Approx reading times: (Summary = 1 minute, Full post = 20 minutes)
- Lifting weights is still generally seen as a masculine activity which is intimidating to beginners, but is becoming increasingly more popular with women in recent times.
- Looking better, losing weight and increasing confidence are priority goals among many women; and women would benefit more from lifting weights in order to achieve these specific goals.
- Views on the “ideal” female body vary but there are a few commonly shared views on this subject.
- In the commercial gym environment, there are many areas that can be improved in order to make it more appealing for more women to get involved in lifting weights.
- The majority of women would gain tremendous desirable benefits from lifting weights in a similar manner to how men should train, whilst sculpting a “feminine” looking physique (Not overly muscular as many women fear will happen).
- However, consideration needs to be taken of the differences between men and women and training should also be adapted according to individual goals.
- There are many barriers that put women off women lifting weights. But, there are many solutions and I will discuss these and take some steps towards providing some of these solutions.
- One solution I will be providing early in 2016, is a women’s lifting course, which I’ve detailed here: https://strongforlife.co.uk/services/lifting-ladies/
This blog post will discuss the following:
- An overview on women and weight training.
- The views of 27 women, who recently completed a survey on their health, fitness and physique goals; female body ideals, training and barriers to women lifting weights.
- Why more women would benefit from lifting weights.
- What are the solutions to get more women lifting weights?
An overview on women and weight training:
Traditionally, lifting weights and strength training has been associated as a very masculine activity and even taboo in terms of women’s participation. Even today, many men and women still believe that lifting weights is an unfeminine activity that will too easily lead to an overly muscular or masculine physique.
Indeed, women’s weightlifting was only introduced as an Olympic sport in Sydney 2000, which is very recent considering men’s weightlifting was included in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Whilst this point looks only at weightlifting at the elite level, I certainly believe that it reflects the views that the world has on women lifting heavy weights in general; whether for health, fitness, keeping in shape or competing at any level.
Those views have since been changing, with women’s weightlifting no longer prohibited, and many more women entering the free weights areas in gyms. A recent article by the Guardian sums up the recent increase in – and changing attitude towards – women lifting weights: (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/dec/06/crossfit-weightlifting-strong-is-beautiful?CMP=share_btn_wa).
However, there are still many people of both sexes frowning upon and finding it hard to accept the concept of women lifting weights alongside the men.
As a strength coach, throughout the years my client base has varied between only 20 to 30% women. Places on my “Big Lifts” course were filled quickly, but 100% of those who participated and showed interest were men. The free weights area in every gym I’ve ever been to has been dominated by men. These are the main reasons I’m writing this post. Strength training clearly still appeals more to men, but I believe that it should appeal to both sexes equally and would really like to address this and introduce more women to lifting.
Survey on women’s physique goals and training:
I recently conducted an anonymous online survey, of which 27 women responded, assessing their attitudes and opinions on areas including health and fitness goals, female body ideals; and weight training. I realise that this is a very small sample of women and may not represent many other women’s views, however I gained some very interesting insights, which I would now like to share with everyone!
Full details of the survey can be found here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/results/SM-TLNLWDBC/, but I will summarise and discuss the key findings, with the number of women who gave a certain answer in brackets:
- Looking better or losing weight featured heavily as a priority goal, alongside better fitness and health.
Losing or maintaining weight was the number one goal for six women, with another six women stating that improving appearance or toning up was their main goal. Eleven women combined to name their number one goal as having better fitness (6) and better health (5). The other two number one goals mentioned were increased strength (3) and reduced body fat (3).
Improved appearance or “toning up” (12) was the overwhelming response to the number two goal, further emphasising the importance that the women surveyed placed on looking better when asked about goals relating to their health, fitness and physique.
- Increased confidence and looking better rank higher than improved health as reasons for wanting to achieve their goals.
Increased confidence (20) and looking better (18) ranked higher than health (16) as reasons for wanting to achieve their goals. However, everyone who mentioned better health, also included looking better within their answer. Looking and feeling better in clothes (5) was the next most common reason, which further highlights the importance of appearance to the women surveyed.
A few women expanded on their answers and talked about feeling uncomfortable around other women who are slim, worrying what men think about them, feeling more attractive and that society judges women on how they look.
- Most women surveyed believe that good nutrition and lifestyle habits are the key to achieving their goals, with lifting weights second, and cardio third.
62% believe looking after their nutrition and lifestyle better is the most important thing they can do to achieve their goals. 23% stated lifting weights and 15% said doing cardio.
