Wheels on Fire, and Girls and Strength

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Today’s workout:

Heavy Cleans. Doubles up to 90%, and maybe a couple of sets once you’re there.

Deadlifts. Reps at 85% of max.

Club fun. Grab a heavy club and put some big moves together.

Here’s Krissy to show you how…


Wheels on Fire

Ever get stuck with feelings between something super geeky cool on one hand, yet so wrong that it makes you sort of sick on the other (not unlike a deep fried Twinkee)? I give you… uh…. this thing:

The ubergeek 10-year old in me says “strap on some armor, grab a lance and have at it.”

But the Physical Culturalist in me says… well, the same thing but for a different reason. Delving back into our archives just a bit will bring up this little post about the importance of movement for our species, and the movement has to be self ambulatory, not mechanical. ‘Nough said.


Girls and Strength

Recently our good friend across the pond, Gubernatrix, hosted a Women’s Strength Symposium online, and Bodytribers Allyson and Tyler were both asked to write a featured article for it. Since the forum is still alive and all the articles are up, I suggest going to visit it, but we’re going to post Allyson’s contribution here today, which sort of correlates with our workshop this weekend


Girls and Strength Training: Are We Able To Shift Our Perceptions? How Else Are We ‘ABLE’?

By Allyson Goble

I am a trainer/coach and workshop instructor at Bodytribe Fitness in Sacramento, California (www.physicalsubculture.com). I train both women and men and have coached a primarily female powerlifting team for the last 2 years or so, competed myself and am completely in love with weightlifting and teach everyone from 20 year olds to women in their 60s how to do it.

Firstly, I’ll just put this out there. I’m not a fan of focusing on the differences between a man and a woman when it comes to movement. Men take the lead in the producing testosterone game. Women don’t. Okay. Beyond that, training a body is training a body. Let’s train like the capable humans that we are. I’m not pondering my womanhood while making a squat PR or finishing the last burpie in my Tabata drill. I’m just not.

All right. Blah, blah, yep, yeah.

Girls, girls. Let’s talk. We have to! As women we have a ridiculous amount of myths and fallacies and just plain bullshit information to rummage through out there. It all falls under one heading: things that keep women from pursuing strength.

One of the most talked about elephants trampling around right in front of us in the room is the perception that if women lift weights we will get bulky.

(speaking of elephants… Katie Sandwina, the world’s strongest woman, even once having beaten Eugene Sandow in a strength competition, hanging out with some of her circus pals. This is also her below. She did not GET big from lifting, she was quite naturally strong, large and awesome, being almost 6 feet tall and 180 pounds by her adolescence.)


Women who lift (really lift) and trainers alike will at some point be asked by other females if they will get big from lifting. I’m not the first, nor the last to note this prevailing, erroneous perception. Also, in a recent article called ‘Defining Bulky Once And For All’ written by American trainer Leigh Peele, the results of her online survey of 2,000 women showed the majority of surveyors feel that actress Jessica Biel is bulky (and deem actress Jessica Alba not bulky), and more women would rather be fat than bulky.


Now, tackling why on earth the majority of 2,000 women think that Jessica Biel is ‘bulky’ and why muscles are seen as so unattractive are deep and complex issues. They have roots in cultural conditioning, history, media, trends in exercise and physical aesthetics, and archaic vs. modern ideals of femininity.

Whew. Maybe I’ll delve in to that some other time, or just read someone else’s thesis on the topic while I work on my clean and jerk.

(…or my front squat, snatches and burpees)

But this fear of becoming she-man by lifting weights is very real! How do we get info to women about the real facts of how muscle is built, especially on a female body? We’d HAVE to discuss physiology, and the ways in which a body is moving and training as well as what said body is chomping on in between for meals and snacks.

With these facts maybe, just maybe the images of female body-builders (that seem firmly rooted into our psyche!) have a chance to slowly fade. On the flipside it would help if all women’s bullshit fitness magazines showing us waifs in bikinis and their leg lifts would disintegrate into thin air never to be seen again, but that’s just not gonna happen. A pity.

Even with a base knowledge of how it *really* works, this misunderstood muscle building process, the bigger problem is still that so much of women’s ‘fitness’ goals are largely and irrefutably AESTHETIC.

