the joy of strength training

Gubernatrix

October 14th, 2009 at 3:34 pm

Strong is beautiful

An essay on strength training as if people mattered.

I love strength training. You know it, but I’ll say it anyway, I bloody love it. It’s one of the most happy, positive things in my life. I like knowing I’m strong and I’m only getting stronger.

Why the sudden strength affirmation?

Well a number of things have occurred in the last couple of days. My wise friend Andrew asked me to give a talk on ‘women and strength training’. Then my tovarisch Chip Conrad posted an essay about gender strength (an extract from his book which you should seriously consider buying). Plus a couple of forum conversations I had all combined to get me thinking about this notion of strong women.

We are all aware of the issue, I expect. I’ve talked about it many times on this blog: the mismatch between the stereotypical bodybuilder-inspired image of a weight training woman which every chick thinks she will turn into, and the reality of women who do train with weights.

Chip sums it up in his piece, like a man who has been to this land before and knows how to communicate with the natives but still carries a revolver, just in case:

“Physical strength is held as a male trait. Wait… drop it. Do not throw anything at me yet. If this isn’t true then why is the common stereotype of a strong woman riddled with words like ‘butch’, ‘bulky,’ ‘steroids’, or any number of terms that have very male connotations? And why are women’s ‘fitness’ magazines so bent on perpetuating a soft, helpless version of a woman who should only do petite Pilates moves or move little colored weights around that weigh less then a kitten? And why does the cover always feature a waif-ish model who looks like a 12-year old boy with make-up on as some sort of icon to what a ‘fit’ woman is?”

I don’t disagree with this. But since it isn’t news, I suspect, to any of you, I want to go beyond the magazines and media images and examine exactly what happens when you do train.

Personally I have had nothing but positive reaction to my ever developing strength abilities. Either that or I’ve just grown completely oblivious to any negative reactions. But I think it’s the former.

The point being that there’s a difference between what images people associate if you fling the term “strong woman” at them, and what they think when you are standing in front of them.

Yeah, no-one looks their best in the middle of a max deadlift, but I’m cute when I smile!

I find that what people see in front of them starts to modify the mental images. Here’s a real living breathing person who looks normal (apart from the weirdly fluffy hairdo), saying she lifts this and presses that and heaves the other. And she looks pretty happy about it. Maybe the media fed images aren’t true after all.

Obviously the light bulb doesn’t always go on immediately as the media images are very powerful. But a seed has been planted.

Numbers

To a certain extent, it’s a numbers game. There aren’t enough women lifting weights in gyms across the land for any other images to take hold.

Most people don’t see women lifting heavy in the gym. They don’t believe it happens. They don’t know how it happens. Therefore you can stick any image you like on the cover of a magazine and people won’t know whether it is true or not.

Men who say women don’t work hard in the gym haven’t done some empirical study of the phenomenon. They’ve just never seen it happen (or more specifically they’ve not seen women training hard in a particular way which they class as ‘real training’; busting a gut in spinning class or yoga apparently doesn’t count).

However once people see women training with weights properly, I find that they start to get it. And they like it! I’ve had nothing but positive vibes from people. I’ve been accepted and respected by the ‘meatheads’ at every single gym I’ve belonged to – yeah it takes a few weeks but it happens eventually.

Who’da thunk it? Reality wins!

Men

Let’s talk about what men think for a second. Hey, most of you reading this are men anyways.

I am sure we’ve all seen the comments: the claims that women don’t work hard in the gym, women with muscles and six packs are ugly, women shouldn’t lift weights because it’s not ladylike blah blah.

Here’s the truth about women’s weight training: men are, on the whole, pretty impressed.

I’ve never had so many compliments on my physique or attitude as when I’m training. Seriously, if you care about such things, squatting heavy is a guy magnet.

I don’t care if the interest is flirty or technical – both are fine by me. If the interest is technical, I’ve got rather more to say, but I’m not fussed.

Yeah, the world isn’t perfect but there’s plenty of spare respect to go around. Women can choose to dance around in their panties on youtube and pander to male chauvinist images of what they should look like, or women can respect themselves and pursue what they think is right for them (and if that is dancing around in your panties, why not consider competitive pole dancing?).

Pretty girls are everywhere, strong women are rare! I’ll never stand out as being pretty (I have a brilliant mind of course but that doesn’t show up in a club) but put me in a squat cage with a pair of black leggings on and I’ll show you who’s your daddy.

