Ladies, put down those neoprene-covered, purple-colored dumbbells you found stacked by the yoga mats at the gym and confidently march your butt over to where the heavier weights lay. Do not fear the cold, iron barbells and dumbbells – I promise they will warm up in your hands. Do not shy away from the squat rack – it’s not as intimidating as it looks. Do not fear the sweaty, grunting, muscle-bound males that strut around you – they may look tough, but they’re not going to hurt you or judge you. In fact, they’re more likely to admire you for ditching the elliptical machines to join them in the weight room.
Judging by myriad threads about women and weight room intimidation on the popular bodybuilding.com forums, however, this may be easier said than done.
While I don’t believe we can solely blame our apparent lack of desire to lift heavy weights on the great gender divide in the weight room, I do think it plays a part, along with several other factors.
The bulk factor
First off, there’s the whole I-don’t-want-to-get-bulky-I-just-want-to-look-toned thing. It’s possible you already know that lifting heavier weights won’t make you look bulky. You might also know that adding extra muscle mass can help prevent injuries, enhance aerobic performance and make your bones stronger, which are all important benefits to consider as women, especially as we age. You might even already know that lifting heavier weights in combination with fat loss will also give you that so-called “toned” look you’re after.
Yet we still reach for those colorful 3-lbs dumbbells and continue to knock out 15 reps of triceps kickbacks and other “belly-fat-blasting”, “thigh-slimming” and “waist-whittling” moves instead of progressing our workouts to build more strength. What gives?
“In the quarter century since the idea that women could benefit from strength training kicked in, a powerfully counterproductive notion rose in tandem. That’s the idea that women should use exercises and techniques different from those used by men,” explains certified strength and conditioning specialist Lou Schuler in his book The New Rules of Lifting for Women. Hence the more “feminine” exercise techniques we see today. As Schuler notes, there is no difference between the functionality of men’s and women’s muscle fibers. Although our absolute strength will be less than that of a man due to our smaller-sized muscles, women are capable of performing the same lifts as men. Our lack of testosterone will prevent us from transforming into a muscle-bound dude, so why are we training differently?
The Barbie weights factor
Personally, I think popular women’s health and fitness magazine have a lot to do with it, and are probably the worst offenders for spreading the notion that women should exercise differently than men (especially with articles like this). When I first started going to the gym about six years ago, I turned to women’s health and fitness magazines to get the majority of my information and exercise routines. Because I was a poor university student at the time and wasn’t willing to splurge on a personal trainer, I figured if I just copied the exercise routines in the magazines I’d get the same results as the lean models demonstrating the moves. Without even thinking about it, I would gravitate toward the quiet area of the gym where the yoga mats, little colored dumbbells and other women were to “tone up my trouble zones”. After five years of working out this way, my “trouble zones” looked no more “toned” than they did before I started working out consistently, no matter how many different combinations of exercises I tried.
That all changed when I started to gradually increase the weight I was lifting, and focused more on simple moves and proper form rather than those complicated supersets I used to copy from fitness magazines. It’s not that I didn’t want to work harder and lift heavier weights before; I just didn’t know where to start. As Schuler points out in his book, women who are willing to “work like a galley slave in Spinning class, twist herself into Gordian knots in the yoga studio, and build enough core strength in Pilates to prop up a skyscraper will walk into the weight room, pick up the pastel-colored Barbie weights, and do the exact opposite of what will give her the results she wants.”
The fear factor
If lifting heavier weights is the key to giving us the results we want, how come only 7% of free-weight users are female?
“It’s like being a spider monkey in a pit of gorillas,” says my good friend and marathon-training partner Debbie Preston about working out in the weight room. “I feel like I don’t fit in and am worried I’ll be eaten alive.”
I’m sure most women can relate to this feeling. Even in the era of equality and acceptance and gender mainstreaming, the weight room at the gym still feels like the “man” area. Although I’m more confident with my lifting form these days, I still feel uncomfortable and self-conscious when I saddle up next to some dude bench-pressing twice my body weight.
So how do we get over this feeling? You could go to the gym during quieter hours, join a female-only gym or just work out at home, but I think the more that females frequent the weight room, the less intimidating it will get. If not knowing proper form is a barrier, then set up a training session with a strength and conditioning coach or simply just ask the personal trainers at your gym how to use the equipment properly – they want you to be safe while using the equipment, and should have no problem taking the time to show you how to use the free-weights with proper form.
Of course, weight training and heavy lifting isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re getting the results you want from your current running / yoga / boot camp / cycling / whatever routine and have no desire to use the weight room, that’s fine, too. As long as you’re doing something you enjoy that gets your body moving, and it’s not fear that’s holding you back, there is no shame in leaving the iron pumping to other people.
Do you feel intimidated in the weight room? If you want to start a strength training program but haven’t yet, what barriers would you say are holding you back? Share your experience below!