- There are some women who feel too self-conscious or embarrassed to ask for help to achieve their goals.
The majority (81.5%) of the women surveyed stated that they would be willing to ask for help in order to achieve their goals, with the remaining 18.5% of women stating that they wouldn’t ask for help. Three of the five women surveyed stated that they wouldn’t be likely to ask for assistance because they are already confident in their ability to achieve their goals on their own. The remaining two women stated that feeling self-conscious or embarrassed would be the reasons for not asking for help (8%).
- A lean or “toned” body is seen as ideal by most of those surveyed, however there were many other completely different descriptions to describe the ideal female body
16 of the women surveyed described the ideal female body to be “lean” or “toned”. The other most popular answers included “not too skinny” (10), “curvy but lean” or “toned” (9), and “toned but not too muscular” (6).
On the other hand, five women mentioned that there is not one ideal body or that it is whatever the woman is happy with herself. Other significant answers were: “strong-looking” (6), “toned arms” (5), “slim waist” or “flat stomach” (4), “athletic-looking” (4), “not a female bodybuilder” (2) and “good bum” or “shaped glutes” (2).
- Curvaceous women including Beyonce, Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansen came out on top as the most admired bodies, although there were many different physique types included.
When asked which of the following women’s physiques they would choose, the results were as follows:
- Beyonce/Jennifer Lopez (Pear shaped: Thick but shapely legs and butt / slender waist and upper body): 40%
- Cameron Diaz/Jessica Biel (slim and very lean with defined muscles): 36%
- Jessica Alba/Zoe Saldana (slim and lean but minimal muscle definition): 24%
When asked to give the names of women whose physiques they admire, these were the answers:
Beyonce (3), Jennifer Lawrence (2), Scarlett Johansen (2), Jessica Biel (2), Emily Skye (2), Women on strictly come dancing / Georgia May Foote from strictly (2). Each of the following women’s names were mentioned once: Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, Khloe Kardashian, Emily Ratajkowski, Miranda Kerr, Megan Fox, Jodie Kidd, Carmen Electra, Holley Mangold, Tess Holliday, Andreia Brazier, Ronda Rousey, Jamie Eason, Jessica Ennis-Hill.
- “Lack of confidence” and “intimidated by the free weights area” are the top two reasons for stopping more women from training with weights.
When asked “What do you believe to be the reasons that stop more women from training with free weights?”, here were the results:
Not confident enough to perform the exercises or use the equipment
Intimidated by the free weights area
The fear of becoming too muscular
Don’t know what to do at all
Feel too self-conscious and don’t want people staring
The belief that time is better spent burning calories by doing cardio instead
The belief that lifting weights isn’t feminine
When asked to expand on their answers to the barriers stopping more women from lifting weights, the responses were:
“It’s boring” or “won’t enjoy it” (2).
Being “too anxious or self conscious about using free weights” (3).
“It’s male dominated and women make up less than 10% of the free weights area”.
“A lot of women prefer the group dynamics of an exercise class”.
“Many women are afraid of building muscle”
“Fear of heavy weights being dangerous”.
“Fear of becoming too muscular and that weights just for men”.
“A lot of myths surrounding strength training”
“There is no easy way to get into doing heavier weights because they can be dangerous and so you need to know what you’re doing, but asking is intimidating and in lots of gyms I’m not sure whether I could ask a staff member or not anyway”.
“To me the fear of becoming too muscular is the most important one! and I have heard a lot of girls saying that’s just for men”.
- Better knowledge, small group classes and personal training came out on top as the main things that would encourage more women to lift weights.
Personal training or having someone to help, and increasing knowledge about strength training were the most mentioned answers when asked “What would it take to encourage you to lift weights / lift weights more often?”.
Having a class or group training dedicated to women lifting weights was the next most popular answer, with 85% of all women surveyed stating that they would consider such a course. Other responses included better gym equipment, including a women’s 15kg barbell, a more private and better lit free weights area and instructions on how to use the gym equipment.
Why more women would benefit from lifting weights
Women and men generally have many similarities but also plenty of differences, both of which need to be considered in the training environment. Overall, my programming for female and male clients is very similar, which reflects the common goal (for both sexes) of reducing body fat. But as we have found from the survey, women have a lot of reservations about strength training, plus there are many other differences to be taken into account.