Of course the media doesn’t help with this. Hell, they go right for the jugular: our egos and our wallets. It’s the same thing to them and they’re right. They sell us gadgets and even shoes that promise to help us trim our asses to look good in jeans. And we don’t know how to eat right and move, so our asses need some help.


But trainers don’t help! Trainers, who in my opinion should be educators, so often act more like customer service folk catering to the ‘toning’ (read: avoiding both fat and bulk) goals of a client. These are vanity goals, distinctly different from fitness goals. In Peele’s article she advises, “Train for the look you want. That is what you do, period. If you don’t want to look like you lift heavy weights, don’t lift heavy weights. Don’t mistake this as this being the answer to your body problems, it isn’t. My point is the only people that look like they lift or train aggressively are those who lift and train aggressively.”

Discussing how to deal with the ‘bulky muscle’ issue in this way perpetuates the emphasis of aesthetic goals over real fitness goals and gets in the way of an understanding of everything the word ‘strength’ can mean. Let’s just ponder this for a moment:

Imagine that women really could get big easily by lifting weights beyond say, 15 lbs (about 7 kgs).


Now, lifting along a spectrum of strength explores lifting things heavy to medium to light and all in between. A variety of rep schemes, different rest periods and all the other malleable factors with which you could play with weights and your body weight. Movements that employ chains of muscles (not just isolation exercises) and rotational elements too. Natural by-products would include anything from a revved metabolism, fat loss, increased bone density, better flexibility and overall health, to learning new skills and a feeling of accomplishment, confidence, and empowerment, etc, etc. All this stuff that women who weight train and eat smartly know about!

Now let’s strip away that ‘getting bulky’ part, since it simply doesn’t happen to the degree we’re all frightened of. Period.

Here’s an idea… let’s switch the word ‘strength’ in “strength training” to ability. That’s how I defined strength. Who would be scared of ‘ability training’? ‘Strength’ seems to equal big scary muscles. But everyone should want to be more able.

The opposite of able is unable, incapable and the like. I’m dreading going here, but if we put two and two together, if strength training could equal getting bulky which apparently equals unattractive masculinity, does the opposite of ability training, being incapable or unable, equal femininity? Yikes, I would hope not.

Meanwhile women are perpetually sweating for an unreal ideal of how other eyes should view them. This has nothing to do with fitness, it is external approval seeking. Strength training has no positive association with this pursuit, instead it is filled with myth and misinformation.

Strength as ability. Ability as strength. So yeah, lift heavy. Yes! It’s good! I do. There’s not one reason not to. Let’s not forget other types of force development out there to explore. Can you move fast? Can you do longer sets of intense movement, with perhaps your body weight? Can you lift and carry something heavy above your head or by your sides for distance? Are you mastering a technically difficult lift; do you have strong technique? Are you, in a word, able? These are all the things that I associate with strength training.


Too many of us are still favoring bodybuilding techniques as the leading style of training for the average, everyday non-bodybuilder. Isolation exercises were invented (as in man-made) to actually build up a muscle for a particular aesthetic, not teach it different skills, or move in a chain like it was designed to. Before bodybuilding, lifting and movement and the Physical Culture were about ability, not the way you looked.

If you’re a lifter who already knows the truth about strength training, you’re an ambassador of that truth whether you realize it or not. Keep talking to your sisters, your friends, the other girls at the gym. Trainers, talk to your girls about aesthetics as a by-product of teaching the body new and challenging skills.

Maybe a fair amount of us who do lift can forget or aren’t as familiar with what it might be like to not want to pursue strength for whatever reasons. As for the ‘would-be could-be’ lifters, as I call girls who just haven’t made the first move or even girls who think they’re not interested in lifting, we should respect their right to simply just not know yet. The concept of ability=strength, or just the idea that anything beyond aesthetic goals exist in a gym may have never entered their radar.

I was one of the latter. I did not have any sort of fitness background. I don’t ever remember being concerned with getting bulky, but I clearly remember realizing that real movement goals were so much more fun than dragging myself to the gym to ‘shave off those extra calories’. And as the shift from aesthetics to ability happened over time I found myself with the by-product of my new found skills that had once been my main goal. That flab had gone. And even better, I had a body I could seriously respect, in a bikini or not. I can do countless things that I could not do before.


