Women and Strength

 In Workouts

My ‘think piece’ for the on-line Women’s Strength Symposium  By BodyTribe Trainer Allyson Goble.

This article was written as a ‘think piece’ for the on-line Women’s Strength Symposium hosted by Sally ‘Gubernatrix’ Moss (super cool powerlifting and strong woman sister with a great informational website for women and men alike: gubernatrix.co.uk).

The symposium was sprung on March 8th 2010, International Women’s Day, to promote discussion and break down barriers in women’s strength training. I was asked to write a piece to foster some on-line dialogue.

gym day 3


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

I am a trainer/coach and workshop instructor at Bodytribe Fitness in Sacramento, California. I train both women and men and have coached a primarily female powerlifting team for the last 4 years or so, competed myself and am completely in love with Olympic 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 production of testosterone department. 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.

Got it?

squats do a body good.

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.

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.

Teaching strength to women around the country.

Teaching strength to women around the country.

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.

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 bodybuilders (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.

Many think that these ends of the spectrum are actually the only options. Either define femininity as frail or accept a level of unreal manliness. Neither have anything to do with fitness. One is fragile, the other created through drugs, with a hormone level more male than a pre-op transexual. These are extremes, not reality.

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.” Ya mean they look strong? Is that a problem? Consider the opposite.

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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). Every mom on the planet who ever lifted their child would be bumpy and manly, every woman who wouldn’t let the bagger carry their groceries to their car would have to be continuing to buy larger clothing almost weekly due to their continually-growing mass.

squatty 10Now, 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.

feb 3Here’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.

These three photos are of a fitness academy run by Bonnie Prudden, a true legend in the fitness world. Her school, opened in the late 50’s, provided real movement training for all genders and ages, with the expectation of hard work and self respect.

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.

strongman clinic 17If 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.

iron grrls 26

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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