Most people don’t know how strong she is.
When you meet her, the first thing you notice is her big laugh and bubbly personality. The second thing you notice is her murderous handshake. But by the time your hand’s caught in her death-grip, it’s already too late.
Because while the 29-year-old Bonica Brown is a loud, sweet, open-hearted goofball who likes to post about her cats on Instagram, she is also one of the strongest women in the world, and she works out at Bob’s Fitness Center in Bellevue, three to four days a week.
The Michigan native (who’s lived in Omaha for more than a decade) holds a dozen U.S. records and seven world records (through the International Powerlifting Federation). In fact, Brown broke four world records just this month at the IPF Classic World Championships in Calgary, Canada: raw squat, bench press, deadlift and total. (Raw means lifting without the aid of equipment.)
Here's Bonica breaking the world record for raw squat.
Brown was also the first woman in IPF history to squat 600 pounds without equipment.
At last year’s IPF World Games in Poland — an event recognized by the International Olympic Committee — Brown took the top spot for squat and broke the equipped powerlifting world record for the total weight lifted by a woman: More than 1,680 pounds between her squat, bench and deadlift combined.
Brown also won best lifter in her weight category at the World Games, an honor determined by Wilks points, which measure the strength of powerlifters by factoring in the athlete’s weight and how much they lifted.
At 5-foot-4 and 295 pounds, Brown is a super-heavyweight lifter. And an “all-natty” lifter — the IPF has strong anti-doping policies and tests its lifters regularly, following the World Anti-Doping Agency’s procedure. Brown said she’s been tested more than 40 times in her career, twice having to give blood.
Note: Many of Bonica Brown's records are held by Bonica Lough, her name from a previous marriage. But she now goes by Brown.
Brown travels the world competing in (and usually winning) powerlifting meets. Though she gets some money from sponsorship, her training and travel mostly come out of her own finances. (She asked that we don’t reveal her job.)
As her world records accrue, so too does her debt.
“It’s my version of a holiday,” she said. “Instead of blood-family time, it’s my powerlifting family that I look forward to seeing and being around.”
It’s hard for her to believe she’s made it to this point. Especially since she’s only been lifting again for a few years.
She first started when she was in high school but took a few years off shortly after she moved to Omaha in 2007 (the reasons: “school, work, life, marriage, multiple jobs”). She resumed lifting in 2013.
To put it mildly, the woman came back with a vengeance.
“And I’m not stopping again,” she said. “I will never stop lifting again. This is something you can do your whole life.
“Who doesn’t want to be strong? Who doesn’t want to kick ass? Who doesn’t want to prove that they’ve got muscle?”
If you want to be strong, kick ass, prove your mettle, you have a lot you could learn from Brown. After a decade (interrupted) of powerlifting, she’s picked up a few things.
Bonica’s guide to powerlifting (or, you know, metaphorically, success in life in general)
1. When you get cut from the volleyball team and you have the options of cheerleading or competitive lifting, choose the latter. Living in Battle Creek, Michigan, Brown didn’t make the high school volleyball team. She was good. But small-town politics got in her way, she said.
She went home and cried to her mom. Her mom told her that she’d be fine. That Bonica had something special in her. They just had to find what that something was.
Was it basketball?
“No interest in basketball,” Brown said now. “Hell no. Going back and forth, back and forth, screw that.”
Her options were cheerleading or weightlifting. She went with the latter.
Nov. 25, 2002. First day in the weight room. No idea what she was doing.
December 2002. First powerlifting meet. She did quite well.
April 2003. First USA Powerlifting meet. She did really well.
Not quite a year after that, at the age of 15, she won her first national championship, the USAPL women’s nationals. The meet took place in, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska, years before she’d call the city home.
“That’s when people started learning,” Brown said. “That’s when I created a little mini-legacy. People know if Bonica’s around, she’s going to win.”
2. Choose the right workout music. Brown: “I’m mainly a rock and metal girl. But it just depends on my mood. I listen to a mixture of stuff. My first warm-up song is Taylor Swift, ‘Shake It Off.’ And Kesha, ‘C’mon.’ I even listen to some country before I deadlift.”
You don’t necessarily want to be angry when you lift. You want to be in the zone. And if Taylor Swift gets you there, Taylor Swift gets you there. (And if haters gonna hate ... shake it off.)
3. Find the right gym. Brown clearly has a certain natural ability at lifting ungodly amounts of weight. But she chalks her success up to self-motivation. She not only has the drive to succeed. She literally drives to succeed.