One of these differences is the fear of becoming too muscular, which as we’ve discovered, 70% of the women surveyed selected this as a reason that stops women from lifting weights. I haven’t conducted a survey on men yet, but I’m pretty certain that the fear of becoming too muscular isn’t as high on their list of reasons for not lifting! Women typically only possess a fraction of the testosterone that men have. Testosterone is a hormone in the body responsible increasing muscle mass, bone density and strength; therefore even if it is the goal of a woman to increase her muscle mass significantly, she will have a much harder challenge on her hands compared to man with the same goal.
For the majority of women who strength train in combination with a quality recovery strategy including good nutrition (see my previous post: https://strongforlife.co.uk/10-ways-take-nutrition-shocking-shining/), managed levels of stress and quality sleep; you will see some amazing results, not just physically but also psychologically.
Physically, lifting relatively heavy weights is the most effective way to improve the shape of the glutes (muscles of the backside). This is important because many of the women who were mentioned as having highly admired physiques in the survey have very well developed glutes. Yes, many women are blessed with naturally admirable physiques and there are areas that can’t be/or are tough to change such as natural body type, bust size/shape, and height. But there are areas which can be improved and the glutes are one key area. Having well developed glutes also has a great proportional effect on the body, giving the waist a much smaller appearance as the hip to waist ratio increases. If an hourglass shape is the goal, strength training targeted at the deltoids (shoulders) can add further balance and proportion to a woman’s physique, also making the waist appear relatively much smaller in comparison to the muscles trained.
There are also various articles/studies suggesting that direct/heavy abdominal and obliques training can lead to a thicker midsection, something that many women would want to avoid, as a slim waist was valued highly in the survey. This is another area which could have an entire blog post, and even a book, written on the subject. For now, here’s an interesting article on the subject :https://www.t-nation.com/training/is-your-ab-workout-making-you-look-fat
In my view, before focusing on physique improvements, the main goals of strength training should be to increase movement quality, confidence and health first. Learning to lift relatively heavy weights alongside the men can be an extremely empowering and confidence-building activity. Building a well-moving, strong and flexible body will make you more resilient against injury, able to perform daily physical tasks with ease and boost overall health and wellbeing. A well-developed backside may look amazing in a pair of jeans or a dress, but having strong, fully functioning glute muscles is even more important for optimal movement and injury prevention. With these key elements as primary goals, in combination with quality recovery as discussed, an incredible female physique and confidence to match will no doubt emerge.
It must be noted that there are some women who may put on a bit too much muscle for their liking, if strength training for a prolonged period. If this isn’t the goal, strength coach Bret Contreras advises the following which highlights the importance of nutrition:
“How your legs look as a result of squatting has very much to do with the way you are eating. If you’re eating at a caloric surplus, then they’ll likely increase in size, but if you’re eating at a caloric deficit, they’ll likely decrease in size but retain their muscular shape”. (http://bretcontreras.com/women-squat-dont-want-big-legs/)
Bret also has another very interesting article which discusses the fear women have about becoming too muscular from lifting weights, for those who would rather have a slender but less defined physique (relevant to 24% of the women in my survey): http://bretcontreras.com/how-to-attain-a-slender-look-like-jessica-alba-zoe-saldana/:
In summary, this article supports women to lift progressively heavier weights, unless they think that they’re becoming too muscular; which may never become the case for many women anyway (as discussed, due to body type and testosterone level limitations). If it does become the case, Bret still advises women to strength train but without as much emphasis on progressive overload and more focus on variety and glute-specific exercises such as hip thrusts.
A whole new blog post and more can be dedicated to discussing strength training specific to women and women’s body ideals. But for those interested in reading more, here are some more interesting online articles:
What are the solutions to get more women lifting weights?
- The media has a massive responsibility for promoting healthy and realistic body goals
The media’s idea of beauty is subjective and changes, but it has a great impact on women’s opinions of the ideal body. Between the 1930’s and 50’s, a curvaceous hourglass figure was generally portrayed as attractive. In the 60’s, a very slim physique was seen as more ideal, moving towards a taller “supermodel” look in the 80’s, but then back to an extremely thin “ideal” in the 90’s. Since the turn of the millennium, the media has placed more value on women who are still slim but with more developed muscles, especially the glutes, which is reflected in the results of my survey!
My view is that we are born with genetics that make it difficult to achieve certain physique goals, regardless of how disciplined we are. However, strength training is one of the most important tools that we can use to sculpt our bodies to our best potential. Whether we have a naturally curvaceous frame and want to reduce body fat, or if we are naturally very slim and want to develop some more shape; lifting weights is one of the most important solutions, as I will discuss next!
