the joy of strength training


February 27th, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Women’s lifting – will it ever really take off?

Woman lifting dumbbell from the 1950sI 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?

Rising standards

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.

Positive influences

Eva T from Crossfit HQ front squatThe 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.

Worrying trends

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-only training

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

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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  • 1

    Ah…the holy grail of training with other women! I need a training buddy: training alone is bloody lonely sometimes!!

    I know that I’d try lifting much heavier weights if I had someone to laugh with if I failed and to encourage me if I was struggling. Oh well…maybe I should start saving for the next Ladies Who Lift…

    Sally, are there any magazines that you would recommend? I must admit, I have been put off some of the ones that look like they may be more serious about lifting weights by poor writing (but I am a bit of a pedant). I was also told by the Health and Fitness editor of a women’s magazine that I workout too much, which got up my nose slightly. She had no interest in the range of exercise I do, just that I went to the gym more than 3 times a week and I don’t just do cardio. Hey ho…sorry for the rant!

    Emma-Lee on February 27th, 2012
  • 2

    Nine years ago when I started lifting I was the sole woman in the weights area. Nowadays, I’m still the sole woman … though I grant there are more articles about the benefits of lifting for women, there’s little real change that I can see. I don’t think it ever will go mainstream and that’s such a pity.

    Rach on February 27th, 2012
  • 3

    @ Emma-Lee: you should definitely save up for the next Ladies Who Lift! 😉
    Are you in the UK? If so, Men’s Fitness is good. There’s a lot of good information if you skip past the ‘get bigger biceps’ bits. I’ve written for it in the past and my boss Nick Mitchell is in practically every issue.

    @ Rach: yep, this is often the case. What has happened is that ‘specialist’ gyms such as Crossfit boxes, weightlifting clubs and PT studios have had an increase in female participants but this hasn’t always translated into normal members gyms. At my weightlifting club we’ve had a lot more women coming through the door in the last couple of years to learn weightlifting; so much so that we actually run a regular women’s squad day. I think that women who are interested in lifting are more likely to seek out specialist help, rather than rock up to their local gym and get on with it. That’s why I started Ladies Who Lift – so that women could do both: get some specialist help and then rock up to the local gym and start lifting!

    gubernatrix on February 27th, 2012
  • 4

    Yeah, I’m in the UK (Twickenham). I know Ladies Who Lift has only just finished, but how often do you run them?

    I’ll grab myself a copy of Men’s Fitness next time I’m near a WHSmith and try not to get sucked into the biceps game 😉

    Emma-Lee on February 27th, 2012
  • 5

    Hi Emma-Lee,

    It depends on a ) when I can get the venue and b ) which Sundays I’m free. The next one won’t be before June though, as I’m busy the next couple of months.

    gubernatrix on February 27th, 2012
  • 6

    A thought-provoking post, it’s hard to know where to start with responses.

    First up, I agree about the “train like a man” nonsense. I think a more reasonable way to split it is between productive and unproductive training. Whether it’s little pink dumbbells, swiss balls, bench press or endless hours on the treadmill at 4km/hr, it’s all unproductive. Gender might determine exactly how they’re wasting their time, but time-wasting is gender-blind, everyone does it.

    Along those lines, in gyms we’ll see people lifting, but unproductively. Just this morning I watched a trainer coach a “squat” to two people with thighs 45 degrees above parallel. These people happened to be women, but it’s coached the same whatever the gender.

    So the issue to my mind isn’t so much the willingness of women to lift heavy and properly, or the willingness of trainers to get them doing it, but the trainers’ ability to coach these lifts and encourage a productive routine.

    The women I’ve given routines and coaching to, I’d say around 3/4 of them are actually keen to lift heavy, they’re just uncertain how to do so, a bit timid about it. 1/4 refuse to, being too scared of it, or having crazy ideas about “bulking up”, or simply being too lazy to do the hard work. But 3/4 are right into it, and of those 3 in 4, probably 1 of them will achieve something significant like deadlifting her bodyweight.

    As for “bulking up”, I’d like to make a radical suggestion: THAT’S OKAY. It probably won’t happen because most women simply won’t eat enough to do it, but even if it does, that’s okay. Women are allowed to occupy physical space, you don’t have to apologise to the world for existing. Didn’t you women get the vote or something a while back?

    Kyle on February 28th, 2012
  • 7

    you mention lifting at various other gyms – are these courses like yours?

