Women of Strength
As a fitness trainer, the most common questions I receive from women are as follows, “How do I tone my ____________ (insert body part, usually the back of the arm, or the backside)?”, and “Will I get bulky if I lift weights?” A recent post written on Tony Gentilcore’s blog by Sophia Herbst, addressed that very popular second question. Sophia pondered why she’s been told to “not get too muscular” many times in response to her strength training, and yet, she was never told “don’t get too thin” in regards to her past dieting. What is so wrong in our society with a woman looking and being strong? Now let’s flip things to the other gender. Men commonly ask me questions somewhere along these lines, “How can I get my ____________ (insert specific muscle and don’t have a dirty mind!) bigger?, and “How do I get stronger?” Basically, the exact opposite of what women ask me, but wouldn’t it be great if that second question was a universal one, asked by all? Shouldn’t everyone be stronger? And if you were stronger, wouldn’t you look more toned? Does stronger always mean bigger? Should women really shy away from lifting heavy things?
Society appears to celebrate the state of being extremely thin as the pinnacle of female beauty. We see it in the models that dominate our media. High profile celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson has made a living out of informing women that they should not lift a weight heavier than 3 pounds. This doesn’t seem like very practical advice since most things we pick up in daily life, weigh much more than 3 pounds (groceries, pets, children, etc). I believe she successfully plays into women’s fears that they will get big and bulky if they pick up anything of significant weight. Her fitness method consists of exercise classes where participants swing their arms around in circles and swivel their bodies in various positions, and supposedly this is the true path to female fitness. Now days, even our female superheroes tend to be on the dainty side. Gal Gadot, the former Miss Israel, current actress, and model was cast as Wonder Woman in the upcoming Batman Vs. Superman movie. I can’t comment on her acting (I have not seen any of her films which includes her debut in Fast and Furious 4), but she’s not exactly a physically intimidating presence. Granted, she is hitting the weights, but I’m surprised that the Wonder Woman role was not filled by someone a little more physically imposing?
Thankfully, there are strong and powerful women who are rising up to challenge this notion of beauty in society. They show us that women can have muscle, and it’s okay. They don’t have to be afraid of weights, starve themselves, and perform hours of chronic cardio. Jen Sinkler is a former National Team Rugby player turned fitness coach and strength competitor. She has tried to change the notion that chronic cardio is the key to weight loss for women. When asked what she does for cardio, her answer is, “lift weights faster.” Molly Galbraith is a co founder of Girls Gone Strong, a movement founded by seven women allowing them to share their take on exercise and nutrition. Molly and another co founder/fitness coach Neghar Fonooni are looking to help women get stronger and accept their bodies. You can read more about their inspiring stories here and here. The UFC has also added women to their line up of fighters. UFC bantam weight champion Ronda Rousey and former Strikeforce bantam weight champion Miesha Tate have shown that a women can be strong,beautiful, and kick some butt. I will also admit that Crossfit has done a good job at promoting strong females and encouraging both genders to do some heavy weight training.
A few months ago I received a call from a female client who was inquiring about training. It was refreshing to hear her proclaim that she wanted to “lift weights.” Not the little 3 pound Tracy Anderson dumbells! She wanted to do all the big lifts, squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and make sure she was doing them right. She had told me that another trainer she had worked with, had her doing light dumbell work and body weight exercises. There is nothing wrong with those exercises, well maybe “light” dumbell work, but it was not what the client wanted. It was interesting that the trainer had chosen this kind of training for her, even though it wasn’t aligning with her goals. Kind of goes back to the perceived notion of what women “should” be doing for training to stay slim, involving chronic cardio and light and/or no weights. My client has continued to lose weight and reduce body fat (4% in 3 months), all while lifting heavy weights and getting stronger. As far as measurements go, there weren’t any huge changes, her thighs got slightly bigger (probably the squats) while her hips and arms actually measured smaller. So this seems to negate the idea that heavy lifting will make you big and bulky. Research has shown that muscle hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) is obtained through using moderate loads which allows for a greater total volume to be reached. The key is volume (think 10 sets x 10 reps). Another research study showed that males and females had no significant differences in muscle hypertrophy from strength training. This means, women will increase muscle size if they perform a consistent hypertrophy workout. If a woman doesn’t want to look like a bodybuilder, and increase muscle size, they shouldn’t train like a bodybuilder (not that there is anything wrong with being a bodybuilder). I recommend avoiding significant time in the moderate load/high volume workout structure if you don’t want to grow significant muscle, but this doesn’t mean you avoid heavy weights/low reps for maximum strength.
Strength is important for everyone, women too. Women should celebrate being strong and having muscle. There are many benefits to being strong. People who maintain strength into old age, generally live longer, stay more independent, and are more resilient. We have been bombarded with images in the media that female beauty is equated to being skinny, but I believe with the help of the women referred to in this post, the definition of beauty is being changed to one of strong and healthy. These are the kind of role models I want my daughter to have.