the joy of strength training


July 11th, 2010 at 6:57 pm

Femininity and muscle

Marilou Dozois-Prevost lifting at the olympics

Let’s break the false link between building muscle and becoming less feminine.

Women have muscles, it’s a physiological fact, and if we want to do anything useful or impressive with them and look sexy to boot, we’d better start training them!

Here is an incident that happened to me recently. I was talking to a bloke in the gym about the fact that I was training for strongwoman and I happened to mention that I would like to put on a couple of pounds of muscle.

He said, with a grimace, “Really? But you don’t want to lose your femininity, do you?”

So putting on a couple of pounds of muscle is going to make me lose my femininity, is it? This is typical of the casual ignorance displayed by many people about muscle building. I’m an athletic-looking size 10, I weigh 136 pounds. What difference is a couple of pounds of muscle distributed around my body going to make to my appearance? I doubt most people would even notice.

Gubernatrix and Caroline Pearce aka Ice from Gladiators

Me (right) and Caroline Pearce, aka ‘Ice’ from Gladiators. Note the tragic loss of femininity experienced by these two strength training females. Don’t let this be you!

I’m not trying to dictate what men or women find attractive. Long hair, cute bob, big tits, curvy, athletic, muscular, long legs, nice bum, spiky hair and tattoos, tanned and outdoorsy, pale and interesting… there are so many ways to look sexy and feminine.

Michelle Obama shows off her shapely arms

A powerful woman needs powerful arms! I bet POTUS isn’t complaining…

Muscle, whether you realise it or not, plays a huge part in looking feminine. Pertness of bum? Gluteus maximus, baby! Shapeliness of calf? A toned gastrocnemius, of course. ‘Michelle Obama’ arms? Bi’s and tri’s my dears, not to mention the delts.

And you can’t build muscle using 3lb pink dumbbells. Your handbag weighs more than that! The weight’s gotta be heavy.

(Not convinced? Read Why lift weights? for a simple answer to that question.)

The truth is that for some people, any mention of muscle building is an automatic no-no. This merely reveals ignorance about the human body and the importance of muscle.

Although we can use muscle to scuplt particular parts of our bodies into nicer shapes, this isn’t the primary role of muscle.

In fact, everybody needs to be concerned about building muscle, since we spend most of our lives slowly losing it and becoming more and more frail.

Waif model

Even this poor girl has muscles, but wouldn't you agree she could do with some more?

We all have muscle in the first place and we all need it in order to lead active, healthy lives. From the way some women talk, you’d think they didn’t even possess muscles!

But they do, and they are neglecting them because of this pernicious link.

For most people, building additional muscle doesn’t happen automatically, it has to be done deliberately (especially after your early twenties). What we do build automatically is fat. It’s very easy to get fatter, more difficult to build muscle.

But building muscle helps us to lose fat. Muscle burns more calories than fat, so the more of it we have, the more we can burn excess calories. Muscle also takes energy to be built in the first place, energy that would otherwise be stored as fat. This is true for both men and women.

These days most people want to look lean and athletic, with less fat. The way to do this is to build muscle but still in the eyes of many people this is only deemed acceptable for men. No wonder so many women spend years dieting unsuccessfully or acquire dangerous eating disorders that keep them weak, malnourished and either too skinny or too fat.

Gubernatrix squatting in a power rack

Why do guys like this picture?

So back to the guy who so baldly expressed his opinion on my femininity. Of course, we know what’s really going on here. We know that the image he has in his head is of a female pro-bodybuilder on stage under the lights with all the fake tan, dehydration, flexing and so on. He has equated this snapshot image (which doesn’t even reflect the everyday reality of a pro-bodybuilder, let alone anyone else) with general weight lifting of any kind undertaken by a woman – and moreover has decided that this is not what he finds attractive.

(Incidentally, there is an issue about people associating weight training with bodybuilding but not other sports. You might be talking about strongwoman or weightlifting, but it is the bodybuilder image that immediately appears in people’s minds and not, say, the slim and athletic Marilou Dozois-Prevost who graces the top of this post.)

What’s odd is that Random Gym Guy is quite admiring of my figure as it stands at the moment – a figure which has been developed over several years by muscle building and heavy weight training.

