplus of freedom, and fewer food options, Farrell gained about 40 pounds before she realized wanted to make a change for herself.

“I’ll never forget the day that I actually started my entire journey, but I did kind of look at myself one day and just said, ‘I don’t want to be like this anymore,'” Farrell said.

Farrell took to attacking her weight gain in practices she doesn’t recommend to anyone. She developed an eating disorder in which she was only eating about once a day.

“I was drinking a Celsius and taking pre-workouts for a combined 400mg of caffeine inside of me, no food in my stomach, and I was working out feeling like I was going to pass out,” Farrell said.

After seeking out help unsuccessfully the following summer, Farrell decided to take it upon herself to change her outlook on food and the gym. She realized she was the only one who could break her own pattern and make a lasting change.

Farrell started using reverse deficit tactics to work back up to a healthy weight. By her sophomore year, she returned to a healthy place with eating and was feeling good about herself. Once she had that under control, she decided to get back into the gym and baseline lifting programs.

“Lily and I started working out together in the middle of sophomore year, and since then, we’ve spent every year since then working out together,” Farrell said. “She’s been a huge part of my life and mental state. I don’t think I would be as successful as I was on this journey without her.”

In her junior year, Farrell fell back into another restricting pattern and worked relentlessly over the summer to deconstruct her habits.

“It really did affect me, and it could have been so different. I could have experienced things in such better ways, and it still irks me now,” Farrell said. “So when these thoughts come into my head and that fighting back and forth, I kind of just try to put it to the side now and be like, enjoy your life because you’re doing what you love in the gym, but you’re also doing what you love out in the world, and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”

The two always talked about how cool it would be to start a lifting club for other girls who shared similar journeys. It wasn’t until the world of TikTok connected them with like-minded people that the idea became a reality.

One day, while she was scrolling, McHugh saw a TikTok of a student from San Diego State University who posted that she had started a girls’ lifting club called Girl Gains. The founder, Elisabeth Bradley, voiced that if any girls across the country were interested in starting their own chapter, they should reach out to her.

Multiple girls from Penn State reached out to the founder, including McHugh, and the founder set them all up and encouraged them to start the Penn State chapter together. In early 2022, they began the challenging process of making the club official at Penn State.

While it wasn’t easy, the girls leaned on each other and the people around them to keep dreaming of the possibilities a club like this could hold for them and the Penn State community.

“We definitely got discouraged through the process, and it took each other to bounce off and think positively that it was going to work out,” McHugh said.

Anna Champion from the IM Building helped the club secure some of the signatures it needed to begin hosting events. To get started, the girls leaned our their roommates and friends in CHAARG, another fitness club at University Park, to attend events. Slowly but surely, the club continued to gain members and girls from all aspects of life.

“Starting from absolutely zero people to now the GroupMe having over 300 active members is absurd,” Farrell said.

The group hosts meetings covering mental and physical topics, lifting sessions and tips, and discussion panels with guest speakers. Even just spotting another member in the gym is part of the community building that McHugh and Farrell were hoping to create.

“I truly want to give a lot of credit to April,” McHugh said. “Over the past two semesters, she has truly dedicated her time and energy into presentations and all of our events. She is 100% amazing for that and for all she has put into this group.”

The two co-presidents are also now supported by a full executive board. What started out as filling board positions with friends to get the club started, has now received overwhelming support from the other members of the club who want to hold positions.

McHugh emphasized her goal is to get females to enter the gym not caring what the people around them think and to empower themselves while they’re there.

“You’re your own person,” McHugh said. “Who cares what they’re thinking? You know who you are, and you know how to stand by that and stand on your own feet. We need to just empower ourselves and say, ‘I am who I am. I’m here for my own self. I don’t really care what you guys think. My journey is my journey.'”

For Farrell, sharing her story and helping other girls who went through similar things as her was a huge driving factor.

“I did an eating disorder presentation this year and really opened up about my whole story in hopes of having just one person take something from it,” Farrell said. “Two girls ended up coming up at the end and shared their own stories, which was all I ever wanted. Creating this level of comfortability where females feel empowered to open up and share their journeys was huge.”

Not only have they made a profound impact on girls at Penn State, the club has also been influential in connecting girls with girls.

“There’s no one I could talk higher about than Lily,” Farrell said. “Having her in my life has genuinely made me a better person, and the positivity that she brings is crazy. And it’s a friendship that I can’t explain to anyone else. She’s my best friend. We’ve been through everything together, and it’s awesome.”

The group is in the process of starting in-person sessions ahead of the spring semester, featuring workout plans, correct technique, and connecting with other gym facilities in State College.

Farrell earned her personal training certification last summer which has been a huge asset to her personal brand and the knowledge she has brought to the club. McHugh is hoping to obtain her National Academy of Sports Medicine certificate in January, and from there, the two plan to incorporate lifting and training into their professional careers.

“Having this group of girls took over that meaning and purpose I was missing,” Farrel said. “Now leaving here, it’s going to be so much more than what it was.”

The group is open to anyone searching for a strong sense of community in the gym and a healthy lifestyle, whether it’s their first day or 600th.

“We are so thankful for absolutely anyone that shows up,” McHugh said. “I am always taken aback by how many people are there to hear us speak and hear what we have to say.”

You can learn more about the movement on Girl Gains’ Instagram, which also includes the GroupMe for interested individuals.

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About the Author

Ally Eaton

Ally is a first-year Public Relations major from York, PA and is one of Onward State's social media editors. She is an avid lover of all things sports, the beach, and coffee! Find her on Twitter (@ally.eaton31) or in her inbox ([email protected])!

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