    Otherwise looks like i will be writing to you about doing your next course (assuming that your OK with it – I’ve got a few disabilities)


    Big Kate on February 28th, 2012
  • 8

    Hi Kyle, thanks for your thoughtful post – interesting as always.
    I agree about ‘bulking up’ – I like it when I put on muscle as I feel stronger and more powerful. However I am used to this feeling and am positive about it. For most women, they are not used to the feeling and feel negative and insecure about it.
    I find that once women get into lifting and start feeling good about it, they actually want to build some muscle because the associations become positive. Also, after a few months lifting, when they realise they are not going to look like bodybuilders, they relax about the additional muscle.
    Adding muscle and losing fat makes you look younger too!

    gubernatrix on February 28th, 2012
  • 9

    Hi Kate,
    There aren’t any other courses like mine, as far as I know. The other sessions I mentioned are women-only sessions for people who are already members of those clubs/gyms, whereas mine is a 3-week course open to anyone who wants to come.

    gubernatrix on February 28th, 2012
  • 10

    Thank you for making the distinction between strength and leanness! I hate the idea of trading one restrictive ideal for another.

    alf on February 28th, 2012
  • 11

    Well said, alf!

    gubernatrix on February 28th, 2012
  • 12

    I like your post Gube.

    I think that the growth of S&C and weight training in general is remarkable. There’s still a long way to go. Facilities are everywhere compared to 20+ years ago, but competent AND accessible coaches/trainers are still hard to find (maybe even harder with the flood of paper trainers).
    There are still a few sports and segments of the population that just haven’t embraced strength training (although they may need it most) – I think the right combination of coaching and role models will bring them around eventually.

    Boris Bachmann on March 2nd, 2012
  • 13

    Hi Boris, yes, the right equipment and the right trainers are still in short supply, esp in the UK. The company I work for as a personal trainer, Ultimate Performance, has just started an education arm. If UP can take the lead on this, we can really raise standards here in the UK and across Europe.

    gubernatrix on March 4th, 2012
  • 14

    I started lifting seriously in high school circa 1983. While women were a minority, there were always other women around who lifted in the free weight area too. We dead lifted, pressed, squats, etc.

    I’d say the biggest difference btwn now and then was less “go girl!” and other cutesy girl power concerns. We just lifted weights and lived the lifestyle without so much angst at what society thinks of muscles on a woman. I couldn’t care less if other women want to run on a tread mill.

    Sonja Myers on March 5th, 2012
  • 15

    I agree, Sonja, that there is way too much angst about the whole business. It wasn’t something that concerned me when I just lifted as a hobby, but since I became a ‘fitness professional’ I have found myself sucked into the issue.

    The ‘go girl’ stuff can get a bit over the top, but in general (and especially in a training session) is not something I object to; men do it all the time too. There’s something about a heavy lifting session that does bring on a lot of mutual validation and excessive praise!

    gubernatrix on March 5th, 2012
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  • 17

    Great, thought provoking article. Since I started “heavy lifting”, I’ve found myself thinking more about things like this, especially the mainstream women’s mag coverage side of the house. You’d think after all these years the whole lifting=bulk issue would have died, seeing as every women’s fitness mag I pick up these days practically screams RESISTANCE IS GOOD! However, the heavier side of the house is definitely underrepresented.
    I’ve started to be of the opinion that the best thing I can do is talk to women (and men) who a curious about my lifting (generally caused by me wearing a tank top, as I have rather huge shoulders now) and put in the best word I can for, in my case, powerlifting as well as lifting heavie in general. It’s even better when women can see how much I eat whilst having the figure I have – not super cut, but muscular and still sexy. I’m not a fitness professional so all the hard work of promoting the lifestyle is a bit out of my league, but I like to think of myself as a walking billboard for women’s lifting – and try to talk about it intelligently because of this.

    Websites like this definitely help me in that respect, Gubes 🙂 I hope to find a Ladies Who Lift type program down here in Australia somewhere soon!

    Cledbo on March 6th, 2012
  • 18

    Thanks for mentioning that lifting != lean. I’m a short fat chick and it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be lean. But I just started lifting barbells and I love it! I’d never gone over 10 lbs for dumbell presses, and today I put 50 lbs over my head! I know it’s not much in the scheme of things, but it felt freaking awesome.

    I’d love to have more women to lift with, but none of my friends seem particularly interested. ::sigh::

    Shoshanna on March 6th, 2012
  • 19

    that’s not 250 she is front squatting. Good lift but its closer to 185.

    Kevin P on March 6th, 2012
  • 20

    lol Kevin, 250 is the width of the photo in pixels.

    gubernatrix on March 7th, 2012
  • 21

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  • 22

    I agree and am disappointed that mainstream magazines have not caught up. As a writer and lifter I pitched pieces to a number of big publications on lifting. I got one in Experience Life (comes out in April), but they’re a little more progressive, and in a local magazine, but nobody bit from the glossies. Until I was hurt from overdoing it (I was a competitive powerlifter and took it to extremes) and then a pitch got noticed. I have a piece coming out in one of the biggest glossies on my experience, which, while I share all the many positives of my heavy lifting, is more about how it went wrong. Sadly, that’s what sells. I’m not giving up though – there’s a happy medium between pandering to us if we can manage a whole 10 pounds, and breaking powerlifting records, and so many women could benefit from getting there.

