by Carol Radin
Photos by Maureen Tricase/Capture Your Moments
Rheta West still remembers the day a man said to her, “Women don’t dead lift!”
She was in her 30s, working out at a gym at the Carrier Corporation, where she was a software programmer. He was telling her that women could never lift hundreds of pounds of loaded barbell from a dead stop on the floor to a fully-erect body position. That didn’t bother Rheta, though. She was going to lift a heavier and heavier barbell off the floor no matter what. Eventually she earned the man’s respect, and he put her in contact with some serious bench lifters who taught her even more.
Not only did Rheta get stronger — she got world-class strong. She has since attained nine all-time world records for any female in her weight class. To this day, Rheta still holds two records in the 148 lb. weight class — one for a 675 lb. squat, and one for an “equipped total record of 1,570 lbs.,” where she squatted 665, benched 395, and deadlifted 510.
Rheta now owns Blood Iron Barbell, a Syracuse gym for weightlifters and bodybuilders. She calls it an “old school power gym,” where the cement floor and the unmatched equipment tell you appearances don’t matter, but respect and self-esteem do. The “Blood” in the name stands for family, which is how she runs her business. Her logo of interlocking loops is meant to convey the message: “Paths change and cross, but you’re never alone.” Without those values, Rheta knows she and other lifters could not endure the mental and physical rigors of getting stronger.
After 13 years of co-owning a Hercules gym in Syracuse, Rheta started Blood Iron Barbell in June 2019. She liked the building on Burnet Avenue as soon as she saw it, although it was unquestionably raw material. After extensive repairs, she moved in with one bench, one bar, and one monolift squat rack, all that remained from her Hercules partnership. Austerity didn’t deter her though. Skilled in website development and social media, she put up her webpage, advertised at competition meets and set up tables at bodybuilding shows. She provides space for 315 Strong, a CNY competition team, and some of her clients followed her from Hercules as well.
Six months in, Rheta now has a gym with roomfuls of bars, benches, barbells, competition platforms, power racks and more, with equipment for her non-power lifting members as well. She contracts two personal trainers and a chiropractor on site, and also offers on-line training programs, where people can enter their goals online and get a program tailored to their needs.
Though Rheta has trained for world records, she had never trained as a businesswoman. Aside from her experience with the Hercules gym, she was on her own with Blood Iron Barbell.
“It doesn’t operate under the same business model as a regular gym,” she said. “Some of it was intuitive.”
She’s let her creative side take over, fostering community spirit with t-shirts and hoodies she presses under her own brand, “Jakked Life.” She also sponsors meets, where people from all over the state gather to compete and inspire each other. On Feb. 8, she will host a co-ed team “Strongman” competition, and on March 28, the “Iron Asylum Powerlifting Meet” for invitation-only “big numbers lifters.”
Champion lifter that she is, though, Rheta will be the first to say that not everyone has to compete or achieve a record. She trains women and men of all ages with a range of goals. Some women, she says, will tell her, “I don’t want to be bulky, but I want to be strong.” After a consultation with each new member, Rheta will say, “’Show me what you can do.’ Then I take people from where they are and start tweaking depending on what they want to be.”
For women in particular, Rheta sometimes has to quell fears about how far they really can take their bodies.
“One biggest thing I work on with women is ‘owning up to the weight you’re gonna do’ and having the confidence to do it,” she said. As training kicks in, she notices, “Women start feeling more confident about other parts of their lives.”
As a world record holder, a business owner, a mother of two and now a grandmother, Rheta knows that transformation firsthand. Growing up in a military family frequently on the move, Rheta had a tough time in high school, admitting she’d gotten into trouble a few times. At a facility for youth offenders northwest of Albany, she started lifting weights to get stronger and defend herself. It started to change her.
“I started feeling empowered and liked myself more,” she recalled.
She became more accomplished professionally, too, completing a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science from SUNY IT-Utica, and working in Carrier’s software department for 13 years. In her early 20s, Rheta pursued powerlifting more seriously to get stronger for the cardio-kick-boxing she was doing at the time. Later she would also devote more time to bodybuilding, which differs from lifting in that it sculpts the body rather than building strength.
Those long hours of intense training and coast-to-coast lifting records take heart, sheer heart and will. Yet when asked what motivates her, Rheta says simply, “I just like to be strong. Not the strongest. But as strong as I can be.” Now she has made Blood Iron Barbell the place where others can be that, too.
Blood Iron Barbell is located at 900 Burnet Ave., Syracuse, NY. The website is bloodironbarbell.com or contact Rheta at 315-440-9627 or firstname.lastname@example.org.