Dumbbelles

Yeah, I’m a woman who pumps iron. What are you looking at?

women weightlifting

Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk

A year ago this month, my new personal trainer led me up the stairs to the second floor of my gym in Concord, the Thoreau Club. I was nervous. It’s an upscale suburban gym—the type that’s filled with Bosu balls and treadmills—and until that point I had mostly avoided the upstairs room, because it’s loaded with racked weights, benches, and weight machines. I hadn’t come to the gym to add muscle—I had come to shed pounds. Besides, the weight room was always filled with grunting men. My trainer, Lynda Wright, smiled as we looked into the room. “Okay,” she said. “Let’s see where you are.”

Surrounded by floor-to-ceiling mirrors, I sighed. I’d already given her the abbreviated version over the phone—that I’d played college sports and stayed in shape right up to my first pregnancy, in 2003, but that after two kids, the baby weight remained. I wasn’t exercising enough, I was eating more Goldfish crackers than salads, and I’d started a medication with the unfortunate side effect of increasing appetite while decreasing metabolism. “Look at me,” I told her. “It’s pretty clear where I am.” I tugged the sleeves of my blue T-shirt, trying to cover up my arm flab.

Frankly, I was confused about what we were doing in a room of free weights. My goal was to lose weight and get back in shape. I’d been expecting a routine made up of the treadmill, the elliptical, and maybe a couple of weight machines. Why were we up here on the second floor?

Still, I went along, lying back on a weight bench, happy to be in a position that diminished the size of my gut. Wright put two silver 15-pound dumbbells in my hands and showed me how to do a simple press, bringing my hands almost together as I straightened my arms above my chest.

By the time I got to the third set, pushing those 15-pounders up took everything I had. I’d barely managed six repetitions before my arms started shaking and Lynda took the dumbbells. I sat up and tried to breathe. “That was great,” she said. She nodded over to the next rack, the one that held the real weights—the ones that men with no necks use for their bicep curls. “Pretty soon you’ll be ready for those.”

Those weights looked huge. Visions of she-male bodybuilder freaks from 1990s Lifetime specials flashed through my head. I was here to drop some pounds and firm up—not become a female Arnold.

Wright smiled again. “You just wait and see.”

 

Despite my misgivings, I continued returning to the gym and lifting. By April, just two months later, I’d graduated from the silver 15-pound dumbbells up to the 25-pounders. Real weights. In addition to the lifting, I had improved my diet and was doing some cardio sessions. I’d lost close to 20 pounds. I’d gotten in good shape before by eating well and doing cardio, but the weightlifting made an enormous difference. I was feeling powerful—and I loved it.

However, I was also feeling like a freak show. Whenever I was lifting, I could feel the stares at my back. The men, so unused to finding a woman among them—let alone one hoisting heavy weights—were outright astonished. The women passing through to the second-floor yoga room simply looked uneasy, as though put off by the sight of a woman doing something so unfeminine. It was embarrassing. It took all I had to keep returning to the gym.

But I did, because it turns out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends lifting heavy weights as part of a healthy lifestyle. Research shows that regular strength training results in increased bone density, lower blood pressure, and a longer lifespan. No wonder CDC guidelines call for adults to each week do two or more muscle-strengthening workouts—which means lifting a load that taps you out after 8 to 12 repetitions. (Whatever your weightlifting approach—heavy or light—studies show that you need to lift until extreme fatigue to get the benefits.) And yet even though women make up more than half of gym-goers, the CDC’s 2011 National Health Interview Study reports that just 20 percent of them strength-train that minimum of two times per week.

Why? What’s pushing all these cardio queens away from the weight room?

At least some of the problem is a simple lack of knowledge about the benefits of lifting. “A lot of people have the thought process that if they want to lose pounds, then they shouldn’t be lifting heavy weights,” Lynda Wright says. “That’s just not true.” In fact, strength training increases metabolism even more than cardio workouts. “The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest,” Wright says. That leads to fat loss and an increased potential for overall weight loss. A Penn State study found that people who lift weights lose six more pounds of fat than those who don’t.

But it’s my feeling that the lack of education about weightlifting pales in comparison to the way American society looks down on women who lift weights. When it comes to females working out, there’s a glaring and insulting double standard—women should be toned but never jacked. No wonder, then, that women (and men) tend to treat cardiovascular exercise—the treadmill, the stationary bike, the elliptical machine—as the holy grail of female fitness. The fairer sex can sweat it out in hot yoga, but must never lose the softness, the femininity.

