“FROM A BODYBUILDING STANDPOINT, IT’S LEGAL DOPING.”
It’s a late summer afternoon at City Gym, in Kansas City, MO, and seven guys are pushing their way through a circuit routine so intense you can almost hear the lactic acid gumming up their muscles. They’re taking turns doing single-arm rope slams, lat pulldowns, chinups, and sled runs. At one point, a 27-year-old named Jacob Nothnagel gives up on his overhead press and drapes himself over his knees, his limbs visibly shaking. Meanwhile, a strapping 27-year-old named Blake Van Vleck stares dead-eyed at a chinup bar, his hands at his sides, his soaked tank top listing starboard.
“Look at Chase’s face!” says Hailee Bland-Walsh, the gym’s owner—an indefatigable 35-year-old taskmaster with a blonde bob and flashy Nike ambassador credentials—pointing at Chase Tien, a sturdy 26-year-old wincing as he struggles against the seated chest press machine. When everyone laughs, it’s clear that, despite the palpable agony, these guys are actually having a lot of fun. That’s because never before in their lives had they been able to push their bodies so hard.
Because, until recently, every one of them had been a woman.
Just five years ago, none of them could hoist 200 pounds in an angled leg press, much less 660 pounds. As females, they had a tenth the testosterone. They were constitutionally weaker, with less muscle mass and completely different physiques. Not that you can tell now, though. “Adding testosterone to a woman’s body is really powerful from a fitness perspective,” Bland-Walsh says later, with a mischievous grin. “From a bodybuilding standpoint, it’s legal doping.”
Today, testosterone’s deft hand—along with Bland-Walsh’s rigorous high-intensity routine—has whittled away the men’s formerly round figures, hardening the angles of their faces, lowering their voices, and giving many of them a bounty of manly hair. “Is this the first time you’ve watched him work out?” one guy’s wife—previously his girlfriend (many transgender guys initially identify as lesbians)—asks another as they lean casually against a nearby wall.
“Yep. This is honestly all he talks about. I’m always hearing, ‘I’m not seeing the gains I want.’”
Everyone breaks out in laughter.
When the session ends, the evidence of hard work lingers—a pungent, masculine musk fills the air, and sweat soaks the benches. For most of these guys, it’s clear that hitting the gym—and hitting it hard, for that matter—is still something of a novelty. Each late rep is accompanied with a sort of I-can’t- believe-I’m-doing-this smile, each high-five as animated as you’d see in the NBA playoffs. Because, for these guys to achieve the bodies of their dreams, they don’t just need drugs or surgery or years of therapy—though those are all essential. To go from female to male, joining the estimated 700,000 transgender people in America, these guys also need the gym.
And, as we discovered, City Gym is no normal gym—and what these guys go through to bulk up is anything but easy.