the joy of strength training


February 22nd, 2009 at 1:17 pm

The toning problem: why women are missing out when it comes to weight training

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”.

squat girlIn 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.

Further reading

Is it really about looks?

A weighty topic

Getting into weight training: a female friendly guide

The bone building workout from Stumptuous

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  • 1

    Absolutely! I love strength training! Something that I think most women don’t know or don’t think of is that you don’t get big muslces overnight and if you do get too big (for you) – you can always stop lifting!

    Lady G on February 23rd, 2009
  • 2

    Interesting piece!

    I think for women to become engaged into something like resistance training, there needs to be some sort of acknowledgement that they’re already doing some form of it on a day to day basis i.e. as you mentioned, picking up a heavy toddler, lifting heavy bags etc, so doing tricep kickbacks with itty bitty weights after playing 40 mins of cardio musical chairs is a bit moot.

    There was recently an article in the Daily Male (I’ll dig up the link if you want) where one of the journalists did Madonna’s workouts (I think it was based on Tracy ‘no woman should ever lift more than 3lbs’ Anderson’s expertise). Under the ‘toning’ caption were exercises using 3lb dumbbells… SIGH!

    Rooroo on February 23rd, 2009
  • 3

    @ Lady G: yes this is a crucial point.

    @ rooroo: yes I’ll be interested to see that. There’s a disconnect, isn’t there, between weights in the gym and functional strength on a daily basis. I don’t think the fitness industry helps when it peddles programmes that apparently deliver instant results with barely any work. Women are sold the story that health and hotness can be achieved with very little effort – less effort, in fact, than they spend doing the weekly shopping.

    gubernatrix on February 23rd, 2009
  • 4

    Here it is:–nearly-killed-says-Ashley-Pearson.html

    Complete with, ‘avoiding bulking up’ at least twice in the article.

    Rooroo on February 23rd, 2009
  • 5

    Thanks for the link. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! I swear I have no idea what the extract below is supposed to mean but it reminds me of John Prescott – the words are there but surely in the wrong order?

    “We will be working the ‘accessory muscles’, and not the large, major muscle groups such as biceps and quadriceps. Building these small muscles, which are scattered around your legs, arms and torso, not only prevents you from bulking up, but acts to pull in your frame – and make you smaller than you thought you could be.”

    I mean, what???!!

    gubernatrix on February 23rd, 2009
  • 6

    As always, great article. From my experience, it’s incredibly difficult to convince someone (a client or friend or family member) that weight training is necessary, even for fat loss. I find that even men who are trying to lose weight discount the benefits of strength training and focus their program on cardio (and, of course, to the greater population, cardio equals treadmill or eliptical). Don’t get me wrong, running on a treadmill or using an elyptical for hours on end, combined with a good diet can get people to a goal weight, but the liklihood of it working is slim to none.

    Jamie on February 23rd, 2009
  • 7

    It’s painful, isn’t it? 100 reps and running backwards on a treadmill?!

    Rooroo on February 23rd, 2009
  • 8

    I am convinced the next big thing will be strength training, just like they “recently” rediscovered that excessive consumption of carbs are bad. Further, I think training outside gyms or in functional gyms will become very popular.

    Rolfe on February 23rd, 2009
  • 9

    Thanks a bunch Sally, I’m sending a link to this to some clients in an e-mail, it does me no good to beat their heads against the wall, sometimes it just needs to be said by another.

    jason on February 23rd, 2009
  • 10

    I was intrigued/amused/frustrated by this article, outlining “Claire Danes’ Strength and Lower Body Workout”.

    They go into detail about rotational step-ups, but then handwave what’s probably the more important part:

    “The petite actress builds strong bones and muscles by lifting weights. Trainer Joe Dowdell has actress Claire Danes hoist some hefty weights during her high-intensity workouts.”


    lelak on February 24th, 2009
  • 11

    @ lelak: good point. In fact, I was so intrigued by this line that I googled Joe Dowdell. Turns out he runs an impressive looking functional training facility in NY and the promotional video features sled pulling, kettlebells, box jumps – but you’d never know it from articles like that. What is the point in trying to hide the truth from people? My cynical side says it is something to do with magazines needing advertising revenue from equipment manufacturers and health clubs….

    gubernatrix on February 24th, 2009
  • 12

    @ Jamie: agree and you make a good point about men as well. Men have some of the same ‘bulking up’ issues and also the misapprehension that dropping fat is all about high impact cardio.

    @ Rolfe: I hope this is the case but there are many vested interests (equipment manufacturers and health clubs) in keeping people indoors and away from functional objects!

    @ jason: glad to be of help!

    gubernatrix on February 24th, 2009
  • 13

    Excellent article. I wish more people (women in particular) shared your awareness of this.

    I’ve written my own rants about this very subject.

    I’ve also seen women who are exercise phys. grad students tell me that “they lift” the proceed to go do curls with 5lbs weight. It makes my head hurt, and plenty of people who really should know better are guilty of this.

    Chris - on February 24th, 2009
  • 14


    Ref: “I hope this is the case but there are many vested interests (equipment manufacturers and health clubs) in keeping people indoors and away from functional objects!”