- Improved education on the benefits of strength training
This could be another whole separate blog post, but I’ll keep it as short as possible!
As we’ve confirmed; losing weight, looking better and improving health are among the most important training goals for women. Lifting weights, alongside sustaining good nutrition and lifestyle habits should be the priority for all of these goals. Cardio has its benefits, but it will not boost our metabolism, build shapely and feminine muscles or improve our bone density like lifting weights will. Add in improved movement quality, skill acquisition, flexibility and confidence to name only a few more benefits that cardio machines just do not offer!
Provided quality nutrition and lifestyle habits are in place, the vast majority of women will see amazing and desirable results to their physique and confidence. More women need to be aware of the benefits and writing this post will hopefully help more women to get into lifting.
- Commercial gyms need to start phasing out cardio and resistance machines and put more emphasis on creating larger, better planned, less intimidating free weights areas.
The term “functional training” gets thrown around quite a lot and it’s great news that many commercial gyms are going down the route of encouraging the addition of more “functional” equipment such as kettlebells, TRX, battle ropes, prowlers etc. Commercial cardio and resistance equipment is very, very expensive and gyms will also save a lot of money by phasing it out in favour of adding more and better quality free weight equipment, and creating more space for this equipment to be used in.
Currently, many commercial gyms have an over abundance of machines as they are very easy to use, need minimal instruction and look very flashy and impressive when prospective members tour the facility. However, with machines, we are often trapped into a piece of equipment which our body wasn’t designed to be constrained within. They can restrict our movement potential, develop lazy and poor movement patterns and are tedious, to name just a few drawbacks.
In the survey, 78% of the women mentioned that free weights areas are too intimidating. I believe that the reason for this is that most free weights areas in commercial gyms are way too small, cluttered with equipment and have too many mirrors. If more space was dedicated to a free weights area, with plenty of space to work in isolation if needed, and areas with minimal mirrors; more women would feel comfortable to head in and lift weights. A free weights area should be as close as possible to the cardio area, with no physical boundaries if possible i.e. ramps, changes in flooring, barriers etc; so that women can blend in and out of each area, essentially creating a more open plan gym floor which is open to all.
- Gym inductions should include less machine exercises and more focus on fundamental movements such as squatting, hip-hinging and overhead pressing.
Many of us sit all day at a desk, then sit down in the car to drive to the gym, where we sit in a machine. We use more energy when stood up, so in my book, most exercises should be done standing! Plus, we can actually move around and articulate multiple joints through the full range of movement, in multiple planes, as our bodies were designed to; leading to better “real world” strength, flexibility and health. It’s sad that many of us lose the ability to squat to full depth, like we used to as a toddler. Squatting and deadlifting use more muscles, joints and energy than any other exercises (perhaps excluding only the Olympic lifts) and should be fundamental to every gym induction. For those who don’t have the mobility or movement quality to perform squats and deadlifts, there are many regressions and variations of these lifts which should be taught to start new members off.
- PT courses need to emphasise free weights training more, as lifting weights can be highly technical and take many years to master.
The PT course I studied for was very basic and had minimal focus on the technical execution of free weight exercises. I’ve since learnt that you can dedicate a lifetime to learning and practicing certain lifts and still not have the technique at a fully optimal level. Progressing and regressing squat and deadlift variations can take a lot of time and effort to cover. Some courses are better than others, but I believe that every course should dedicate more time to the big free weight lifts as they can take many years to master.
- Diagrams and explanations of what to do in free weights area
This is something that a couple of women mentioned in the survey and it may be beneficial to a degree. However, lifting weights is a skill and the best way to learn is to have someone to coach the lifts to you. I’ve had and still have coaches working with me on my weightlifting technique and would have found it very difficult to learn the techniques without someone qualified to coach me. Even watching videos of lifts can prove difficult to transfer over to your own performance in the gym, as there is no one to assess your movement patterns, mobility restrictions, offer specific assistance exercises etc.
- PT / Small group courses focussing on free weight training specific to women’s needs.
I am launching a new course in 2016 called: “Lifting for Ladies”, that will teach the most important free weights exercises. The goal is to empower more women to lift weights through educating and coaching the technique of the lifts specific to women’s needs. Many of these lifts will be similar to those that I coach men, but there will be consideration of the differing requirements of women.
Details of the course can be found here:
Hope you enjoyed reading and that I inspire more women to start and continue to lift weights!