Am I bulky? Um…if Jessica Biel is bulky then I might be a contender. I just couldn’t give a shit! Maybe I would if aesthetics were still my main priority? Maybe, I don’t know. I look at a woman with muscles made from well-rounded ability and I see a confident, do-it-yourself (not have-it-done-for-you), sexiness that I relate to and find appealing. But that’s only because I know from experience. There was a time when I didn’t.

I became a trainer and coach because I wanted to spread the truth about what I know. And I know this:

Not lifting for fear of growing huge muscles is just not acceptable anymore. Lifting just for aesthetic goals insults the complex, intelligent women that we are. Conversations about what strength and strength training really are by those of us who’ve had the opportunity to experience it ourselves with those who just don’t happen to know yet are the key.


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Showing 9 comments
  • Justin_P

    I’ve been assaulting this myth and taboo more frequently over at my scrap of internet property. I don’t think of muscular strength as an inherently-masculine thing. I find physically strong women attractive. I think that’s key: as long as the look of strength is taboo in women, it’s all an uphill battle to get women to do real strength training.

    Education comes into play as well. Kate Sandwina is an anomally. Women aren’t going to achieve man-like size and strength without abusing male hormones. Women aren’t going to gain significant amounts of muscular bulk or get shredded unless they eat for it.

    Good stuff. Keep it up!

  • mace

    Great blog, Al! I’m glad you’re combating these myths, because, well, I’m not the best spokesperson for this particular cause.

    When women everywhere stop giving a shit about the potential of getting bulky, or doing something that’s considered ‘masculine’ (which society perceives as making women inherently less feminine), they might FEEL the empowerment that comes with training for ability. Rejecting aesthetic gain is HUGE in this process!

    Jason- it’s a dangerous path to consider Katie Sandwina an anomaly, who’s excellence can only achieved through the abuse of male hormones. What IS “man-like” strength?? It is also important, responsible even, to consider the historical context in this case. Definitions of womanhood and strength were different in the Physical Culture of the 1800’s (and arguably more liberating than today’s notions/definitions). If we had different notions of womanhood and strength, I have absolutely no doubts that the performance feats we see from women in the 21st century would improve astronomically. The psychic walls women are forced to keep between athlete and woman would slowly deteriorate, and gaps in gender and physicality would lessen dramatically.

    To suggest that some women with a natural propensity towards strength cannot surpass the strength levels of MANY men (not necessarily all men), is falling into the same problematic tropes as the one’s we’re trying to debunk at Bodytribe and in this blog.

    Now, I’m not arguing that Sandwina did not take performance enhancing whatevers…she’d be really damn strong without them, anyways. But, we are much quicker to accuse women of using ‘hormones’ when men at elite strength levels are just as likely to have experimented with them as well. This line of thinking, regardless of it’s initial intentions, generalizes that ALL men are stronger that ALL women. This is part of the problem addressed in the initial dialogue…that it’s unnatural for women to possess, achieve, and OWN real strength, and still, be women.

    I wanted to share these ideas, and hope that they do not come across as combative, but rather as expanding a necessary dialogue.

  • Andy


    I love how your responses to Chip’s (or in this case, Al’s) articles are half the time more in-depth than the originals themselves. I think the best synopsis is this: If you’re the type of person, male of female, who needs the approval of glossy magazine articles written to attract advertisers to feel better about yourself, you have a hell of a lot of work to do on your self image before you even consider picking up a weight.

  • Gubernatrix

    I loved this article that Al wrote – so much to think about!

    It’s not just about approval from magazines though. There are real, in-your-face challenges to address. Only last week in my gym I was told by some bloke “you don’t want to lose your femininity do you?” when I casually suggested that I wanted to put on a couple of pounds of muscle. This is just ignorance – he doesn’t really have a clue what putting on a couple of pounds of muscle will mean for me or look like for me, just as most men (most people) don’t have a clue what perfectly normal women are capable of lifting. I want to change minds but it is bloody difficult. I am certainly not immune to the various comments you get and it is very hard to speak to people calmly and unemotionally about the facts when you are reeling from some comment or staring or intimidation. This is why it is important to support each other! Oh how I wished I could have had a group of women around me so I could have said ‘back me up ladies!’ and told him how it really is.

