Women can lift weights. Women should lift weights. But why do some women still avoid lifting weights?
As a personal trainer with many female clients, and as a woman who lifts myself, I am very passionate about women lifting weights. We all know that exercise has such a positive impact on our mental health, so it is no surprise that lifting weights would improve our mood, but there are also important physical benefits for women’s bodies. In this article I am sharing both the mental and physical benefits of strength training, and tips for women to start lifting weights.
But first, why do some women focus their training on cardio and avoid strength training completely? There has traditionally been the stigma that lifting weights can make you ‘bulky’ and the typical feminine body ideal is thin, toned and certainly not bulky. I can tell you that women who do strength-based training will not become bulky unless they change what they eat too – female body builders have a very specific training programme and diet plan that leads to their body shape that it viewed as ‘bulky’ and ‘manly’. Also, the body ideal that women should be thin and toned is problematic for many reasons, but that’s for another time!
Gyms have been a place of intimidation for many women, the weights room specifically often dominated by men, and this can lead to what has been coined as ‘gymidation’. There are gender stereotypes that are associated with the gym, such as women on treadmills and men at the squat racks, and research found that there’s both a real and perceived threat for not conforming to those stereotyped activities – resulting in both men and women self-policing so that they stay within those expectations (1). This understandably explains why women stay away from the weights section in the gym but shouldn’t be the case! We need to break the stigma surrounding women lifting weights and encourage all women to try some form of strength training because it is really good for our bodies.
The benefits of weightlifting:
- Improved sleep – research has shown that people have better sleep after doing some strength-based exercise. It increased the length of time they were asleep and the overall quality of sleep (2).
- Reduced heart disease risk – research found that lifting weights reduces the likelihood of diabetes and high blood pressure which are risk factors for heart disease (3).
- Improved bone density – this results in a lower risk of breaking your bones. Maintaining bone density is particularly important for women because bone density is lost rapidly post menopause. This is why women are advised to do strength training in their 40s (if they don’t already) to help improve bone density before the menopause (4).
- Improved mental health – research shows that strength training reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety (even if you don’t think you’re getting stronger, your mood still improves) (5,6).
- Less focus on your appearance – lifting weights allows you to set yourself realistic and achievable goals that are strength-based, not a number on a scale or the size of your clothing. This is a better goal to focus on: whether you want to deadlift a particular weight, do 5 pull ups, or just do a really good press up on your toes.
- Improved confidence – it is empowering to be able to lift a heavy weight which you once thought you could never do! There is a sense of pride of hitting a new PB (personal best) or doing more reps than you had done before with that same weight. It helps build your self-esteem and self-confidence because you accomplish something which you worked hard to achieve.
Tips for women getting started:
- Get a coach – now this doesn’t have to be long-term but having one or two sessions with a qualified fitness trainer is the best way to learn how to lift weights safely. It will give you the opportunity to be taught the correct techniques and ask any questions you might have. Gyms usually offer an induction session when you join, or you could find personal trainers online who can teach you the technique.
- Practice the skills – lifting weights can include some complex moves and like anything, the more you practice, the better you will be. Start off using just your bodyweight to ensure you have the correct technique and practice until you feel comfortable to use a light weight. But remember – form over speed ALWAYS! (An extra tip here is to do the exercise in front of a mirror so you can check your form, or film yourself (nobody has to see it), so you can really make sure you are doing it correctly and won’t hurt yourself.)
- Keep your head high – if you’ve been taught by a professional and done some practice of the moves then you have the knowledge needed to lift the weights. Remind yourself of this when the gymidation creeps in – you know what you’re doing and you’re doing it right. This should give you the confidence to enter the weights room (which once intimidated you!).
- Have a training buddy – there are lots of reasons to workout with someone: you can keep each other accountable; you can assist each other with technique; they can give you that push when it gets hard, but also the saying ‘safety in numbers’ can be relevant here. If there is someone else you know in the gym it might not seem like such a daunting environment, and you are in it together.
- Invest in equipment – even if you are taught the technique by a trainer, have practiced the moves over and over, but still don’t like lifting weights in the gym – that’s ok! There has been a big shift in people realising they can get strong and lift heavy from the comfort of their own home, so maybe invest in some dumbbells or kettlebells so you can do your strength training in your living room.
If you’re interested in getting into strength training, please do get in touch with me (@movingwithsoph) or try the BoundFitness online strength classes.
- Wiseman, A. (2017, November 30) Study Explores How Gender Defines the Gym. Retrieved from http://news.westernu.ca/2017/11/study-explores-gender-defines-gym/?sf176777035=1
- Roveda, E., Sciolla, C., Montaruli, A., and Caloguiri, G. (2011). Effects of endurance and strength actue exercise on night sleep quality. International SportMed Journal, 12(3), 11.
- Magyari, P.M., and Churilla, J.R. (2012). Association between lifting weights and metabolic syndrome among U.S. Adults: 1999-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(11), 3113-7.
- NHS (2019) Osteoporosis. Retrieved from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/osteoporosis/
- Gordon, B.R., McDowell, C.P., Hallgren, M., Meyer, J.D., Lyons, M., and Herring, M.P. (2018). Association of Efficacy of Resistance Exercise Training with Depressive Symptoms: Meta-analysis and Meta-regression Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. Journal of American Medical Association Psychiatry, 75(6), 566-576.
- Gordon, B.R., McDowell, C.P., Lyons, M., and Herring, M.P. (2017). The Effects of Resistance Exercise Training on Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis and Meta-Regression Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Sports Medicine, 47(12), 2521-2532.