So there’s a serious disconnect between the evidence of his own eyes and his preconceptions and prejudices about ‘muscle building’ and ‘femininity’.

Apparently I have reached some mysterious boundary where I look good at the moment but if I build a smidgen more muscle I will suddenly turn into a she-hulk!

Comparison of natural bodybuilder with non-natural bodybuilder

Two female bodybuilders: the difference is DRUGS, not lifting weights

With pictures like the one on the right, I guess it is not surprising that people get hugely distorted views about women and muscle. The media love to dwell on the ‘freak’ aspects of any activity but it is drugs not weights that are the cause. Just say no, kids.

(The original female bodybuilders still looked feminine. Read more here about what went wrong. Clue: it wasn’t lifting weights!)

Ironically many men will find particular bodies attractive that have been built by careful dieting and weight training – but they don’t realise it. This is about education, about breaking that seemingly automatic link between the desire to build muscle  – for health, looks, performance or whatever – and loss of femininity.

Allyson Goble, trainer at Bodytribe Fitness, tackled this thorny subject in our recent Women’s Strength Symposium. She comments that if masculinity is defined by strength and muscle building, does that mean that femininity must be the opposite: weakness and fat? Femininity = weakness? Surely we are past that in the 21st century.

The truth is that you can look very feminine (whatever that means to you) and also build muscle, lift heavy weights and generally enjoy yourself.

Here is some of the positive testimony from Allyson’s discussion.

Katydid: “As a person who has gone through challenges with eating disorders and body image for a very long time I’ve found weightlifting and being a powerlifter, and the resultant strength to be the best medicine in the world.”

Louisa: “Until I started weight training, with fantastic results (not only because my body shape improved but because I felt more confident and got a buzz out of it), I really didn’t believe how good it would be for me. I have never really worried about getting bulky. I know I look better and feel fitter than I have for over 20 years. However, people around me do ask if I’m not worried about bulking up. And I have struggled to get my husband to understand that I’m not going to end up looking like a female body builder on steroids.”

Allyson: “Girls deserve to have strong muscles and bones and ligaments and tendons, etc. AND look good in their undies too!”

Allyson Felix

The beautiful and be-six-packed Allyson Felix

Men care what you look like – they are visual creatures after all. But men also care what you think you look like.

Lack of confidence in your own looks is not sexy. Obsessing about whether your bum looks big is a real turn-off.  If you have a nice bum from squatting, be proud of it! If you have a great six pack from training and dieting, show it off. I am a big fan of the female six pack myself, I think it is super sexy!

So back to where I started. You might be wondering, ‘why do you care what Random Gym Guy thinks anyway?’

Well, I don’t, as he’s just some random guy down the gym. But what about the men who do matter in our lives? I know from discussions on the Women’s Strength Training Network that many women do have these issues with their other halves. We can’t just say ‘well I don’t care about your feelings’. But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.

Louisa, who was quoted above, says “I have struggled to get my husband to understand that I’m not going to end up looking like a female body builder on steroids.” Time will prove Louisa right, and perhaps her husband will get used to her having a bit more muscle than before.

I know that my perception of muscle on both men and women has changed, the more I have been around it, seen it, and most of all, experienced the amazing things you can do with it!

This is why I am committed to changing perceptions, and why I believe that eventually a cultural shift will occur and women will no longer be considered less feminine because they have muscles and can use them.

More from gubernatrix

Girls and Strength Training: Are We Able To Shift Our Perceptions? How Else Are We ‘ABLE’? By Allyson Goble

Women’s Strength Training Network

Strong is beautiful

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

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  • 1

    Amen Guber! Amen! We like our women healthy and healthy looking! A flat stomach and squat given glutes are not only sexy but suggest good physical fitness.

    GETfizzYcaL on July 11th, 2010
  • 2

    By coincidence, before I read this, over dinner tonight my hubbie and I were chatting about what I look like now. And John must be getting used to me having more muscle 🙂 He was paying me lots of compliments, which may mean he’s after something ;-), but he definitely likes the way I look. Tonight I am in a size 8 dress! OK, it’s probably a large size 8, but I can’t remember wearing a dress in an 8 or 10 for over 20 years. So, in spite of the fact that I am lifting heavy weights now, I haven’t got too ‘bulky’. I still have curves, particularly John’s favourite – my bum, so I still look feminine. Best of all, I feel good about myself and have more confidence than I’ve ever had. John still doesn’t really understand why I want to lift heavy weights, but he seems to be starting to understand that I’m not going to look like the bodybuilder in the photo, and that it’s good for my health, well being and self esteem.