 

  • http://CuztomCraftedSngs.com Anna Huckabee Tull

    I LOVE this article and it is the first thing I have ever read about women and weights that has made me think…..maybe I should try this! Maybe my body would THANK ME if I did!! :) Lisa Liberty Becker is an inspiration and maybe just the kind of pioneer we need – strong AND articulate!

    • http://www.bodhisattvaonritalin.wordpress.com Bodhi

      You definitely should! Check out stumptuous.com – she’s wonderful and an excellent reference for women interested in weight training. I was so happy to have her site recommended to me. I’m following one of her programs now. Good Luck!

  • http://www.thoreau.com Kim M.

    Congratulations, Lisa!! We are so proud of your progress and positive attitude! Already several members have commented that they are motivated to add more strength training to their workouts because of your article. Lead the way strong and healthy!
    - The Thoreau Club, Concord, MA

  • Lynda Wright

    Excellent article Lisa. Your year long journey will be an inspiration to many. Watching you drop 65lbs. and gain muscle mass over the last year was truly remarkable. I’m so proud of you. Thank you for choosing me to take the journey with you : )

  • brenda

    Great article, very well-written. I have to say, though, that I’ve never experienced what you describe at the Boston Sports Clubs or Equinox. I think if I went to a gym where people acted like that, I’d find a new gym.

  • California

    Your gym sounds like a throwback to the stone ages with respect to women in the weight room. Good for you for sticking it out; I would have found a different gym.

  • http://www.bodhisattvaonritalin.wordpress.com Bodhi

    I followed the link from Stumptuous’s FB update – it is so timely. I’m in the beginning my phase of the first serious weight training I’ve done since I was a college athlete.
    I love how accomplished and mighty I feel. It’s great for my self esteem. Happily, my gym lives up to it’s “judgment free” reputation so far.
    Good luck on the rest of your journey – you’re great inspiration!

  • Melissa Howell

    Great article. As a fellow pioneer at my local gym, I am always happy to see women with a healthy attitude toward lifting. I head to my gym early in the mornings and I am always the only woman using the squat racks and heavier dumbbells. I get in after the other ladies that are already on the treadmill when I arrive, but leave before they do. I’m glad I’m no longer chained to the dreadmill machine (and that’s not a typo).

    I lifted years ago for college and recently got back into strength training this last year, going through my own weight-loss/body transformation journey. I’m so glad I have found my way back to the weights and nothing makes me feel more powerful than when I’m lifting a heavy deadlift and they muscle bound men raise their eyebrows in amazement :)

  • teri

    I read this with interest and actually had to double check the date on the article. It sounds like it could have been written back say a couple of decades ago. I don’t know what gym this woman is working out in but it sounds like it is stuck in a time warp. I have been working out with weights steadily since 1976. Yes back then it was an anomaly but in this day and age I know many many many women who lift for fitness. I have been a member of Bally’s, Gold’s Gym, 24 Hour Fitness, YMCA, and now Lifetime Fitness… I see women lifting weights (and yes many are lifting heavy weights) every time I am in the gym. I do not see anyone paying much attention much less staring. I have been in gyms where there are some of the serious women body builders complete with heavy veining, pumped to the max muscle mass, but most of the time I just see women who are serious about fitness and knowledgeable about the benefits of lifting! No one pays much attention and yes some are stronger and more fit than some of the guys! It sounds like this woman is imagining a lot of the “staring” and she just needs to come to some inner peace about what she is doing…

  • Robert Becker

    Fantastic read, for men and women! I come home from the gym much more sore and tired since first reading this. Still have a way to go before I can manage those plates. You look fantastic – I love you very much.

  • SD

    I workout at this club and I think Lisa has given an inaccurate description of the weight-lifting habits of the women who workout there. Sure, there a lot of women who just do cardio machines, yoga, water aerobics, spinning, swimming and tennis. But, on more days than not there are more women on the second floor lifting weights than men. And, we are a knowledgeable supportive bunch. We don’t stare each other down or compete to be the strongest. We workout alone or in groups with a trainer. We may not ever lift nearly as much weight as Lisa, but we are working hard, have perfect form, and have strong healthy bodies. I will never be jacked given my natural body type, nor do I care if I am. I am happy for Lisa that she is enjoying working out after many years of not doing it. I am glad she is confident with her strength and physique. But, it is not okay to over-generalize the fitness habits of the population at the Thoreau Club. I have worked out at this club for 8 years.

