The Myth About Women and Weight Training

As some point in one of my early blog posts, I promised to write specifically about women and weight training. It’s not that I’m any sort of expert. I don’t have any special knowledge about female weight trainers beyond what I read and what I experience at the gym. I do however, know how to use Google, and being a reasonably competent researcher, can figure out what information seems useful vs. mythical.

female weight training
Photo credit: Simplyshredded.com

I’m writing this specifically to women, young and old, who’ve been mistakenly taught that you aren’t supposed to lift weights and especially, aren’t supposed to “lift like a man.”

I’ve started following a number of fitness blogs just to further my education and to support other bloggers who have an emphasis similar to mine. One blog I read regularly is Shape180. This blog is administered by Haley who is a certified personal trainer and, among other things, writes about women and weight training. In fact, she’s a big advocate of women hitting the weight room for strength training:

Muscle mass diminishes with age, so the importance of strength training cannot be ignored. The more muscle you build the leaner and stronger you’ll become, making everyday tasks more manageable (i.e., carrying groceries, opening heavy doors) while decreasing many risks of injury (i.e., back, shoulder, knee pain). Training with weights will also improve bone density, posture, balance, and co-ordination. It will give you those curves and definition you desire, not bulk!

And she’s not the only one. In fact, quite a number of credible sources believe that women should train like men. For instance, the pundits at Bodybuilding.com believe that women should not only be training with weights but training heavy. It’s a myth that if women were to train heavy, they’d all become bulky. According to Simplyshreded.com, women can’t become bulky because their testosterone levels are vastly less than a man’s.

You may have seen female bodybuilders who do have builds similar to male bodybuilders, but in order to achieve that look, they likely are taking “exogenous testosterone injections and/or other anabolic steroids.” My guess is that’s not an option you’d choose (unless you plan on becoming a female bodybuilder).

Another myth about women and lifting heavy comes from a totally sexist perspective. It’s the idea that women aren’t physically strong and could never handle a weight training program the same as a man.

Baloney.

I see women in the weight room at my gym, not as many as there are men, but they do show up and they work hard. Many are quite fit, thin, with well-defined muscles. I’ve never seen a women lift as heavy as the strongest men at the gym, but lifting heavy is a relative term. According to what John Berardi wrote at Bodybuilding.com:

Don’t get the impression that I’m telling you that you need to be able to lift “x” number of lbs to obtain a hard physique. Heavy is a relative term; 600 lbs is considered “light” to some of the guys on the Westside Barbell powerlifting team; however, the average gym goer would deem that same load monsterously heavy. In fact, if I loaded 600 lbs on the squat bar and proceeded to attempt a repetition, I would be rewarded with a few broken legs, but I digress.

exercise weightsIn Part 2 of his article, Berardi recommends exercises for women such as the Barbell full squat, Barbell deadlift, Chin ups, Bench dips, Dumbbell shoulder presses, and more. These are all exercises you commonly expect men in the weight room to perform but there’s absolutely no reason that women shouldn’t do the same exercises. A woman can and should use all of the same equipment at the gym as any man.

Okay, I’m not saying you should do anything that you don’t want to do or something that makes you feel uncomfortable. I’m just saying that you shouldn’t restrict what you do at the gym because you’re a woman.

I found an article at Nerdfitness.com called 7 Strength Training Myths Every Woman Should Know. The seventh myth is “Older women shouldn’t strength train.”

After women reach menopause, and the potential for osteoporosis kicks in, many women tend to shy away from strength training for fear of injuring themselves.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!

That is the PERFECT time to strength train! Studies have shown that in post-menopausal women, strength training “preserved bone density while improving muscle mass, strength, and balance in postmenopausal women.”

Certainly you remember my blog post about Virginia “Gus” Rizen who began strength training at the age of 91.

The fifth myth in the list is “Men and women should train differently.” Again, I’m not saying that you have to do everything at the gym that your male counterparts are doing, just that you aren’t barred from entering the free weight room, nor does being a woman mean you’re forbidden to pick up a barbell.

Both the Bodybuilding.com article and the one at Simplyshredded.com outline specific weight training routines for women but frankly, there’s no reason why these aren’t good workout programs for men, too. I think the reason both sites are promoting these routines is to show their women readers that they can train the same way men train.

While most of these websites and blogs are writing to younger women, as I’ve said, there’s no reason older women, women in their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond, can’t or shouldn’t lift, barring a specific medical condition.

heavy lifting
Photo credit: examiner.com

I encourage you to click on each of the links I’ve provided since they point to a lot more information than I’m able to put into a single blog post and keep it a reasonable length. I think you’ll find that information supports everything I’ve just said and frankly, I’m sick and tired of the sexist attitudes that keep women from believing they can do the same things in the weight room than men can. I don’t doubt that there are women weight trainers who would make me look like a total wimp by lifting far heavier loads than I’m currently capable of. More power to them…and to you.

Oh, just one thing to note. Most or all of the photos on these various websites and blogs show very young, shapely women working out in clothes that cling to every curve and always showing their bare midriffs. At the wee gym where I workout, I’ve never seen a women exercise just in shorts (especially skin tight shorts) and a sports bra. Also, there are women of all shapes, sizes, body types, and ages at my gym. Working out is an equal opportunity experience. The photos of sexy young women you see are just marketing. Real life workouts are about real life people, just like you and me.

Addendum: I just read a story at ESPN.com (I found the link on Facebook) about a regular guy posting to social media about how he made a mistake at the gym and was laughed at by some other guys. Who else but Arnold Schwarzenegger chimed in giving this fellow some much needed support and encouragement. We all have bad workouts, and it’s never appropriate to laugh at someone else’s mistake. The biggest muscle we need to exercise, at the gym or anywhere else, is our heart. Schwarzenegger showed us he has a big heart by encouraging a total stranger in a public media forum. Good guy Arnie.

I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.

Stephen Covey

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4 thoughts on “The Myth About Women and Weight Training

  1. I’d say the big, fat caveat to heavy lifting for women is getting approval from your doctor first. There are many potential stages in a woman’s life, and heavy lifting would definitely not be appropriate in some of them (pregnancy or post-partum, for example). Also, there are conditions women who have borne children are more prone to that heavy lifting can cause. Definitely not true that there are no unique concerns for women who want to lift, even if the essential message that lifting is beneficial is true. The question always on my mind is: to what degree?

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    1. Kari, my general caveat for anyone who wants to start a particularly training regime, is to first consult with their medical practitioner. I’m certainly not advocating the abandonment of common sense, nor do I want to come across as if I think all women *must* go this route. The center of my message is just not to allow preconceived notions about women and weight training to prevent you (or anyone) from lifting at all or only lifting three to five pound dumbbells as the extent of your abilities. Also, as I said in the body of the blog post, “heavy” is a relative term. When I lift “heavy” for me, it’s probably pretty light compared to what some of the other guys lift.

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  2. Thank-you so much for mentioning me and my blog in your post, I really appreciate it!! Your blog is great and I enjoy following it. Keep motivating others and do what you do 🙂

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