Women, Weights, and the Gender Divide (June 20, 2013)

For my June 20 article about women and weights, Women, Weights, and the Gender Divide, either click here or keep reading! 


Last week, I shared what I called “the worst fitness advice around” with you. Carbs are terrible, the elliptical isn’t terrible, spot reduction really works — all bad advice. But in my view, nothing is as bad, as persistent, and as damaging as the following gem; “Women shouldn’t lift weights.”

This so-called advice is as pervasive as it is erroneous. Its ill effects are so powerful and widespread, they reach to even the darkest corners of the gym. I see it every day, as more times than not, I am the lone girl in the weight room.

Cardio room? Full of women. Locker room? Packed with girls. Even the machine-assisted weight room draws in some ladies. But the free-weight room is almost always a genuine female dead zone.

Why are we so terrified of weights?

It isn’t a new problem. We only have to go back 100 years to see women discouraged from any form of exercise. Seen as a generally masculine pursuit, experts feared women were simply “not suited” to athletics. Indeed, a 1912 Harper’s Bazaar article posed the portentous question, “are athletics a menace to motherhood?”

Sadly, these attitudes weren’t left behind with the model-T (at Harper’s Bazaar or anywhere else.) In fact, almost 75 years later, an article in the same magazine asked “Can Sports Make You Sterile?” showing the persistent nature of fears regarding women and exercise. And though we’ve generally drastically improved these attitudes, we’re still incredibly resistant to lifting weights. We run, we bike, we swim … but ask us to do a shoulder press, and we blanch at the thought. In fact, according to the International Health, Racquet, and Sports Club Association (IHRSCA), barely one-third of women already working out regularly use free weights.

This is not good. As I see it, we’re facing three separate problems.

First off, many women don’t know how to use free weights. They’ve never been taught, they don’t know how it will help them, and they’d rather not go into the weight room and either a) waste time, b) embarrass themselves, or c) inadvertently cause an injury.

Secondly, women are intimidated because there aren’t any women already women in the weight room, and they don’t want to join the boys club. This is something of a vicious cycle.

Thirdly, and most disturbingly, women don’t want to use weights because they are afraid they’ll bulk up. Generally, women are working out to make themselves smaller, while men are working out to make themselves bigger. Men use weights, so weights must make you bigger, right?

Wrong. Wrong!!!

Men (specifically, muscular, gym-going men) work exceedingly hard, with every intention of bulking up in the weight room. They lift very heavy weights, and generally consume a diet very helpful to building muscle mass. More to the point, men have levels of testosterone that women simply do not. Men build muscle in a way that women do not, will not, and cannot.

Ladies, are you planning on benching 180 pounds? Doing curls with 40s?

I didn’t think so.

Cardio is great and irreplaceable, of course. It is the best option for all-over fat reduction. But you want a well-rounded approach to fitness, and cardio is only part of the equation. You need muscle to look lean and toned. You need muscle to boost your metabolism, burn body fat, lower your blood pressure, and boost your endurance. No matter how skinny you get, if you want to look toned, you need muscle. Doubt me? Think of the women with the best bodies out there.

Jessica Biel? Beyonce? Gisele Bundchen? Muscle. Muscle. Muscle.

Remember to choose free weights over the “weight-assist” machines at the gym. These machines are ineffective and a waste of everyone’s time. You’re going to get a better all-over workout with free weights because they aren’t stabilizing your body — you’re fully in control of what you’re lifting, and how you’re lifting it. With free weights, your obliques are keeping you steady while you’re working your shoulders. Your lower abs are engaged while you’re doing flys. Your glutes are squeezing while you’re doing curls. Those weight machines make it easy. You don’t want easy. You’re not going to get results with easy.

You can always start small. Try using five-pound weights, and work up to something more. You won’t believe the changes in your body! If you really don’t know where to begin, consider investing in a few sessions with a trainer. This will teach you proper form, which will make your exercises more effective and keep you injury free. And get over your weight-room shyness!

Strength is nothing to be ashamed of.

Molly Daley is a nutritionist and runs the healthy cooking, fitness and wellness website, Diary of a Formerly Fat Girl. Find her at www.DiaryofaFormerlyFatGirl.com , or follow her on Twitter, @DOAFFG

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