    • MN

      Wow! Talk about misinterpreting an article. Lisa’s article has noted evidence to support women lifting heavier weights. Sure, you can be strong lifting 10lb dumbbells, but imagine the benefits you could reap by lifting heavier. The reason most women can’t do what Lisa does is because their minds have already failed them. They believe they can’t before trying. Be realistic about what you see upstairs SD.

      • marie p

        Don’t think that SD misinterpreted this article at all. If it was Lisa’s intention to encourage women to lift, she shouldn’t look down her nose at women who lift lighter (even pink Barbie) weights. That’s a start (and it was the start for her as well). Also shouldn’t describe the weight room as a scary and inhospitable place, because it isn’t (or if it is, you should go elsewhere). I find the tone of the article somewhat self-aggrandizing and intolerant of those who do not lift the same weight that she does.

  • Mary

    I have lifted in various Boston-area gyms since 1998 and I have never felt uncomfortable. I think it has a lot to do with what expectations you bring and how you’re seeing things. It’s understandable if you are new to gyms, and I end up advising many friends-male and female-that being judged at the gym is a fear they’ll get over quickly.
    I now train at Total Performance Sports in Everett, a real strength gym with the biggest guys you can imagine, and it’s the best gym to be a woman in of all. Everyone is supported as long as you train hard and are willing to learn- nobody cares. A gym is there to make you better and help you reach your goals and if you’re focused on that, you don’t have time or energy to worry about what other people think.

  • lynnie

    I work out at this club, and I think that the author is indulging in some stereotypes. It may be a function of the time I go, but the weight area almost always has more women then men, and the men there do not stare or act resentful. I’ve run across the occasional grunting man, but the loudest grunter was a female. References to “skinny soccer moms with rolled-up mats” and “thick-necked dudes” come across as pretty condescending and rather lazy stereotyping. And perhaps that poor man who wanted to help with the weights was just trying to be helpful, and wasn’t at all “stunned” as he walked away (or perhaps was stunned by her rudeness).

    I think that Lisa came into the gym with preconceived notions that she would be a trailblazer, and that has colored her perceptions of what was going on around her. The fact is that there are plenty of women who lift weights (even at Thoreau) and who don’t run into the attitude that Lisa claims she has. Women lifting weights is not new. Lisa is not a trailblazer. Perhaps she would enjoy her time more at the gym if she dropped that huge chip from her shoulder.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chibangbodies Chi Bang

      As I do agree with you that there are plenty of women who already hit the weights, one has to agree with the overall consensus globally, that women should shy away from lifting too heavy and from the weight room. I work in fitness and the number one concern when I sit down with women is, “I don’t want to become too big.” And I always reply, “Think about it this way, there are plenty of men in the gym trying as hard as they can to get big. Women have only a fraction of the amount of hormone responsible for muscle growth than men. No matter how much weight you lift, it is fair to assume that you won’t become overly muscular without synthetic help.” But overall, the stigma still remains in society and I’m not sure if it is caused by the media and magazines or by the views of men and the way women should look, but I think the author has a point.

  • Vic Verbal

    Love this piece; inspirational and funny. Will seek out more of her writing in these pages!

  • Squashhead

    I’m 49 and just started weight training. I love it and feel great (when I keep to it consistently). It never occurred to me to think about it in gender-related terms. The benefits of weight training for all people, especially women, have been in the news so much lately that, to me, it seems only natural to see women lifting weights. I love my trainer and am so grateful I found her.

  • fenway3

    I also work out at Thoreau and relate to what Lisa is saying about the reaction of other members (female and male) to women who lift heavier weights than what is considered “appropriate” by the general population. The issue isn’t starting out with the “pink Barbie weights”; it’s that if you are still using those weights 6 months or 6 years into your workouts, you are not challenging your muscles to adapt. One needs to lift heavy enough to elicit physiological adaptation; that’s the point Lisa is making. For some women, that challenge comes from lifting 10 or 15 lb; for others, it takes 30, 40, or 50 lb. It’s just that you rarely see women picking up a dumbbell heavier than 25 lb., regardless of her age, fitness level, experience training, or goals. It’s not because the women CAN’T lift that much; it’s that they THINK they can’t, or shouldn’t. Lisa should be viewed as a role model for women who are looking to get stronger and/or leaner, rather than criticized for setting goals and doing whatever it takes to reach them. Men and women: If you are happy with your fitness level and physique and want to maintain these, then continue with your current program. But, If you are doing the same routine, lifting the same weights you have been lifting for years AND you are not getting the results you want, perhaps you should consider changing something, and perhaps that “something” is increasing the weight.