Brown goes to Bob’s Fitness Center in Bellevue — a 30-minute drive each way from her home near 192nd and West Dodge — because it’s the only gym that works for her, that helps her train to her utmost.
“Each gym has its own environment,” she said. “And I really love this gym.”
The vibe, the people, the weight plates that read in kilos.
Powerlifter Gabby Gard, 26, met her friend Brown at the gym, where the two have lifted together for years.
“For the most part, when you’re a regular at Bob’s,” Gard said, “you know who Bonica is and what she can do.”
4. Don’t leave pounds on the platform.
At powerlifting competitions, lifters get nine lifts total: three squats, three benches, three deadlifts. The best squat, best bench and best deadlift equals your total. Highest total wins.
(Powerlifting has different federations with different rules, but that’s the gist of it. Olympic weightlifting differs in that athletes compete in the snatch and clean and jerk movements, both of which bring the weight overhead.)
“There’s a fad,” Brown said, “of going nine for nine when you get all three lifts (for the three different events). But total is what wins in the day, not nine for nine.”
If you’re leaving pounds on the platform, she said, and if your third attempt looked like an opener, that’s not powerlifting.
“You have to calculate what your body can do. You want to push it. You want to grind it to the max. That’s the core of powerlifting.”
That’s why Brown is on the verge of squatting 700 pounds for the first time. She said she’s saving the 700 squat for the international platform, Halmstad, Sweden, this November.
The endgame (someday) is to squat 800 pounds.
“If you are truly maxing and truly doing the sport,” she said, “the next day it feels like you were in a car accident.”
5. Have patience Coming back to powerlifting after a five-year break was a slow, difficult process.
Brown: “It was ugly as hell. But your body does remember.”
You’ve just got to “increase the weight slowly. Every week. Every day. Every set. It will come back. Your body remembers. You need to have patience. Patience is the biggest word in powerlifting. I say it to everybody. You do not ever want to be hasty with the weight.”
6. Rest Brown: “I was lifting three days a week. People were like, ‘That’s it?’ I’m like, dude, you do not know how hard these workouts are. You need the rest.”
That’s the main thing people don’t understand about the sport, she said. You have to have the rest. Lifters who work out five or six days a week are going to burn out or get injured.
Brown: “People are like, ‘Why aren’t you seeing any gains?’
“I’m like, ‘Guys, you’re never letting your body recover.’ You’ve got to sleep, don’t you? Your body needs sleep, too.”
Brown gets plenty of sleep. She also gardens.
7. Learn what you don’t know, teach what you do. There will be times at Bob’s Fitness Center, Gard said, when Brown will put more weight on the bar than most men, strong men, can lift.
“And there will be guys who walk by,” Gard said. “They’ll ask, ‘Are you really going to squat that?’ They’ll stand there and they’ll watch her.”
After she’s made the squat, the guys, surprised, will give her a high-five.
Brown is willing to offer a few pointers to anyone who’s willing to listen. Not everyone is willing to listen.
“There’s a lot of bros,” Brown said. “They’re not going to listen. I’m a girl. I’m not going to go up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Bonica. I’m a 12-time national champion. I own this many records.’ They’re just going to see me. A big girl. A big chunky girl.”
But lifter Chad Griffin, 42 — whom Brown laughingly calls “my protégé” — he listens. He’s been powerlifting for about eight months, and, he said, Brown’s helped him get to where he is.
“She’s definitely one of the best mentors you could ask for,” he said. “She can be brash, but when you’re putting 600 pounds on your back, you kind of need to make sure everything is strict.”
Griffin isn’t afraid to take advice from a girl.
“Two-hundred and 50 pounds on my back is the same as 250 pounds on a woman’s back,” he said. “The weights don’t change because of your gender.”
8. Be a strong woman (maybe even the strongest woman) The last few years have seen a boom in female powerlifters. Vice reported that the number of women in the sport doubled between 2014 to 2016.
“It’s growing,” Brown said. “It makes me tickled pink that there’s now women-only powerlifting meets.”
Gard said that people outside the sport don’t really know how many women powerlift competitively.
“I still get weird side-eyes when I mention lifting,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, I squat over 300 pounds.’ They’re like, ‘Women don’t do that.’ ”
(In Ron Howard’s “Arrested Development” voice: “They do do that.”)
Brown: “I love how women aren’t scared to touch the bar. You’re not going to build freaky muscle by touching it. You’re still girly-lookin’. I’m still girly-lookin’. I trick people.”
Bonica stops, catches herself, lets out a big laugh.