• Emily Drakes

Why aren't you lifting heavy weights?

Are you actively stopping yourself from getting stronger?

It still doesn't appear to come naturally for women to include heavy weight training in their programme when compared to men. In this article we will explore the barriers that women face and some of the history behind them.

With the change in trends from the 80-90's 'being thin was in' to advertising campaigns now celebrating 'strong is the new sexy' fit women are now celebrated. This projection of women challenges the historical definitions of women being weak, passive and docile. Being physically independent links to feminism and not needing to be dependent on a man. However there is still a stigma for women weight lifting that brings their femininity and even heterosexuality into question. It has been suggested that women self impose a glass ceiling to weightlifting to avoid these connotations.

Interestingly in a study in the Journal of Sport and Behaviour women knew the benefits of strength training but they didn't engage in it. It would appear that time came out as the biggest barrier. This would likely be true of men and women so why do we see less women weight lifting? In my experience women don't prioritise strength training over cardio. So if time is an issue, which it is for most people, then cardio will get the nod. This observation is similar to the finding in Dworkin's (2001) study. She observed women training in two gyms over two years and questioned them about their habits. They reported they chose cardio over weight lifting as they assigned more value to calorie expenditure from cardio as better 'bang for buck'. The overall goal of many women when questioned was to decrease body size.

Another observation that is seen in women who lift weights but not heavy weights is that they will self limit their progression for fear of getting too muscular/masculine. This idea of 'just do it' but 'don't do too much' leads to some strange practices such as lifting the same weight at each session to maintain. This to me seems a waste of time as your body will soon realise it doesn't need to make any changes as the load you're putting on it is well within it's capabilities. There seems to be a difference for women when thinking about what weight to lift between what they can do and what they should do. This is linked to the bigger cultural pressures to be a certain shape and behave a certain way.

The main barriers I experience with my patients are 'they don't want to get muscular', 'they don't know what they're doing', 'they're intimidated in the weights area'. These are completely normal but they should be easily overcome:

I don't want to bulk up

This one really gets me. It does appear to be a thing that women think if they touch a weight over 5KG they'll look like this:

There is a reason that women and men don't look the same. The lack of high levels of testosterone in women means we can't build muscle in the same way as a man. Of course there are always exceptions, some women have high levels of testosterone and can put on muscle very easily. For most of us though to 'bulk up' requires eating a substantial amount of protein and dedicated training to get to a very low body fat percentage as well as some supplements along the way. In reality strength training can improve lean body mass and having more muscle increases metabolic rate so you burn calories at a higher rate when at rest. Lifting heavier weights, or weights that challenge you over 6-8 reps is a quicker way to encourage this process. The American College of Sports Medicine recommend training at 2-8 reps increases strength whereas to bulk up (hypertrophy) you are looking at rep ranges of 8-12.

Interestingly in the Dworkin study women felt that if they lifted heavy weights and got more muscular they would be losing their femininity, when asked in more depth it came down to curves. This contradicts the argument that cardio should have priority over weight lifting as cardio in these cases was to decrease body fat, which if done to excess would potentially lead to a reduction in breast size, hip size and as discussed in the female triad article, could (in extreme cases) lead to your periods stopping. So using cardio to get more curvy is not a sound argument, you can squat and dead lift your way to a better butt if you want a curvier shape!

One of the main reason women cite for exercising is 'to tone up', which is exactly what heavy strength training does. Lifting heavy weights improves muscle tone through engaging more muscle fibres as well as building strength quicker so it is more efficient to include heavy weights in your routine to achieve this. If you're lifting light weights that won't challenge you until 20 reps plus you will mainly be improving the muscles endurance capacity over tone.

I don't know what I'm doing

This is down to coaches,trainers even schools to implement. There are many tutorials online but putting it in practice especially in a weight room environment is not easy. With the increase in 'functional training' we now see more and more strength based classes in gyms which is good to start with if you are new to using weights. A personal trainer is always an option if you want a tailored programme but make sure you pick someone who suits your goals. There are still some out there that look at you strangely when you set out increasing strength as a goal.

I would hope that with the increasing number of women participating in sports such as football, heavy weight training amongst women will increase given the performance benefits. With the profile of elite women's sport increasing also, the money and science behind it improves so the normality of women lifting heavy to improve their performance should trickle down to grass roots.

I feel intimidated in the weights area

This is another thing that I hear a lot and have felt myself in the past. Even if you do know what you're doing having men stare at you or worse, one case I had a man came up to ask if I was squatting to help with the housework?! You have to own it no matter what weight you're lifting and the more of us that are in the free weight zones the more normal it becomes so keep it up! Weight training has been shown to increase self esteem and body image in women with body dysmorphia so the more you do, the more confident you will feel so stepping into the free weights area will be less and less of an issue.

Obviously if you don't want to lift heavy weights you don't have to! I certainly don't judge women who only want to do cardio or a lighter strength programme. However think about your training goals and if your programme is matching that need. I would encourage any woman to try it especially if 'toning up' or getting stronger is on your agenda. As well as the benefits outlined above, the sense of getting stronger, being able to pull yourself up or carry things with ease is empowering and addictive so you may well find one weight leads to another.....


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  10. http://www.dietsinreview.com/diet_column/08/competitive-bodybuilding-for-women-isnt-what-you-think-learn-how-it-works/

  11. http://news.nike.com/just-do-it

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