  • Amanda

    Sally, yet more reasons for you to move to Sacramento and become a Triber!

    I agree that looking at it just as a magazine issue is oversimplifying it, and putting an awful lot of blame on the receiver of these messages (“If you’re the type of person, male of female, who needs the approval of glossy magazine articles written to attract advertisers to feel better about yourself, you have a hell of a lot of work to do on your self image before you even consider picking up a weight.”).

    For women, there’s a void out there of relevant, valid, and truthful information about fitness and strength training. And certainly (most) men don’t have a clue what is right, appropriate, and reasonable for us, either. Some of the ONLY images women have access to about strength training run on either end of the extreme: don’t lift more than 3 pounds if you want to be skinny, or you’ll end up like a bodybuilder.

    We’re told (incessantly!!) that to be loved, we have to be skinny/small/weak/not take up space/not make noise. It’s not just an issue of self-esteem or self-worth. In the absence of real-life role models, who show us what real female strength looks like, we have no mental model, no paradigm that allows us to be both strong AND loved.

    It’s been amazing to have the opportunity to work and train at Bodytribe….I still can’t get over the reactions of people in my community when I tell them I’m a powerlifter…in this information void, I seem an anomaly, pursuing strength at a petite height and weight. In fact, I’ve been told by men that I’m LYING to them when I tell them I compete. It’s as if they think the evidence speaks for itself: I still appear feminine (small), so therefore, I CANNOT be a strength athlete.

  • Allyson

    I’m still checking with myself but I think I’m pretty sure I still feel this way for the very most part: I care less and less about what men think as far as women & muscles & what might be considered masculine, etc. are concerned.
    What I have come to care about a great deal is what women think about the subject.

    Sally, I hear you. Old school attitudes still have LOUD voices. We, as ambassadors of female strength training, might need to pick our battles to save ourselves. “SO WHAT about some bloke who clearly doesn’t understand and might never!”, I want to scream and remove any discomfort you had in that exchange if I could. On certain days I can honestly say I wouldn’t give a shit, but on others it would have rattled me too. But your good energy, your most effective energy is spent doing what you are doing now: the Women’s Strength Symposium, your blog, the workshops for women that you do, and being a walking, talking, lifting embodiment of the benefits of strength. You want to change minds. You are. You’re helping change the minds that matter the most in this case, and they belong to women.

    Amanda, I find that just as many folks are surprised that I powerlift simply because they have no reference for women powerlifting at all, not necessarily just because I look feminine. That certainly adds to the confusion but we’re in such a small, small subculture, so it’s even more complex than not being overtly muscular or large in stature. It’s just one more venue that absolutely is open to women but is seriously under the radar. When I rode a motorcycle (male-dominated activity) folks were surprised that I rode one but didn’t necessarily think it was because I was unable. They just weren’t used to seeing a girl on a bike, let alone one toting a purse and a touch of lip gloss.

    So, I think in this sense we ARE the new real-life role models by default. The media is stuck on telling us something unobtainable (makes us feel less than, so we buy). We ARE what strong women look like. We’re the growing new school, grassroots paradigm every time we share with other women (and men!) what we do and why we do it. Role models pop up in the most unusual places and it can only take one to click with someone on a personal level and change happens (like that history teacher in high school who had a picture of David Bowie on her desk and seemed to actually care about her students…I credit my love of history and learning largely to her!). Keep lifting and sharing. Ruffled feathers are fuel in my book.

  • Gubernatrix

    “We ARE what strong women look like.”
    Well said Al! Reminds me of a t-shirt from the Fawcett Society which says ‘this is what a feminist looks like’.

  • Carolyn

    Great blog. Thanks Allyson.
    Sad to admit it, but I fell into all those same preconceptions. And it is still hard to not replay those messages you’ve been hearing over and over your whole life.

  • J. Pennington

    stumbled across your website several months ago. certainly wish your concepts, methodologies, and outlooks would make its way here to Nashville, TN. really, really enjoy reading your posts!

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