    I am optimist, and my faith in the power of the internet is great. The thruth will come out, just like it did with carbs and healthy eating. The message will not come through to everybody, but the “snowball” effect will work here as well. Those who seek information will find it and spread the word. You are doing a great job of it already!
    I agree wholeheartedly with you that the “health” industry will try to muddle the facts. I despair when I am unable to convince even my own wife that she should to do some strength training in addition to the cardio to help her with her spinal problems (and to loose weight, which she desperately wants to do). I guess she is like the rest of the world, she will not believe until she is ready.

    While I have your attention. Still working on those muscle ups?

    Rolfe on February 24th, 2009
  • 15

    No, haven’t done any work on muscle ups for a long time. I have preferred to spend my time on other things. I may go back to working on them in the future but its a big investment in time and not sure what the real rewards will be. I might just work on bar muscle-ups instead of ring muscle-ups as by all accounts they are much easier.

    gubernatrix on February 25th, 2009
  • 16

    The real long term health benefit of strength training is centered around it’s role in combating sarcopenia (age related muscles loss) and osteoporosis.

    You don’t necessarily have to bulk up or even try and gain muscle, but fighting hard to maintain current levels of muscle mass as you age is where the magic of strength training lies.

    The same goes for increasing bone density, particularly in women.

    May 86-year-old grandfather is weak abnd frail becuase he has n muscle to speak of. If he had been strength training al his life, he might not be “buff” at 86, but I’m betting that he would have the physical strength to carry his shopping, get out of a chair on his own and walk without the aid of a stick.

    Without meaning to sound both sexist and ageist here, women and old folks have the most to gain from strength training. By a country mile.

    Yet, sadly, it’s still seen as the preserve of young males, athletes, bodybuilders and fitness freaks.

    Every time I see a middle aged woman or an old man jogging, I feel like crying. They could be doing something much more productive in terms of fighting the effects of aging. But alas, strength training requires reading and knowledge, jogging along aimlessly requires none.

    Gary on February 27th, 2009
  • 17

    Apologies for the poor spelling in that post!

    Gary on February 27th, 2009
  • 18

    You seem to have read my mind Gary! I am actually in the process of writing an article that deals with the point you are making (although not exclusively). It seems illogical that old people are now being referred for weight training by GPs – often for rehabilitation purposes – but they are not giving the same advice to young people as a preventative measure.

    gubernatrix on February 27th, 2009
  • 19

    OTOH, good news. Women in my country (USA) are seeing our new First Lady’s arms and running to the weight room….hehe.

    CNN article:

    Mikey on March 3rd, 2009
  • 20

    Hey thanks for posting that link Mikey. Michelle Obama looks fab and there were some sensible points made in that article. I am not sure whether it is really enough to wean women off pink dumbbells and onto real weights but it is a step in the right direction. What we need now is to see Michelle Obama lifting something heavy – the Resolute desk, perhaps?

    gubernatrix on March 3rd, 2009
  • 21

    […] The toning problem: why women are missing out when it comes to weight training […]

  • 22

    I’m a woman who had the same concerns about bulking up. I’ve been doing serious weight training for about 2 months and am amazed at the difference. I haven’t bulked up but have rather leaned up. I’m fortunate enough to be able to afford a personal trainer. Usually I don’t like female personal trainers as they have a tendency to train very light, bands, light weights etc., I’ve always had better results with men. However, the trainer I have now is a female and she rocks. She has me doing things I’ve only seen men do. Most importantly, she isnt fond of machines and MAKES me spend time in the weight room which is usually inhabited by men. Cardio is good but the weight training has increased my lean muscle mass (I still weigh the same) thereby making me look smaller. I never got that with running and cycling.

    denise on October 7th, 2009
  • 23

    A perfect story Denise! I hope more women have your experience. Did you actively seek out your PT because of the way she trains people, or did you just happen upon her by chance?

    gubernatrix on October 7th, 2009
  • 24

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  • 29

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    fitnessmachineguy on November 12th, 2011
  • 30

    What the hell?! I just read that Daily Mail article! If i ran backwards on a treadmill not only would i fall off and damage myself but i’d probably get kicked out of the gym for contravening Health and Safety regulations! What on earth is it meant to prove? I mean, sure, its safer than walking down the street backward, but toning? Um…nope. Cant see it I’m afraid. Not to mention 3lb dumbbells. I mean, exactly that. They just shouldn’t be mentioned. My 5 year old could manage 3lb, easily. And 100 reps? Wouldn’t that basically just constitute another form of using muscular endurance as cardio to the detriment of bone and muscle mass that is so necessary in women, especially after 30?

    Alice on April 25th, 2012
  • 31

    Sorry 🙁 had a little rant there.

    Alice on April 30th, 2012
  • 32

    Feel free! It’s entertaining.

    gubernatrix on May 2nd, 2012
  • 33

    I have come across obese women 100 kg+, who were concerned about weight training making them bulky and chunky! For many people ignorance is a virtue.

    Helen on April 1st, 2013
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