Women

In all the years I’ve been going to the gym I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of women who have come up to me and asked me about training. This bothers me. In the past I’ve just shrugged my shoulders and carried on with what I was doing. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

Am I even leading the horse to water though? Or am I just leaving it in the dusty street to find its own way to the water trough (which is surrounded by thirsty bulls slurping all the water and farting).

Before I lose you all in that metaphor, what I mean is, have I myself done enough to create the opportunity for women to ask about strength training and actually get to do it properly? Not doing the dumbbell shoulder press on a swiss ball exercise that the PT gave them but getting under an olympic bar in the squat rack.

Perhaps the wise friend who has asked me to give a seminar is on the right track. Let’s give some talks and start some women-only sessions round the power cage!

Heroes

When I think back to what got me into strength training, I don’t remember it being anything external. There wasn’t anyone that I wanted to be like or become, it was just the way I felt inside when performing a feat of strength (at that time a relatively wimpy feat, but still a feat).

Women don’t have physical strength heroes in the way that men do. Women don’t have the pressure to be bigger, stronger and tougher the way that men do. This has its advantages (men don’t escape unscathed either) but it does mean that women are less likely to explore feats of physical strength as a method of self improvement, empowerment and happiness – especially when becoming strong is apparently contraindicated for beauty, if we believe the magazine images.

There’s no particular reason why men should be the protectors and women the carers. The roles can be interchangeable.

MrandMrsSmith

Beauty

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
John Keats’ talking urn

We can ask ‘what is strength?’ and try to define it for ourselves.

We can also ask ‘what is beauty?’ and try to define this for ourselves, since many of us (all of us?) first stepped inside a gym because we wanted to be some kind of beautiful.

I’m not talking about inner beauty either – or not just about inner beauty. I mean real, visceral, gorgeous, physical beauty made even more intense by its truth.

Call me sceptical but I look at magazine images and although I can see that they are put together pleasingly, they might as well be pencil sketches for all the relationship they bear to reality (and that’s not being fair to pencil sketches).

For me, strength is a vital component of beauty – physical as well as metaphysical and intellectual.

We shouldn’t get hung up about images of beauty or what other people think is beautiful or not beautiful. We need to know what beauty looks and feels like for ourselves.

Need a hero? Watch this great video. And then go here.

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  • 1

    I think the “squatting heavy is a guy magnet” statement probably needs to be qualified… a woman squatting heavy is a heavy squatting man magnet. Boys who don’t squat will flee and hide.

    Boris on October 14th, 2009
  • 2

    Boris is spot on. I have a strong love for strong and fit women, but it faded quite a bit when I had long breaks in training. Consciously I knew that I love muscle and strength in women, but raw appreciation wasn’t there. It would come back as soon as I was back to heavy squats and deadlifts.

    Sasha on October 14th, 2009
  • 3

    i totally disagree with you kate, you would definatly stand out to me if you were in a club…ever consider coming to Ireland?…seriously though, strong women are very sexy and i have to disagree with boris; having a strong girl on your arm is something to be proud of…if she is stronger than you cheer her on and i’d say a little competition is nothing to shy away from

    Michael on October 15th, 2009
  • 4

    Michael,
    I think you misunderstood me – in my squat-centric view, attractiveness doubles when a person steps into the squat rack (to squat, of course – curls don’t do it).

    Boris on October 15th, 2009
  • 5

    I think you forgot to mention that the common understanding of a “strong woman” dont have anything to do with physical strength. Physical strength is completely off the radar to most women. They only learn about the benefits of strength training when they get osteoporosis or similar and perhaps not even then. Strangely enough most women and men find the aesthetics of a strong female body more pleasing to the eye than the alternatives:

    Calorie deprived to stay thin (but no firmness)
    Too many calories and the wrong kind (flab).
    Bodies pushed through an abundance of endurance work to become bony and sinewy (cortisol overindulgence)

    Many women seems obsessed with aesthetics and their looks, but fail to see that strength training will give them so much of what they want. In addition it is outright good for the body. A win-win. Unfortunately there are just so many myths out there on what is healthy and what is not. The dangers of training with weights and waking up as she-hulk the next morning. Diet and a whole bunch of other mis-information women are exposed to all the time. Most dont take the time to find the good information in the ocean of mis-information.

