The Ultimate Transformation: Meet the Trans Men Who Are Redefining Their Lives Through Fitness

The Ultimate Transformation: Meet the Trans Men Who Are Redefining Their Lives Through Fitness
 

“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. 

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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.

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“IT ALL BEGAN WITH A BATHROOM.”

In early 2012, a 31-year-old named Drew Smith quietly wandered into City Gym, located in Kansas City’s hip Waldo neighborhood. He’d heard about the space from some friends, and he warily eyed its white walls and neon-green rafters with his hands in his pockets.

Like all transgender people, Smith had suffered from gender dysphoria for much of his life, an acute and often harrowing psychological condition in which your biological sex and your “gender identity” are completely at odds (unlike the vast majority of people, who are known as “cisgender,” the opposite of transgender). He spent 16 years, starting in second grade, feeling like his body, as he describes it, “was a house, but never a home.” It felt impersonal. He adapted as best he could, keeping his brunette hair in a short bowl cut starting in elementary school, but he would always panic and burst into tears when his parents put dresses on him.

“When I was 10, I had to wear one to my brother’s wedding,” he says. “It seems trivial, but it was so traumatic. I remember trying to feign an injury to get out of it, like rolling out of bed in hopes that my arm would break.” When he exercised, he would take pains to hide his sports bra straps under more masculine clothing. Smith first heard the word transgender when he was a 25-year-old lesbian, dating his eventual wife, Cecilia, and working in IT in Kansas City. His only regret was that he wished he’d known sooner. When he looks in the mirror today, Smith says he sees someone he recognizes for the first time. “Every time I walk around, answer my door, or let my dogs out with my shirt off, I’m awash with relief. People need to understand that becoming a transgender person is not a choice. There is no choice. I’m finally at home in my body.”

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But back in 2012, Smith wasn’t so comfortable. Bland-Walsh approached him and led him around the sleek workout facility—past the cardio machines and spin classes filled with young Kansas City urbanites—and the two started talking. “He told me, ‘I’ve reached a point in my transition where I don’t feel comfortable in the locker room space anymore,’” says Bland-Walsh, who points out that there’s no bigger daily source of potential terror and shame for transgender people than a public restroom.

“In any building I visit, I immediately know which men’s rooms are occupied, and how many people come in and out of them,” says Tien. “It’s a habit I’ll never shake.” It’s a habit born out of fear of embarrassment—sometimes even violence. This fall, one Chicago school district banned transgender people from locker rooms, and, in Houston, a proposal to allow trans people to use public bathrooms “of their choice” met rabid opposition. (“Vote ‘No’ on Proposition 1,” says former Houston Astro Lance Berkman in a TV ad, denouncing the initiative. “No men in women’s bathrooms. No boys in girls’ showers!”) And last spring, in fact, a woman in Midland, MI, sued Planet Fitness when it canceled her membership because, it said, she’d violated its “no judgment” policy when she encountered a transgender woman in the women’s locker room and flipped out, alerting the entire gym.

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But City Gym isn’t Planet Fitness—or any other traditional gym, for that matter—and Smith had heard that this new facility, founded by Bland-Walsh a year earlier, was equipped with four private shower suites instead of locker rooms.

As Smith and Bland-Walsh hit it off, Smith told her about the Union, “A Midwest Transguy Coterie” he’d recently founded and is now 124 members strong. Its goal was to be a support group to area trans men and their significant others and to educate them about all sorts of things they never learned growing up as girls—for instance, how to taste whiskey properly (smelling the pour with your mouth open) or how to tie a half-Windsor. Smith was looking for a fitness component to the program, too. Coincidentally, Bland-Walsh was already doing 90-day boot camps. Three months of high-intensity exercise, she believed, would be the perfect jump- start for creating a masculine foundation and teaching these men the elementary rules of building a strong, balanced body.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we just use that framework and make it specific for what’s going on with these guys?’ ” says Bland-Walsh. Soon the word spread among the area’s trans community, and this winter, the group, officially called “Momentum,” will be three years old.

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TESTOSTERONE: “THE FIRST SHOT’S LIKE CHRISTMAS.”

For Smith, Van Vleck, Tien, and thousands of other trans men elsewhere working diligently to rid their bodies of their last vestiges of womanhood—to erase the remaining pouches of fat around the belly button, under their armpits, and in their chest (where extra blubber gathers near the sutures of their double- mastectomy, also called “top surgery”), while at the same time building up shoulders, traps, and pecs—they need hormone replacement therapy (HRT). And that means lots of testosterone.

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Briefly, here’s how it works: The average male range of testosterone, the body’s natural anabolic steroid, is 300 to 1,000 ng/dl (nanograms per deciliter), while female levels are closer to 30 to 200 ng/dl. From the moment trans men begin their weekly or biweekly testosterone injections, the hormone makes quick work: In less than three weeks the libido increases and fat redistributes, the breasts shrink, and subcutaneous fat around the thighs and hips slip away and settle around the midtorso, reshaping the female form. Menstruation stops after about two months. In the first six to 14 months, facial and body hair sprout, then week by week, muscle mass and strength increase. There’s a boost to red blood cells, too, which means more oxygen to the muscles, increasing energy production, workout intensity, and stamina. By now, he’s a man, at least hormonally—but he’ll need those weekly injections for the rest of his life to remain that way. (Otherwise, if they haven’t had a hysterectomy—surgery to remove the uterus, ovaries, cervix, and surrounding structures—most things will revert back, except the deeper voice, elongated clitoris, patchy beard, and receding hairline.)

