I have just finished another successful Ladies Who Lift course and have been musing on the changes I have seen in women’s lifting over the last few years.
Women have trained with weights for centuries, but it has flowed in and out of fashion. Right now, it’s a growing trend. But is it growing fast enough to gain real momentum?
There’s no doubt that more women are lifting weights than ten years ago.
The growth of personal training has much to do with this; women who have personal trainers are much more likely to be doing some kind of resistance training on a regular basis than women who don’t.
Expectations have risen; clued-up personal trainers – still unfortunately in the minority – now understand that most of their female clients, with the right training and guidance, can aim to squat and deadlift more (sometimes much more) than their bodyweight.
This is progress indeed; I remember a time when even wanting to use a 20kg Olympic bar caused consternation and presumptuous concern for one’s wellbeing! ‘Are you sure you want to lift that?’
In fact, I had to revise the Strength Standards for Women that I originally put together in 2008, as the standards of the ‘normal’ weight training woman have risen. If I need to revise it again in 2 years’ time, I’ll be happy.
The growth of Crossfit has been a positive influence and – the occasional controversy aside [who can forget Albany Crossfit?] – has done a fantastic job of presenting women’s lifting in a positive light and actively encouraging women to get stuck into serious lifting.
Crossfit has been particularly successful in busting the ‘lifting will make you bulky’ myth, with its focus on leanness, performance and fitness.
I remember seeing those early Crossfit videos around 2005 with Annie, Nicole, Eva and the rest and being impressed and inspired. My first experience of olympic weightlifting was through Crossfit; now it’s my favourite hobby and I’ve just qualified to lift at the British Championships. So I have good reason to be thankful for Crossfit.
The internet and social media have made it much easier for women to access good, reliable information about weight training, be inspired by elite female athletes and meet like-minded women online. Stumptuous from Canada remains the mistress in this category, still going strong. Girls Gone Strong is a recently-formed US collective that will no doubt be influential in years to come. I do my bit here in the UK, with this website and my Ladies Who Lift courses.
I am, however, looking forward to seeing women’s strength training getting beyond the ‘mutual validation’ and ‘aren’t women brilliant?’ phase (which we women do so well) and into a more practical phase where we just do stuff and enjoy ourselves.
There are one or two aspects of this social media growth that I’m less enthusiastic about.
Of late, I’ve noticed a conflation of weight training with being super lean. There’s a trend of posting images of very cut women as role models for weight training or even strength. In my opinion, they are more role models for dieting than for strength.
I have no problem with women being super lean if they want to, I just think that the issue is getting confused. ‘Strong is the new skinny’ is becoming ‘extreme dieting is the new strong’ in certain quarters. Personally, I like ‘women are the new strong’. Maybe I’ll put that on a t-shirt.
Something else that hasn’t moved on as fast as I thought is the mainstream women’s media, primarily women’s magazines, catching on to this new trend of female strength and performance.
While the men’s magazines have picked up on the ‘functional’ craze and generally seem more diverse in their training coverage, women’s magazines still inhabit the comfortable, familiar realms of cardio, yoga, swiss balls and pink weights. I realise that strength training is never going to make the top story, but the odd feature would be nice.
Women training with other women is important and should be encouraged – your girls will make better progress.
My own Ladies Who Lift women-only courses are growing well and I’ve seen women-only lifting sessions springing up at a few other clubs and gyms (such as Bethnal Green Weightlifting Club, Crossfits London and Reading and Olympic Gym in Eccles).
I used to think that I would make better progress training with men because they lift heavier and often have a more aggressive approach to training, but I have changed my mind on this. Having trained over the years with both men and women, I find training with other women who are physically similar to be more motivating and productive than training just with men.
Women can train hard and be aggressive, it just looks a little different – and I will be expanding on this in an upcoming article. But it’s also true that many women, myself included, blossom under a more positive atmosphere. It doesn’t matter whether you rant and rave or not, if the outcome is that you improve your lifts and grow in strength and confidence.
On a side note, I’m pleased that the ‘train like a man’ trend has subsided. This phrase, often used by male trainers to berate their female clients, puts the ownership of weight training squarely with men. In order to do it properly, women are supposed to behave ‘like men’. Hmm, no wonder they didn’t come flocking.
Now the rhetoric is ‘train like a girl’ and this is coming from women themselves – a much more positive development.
Incidentally, I love Nia Shanks’ reply to a girl who approached her while she was deadlifting and asked, ‘Why do you train like a man?’ Nia replied: “Take a look around the gym. Most guys in here bench press every day and then spend an entire hour working on their biceps. And the closest thing to a ‘leg exercise’ they perform is walking to the water fountain. So you see; I don’t train like a man.”
The future is bright for women’s weight training but there are a few areas that I would like to see develop and I will be doing my bit to make this happen:
- More opportunities for women to lift with other women on a regular basis.
- More recognition from women’s magazines that proper resistance training is something to aspire to and will get results.
- Higher standards among female trainers in resistance training and being role models in their own gyms
And yes, we still need to make the argument that lifting weights won’t make you bulky and unattractive. This is a tricky one but more people are persuaded every year so I believe it is a case of, keep doing what you’re doing, to everyone who works hard to make this argument.
So what changes have you seen? Do you agree with my analysis or am I way off base? And what would you like to see in the future? Share your thoughts below!
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