    Louisa on July 11th, 2010
  • 3

    Sally, as I start my training career, I hope I am able to express this as well as you do. I will certainly know where to have female clients look if they need more convincing than I have that’s it’s OK to pick up the non-pink dumbbells.
    Steven Rice Fitness

    Steven Rice Fitness on July 11th, 2010
  • 4

    @ Louisa: you are an inspiration the way you have gone about mastering your strength career – which is why I mentioned you as an example. You’ve taken your hubby along with you despite initial doubts and it’s obviously working out well. You are the sort of person people will read about and think, ‘yes, that could be me too!’

    gubernatrix on July 11th, 2010
  • 5

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  • 6

    This topic invariably comes up with family and friends because I love doing strength training. Thanks for the article.

    Regarding the photo of the woman bodybuilder in the blue one piece suit — how do you know that she takes steroids? Maybe she works out with heavy weights six days a week? Okay, she would have to practially live in the gym! Is the giveaway the fact that she has very masculine facial featues?

    Pro bodybuilder Bev Francis was huge compared to other women pro bodybuilders at the time. So was Kay Baxter. Did they use steroids?

    Nikki on July 12th, 2010
  • 7

    Totally agree! Women with naturally built muscles are seriously hot. Sad not more go down that road. I’m sure it pays off in more ways than one.

    theTruth on July 12th, 2010
  • 8

    @ Nikki: Pro bodybuilding is riddled with drugs (not just steroids incidentally) and they have been readily available and used since the sixties. If you compare the physiques of bodybuilders in natural federations and other federations you will see a significant difference.

    If all you are doing is building muscle naturally, you are not going to develop other ‘masculine’ features. You are going to be your same, feminine self with some extra muscle.

    (p.s. I’m not ‘against’ pro bodybuilders at all; do what you wanna do. But it would be hard for me to argue that there’s no link between that and loss of femininity when that is what the drugs are doing at the physiological level.)

    gubernatrix on July 12th, 2010
  • 9

    GREAT article and I couldn’t agree more. 🙂 It drives me crazy to hear women say, “Oh, no, I can’t lift weights I don’t want to get too strong.” What?!?! You inspired me to pass along your own post and add in my own two cents on my own blog…thanks and keep up the great work on the site and in the weight room! Best of luck in the competition! 🙂

    Cait on July 12th, 2010
  • 10

    Hey Cait, nice article! Just one point though; it’s Allyson Goble from Bodytribe who is the originator of that quote, not Allyson Felix.

    gubernatrix on July 12th, 2010
  • 11

    @ Nikki: Kay Baxter was on steroids though much milder than the doses used by modern women bodybuilders. You can tell because modern women bodybuilders’ voices sound like transexual men, have cleft chins, facial hair, bad skin and certain changes ‘down below’. They are even more manly than me… and I am very manly.

    sumoman on July 12th, 2010
  • 12

    I told you already, Sally: I like that picture because you’ve got some slammin’ hamstrings!

    Justin_P on July 12th, 2010
  • 13

    You look great Sally. And if you build some more muscle you’ll still look great (and very feminine as well).


    Joe on July 13th, 2010
  • 14

    Great article!

    Christine on July 13th, 2010
  • 15

    Most women believe the ideal body is what they see in beauty magazines. But those bodies are choosen becouse they make the /clothes/ look good, not becouse the body looks good. This goes around and suddenly the ideal body is an underweight non-muscled body. Crazy!

    When polls are made about what female bodies we men like to watch, top score is given to fit bodies with round curves. Prime indicators of health. That means muscles are attractive in themself on women.

    The “I dont want to become big” argument for not doing strength training is a vampire myth refusing to stay down no matter how many stakes are put through its heart. The most extreme female strength athletes I know are gymnasts. They look extremely good even if they are way stronger than they look and outperforms untrained men easily. Females just dont have the chemistry to become big and bulky. Natural hormones are just not there at sufficient amounts for that to happen. Hearing is not believing though. Seeing and experiencing is believing.