If all of this sounds bizarrely simple—“just add testosterone and you become a man”—it’s because, physiologically speaking, that’s entirely accurate. According to Joshua Safer, M.D., associate professor of medicine and molecular medicine at Boston University School of Medicine and endocrinologist at Boston Medical Center, testosterone is the only big hormonal difference in men and women, far bigger than estrogen, and it has greater immediate influence on your physical appearance than even your chromosomes. “But once his testosterone is raised, the degree of change in his body is influenced by how old he is and when he gets testosterone,” says Safer.

The treatment can be challenging, and there are few informational and support systems in place to help the transgender man adapt to the hormonal changes, which includes acne, voice fluctuations, and sometimes hot flashes and mood swings, which Ali S., Blake’s wife, describes as “going through menopause and puberty at the same time.” The best resource for a trans man’s pressing medical concerns is often YouTube, where other transgender people offer guidance. The Momentum guys say finding a doctor who is knowledgeable about trans medicine is near impossible. “It’s true that we lack data in nearly every aspect of cross-sex hormone care,” says Safer. “But we’re dealing with medications that have been used for years for other purposes with quite good safety profiles and known pitfalls to avoid. However, considering the long-term requirements, I would like to know which approaches are the safest. Over many years, even small differences may add up to a significant difference in health in the population.”

Bland-Walsh is more matter-of-fact when describing the current era of transgender medical attention. “It’s a little like Dallas Buyers Club,” she says. “A lot of doctors don’t even like the people they’re helping. The problem is, the trans community will do whatever a professional tells them. Instead of the guys feeling empowered—and having a conversation with their doctor if they’re not happy with the way they’re transitioning—the doctors will say, ‘You look like a man, what else do you want?’”

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The new trans man is also getting the good and the bad of being a guy: a male body and male muscle mass also mean a male risk of heart disease and stroke, because the protective subcutaneous fat of women is gone. His hair will recede. He’ll also take on characteris- tics that, as a female, he may have previously found annoying in the other sex—such as finding himself facing sudden, testosterone-laden urges to size up other men and even perhaps pick a fight. “A majority of our group has expressed a newfound desire to speak their minds, be more confrontational with hostile interactions, and to compete on a more physical level with those around them,” says Smith, who adds that this is all normal guy behavior. And then there’s the smell. Body odor, feet, sweat—an overwhelming dingy, locker room stench—that takes everyone by surprise. “Yeah, it was bad,” says Cecilia, Smith’s wife, laughing.

But any drawbacks are worth the feeling of testosterone charging through your veins, say the Momentum guys. “I began ripping the handles off of my closet door,” says Levi Rollins, a 36-year-old employee at City Gym. “I kept breaking things. My body felt stronger overnight after that first shot of testosterone. I felt like a superhero.”

In the end, the treatments affected all the men differently. While Rollins’ voice plummeted immediately after the first injection, and he quickly sprouted a full beard, Tien lost a lot of weight, and—because he wasn’t working out at the time—he ended up gaining it back, chiefly in his gut and face. Van Vleck, who previously looked like his mom, says he now looks exactly like his dad. Nothnagel says his sex drive exploded. “Pre-T, I was attracted to women, but more for their personality than their looks,” he says. “After T, I found myself noticing women in a different, more ‘masculine’ way.”

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One pleasant side effect for all of them, however, was a boost in confidence. “Before transitioning, I would hold myself back from meeting new people,” Nothnagel says. “They’d wonder, ‘Is that a boy—or a butch lesbian?’ I would get more stares than handshakes and hellos. After transitioning, I’ve never been so happy with myself, because this is who I am.”

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“BULKING UP AND GETTING RIPPED.”

When Bland-Walsh conceived her Momentum workout, she opted to have her clients take their sets to only momentary muscular failure—that is, do as many reps as they can with good form and stop the set. Because, while the testosterone gives the men muscle mass, it’s forever attached to a female’s smaller bone structure, wider hips, and more flexible tendons and ligaments—which means they have a stronger risk of injury when exercising. So it’s safer to work within your limits. That’s important for the Momentum guys because they tend to get excited after their first treatments and want to overdo it. “They read bodybuilding.com and hear tons of different info,” says Bland-Walsh. “They all want to reduce body fat and gain muscle mass.”

Each program is full-body and involves at least five exercises that are performed with a high level of effort. She uses female standards for body assessments for the men before they begin transition. Once the physical manifestations of testosterone begin to show, then Bland-Walsh switches them to the male standards. From there, she works the men the same way she works her women. “When you want women to join a class lengthen.’ When you want men to join your class you say, ‘Tone and you say, ‘Bulk up and get ripped,’ ” she says. “But it’s the exact same thing: Women tone and men get ripped because women don’t have testosterone and men do.”

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The big five movements she relies on are seated leg presses, seated chest presses, lat pulldowns, seated rows, and overhead presses. Most of the workouts are tailored to the results she sees: the size, speed, and strength they are developing. “The results vary, depending on where the guys are in their treatments.”

Their lives will be completely changed, says Smith. “These are now their bodies, and they’re just here to work them out,” he says. “Hailee’s gym is one big home amid a hundred houses.”