    There really is competitive pole dancing? Dang, I need to get out more often 🙂

    A women with a real six-pack have my respect. That is a women who have real strength of will and dedication.
    A strong body is a beutiful body indeed. I wish there could be more attention on the benefits of true strength training in the media instead of the current focus on the body freakshows.
    I have tried convincing girlfriends and partners to train strength, but with little luck. Too often I got the “I dont want large muscles” or similar excuses. Only one of my girlfriends liked to train strength and that was a great time. She did not become she-hulk but was still stronger than some of the guys in the gym. She got a lot of positive attention from those guys but never from the girls on the stairmasters or recumbents.

    More girls doing hard strength training would be great, but until the right ideals are communicated in the mass media it will probably not happen.

    Rolfe on October 15th, 2009
  • 6

    Gubs,

    Great post! Good insight and analysis. I’d add that I don’t think it’s possible separate the inner and outer beauty…but probably not in the way that seems obvious. I’ll get to that shortly but need to cover some other ground first.

    I found that reading Rolf’s remarks and then tying them to your post got me to thinking about beauty and “what is attractive”–at least in the sense of how I define “attractiveness”.

    First there was my definition of what is NOT attractive. I’d put check marks next to Rolf’s observations and second them. What’s not attractive:

    Calorie deprived to stay thin (but no firmness)
    Too many calories and the wrong kind (flab).
    Bodies pushed through an abundance of endurance work to become bony and sinewy (cortisol overindulgence)

    Then there’s attractive, which is pretty much for me what Gubs defined under beauty. Actual physical “shape” for that beauty comes in various packages for me and there’s no one “type” (short, tall, stout–a few extra pounds but strong, wiry–not skinny but wiry strong). The common denominator is STRENGTH. And with that strength comes the “how it was obtained” part that leads to the other component of beauty which I said I’d get back to. The not-so-obvious tie between inner and outer beauty is that the inner pieces—the mind, personality, attitude, and approach to life required to be strong—are part of the entire package when a woman chooses to take the path of strength.

    In my experience those that take to real strength training tend to be smart, free-thinking, adventuresome, and not of the “herd-animal variety” (that is, they’re not the kind that does “cardio” for hours and likes doing triceps kickbacks with cute pink weights). Put those personality/mental attributes together along with the external attributes (strength being manifest through appearance AND action via lifting)—well, that’s what makes a woman very attractive and beautiful. Gubs is a good example of this, as is my wife, and a bunch of other women (like my wife’s trainer) who I’ve had the good fortune to meet in my life.

    Gubs, I think I disagree with one statement you made: “I have a brilliant mind of course but that doesn’t show up in a club).” I think it DOES show up if a guy knows what he’s looking for in terms of external cues. I’m sure there’s the occasional dim bulb type female who is into strength training, or perhaps had the right parents and looks the part, but that’s not the norm in my experience. You LOOK strong, and my initial assessment would be to assume that there’s a strong mind behind your external look of strength. (Feel free to disagree; this is, of course, my personal and very subjective opinion!)

    Rolf, the only thing I’m not on the same page with you about is the following: “More girls doing hard strength training would be great, but until the right ideals are communicated in the mass media it will probably not happen.”

    I disagree about it not happening. At my gym more and more 20 something women are coming in and blowing my mind with their training. I see lots of amalgamated routines that incorporate crossfit, powerlighting, functional training, and strongman stuff. (And I train at a chain gym, unlike my wife who trains at Bodytride). In talking to them the consistent thing I find is that they’ve picked their training knowledge on the interwebs. When I say “really” they give me some kind of answer that equates to “duh, isn’t that kind of obvious, where else would I learn how to train” look (some have said just that plus the look). I’m seeing a trend. It crosses the “hippy”, “sporty”, “extreme tattooed”, “cheerleader” external appearance boundaries. Shape, size, etc. don’t seem to factor in. But they are all strong and getting stronger. Some of their routines, honestly, scare the hell out of me. That’s okay though, I think it’s so cool! Mind you, this isn’t the majority at my gym but it’s a trend that seems to be increasing. So I have reason to be cautiously optimistic!

