The fitness industry has made great strides toward making women feel more comfortable in weight rooms across the country, but there’s still some work to be done.
Twenty years ago fitness types were still selling women the fiction that they might “get big” if they lifted heavy weights and didn’t spend countless hours “doing cardio.” Based on what I hear from new clients this old myth persists among many women, but it seems to be dying a slow death thanks to fitness thought leaders like Jen Sinkler and Neghar Fonooni, among others. There still exists a subtle roadblock, however, that prevents more women from abandoning the elliptical machines and Zumba classes in favor of the efficient transformation technique that is weight-bearing exercise:
I asked an acquaintance in the gym yesterday how her training was going, and she somewhat sheepishly replied that she was doing her best, but that she wasn’t training as hard as others. It was a revelatory answer to a throw-away question meant more as a means of polite conversation than a piercing inquiry. I know her a little, and she’s impressively strong and impressively conditioned–but she probably couldn’t place at an elite level of any sort of Crossfit, powerlifting, or figure competition. My unscientific analysis indicates that she’s probably fitter than 90 percent of the women in her age group, yet she was somehow embarrassed that this wasn’t “enough.”
Strength training is among the most efficient delivery systems for body and health transformation that there is. You can develop your conditioning, change your body composition, and push a host of health markers in the right direction by incorporating things like squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows into your weekly routine. Yet I worry that somehow this message is getting garbled into the notion that barbell training is only for people interested in Crossfit, powerlifting, or Olympic-style weightlifting.
I think part of the problem is that most big commercial gyms lag behind barbell style gyms when it comes to stocking plentiful free weights, and the barbell style gyms that exist do tend to have at least somewhat of an emphasis on competition, personal records, and Instagram stardom.
Barbell training isn’t just for competition. It can be an important slice–but just a slice–of an otherwise well-rounded and interesting life full of art, music, friends, and good food. Approaching the squat rack doesn’t mean that you have to buy knee socks and booty shorts. All it means is that you’re interested in the most important movement pattern you can learn to do well (squat), that you’re interested in building muscle and bone density, and that you’re interested in being strong and mobile well into your 80s.
One of my worries about this post is that it wreaks of condescension, that I’m presupposing that women aren’t competitive. I’m not arguing that women somehow aren’t as competitive as men. What I am trying to do is grapple with the reality that the fitness industry generally has been an unwelcoming place for women when it comes to strength training. While I do think some of those walls are coming down–having been smashed by the strength of female leadership–I do think that the correlation between barbell training and competition does prevent some women from feeling completely comfortable pursuing strength. And I happen think that’s a shame.