  • Amy

    I had to read this article twice to find the author’s messages about weight lifting, The first time I was distracted by the false characterization of the members and the environment at the Thoreau Club. I am a long time member at Thoreau and have lifted weights for twenty-five years. Thoreau is a gym where women more often outnumber men in the weight room (Monday morning 12 women to 10 men), over half the trainers are women and there is an almost daily class called women on weights. I find it a supportive and friendly environment and I hope Lisa does too. This is not a weight lifters’ gym, it is a family environment and I found the grunting men and soccer mom stereotypes simplistic. In defense of the man who offered to remove the weights, it is weight lifting code and common courtesy to leave bars unloaded. I’m glad that Lisa has found the transformative power of lifting weights. It is something I hope all women can discover. I just wish that she did not embellish the Thoreau club environment to do so.

  • Trackie78

    Thanks god regular women are starting to lift heavy weights and do Olympic lifting. I’ve spent the last 15 years as a competitive track and field athlete, and have gotten accustomed to the stares in the weight room. When you’re a female squatting over 350lbs, benching and cleaning over 200lbs, dead lifting more than most of the men, and doing uncommon lifts like the snatch, you get used to people treating you like a freak. So many times women would say to me ‘I wish I had a body like yours…what kind of workout do you do?’ Soon as I mentioned weight training and power lifting, they always freaked, thinking that they would get huge and too muscular. Crossfit is very much like track and field training….circuits, intervals and functional lifting. Most of our training happens outside of our specialty (events), and focus on weight training, plyometrics, medball, powerlifting, kettlebell, etc etc etc. news flash to everyone: those chicks you see at the Olympics don’t look that way just because they do cardio…they lift weights! And lots of them! For too long women have been told that they should lift light weights and do massive amounts of cardio. They’ve been told that men are stronger,many men have been told that they are stronger and mistakeningly think that all men are stronger than all women. This is not true. Yes,the strongest man will be stronger than the strongest woman, but there is actually an overlap in the middle where strong women are stronger than many men.

    Gender Strength Myth:

    /——women———–/.(fabled gender divide). /————-Men———/

    The TRUTH
    /————–Women——–/
    …………………../—————Men————-/
    (Ignore the periods in front of the ‘men’. The program won’t let me space it how I wanted. Just pretend those periods don’t exist)

    There are tons of us competitive athletes who have been stared at, questioned, feared, and approached by meatheads who don’t think that we can handle the weight. We have learned to laugh about it, and enjoy the reactions from chauvinistic idiots who desperately try to out lift us. Fact: Strong women scare (most) men.

    Ladies, get off the damned stair climber, grab some heavy weights and get lifting. I promise you won’t get huge and look steroidal. You will look strong, beautiful, capable, sexy, and healthy. Lifting teeny tiny weights will do nothing for you except waste your time. Challenge yourself. You are capable of more than you think.

  • Mary Faith Ryan

    Thank you Mrs. Becker! I get annoyed with women who don’t like it when they start to show muscle definition. I mean COME ON. Women physiologically cannot bulk up like men. We don’t possess the endocrine systems to do so. The only way women can “hulk up” is with pharmaceutical help (anabolic steroids). In the meantime, lifting decreases chances of osteoporosis by upping your bone density! If anything, women need to lift to keep their bodies durable and limber past menopause. And of course the increased muscle mass revs your metabolism like you said. Thank you for lifting with no apologies, even if you have to resist lifting your middle finger at the oglers ;)

  • Acton girl

    Have read the article a bit of time ago and I wanted to kindly respond. I reward you on your fitness accomplishments. Way to go! Everyone has their own fitness journey It is a process and that even you have to become comfortable doing. I am a mother too, a teacher, trainer and exercise junkie. Feeling strong is wonderful, healthy and empowering. I am a female at the club…for over 10 years. I love to weight train and sculpt my body too. I don’t pay attention to others while I train because I am trying to focus to prevent injury and tap into the muscle groups. I say, let’s motivate other’s by weight training. I teach and practice yoga. Yoga is a wonderful addition to weight training and I suggest adding it in to find balance. trust me, it will make you stronger
    Yoga is not easy in any way and it might improve your focus while you weight train and not be distracted by others. Obviously, if you practiced yoga, you might see the real benefits and not make it sound lame.. Let other’s celebrate your training success and not take away from it. Think positive.