WALNUT CREEK -- Often, after 23-year-old powerlifter Karianne Burns benches 135 pounds, deadlifts 265 and squats-to-stands bearing 305 pounds, men at Concord's Diablo Barbell gym compliment her achievements.
"Man, you look strong, but at least you still look feminine," they say, before offering advice: "Don't get too buff!"
Burns hasn't decided whether confronting or ignoring them is the best response -- she's still grappling with that whole issue herself.
"Every woman has to take on the superficial manipulation of society, the media, fashion," she says. "Every woman has to choose herself."
Growing up in Walnut Creek, Burns attended Foothill Middle School and Northgate High School, then studied classics at UC Davis. During long treks as an avid road cyclist, she thought about enrolling in law school or teaching Latin in a private high school.
But as the demands of the Touchstone Elite Women's cycling program she had joined increased, the messages from family and friends -- and society in general -- consumed more of her mental energy.
"The 'ideal weight' filled my thoughts," she confesses. "I started to calorie restrict. Even when my body started to send distress signals, my diet cycle became an obsession."
Burns took a step back and got off the bike, but kept going to the gym. Jocks, she agreed, are often defined by physical testing and achievement.
In September 2012, she began power lifting.
"I do four days per week, two hours of max, speed, upper- and lower-body workouts," Burns says. "I listen to death metal music: Nile, Oblivion. It's different than what I listen to when I'm hanging out, but it channels the intensity."
Burns packs nearly 200 grams of daily protein into her compact 140-pound frame and eats six meals a day. And oatmeal ("Lots of it," she almost moans) is a staple. Ice cream, which she was eating at such a rapid rate her parents wondered how half gallons were disappearing, causes her to crash and is now off her list.
To help herself detangle the complicated internal messages raging inside, Burns created "Alex Phoenix," an alter ego and the name of her blog.
"I needed a different person for training. It gave me freedom to choose characteristics outside of the feminized version I had. She's me, but she's better."
Asked why she chose a name usually thought of as male, Burns blinks.
"I'm going to have to think about that. I guess I just need it until I see myself in a new light."
Ted O'Neill, Diablo Barbell's head strength coach, is helping her to define not just her pecs and quads, but her self image.
"He uses Soviet and Bulgarian systems, with special exercises and near-max lifts," she explains, before adding that it's the absence of condescension that causes her to embrace her new femininity.
At February's West Coast Powerlifting Championships, she "actualized her identity" and deadlifted 247 pounds, a personal record she has already bested in the gym. Despite disappointment with her bench press, Burns says she mounted the platform projecting newfound strength and confidence.
The gains she has made -- perhaps due to her becoming a woman less defined by her body's form than by her formidable brain -- have directed her focus outward.
"I organized the Women's Elite Strength Series, which has attracted women powerlifters from as far as Salinas," she writes, in a recent email update.
Women with little or no background in weight training have begun racking up the records, Burns is excited to report. She says Diablo Barbell alumni like Hillary Harper and her personal heroes, Laura Phelps and Jean Fry, inspire her to drag or push a Prowler (a weighted sled), clamber up ropes and cycle up Mt. Diablo once a week with renewed ferocity.
Her new goal, other than higher powerlifting numbers, is to reach out to middle and high school female students.
"I'm still figuring this out, but I want to be a force of change and break barriers as a strong woman and role model to younger women," she says.
And if anyone has an answer for those comments still haunting her, Burns is all ears. You can find her, four days a week, under the barbells in the gym.