Barbells and Ponytails: Women in the Weight Room

March 12, 2018by polkadotsi0

One of the most common fears I hear women express with regards to their exercise is that they’ll “bulk up.”

They’ll look “unfeminine” or suddenly sprout muscles like a body builder. I’d like to take the time to explore this a little, it seems that the fear of muscle is a money making industry, and we’re all hopping along for the ride.

Women’s fitness is BIG business, with female protein powders (usually low carb, usually labelled as a fat burner), women’s resistance bands, pink, tiny kettle-bells and dumbbells and all manner of pink washed, lighter, and much less useful equipment.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a sucker for pink branding – look at my logo… it’s ALL the pink, but when it comes to making women feel smaller, weaker, and less capable in the gym, I take real issue.

We’ve Pink Washed Fitness

Women definitely respond to exercise differently to men, oestrogen is an interesting hormone, but that doesn’t mean that we’re to be relegated to the cardio machines and the tiny weights.

I see it in the gym all the time, dozens of women vying for the treadmills and cross trainers while the free weights and machines are occupied by our sweaty, male counterparts.

Having chatted to some women who hang out on the cardi-no (sorry, not sorry) machines I discovered a few things:

  • They are afraid of bulking up too much.
  • They believe that cardio is the best way to lose weight.
  • They find the guys a bit intimidating, and don’t feel welcomed in the free weights area
  • They don’t know how to use the machines
  • Their trainers have advised them to do HIIT and cardio

We’re Not Making Women Feel Welcome in the Weight Room

By casual observation it seems that we’re not making a welcoming space for women in the weight’s room. While there are women’s only gyms, like Curves for example, they seem to come complete with “girly” machines and a distinct lack of free weights.

And while there is definitely a need to welcome women into the gym, and welcome them to movement, I strongly feel that we’re selling women short if they’re lifting 2kg weights, playing with resistance bands, only to go home and lift 20kg toddlers, and haul in their shopping.

While it’s encouraging to see companies listen to what women want, become more aware of pelvic health, and the impact of female hormones, it’s only half of the story.

Basically, I think we can tell the women we work with a much more empowering story.

Is this a Beauty Problem or a Fitness Problem

So who’s fault is it?

This ties deeply into body image and the marketing around women’s beauty. According to those who write the magazines, and ultimately  those who tell us what beauty looks like; women are meant to be:

  • Small
  • Hairless
  • Pre-pubescent
  • Soft
  • Large breasted
  • Tiny waisted
  • Delicate

When in actual fact, while there are some women who enjoy and uphold that image, and that’s absolutely fine, there are billions of others who do not, and cannot fit into the very narrow stereotypes of women’s beauty and fitness.

There are trans women, gender queer folk, and a whole spectrum of people who can benefit from strength training but don’t fit into the mould of beauty.

Women are not only capable of strength training with heavy weights, but benefit from it greatly. Strength training helps us stave off osteoporosis, it builds lean muscle mass and has great benefits in preventing cardiovascular diseases.

We don’t bulk up, we get strong. And frankly, we NEED to be strong.

Not to mention the strength – we shouldn’t overlook the strength

We aren’t delicate petals that need to be kept in glass houses, our day to day lives see us manage larger weights than are assigned to us in the average women’s gym and fitness class and we haul them around without thought only to go to the gym to pickup the tiny pink dumbbell.

So some truth bombs

Remember how I mentioned that our hormones had an interesting effect on our bodies and our training? Well they do. The lack of testosterone in the female body means that it’s nigh impossible to “bulk up” without the help of synthetic hormones.

Female bodies are cyclical, and we have to be aware of the impact our cycles have on our  training, including joint laxity, issues like pelvic health, and our bone mineral density-  but virtually all women can benefit from strength training. Strong muscles can provide a stable body that is less prone to injury.

You’re welcome in the weight room. You always have been. You’ve got as much right to be there as anyone else.

Strength training helps us build up that bone mineral density that prevents brittle bones, and if we missed that window, strength and balance helps us prevent falls and recover faster if they do happen.

I also mentioned our sweaty male counterparts… I spoke with them too:

Basically, the feedback I received from the men in the gym was they were pretty busy with their own workouts to notice anything much else going on in the gym.

You’re welcome in the weight room. You always have been. You’ve got as much right to be there as anyone else.

All good and well, but what’s actually wrong with my tiny pink dumbbell

Generally we can’t achieve very much strength with a 2kg dumbbell.  We need to be strategically challenged to build up our strength.

We don’t bulk up, we get strong. And frankly, we NEED to be strong.


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