    Now go looking at Shawn Johnson, Yelena Isinbayeva or any other female athlete doing well in sports depending on strength and tell me that they dont have extremely good looking bodies. I dont think so.. Compare their bodies to the common unfit body, or even females doing endurance sports. I think a lot of men and women are going to agree with me that the body adapted to heavy loads is the one most pleasing to the eye. It also looks just plain healthy, and that is a prime attraction.

    The other side of the coin is the images of female olympic weightlifters in the heavy classes.. Nobody seem to have pointed out the kind of calorie intake those little butterflies have, and over how many years they have eaten like that 🙂

    In the end, women should do strength training for their own health. The looks is just an added bonus.

    Rolfe on July 13th, 2010
  • 16

    besides, having known quite a few eating-disorder created physiques, they lose femininity while avoiding doing weights…
    no wonder it never produces results they want.

    eddie watts on July 14th, 2010
  • 17

    I work out at two gyms, a “real” BB one and a “regular” one. I am complimented by the boys at the one for my strength and persistance and results, even being optically overweight according to popular standards, at the other they still haven’t figured out I’m also 6 months pregnant (since I lost about 30 pounds over the last year they probably conclude I won it all back 🙂
    Guess which one’s which 😉

    Over the years, having been both a lot slimmer but a lot less muscular, and carrying more weight but also more useful strength, I can honestly say that I feel better strong than I did slim. Not that I wouldn’t go on to attain an even better physique (not specific weight, I’m over that) both visually and physically after I give birth, but staying muscular and strong throughout gives me a greater health benefit than a lower weight per se.

    Thanks Sally, again an inspiring post!

    Lieke on July 15th, 2010
  • 18

    A spirited post which takes apart the “unfeminine muscle”theory and challenges prejudice.Absolutely admire you for your commitment to spreading the Good Word.

    varsha on July 17th, 2010
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  • 23

    I have the opposite problem to most women lol! i love being strong and on the muscular side, however i build muscle so quickly and dramatically that i have to be super careful what i lift (3 sets x 5 reps at 60% lifting capacity creates serious bulk). My best friend on the other hand is a size 8, lifts weights to tone up and still has arms like a twiglet! lol! I guess every woman has a different genetic make up and in some ways im thankful since im less likely to get severe muscle wastage when im elderly. However there is a constant appraisal of looks in this modern era so there is constant pressure to not go for my full potential, sometimes when ive had a bad day i listen, more often i dont. 🙂 Perhaps if more women trained into the shapes they are instead of going for the twiglet shape that is so desired and paraded, we’d all be happier and the men of this world would have more varied body types to get used to since the media would be forced to portray them and perhaps, in time, accept each and every woman for the sexuality within rather than often simply the wrapping.

    alice on September 2nd, 2010
  • 24

    Well said, alice!

    gubernatrix on September 3rd, 2010
  • 25

    I agree….I am building muscle mass up. After 40 it is incredibly tough! After every crossfit class I am sore for 2-3 days. The only down side is that I work along side people in the fashion industry and now dresses don’t fit me in the arms. This is something I can live with, but when I get a job there is a lot of scowling involving my body.

    mia t on December 2nd, 2010
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  • 30

    As a male i think natural female bodybuilders look very attractive. I’ve seen female bodybuilders turn pro and load up on male hormones. A beautiful face turns hard with a considerable growth in nose size. The body grows to such a large size and then breast implants are added turning the woman into some grotesque clown creature

    Mark on March 28th, 2013
  • 31

    You look fine, and all ladies that work out look great, society says ee need these shoes that dress that car, house ect, to me nothing is as fullfilling as a great body, its art .

    Michael on August 8th, 2013
  • 32

    Women with natural built muscle can no way lose feminity, it’s all the steroid users that give everyone else a bad name, more and more women are using drugs because they are too lazy to put the years in of hardworki, but you cant beat natural muscle, and when thet develop manly features through wanting a quick fix then more fool them!! Idiots!! Natural muscle all the way that’s what I say.

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