I have lost count of the number of women who say to me, “I don’t want to do weight lifting, I just want to tone up a bit.” I am sure that many of you have heard the same sort of thing and as people who understand the benefits of weight training you want to be able to change their minds. But how do we do it when the myths and negative images around weight training are so deeply embedded?
“There is no such thing as ‘firming and toning’. There is only stronger and weaker.”
- Mark Rippetoe, ‘Sex, Appearance and Training’, Crossfit Journal May 2007
Weight training gets a very bad press and yet it is an incredibly beneficial thing to do. Alleviating back pain, making it easier to burn fat, improving flexibility and posture, increasing strength and bone density, increased confidence – these are some of the great benefits.
If someone wants to run or cycle or play a running-around sport for its own sake I have no problem with that – heck, I belong to a running club myself. But if women are only getting into running or aerobics or pilates because they think it will make them healthier or thinner, then that is a source of frustration because they are only tapping into a limited area of exercise which will not necessarily result in well-rounded fitness and is not ideal for many people.
I have said before that I no longer believe that the simplistic argument that weight training makes you look good is effective. I don’t want to appeal to women on the level of image, for two reasons. Firstly weight training has so many negative images associated with it that it’s difficult to overturn these with mere words. A woman called mae on a strength training message forum once wisely pointed out:
“Any female who expresses concern about getting “bulky” has seen a woman she considers bulky and knows that she doesn’t want to look that way. And everyone has their own idea of what “bulky” means: while most people on this forum would disagree, there are plenty of girls who would say the Crossfit women are too bulky. In other words, women are capable of getting bulky–it just depends on how one defines “bulky”.
In fact most people look much bulkier in the gym than they do on the street. Tight fitting gym clothes and muscle pump can make you look very different, as any fitness model knows! The same woman who seems ‘bulky’ in the midst of a workout will look fantastic in a little black dress at a party.
Nevertheless it is difficult to argue that weight training won’t make you bulky when for years the industry has been selling itself as doing just that. No matter that the industry made promises it couldn’t keep and many of its stars were on steroids – this is the image that people have been left with and it is incredibly hard to shift.
The second reason is that what people will do to themselves for the sake of looking good is not the same as what people are prepared to do for health and fitness. For example there will always be some women who are prepared to starve themselves or go on fad diets in order to look better, but I believe there are higher numbers of women these days who want to eat better in order to increase health, longevity and resistance to disease.
Likewise there is potentially more mileage in teaching women that weight training is good for them, than in trying to persuade women that weight training will make them look hot. It will – but most women will only be persuaded of this after it actually happens, not before! In the meantime, the argument that they need to do weight training for health could bear more fruit.
There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to look good, but it is a pity if this is the only aspiration, especially for the younger generation. I would like to think that women can aspire to be healthy, strong and athletic in the same way as many men do.
Women have shown that when they take on the traditional male preserves, for example in business, politics or academia, they can not only be successful on a personal level but can change society’s perceptions and move things forward. I believe that strength training is part of that change too. In fact it is one of the few untapped areas of life where women are still considered to be virtually incapable. We’ve got our degrees, we’ve built the high-flying career and we’ve run a marathon – why the hell aren’t we getting stronger too?!
It is important for trainers and instructors to help break down the mental barriers by giving their clients the belief that they can do things. My sense is that many fitness professionals all too easily give in to their clients saying “I can’t” or “I don’t want to”, presumably for fear of losing them as clients.
Yet women who would think nothing of picking up a child who weighs 20kg are told they are not strong enough to handle an olympic bar (this happened to me a few years ago). Most women would be pushing more weight if they did bicep curls with their one year old baby than with the pink dumbbells they pick up in the gym, since a one year old weighs about 9kg.
But imagine the joy and sense of achievement that a client can experience when they do shift something heavier than they thought they could manage. Surely it is the role of any personal trainer or fitness instructor to help their clients achieve something they could not do on their own.
The next big thing?
I believe strength training is the undiscovered ‘next big thing’. We’ve seen amazing strides in public health in recent years, from reducing smoking to healthy eating and encouraging exercise, albeit only a particular form of exercise (low intensity cardio).
But there’s an unacknowledged secret to real health and it is strength training. I am not talking about lifting a 3kg dumbbell because you think it will ‘tone’ you, I am talking about the aspiration to be stronger and the desire to train in a manner than sees results and progression in terms not just of shape but of strength and health.