    Dana on March 8th, 2012
  • 23

    Ladies, I actually see a very regressive trend. I am 60 years old and have been lifting for 33 years. Most obviously in the bodybuilding arena, we have moved from Bev Francis (originally trained as a powerlifter) and Lenda Murray to “fitness” and “bikini” competitors in high heels. WTF??!! Granted the newer modalities represented by Crossfit and functional fitness are hopeful signs, they virtually never appear in women’s fitness magazines which STILL focus more on makeup and style. Even a publication like Prevention stays clear of heavy iron.
    LOVE your site! I have four daughters who are all heavy lifters!

    Susan on March 26th, 2012
  • 24

    Hey Susan, hopefully it’s a blip! Social media seems to be helping to overturn the dominance of the mainstream media but it is slow work.

    gubernatrix on March 26th, 2012
  • 25

    Susan, I think there’s an argument that the women’s magazines are increasingly irrelevant compared to various electronic media. Certainly newspapers and men’s magazines are feeling this.

    In terms of useful and interesting content, many newspapers and magazines offer less than particular websites. The opinion pieces on world affairs on the Al Jazeera website, for example, are more thoughtful and detailed than those in my city’s main newspaper The Age.

    Maybe if the women’s fitness magazines haven’t caught on to these newer ideas it’s just a sign that they’re on their way out. They’ve decided to be obsolete.

    Kyle on March 27th, 2012
  • 26

    Even if weights do bulk you up, is that such a bad thing?

    Kyle on April 7th, 2012
  • 27

    Intrigued by: “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.”
    Why do some men not work lower body?

    ashley on April 13th, 2012
  • 28

    Because it’s hard, ashley. People have thrown up after a set of squats or deadlifts, nobody ever threw up after a set of bench press.

    Kyle on April 13th, 2012
  • 29

    I think that the growth weight training in general is remarkable. There’s still a long way to go.

    ebsites like this definitely help me in that respect, Gubes 🙂 I hope to find a Ladies Who Lift type program down here in canada somewhere soon!

    Deodorant crystal on April 14th, 2012
  • 30

    This was a very thought provoking article. I think sometimes that there is also some fear from the men in the free weights area that they’ll lose ‘their space’ and a lack of patience when a woman isn’t fast enough or has their weights etc. Also a lot of women i think would like to have a go but feel silly and embarrassed only lifting just the bar with sweaty men grunting around them.

    I recently joined a new gym that has the weights section in the middle as opposed to hidden away behind a partition all painted manly black. Ok, it’s not amazingly equipped but it does. The funniest thing is that the blokes are obviously not used to seeing a girl, all be it quite a robust girl, in the weights area actually lifting weight! Their little eyes popped out further and further the more plates i added to the bar he he he! That was a great day but boy did i feel like a carrot in an omelette!

    It takes time but persistent friendly smiles seem to break through even the hardest and most prejudiced man when it comes to women lifting in their manly sanctuary of the free weight area 🙂 Now i actually get cheers when i do consecutive chins so i think I’ve been accepted lol! How to work on persuading more women that weights are a good idea? This I’m finding harder but I’m planning to get at least three to join me in the next 6 months! I have a mission!

    Alice on April 25th, 2012
  • 31

    You have an excellent attitude Alice! Good luck with your mission.

    gubernatrix on April 25th, 2012
  • 32

    Great article! Olympic Gym in Eccles helped me massively when I first started and Tania George there, is a UK Powerlifter. Her attitude is totally infectious and I can’t wait to start competitive lifting myself!

    Flick Williams on May 31st, 2012
  • 33

    Hi, great article. I’m a woman PT and trying to get more women into the ‘men’s’ weights area. I’ve been running a course with a similar name actually ‘Girls Who Lift’ at Pure Gym in Wandsworth. I’ve been teaching the basics such as squats, deadlifts, chest press and shoulder press. The ladies have really been enjoying it. The problem I have is getting women past the stigma of ‘weight training’ as something manly and something that will make them bulky and unattractive. Once we help women to get over this stigma and start enjoying weights they will feel empowered and be amazed by the results.

    Abi Hardy on February 14th, 2014
  • 34

    Good luck with your course Abi! The message is getting out there, slowly but surely.

    gubernatrix on February 19th, 2014
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  • 37

    I am a real fan of seeing women lifting weights. Functional strength has so many health benefits and when done properly can really help the body deal with the ageing process.

    Timothy Fanawopo on June 4th, 2018


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