Donna O'Shea remembers being a novelty in her gym in the late 1970s - because she wasn't just working out with other women in the aerobics craze led and fed by Jane Fonda. She was lifting weights along with the guys.

Her gym was at what was then called the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, where O'Shea was studying to become a physical therapist. She lives in Linwood now, and she's also a personal trainer at Greate Bay Fitness in Somers Point and a mother of three teenagers.

She still lifts too, but not because she competes or wants to get her picture into a body-building magazine. She just wants to be strong.

"You see results, and that gets you hooked," says O'Shea, 53, who also has training clients in their 50s and 60s who lift - even though some had thought for a lot of their lives that weightlifting was for guys, not for them.

When women get strong, she adds, "You're not the one asking people for help - they're asking you."

O'Shea and other women who work out with weights are hardly alone in their favorite gyms anymore. There's absolutely nothing unusual about seeing females using the weight machines, or lifting free weights or dumbbells - and there hasn't been for years now.

But O'Shea also isn't the only woman around who remembers a time when her weight workouts were seen as something weird - or at least a curiosity.

Carol Savio, of Margate, was competing in power-lifting in the early 1990s - after much of a lifetime of learning to lift safely from her dad, Andy McElroy Sr., now into his 80s but still lifting at their hometown Jewish Community Center gym.

Savio, 57, remembers going to a since-closed gym in Pleasantville when it "was like an all-male gym, and I was the first (woman) to break in there," she says, relaxing recently after her regular boot-camp group exercise at JCC - the gym where she actually started lifting long before she got into competing.

Sure, she understood she was in a very small minority in those days.

"But I never let it bother me - I guess because I had my dad and my brothers in there, too," Savio says. And the other guys in the gym "were like, 'This is pretty cool' - especially when they saw I wasn't in there to mess around. I wasn't there to flirt or anything."

She still lifts, but not competitively anymore. She works out on her own, and she takes other group classes that include weights as part of the equipment, including one called Pumpin' Iron. She's also happy to see she's not an unusual case anymore.

"I just see more women 40 years old and up who work out harder than the 20-year-olds," she says.

But even if it has become far more common to see women lifting weights, some trainers still meet women who are afraid to start. They're reluctant because they remember old warnings that weight training will get them too bulked-up, too muscular - will make them look like they belong in a body-building magazine.

"A girl just asked me about that today," says Lisa Bee, of Egg Harbor Township, a trainer at Greate Bay and the JCC. "I was talking about diet and lifting and training, and she said, 'I'm afraid to lift heavy - I'll get too big.' I said, 'No you won't.' That's like women who say, 'I'm not going to spin (indoor cycling) because my butt will get big.' But you need that muscle mass, not just the cardio."

Bee knows a whole lot more women have gotten that message in recent years - but she also believes more need it.

"I think it's getting better, I think girls are getting more comfortable in the gym setting, mixed with boys," she said. "It's an evolution. ... But it's not necessarily always a comfortable situation to be in."

But Jennifer Sinderbrand, of Margate, also learned to lift with the encouragement of her now-late father, John Montgomery. She says she didn't worry about what anybody else thought when she and a friend were about the only women she saw lifting in her gym.

"I figured it was a good workout, and I knew my dad wouldn't steer me wrong," says Sinderbrand, 44. "So I didn't pay attention to whether there were other women in there or not."

With all that said, though, she did notice the looks she got from other people working out when she was seven months pregnant with her daughter, Sarah, whose 10th birthday is in May. And she kept lifting that long again a couple of years later, as she carried twins, Jacob and Daniel, who are almost 8.

"I think everyone looked at me odd," Sinderbrand said. "But from what I read, what I was doing I should keep doing. It felt great to be able to do something for myself, and I felt like the babies were quiet or sleeping while I was exercising."

O'Shea, who splits her work weeks between her personal training and Eastern Shore Physical Therapy in Linwood, knows she also had a head start on other women her age. Both her parents were good athletes, and when she was growing up outside Philadelphia and playing field hockey, family time included tennis games and more exercise. Then when she was in physical-therapy school, she became friends with a guy whose family owned a gym.

Most women she knew who exercised "were all doing group aerobics classes," says O'Shea, who actually went with her mom to a workout session in Philadelphia led by Jane Fonda - in person.

"But I just gravitated toward the weight room," she says. "My friend from school taught me ... and from him, I really got it - I got how good it felt to do it right."

Now she and her husband, Brian - a scholarship swimmer at Penn State - have also encouraged exercise with their three kids - Colin, 19, Riley, 17, and Molly, 14 - "all multi-sports athletes. ... It was never anything forced upon them, they were just very active from a very early age. ... We like to move," O'Shea says.

She plans to keep moving, too - and she's happy she helped get her kids off to a good start on moving well through their world.

"In my age group, you need to continue weight training to fight off osteoporosis ... and loss of muscle mass," O'Shea says. "And it's easier if you start young, because it stays with you then."

She's also happy to spread that message to other women - including those who never expected to be pushing heavy weights around.

"I'd say the majority were not used to lifting weights properly, lifting to get strong," she said, adding she encourages her clients to be "strong in whatever you're working toward. ... That's the benefit - being strong. And you take the better body with it."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:

609-272-7237

Getting started on getting strong

Tips on gaining strength from a veteran weightlifter - who's also a physical therapist and personal trainer:

Start with a pre-workout cardio warmup -

5 to 15 minutes to warm muscles, increase core temperature and prevent injury. Jump rope or use a treadmill, for example.

Vary your workout. Prevent boredom and muscle adaptation, and this will help you make strength gains. Using multi-joint movements to train will increase the intensity and efficiency of your workout.

You must overload your muscles to have them grow back bigger and stronger. One set of 8 to 12 reps should be performed to fatigue.

Prevent muscle imbalances by training opposing muscle groups. Examples are bench press and rows; bicep curls and tricep press.

You should be sore after workouts but you should never be in pain. To limit soreness and improve efficiency, don't skimp on dynamic and static stretching.