    Ron on October 16th, 2009
  • 7

    Hi! GUBS,

    I started training five years ago to shed post pregnancy flab,guided by Krista’s Stumptuous which gave m thee the link to your site.Here in India Strength Training for women is not even on the radar leave alone finding like-minded women.I often feel like the lone crusader raving amongst the heedless heathen.Of course communion with the squat cage and the bar is its own rich reward but a few more pats of encouragement and few less raised eyebrows would be welcome! I look forward to posts celebrating strong women.

    Varsha on October 16th, 2009
  • 8

    Strong is beautiful. And to be honest – if he isn’t turned on by a heavy squatting alpha female, you don’t want him – he’s not going to be any fun!

    Christine on October 17th, 2009
  • 9

    That photo in the black spandex pants…

    You’ve got nice, tight little…

    …set of hamstrings.

    Justin

    Justin on October 18th, 2009
  • 10

    This is a great post for many reasons. I to am an avid strength trainer, I am male, but I am not completely surrounded by friends that workout. The comments they have to make about women training, especially heavily training crack me up…the shape a women can achieve especially in her legs and core is by far one of the most divine sites to be seen during a day. People who are not in the fitness lifestyle seem to just think veins and testosterone, not even realizing the amount of extra work with photoshop and airbrushing that goes into a photo layout. I have learned listening to friends they think a women (or man) in muscle and fitness or flex or her’s are all constantly that swollen, or that veiny or even that oily for that matter. No one takes into account the fact that the magazine is trying to show success or hard work, so in turn they think its nasty or ugly. And as stated above if some guy cant handle your strength and beauty with it, than he is not much of a man, or is lacking confidence for some reason probably not worth figuring out.

    joncravefit on October 19th, 2009
  • 11

    Gubs, I think this is a wonderful post. I used to run middle distance at school and university so enjoyed the benefits of strength training during competition. I then got injured, put on weight and have only recently started getting back to it after three years away (I’m lifting small weights atm – 10/12/15kg). As for why women don’t ask you questions – perhaps you’re doing as the three women powerlifters at my gym do and exercising at off-peak times? I only ever see them and exchange info when I’m on nightshifts and exercising after these..

    Your website is an inspiration, so keep it up!

    Sajini on October 19th, 2009
  • 12

    Your post and Chip’s had me on fire last week. So much so, that my boss asked me to step away from my normal writing beat and take up the issue of defining a strong woman at BlogHer.

    http://www.blogher.com/define-strong-woman

    deb on October 21st, 2009
  • 13

    Folks, thanks for all your comments. I wanted to keep quiet for a bit and let the debate unfold.

    @ Boris: you’re probably right, I was exaggerating for effect. I’m sure some men find it all a bit disconcerting and would prefer the status quo. Obviously you’re not one of those people!

    @ Sasha: that’s an interesting situation, don’t quite know what to make of it but thanks for sharing.

    @ Michael: actually I’m coming to Ireland this Christmas to see Dan John.

    @ Rolfe: good analysis, thanks! It’s amazing to me how the myths persist. It used to frustrate me but now I am reconciled to a more drip-drip approach. Or perhaps a snowball approach. Some kind of geologically-inspired method anyway.

    @ Ron: thank you for drawing that causal relationship between strength training and attractiveness. I agree with you; the very fact that a woman chooses to defy strong social pressures to behave a certain way shows strength of character and that’s very attractive (to some people anyway).

    It’s also encouraging to hear that more women are exploring different types of strength training on their own. I’m starting to see this too (although in a very small way in my little corner of England) and it’s exciting!

    @ Varsha: lovely to hear from you! I had a quick look at your blog – it looks great and I will be back to read more.

    @ Christine: you’re so right!

    @ Justin: okay now I’m blushing…

    @ jon: it is impressive in a twisted sort of way how successful the bodybuilding industry has been in creating the myth that lifting weights in the gym alone is responsible for the bodies we see on the covers of those magazines. You can see why many people believe it. We just have to keep telling the truth and practising what we preach.

    @ Sajini: cheers mate! I just hope it’s not because I look mean and intimidating!

    @ deb: great post, deb. Glad you are writing about these issues too. The more the merrier!

    gubernatrix on October 22nd, 2009
  • 14

    I used to go out with a lass who could Squat 140kg for reps, bench 100kg, beat men at arm wrestling (was a national champion) and also did athletics and handball internationally. She was very womanly but also very rare (in many ways), there should be more of this type IMO, women and strength minus steroids is a beautiful thing!
    Rob

    Rob on October 22nd, 2009
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